Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Largest continent on Earth. It is bounded by the Arctic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. The western boundary, with Europe, runs roughly north-south along the eastern Ural Mountains; the Caspian, Black, Aegean, and Mediterranean seas; the Suez Canal; and the Red Sea. The islands of Sri Lanka and Taiwan and the archipelagoes of Indonesia (excluding New Guinea), the Philippines, and Japan also form part of Asia. Area: 17,226,000 sq mi (44,614,000 sq km). Population (2004 est.): 3,879,659,000. Mountains and plateaus predominate on the continent, with the highest mountains located in Central Asia and north of the Indian subcontinent. Terrain features include Earth's highest peak, Mount Everest, at 29,035 ft (8,850 m), and the lowest natural point, the Dead Sea, at 1,312 ft (400 m) below sea level. The largest of Asia's many arid regions are the Thar and Gobi deserts. It has some of the longest rivers in the world, including the Euphrates, Tigris, Indus, Ganges (Ganga), Yangtze (Chang; the longest river in Asia), Huang He (Yellow), Ob, Yenisey, and Lena. The Caspian, Aral, and Dead seas are major saltwater lakes. About one-fifth of Asia's landmass is arable. Its principal language groups include Sino-Tibetan, Indo-Aryan, Austronesian, Austroasiatic, and Semitic; important singular languages include Japanese and Korean. East Asia contains three main ethnic groups: Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. The Indian subcontinent is home to a vast diversity of peoples, most of whom speak languages from the Indo-Aryan subgroup of the Indo-European family. Because of the influence of China and the former Soviet Union, the Mandarin Chinese dialect and the Russian language are used widely. Asia is the birthplace of all the world's major religions and hundreds of minor ones. Hinduism is the oldest major religion to have originated in southern Asia; Jainism and Buddhism emerged in the 6th and 5th centuries BC, respectively. Southwest Asia was the cradle of the so-called Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Daoism and Confucianism, both of which originated in the 6th or 5th century BC, have profoundly influenced Chinese culture and the cultures of surrounding peoples. Asia is marked by great disparities in wealth. A few countries, notably Japan, Singapore, and the oil-rich countries of the Arabian Peninsula, have attained high standards of living; others, such as Bangladesh and Myanmar, are among the poorest. Between these two extremes lie Russia, China, and India. Asia is a land of great cultural diversity, but there are five main cultural influences: Chinese, Indian, Islamic, European, and Central Asian. China has had great influence in East Asia as the source of Confucianism, artistic styles, and the Chinese writing system. Indian influence has been expressed through Hinduism and Buddhism, affecting the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Central Asia. Islam spread from its original Arabian home to become important in the Middle East, South Asia, Central Asia, and elsewhere. Members of the earlier human species Homo erectus migrated from Africa to East Asia at least one million years ago. One of the earliest civilizations to use writing developed in the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys c. 3000 BC (see Mesopotamia). Civilization in the Indus River valley and in northern Syria followed c. mid-3rd millennium BC. Chinese urban civilization began with the Shang dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BC) and continued under the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BC). Indo-European-speaking peoples (Aryans) began to invade India from the west c. 2000–1500 BC and developed the Vedic religion. A succession of empires and charismatic rulers, including the Macedonian Alexander the Great, spread their political control as far as military power could carry them. In the 13th century AD Genghis Khan and his Mongol successors united much of Asia under their rule. In the 14th century the Turkic warlord Timur conquered much of Central Asia. Muslim Turks destroyed the remnants of the Byzantine Empire in the 15th century. In the 19th century European imperialism began to replace Asian imperialism. Tsarist Russia pushed its political control across Asia to the Pacific Ocean, the British gained control of India and Burma (Myanmar), the French dominated eastern Southeast Asia (see French Indochina), the Dutch occupied the East Indies (Indonesia), and the Spanish and later the U.S. ruled the Philippines. After World War II (1939–45), European imperialism steadily disappeared as former colonies gained independence in the second half of the 20th century.

This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise.
For the full entry on Asia, visit

Seen & Heard

What made you look up Asia? Please tell us what you were reading, watching or discussing that led you here.