Asia has always grabbed my attention a bit, although I will admit that this interest focuses mostly on certain countries instead of the whole continent. Mongolia, Japan, Nepal, Tibet, these names always sounded a bit mysterious to me possibly only because I have never visited them and they are so far away on the world map. And yet, reading about them never made them any less intriguing…
When I started this introduction I noticed a strong division in Central Asian and Southeast Asian arts, and literature. No other continent had such a strong division between different parts within the first web search. Could this be related to the many different languages, the many different alphabets even, on this large continent? It is certain that every country and all the peoples created their own stories, which mostly originated through oral stories that exist to this day for the purpose of keeping ancient traditions alive.
There are very limited works that can be considered foundational to the literary traditions in Asia, the ones that can be noticed as such are usually strongly connected to a certain area. Examples are Ramayana (connected to Southeast Asia and India), Journey to the West (China and surrounding areas), and Tales from the Arabian Nights (which connects the Middle East with Asia through trade). The differences between the foundations of literature in several large regions can be explained by several factors. One being the complex terrain, as Asia and its peoples are seperated by impenetrable jungles, large deserts, incredible mountainranges, and widespread areas of islands. Some difference were overcome through the use of trade routes, Asian and European arts (and therefore literature) did at some point mingle as they traveled along the famous Silk Road. This also defined the range of languages connected to countries we define as ‘the Middle East‘, which are in fact Central Asia
The famous trade route was the most important way for Asia and Europe to connect, through this route Greco-Roman sculpting methods influenced art in India while Central Asian styles and even Chinese sculptures reached Europe in such a way that several ancient Roman writers mention it. Persian and Arabic languages and writings influenced the Romans greatly in their thinking and writing, in fields as philosophy, critical thinking, and medicine and as such Asian writings can be easily compared to those of the Western world, as poetry, storytelling, and literature were used extensively to bring forth and spread contemplations and ideas.
In the last couple of years, Asia has developed itself further and further and that includes evolvement in the artistic fields. Whereas the different parts of Asia have moved further and further apart, with Central Asia being called the Middle East and considered a different continent by many, with different influences in different regions. Central Asia has been strongly influenced by the nomadic traditions, that started with the earlier mentioned Silk Road, as different cultures and languages mixed and evolved rapidly compared to those of settled cultures with settled ideas on culture. During the last years, Russian influence through trade and business has been strong in this region. Which is quite the opposite from Southeast Asia which, like Africa and South-America was colonized by several European countries for centuries. However, unlike the other two continents, the Asian countries managed to keep a stronger hold on their own identities and languages, resulting in a strong comeback of those at the end of colonial rule. Nationalist movements used them in their writings, biographies and historical literature returned as countries reclaimed their independence. The same goes for Japan, which (as an island) has developed its own styles but has struggled for a long time to find its own language as well as its own tone of voice amongst the influences of other nations.
Poetry is one of the strongest forms of literature in Asia, but novelists are on the rise. Historical subjects, as well as books with connections to the national identities are relatively popular. However, since Asia and Europe still share many connections, novels in which these connections play a role are printed in Asia as well as Europe. Many books are filled with a shimmer of mythology, as well as moral lessons as they used to be in ancient times, adding to the mystical reputation of the Asian continent, and every single one is worth your time and some space on your bookshelves. So choose the country, and see where you can travel to from the comfort of your couch.
To read about other continents, and find out about different countries, return to Read Around the World.