Asia has been grabbing the attention of Europeans since Marco Polo traveled the continent and wrote about it. The connection between the continents was created through the Silk Road that was used by the Romans to get their hands on luxury products, and remained far into the Middle Ages during the Mongol Invasion of Europe. Unfortunately this was mostly remembered because of the introduction of the plague in Europe, where the Black Death allegedly was caused by the Mongol hords catapulting corpses into the city of Caffa. Infected traders then fled back to Italy, spreading the disease further into Europe where it eventually killed a third of the population.
But this association when it comes to literature is not fair. While most artistic and written sources that reached the West from the East were paintings and art work, it is Asia that gives us the oldest written language of the world. Cuneiform was first used in Mesopotamia, in what is now known as modern-day Iraq, and it is known that it was not only used for bureaucratic uses as parts of epic tales such as the Epic of Gilgamesh were discovered on ancient clay tablets. So it can be argued that the tradition of written literature did find its origin on the Asian continent.
When I started this introduction I noticed a strong division in Central Asian, Southeast Asian and “Far East” Asian art and literature. Where Europe has a strong division between ancient literary traditions, no other continent had such a strong division in styles, traditions, and practices within the first web search as the art styles of Asian countries. Could this be related to the many different languages, the many different alphabets even, on the largest continent? It is certain that every country and all their people created their own stories which mostly originated through oral stories that exist to this day for the purpose of keeping 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 (Central Asia and the Mediterranean world). 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 people 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, creating Greco-Roman sculpting methods and style that can still be found in India while Central Asian writings and Chinese paintings reached Europe in such a way that several ancient Roman writers mention them. Persian and Arabic languages and writings influenced the Greeks and Romans greatly in fields as philosophy, critical thinking, and medicine. Because of this Asian writings can be 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. And 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 well as the Persian Empire and its close contact with Mediterranean city-states. This caused different cultures and languages to mix and evolve rapidly compared to those of cultures with more 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 due to less destruction of ancient monuments and less deportations, resulting in a strong comeback of the original traditions at the end of colonial rule. Nationalist movements used them in their writings and historical literature returned as countries reclaimed their independence. The only country that managed to keep a very firm grip on outside influence was Japan, as the country wouldn’t allow foreigners on their soil for centuries and that developed independent styles even from neighbouring countries. But the island nation struggled for a long time to find its own language as well as its own tone of voice on the literary world market 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. Many books are filled with a shimmer of mythology, as well as moral lessons in a style that reminds of older traditions adding to the mystical reputation of the Asian continent. And every single title 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.