After watching the entire series of Netflix’s Marco Polo, I suddenly became interested in China’s history, and Asia itself. The earliest beginnings of all world civilizations have been traced to Asia. When Europe and the Americas were still in habited by primitive peoples, high forms of civilization existed in Asia. Many of these have long since disappeared and have been followed by new cultures. Chinese civilization, however, has lasted for more than 5,000 years. The earliest written history of the Chinese people beings about 3,000 years ago, and their legendary history may be traced back well beyond that.
In South Asia there is evidence of some civilization in the northern borderlands as far back as 5,000 to 7,000 years ago. After that period, Bronze Age farming villages existed between 4000 to 3000 BC. Two groups of people appeared then in South Asia. The city builders lived on the Indus Plain, and the farming people (Indo-Aryans) lived on the Upper Ganges Plain between 1500 and 1000BC.
The early civilizations of Asia were widely separated from each other and from European civilizations. Until modern times, when steamships, trains, and other means of fast transportation appeared, the peoples of Asia were kept apart from the Western world by oceans to the east and by mountains deserts and forests to the west. Only the desert people of southwest Asia were in contact with the Europeans. The Arabian, Persian, and Turkish peoples served as middlemen in a limited trade of spices, ivories, and other products from Asia. By the 1st century AD a small amount of trade between Rome and China had developed. Silk from Cathay, as China was called, was carried westward across Central Asia to Europe. There were two main trade routes: the Overland, or Silk, Route and the Sea Route through the Straits of Malacca (between the Malay Peninsula and the island of Sumatra). In time the Silk Route was blocked by fierce nomadic tribes, and the Sea Route was cut off by Muslim forces as the religion of Islam spread throughout southwest Asia. Cathay, the land of silk, remained only as a legend to Europeans.
The Crusades of the Middle Ages brought European pilgrims and armies into southwest Asia. When the Crusaders returned to Europe, they took along knowledge of the area. Before the Crusades were ended, the great Mongol warrior Genghis Khan overpowered most of Asia and united the greater part of it. Communications between East Asia and Europe became easier and safer. Such journeys as those undertaken by Marco Polo and accounts of the great wealth and civilization of China caused widespread interest among Europeans. The unknown lands of spices, ivories, and silks were viewed as lands of great wealth and ancient learning.
China, however, had little interest in Europe. The Chinese believed their country to be the center of the world. The Europeans were looked upon as barbarians. China was willing to sell its products in exchange for gold or silver, but it was not prepared to buy European products.
As long as the old Overland and Sea Routes were the only ways to travel to the countries of Asia, the Chinese were able to avoid European influence. The routes were long, difficult, and dangerous. But at the close of the 15th century the Portuguese sailed around Africa into the Indian Ocean and began trading with India.
Once the ocean routs to East Asia were found, the possibility of the Chinese living in isolation was gone forever. Merchants, missionaries, adventurers, and a few scholars and diplomats poured into Asia. Where the European powers found Asian countries that were militarily weak, poorly organized, or divided, they soon carved out colonial empires. All of Southeast Asia except Thailand, almost all of south Asia, and much of southwest Asia were soon under European control.
Asian colonies were profitable for the Europeans during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Raw materials produced in the colonies were taken to Europe to be manufactured. A large part of the finished goods were resold to the colonies. As a result, the Western nations developed rapidly, and the countries of Asia lagged behind. The few nations that did not fall completely under foreign control –China, Japan, Korea, and Thailand—were forced to open their countries for trade. The shame of being dominated by the Western countries caused great bitterness in the peoples that had so long been proud of their ancient and great civilizations.
With trade came the spread of Western ideas. Japan, in the late 19th century, was the first nation in Asia to adopt Western industrial methods. In the 20th century, Western ideas and learning began to spread throughout Asia. Trouble spread with them because again and again, Asian peoples had to decide whether to accept Western ideas or to keep their old traditions. Some of them turned against their native ways, yet other refused to have anything to do with Western ways. Eventually people began to see that many of the ideas of the West could be adapted to meet certain needs of the East. In the colonies of the European countries, ideas of nationalism and self-rule began to develop. The desire to be independent spread rapidly after World War I, and after World War II most of the colonies in Asia one after another gained independence.