Difference between revisions of "East Asia"
Revision as of 06:12, 30 April 2009
East Asia is a cultural and geographic region of Asia.
Countries and regions
East Asia, also popularly known as "the Far East" (especially when compared the the other "East", the Middle East) is what used to be known in the West as The Orient, a mysterious land inhabited by a race of inscrutable tea-sipping Orientals. Behind the caricature, though, is a uniting factor in the form of Chinese influence: China, as by far the largest and, historically, the most technologically and societally advanced culture in the region, has given its writing system (Chinese characters), religion (Mahayana Buddhism) and philosophy (Confucianism) to all the countries in East Asia.
However, underneath these superficial similarities lie a vast range of differences. The geography alone covers the gamut, from the arid steppes of Mongolia to the vast deserts of northwestern China, the lush rice paddies of south central China and the beaches of the subtropical islands of Okinawa. The upheaval of the past centuries has also led the countries of the region along strikingly different paths, with the hyper-modern skyscrapers and consumerist culture of Japan having little if anything in common with the Stalinist austerity of North Korea.
Despite the unifying factor of Chinese influence, scratch below the surface and you will find a wide range of cultural differences. In China itself, even within the single "Han Chinese" race, the local customs, traditional architecture and cuisine vary widely from region to region, and people native to one region may find certain customs from other regions entirely foreign. In addition, the respective ethnic minorities also practise their own local customs. While the traditional cultures of Korea and Japan have obvious Chinese influences, they still retain many native elements which make them unique in their own right.
East Asia was one of the cradles of world civilisation, with China developing its first civilisations at about the same time as Egypt, Babylonia and India. China stood out as a leading civilisation for thousands of years, building great cities and developing various technologies which were to be unmatched in the West until centuries later. The Han and Tang dynasties in particular were regarded as the golden ages of Chinese civilisation, during which China was not only strong militarily, but also saw the arts and sciences flourish in Chinese society. It was also during these periods that China exported much of its culture to its neighbours, and till this day, one can notice Chinese influences in the traditional cultures of Vietnam, Korea and Japan.
Korea and Japan had historically been under the Chinese cultural sphere of influence, adopting the Chinese script, and incorporating Chinese religion and philosophy into their traditional culture. Nevertheless, both cultures retain many distinctive elements which make them unique in their own right.
However, Chinese dominance was to end during the 19th century, when various Western powers arrived and forced the various East Asian states to sign unequal treaties. It first started with Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States forcing Japan, which had adopted an isolationist policy for centuries, to open up to the West, which eventually resulted in collapse of the Tokugawa Shogunate and started the Meiji restoration. China was also not spared from Western imperialism, and by then, government corruption had reduced what once was one of the world's greatest civilisations to a sorry state. As a result, China lost several wars to the Western powers as well as its newly modernised neighbour, Japan. As a result of these wars, China lost Hong Kong and Weihai to Britain, while Taiwan, Manchuria and the Liaodong peninsula were ceded to Japan. Shanghai was also divided among eight different countries (France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, the United States, Russia, Austria-Hungary and Japan). In addtion, China also lost several tributary states, with Vietnam being colonised by the French, and Korea and the Ryukyu Islands being colonised by the Japanese.
World War II was to have disastrous consequences on East Asia, as Japan's drive to modernise turned into a drive to colonise its neighbours. The war brought great suffering to many, and destroyed much of East Asia's infrastructure. Japan itself was also not spared, as much of Tokyo was destroyed by American carpet bombing, and the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki destroyed by the now famous atomic bomb attacks. Japan's defeat after World War II forced it to give up its colonies, with Taiwan being returned to China, and Korea regaining its independence. However, it was not over yet for the rest of East Asia, as the Chinese Civil War continued, which resulted in the communists led by Mao Zedong winning and gaining control of much of the mainland, and the nationalists led by Chiang Kai-Shek losing and having to retreat to the island of Taiwan and several offshore islands of Fujian, where they remain in control to this day. Korea was split after World War II, with Kim Il-Sung establishing a communist regime in the north with the support of the Soviet Union, and Syngman Rhee establishing a capitalist regime in the south with the support of the United States. The Korean war started when Kim Il-Sung attacked the south. The war lasted for 3 years and had disastrous consequences, which ended with neither side making any significant territorial gains. North Korea and the United States signed an armstice in 1953 which ended the armed conflict, with South Korea refusing to sign, but no peace treaty was ever signed and the two Koreas remain officially at war with each other to this day.
However, since then, East Asia has begun to grow into one of the most prosperous and technologically advanced regions in the world. Japan was the first to rise from the ashes of World War II, rapidly modernising in the 1950's-1960's and eventually conquering the world's marketplaces with its advanced comsumer electronic products and becoming the world's second largest economy after the United States. This was followed by the East Asian Tigers, which included South Korea, Taiwan and the British colony of Hong Kong, who rose from the ashes of war and poverty to achieve unprecedented growth rates during the 1970's-1980's, earning their places among the world's richest economies. Today, South Korea and Taiwan are among the world leaders in consumer technology, while Hong Kong remains a leading financial centre of the world. More changes were to come at the end of the 20th century, with China regaining control of the British and Portuguese colonies of Hong Kong and Macau respectively, and China also abandoning a hardline communist policy to introduce market-oriented reforms. Economic reforms by Deng Xiaoping have seen China begin to develop rapidly, with China now being one of the world's fastest growing economies. While the larger cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou have grown to become rich and modern, much of the country still suffers from poverty and current president Hu Jintao has pledged to modernise the more inland parts of the country, though whether China can rise from the ashes to achieve its past glories during the Han and Tang dynasties remains to be seen. Pretty much the only exception remaining is North Korea, which has refused market-oriented reforms and continues to adopt a hardline Stalinist policy to this day.
East Asia's major languages, including the many "dialects" of Chinese, are not mutually intelligible. However, while the spoken languages are very different, written Chinese characters can be puzzled out by Japanese and Koreans as well — although even these have wide differences from country to country. (The characters 手紙, literally "hand paper" and meaning "letter" to the Japanese, would be taken as "toilet paper" in China, for example.)
Overall, English remains a traveller's most useful language, though outside Hong Kong, English speakers are not widespread. When looking for English speakers, tourist areas tend to be a good bet and, in general, younger people or those around universities are most likely to speak at least a little. Outside of that you'll encounter many areas where no English is spoken, so patience and a good phrasebook come in handy. For longer stays picking up at least some of the local language is essential.
The main international gateways to East Asia are Hong Kong (SAR, China) , Seoul-Incheon (South Korea) and Tokyo-Narita (Japan). Transferring through mainland China, though increasingly an option in terms of flights, is painful and time-consuming (you may also require visas) and best avoided. If arriving from Europe, transiting via Bangkok or Singapore in South-East Asia may prove cheaper than a direct flight.
Plane travel is the fastest way to travel between countries in East Asia, as well as within them. Plane travel within China tends to be cheap by Western standards, although there is some governmental price regulation to keep the prices from being too low. Most flights include meals, which can range from boxes with assorted snacks to steaming hot meals. Vegetarian or halal meals are usually not available at short notice, but may be available if you make arrangements with the airline well in advance. To be safe, check with the airline or your travel agent before you book your flights. Delays are common in some places (like China), sometimes by several hours.
Tokyo, Osaka, Seoul, Shanghai and Taipei all have two main airports; one for domestic flights within the city centre and one for international flights far from the city. Transferring from the domestic to the international airport and vice-versa can take up to two hours or more, depending on traffic conditions, so make sure you give yourself ample time to make any transfers.
Japan, South Korea and Taiwan all have extensive train networks, but for reasons of geography and politics none connect to the mainland. China also has an extensive network, which is used as the main mode of long distance travel.
Japan has a well developed high-speed rail network known as the Shinkansen, which covers most of the country except Hokkaido and Okinawa. South Korea and Taiwan have begun to develop their own high-speed networks, with a high-speed service along the main corridor between Seoul and Busan in South Korea and between Taipei and Kaohsiung in Taiwan. Services in China are more limited, and are largely confined to the areas around Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
Many long distance bus routes connect different cities within countries.
Domestic travel by car is possible, though with the exception of Japan, driving habits and road courtesy are not up to the standards of the West. Roads are generally well maintained, though snow can be a problem in the winter in the northern parts of Japan and China, with expressways often having to close due to heavy snow.
East Asia is arguably the best place to experience baseball culture outside the Americas. The sport is hugely popular in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, with professional leagues that often draw a full house of spectators. In fact, the baseball league in Japan is considered by many to be the best professional league outside the United States.
The entertainment industry is huge in East Asia, which has caused it to developed a distinctive pop culture scene. Famous pop stars often perform at concerts which attract sell-out crowds.
Hong Kong and Taiwan are the main centres of Chinese popular culture, with most famous singers and actors originating or based in the two territories. Due to the linguistic variation of the "Chinese language", in addition to Mandarin, songs may also be performed in Cantonese or Minnan. Due to stricter government controls, which include the banning of popular television programmes such as Super Girl, the pop culture scene is not as well developed in mainland China, though it is also slowly beginning to emerge, with several good quality wuxia series being produced in the mainland in recent times.
South Korea is a relatively new comer to the international pop culture scene, though the hallyu or Korean wave phenomenon at the turn of the millenium has sent waves across much of the continent. Despite the language barriers, many famous Korean singers have almost always performed to sell-out crowds in other East Asian countries, and Korean soap operas carry a loyal following in many neighbouring countries. On the other hand, the pop culture scene is non-existent in North Korea, and only government propaganda is allowed to be broadcast in the mass media.
Perhaps the pop culture scene in Japan needs no introduction, as most Westerners would already be familiar with it to some extent through games, comics (漫画 manga) and cartoons (アニメ anime). In addition, the music scene is also very vibrant, with famous singers like Ayumi Hamasaki and Koda Kumi making headlines in newspapers all over the world.
A unique feature of pop culture in East Asia is the karaoke lounge, which was invented in Japan, but has since spread and is immensely popular throughout the region. Lounges vary from respectable to super-dodgy, with some geared for for groups of friends and colleagues getting together to sing their favourite songs and socialise, and others best known for extortionately priced booze and skimpily dressed hostesses who provide sexual services.
Chopsticks are the eating utensil of East Asia. Outside of restaurants specializing in Western cuisine, forks are rarely available and knives are not to be used at the table.
Rice is an East Asian staple, although in much of northern China and Mongolia wheat predominates.
Fried rice is another popular dish, prepared in a variety of ways in different regions. Fried rice usually has some combination of eggs, vegetables, meat, and/or seafood fried with the rice. Occasionally, some places have other varieties, such as a fruit fried rice.
Tea is the quintessential East Asian drink. Generally, green (unfermented) varieties are preferred over Western-style black tea, but the varieties available cover the entire color and taste spectrum.
East Asia is probably the safest region on the planet for travelers, and is characterized by stable politics and low crime. The main exceptions are China's restive western territories of Xinjiang and Tibet, but even there the heavy police presence keeps crime low and it's standard practice to block visitor entry at the slightest hint of trouble.
Large parts of China and especially Japan are at significant risk from earthquakes. If you're indoors and you feel a shake, stay indoors, as running outside during a quake is the most likely way you'll be injured. Extinguish gas burners and candles and beware of falling objects and toppling furniture. Shelter under furniture or a doorway if necessary. If you're outdoors, stay away from brick walls, glass panels and vending machines, and beware of falling objects, telegraph cables etc. Falling roof tiles from older and traditional buildings are particularly dangerous, as they can drop long after the quake has ended.