Asianism in the 20th Century - Asia as Reference for the (Re-) Definition of Spaces, Identities and Power Orders

Aims and Scope

The central concept of „Asianism“ employed in this project relates to discursive constructs of Asia and associated political, cultural and social practices. More concretely, we applied the concept to define common and entangled traditions beyond national cultures and to political-cultural visions geared to integrate diverse regions of Asia. We also looked at political projects which propose(d) an integration of states. The concept of “Asianism” relates to current widespread interests in Asia and to processes of integration within the region. It emphasizes the plurality and historical contingency of constructs of Asia as well as practices of regionalism. Asianisms manifested themselves in a variety of forms in different periods of time and in different spaces. They caught on different dynamics and were characterized by ambiguities and plural meanings. This project sought to de-construct two major problems: the tension between Asianisms as transnational horizons and the virulent persistence of nationalisms in the 20th century; and the relation between Asianist discourses and practices vis-à-vis specific national, regional and global structures. The aim of the project was to research the variations of Asianisms throughout the 20th century.

In order to do so, the project looked at the following three areas:

  • Sinocentric Asia? Concepts of Asia in Chinese Historiography, c. 1895 to 1949
  • The Asian Games (1913-1978): Sports and Representation between Transnational Experiences and Constructions of the Nation
  • “Critical Asia”: Transnational Discourses of an Alternative Asian Modernity, 1990 to the Present


Early on, we had formulated three overarching research questions:

  1. How was/is Asia represented at various times/constellations/actors in the various sub-regions of Asia and in individual countries throughout the 20th century and into the present?
  2. To what degree were/are these representations used as projects of political and/or cultural integration?
  3. And what was/is the relation between the transnational conception of “Asia” to the various nationalisms?

These three research questions were taken as points of departure for a research design which identified discourses, practices, and the tension between the transnational and the national.

The main results of the project and its subprojects can be summarized as follows:

As definitions of the concept `Asia` are instable, they can easily be used to signify rivaling agendas. The most explicit and frequent contradiction regarding differing conceptions of `Asia` refers to the tensions between regionalist and nationalist agendas. In most Asian countries under research, nationalist conceptions of `Asia` played an important role in public political discourse, either as the main narrative (“from above”) or as the counter-narrative to be overcome (“from below”). The main aim of Asianist discourses was to envisage an Asia as an interconnected and independent continent. This continent encompassed, in the first half of the 20th century, East, Southeast and South Asia. In the post-world war two decades, it gradually extended to Western Asia. In the first half of the 20th century, Asianist discourses served two main objectives: they challenged images of inferiority to the ‘West’, and they legitimized Japanese Imperial ambitions. Both objectives served to focus attention on the power asymmetry between the ‘West’ and Asia and were meant to deflect power asymmetries between different Asian countries. Nationalisms emerged in the context of nation building, anti-colonialism, decolonization and the Cold War, and they continuously undermined ideals of an Asian integration. In more present times, civil society groups seek to overcome tensions and rivalries that are based on national divisions. But they tend to avoid controversies that may increase conflict. This strategy, however, is also political in nature and constitutes yet another dimension of history politics. Of course, history politics are not absent from the discourses of political decision-makers and government-funded think tanks. But here, discourse on Asia remain closely linked to national(ist) agendas; that of the “peaceful rise of China” to its assumed rightful place as a regional and global world power, of Korean unification and mediation in East Asia, and of Japanese revisionism of the post-World War Two order and its fear of China as Asia`s next leader.