Central Asia: a designation open to debate?

The expression Central Asia was created in 1826 in the work Historical painting of Asia by J. Klaproth and has appeared in the stories of Russian travelers (N. Muraviev, Ja. Khanykov, c. 1813) to describe the space that extends from Black sea to the Okhotsk sea. Since the initial comments it could however never be applied to a clearly well-defined region.

In the course of time, the geographical limits of Central Asia fluctuated in the context of approaches that were undertaken according to the perspectives contrasted and divided by diverse political and ideological situations, or according to the initial training of the researchers. These approaches lead to a representation of Central Asia which is above all a patchwork of observations and opinions without connections. Connotations of various natures – historical, linguistic, ethnographical or ethnological, cultural, geographical, economic and political – come close in the different definitions that were proposed for them, as is shown by the variety of terms that all along have never covered the whole of this geographical area.

Concerning this region, the scientific reasoning seems to have constantly had recourse to definitions based on exclusion: whereas, for example, the Specialists in Chinese, Iranian and Turkish studies used a process of exclusion of the ex-Soviet world, the Soviet specialists on the other hand disregarded Tibet and Mongolia. As G. Imart observed, this method of exclusion paradoxically reflects in the multitude of names of Central Asian regions like Transoxiane, Outer Iran, Outer Mongolia, Mawerannakhr, Sinkiang, which contain all the notions of a location « outside or beyond something».

Transformed into a buffer zone, broken into cultural zones whose center of gravity was found elsewhere (for example in Mediterranean-, Turkish-, Iranian-, Tibetan - or Sino-centrist systems) and infested for too long by the « centre-periphery » problem, Central Asia, crossroads of civilizations, was never ever recognized as object of study in itself, except from the point of view of influences exercised by the neighboring worlds.

The complexity of a general vision of this historical-geographical zone results in the difficulty of establishing clear relations between the diverse names expressed in the different languages that have talked about it (see, for French: Asie centrale, Asie moyenne, Asie médiane, Asie intérieure, Haute-Asie; for English: Middle Asia, Central Asia, Inner Asia; for German: Mittelasien, Zentralasien; for Russian: Srednjaja Azija, Central'naja Azija, Vnutrennjaja Azija; for Uzbek : Urta Ocië, Markazy Ocië). The difficulty is the same in the difficult story of making up these definitions on the basis of geographical, geological, climatic, linguistic, ethnological, religious, etc criteria.

The Ptolemaic vision of this part of the world, enriched by the topography having come from the Arab-Persian sources, has influenced the European geography until the XVIIIth century: the Sarmatia of Asia, the Scythia and the Serique of Ptolemy coexist with the Country of Gog and Magog of the medieval tradition, the Tartarie which evokes existence of Mongol States seen by the voyagers of the XIIIth century and which will divide itself into Big and Small Boukharie, the Steppes that imply absence of limits, and Iran and Touran [Turkestan] that clashes at the frontier of Mawerannakhr (literally « beyond the river [Amou-darya] ») or – if one uses the Hellenist term proposed by B. d'Herbelot in his Bibliothèque orientale (1697) –the Transoxiane. The relations between these terms, as well as their limits, are ambiguous due to several confusions. The Cl. Visdelou's attempt (Jesuit missionary in China, 1656-1737) at introducing the generic name of High-Asia (in the sense of far-away Asia and high Asia in altitude) and determining the scope of these spaces precisely, has remained inconsequential, even though it had inaugurated the process of final break-up of the Ptolemaic myth.

Generally, in spite of the lack of precise information on the entire region, the efforts of the first Orientalists are fruitful. They in fact introduced a topographical terminology that remained more or less up to date until our days, setting up structural oppositions as those of « sedentary- nomads», « Chinese–Turkish–Indian worlds», of the pair « High-Asia – Low-Asia » and by aligning the concept of border between Asia and Europe on the Ural, commonly accepted towards the turn of the years 1790-1810.

We owe the final adoption of the name Central Asia, created at the dawn of the XIXth century to A. von Humboldt. In 1843, by keeping the term Inner Asia to qualify the space limited in the South by the Himalayan chain and in the North by the Astrakhan line – Orenbourg – base of the Southern Siberia – Haut-Irtych – Amour, he proposes, on the basis of the reliefs, to classify the region between high plateaus and low regions. The central part of this Inner Asia is limited at the South and North end by the « Anglo-Hindu and Russian-Siberian worlds», for the space defined by the meridians of Balor [Kâfiristân] or Kashmir, and lake Baikal or the big twists and turns of the Yellow River. The natural characteristics of this Central Asia are close to the High-Asia (high plateaus), but opposed to Northern Asia or Touran (low lands).

In 1877 F. von Richthofen adds big details to this plan marked by the environmental determinism. He divides Inner Asia into three defined zones according to purely geological parameters, like the character of stratification of land, deposits of salt of the earth and hydrographic regime: 1) the central zone, hydrographically closed and « outward», where water evaporates without flow and where all the products of geological destruction lie at the surface of the basin, 2) the periphery, « inward », that opens out to the ocean, and, finally, 3) the transition zone. The name Central Asia is here reserved « for the dried cavity of Han-haï [the Xinjiang + the Djoungarie + the West bank of External and Internal Mongolias] and to all the region of the Tibetan plateaus ». The Aralo-Caspian depressions, as well as the Amou-darya and Syr-darya basins are integrated to the Western part of the transition zone.

This plan was not accepted by the Russian scientists (N. Khanykov), who proposed another vision of Central Asia, whose subdivision is independent of the high lands– low lands relationships. Under the inspiration of Russia's geopolitical interests, Richthofen's Central Asia, and the heart of Inner Asia, are displaced in the Russian Turkestan. On the other hand, the splitting of the region into two names– Middle Asia [Srednjaja Azija] and Central Asia [Central'naja Azija] – enables to distinguish and define respectively the Russian Turkestan and the bordering regions likely to be stuck to the Empire in future. This last distinction, as well as the segmented vision of Asian space [Small– Near– Middle– Far East] by the Russians, only follows from Russian geopolitical projects of XIXth – beginning XXth centuries. They are formed after the 1860s, but their content remains vague right down till the 1910s. In the eyes of the Westerners, the use of these terms by the Russian specialists show that the reasoning has moved from a scientific plane, based on the environmental determinism, to a geopolitical plane, because the borders of Middle Asia or Russian Asia have taken form during the conquest of the region and during the Great Game (1860-1900), without « legitimate» reasons of the « natural » type (geography, ethnography, languages). However, the Middle Asia – Central Asia couple remains relevant until our days and marks the distinctive feature of the Russian, then Soviet tradition, in the same manner as the use of the expression « Central Asia [the four Soviet Republics] and Kazakhstan» attributed to the national delimitation in the years 1924-1936.

To conclude, one notes that both the natural and socio-cultural imaginary indexes are insufficient to define this space precisely. One is always confronted with several scenarios of virtual delimitation. The maximalist point de view tries to encompass the Caucasus, the five Central-Asian Republics (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tadjikistan, Kirghizstan), the territories of the Siberian planes till the Northern limits, Far-East, Russia, Mongolia, Northern China (with the Chinese Turkestan, the Inner Mongolia and the Mandchuria), Tibet and the Northern regions of Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and Iran, and even the part of Russia of Europe till Kiev. This Central part of Eurasia (in the geographical sense) corresponds to Inner Asia of some researchers (D. Senior, G. Imart), which have the possibilities of extending till the Tropic of Cancer. The minimalist scenario is limited to the Soviet ex-Republics which, in accordance to the political situation, alternately are named Central Asia or Middle Asia, or ex-Russian Turkestan (in contrast to Chinese and Afghan Turkestan). However, this terminological obscurity around « middle of the continent » still acts as a curb on the possibilities of studying this particular zone, which sees itself constantly reduced to a peripheral zone.
March 2009
Sylvain Jolivalt
Auteur-illustrateur indépendant