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Asia Undercovered #26: Special History Issue

Asia Undercovered #26: Special History Issue

To understand Asia, and its importance in the world, knowing what’s happening now is often not enough. Current events in the region are complex and often connected to deeply entrenched historical, cultural, gender, or social issues. Often, ignorance about this complexity leads to misunderstanding, or, in some cases, disaster.

For one issue every month I’ll be picking a different theme and sharing articles that explore that theme more deeply. The first one is on history. Each article explores the role of a historical event or trend, and how it impacts that country or region today.

Like this issue? Have ideas for future issues? Let me know by responding directly.

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The idea of empire, and control, has deep origins in China, from its many long dynasties. This piece in China Heritage looks at how imperial ambitions have shaped modern China, even under the anti-imperialist reign of the Communist Party.

In 1899, Qing leader took a seat at a conference in the The Hague, to discuss mechanisms to avoid war. Since then, and to today, Chinese classics have framed the country’s foreign policy decisions, choices, and misunderstanding. An excellent read from Christian Mueller in Asia Dialogue.


In 1989, acclaimed director Katsushiro Otomo released a dystopian film, Akira, that portrayed Japan in the future. The year? 2019. In her piece for Monsoon Project, Hannah Lee looks at what Otomo got right, what it got wrong, and what the film can teach us about modern Japan.


Tea has played a long role in Asian history, and was the driver of colonial expansion, especially by the British empire. A key moment was when tea was “discovered” in Assam – which led to its commodification and control by the British (Madras Courier).


Not so long ago, Cantonese, Hokkien, and other mostly southern Chinese languages dominated Singapore. Today, English is king, and Mandarin has been adopted as the ethnic language of Chinese-Singaporeans despite the vast majority having no heritage connection. This blog posts in Yawning Bread reflects on how nearby Malaysia provides a window into Singapore’s lost linguistic past.


The recent elections were long-awaited, so long that many have forgotten what Thailand was like when the last free elections were held back in 2011. James Buchanan looks back even further, at all the elections in the country’s recent history – through the records, or songs, that were popular during those eras (New Mandala).


Colonialism transformed Asia in ways we still don’t fully understand. In this longform piece for Food52, Irene Yoo writes about something I knew little about – how Japanese rule transformed Korea’s staple diet and how the rice we consider part of every Korean meal is in fact, a recent invention.


New Naratif explains the long history of the Ahmadiyya, a Muslim minority sect, and how they have gone from being mainstream and protected in the country after independence, to demonized and often targets of hatred and violence today (Qasim Rashid.)

Southeast Asia

#1 - Also on Islam, this piece in the New Straits Times looks at the long history of female rulers in the region’s Muslim Sultanates, which dates back to the 14th century.

#2 – The Mekong River is the heart and soul of much of Southeast Asia. Once mighty, it has been tamed by overdevelopment and faces an uncertain future. Sam Geall reviews Brian Eyler new book on how the Mekong has changed and the politics, environmental, and cultures that surround it (The Third Pole).

Nepal & Tibet

This story takes places on the frontier between Nepal and Tibet. There, a Tibetan village on the Nepali side was once deeply connected with its neighbors. But Tibet was occupied by China and closed off, it has been able to maintain the culture and traditions that were destroyed across the border.

Today, however, globalization and modernity is seeing the village have increased trade and interconnection with both China and nearby India, slowly changing its culture. An illuminating read into how borders impact culture and well-being (The Hindu).

Asia Undercovered: Journalist Nithin Coca's weekly roundup of the news, events, trends and people changing Asia, but not getting enough attention in the US media.