We continue to receive asks/submissions that ask the same basic question: Can I have/create a pan-Asian country in my work? (We get this question at least two times a week, no joke!)
And the answer is: Our recommendation is that you don’t create pan-Asian anything in your works. So, no. Don’t. Please don’t. Just don’t.
But since we keep getting questions about it, we thought we’d specifically address why pan-Asian themes/cultures/countries are problematic.
GENERIC ASIAN CULTURE DOESN’T EXIST
There’s an assumption that there is a generic “Asian culture” that exists. It doesn’t. It goes along with this racist idea that Asians look the same. White supremacy often takes the tack of looking at Asians as robots, and you see see this mentality continually espoused in articles about the education systems in East Asia, or the factories in China and India, or the idea that Asians “naturally” gravitate towards mathematics and engineering. These are lies. The emasculation of the Asian man and the hypersexualization of the Asian woman also treats us all like robots or dolls instead of human beings.
The continent of Asia is gigantic. It boasts the greatest population in the world. It’s huge and it’s extremely diverse. Its diaspora is also extremely diverse.
India’s population alone is over 1 billion. There are at least 17 languages spoken there and over 900 dialects. It’s the birthplace of four major world religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism. India has more than 2000 ethnic groups and EVERY major world religion is represented there. It’s one of the most diverse countries in the world.
Even trying to define a generic “Indian” culture (both in India and among its diaspora) is very difficult to do! So it simply isn’t possible to have a generic “Asian culture” when it’s nigh impossible to do that for ONE country in Asia. India is not a monolith. Indian diaspora is not a monolith. Asia is also not a monolith. “Asian culture” doesn’t exist. When people write pan-Asian themes/countries/cultures into their works, they’re propagating this myth.
HISTORY AND CONTEXT MATTER
This doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of cultural similarity between certain regions in Asia or that there’s never any cultural sharing or melding. If two countries are located close to each other geographically, there’s a good chance that some ideas and traditions have made their way across both countries. This is the same all over the world.
But sometimes, this sharing of culture is not mutual. Asia is no stranger to forced assimilation, colonization, imperialism, genocide, war, and the oppression of native and indigenous peoples.
Pan-Asian works ignore this historical context. They give no regard to the atrocities that have taken place and often align themselves with imperialism. In fact, pan-Asianism (that is, the unification of Asia) was often used in Japanese imperialist propaganda, which sought to unite Asia under Japanese supremacy.*
Also, many traditions, religions and cultural practices have origins in the geography, climate, and ecosystems surrounding the people groups in question. By using only some aspects and not others, you run the risk of eliminating the very reasons why certain cultural traditions might have come to be.
BUT WHAT ABOUT SFF OR ALTERNATE HISTORY?
Again, even if your novel involves distant planets “inspired” by currently existing countries or an alternate history, we strongly advise against pan-Asian countries or cultures. If it isn’t possible for many currently existing countries in Asia to have a single homogenous culture, then how is it realistic for the countries in your work to have pan-Asian cultures or themes?
People are often proud of their cultural traditions and history, including things like traditional dress, architecture, religions, and customs. If you are not Asian, then it isn’t your place to separate people groups from their countries and cultural traditions for your artistic work. Asia is not your playground.
Here’s a submission we had from a reader on why pan-Asian themes are harmful: Representation in Avatar the Last Airbender.
Here’s a link to our cultural appropriation tag.
*Please do not ever use Japanese imperialism as an excuse for why white supremacy “isn’t so bad” or “White supremacists aren’t the only racist ones!” Yes, there have been multiple people groups in history, on every continent, that have done atrocious things. None of it justifies or excuses current white supremacy. That’s false equivalence, and we do not play that game here at WWC.
Here’s a post I wrote (from ThisIsNotJapan) about this very issue.