The immovable peasantry, bound by tradition, loyalty or inertia to the timeless village, is one of the abiding myths about Asia. In fact the history of Asia is a history of movement. From the very beginning, Asians have been moving into, out of, and around the region, whether as economic migrants, political refugees, or cultural proselytisers.
Asians, like the rest of humanity, are probably descended from the first human who evolved in Africa. But even if there was parallel evolution of Homo sapiens within Asia itself, they would have, over the eras, migrated many thousands of miles.
Linguistic, archaeological and genetic evidence all points to a wide dispersal of Asians. Austronesian languages and seafaring culture prevail from Madagascar, off the coast of Africa, to Hawaii and Tahiti in the Pacific; prehistorians suggest that many of these voyages of migration occurred within the last five thousand years, from origins in Southern China, the Philippines or eastern Indonesia.
Similarly, the linguistic links between Japanese and the Altaic languages of western and central Asia also imply early migration while “Aryans” apparently invaded India from the north and the Tai peoples moved into Thailand, Laos, Burma, and Vietnam from southwestern China. Although these movements date from “prehistory” (before the time of written records), many great Asian migrations are historical.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of Chinese civilization is the creation of "China” itself; today well over one billion people occupy a vast area and consider themselves Chinese. In fact, the original “Chinese” (often called “Han”) inhabited only a fraction of the area now claimed by the People’s Republic of China, and many, perhaps most, “Chinese” today are descended, at least in part, from other stock.
“China” grew both through migration and sinification. Within the last 2500 years, million of Han moved south from their original heartland in the Yellow River valley, beyond the Yangtze River and as far as Yunnan and Tibet (annexed to China relatively recently). As they moved, they conquered local populations and by intermarriage and the imposition of Chinese culture, turned the descendants of these people into “:Chinese’ themselves. They became not “cultural minorties”, but actual Han: Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka and many others.
Only the Vietnamese, ruled by China for 1000 years retained their own identity. After they became independent, they began their own great southward drive of migration ands assimilation. As recently as 500 years ago there were almost no Vietnamese in the Mekong delta area; the southern half of the country is essentially populated by the descendants of immigrants or Vietnamised minorities. History also records significant modern migrations in the Malay world, particularly from the Menangkabau Highlands of Sumatra into the Malay Peninsula.
By the 19th century, driven by colonialism and capitalism, the human flow was in full spate. Fleeing economic hardship and social unrest in south China, millions of peasants sailed as “coolie” labourers – virtual slaves – not only to all the countries of Southeast Asia, but beyond, to Africa and the Americas. They built railroads in the United States and worked the guano mines of Peru. From India, migrants fanned out to become moneylenders in Burma, labourers in Malaya and Fiji, and bureaucrats and professionals throughout the British Empire.
Less visible in the historical records was the even larger movement of Asians within political units: from Java to Sumatra and the outer islands of Indonesia; from Ilocos to the Cayagan Valley in the Philippines; from the Chao Phraya plain into Isan in Thailand; from upper Burma to lower Burma, from Szechwan to Yunnan. The more we look, the more we find, down to “micro-migrations” from one village to the next.
Over the past 50 years this local movement has accelerated, especially towards cities such as Hong Kong, Bangkok, Jakarta and Manila, most of whose inhabitants are just one or two generations removed from their rural origins.
But even international migration, slowed temporarily by post-war nationalism, has picked up again. There are more than a million Filipinos working in west Asia, Hong Kong and Japan; ten thousands of Chinese students overseas; Japanese managers and tourists throughout Southeast Asia, Thai farm workers in Israel, Cambodia refugees selling doughnuts in California and Borneo's Dayak oil rig workers in the North Sea.
Today, more than ever, to understand Asia you have to understand people in motion.