Ceramics are the most abundant types of artifacts made by human beings in the last 12,000 years. Chinese potters discern two types of products: earthenware (tao), which is porous and does not resonate when struck, and wares with vitreous bodies (ci), which ring like a bell. Western potters and scholars differentiate stoneware, which is semi-porous, from porcelain, which is completely vitrified. The earliest ceramics in the world are thought to have been made in China around 15,000 years ago. By the Shang dynasty, potters in China began to decorate the surfaces of their pottery with ash glaze, in which wood ash mixed with feldspar in clay to impart a shiny surface to the pottery. The first ash-glazed wares were probably made south of the Yangzi in Jiangnan. In the 9th century, China began to export pottery, which quickly became sought after in maritime Asia and Africa. Pottery making for export became a major industry in China, employing hundreds of thousands of people, and stimulating the development of the first mass-production techniques in the world. Much of the ceramic industry was located along China’s south and southeast coasts, conveniently located near ports that connected China with international markets. Chinese merchants had to adapt their wares to suit different consumers. For the last 1,000 years, Chinese ceramics provided an enormous amount of archaeological information on trade and society in the lands bordering the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, contributing a major source of data to the study of early long-distance commerce, art, technology, urbanization, and many other topics. Statistics are presented from important sites outside China where Chinese ceramics have been found.
The presence of Africans in Asia and their migration around it is one of the least-studied subjects in all of Asian history. The same is true for studies of the African diaspora, but that does not mean that African migration lacks significance in either field. Existing scholarship reveals that Africans traveled to and settled in various regions in Asia, from the Arabian Peninsula to Nagasaki. While there were free African migrants in Asia, a larger number of them arrived as slaves, transported there by both local and European traders. Conditions for the forced immigrants varied and not all of them remained permanently un-free, with some even eventually coming to obtain political power. To understand their dispersal and presence in Asia does more than simply broaden our current understanding of the African diaspora; it also enables us to understand that the African diaspora is a global phenomenon. That improved understanding can in turn break down the geographical boundary of Asian history and connect it not only to African history but to European history too. To do that, the topic requires scholars to challenge the methodological limits of current historical studies.
When composed of hunter-gatherers, Asia’s population numbered perhaps 1–2 million. But the emergence of agriculture saw population growth, and it appears likely that by 1 CE the continent’s population exceeded 100 million. For China and Japan, there are data which shed light on their population histories during pre-modern times. Moreover, both countries experienced rapid demographic transitions in the 20th century—substantially limiting the associated extent of population growth. For the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, there are almost no population data prior to the late 18th century, although what happened subsequently is better recorded. Both these diverse regions experienced fairly protracted modern demographic transitions and substantial population growth. West Asia’s population is thought to have been of similar size in 1900 as in 1 CE. During the 20th century, however, most countries in West Asia experienced late birth-rate declines and very substantial population growth. Throughout history, the level of urbanization in Asia has generally been extremely low. Nevertheless, the continent contained most of the world’s most populous cities, though that situation changed temporarily in the 19th and 20th centuries. That said, after 1950 mortality decline fueled urban growth. As a result, by 2020 Asia once again contained most of the world’s largest cities, and about half of the continent’s people lived in urban areas. The population history of Asia has generally involved very slow population growth. The main explanation has been that death rates were high, marriage was early and universal, fertility was uncontrolled, and so birth rates were high too. However, research has increasingly suggested that in some areas the levels of fertility and mortality which prevailed in pre-modern times are better described as “moderate” rather than “high.” Moreover, as in Europe, there were regulatory mechanisms which helped to maintain a degree of balance between human numbers and the resource base.