The Term “Inner Asia”

“Inner Asia” has a range of meanings among different researchers and in different countries. The definition the RIFIAS uses is a product of evolution. Denis Sinor defined Inner Asia broadly (synonymous with Central Eurasia) as the homelands of the Altaic peoples (Mongolian, Turkic, and Manchu-Tungus) and the Uralic peoples (Finno-Ugrian and Samoyed). (He also noted that the Indo-European peoples share the same region of origin and ought to be included as early Inner Asians, strictly speaking.) The RIFIAS, like other institutions, has traditionally held a less broad working definition of Inner Asia. The first paragraph on this page and the titles in the RIFIAS series Papers on Inner Asia give a general idea of our present range of inquiry in Inner Asian studies.

In Russian, “Sredniaia Aziia” (Central, literally “Middle,” Asia) means the Central Asian republics of Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kirghizia, and Tajikistan, sometimes including Eastern Turkistan (Xinjiang) as well; Kazakhstan is named separately because of geographical scruples (part of it lies in Europe). Russian “Sredniaia Aziia i Kazakhstan” corresponds to the region commonly called “Central Asia” in English. Russian “Tsentral’naia Aziia” (Inner, literally “Central,” Asia) denotes Mongolia and Tibet. Thus, our term “Inner Asia” corresponds to Russian “Sredniaia i Tsentral’naia Aziia” (however, under the influence of Western languages since 1991, Russian “Tsentral’niaia Aziia” is now sometimes used to mean “Central Asia” or “Inner Asia” in general). German makes a distinction between “Zentralasien,” meaning Mongolia, Tibet, Eastern Turkistan, and Manchu lands, and “Mittelasien,” meaning the republics of Central Asia. The less common term “Innerasien” corresponds to our sense of “Inner Asia.” In French, “Asie Centrale” can mean both “Central Asia” and “Inner Asia”; Mongolia and Tibet by themselves are termed “Haute Asie” (High Asia).

The terms meaning “Inner Asia” in the languages of Inner Asian peoples are all modern loan translations of European, mostly Russian, terms.

“Central Asia” normally denotes the western, Islamic part of Inner Asia, but it is sometimes used as a synonym for Inner Asia. The Library of Congress subject classification system is organized in this way, so that readers in academic libraries who are looking for materials on both Inner Asia and Central Asia should search under the subject heading “Asia, Central.” One of the leading periodicals in Inner Asian studies is Central Asiatic Journal. Also, books on Inner Asia published in the series Handbook of Oriental Studies/Handbuch der Orientalistik (Leiden: Brill) appear in the section entitled “Uralic and Central Asian Studies.”