What is an Asian Studies Degree?

Asia is the largest of the world’s continents, encompassing 49 countries (list below) with a combined population of 4.5 billion people. Most Asian studies programs tend to focus on East Asia and South Asia and specifically on the countries of China, Japan, South Korea / North Korea, and India.

The typical curriculum explores the languages, literatures, cultures, philosophies, religions, societies, politics, and other related spheres of Asian people and civilization. It examines the interactions between countries within Asia and the continent’s impacts on the rest of the world.

Central Asia
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan

East Asia
China, China-Hong Kong, China-Macao, Japan, Mongolia, North Korea-Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, South Korea-Republic of Korea

South Asia
Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Iran, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka

South East Asia
Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Timor-Leste, Vietnam

Western Asia
Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Cyprus, Georgia, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Syrian Arab Republic, Turkey, United Arab Emirates

Program Options

Bachelor’s Degree in Asian Studies – Four Year Duration
Because of the wide scope of Asian studies, it is common for students who major in the discipline to focus on Asian area studies or Asian language and culture. The area studies concentration offers courses on the historical and contemporary civilizations and ways of life of South, Southeast, and East Asia. These programs often take a comparative approach to Asian cultures, with less emphasis on advanced language study.

Asian language and culture programs typically encourage students to focus on one particular linguistic / cultural region, such as China, Japan, Korea, or South Asia. The curriculum places greater emphasis on language competencies and helps students understand a wide range of texts in order to use language flexibly and effectively for social and professional purposes.

Study abroad opportunities are often available to Asian area studies and language and culture students.

Here is sample Asian area studies curriculum:

  • Introduction to Traditional Asia – a survey of the histories and cultures of Asia before 1600 and the coming of the Europeans, with emphasis on parallel themes in the development of the civilizations of South, Southeast, and East Asia
  • Introduction to Modern Asia – a survey of the emergence of modern Asia; understanding how the various peoples of Asia have maintained distinctive cultural identities despite centuries of political, economic, social, and cultural change
  • Introduction to the Major Eastern Religions – introduction to the major Asian religious traditions of Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, Christianity, Shintoism, and Shamanism
  • Cultural Foundations of South Asia – a survey of South Asian cultures, including language and literature, art, religion, politics, and society, as they developed in the past and have been transformed in the modern period
  • Introduction to Buddhism – origins, basic teachings, development of Theravada, Mahayana, and Tantric traditions, and their historical spread first through Asia and later the world; Buddhism in contemporary societies
  • Sex, Gender, and Sexuality in Japanese Literature and Film – the integral role that sex, gender, and sexuality play in literary and cinematic works from Japan; literary works will be read in translation and movies will be subtitled
  • China in World History – the history of China in a global context, from the earliest times to the most recent past; how China has changed the world and how engagement with the world has changed China
  • Survey of South and Southeast Asian Performing Arts – an historical perspective of the performing arts of South and Southeast Asia, highlighting the role of music, dance, and the dramatic arts in the lives of actors and audiences
  • Tibetan Buddhism – examination of the history and development of Tibetan Buddhism and key ideas of the four main Tibetan Buddhist traditions: Nyingma (circa 8th century), Kagyu (11th century), Sakya (1073), and Gelug (1409)
  • Critical Approaches to Manga and Anime – a critical introduction to Japanese manga (a wide variety of comic books and graphic novels originally produced and published in Japan) and anime (a specific style of cartoon produced or inspired by Japanese animation) in the 20th and 21st centuries
  • Korean Popular Music in Context – history, contexts, and the genres of Korean popular music; students will analyze specific artists and songs using a range of approaches
  • Post-Revolutionary Iranian Cinema – gender politics, family relationships, and women’s social, economic, and political roles in post-revolutionary Iran as shown through Iranian cinema
  • International Relations in Pre-modern East Asia – international relations, particularly between Korea and Japan in the pre-modern East Asian context, focusing on migration, trade, diplomacy, war, collective memory, mutual perceptions, and the context of the Sinocentric international order
  • Modern Chinese Authors in Translation – study of one influential modern Chinese author, such as Lu Xun, Shen Congwen, Eileen Chang, Yu Hua, Mo Yan, or Wang Anyi
  • Adaptations of Japanese Classics – introduction to literary, stage, and film adaptations of Japanese classics and legends and the ways in which these ‘new’ works appropriate the past to comment on the present
  • Documenting Punjabi America – exploration of the history of the Punjabi American community through traditional text-based methods and oral history collection
  • Folk Cultures in the Asian Diaspora – the mediation of folklore (slang, songs, games, dance, foodways) in the everyday lives of immigrant and transnational Asian communities; study through digital documentary media production and archival folklore research

The Asian language and culture curriculum varies depending on the chosen focus. Here are some of the most common concentrations:

  • Mandarin – a dialect of Chinese; the local dialect of most of northern and central China including Beijing; the official language of China
  • Cantonese – a dialect of Chinese; the local dialect of the southeast corner of China
  • Hindi-Urdu – Hindi and Urdu, the official languages of the Republic of India, are essentially the same language written in two different scripts; their main differences are in the vocabulary due to their historical relationships with their respective religious traditions and cosmopolitan languages
  • Japanese – a language isolate, a language unrelated to any other language; unlike most western languages, Japanese has an extensive grammatical system to express politeness and formality; it has an extremely complicated writing system
  • Korean – the Korean language is made up of its own alphabet and writing system; it is the official language of both South Korea and North Korea
  • Persian / Farsi – today, spoken primarily in Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan; was historically more widely understood in an area ranging from the Middle East to India and extended a strong influence on languages such as Hindi, Urdu, and Punjabi; Persian culture has had an extraordinary impact on Central, Southern, and Western Asia as well as other cultures globally
  • Punjabi – the 10th most widely spoken language in the world; 122 million people speak Punjabi as a native language
  • Sanskrit – the primary sacred language of Hinduism; a language that provides the essential keys for understanding the history, culture, and knowledge systems of South Asia and the surrounding regions that came under its cultural influence
  • Tibetan – the Tibetan language is almost as mythical as the culture of the six million people worldwide who speak it; it is the language of the Dalai Lama and the language of dharma, the Buddhist teaching

These programs introduce students to literary, philosophical, and historical works in their original Asian language. It is not uncommon for schools to divide particularly in-demand programs, such as Mandarin, Cantonese, and Japanese, into two tracks, one for heritage learners and the other for non-heritage learners.

The heritage track is designed for students with a strong background in understanding the spoken target language but who have weaker reading and writing skills. The non-heritage track is for foreign language learners with no prior exposure to the language and therefore need to develop the four key skills of listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

Master’s Degree in Asian Studies – Two Year Duration
Doctoral Degree in Asian Studies – Four to Six Year Duration
Graduate programs in Asian studies commonly emphasize a core of knowledge concerning one particular geographic area of Asia, and are designed largely for students who intend to pursue a career in scholarly research and university teaching.

Admission requirements typically include competence in at least one Asian language. Some schools may also require knowledge of a European foreign language, often French or German. A study abroad component may be part of some programs. Master’s students must complete a thesis and doctoral students must defend a dissertation to graduate.

Below is a snapshot of Asian studies courses which may be offered at the master’s and doctoral levels. Each student’s course of study will vary according to their chosen concentration.

East Asia / Northeast Asia

  • The Politics of Culture in East Asia
  • Chinese World Views
  • The Gardens, Shrines, and Temples of Japan
  • Contemporary Chinese Society
  • Asian Economic Systems
  • Cross-Currents in East-West Literature
  • Shinto in Japanese History
  • Animals in Japanese Religion
  • Chinese Poetry in Translation
  • Chinese Prose in Translation
  • Contemporary Chinese Urban Culture and Arts
  • Swords, Tea Bowls, and Woodblock Prints: Exploring Japanese Material Culture
  • The Cultures of Beauty, Sports, and Medicine in Japan
  • Structure of Japanese
  • Advanced Reading and Composition in Chinese
  • Chinese-English Translation and Interpreting
  • Business Communication in Chinese
  • Ancient Chinese Philosophers and their Modern Reincarnation
  • Japanese Journalism
  • Food and Culture in Japan
  • Making Music in Japan
  • Understanding Japanese Business Culture and Its Practice
  • Japanese Culture through Film and Literature
  • Modern Korean Literature and Culture
  • Changes and Continuities in Korean History
  • Korean Language Study through Current Affairs

South Asia / South East Asia

  • Culture and Power in Southeast Asia
  • The Economic History of Southeast Asia
  • The Vietnam War
  • Gender in Indian History
  • Islam and Islamic Art in South Asia
  • Religion and Culture in Iran 1500 – Present
  • Religious Conflict and Literature in India
  • South Asian Society and Culture
  • South Asian Media and Film
  • Sex and Social Justice in South Asia
  • Health and Medicine in South Asia
  • Bangladesh and Pakistan

Western Asia – Middle East

  • Film, Nation, and Identity in the Arab World
  • Beyond Hostilities: Israeli-Palestinian Exchanges and Partnerships in Film, Literature, and Music
  • Revolution in the Modern Middle East
  • Women in the Middle East
  • The Middle East and the West
  • Minorities in the Middle East
  • The Body and Body Politics in the Arab World
  • Visual Culture in the Middle East
  • Readings in Arabic

Degrees Similar to Asian Studies

Students of anthropology study the evolutionary history of people, how they interact, how they adapt to various environments, how they communicate and socialize with one another, and how their bodies and cultures have changed over time.

The field attempts to answer big questions on many of the fundamentals of human culture, from gender to political systems to violence, religion, race, and economics.

Area Studies
Students of this discipline usually focus on a specific area or region of the world and study its histories, politics, economics, languages, and cultures. Area studies programs have names like African Studies or Asian Studies, while ethnic studies programs have names like African American Studies or Asian American Studies.

Art History
Students of art history study the history and development of drawing, painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography, filmmaking, and architecture.

Ethnic Studies
Ethnic studies explores ethnicity and race from the interrelated perspectives of history, politics, economics, religion, and social and cultural realities.

The field considers and examines the experiences of underrepresented minorities in the United States. It questions the origin and continuity of racism within the general context of American society and institutions. And ultimately, it seeks to provide its students with a critical understanding of contemporary society and a catalyst for social change and social justice.

History is the study of change over time. Degree programs in the field examine political history, diplomatic / international relations history, cultural/ideological history, social/living standards history, economic history, intellectual/philosophical history, and military/armed conflict history.

International Business
Students of international business study business from a global perspective. They learn how to work cross-culturally, how to manage multinational businesses, and how to turn local and national companies into international corporations. Coursework often includes some foreign language studies, as well.

International Relations
Degree programs in international relations are concerned with looking at how states / governments relate to one another. These relations include trade, cooperation, disputes, conflicts, and war. The principles of diplomacy and foreign policy, international law, and organizations like the United Nations are also studied.

Linguistics explores the nature of language variations and dialects, how language evolves over time, how it is processed and stored in the human brain, and how it is acquired. It is the scientific study of language and communication, both within a single language and across language groups.

Its primary sub-areas are phonetics – the study of the production, acoustics, and hearing of speech sounds; phonology – the patterning of sounds; morphology – the structure of words; syntax – the structure of sentences; semantics – meaning; and pragmatics – language in context.

Political Science
Political science degree programs focus on the theory and practice of government and politics. ‘Poli sci’ students learn about the structures of politics and government and issues like the nature of political power, the causes of conflict, and globalization.

Skills You’ll Learn

In addition to an in-depth knowledge of Asian cultural, historical, societal, and political contexts, students of Asian studies come away from their education in the field with the following very transferable skills:

  • Ability to communicate evidence and analysis orally
  • Ability to integrate knowledge from several disciplinary perspectives
  • Ability to synthesize independent research findings in a written format
  • Ability to utilize technological resources in research, data analysis, and presentation
  • Cultural awareness and sensitivity and avoidance of cultural stereotyping
  • Global / intercultural perspective
  • Strong analytical and critical thinking skills
  • Understanding of diversity, equity, and justice
  • Understanding of the relationship between the present and the future with the past

What Can You Do with an Asian Studies Degree?

A degree in Asian studies can pave the way for a broad range of careers, since many employers value foreign language skills, all-round communication skills, and intercultural, economic, and political awareness.

In addition, many corporations and agencies operate branches worldwide, particularly in places such as China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, and South Korea, which have become more important in international trade. Some roles in the arenas listed below may require further education and/or on-the-job training.

  • Advertising and Marketing
  • Anti-Corruption Investigation
  • Business, Finance, and Industry
  • Civil Service
  • Communications
  • Community Organizations
  • Consulting Firms
  • Cultural Consulting
  • Cyber Security
  • Education / Academia
  • Foreign Service / Diplomacy
  • Government Departments – Defense, Immigration
  • Human Rights Advocacy
  • Import / Export Firms
  • Intelligence and National Security
  • Journalism / Media – Foreign Correspondent
  • Law / International Law
  • Law Enforcement
  • Multinational Oil, Gas, and Mining Companies
  • Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and Relief Organizations
  • Policy Analysis
  • Public Relations
  • Publishing
  • The Arts
  • Think Tanks
  • Translation / Interpretation
  • Travel, Tourism, and Hospitality


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