In Asia, more than in most parts of the world, the history of the 20th century can be told through the lives of a few remarkable individuals. You know who they are: the men--and a very few women--who won independence for their countries from colonial overlords, who toppled dictators--sometimes becoming dictatorial themselves--who built industrial empires from the rubble of war and earned international reputations for their accomplishments, their genius or their sheer murderousness. Or perhaps you don't know who they are. In which case you'll find this special double issue to be especially useful and doubly provocative. (The issue is on sale for two weeks, until our next one appears the week beginning Aug. 30.) We've included some familiar figures--Deng Xiaoping, Emperor Hirohito, Lee Kuan Yew--as well as a few people whose names you may not have heard. (Monkombu Sambasivan Swaminathan? Daisuke Inoue?) A handful of our selections--Mao Zedong, Sony's Akio Morita--have appeared during the past year-and-a-half in previous installments of the TIME 100 series, in which we've profiled the most influential people of the past 100 years. But this time we focus exclusively on Asia and the forces that over the past 10 decades have shaped this important region. In addition, we've found some remarkably gifted, uniquely qualified writers to profile these people with an idiosyncratic touch we haven't attempted before. Mao Zedong, for instance, must be one of the most heavily analyzed personalities of the era. But see what Zhang Hangzhi, the woman who taught Mao English, has to say in her highly personal recollection of the Great Helmsman. Or read what exiled Chinese dissident Wei Jingsheng discloses about the man who put him in jail, Deng Xiaoping; Wei comes to a surprising conclusion. We have renowned Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou appraising the career of the man who was his inspiration, Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Indonesia's greatest living writer (the Buru Quartet), weighs in on the country's charismatic founding president, Sukarno--and has much to say about his disgraced successor Suharto as well. Bui Tin, our writer on Vietnam's revolutionary icon Ho Chi Minh, is a former North Vietnamese Army colonel and ex-editor of Nhan Dan, the Communist Party newspaper. Yale University's acclaimed China scholar Jonathan D. Spence writes about Sun Yat-sen, and Columbia University's respected Tibetan Buddhist scholar Robert A. F. Thurman about the Dalai Lama. Cambodia expert David Chandler examines the horror and banality of Pol Pot. Indian writer Suketu Mehta profiles Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore. And who better to assess Mohandas Gandhi's legacy of nonviolence than Martin Luther King III, who heads the U.S. civil rights organization his father founded? Among these profiles, we've sprinkled mini-essays on the century's most influential Asian films, books, design achievements and even cars (Ambassador fans, this is your moment). In addition, American economist Paul Krugman writes about the future of the Asian economy. Indian author Sunil Khilnani examines the art of nation-building. And exiled Bangladeshi feminist Taslima Nasrin describes the outlook for women in Asia. But mostly we concentrate on individuals--our 20 major figures, as well as dozens of other giants of the age. (See our thumbnail sketches of the region's most fascinating dictators and despots, insurgents and revolutionaries, gurus and godmen, kings and emperors, political widows and daughters.) We consider that kind of focus on personalities to be especially appropriate: in Asia, a vast traditional society rocketing into the modern age, the personal touch still matters. Telling history through the words and deeds of Great Men may seem passť, says staff writer Nisid Hajari, who directed this project and wrote the graceful portrait of 20th century Asia that opens it. But most of the radical transformations that have re-mapped Asia this century have borne the imprint of towering individuals--and of the great masses of people they were able to rally to their causes. You may not agree with our selections, conclusions or writer assignments, in which case we invite you to visit our website, at time.com/asia, to register your choice for Person of the Century. (The vote is non-binding; TIME will announce its selection at the end of the year.) But we trust you'll find this issue worth spending some time with. If only to learn how these remarkable individuals shaped your world--and who Monkombu Sambasivan Swaminathan and Daisuke Inoue are. Thailand's absolute monarchy ended in 1932, but King Bhumibol Adulyadej, grandson of Rama V, has kept the monarchy revered and effective through often troubled times. Born in the U.S.--while his father was studying medicine at Harvard--Bhumibol was educated in Lausanne and learned English, French, German and enough saxophone to compose a number for a 1950 Broadway show. But after ascending the throne that same year, he threw himself into development projects. From behind the scenes, he helped steer the nation through leftist threats, numberless coups and two popular pro-democracy movements. More recently, the King, now 71, has applied his wide-ranging talents to helping solve Bangkok's traffic problem.