Communication of Ideas: Southeast Asia and its Influence

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Communication of Ideas: Southeast Asia and its Influence

Trade has always accompanied the spread of knowledge throughout Southeast Asia. From ancient times, exchange networks linked the mainland's coast with the Red, Mekong, and Chao Phraya Rivers, while by the second half of the first millennium b.c.e. Indian traders had arrived with goods and religiously based concepts of government.

Precolonial Southeast Asia

The Lao-Thai culture area, encompassing modern Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Burma (present-day Myanmar), has a common history of Hinduized states and Theravada Buddhism. Pali (the language of early Buddhist texts) and Sanskrit (the language of early Hinduism) are also Indian in origin. Vietnam, while sharing aspects of mainland Southeast Asian culture and society, represents the cultural influence of Han Chinese and Confucianism overlying indigenous traditions.

The major language groups of Southeast Asia include Austronesian (Cham on the mainland and many languages throughout the islands of contemporary Malaysia and Indonesia), Mon-Khmer, Burman, Tai (Thai/Lao), and Vietnamese. Of these, Mon-Khmer, Burman, Thai, and Lao have Indian-derived writing systems. In the case of societies influenced by Hindu and Buddhist cultures, the primary purpose of text was to convey religious knowledge. However, the role of written text and its use in everyday life varied significantly among Southeast Asian societies, as discussed below. The Hindu-Buddhist states possessed rich oral traditions, passed down through dramatic performances and shadow-puppet plays featuring the Ramayana and other Indian epics, with the Ramayana in particular presenting models not only of the ideal ruler but of ideal male and female roles in society. Buddhism is an important religious tradition throughout much of Southeast Asia in the early twenty-first century.

The Age of Commerce

With the advent of Muslim traders in the thirteenth century and Europeans in the sixteenth, Southeast Asia encountered a new set of cultures and languages as Islam and Christianity exerted their influence. Europeans came seeking Asia's fabled wealth, particularly spices essential for preserving meat, but later trade gave way to conquest and settlement. By 1900 Europeans had divided the region among themselves, introducing a new set of languages: Spanish in the Philippines, French in Indochina (present-day Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam), English in Burma, and Dutch in the Dutch East Indies. Spanish control of the Philippines effectively ended the eastward spread of Muslim influence. Many English loanwords from Southeast Asian languages (e.g., godown, gong) date from this period.

Anthony Reid suggests that despite ideas of male superiority entrenched among courts and urban elites due to the male-dominated written traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Islam, women played a surprisingly influential role in society during the period of early European exploration. Because they were heavily involved in trade, including long-distance and wholesale marketing, women often knew multiple languages. European visitors left numerous accounts of female merchants who translated for them and acted as diplomats and negotiators for indigenous governments.

European traders also reported a high level of literacy among women as well as men in several locations. Reid suggests that literacy in Southeast Asia may actually have declined between the sixteenth century and the early twentieth century as Islamic and Christian education systems displaced a different, older type of literacy. In the Lampung districts of southern Sumatra, the Philippines, southern Sulawesi, and the island of Sumbawa, the old Indonesian ka-ga-nga alphabet was written on bamboo or palm leaf, and women actively perpetuated the writing tradition by teaching it to household members. Literacy in these areas apparently existed for the sole purpose of courtship, that is, the composition of love poetry. Visitors also noted high literacy in Java and Bali. When Muslims began to dominate a region, the traditions were quickly stamped out, and women's literacy was discouraged. In contrast to these early reports, recent accounts of Southeast Asian Buddhist societies describe a disadvantaged position for women with regard to literacy. Because Buddhist texts were written in the Pali language and only males became monks and received their education in temples, women's education during the last century lagged behind that of men. In Laos, for example, which received little in the way of development resources from its French occupiers, few women became literate in Lao until the late-twentieth-century generation.

Colonial Society

By the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, colonial rulers in Malaya, Burma, Indochina, and the Dutch East Indies were introducing formal Western education. Colonial governments established schools, teacher-training institutions, medical colleges, and universities. Where colonizers wanted to develop a class of indigenous civil servants, instruction was given in European languages. In the Dutch East Indies, for example, Malay and Dutch were both taught in Roman characters, and in Vietnam instruction was in French. In Laos, however, which had already been staffed with French-speaking Vietnamese administrators, the colonial government of 1941 to 1945 actively encouraged Lao language standardization and the creation of a distinct Lao identity to enlist local support for French rule.

Daniel Marr notes that "among all the countries of Southeast Asia, Vietnam probably enjoyed the most favorable conditions for meaningful intellectual activity" (pp. 3233). For one thing, 85 percent of Vietnamese spoke the same language. Literacy, however, was a major issue. At the beginning of the twentieth century, four different writing systems were available: (1) Chinese characters; (2) nom (demotic characters); (3) French; and (4) quoc-ngu (romanized script developed by seventeenth-century French missionaries). Chinese knowledge had been important for civil exams in the nineteenth century but declined in the twentieth. Although only about 5 percent of the Vietnamese population could read by the mid-1920s, school enrollment increased, and people learned quoc-ngu informally after that. The French established the University of Indochina (now the University of Hanoi) and upgraded it in the 1930s because too many Vietnamese were going to France and learning anticolonial ideas. Both government and private Vietnamese schools expanded in the 1930s, while French works were translated into quoc-ngu.

The French conquerors brought the first modern printing press to Vietnam, and French-language bulletins were published in Saigon as early as 1861; the first Vietnamese (French-language) newspaper went to press in 1917. By the 1930s, however, both Vietnamese nationalism and quoc-ngu were developing together. Intellectuals sought to use the script as a vehicle to modernize Vietnamese culture, while revolutionaries, particularly after the founding of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in 1945, made the elimination of illiteracy a top priority. Vietnamese publication was remarkably prolific, unparalleled by any other Southeast Asian country: roughly fifteen million bound publications were produced in the two decades before the August 1945 revolution (about eight or nine books or pamphlets per literate individual).

The most important European concepts to influence Southeast Asia were probably nationalism and the idea of the nation-state, made possible by growing literacy in indigenous languages and the development of the local press. Prenationalist movements grew not only because of direct experience with colonial injustice but also as the result of influences from abroad, including the Meiji Revolution in Japan and the 1911 Chinese Revolution of Sun Yat-sen. The 1917 Russian Revolution led to the establishment of Communist Parties in Southeast Asia. Young men (including the Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh) were attracted to the Communist Party abroad because of its anticolonialism. Marxist ideas, such as nationalization and state-controlled economies, kept their popularity in several Southeast Asian countries after independence.

Postcolonial Society

The introduction of secular education and a Western curriculum in the twentieth century had profound effects on Southeast Asian language and culture. Necessary skills for preserving and transcribing old texts have been lost, while Western cultural traits have become a source of status. After publishing houses were established

TimelineSoutheast Asia

Mainland Southeast Asia consists of the presentday states of Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Maritime or island Southeast Asia includes the Malay part of the peninsula and a large archipelago divided between Indonesia and the Philippines.

Precolonial Era

c. 500 b.c.e. Indian trade with mainland Southeast Asia begins, leading to the spread of Hindu-Buddhist ideology and the influence of Sanskrit and Pali on local languages.

c. 1 c.e. With the spread of trade into the islands, west and central maritime Southeast Asia comes under the influence of Hindu and Buddhist traditions.

1st millennium c.e. Mon-Khmer people settle Irawaddy Valley, Bangkok Plain, and Mekong Delta; Khmer site of Angkor Wat (ninth century) typifies court of Hinduized Southeast Asian state. Red River Valley (southernmost extent of Chinese Empire) occupied by Vietnamese. Chams (Malayo-Polynesian language group) inhabit coast from the Red River Valley to the Mekong Delta.

Early 2nd millennium c.e. Burmans move into the Shan Hills from the eastern Himalayas; conquer Mon-dominated Irawaddy River Valley. Thai and related Lao move into what is now Laos and Thailand from Southeast China.

1300 c.e. Islam expands into island Southeast Asia from the Indian Ocean, following trade routes; Muslims introduce Arabic as they convert local populations.

14th18th centuries. Vietnamese push south, dominating Chams and taking the Mekong Delta from the Khmers.

16th century. Spain annexes the Philippines, bringing Christianity and Spanish and blocking the eastward spread of Muslim conversions. Portuguese and then the Dutch occupy the Spice Islands.

18th century. Four ethnic groups dominate mainland Southeast Asia by this time: Burmans (Irawaddy River Valley), Thais (Bangkok Plain), Lao (northern and central Mekong Valley), and Vietnamese (eastern lowlands). The contemporary states of Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam take their names from these ethnic groups.

Colonial Era

18241885. British acquire Burma, which becomes an Indian province in 1885.

18581885. French take over the Nguyen dynasty of Vietnam; French becomes the language of administration in French Indochina (present-day Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia). French introduce the printing press to Vietnam; the first French-language bulletins appear in 1861. Malay (later the Indonesian national language) develops a popular literature, spreading ideas of modernization and nationalism from the late nineteenth century on.

18851945. Western schools rapidly expand by the early twentieth century. First Vietnamese (French-language) newspaper is printed in 1917. First Thai publishing houses are established in the 1930s. In Vietnam a remarkable expansion of literacy in quoc-ngu, romanized Vietnamese script, takes place between the 1920s and 1940s. Early nationalist movements develop throughout Southeast Asia in response to colonialism and the introduction of Western thought.

19451954. Most of Southeast Asia is decolonized in the aftermath of World War II.

Postcolonial Era

19541975. The expansion of radio in the 1960s and 1970s creates a community of listeners in Southeast Asian countries for the first time. The Vietnam War, ending in 1975 with the fall of Saigon, results in massive devastation, population loss, and displacement within mainland Southeast Asia as well as an unprecedented international refugee flow.

Mid-1980s. Television is introduced to Laos and Bali. The refugee diaspora stimulates use of new media, such as video. Literary analysis and the first women scholars emerge in Laos during the late twentieth century.

1990s. Television viewing greatly expands with the advent of satellite television.

2000. Cell phones, fax machines, computers, and cybercafes permeate city life. The Thai language, in both spoken and written forms, increasingly dominates neighboring Laos.

in Laos and Northeast Thailand in the 1930s, writing on palm leaves became obsolete. In the late twentieth century a new field of Lao literary analysis emerged in which female as well as male Lao scholars participate.

The last two decades of the twentieth century brought modern mass media within reach of most Southeast Asians, though access varies. Television first appeared in Thailand during the 1950s but was not available outside the capital until rural electrification took place in the late 1970s. During the 1980s color television sets and then videocassette recorders became common, and by the next decade television viewing had greatly increased. In Bali (Indonesia), famous for its popular theater, the effect of television on live theater was so great that eight out of ten theater troupes vanished during the 1980s. Siam's (presentday Thailand) confrontation with Western colonialism in the nineteenth century led to a concern with boundaries and remodeling of the Siamese administration system after the model of Dutch and British colonial practice. One of the first Asian countries to use new media to further national development, Thailand has promoted an "official" national cultural identity for at least ninety years through its public education system and mass literacy in Central Thai. By the late 1980s television programming was used to introduce new, nonindigenous patterns of consumption, such as the presentation of Christmas gifts. Due to Thai control of modern mass media, the Thai language in both spoken and written forms increasingly dominates neighboring Laos. Whereas Thai and Lao are closely related, the Thai language modernized more rapidly; Lao scholars are still debating the standardization of its writing system.

Communication of ideas on the popular level in mainland Southeast Asia in the early twenty-first century is largely within an Asian sphere of influence; for example, Thai boxing and beauty contests, Hong Kong dramas dubbed into Vietnamese or Thai. Foreign ideas and the English language have begun to enter Thailand to some extent as a result of the increase in tourism after 1987. The influence of Southeast Asian refugees on both their host countries and countries of origin should not be ignored, particularly now that former refugees can visit or even return permanently to Southeast Asia; new ideas include more rights for women, increased individualism, and democracy. The political legacy of the Vietnam War remains a part of global, particularly U.S., consciousness.

See also Colonialism: Southeast Asia ; Globalization: Asia ; Westernization: Southeast Asia .


Bellwood, Peter. "The Prehistory of Island Southeast Asia: A Multidisciplinary Review of Recent Research." Journal of World History 1 (1987): 171224. Useful background on prehistory of region.

Chandler, David P. A History of Cambodia. 2nd ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1992.

Christie, Clive J. A Modern History of Southeast Asia: Decolonization, Nationalism, and Separatism. London and New York: Tauris Academic Studies, 1996.

Ebihara, May M., Carol A. Mortland, and Judy Ledgerwood. Cambodian Culture since 1975: Homeland and Exile. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994.

Evans, Grant, ed. Laos: Culture and Society. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books, 1999. This is a useful collection of essays on Lao language and culture.

Ginsburg, Faye D., Lila Abu-Lughod, and Brian Larkin, eds. Media Worlds: Anthropology on New Terrain. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. See particularly essays by Annette Hamilton, Mark Hobart, Rosalind C. Morris, and Louisa Schein.

Higham, Charles. "The Later Prehistory of Mainland Southeast Asia." Journal of World Prehistory 3 (1989): 235282. Useful for overview of ethnic groups and languages.

Marr, David G. Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 19201945. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981. Fascinating discussion of how romanized Vietnamese script became the vehicle for literacy and popular debate between the 1920s and the 1940s, developing along with the nationalist movement. Has an excellent chapter on women.

McDaniel, Drew. Electronic Tigers of Southeast Asia: The Politics of Media, Technology, and National Development. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 2002.

Reid, Anthony. Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 14501680. 2 vols. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 19881993.

Somers Heidhues, Mary. Southeast Asia: A Concise History. New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000.

Janet E. Benson

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Communication of Ideas: Southeast Asia and its Influence