Southeast Asia

views updated May 17 2018

Southeast Asia

T he mainland of Southeast Asia is tucked between India in the west and China to the north; hence the name "Indochina," applied to much of the region. India and China were also Southeast Asia's primary cultural influences. But with the spread of Islam to the region during the Middle Ages, a third influence made itself known, primarily in the adjoining Malay Archipelago.


China's first imperial dynasty in the 200s b.c. claimed three loosely defined provinces along the South China Sea coast in what is now Vietnam. As powerful as the Chinese emperor was, however, he could hardly control such distant lands. Thus it was easy enough for one of his generals to break away and establish his own kingdom, which came to be known as Van Lang (VAHN LAHNG), an early version of Vietnam.

China later reclaimed the province, then lost it again until finally another powerful Chinese general subdued the area in about a.d. 40. To the south of the conquered lands he set up two bronze pillars, marking the edge of the civilized world: below that line, he declared, lived ghosts and demons.

Funan and Champa

In fact there were two kingdoms to the south: Funan, which straddled an area that is now part of both Vietnam and Cambodia; and Champa along the coast. Funan controlled a lesser state called Chenla, yet by the 500s, Chenla had become strong enough to absorb Funan.

A century later a new nation emerged in the region to the west and north of Funan and Champa. These were the Khmers (k'MEERZ) of Cambodia, soon to develop one of the most powerful empires in the region. Meanwhile the people of northern Vietnam became culturally and politically tied with China, while southern Vietnam continued an independent existence as Champa.

The Khmer Empire

The Khmers had a close trading relationship with India, and this led to the adoption of Hinduism by their first powerful king, Jayavarman II (jah-yah-VAR-mun; ruled c. 790–850). Jayavarman founded the Khmer Empire, which also became known as the Angkor Empire after two extraordinary creations.

The first of these was Angkor Thom (TOHM), which began to emerge as a city after 900. Angkor Thom covered some five square miles, quite impressive for any medieval city—but particularly one carved out of a jungle. With its moat and walls, its temples, palaces, and tower—all carved in detail with images of Hindu gods—Angkor Thom would have put contemporary London or even Paris to shame. Then there was Angkor Wat (see box), a temple almost big enough to be considered a city in its own right.

Words to Know: Southeast Asia

A string of islands.
Local; not from outside.
A type of tower monument in the Far East.
A political unit, like a state, that is part of a larger country.
Relief sculpture:
A carved picture, distinguished from regular sculpture because it is primarily two-dimensional but textured.

The builder of Angkor Wat was Suryavarman II (soor-yah-VAR-mun; ruled 1113–50), who went on to expand his empire into what is now Thailand, Burma, Vietnam, and Malaysia. He also established formal diplomatic relations with China in 1119. A war with the Vietnamese, however, did not prove so successful.

The northern Vietnamese had revolted against Chinese rule in 939 and established an empire of their own. Burma, too, had established its independence under Anawrahta (ahnow-RAHT-uh; ruled 1044–77). A Buddhist, Anawrahta built many pagodas (puh-GOH-duhz), or tall shrines, in his capital of Pagan (puh-GAHN).

The Khmer Empire remained the dominant power in the region, but in 1176 Champa invaded. Its forces even occupied Angkor Wat until Jayavarman VII (ruled 1181–c. 1215), the Khmer's greatest ruler, drove them out in 1181. He conquered the Champa kingdoms and other neighboring territories and set about rebuilding and improving Angkor Wat.

Competing powers

After Jayavarman, the Khmer Empire declined quickly. Indeed, in the densely packed lands of Indochina, it was always difficult for one kingdom to hold power for very long, and at the first sign of weakness others were more than willing to step in. Under the Tran dynasty (1225–1400), northern Vietnam annexed the Champa

lands as Khmer influence faded. But an even greater force was pushing in from the north: the Mongol Yüan dynasty of China.

The Mongols forced a group called the Nan-chao (nahn-ZHOW), ancestors of the Thais, into the region in 1253. The Nan-chao swept into the power vacuum created by the decline of the Khmer, and conquered the Angkor Empire in 1431. Thereafter the Nan-chao and the Vietnamese alternately controlled Khmer lands. Vietnam itself came under Chinese rule in the early 1400s, but reemerged more powerful than ever under the Le dynasty (1428–1788), which fully conquered the southern part of the land.

Farther west, the Mongols brought an end to the Burmese kingdom in 1287, and for the next five centuries anarchy reigned in that country. Between Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia, the tiny, landlocked kingdom of Laos unified under the Buddhist monarch Fa Ngum (fahng-OOM; 1316–73). Educated at Angkor, Fa Ngum returned to his homeland with a Khmer army in 1353, and brought Laotian power to the greatest extent it would ever reach. Within a few years, however, the Thais had absorbed much of Laos.

The Malay Peninsula and Archipelago

Technically the Malay Peninsula is part of Indochina, but its history was much more closely linked with that of the Malay Archipelago (ar-ki-PEL-uh-goh). An archipelago is a group of islands, and the Malay complex is the world's largest. It forms a huge triangle, with the northern Philippines at the "top"; the Indone-sian island of Sumatra (soo-MAH-truh) at the southwest corner, where the Indian Ocean joins the Pacific; and New Guinea on the far southeastern corner. In addition to their shared geography, the people of these islands (and of the Malay Peninsula) speak languages from the same family, Malay.

During the Middle Ages, this region would undergo an experience similar to that of India, where Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim states vied for control. Buddhism and Hinduism came first, and each established strongholds in parts of what is now Indonesia. The Hindu Pallavas of southeastern India had colonized the area from an early time, but by the 600s the dominant faith had become Buddhism.

Buddhism was the religion of the Srivijaya (shree-vi-JY-yuh) Empire, based in Sumatra, which ruled parts of the region from the 600s onward. At its peak in the 1100s, it controlled much of the Philippines, Borneo, western Java, and even the Moluccas

(muh-LUK-uz), an island group far to the east. Another Buddhist dynasty, the Sailendras, controlled eastern Java during the 700s and 800s. There they built a great temple complex at Borobudur (boh-roh-bü-DOOR), Asia's largest Buddhist monument, with hundreds of relief sculptures depicting scenes from the life of the Buddha.

Hindus dominated the island of Bali (BAH-lee), and Hinduism spread into eastern Java after the Sailendras lost power in 856. There the powerful Hindu kingdom of Majapahit (mah-jah-PAH-hit), founded in about 1263, began to extend its influence, taking control of Sumatra as the Srivijayas declined. In 1292, Marco Polo visited the Majapahit kingdom and also noted the existence of a Muslim community on Sumatra.

This was the first proof by an outside observer of the Muslim presence in the region, though in fact Islam had probably arrived two or three centuries earlier. In the two centuries following Marco Polo's visit, Islamic forces would bring down the Majapahits and convert many peoples on neighboring islands. The Balinese, however, remained predominantly Hindu.

Angkor Wat

Of all the monuments built during the Middle Ages, few can equal the great Khmer temple complex of Angkor Wat for sheer scope, mysterious beauty, and eery charm. The surrounding moat alone was a vast engineering feat, 600 feet wide and 2.5 miles long. Inside its walls was an enormous temple complex of towers guarding a central enclosure, an architectural symbol of Hindu beliefs concerning the outer and inner worlds.

Like the Gothic cathedrals in France around the same time, Angkor Wat was a gigantic "sermon in stone," with carvings on virtually every surface showing Hindu gods and other aspects of the Khmer culture and religion. But this was a world utterly foreign to the European mind. For one thing, Angkor Wat was not a place where the common people were invited to enter and worship, as they were at Notre Dame or Chartres; it was set aside purely for the royal house. Furthermore, one can only imagine what a European priest would have made of the many sculptures showing bare-chested beauties. Yet this was an everyday sight in the humid jungles of Southeast Asia, where Khmer women wore wraparound skirts with nothing covering their breasts.

Despite these and other scenes depicting ordinary life—planting and harvesting rice, trading goods such as spices and rhinoceros horns with Chinese merchants—Angkor Wat can justly be described as a spooky place. Its abandonment after the Thai conquest in the mid-1400s added greatly to this quality: in the centuries that followed, this gargantuan temple city was forgotten, its towers choked by vines while its inner courts became home to snakes and other creatures of the jungle. It was only rediscovered in the 1860s—by the French, who then controlled Indochina.

Muslim sultanates

The most significant area of Muslim influence was in Melaka, or

what is now Malaysia. That area became so heavily Muslim during the 1400s that people used the expression "to become a Malay" to mean converting to Islam. Melaka had been under the control of the Srivijaya through the 1300s, when a king from Singapore, a tiny city-state at the tip of the Malay Peninsula, founded the independent state of Melaka.

The origins of Singapore itself are less clear, though it appears to have been a thriving trade center in the 1200s. It was destroyed by an attack from Java in 1377, and it would not rise to its former prosperity and stability for nearly five hundred years. Melaka meanwhile adopted Islam, probably in about 1400, and its rulers adapted many trappings of Islamic culture, including titles such as shah and sultan.

Trade fueled the spread of Islam: because the Muslims were successful merchants, many local businessmen considered it prudent to accept the new faith. Even the Turks established their influence in the region, and there are reports of gifts such as banners and cannons sent by the Ottoman sultan to Melaka and other far-off lands.

Then in 1511 Portugal, by then the leading power of the high seas along with Spain, conquered Melaka and closed it off to trade with the Muslim world. Nonetheless, the spread of Islam continued, reaching Brunei (BROO-ny) on the northern coast of Borneo, as well as the southern Philippines.

Australia and the Pacific

Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific islands beyond them did not possess true civilizations during the Middle Ages—that is, their people did not build cities or possess a written language—and therefore information about these regions is scarce. Nonetheless, it is clear that life there was far from uneventful.

The native peoples of Australia, called Aborigines (ab-uh-RIJ-uh-neez), first migrated to that continent about 50,000 years ago, but the many islands of Polynesia were inhabited much later. For many centuries, shipbuilders from Indonesia had been constructing canoes big enough to cross wide stretches of ocean, so that by about 650, all Polynesian lands except New Zealand had been settled. A century later, people finally began arriving on New Zealand's North Island.

In about 1000, the inhabitants of Easter Island, a lonely spot several thousand miles off the west coast of South America, began carving the large, mysterious heads for which that place—so named because it was first discovered by Europeans on Easter Sunday 1722—is most famous.

Another "mystery" of the South Seas, however, would not remain a mystery. While visiting the East Indies (modern Indonesia) in the 1290s, Marco Polo heard about a faraway southern continent, which he assumed to be mythical like Atlantis. By the 1400s, however, Indonesian merchants began regularly traveling to this all-too-real place, but it would be another two centuries before Spanish voyagers "discovered" Australia.

For More Information


Brittan, Dolly. The People of Cambodia. New York: PowerKids Press, 1997.

Brittan, Dolly. The People of Thailand. New York: PowerKids Press, 1997.

Brittan, Dolly. The People of Vietnam. New York: PowerKids Press, 1997.

Evans, Charlotte, consulting editor. The Kingfisher Illustrated History of the World: 40, Present Day. New York: Kingfisher Books, 1993.

Schafer, Edward H. Ancient China. New York: Time-Life Books, 1967.

Web Sites

"Buddhist Empires." [Online] Available (last accessed July 28, 2000).

Mulaqah. [Online] Available (last accessed July 28, 2000).

Southeast Asia

views updated Jun 11 2018

Southeast Asia Region bounded by India, China, and the Pacific Ocean, and comprising Burma, Thailand, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Philippines, Singapore, and Indonesia. Area: c.4.5 million sq km (1.75 million sq mi).

Southeast Asia

views updated May 18 2018


This entry includes three subentries:
Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines

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Southeast Asia