A brief History of SouthEast Asia (1/3): From the ancient great civilizations to prosperity during the rise of the Silk Road

Table of Contents

The journey to the east

As we already posted, SouthEast Asia cultural variety has to do with four waves of alien civilizations: the Indian, Chinese waves first and Muslim and Western waves later. In the next Journey to the East´s three travel notes, we will look deeper into the history of this incredibly culturally rich region.

River valleys, extensive floodplains and abundant water

The foundations of Southeast Asia are based on the division into about half a dozen power centres that have historically formed the bases of diverse civilisations. Four of these centres were located in the river valleys, where extensive floodplains and abundant water allowed rice cultivation in the fields. The rivers – the Red in present-day northern Vietnam, the lower Mekong, the Chao Phraya in present-day Thailand (formerly Siam), and the Ayeyarwady (Irrawaddy) in present-day Myanmar (formerly Burma) – were also gateways to valuable inland products: gold, gems, gum, bird feathers and exotic animal organs. They also provided access to the sea for their respective civilisations, providing a conduit for exchanging goods and ideas. It was in these favourable regions that Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai, and Burmese cultures developed.

South and Southeast Asia from "Atlas Minor" by Mercator, 1609. The great rivers were the origins of great South and East Asia civilizations.

By contrast, the civilisations of island Southeast Asia were less dependent on rivers. Malay culture emerged on the shores of the Melaka Strait, which for more than 2,000 years was a bottleneck for trade between India and China. Its ports served as a distribution point for forest products from inland Sumatra. Java’s prosperity, meanwhile, lay in the rich soil generated by its many volcanoes.  The narrow but fertile valleys and coastal plains supported rice and the millennia-old teak plantations, which provided timber for Javanese ships sailing into the spice-island area of eastern Indonesia and across the South China Sea and the Bay of Bengal to the opulent trading centres of India and China.

TABULA oder Charten. Ost-Indiens. Colored drawing by Caspar Schmalkalden (c.1618-c.1668)

The primary source of authority coming from Heaven

Looking for greater stability for their offices, the rulers of Southeast Asia turned to Hindu civilisation for ideas to entrench the authority of sovereignty.

Of course, the primary source of authority started to come from Heaven. There were many variations over more than a thousand years of Indian influence.

They have usually summed up in the Devaraja (god-king) principle: the ruler was a reincarnation in one or more Hindu gods, usually Shiva or Vishnu, but sometimes Buddha – Buddhism was not yet a separate religion from Hinduism. As divine incarnations, kings enjoyed perpetual respect, as well as the admiration derived from their capacity.

Great religious monuments, the most famous Angkor in Cambodia, Borobudur and Prambanan in Java, and Bagan in Myanmar, played the role of a reflection of the cosmos, concentrating spiritual power in the physical presence of the ruler.

The statue of Harihara, the amalgam god of Shiva and Vishnu, as a deified mortuary representation of King Kertarajasa of Majapahit. Venerating the king as a god incarnate on earth is the concept of devaraja
The 9th century Hindu Trimurti Prambanan temple, located on the border between Yogyakarta and Central Java province. The three largest temple is dedicated to Shiva in the centre, Brahma on the left, and Vishnu on the right. In front of each temples are the temples of vahanas (vehicle of gods).

Chinese culture influence adds to previous Indian influence

Tự Đức Thánh Chế Tự Học Giải Nghĩa Ca (嗣德聖製字學解義歌 ), a 19th-century primer for teaching Vietnamese children Chinese characters. Emperor Tự Đức, the 4th Emperor of the Nguyễn Dynasty.


In Vietnam, Chinese emperors exercised a form of indirect authority whereby local Vietnamese authorities were gradually but incompletely integrated into the Chinese polity, including the Mandarin form of bureaucratic administration. The Chinese literary language became the language of government.

The Vietnamese language moved away from its Southeast Asian origins (similar to Cambodian) and became a language of similar structure and vocabulary to Chinese.

Apart from occasional revolts, Chinese hegemony continued until the mid 10th century, when the Tang Dynasty declined, and the Vietnamese took the opportunity to assert their independence.

When Vietnam became independent, Neo-Confucianism was beginning to shape the world in Southeast Asia outside Vietnam. A millennium after the death of Confucius in 479 BC, Confucianism was just another ideology among those vying for political and cultural power in China. In the 9th century, however, there was a shift in Confucian ideology that helped consolidate it as the reigning political doctrine of the empire.

Neo-Confucianism, as it came to be known, emphasised hierarchical social relations. Social relations were characterized by differences between rulers and subjects, between parents and children, between elder and younger siblings, between spouses, and even between friends. Each party was obliged to respect and care for the other – similar social order as the established by Christian Church in the European Middle Ages-.

Neo-Confucianism was a Chinese revival of Confucianism in the Song dynasty (960–1279) that, after the Buddhist domination of popular religiosity and political corruption in the late Tang dynasty (7th Century BCE) aimed at reforming civil service while synthesizing Buddhist with Confucianism.

This doctrine was wary of commercial development as a negative element for the social order. When used as the basis for relations between states, this doctrine demanded hierarchies and progressively founded the so-called system of tribute. Under this system, foreign authorities coming into contact with China were expected to accept China’s superiority, and foreign trade was set up as an exchange of gifts. In Southeast Asia, governments gradually incorporated this system as a mode of relationship: weaker territories paid obeisance to larger ones and occasionally to China. But both within and outside the region, the idea of a tributary relationship was subject to numerous adaptations, from simple recognition of superiority to institutional subordination.

Under this system, foreign authorities coming into contact with China were expected to accept China's superiority, and foreign trade was set up as an exchange of gifts

The invasion of troops by the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan to impose the Yuan dynasty in the 13th century shook many Southeast Asian territories, notably Burma, Vietnam, and Java. In the turbulent political environment following the Mongol conquests, the two foreign religions prevailed in the regional political framework. Theravada Buddhism became the dominant religion in Southeast Asia, while Islam became more important in the island regions.

Powerful new states emerge with Silk Road peak

Both religions had religious authorities independent of the political rulers, although, in both Southeast Asian regions, religion and state worked closely together. Island sultans and kings on the mainland ensured the official practice of the faith and were in turn supported by the Buddhist sangha (monastic order) and Islamic ulama (scholars).

Theravada Buddhism became the dominant religion in Southeast Asia, while Islam became more important in the island regions.

These new religious states also benefited from a boom in trade in the Silk Road due to an integrated control of Mongol empire from China to Asia Minor. The 14th century is often referred to as the ‘age of trade’ in Southeast Asia. The rulers’ involvement in the new business was intense, and their respective states grew increasingly wealthy and powerful. Powerful new states emerged, such as Ava in Burma, Ayutthaya in Siam, Melaka in the Malay world and Mataram in Java. Vietnam, meanwhile, continued its gradual southward expansion along the narrow coastal strip. Only Cambodia failed to take advantage of these new opportunities and went into a long decline in the face of its neighbours’ expansion.

In the sixteenth century, the European arrived in the region… so here we come to the end of the first of the three posts on South East Asia history.  But, our Journey to the East continues so…

… If you want to know how our journey to the East continues, be sure to read the next post carefully … If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or input, please email us at info@danielecheverria.com. We will be happy to answer them.

Daniel echeverria

Daniel Echeverría-Jadraque

If you want to know how our journey to the East continues, be sure to read the following post carefully… If you have any questions, comments, suggestions or contributions, please send us an email to info@danielecheverria.com. Hsuan Tsang, the Monkey King, the Pig, the Sand, the Dragon Horse and myself will be happy to hear from you!

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