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Article

Ceramics are the most abundant types of artifacts made by human beings in the last 12,000 years. Chinese potters discern two types of products: earthenware (tao), which is porous and does not resonate when struck, and wares with vitreous bodies (ci), which ring like a bell. Western potters and scholars differentiate stoneware, which is semi-porous, from porcelain, which is completely vitrified. The earliest ceramics in the world are thought to have been made in China around 15,000 years ago. By the Shang dynasty, potters in China began to decorate the surfaces of their pottery with ash glaze, in which wood ash mixed with feldspar in clay to impart a shiny surface to the pottery. The first ash-glazed wares were probably made south of the Yangzi in Jiangnan. In the 9th century, China began to export pottery, which quickly became sought after in maritime Asia and Africa. Pottery making for export became a major industry in China, employing hundreds of thousands of people, and stimulating the development of the first mass-production techniques in the world. Much of the ceramic industry was located along China’s south and southeast coasts, conveniently located near ports that connected China with international markets. Chinese merchants had to adapt their wares to suit different consumers. For the last 1,000 years, Chinese ceramics provided an enormous amount of archaeological information on trade and society in the lands bordering the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, contributing a major source of data to the study of early long-distance commerce, art, technology, urbanization, and many other topics. Statistics are presented from important sites outside China where Chinese ceramics have been found.

Article

Hideaki Suzuki

The presence of Africans in Asia and their migration around it is one of the least-studied subjects in all of Asian history. The same is true for studies of the African diaspora, but that does not mean that African migration lacks significance in either field. Existing scholarship reveals that Africans traveled to and settled in various regions in Asia, from the Arabian Peninsula to Nagasaki. While there were free African migrants in Asia, a larger number of them arrived as slaves, transported there by both local and European traders. Conditions for the forced immigrants varied and not all of them remained permanently un-free, with some even eventually coming to obtain political power. To understand their dispersal and presence in Asia does more than simply broaden our current understanding of the African diaspora; it also enables us to understand that the African diaspora is a global phenomenon. That improved understanding can in turn break down the geographical boundary of Asian history and connect it not only to African history but to European history too. To do that, the topic requires scholars to challenge the methodological limits of current historical studies.

Article

R. Michael Feener

Southeast Asia has been a historical crossroads of major world civilizations for nearly two millennia. Muslim traders were sojourning along the shores of the Indonesian archipelago from at least the 8th century, and by the turn of the 14th century local Muslim communities had taken root, and the region’s first sultanate was established in northern Sumatra. Since then, Muslim communities had been established across many other parts of Southeast Asia, where in the 21st century they comprise demographic majorities in the nation-states of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei and significant minority populations in the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar, and Singapore. The Islamization of these societies, and their inclusion into an expanding constellation of Muslim societies in the medieval and early modern periods, was facilitated by intensifications of activity along the maritime trading routes linking Southeast Asia to ports on the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, and Swahili Coasts with those of India and China over the medieval and early modern periods. Over the course of this history, the expansion of Islam in the region was not dominantly directed from any single source but rather the result of diverse, interlaced strands of commercial and cultural circulations that connected the region to multiple points in an expanding Muslim world—adopting local traditions to produce diverse and dynamic vernacular forms of Islamic cultural expression.

Article

Ships form a critical component of the study of Southeast Asia’s interaction both within itself as well as with the major centers of Asia and the West. Shipwreck data, accrued from archaeologically excavated shipwreck sites, provide information on the evolving maritime traditions that traversed Southeast Asian waters over the last two millennia, including shipbuilding and navigational technologies and knowledge, usage of construction materials and techniques, types of commodities carried by the shipping networks, shipping passages developed through Southeast Asia, and the key ports of call that vessels would arrive at as part of the network of economic and social exchanges that came to characterize maritime interactions.

Article

The period between the mid-1830s and early 1920s witnessed the migration of some 3.7 million Africans, Chinese, Indians, Japanese, Melanesians, and other peoples throughout and beyond the colonial plantation world to work as laborers under long-term written and short-term oral contacts. Studies of this global labor migration over the last forty years have been heavily influenced by Hugh Tinker’s 1974 argument that the indentured labor system was essentially “a new system of slavery.” There has also been a propensity toward specialized and compartmentalized studies of the indentured experience in various parts of Africa, the Caribbean, the southwestern Indian Ocean, India, Southeast Asia, and Australasia, with a particular emphasis on systems of labor control and worker resistance. Recent scholarship reveals that this labor system began two decades earlier than previously believed, and illustrates the need to explore new topics and issues in more fully developed local, regional, and global contexts.

Article

When composed of hunter-gatherers, Asia’s population numbered perhaps 1–2 million. But the emergence of agriculture saw population growth, and it appears likely that by 1 CE the continent’s population exceeded 100 million. For China and Japan, there are data which shed light on their population histories during pre-modern times. Moreover, both countries experienced rapid demographic transitions in the 20th century—substantially limiting the associated extent of population growth. For the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, there are almost no population data prior to the late 18th century, although what happened subsequently is better recorded. Both these diverse regions experienced fairly protracted modern demographic transitions and substantial population growth. West Asia’s population is thought to have been of similar size in 1900 as in 1 CE. During the 20th century, however, most countries in West Asia experienced late birth-rate declines and very substantial population growth. Throughout history, the level of urbanization in Asia has generally been extremely low. Nevertheless, the continent contained most of the world’s most populous cities, though that situation changed temporarily in the 19th and 20th centuries. That said, after 1950 mortality decline fueled urban growth. As a result, by 2020 Asia once again contained most of the world’s largest cities, and about half of the continent’s people lived in urban areas. The population history of Asia has generally involved very slow population growth. The main explanation has been that death rates were high, marriage was early and universal, fertility was uncontrolled, and so birth rates were high too. However, research has increasingly suggested that in some areas the levels of fertility and mortality which prevailed in pre-modern times are better described as “moderate” rather than “high.” Moreover, as in Europe, there were regulatory mechanisms which helped to maintain a degree of balance between human numbers and the resource base.

Article

Michael W. Charney

Warfare in premodern Southeast Asia, roughly that fought up until the end of the 19th century, was shaped by the environment across the region. Maritime trade connections brought the introduction and circulation of external models of warfare that would help to frame the way warfare in the region was depicted in some of the indigenous literature and art (including the influence of the Indian epics on shadow puppet theater). Firearms played a more direct role in determining the development of warfare in the region over the course of the early modern period. As a result of better firearms, the elephant declined in battlefield importance and was increasingly replaced by cavalry. In the 18th century, Southeast Asians fielded some of their best-organized armies, and in the early 19th century there was a temporary revival of naval strength in parts of the region, particularly in Vietnam. Nevertheless, the introduction of the steamship and better European military technology from the 1820s ushered in the decline of the remaining Southeast Asian armies by the end of the 19th century. Although indigenous states would attempt to modernize and catch up with Europe militarily, all of Southeast Asia, save for Thailand, fell under European control.

Article

Atholl Anderson

Since the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century the observed ethnic complexity of the Malagasy, the Madagascan people, has been a subject of conjecture in several respects. When did people first reach Madagascar? Where did the different elements of the population originate? What was the sequence of their arrival? What was the nature of their maritime migrations? Early answers to these questions relied on the historical traditions of some Malagasy populations, especially of the Merina and highland groups, and on an extensive archive of historical and ethnographic observations. Recent approaches, through historical linguistics, palaeoecology, genomic history, and archaeology, especially in the last thirty years have provided new perspectives on the enduring issues of Madagascan population history. The age of initial colonization is still debated vigorously, but the bulk of current archaeological data, together with linguistic and genomic histories, suggest that people first arrived around the middle of the first millennium ce or later. Evidence of linguistic origins and human genetics supports the prevailing view that the first people came from Southeast Asia, the majority of them specifically from Borneo. Later Bantu migration from Africa was followed by admixture of those populations and other smaller groups from South Asia, in Madagascar. Admixture in East Africa before migration to Madagascar is no longer favored, although it cannot be ruled out entirely. Voyaging capability is a key topic that is, however, difficult to pin down. There is no necessity in the current data to envisage transoceanic voyages, and no evidence of Southeast Asian vessels in East Africa or Madagascar in the first millennium ce, although it is impossible to rule that out. The safest assumption at present is that contact between Southeast Asia and Madagascar during the period of colonization occurred through the established network of coastal and monsoon passages and shipping around the northern perimeter of the Indian Ocean.

Article

In the popular imagination, the meeting of Buddhism and Islam is often conceptualized as one of violence; namely, Muslims destroying the Dharma. Of course, in more recent years this narrative has been problematized by the reality of Buddhist ethnic cleansing and the genocide of Muslims in Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Yet, what needs to be recognized is that the meeting between Buddhists and Muslims has never simply been one of confrontation. Rather, the interaction of these two religions—which has been going on for more than one thousand years across the length and breadth of Asia (from Iran to China and Indonesia to Siberia)—has also involved much else, including artistic, cultural, economic, and intellectual exchanges.

Article

Himanshu Prabha Ray

The eightfold path shown by the Buddha in the middle of the first millennium bce was founded on wisdom, morality, and concentration. Like other contemporary Indic religions, Buddha dhamma had no central organization, nor did it follow a single text as its guiding principle. Its core principle was refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha, though as it expanded across Asia, it absorbed local traditions, responded to historical factors, and evolved philosophically. The physical manifestations of the dhamma appeared in the archaeological record at least two hundred to three hundred years later, in the form of inscriptions, stūpas, images, and other objects of veneration. Relic and image worship were important factors in the expansion of Buddhism across the subcontinent and into other parts of Asia. This essay is framed. Four themes are significant in the archaeology of Buddhism: the history of archaeology in Asia with reference to Buddhism; defining a chronology for the historical Buddha and sites associated with Buddhism; identifying regional specificities and contexts for Buddhist sites as they emerged across Asia; and finally addressing the issue of interconnectedness and interlinkages between the various sites within the Buddhist sāsana. The active participation of learned monks and nuns in the stūpa cult and their mobility across Asia is a factor that is underscored in this paper.

Article

The Indian Ocean and its adjoining seas, from the Middle East and East Africa to Southeast Asia, have been witness to the nautical ventures of most, if not all, major sea powers of world history. Progress in nautical archaeology in the past few decades has brought about a much better understanding of shipbuilding traditions of the Indian Ocean, until then limited to textual and ethnographic sources. Only a few shipwreck sites and terrestrial sites with ship remains have been studied so far along the shores of the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, or the Indian Ocean proper. Many more were found in recent excavations in the Southeast Asian seas, which were built along Southeast Asian or Indian Ocean shipbuilding traditions. Two main technical traditions can now be clearly identified for pre-modern times: the Arabo-Indian sewn-plank ships of the western Indian Ocean, which survived into our times, and the Southeast Asian vessels that evolved from a distinctive sewn-plank technology to fully doweled assemblages, as could still be observed in Indonesian vessels of the late 20th century. The still limited number of shipwrecks brought to light in the Indian Ocean as well as the considerable imbalance in archaeological research between the Indian Ocean proper and the Southeast Asian seas have hindered the advancement of the discipline. Considerable difficulties and interpretation problems have moreover been generated by biased commercial excavations and subsequent incomplete excavation records, not to speak of the ethical problems raised in the process. Such deficiencies still prevent solid conclusions being drawn on the development of regional shipbuilding traditions, and on the historical role of the ships and people who sailed along the essential Indian Ocean maritime networks.

Article

Paul Buell and Francesca Fiaschetti

The Mongols, creators of the largest continuous land empire in history, who initiated an unprecedented era of international exchange, are mostly known for their land conquests and contacts, but, they also actively participated in maritime and land trade. The key event in this development was a Mongol commercialization ongoing with the Mongol conquest of key coastal areas in China and Iran that brought them face to face with the trading world of the South Seas and Indian Ocean. There was a military aspect of this, starting in Japan, Southeast Asia, and Java, and there was the diplomatic and informal initiatives of Qubilai-qan to expand Mongol influence over the seas as far as the Red Sea and Africa, in ways not achievable with military means alone. A thesis is that the Mongols in China ended by creating, with the help of the Mongols in Iran, a first maritime age, paralleling those established by the Portuguese and others that came later.