Before the 16th century, Southeast Asian trade within the Sinosphere (Laos and Vietnam) took place in a maritime trade network that drew together the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea (Eastern Sea). Land-based and maritime trade routes were interlinked across this region. Behind the maritime trade was the upland supply of forest products that included many of the items most desired by distant markets in China and Southeast Asian destinations. The upland access to trade items was as important as was control of the coastal ports. Westerners arrived in the early modern period, as others had, as traders, and were accommodated into established trading patterns. The general current of anti-imperialism was still to come in the 20th century.
Commerce and Economy in Southeast Asia within the Sinosphere (Laos and Vietnam)
James A. Anderson
Commercial Networks and Economic Structures of Theravada Buddhist Southeast Asia (Thailand and Myanmar)
Geok Yian Goh
Theravada Buddhist polities in ancient Southeast Asia comprised kingdoms located in present-day Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand. Theravada Buddhism became influential in mainland Southeast Asia in the 11th century. Little information exists on the economy of daily life during that period; existing records from 1100 until 1600 mainly deal with administrative and religious affairs, from which some information about the economy can be extracted. These mainland Buddhist polities are typically described as practicing “redistributive economic systems,” a term that Karl Polanyi used to refer to geopolitical entities in which the primary source of subsistence is agriculture, and an administrative center, usually located in the capital, collects revenue from taxes on agricultural production, trade, and other specialized activities that are owned or controlled by the central government or other designated authorities, such as religious orders. The redistributive model is contrasted with the market economies of maritime port polities such as those in insular Southeast Asia. This binary opposition is, however, overstated, as demonstrated by diversity found in mainland Southeast Asia, where some polities relied both on agriculture and maritime trade. Polanyi’s model does not satisfactorily account for the diversity of the Theravada Buddhist polities of Myanmar and Thailand. Some scholars from Redfield and Singer to Miksic have constructed more elaborate models including the orthogenetic versus heterogenetic spectrum, on the basis of Polanyi’s thought but which attempt to utilize polythetic rather than monothetic concepts and scalar rather than stadial classifications.
Religion and Commerce in Southeast Asia
Barbara Watson Andaya
Southeast Asia includes eleven countries, although this contemporary configuration disguises significant differences, especially in regard to religion and economic status. Theravada Buddhism is dominant in the “mainland” countries of Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos, while Vietnam is influenced by the religious and intellectual traditions of China, including Mahayana Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism. In the “island” areas (Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, and Timor Leste/Timor Lorosae), the dominant faiths are Islam and Christianity (the latter a majority in the Philippines, Timor Leste, and parts of the eastern Indonesian archipelago), with Bali retaining a localized form of Hinduism. There are also marked economic differences. Singapore and Brunei are among the world’s richest countries, with Laos and Timor Leste among the poorest. Despite this diversity, a regional theme concerns the interaction between religious change and commerce. A chronological and comparative approach that moves from early times to the present day shows that ideas about relationships to the cosmos have developed in tandem with expanding commerce. Although this relationship has never been static, the aim of establishing a beneficial interaction with the supranatural world remains a basic human goal. During the 1st millennium ce the rise of new polities, combined with increasing overland and maritime trade, encouraged the adoption and adaption of incoming religions, notably Hinduism and Buddhism. The 13th century marks the beginning of a new phase with the spread of Theravada Buddhism on the mainland and Islam and subsequently Christianity in the island world. The commerce-religion nexus, though still present, is less evident from the mid-19th century to World War II, when all of Southeast Asia except for Thailand was under colonial control. From the late 20th century transnational trade has allied with religious resurgence, generating new and dynamic forms of engaging with nonhuman forces.
Ships and Shipwrecks in the Pre-Modern Indian Ocean
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.
Southeast Asian Trade in a Global Perspective, from Antiquity to the Modern Era
Southeast Asia has been a critical nexus of the economic interactions between the Indian Ocean, China Seas, and the Pacific Ocean littoral. Trade and commerce developed from the early first to late second millennia involving shipping and commercial networks both within Southeast Asia and from further afield. Accompanying these networks were the region’s port cities, which held these networks together, pulling the subregional networks of trade and commerce into one regional economic sphere. The nature of trade and commerce was affected by the different ecological and economic zones of Southeast Asia. This in turn affected the types of products that were traded and the communications links that connected the different subregions to the outside world. In addition, economic interactions with regions further afield and the geopolitical changes that these regions underwent also determined the types of products that flowed into and through Southeast Asia, as well as the way in which commerce was conducted.