Manual Southeast Asian Cultures in Perspective

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Politics of Culture in Southeast Asia

The highlands were occupied by tribal groups, who displayed their sense of identity through distinctive styles in clothing, jewelry, and hairstyles. A third feature of mainland Southeast Asia is the long coastline. Despite a strong agrarian base, the communities that developed in these regions were also part of the maritime trading network that linked Southeast Asia to India and to China. The islands of maritime Southeast Asia can range from the very large for instance, Borneo, Sumatra, Java, Luzon to tiny pinpoints on the map Indonesia is said to comprise 17, islands.

Because the interior of these islands were jungle clad and frequently dissected by highlands, land travel was never easy. Southeast Asians found it easier to move by boat between different areas, and it is often said that the land divides and the sea unites. The oceans that connected coasts and neighboring islands created smaller zones where people shared similar languages and were exposed to the same religious and cultural influences. The modern borders created by colonial powers—for instance, between Malaysia and Indonesia—do not reflect logical cultural divisions.

A second feature of maritime Southeast Asia is the seas themselves. Apart from a few deep underwater trenches, the oceans are shallow, which means they are rather warm and not very saline. This is an ideal environment for fish, coral, seaweeds, and other products. Though the seas in some areas are rough, the region as a whole, except for the Philippines, is generally free of hurricanes and typhoons.

Doing Business in Southeast Asia: the Macro Perspective

However, there are many active volcanoes and the island world is very vulnerable to earthquake activity. A distinctive feature of Southeast Asia is its cultural diversity. Of the six thousand languages spoken in the world today, an estimated thousand are found in Southeast Asia. Archeological evidence dates human habitation of Southeast Asia to around a million years ago, but migration into the region also has a long history. In early times tribal groups from southern China moved into the interior areas of the mainland via the long river systems.

Linguistically, the mainland is divided into three important families, the Austro-Asiatic like Cambodian and Vietnamese , Tai like Thai and Lao , and the Tibeto-Burmese including highland languages as well as Burmese. Languages belonging to these families can also be found in northeastern India and southwestern China. Around four thousand years ago people speaking languages belonging to the Austronesian family originating in southern China and Taiwan began to trickle into island Southeast Asia. In the Philippines and the Malay-Indonesian archipelago this migration displaced or absorbed the original inhabitants, who may have been related to groups in Australia and New Guinea.

Almost all the languages spoken in insular Southeast Asia today belong to the Austronesian family. A remarkable feature of Southeast Asia is the different ways people have adapted to local environments. In premodern times many nomadic groups lived permanently in small boats and were known as orang laut, or sea people.

The deep jungles were home to numerous small wandering groups, and interior tribes also included fierce headhunters.

History, Culture, and Region in Southeast Asian Perspectives : O. W. Wolters :

In some of the islands of eastern Indonesia, where there is a long dry season, the fruit of the lontar palm was a staple food; in other areas, it was sago. On the fertile plans of Java and mainland Southeast Asia sedentary communities grew irrigated rice; along the coasts, which were less suitable for agriculture because of mangrove swamps, fishing and trade were the principal occupations.

Due to a number of factors—low populations, the late arrival of the world religions, a lack of urbanization, descent through both male and female lines—women in Southeast Asia are generally seen as more equal to men that in neighboring areas like China and India. Cultural changes began to affect Southeast Asia around two thousand years ago with influences coming from two directions.

Chinese expansion south of the Yangtze River eventually led to the colonization of Vietnam. Chinese control was permanently ended in , but Confucian philosophy had a lasting influence when Vietnam became independent.


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Buddhism and Taoism also reached Vietnam via China. In the rest of mainland Southeast Asia, and in the western areas of the Malay-Indonesian archipelago, expanding trade across the Bay of Bengal meant Indian influences were more pronounced. These influences were most obvious when large sedentary populations were engaged in growing irrigated rice, like northern Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Burma, Java, and Bali.

Rulers and courts in these areas who adopted Hinduism or forms of Buddhism promoted a culture which combined imported ideas with aspects of local society. Differences in the physical environment affected the political structures that developed in Southeast Asia. When people were nomadic or semi-nomadic, it was difficult to construct a permanent governing system with stable bureaucracies and a reliable tax base.

This type of state only developed in areas where there was a settled population, like the large rice-growing plains of the mainland and Java. However, even the most powerful of these states found it difficult to extend their authority into remote highlands and islands. Islamic teachings began to spread in Southeast Asia from around the thirteenth century. New and recent books published in the fields of Literary Studies by Cornell University Press and its imprints.

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