E06: Early History of Asia

We should begin by pointing out that in this region there is very little recorded history during the millenium prior to the birth of Christ, to compare with the momentous developments in Greek and Roman cultures. It is safe to conclude that no Eastern civilisation reached the same level of organisation and development to compare with those in the Mediterranean, except in China, which did not rely upon travel by sea for its advancement. In the Indonesian Archipelago, kingdoms existed in Java by the ninth century. An important trading empire was established known as Srivijaya in the seventh and eighth centuries with extensive links to the west (India) and east (China) maintained by mostly Persian and Arab seamen in Arab vessels.

Though there must have been many small states, the only ones of significance that are known about are those linked with coastal Sumatra and inland Java. Along the modern Vietnamese coast was the state of Champa, populated by a people linguistically linked to the Indonesians, whilst to the west was the growing state of Cambodia with its future great centre at Angkor under construction. Throughout the lowland regions of Thailand and the land adjacent to the great rivers of Burma lived a variety of peoples of which we know relatively little. The process of ‘Indianisation’ had begun in the second and third centuries with the spread of Hinduism and Buddhism throughout these lands, but it stopped short of Vietnam, China and the Philippines. Thus, by the ninth century, the two major foci were the inland state at Angkor and the coastal state of Srivijaya. When the Angkor civilisation came to an end in the fifteenth century, the effect on Southeast Asia was profound, but unknown in the West, which had not yet established any kind of presence there [4].

In some ways, the maritime Srivijaya culture paralleled the Phoenicians in that they acted as important intermediaries of trade in a vast range of goods. They linked India with China, but with contacts extending to Persia (Iran), Anatolia (Turkey) and beyond. To achieve this they sailed great distances across large stretches of sea with no navigational aids and no intermediate landfalls to assist them. Like the Phoenicians, they appear to have had no need for lightstructures.

The history of Southeast Asia in the 18th century describes a complex array of kingdoms, principalities, sultanates, with a broad mixture of local ethnic and European cultures. During the period 1750-1800, the Dutch had established themselves on the island of Java and numerous other small parts of the Indonesian islands, the Spanish in the northern and central Philippines, and the Portuguese in Formosa and Macao. The British presence was limited to Malacca, a small part of western Malaya. Before this time, Chinese and Indian influences had arrived in the region more by maritime trade than by conquest or colonization, and Arab influence through overland trade had brought Islamic overtones into the region. Thus by 1800 the spectrum of religious activity taking place was as broad as it could possibly be, with all of the major religions of the world each having a stronghold, and many other minor faiths and belief systems comprising the overall spiritual thinking.