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9.3: East and Southeast Asia's History and Settlement

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    Human settlement in East and Southeast Asia begins in China. Evidence of modern humans can be found in the region dating back to over 80,000 years ago. Around 10,000 years ago, several cultural groups emerged in China during the Neolithic Period, also known as the New Stone Age. This era witnessed key developments in early human technology, such as farming, the domestication of plants and animals, and the use of pottery. Along China’s Yangtze River, humans first domesticated rice around 6500 BCE. Villages, walled cities, and great dynasties, or families of rulers, emerged later.

    While some early humans stayed in East Asia, others followed the coastline and continued on to Southeast Asia likely over 50,000 years ago during the glacial period known as the Ice Age. Global temperatures were much colder and huge sheets of ice covered North America, Europe, and Asia. Since so much water was trapped
    in these huge glaciers, ocean levels were actually much lower than they are today. Indonesia, Malaysia, and the other islands of Southeast Asia were a single landmass known as Sunda (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)). Those cultural groups who had seafaring knowledge populated Australia and the surrounding islands. During the Ice Age, the southern islands of Japan were also connected to the rest of Eurasia, allowing the indigenous groups of Japan to migrate from what is now mainland China.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Map of Southeast Asia 20,000 Years before Present (© Maximilian Dörrbecker, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

    In East Asia, the Chinese dynasties dominated the political landscape for much of the region’s history. They established trade routes, a strong military, and forged connections with Korea and Japan. China became a unified state under the Han dynasty, which ruled from 206 BCE to 220 CE. This long period of stability is viewed as
    a golden age in Chinese history. The dominant ethnic group in China, the Han, takes its name from this ruling family.

    Under the Han Dynasty, Confucianism became the state religion. Confucianism takes its name from the influential Chinese philosopher and teacher Kong Fuzi (551-479 BCE), also known as Confucius in the West. One of the key teachings was the importance of relationships, both within the family and within society as a whole. The religion emphasized human goodness and self-reflection rather than the worship of a divine being. Confucius also stressed education. His teachings have dominated Chinese culture for centuries.

    In general, the Chinese dynasties were largely isolationist. The region has a number of physical barriers that separate it from the rest of Asia, such as the Himalayas, the rugged western highlands, and the Gobi Desert. The most vulnerable location for invasion was its northeastern region. Here, the ruling families built a series of walls, known today as simply the Great Wall of China (Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\)).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Map of the Great Wall of China (© Maximilian Dörrbecker, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.5)

    However, the term “the” Great Wall of China is a misnomer. In fact, there is a series of overlapping walled fortifications constructed by early dynasties in the 5th century BCE that continued through to the 17th century CE. Walls are a defensive military structure and are thus an expression of a civilization that wished to be left alone. Emperors generally disregarded China’s extensive coastline, and where port cities did emerge, they were primarily used for local trade.

    In Southeast Asia, however, trade links with South Asia brought Hinduism and later Buddhism to the region. Port cities emerged, as well as cities that were religious or ceremonial centers. The Hindu rulers of the region were often viewed as divine, but in order to secure the favor of the gods, and the blessings of the Hindu priests, they agreed to build temples. Angkor Wat, in Cambodia, was built in the 12th century as the king’s state temple and capital city (Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\)). It was later transformed into a Buddhist temple, which it remains today. The temple complex is the largest religious structure in the world.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Angkor Wat Temple Complex, Cambodia (© Bjøorn Christian Tøorrissen, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

    Eventually, Islam spread to Southeast Asia, particularly as a result of Sufi missionaries, a mystical branch of Islam. In the present-day islands of Malaysia and Indonesia, local rulers and communities embraced Islamic theology. Today, more Muslims live in Indonesia than in any other country on Earth.

    Buddhism continued to dominate the religious landscape of much of Southeast Asia as well as in Japan. During the Heian period, lasting from the late 8th centuries to the 12th century CE, many of the features of modern Japanese culture emerged, such as its distinctive art and poetry and Buddhist-inspired architecture. A ruling class of warriors, known as a shogunate, would later take control of Japan beginning a feudal period in the country’s history.

    The evolving landscape would be completely transformed by colonization. These sweeping political and economic changes continue to shape the geography of the region today. Beginning in the 16th century, European colonial empires became interested in Southeast Asia. Before long, Europeans established permanent colonies.

    • Spanish would settle the Philippines.
    • The Netherlands established the Dutch East Indies in present-day Indonesia.
    • French created Indochina in mainland Southeast Asia.
    • British would take over Burma, now known as Myanmar, and Malaysia.
    • By the 1800s, only Thailand would remain independent and functioned largely as a buffer state separating the British and French colonial spheres.

    Japan took note of these imperial pursuits. In 1868 CE, the Japanese Emperor Meiji ended the shogunate and began a series of reforms known as the Meiji Restoration. The government sought to increase Japan’s modernization and industrialization, and began a systematic study of the developed world. Why were some countries more powerful and more industrialized than others? Britain, an island nation like Japan, was considered to be the most powerful country in the world. Education was critical, as was industrial technology. Japanese leaders believed that Britain’s colonial ambitions and, its direct control over the resources of other areas, were key to its success.

    By the beginning of World War II, Japan had built up an impressive military and had colonized much of East and Southeast Asia including northeastern China, the Korean peninsula, Taiwan, French Indochina, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia (Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\)). In 1941, Japanese military forces attacked the US base Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Following the attack, the US declared war on Japan and entered World War II.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Map of the Japanese Empire, 1942 (Derivative work from original by Shadowxfox, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

    Following Japan’s loss in World War II, the countries of East and Southeast Asia were able to acquire independence. Some countries, like the Philippines and Burma, achieved independence through a peaceful turnover of control, while others such as Indonesia won independence only after a violent period of opposition. The end of World War II reshaped not only the political map of East and Southeast Asia but development in the region.

    Neolithic Period:

    also known as the New Stone Age, a time of key developments in early human technology, such as farming, the domestication of plants and animals, and the use of pottery

    9.3: East and Southeast Asia's History and Settlement is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.