Southeast Asia in World History

By Craig A. Lockard | Go to book overview

Introduction

As the day broke one morning a thousand years ago, the sun’s rays drifted westward across the Pacific. Coming to the offshore islands of Asia, the light shone on the spires of countless Buddhist temples, pagodas, and colossal statues of a serene-faced Buddha dotting the hillsides and cities of Japan, Korea, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Burma. In Central Java, at Borobodur, the world’s largest humanmade monument sat on a hilltop amidst the lush green landscape of rice fields stretching to volcanic mountains. This magnificent temple, which had taken decades and thousands of artists and workers to build, was covered with spectacular carvings of the teachings of the Buddha, an Indian sage who lived many centuries earlier and thousands of miles west of Java. Borobodur and other Buddhist temples were some of the most obvious testimonies to the increasing connections between distant societies that eventually resulted in the links and interdependence, often described by the term “globalization,” in our contemporary world. The Buddhist temples erected in the first millennium CE as well as the Islamic mosques and Christian churches that were built in Southeast Asia in the middle of the second millennium CE accompanied the spread of traders, ideas, technologies, and adventurers. The increasing connections between distant peoples and cultures meant that the world would never again be the same.

Five centuries ago the first European ships arrived in Southeast Asia, and in the following centuries the region became a major participant in the world economy, providing many valuable resources to Europe and North America. Eleven decades ago the United States became involved in Southeast Asia. This initial U.S. commitment led eventually to a long war in Vietnam that spilled over into Cambodia and Laos—a conflict that touched the lives of millions of Southeast Asians and Americans.

Since the early twentieth century, scholars have debated the identity of Southeast Asia and whether it even constitutes a coherent region

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