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December 16, 2003

Greater China-why not?

Just read parts of A Brief History of the Human Race by Michael Cook, and it brought up an interesting point which I've often reflected upon, though without any great original insights. Southeat Asia, Indo-China and the Malay archipelago, are about equally distant from the heartlands of Chinese and Indian culture, and rather far from the Middle East. And yet, while Chinese culture has affected Vietnam profoundly, the impact upon the peoples of the region seems to have been much greater from India. In fact, the Chinese influence today would be far diminished if the Overseas communities were subtracted from the equation. The Islam of the Malay peoples was often mediated by Gujarati Indian merchants (along with Arabs and other Muslim peoples), while the Javanese in particular retain Buddhist-Hindu practices such as depictions of the Ramayana in their puppet-shows despite their nominal Muslim profession. Tibet also made a choice for the more Indian form of Buddhism and culture when it pondered which civilization to align itself with. In Myanmar the Burman kings switched from the Mahyana school (dominant in China) to a Therevada form of Buddhism preached by Sri Lankan monks. The Burmans and the Thai, like the Vietnamese, were familiar with the Chinese, as they came from southern China, and were an affinal people racially and to some extent linguistically (this is disputable). But only the Vietnamese were strongly influenced by the Han model in culture and myth, the Thai and Burmese were far more impacted by Indian archetypes (I believe the Thai king as a cakravartin, not a Son of Heaven). All this does not deny the distance of the mass culture from the exoganous influences-I just wanted to highlight the disparate impact of alernative elites modes of thought, because elite modes often percolate down as society modernizes. Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia may become more Indian as a more self-conscious Buddhist thought purges animism and native beliefs, just as Indonesia and Malaysia are becoming more Muslim. Vietnam, the Sincized sibling of the ASEAN group, might gravitate toward a more Indian model if China becomes too overbearing as both become plugged in to the system of international trade and more formalized cross-border traffic.

Yes, I know this is a well known phenomenon, but still worth pondering after all these years....

Posted by razib at 06:34 PM