Sunday, October 14, 2007

Early States in Southeast Asia

In studying early state formation in Southeast Asia, we rely on documentary evidence, exclusively Chinese in origin, along with paleolinguistic and cultural evidence much more than archaeological data.

Indeed, the first solid archaeological evidence of Southeast Asian states starts only around 1,500 years ago, and even here in many cases is very spotty or even absent for historically-documented states. For example, little remains of the city-state of Brunei that impressed Pigafetta, a member of Magellan's expedition, so much only about 500 years ago.

Chinese documentation is both historical and legendary/traditional. The earliest clearly historical works mentioning the southern kingdoms date probably from the Zhou period and describe the Yue kingdoms near the Yangtze. That these states and statelets were fairly organized can by ascertained by their successful resistance to the initial invasions by the Qin emperor. At this time, we also hear of a state much further south -- that of Nam Yue or Giao Chi -- the territory comprising modern northern Vietnam, and to the south of this was Nhat Nam, the predecessor of the Champa kingdom.

At the end of the Qin Dynasty, Nam Yue falls to Chinese forces and texts from the succeeding Han Dynasty give examples of what are stated to be words used by the Yue people. Tsu-lin Mei and Jerry Norman have identified these Yue words as Austro-Asiatic in origin. It is highly likely though that the Yue peoples included Kadai, Hmong-Mien and Tibeto-Burman speakers also.

Vietnamese legendary history tells of the Hung kings who ruled before the Chinese invasions. They probably can be associated with the Dongson culture whose spectacular bronze work was so closely related to that of South China. Also in this area was the Sa-Huynh-Kalanay culture, which produced the highly artistic lingling-o and bicephalous jewelry and eastern Asia's oldest iron working. Both these cultural complexes were found far and wide through much of both mainland and insular Southeast Asia.

When Nan Yue falls to Chinese forces, the histories record that the "princes of the Hundred Yue (Bai Yue)" came to submit to the Chinese officials.

Vietnamese linguist Hoang Thi Chau (Taylor, p. 377) studying terms used for Hung kings such as "headman" (phu-dao), “lady or princess” (mi-nuong), and “gentleman or prince” (quan-lang) suggests that they are shared by both Austro-Asiatic and Austronesian languages in Southeast Asia. He posits these terms entered into the Chinese language from the South. Furthermore he found that the word for “maidservant or slave” (xao) was shared with Thai, "assistant headman" (bo-chinh) with Austronesian Jarai, and "people, subjects" (hon) with Thai and Cham.

Keith Weller Taylor in The Birth of Vietnam mentions the widespread theme of a seafaring/aquatic stranger marrying a local princess that also characterizes Hung Dynasty legends. He states:

Jean Pryzluski ("La Princesse a l'odeur de poisson et Ia Nagi dans bes traditions de b'Asie oriental") pointed out that the idea of sovereignty's issuing from the sea is directly opposed to the continental cultures of the Indo-Aryans and Chinese and attributed it to a prehistoric maritime civilization in Southeast Asia. For more on this, see my “Madagascar and the Ancient Malayo-Polynesian myths. [Taylor, KW “Madagascar and the Ancient Malayo-Polynesian Myths.” In Explorations in Early Southeast Asian History: The Origins of Southeast Asian Statecraft, Michigan Papers on South and Southeast Asia, no II, edited by KR Hall and JK Whitmore, pp. 25—60. Ann Arbor, 1976.]

With reference to Austronesians, we can now turn to that part of the equation as revealed by Chinese texts.

Along with the Yue of the South, in the eastern regions particularly in Shandong, the texts tell of the "barbarian" Yi peoples including the Dongyi (Dong Yi) or "Eastern Yi."

These coastal folk play an important role going back at least to Shang times although the term "Yi" occurs only in latter literature. While no Yi words have been recorded, it may be that the Austronesian strata in Japanese is explained by the existence of Nusantao mariner/merchants along the eastern Chinese coast. These seafarers would have constituted a significant part of the Yi peoples. The early Yi folk likely also consisted of Proto-Korean, Proto-Japanese, Austro-Asiatic and other peoples mixing together with Sino-Tibetan speakers from further West.

The same Nusantao-Yi groups might also point to an existence of an adstrata in Chinese as an alternative explanation to recent theories of a Sino-Austronesian language family.

Sarah Allan has shown that the Oracle Bone Inscriptions, Shang Origin Myth, Mulberry Tree Tradition and historical tradition all state that Jun (Shun) was the ancestor of the Shang rulers. Furthermore the legendary and historical traditions state that Jun comes from Tanggu, the "Hot Water Valley" or "Warm Springs Valley" located near the Fusang Tree. Tanggu is also known in latter sources as Yanggu "Valley of the Sun." In the Oracle Bone Inscriptions, Allan suggests that a belief in the Fusang Tree is found in the characters for "east" and "west."

Latter texts link the origin of the Shang with the Dongyi, so we can suggest that the Dongyi must be connected with the ancestor Jun and the location of Tanggu and the Fusang Tree.

The Han Dynasty text Shanhaijing describes or infers separately that Tanggu is located either southwest, south or southeast of Wa, the ancient name for Japan. The Fusang Tree is also said to be beyond the Southeastern Sea.

These suggestions actually agree quite well with what archaeologist Chang Kwang-chih has called the Lungshanoid Interaction Sphere and with what others call the Southern Interaction Sphere. That is, a region of closely-linked cultural complexes with established relationships that span for thousands of years.

These cultures include the Lungshanoid, an archaeological culture that can be considered "Proto-Shang," and the Yuanshan, a complex sometimes called "Proto-Lungshanoid" in Taiwan. In the Philippines, the red-slipped wares and lime-impressed wares are closely linked with the Yuanshan of Taiwan. The oldest red-slipped and lime-impressed wares go back to 5340 BCE at Balobok Rockshelter in the southern Philippines. Red-slipped ware is characterized by geometric decorations consisting of dentate patterns, triangles (often hachured and with circles or semi-circles at apex) and impresses circles sometimes filled with lime.

Neolithic Southeast Asian pottery designs showing dentate pattern, circles, triangles often topped with circles/semi-circles. The dentate pattern is called tumpal in modern Indonesia and is thought to represent mountains, crocodile teeth, etc. From top to bottom, left to right, Kamassi, Sulawesi, Indonesia; Minanga Sipakko, Sulawesi; Batungan, Masbate, Philippines; next two from Kamassi, Sulawesi; Galumpang, Sulawesi; next three designs from sherds found north of Hong Kong; next two from Saipan; the bordered images at the bottom come from sherds associated with the Son Culture around Hong Kong. Images from Miksic, John N. Earthenware in Southeast Asia: Proceedings of the Singapore Symposium, National University of Singapore Press, 2003.

As with the Dongson culture and the Hung kings of Vietnam, there is little strong archaeological evidence of what might be called a "state" that has been uncovered in either Taiwan or the Philippines at this period. That of course does not mean that such polities did not exist as demonstrated previously.

There is abundant evidence though of widespread trade in this area and in the region as a whole. The Nusantao trade network was in full force at this time and Wilhelm Solheim considers it already at least a few thousand years old in East China at the beginning of the dynasty.

The Shang themselves were so heavily involved in trade and commerce that the word "shang" came to be used to denote "merchant, trader" in the Chinese language. And Shang trade largely involved the southern interaction spheres. A number of Shang kings and officials seem even to have originated or visited Tanggu. These include the legendary king Wang Hai and the founder of the historical dynasty Tang who may have been born at Tanggu, and whose minister Yi Yin is said to come from the Hollow Mulberry, a location very near Tanggu.

Legendary rulers like Jun are called "ti" or "di," which meant "emperor" in the earliest times but later becomes the word for "god." Possibly there is a connection with Cecilio Lopez''s Proto-Austronesian or Ur-Austronesian reconstruction *qa(n)dih "monarch, ruler." I have suggested previously that "ari," a reflex of *qa(n)dih was probably represented as "li," a title of emissaries from Sanfotsi, a kingdom directly south of Quanzhou.

Researchers such as Bentley, Geertz and Tambiah have noted that Southeast Asian states tended to fit into the model of "theater states" or "galactic polities." The Shang Dynasty also fits quite well into this model.

In this scheme, the ruler's source of authority is ritual, tradition and mythos, where in other systems these are used instead to legitimize the ruler's power. The state controls very little of the internal economic system particularly with reference to agriculture, although we know that the Shang regulated bronze production in their domain. The theater state ruler did exercise authority over external trade and was responsible for a great deal of the distribution of highly-valued foreign goods helping to solidify goodwill toward the state.

Authority was considered rather divine but not necessarily hereditary. According to Chinese tradition, the pre-dynastic kings did not follow hereditary succession although they were aware of it. It was not until the Xia Dynasty that royal lineage takes over, but even here it is not absolute. Unlike medieval Europe, new dynasties could arise in China from people belonging to any class and not only from the nobility or royal descendants.

In Southeast Asia, there appeared to be separate divisions of hereditary rulers often linked with gods or first ancestors and having a combined priestly-ritual function, and a merit-based class of leaders who often performed most or all of the executive functions.

Early researchers proposed that with the coming of Indic influence, the Southeast Asian states lost their own character citing the marked influence of art and writing. However, more in-depth studies demonstrate that the Southeast Asian polity combined aspects of Indian and Chinese statecraft unto a mostly indigenous base.

For example, if we look at Pacific island polities and socio-political organization among cultures untouched by either Chinese or Indian statecraft, we find something very similar to what underlies the functioning of the Southeast Asian state only a larger scale. The Divine King of the Devaraja cult, for example, despite the Sanskrit nomenclature finds its closest counterpart with the Divine Chief and Divine Headman of the Pacific.

The words used for the nobility, trade and related subjects most often can be reconstructed from regional language groupings showing their age and origin.

In areas of economics and monetary policy, Southeast Asia was more largely influenced by China. Stringed cash of Chinese origin, probably having a broader Asian Pacific origin in shell money, became very popular during medieval times. Trade with China came second only to interregional Southeast Asian trade.

Indian influence was strongest in the arts and religion. However, quite clearly many of the state rituals were of pre-Indic influence including the widespread royal water buffalo sacrifice, something which may in fact have entered or re-entered Indian royal practice from Southeast Asia.

Entities within the state were organized in clusters that often could be far-flung from one another with non-aligned or enemy areas in-between. However, they all revolved around a cosmic center connected again with ritual and myth.

Both the center of the galactic polity and its ruler represented the cosmos in microcosm.

These ideas can be traced, I believe, to the Dog Tumulus Country, another name for Tanggu and Penglai. The Dog Tumulus or Dog Altar refers to the altar of Jun mentioned in the Shanhaijing near the Fusang Tree. It can be identified with Hundun, the dog-shaped "Emperor of the Center."

Here the dog stands both for the center and the ruler, both resonating aspects of the regenerating cosmos signified by the motifs of altar and sacrifice.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Bentley, G. Carter. "Indigenous States of Southeast Asia", Annual Review of Anthropology 15 (1986):275-305.

Geertz, Clifford. Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali.,Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1980.

Lopez, Cecilio. A Comparative Philippine Word-list: Sequels I & II, University of the Philippines, 1976.

Mei, Tsu-lin and Jerry Norman. “The Austroasiatics in Ancient South China: Some Lexical Evidence." Monumenta Serica 32 (1976): 274-301.

Tambiah, Stanley J. The Galactic Polity: The Structure of Traditional Kingdoms in Southeast Asia. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 293: 69—97.

Taylor, Keith W. The Birth of Vietnam, Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1983.