6.3 Southeast Asia


Year(s) Event(s)
c. 1000 BCE Bronze Age Begins
c. 200 BCE Iron Age Begins
111 BCE – 929 CE Chinese Rule Vietnam
1009 – 1400 CE Ly & Tran Dynasties in Vietnam
c. 1301 – 1400 CE Islam Transforms Southeast Asia


Southeast Asia has been effected by a number of significant turning points in world history. The first turning point that changed the direction of Vietnamese history would occur when peoples moved into the area from the north bringing with them their languages and cultures. The second turning point in the history of Southeast Asia is a long, drawn out one when contact occurs between South Asia and Southeast Asia by way of traders and merchants. Indians moved into Southeast Asia establishing trading outposts and bringing with them their culture including their religions, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism (See Module 5).The third turning point was the introduction of Islam to the region by way of Islamic merchants and sailors. Parts of Southeast Asia are predominantly Muslim today. The final turning point, which occurs after the period of our course will be the Chinese diaspora as Chinese immigrants fleeing conflict in their own land, move into Southeast Asia. In many of the countries of Southeast Asia the dominant ethnicity is Chinese.


Bronze Age Begins, c. 1000 BCE


Bronze Wine Vessel

Ritual Wine Vessel, Shang Dynasty, 13th century B.C.E., Brooklyn Museum

Southeast Asia includes Siam (Thailand), Burma (Myanmar), Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, and numerous smaller Pacific islands today. Little is known of this region’s history. The earliest history of the Bronze Age is known only through archeological evidence. It is clear, however, that agriculture began in this period as slash and burn techniques were used to clear fields. Bronze also entered, probably from China, during this period. Bronze arrowheads have been found in excavations.

Iron Age Begins, c. 200 BCE

By the first century BCE, the people were relatively advanced, using arrows dipped in poison to kill large animals such as elephants. Power was held by tribal chiefs who were both military and religious leaders. The declared king was the most powerful chief.

The Vietnamese first appeared in Chinese sources as the Yue, a people of south China. The Yue gradually moved south as the Chinese expanded, eventually developing a society in the Red River Valley. In 206 BCE, when the Qin Dynasty in China collapsed, this directly impacted Vietnam as the Qin general Zhoa Tuo (or Trieu Du in Vietnamese) set up his own kingdom in North Vietnam. Trieu Du ruled by killing all local officials loyal to the Chinese emperor, adopted local culture and customs, and set up a state that extended as far south as modern day Da Nang. This kingdom (called Nam Viet) lasted until it was conquered in 111 BCE by Chinese armies.


“A Chinese Migration.” Prelude to Vietnam. 1984. Accessed May 3, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=1484&loid=197185. 1:06.


Chinese Rule Vietnam, 111 BCE – 929 CE

The earliest records and information we have about the states of Southeast Asia comes from Chinese sources. Han armies brought Chinese culture to Vietnam (and Korea), but most of the cultural borrowing seen was voluntary as the elite and merchants adopted ideas and practices that they liked.

Key Questions

  • What elements of Chinese culture were adopted by the peoples of Southeast Asia? How did they adapt these elements to their own circumstances?

Vietnamese society changed during Chinese rule.  A good example of this is the transition of Vietnamese society from matrilineal to patrilineal.  Women continued to have a higher status in Vietnam than in China, but rule now descended through the father’s side.  Eventually, elements of daily life from soy sauce to chopsticks were adopted.  The educated could communicate in writing as Chinese written language became the language of the elite, even when they could not communicate orally. Buddhism also became a cultural element adopted from the Chinese.

In 111 BCE, when Chinese armies conquered Nam Viet, Chinese administrators moved in and replaced the local elites. The Chinese language was introduced, Chinese political institutions imposed, and Confucianism treated as the official philosophy. Chinese written characters were adopted as a form of the Vietnamese spoken language. The Chinese built a great infrastructure to facilitate communication and control. The local tribes were not happy with Chinese domination and this led to a number of revolts as they sought their independence once again. None of these revolts were successful long term and China retained control over Vietnam until the end of the Tang Dynasty.


“South East Asia, God Kings Rule as Living Manifestations.” Myths and Legends of Lost Civilizations. 2011. Accessed May 3, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=44888&loid=135203. 5:26.


“Me Linh, Hanoi – Vietnam to Legend of the Trung Sisters.” Separation—The Ascent of Woman: A 10,000 Year Story. 2015. Accessed May 3, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=114441&loid=610475. 5:49.


To learn more about the Trung Sisters and their rebellion against the Han, please watch this video:


Trung Sisters Rebellion History of Ancient Vietnam. June 8, 2019. YouTube. https://youtu.be/wh-u5lyJVLg. 8:00.

For a transcript of the video above, click here.

Ly and Tran Dynasty in Vietnam, 1009 – 1400 CE


Stone Carved Dragon from Le Dynasty, Vietnam

Dragon (Le Dynasty, Vietnam)

Vietnamese dynasties were not strong, centralized states such as what were found in China.  Even though the Chinese attempted to retake control through a number of invasions over the centuries, they never did so.  Rather than being ruled directly, Vietnamese leaders were able to maintain control through accommodation, often paying tribute or submitting to the Chinese emperor. The Vietnamese rulers used the term kings in relations with China in order to represent this subordinate status, but called themselves emperors in Vietnam.  The Ly and Tran dynasties were the first of the Vietnamese dynasties to rule with this accommodationist style.

Islamic Transformation of Southeast Asia

Islam spread into Southeast Asia as a result of long distant trade both across land and across the Indian Ocean. We saw some of this in the examination of the Chola Dynasty in India.  Over the period of about a century, the new ideas and technology that came with the traders transformed the culture of the region, producing a unique synthesis of traditions. Today, the majority of the world’s Muslims live in Southeast Asia, rather than Arabia.

Key Question

  • What it is about the culture of Southeast Asia that allows acceptance of Islam and how  was Islam adopted into the religious mix?


Journeys into Islamic Southeast Asia. 2004. Accessed May 3, 2020. https://ccco.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=151823&xtid=36128. 46:55.