Southeast Asian Civilizations' Land & People

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: Islamic Expansion & Influence in India

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:02 Geography
  • 1:11 Chinese Influences
  • 2:10 Indian Influences
  • 3:23 Development of States
  • 4:48 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Speed Speed

Recommended Lessons and Courses for You

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

One of the first crossroads of the world, Southeast Asia may have been originally peopled by groups from China, but much of what would influence its numerous cultures came from India.


Strategically situated across both land and sea routes between the Indic world and the Chinese world, Southeast Asia's geography could not be more ill-suited to act as such a crossroads. From the foothills of the Himalayas in northern Burma to the hilly spine of the Malay Peninsula, so much of the geography of this region seems to work against its destiny as a trading center. And yet, while there was no easy land route through Southeast Asia, the land gave birth to numerous civilizations, in no small part due to a large number of fertile river valleys. Rivers, like the Mekong and the Irrawaddy, allowed for substantial societies to develop, even if the intervening terrain kept any single group from establishing dominance.

However, where the land failed, the sea created the Strait of Meluka, which is still one of the most heavily transited bodies of water in the world. The numerous islands of the region, today the countries of Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, helped to establish a maritime tradition based on trade that heavily shaped the development of these regions throughout history.

Chinese Influences

Anthropologists agree that practically all of the people who would eventually inhabit Southeast Asia came originally from China. This has been established through genetic testing, as well as archaeology and linguistic analysis of Burmese, Vietnamese, and Thai, all distant cousins of modern Chinese. However, with the exception of Vietnam, China had shockingly little influence on the development of institutions within Southeast Asia itself, at least in the early years.

While Chinese influence has been substantial in later years, especially given the large number of Chinese people who moved to Malaysia and Singapore for commercial activities, core Chinese traits, such as Confucianism, Chinese writing, and Chinese political control, failed to ever gain a real foothold in the region. The one exception, Vietnam, was often a protectorate of China because it was the only region of Southeast Asia that the Chinese could politically dominate at any period.

Indian Influences

Instead, almost all of the cultural aspects introduced from outside Southeast Asia came from India. Even today, the region is strongly associated with Buddhism. The faith has a strong majority in every country in mainland Southeast Asia, and a significant minority in the Muslim-dominated islands of Malaysia and Indonesia.

In fact, even those islands received their version of Islam from Indian merchants. Ashoka, the one true great Buddhist political leader in Indian history, made a point of exporting as much of his religion as possible to Southeast Asia. Accordingly, it was considered an indicator of social status to be affiliated with Buddhism. Even today, most men spend time as a Buddhist monk before entering their professions.

Additionally, other cultural aspects tend to point heavily to an Indian influence. Cuisine more strongly resembles food from India than from China, and indigenous writing systems are all heavily influenced by Indian alphabets. This was accomplished through strong trade links to India, which were established because Southeast Asia cultivated many of the spices later introduced to India, and, via India, to the rest of the world.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account