Author: Krzysztof Gawlikowski
Year of publication: 2002
Source: Show
Pages: 9-32
DOI Address:
PDF: ap/5/ap0501.pdf


The author outlines the principal geographical and climatic features of the region and against this background he indicates its cultural characteristics. High differentiation constitutes its main feature. During the last two millennia the local cultures and states have been shaped by all major civilisations: Chinese (Vietnam and some ethnic groups on the mainland), Indian (Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, Champa, island empires), Islamic (Malay Peninsula and the islands), the Western (in its Spanish, French, British, Dutch, Portuguese and American versions). There were present all colonial European powers, and in addition to them the USA and Japan. One may also fi nd there all major world religions. Two countries are in practice Catholic (Philippines and East Timor), whereas in Vietnam Catholic presence is very strong. In both respects, cultural and religious, the native heritage also remains vivid.
One of the particular features of the region is the division into two “worlds”: of the mountains/hills and of the lowlands/valleys/deltas. In the symbolic sphere the fi rst was identifi ed with fi re, whereas the second with water (or with birds and dragons/snakes). The presence of water was also a real phenomenon of a great signifi cance: it determined the style of life, production of food, types of houses and of dress, even customs and mentality. Mountains offered entirely different conditions that determined another style of life. The relations between societies of “water” and of “mountains” were very complex: determined by mutual fears and attraction; they could consider themselves “brothers”, and fi ght one with another. Their separation, notwithstanding various bounds, is remarkable. Hills played an important role in local religious life and in images of political power (the fi gure of the Mountain-King, lingas, stupas, etc.).
Enormous ethnic and linguistic differentiation was related to various types of production practised there side by side. One can fi nd there food gatherers, primitiveshifting and sedentary cultivators (now new industrial and post-industrial sectors have been added). Each of these essential economies determined density of population per square km, types of social organisation, and the level of “openness” of individual cultures and their capacity to absorb alien groups. Thus we fi nd there national or semi-national communities numbering millions, ethnic groups that could be counted by thousands, and other counted by dozens. Particular geographic conditions allowed them to co-exist in separation, although sometimes at a close distance. This resulted in a particular mosaic of languages divided into several major groups, although the borders of the region in this respect, to the north and to the west are unclear. Therefore, on the one hand, we fi nd there enormous differentiation of individual groups and almost extreme isolation of many of them, and on the other – an exceptional range of inter-regional trade and communication by the sea (involving the coast and islands). One could even state that the Southeast Asia was a pioneer of globalisation and of pluralistic societies.

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