Cultural influence in southeast Asia comes at first either from India or China. In the 1st century BC Indian traders penetrate Burma. Further east, in Vietnam, Bronze Age culture infiltrates gradually from China at some time before the 3rd century BC.
With these exceptions, the region is still occupied at this time by neolithic communities.
The kingdom of Nam-Viet
A narrow coastal strip of southeast Asia, between the Red River and the Mekong (the extent of modern Vietnam), becomes prosperous when rice begins to be cultivated in the last few centuries BC. It also offers useful harbours for merchant ships to trade round the coast. On both counts it is of interest to a powerful neighbour to the north, the empire of China.
In about 207 BC an imperial delegate to the Red River region, around modern Hanoi, sets himself up as ruler of a kingdom called Nam-Viet. A century later, when the Han dynasty is extending the reach of the Chinese empire, Nam-Viet is annexed. From 111 BC it is listed as a Chinese province.
The Indian influence: from the 1st century AD
The northern part of Vietnam, being a continuation of the coastal strip of southern China, remains for much of its history under the control of its larger neighbour. But the rest of southeast Asia, separated from China by mountain or jungle, or consisting of large offshore islands such as Sumatra and Java, is exposed to a different influence.
Civilization, when it reaches these areas, must come from the sea. And of the two civilized neighbours, to west and east, India proves to have more energetic traders than China.
The map of the world offers no route so promising to a merchant vessel as the coastal journey from India to China. Down through the Straits of Malacca and then up through the South China Sea, there are at all times inhabited coasts not far off to either side. It is no accident that Calcutta is now at one end of the journey, Hong Kong at the other, and Singapore in the middle.
Indian merchants are trading along this route by the 1st century AD, bringing with them the two religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, which profoundly influence this entire region.
Cham, Khmer and Mon: from the 1st century AD
The early centuries of Indian influence see several royal dynasties, some Hindu and some Buddhist, rivalling each other for power and territory in southeast Asia. The Cham establish themselves in a region which becomes known as Champa (approximately south Vietnam); the Khmer are their neighbours to the west, in Cambodia; further again to the west are the Mon, ruling in Thailand and southern Burma.
By the 11th century the Mon have been largely displaced by Burmese in the west, and are under pressure from Thais in the region now known as Thailand. The Burmese and the Thais are tribal groups, pressing southwards from regions to the east of Tibet.
Sumatra and Java: from the 7th century AD
Meanwhile similar Hindu or Buddhist monarchies have been established in the Malay archipelago – in the Malay peninsula itself, and in the islands of Sumatra and Java. From the 9th to the 12th century rulers in these territories build spectacular temple complexes in the service of one or other of the Indian religions.
The great shrine of Borobudur in Java is one of the earliest to survive, dating from about 800. In the tradition of the Buddhist stupa, it is a monument rather than a building. The stupa rises from the centre of a massive stepped-pyramid base, decorated with reliefs depicting the stages of Buddhist enlightenment.