The Great Empires of Southeast Asia

August 14, 2014

A Thai boy plays the thim instrument

Southeast Asia is becoming a major political and economic player in today’s world and is poised for more dominance in the future. In her class, “The Great Empires of Southeast Asia“, Melanie Urban takes us on a thousand-year journey through the history and culture of Southeast Asia so we can understand the area in context of changing world economies and political alliances that continue impact the West.

WIH Reporter: What is important to know about the class?

Urban: The Pacific Rim now represents the future and Southeast Asia will play a large role in that dynamic. Our government has recognized its importance by announcing, as early as 2011, an increased interest in maintaining and strengthening ties across the Pacific. Further, the art and culture of the region has much to offer, both historically and today. The remnants of great empires are there to be explored and the material culture remains vibrant. Beautiful textiles, magnificent architecture, monumental sculpture – all speak to the continuing traditions and link the past to the present. We will explore those empires and talk about the material culture, examining the artistic heritage as well as the historical context.

I will begin our discussion with the first political states and early empires of the first millennium. After setting the stage for the arrival of the Europeans, I will explore the reasons and consequences of those events, leading into and through the colonial period. I will end the series by talking about the present day.

WIH Reporter: What things would surprise us to know about Southeast Asia?

Urban: There are many surprises in store for those who attend the lecture series. The legacy of past empires continues to amaze those who study them. In addition, and for me, the most interesting exercise has been piecing together the interconnections around the world, and realizing the extent of the role played by the peoples of Southeast Asia.

For instance, two thousand years ago, trading networks extended from Rome to Southeast Asia. Exotic spices, in particular, were shipped and carted from today’s Indonesian archipelago through the Middle East and thence to the Roman Empire. From that time through the 17th century, the spices of the East commanded high prices and encouraged merchants and adventurers to explore and profit from the wide range of goods that could be found there. As one example, sugarcane was first grown in the Indonesian archipelago. In the 18th century the demand for sugar (and later its refined products) led to the global reach of the British Empire.

We will talk about that and many other consequences of international trade, which has been truly international for more than two thousand years.

WIH Reporter: What is the biggest misconception we have about this region and its peoples?

Urban: I can offer the following thoughts. Some might think that the region is too remote and exotic to be of interest. Southeast Asia is certainly far away, but its culture while quite different from ours can be understood in a universal way. Its people have traditions and a unique heritage that are worthwhile subjects for exploration and understanding.

Others might not understand the vital role the region has played and continues to play in the international arena, a subject we will discuss extensively.