There are certain things that scholars keep saying: Southeast Asia was passively ‘Indianized’ by a single Indian cultural entity, Southeast Asia generally traded with itself, China and India, and India traded with bunches of people all over the place, but these goods are largely thought to have been produced in India.
It is also generally agreed that during the later half of the first millennium AD, state societies began to form in Southeast Asia, beginning earlier on the mainland and then later in the islands (Sumatra, Java, Borneo, Bali).
Now, it is generally agreed in the literature that this state formation is due to contact with state societies in India and that social complexity, much like all other cultural goods, were diffused from India to Southeast Asia through the mainland and then down to the islands.
But what if the kingdoms (and the societies before they became kingdoms) traded not only with India and Sri Lanka, but other powers as well? What if the goods that are found in areas west of India, such as those at African ports, are not necessarily from India, but are goods that were traded to India and were in fact made in Southeast Asia or elsewhere? Or what if Southeast Asia was trading directly with these groups?
If complexity in trade routes increases in these regions over time, as in they expand in both area and goods traded, and this increase is parallel to the rise of state societies, then it could be argued that societal complexity in Southeast Asia is not due to contact with Indian societies per se, but to an increase in the complexity of the trade system that has evolved. We see differences in state formation between Thailand and Indonesia in terms of chronology, but perhaps that is due not to earlier contact with India per se, but to an earlier evolution of a complex trade system. In a really odd way, we could be looking at a variation on Rathje’s theories from the Maya: state societies forming based on trade complexity. Rather than a passive Indianization, it would be a very active transformation on the part of Southeast Asia which involves not only India, but other networks as well. In other words, this picture is probably far more complex than we generally think it is.
One question about Asian trade in the first millennium that keeps bugging me is this: What is going on with China? Why are we concentrating so much on Indian influence in Southeast Asia and not really looking at China? Some of the readings seem to say that it was more difficult to trade with China at this time and that China wasn’t really interested, but that doesn’t really explain the connection to groups in Vietnam.
Can we really look at trade anywhere in Southeast Asia without addressing the relationship to China? And if we’re looking at China and India in terms of their influence on Southeast Asia, then couldn’t we say that both have had large impacts, not necessarily one or the other? For instance, (I am in no way positive of this) but the literature seems say that bronzes were often more closely related to Chinese technology and objects and beads and glass were more Indian. Could it be argued that the varying influences would cause differences in social systems? And what about other groups like the societies in Japan or Korea, etc?