April 1, 2014

On Southeast Asian Settings, Part II

Good morning Gamer-dom! Back from a weekend of kayaking and snorkeling in Samal Island, feeling refreshed and ready to write! In my previous post I talked about building a foundation for Southeast Asian settings, and touched on the land empires of Lowland Southeast Asia. This time, we’re going into Maritime Southeast Asia, a vast little corner of the world, of which I call a beautiful little corner home. This is the setting of my Hari Ragat RPG, but again it’s so vast a milieu I can only capture part of it.

We’re also going to touch on the importance of the Bamboo Network, the interlinked overseas Chinese communities ubiquitous to these isles.

Martime Southeast Asia (in dark green)

Maritime Southeast Asia
Maritime Southeast Asia consists of the Indonesian and Philippine archipelagoes, Borneo, and the Malay Peninsula. It’s characterized of course by islands, some of them quite large – Borneo, Sumatra, Sulawesi and Java are among the world’s largest islands (3rd, 6th, 11th and 13th respectively, and Luzon and Mindanao rank 15th and 19th) – all quite close to each other save for the Philippine group which is farther north and east than the rest. None of the islands however are so far from each other that contact between them is difficult, given appropriate technology.

Bigiw outrigger canoes of the Sama people

The Malayo-Polynesian* peoples’ answer to this environment was the outrigger canoe, a slim, light craft stabilized by single or double pontoons on outriggers. Fitted with sails, this design could go just about anywhere, and so its sailors have taken it from the central islands as far east as Easter Island and west as far as Madagascar. It’s not an unsinkable design, of course; but because it can land almost anywhere, it can run for shelter from a typhoon almost anywhere – an ability deeper-drafted vessels don’t have**. Scaled-up versions became the vessels for exploration, colonization of the islands, and war.

The cultural and historical center of the region is the triangle around the Straits of Malacca, consisting of the Malay Peninsula, Java and Sumatra. This region is doubly blessed, first in the size of its land, and second in being grouped around the vital straits. Outside contact always enriches civilization, and as long as we use the sea as  a highway this will always be one of the world’s great crossroads. Because the islands offered enough area for cultivating rice on a large scale, the peoples here  also had the population and incentive to organize large states. Not surprisingly, the area has a very long history of Indianized kingdoms, some of them like Srivijaya and Madjapahit growing into inter-island empires, while the Chams would sail from Borneo to conquer the southern half of Vietnam and found the kingdom of Champa there.

Another factor driving growth and development here was the fact that this Malaccan Triangle was a geopolitical pressure cooker. The kingdoms of South India and Indochina, even the Caliphates and later the Ottoman sultans, and of course the Chinese Empire, all had immense vested interests here. The Malaccan Triangle ports were the valve through which Southeast Asian, Chinese and Indian/Arab products flowed, and its narrow passage makes a great hunting ground for corsairs and privateers. The powers in the area tried to control raiders, but they also raided each other as they could. The history of Srivijaya is a good example of how the central Maritime Southeast Asian kingdoms developed.


The empire of Srivijaya had its beginnings on the Musi River valley, near Palembang on Sumatra. Maharaja Jayanasa went on a campaign of conquest around 684 AD to unite Sumatra and parts of the Indonesian archipelago under his reign; his successors would subjugate the Indianized kingdoms of Langkasuka***, Pan Pan (Pattani) and Tambralinga on the Malay Peninsula.

Srivijayan Empire

When the Cham kingdom rose to become a major commercial rival, the Srivijayan maharaja Dharmasetu launched a raiding campaign against Indochina, and Srivijaya seems to have controlled the Indochinese coast until the rise of Jayavarman II of the Khmers, around 800 AD. The dynasty later converted to Buddhism, and Maharaja Samaratungga oversaw the construction of Borobudur on Java around 825 AD. (The building of Borobudur could be seen as a Srivijayan attempt to overawe the Hindu dynasties of Java.) Parts of the Philippines may even have been under Srivijayan influence or were its vassals, and the name of the Visayan islands have been linked to Srivijaya.

Borobudur seen from the North-West (from Wikimedia Commons)

Following a pattern that would be seen across Maritime Southeast Asia, Srivijaya was a thalassocracy: it controlled coastal centers, but not the interiors, and its control even of the coastal powers could be quite loose. Srivijaya had a rivalry with some inland Javanese powers, like the Medang Kingdom, and it could not suppress the rise of mainland Indochinese powers that had inland bases, like the Khmers. In 990 AD, the Javanese raja Dharmawangsa invaded Sumatra, and was repelled only in 1006. Interestingly, around the same time the Srivijayan maharajas were wealthy and influential enough to sponsor the building of a Buddhist temple in the city of Nagapattinam, in Tamil Nadu, South India.

As Srivijaya began to lose its grip on its empire, it came into conflict with the Chola Empire of South India. King Rajendra Chola launched several seaborne raids on Srivijayan territories in 1025 AD, even capturing Kedah and holding it for a while. This is the only known instance of an Indian military expedition into Southeast Asia; all previous contact had previously been peaceful and carried out by traders, scholars and the religious, particularly the Buddhists.

The attack still mystifies historians because of this break with the pattern. It may have been that the Cholas wanted to break Srivijayan control of trade through the Malaccan Corridor, but if that was so then it was a rather half-hearted effort – the Cholas stopped just when they were winning. Or it may have been caused by the Khmer king Survyavarman I’s request for help against Tambralinga, then a Srivijayan satellite. It may even have been a simple raid for plunder and glory.

I’ve a personal speculation to add though. The Cholas were a strongly Hindu dynasty, very closely allied to their Brahmins. And it’s interesting that their targets for conquest were the Buddhist kingdoms of Sri Lanka and Srivijaya. Was there an aspect of a Hindu crusade vs. the Buddhists to the invasion? Did the Cholas take the Srivijaya sponsorship of Buddhist temples in South India as a challenge to their prestige? Or was it because Southeast Asia made a ‘softer’ target than the newly-established Muslim kingdoms in North and Central India?

Whatever the motive, Srivijaya was seriously weakened by the Chola raids. It did not fall immediately because of them, but its control particularly over its rival island of Java slipped even further. Eventually Srivijaya was eclipsed by the Java-based empire of Madjapahit in the late 13th century, while its mainland satellites were eventually conquered by the Thais****.

The Mandala System
There was an inherent weakness in the way Southeast Asian states formed, particularly in Maritime Southeast Asia where control is complicated by the sea. Though we speak of Srivijaya and Majapahit as ‘empires,’ they were never centrally organized the same way as Rome or China. Instead, they formed what historians now call Mandalas, after the circular meditation patterns used in Buddhism.


Mandalas are defined not by territories with fixed boundaries, the way modern states are around the world, but instead as networks of vassalages and alliances grouped around centers of power. Any one ruler may effectively be a tributary or vassal to one or more patron powers, but still rule so autonomously it could be hard to tell whether he was part of an empire or not. The central powers did not take over administration in their vassals’ territories.

However well-adapted this system was to the terrain, it had a serious lack of stability. If the center of power weakened, vassals could very quickly transfer their allegiance to other centers of power. This instability was further accentuated by the Malay tradition of direct personal, lifetime fealty; a Malay datu may swear allegiance to a raja, but that oath is seen as directly to the person of that raja, not to his dynasty or state. Compare this to the idea of a baron of England, who ideally swears loyalty to the Kingdom of England through the person of the current monarch. The Malay datu, unlike the English baron, does not view his raja’s heir as automatically entitled to inheriting his allegiance. The political landscape in Maritime Southeast Asia thus has a tendency to keep shifting, unless it can be pinned down with stronger institutions. 

The Khmer Empire is good example of a mandala’s rise and fall: It began as a tributary of Srivijaya, broke away under Jayavarman II, and by the time of Jayavarman VII was dominating the Chams, Thais, Laos, and the coastal Malay kingdoms; but when it declined, it was reduced to paying tribute to both the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya and to the Vietnamese.

Srivijaya’s dominance from the 7th to 13th centuries thus stands out as an even greater accomplishment in view of this system. Their generals and ambassadors must’ve been really good at their jobs! Another key must’ve been an effectively enforced trade monopoly. As long as Srivijaya could dominate the Straits and encourage the Chinese and Indian traders to visit only its central ports, it could control the alliance system by its monopoly on the flow of prestige trade goods like porcelain, and more practical imports like iron.  What makes chinaware politically important? The Malay ceremonial gift economy. Porcelain was the ticket to prestige, a main component of the bride price in royal weddings, a gift used to seal alliances and treaties, and so on.

Eventually Srivijaya lost control of that monopoly to Madjapahit, then lost control of its populace to Islam, and so faded from history.

The Influence of Islam
Islam spread rather late in Maritime Southeast Asia, only starting to become popular in the 12th century when the King of Kedah, Phra Ong Mahawangsa converted and Kedah became the first Muslim sultanate in Southeast Asia. After that Islam still spread quite slowly, but the rate of conversion accelerated in the 16th century, simultaneously with the arrival of the Portuguese and Spanish.

The Grand Mosque of Cotabato City at dusk

This was partly because of the shock of the Portuguese conquest of the Sultanate of Malacca, which dispersed Malaccan princes and datus across the region; for example Sharif Kabungsuwan, founder of the Maguindanao Sultanate in Mindanao, was a Malaccan noble who sailed from Johor to seek his fortunes in the east, where the Portuguese hadn’t penetrated yet. At the same time, sultanates elsewhere on the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian and southern Philippine archipelagoes, like Sulu, were rising in power, and their allies and vassals went on campaigns of conquest that lasted til the 1800s. Islam is now the most wide-spread religion in Maritime Southeast Asia.

I think now that part of the attraction to convert during the early colonial era was that becoming Muslim put one under the protection of the powerful sultans, some of whom successfully resisted Western colonization attempts until the late 19th century. In the Philippines, the Spanish totally crushed local culture, just as they did to the Aztecs, everywhere but in the remotest highlands and in the central territories of the Maguindanao and Sulu sultanates. It’s very interesting to note that the Indianized culture of the old Malay kingdoms is now preserved in the Philippines only in the Muslim regions where they were not plastered over by the Spanish friars. For example the only known Philippine version of the Ramayana – which has versions across all Southeast Asia – is the Maradia Lawana of the Maranaos.

Davao City where I live today was one of those late Muslim conquests, as Datu Bago, a vassal of the Maguindanao Sultanate, settled the Davao River basin and campaigned against the Bagobos and Mandayas, and later resisted Spanish encroachment until he was defeated around 1840. His legacy remains in the form of the Kagans, a people related to the Mandayas who converted to Islam, and the Sama people who colonized Samal Island.

Perhaps another reason why Islam eventually superseded the state-backed Hindu and Buddhist temples was sheer economics. A state temple economy requires huge drafts of resources from its subjects, in the form of taxes in rice and goods, and also in the form of corvee – mandatory labor. Khmer records indicate the lavishness of royal donations to the monastic communities, and eventually such demands would create friction with the populace. The state temples and monasteries were built and maintained by corvee labor – and nobody ever likes a draft. Islam, and interestingly Christianity, offered a way out from these onerous obligations.

A dancer from Cotabato City performs a Maguindanao dance; note the similarities to Balinese, Khmer and Thai dances

Islam in Southeast Asia developed a distinct local flavor, incorporating many elements of the old folk beliefs in nature spirits and ancestor worship, even as rulers preserved memories of the Indianized cultures of yore through literature and dance. Only recently has air travel become cheap enough that more Southeast Asian Muslims have been able to go on Hajj to Mecca, bringing back with them a more Arab, orthodox attitude to Islam. This could shift the old cultures away from their pre-Islamic traditions, which would be a great loss.

The Big Dragon Over There: China
Though China never tried to directly expand into Maritime Southeast Asia save once under the Yuan Dynasty, it has always been the big political foil that could never be ignored. Chinese friendship and patronage was always  a factor in the balance of power; all the Southeast Asian rulers who pretended to greater than mere local importance courted it for its many benefits. For one thing, China had always been one of the biggest markets for Southeast Asian goods, and in turn produced porcelain, a very important item in Maritime Southeast Asia’s ceremonial gift economy.

Newly discovered 'mother ship' balangay from Butuan

Take the kingdom of Butuan in Mindanao for example. The first Chinese records of it indicate it as one of Champa’s sources of trade goods, and its rajahs sent gifts to the Emperor via the Champan envoy to the Song Dynasty capital around 989 AD. Raja Sri Bata Shaja sent an embassy of his own under a certain Likansieh – I wonder whether this is a Sinicized Malay name, or  the Raja deputized a Chinese merchant – and eventually got the Song Emperor to grant Butuan a trade footing on par with Champa. Thenceforth, Butuan would trade directly with China rather than going through Champa. The Butuanon rulers apparently pursued a sort of ‘advertising blitz’ to the Song vs. Champa, sending more embassies to Kaifeng than Champa did between 980 and 1030 AD. New evidence of Butuan’s heavy trade activity has been found in the new ‘mother’ balangay found buried outside the city. Scholars now conjecture this could’ve functioned as a mother ship carrying supplies and cargo, accompanied by smaller balangay for long voyages.

Zheng He reviews his fleet

The Sultanate of Malacca is another good example of how Southeast Asian states used their relationships with China. Malacca came into being as a tiny Malay state near the tip of the Malay Peninsula, at a time when the Thai kingdoms of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya were gobbling up the northern half of the peninsula already. Sultan Iskandar Shah personally headed an embassy to the Ming Emperor, going to Beijing with the great eunuch admiral Zheng He, and gained recognition for Malacca as a protected tributary. The Ming then told the Thais, ‘Hands off Malacca!’ All other Malay kingdoms on the Peninsula were swallowed by the rising Thai empire of Ayutthaya.  After the Portuguese captured Malacca in 1511, they had difficulties treating with the Ming Emperors because of this action against a Ming tributary.

Chinese war junk of the type used in Kublai Khan's Japan and Java invasions

China’s one major military expedition into Maritime Southeast Asia***** occurred under the rule of Kublai Khan in 1293 AD, and led to the foundation of Madjapahit. The target of the Mongol-Chinese invasion force was the Javan kingdom of Singhasari, because its King Kertanagara had dared to brand the Mongol envoy’s face with a hot iron as a gesture of defiance. Before the expedition could sail, however, Kertanagara was murdered and the throne usurped by Jayakatwang. Prince Raden Wijaya, son of the murdered Kertanagara, offered to help the Mongols, then turned against them after Jayakatwang’s defeat. Wijaya drove the Mongol forces from Java with ferocious guerilla warfare, in jungle terrain where the Mongols could not use their cavalry, and so the invasion force retreated. Wijaya then went on to found the Empire of Madjapahit.

The Bamboo Network
China never possessed any part of Maritime Southeast Asia. However, there are immense numbers of Chinese in the Malay Peninsula and the islands, and also across Indochina, who form the Bamboo Network. This is because of the steady seep of immigrants from South China, a seep arising from private ambitions rather than a state initiative. In fact, many of the immigrants originally arrived seeking greater freedom from their government.

The pattern in China has always been for the Northern Chinese to lean on their southern cousins. South China is the commercial and agricultural heart of China, but its imperial dynasties were always from the North. This was specially bad during the Ming Dynasty, when very high taxes, along with strict trade and sailing regulations meant to enforce state monopolies, and piracy plagued the coastal provinces like Fujian. As a result, many left to settle in Southeast Asia. The majority of Chinese in Southeast Asia originated in Fujian, and speak Hokkien (Fukien),  or Teochew as their native tongue, not Mandarin Chinese.

Door of the Cheng Hoon Teng, the oldest Chinese temple in Malacca

Chinese clannishness and acumen became a powerful force in commerce. Tightly-knit but geographically widespread family networks were able to corner many local markets, and families with special skills would bring their crafts to new centers of production. Chinese ceramicists were producing porcelain in Thailand during the early Ming Dynasty, apparently having emigrated around 1371 when Emperor Hongwu banned private overseas trade. Malacca has a huge and influential Chinese community, the originators of Peranakan culture. My own ancestor, a certain Kim Suy from Fujian, came to Manila in the 1700s to make the infamous balut. (Surprise! This most notorious of Filipino foods is Chinese!)

Chinese influence is also particularly heavy in the island of Luzon, which is the closest major Southeast Asian landmass to China; Taiwan is visible from the Batanes Islands on a clear day, and the Chinese mainland is visible from the top of Mount Pulag, tallest mountain of the Cordilleras. Tagalog, the language of the old Kingdom of Maynila, is larded with Chinese loan-words, and uses Fukienese-derived honorifics for senior kin. The kingdoms of Luzon – Manila, Tondo, the legendary Tawalisi of Princess Urduja and Kaboloan in what is now Pangasinan, Zabag and Wak-wak in Pampanga were all listed as trade partners in Chinese annals. In the Visayas, wealthy Chinese intermarried with the Spanish planters of Iloilo and Bacolod, creating a still-powerful group of mestizo landowners.

Chinese migration to Southeast Asia accelerated in the colonial era, partly because of the sharp increase in opportunities as the Western powers developed markets and industries, and because Westerners, specially the British, trusted them more than the locals. The Chinese had never cared who the local masters were, as long as they could live as they wished; while the locals of course resented the colonialists. This bias of the colonials created tension between the Chinese immigrants and locals, who before had always lived together amicably. This tension was specially bad in the British colony of Peninsular Malaya, where it would fuel the Malayan Communist insurgency and the secession of Singapore.

These immigrant Chinese communities have been renewing ties with their kin on the Chinese mainland and Taiwan, specially with Mainland China’s transition to a market economy, so they are now the most powerful force in the economies of Southeast Asia. Even in the smallest towns, the shopkeepers are still very likely to be Chinese, and could have cousins who supply them with goods or capital from Singapore or Hong Kong or the mainland. They rely for a lot of their dealings on the support of local authorities, both official and ‘unofficial’ – a willingness to slide around the law has always been one of the sometimes amusing, sometimes infuriating traits of this community.  The Bamboo Network is a good example of how an immigrant, ethnically distinct minority can dominate part of a setting without directly ruling it.

Whew! I think I just broke the record for the longest post ever on this blog! Next up, Highland Southeast Asia and some Southeast Asian tales that might help inspire adventures!

*The Malayo-Polynesians comprise a diverse family of peoples that had a common origin apparently in Southern China-Taiwan-northern Philippines; from there they spread south, west and east, the easternmost and westernmost branches going so far they lost contact with the homeland and became the modern Polynesians and Malagasy.

**The Sindbad the Sailor stories from the Arabian Nights can be read as romanticized versions of Arab voyages to Southeast Asia, and Sindbad gets shipwrecked in just about every one of the stories. The medieval Arabs considered Southeast Asian waters very dangerous.

***Yes, this is the setting of the Thai film The Queens of Langkasuka. The kingdom would become independent again after Srivijaya’s decline.

****The Queens of Langkasuka was originally titled The Queens of Pattani. The title was changed for political reasons, as the province of Pattani, center of the old Pattani Kingdom, was a center of Muslim Malay separatism.

*****Not counting the expeditions of Zheng He, which were primarily diplomatic in purpose.


  1. Great stuff, can't wait for your next post about the Highlands.

  2. Javanese warriors versus Mongols in the jungle? That needs a movie too.

  3. Agreed Lee! Paging the director of Queens of Langkasuka ...

    And thanks Mike!

  4. This is excellent stuff!

    I think one of my main difficulties with my own SEA setting is that my knowledge is contained to the Philippines. And even then that's only mostly Lozon-Visayas only. A big-picture approach like this is not something that I considered.

  5. Thanks Beej! Philippine history makes more sense to me now that I consider it against the larger picture.

  6. By the way, for all who found this post of interest, I also highly recommend reading the blog of Paul Kekai Manansala, http://sambali.blogspot.com/

  7. Just one critique, the English baron also has personal allegiance. This is actually seen as a weakness in feodalism.
    If you want to see more institutionalised allegiance in the same period, you want the region that's closer to the Eastern Roman Empire, like Byzantium and Bulgaria.

  8. Yup. The point though was despite the English baron swearing personal allegiance, there was the expectation on both sides that he'd transfer that allegiance to his liege's heir. That's the expectation that's absent in the ancient Malay kadatuan system.

  9. Good point about Eastern Europe though. Byzantine and post-Byzantine Eastern Europe are milieus I'd also like to see explored more in FRPGs.

  10. Sources? I would like to read further on this.

  11. There are quite a few histories of Southeast Asia you can read. Look for those specially that touch on the Nusantara theory and the Mandala political systems. I read on these while I was working at a university, but dang if I can remember the exact titles or authors now.


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