Southeast Asia can be divided into two main regions. The first being the mainland, comprised of several peninsulas located between India and China. The second main region, island Southeast Asia is composed of approximately 20,000 islands. The two regions are separated by large mountains which act as both isolation agents and invasion barriers. The island portion housed the priceless, strategically inimitable, and yearned for Straits of Mallaca. Whoever commanded the Straits of Mallaca, commanded the most accessed and richest trading routes in Asia.
A vast and extensive trading route existed in the southern seas. The monsoons, or seasonal winds were the paramount influence on trading patterns. They determined with no amenability, the precise time and place ships could travel. During the interim, when merchants waited for the winds to alter direction, they would establish ports to sell their goods. These ports served a dual purpose; primarily they served as markets for new goods, but an inadvertent result of the establishment of these markets was cultural diffusion; the mixing of culture and philosophy amongst different peoples.
Despite the existence of cultural diffusion and the aforementioned interactions of different peoples, inhabitants of Southeast Asia maintained a hermitic culture. The geography of Southeast Asia allowed for many isolated villages, each of which abided by the regnant religious, cultural, and moral practices. These distinct groups held their heritage as sacrosanct, and therefore chose not to adopt or accept new influences. Family structure, and sexual equality were just two of the many concepts that remained individual to settlers of Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, the distinguishable peoples who made Southeast Asia so culturally rich, would be overwhelmed by the arrival of Chinese influences.
Vietnam revolved around the Red River delta, whose excellent and desirable irrigation afforded the opportunity for abundant production of rice-patties. Like elsewhere is Southeast Asia, Vietnamese citizens possessed a culture seen only to its own people. The Chinese controlled Vietnam for 1000 years. In this time, the Vietnamese adopted and integrated the Civil Service system, a bureaucracy, and Buddhist ideals into their society. Many people such as the Trung sisters, wanted to diminish the strength of Chinese influences. People feared that Chinese influences would jeopardize the continuation and integrity of their heritage. Trung Trac and Trung Nhi led a revolt, which drove Chinese forces out of Vietnam. These sisters abolished all Chinese philosophies, which had been incorporated into their society. It was not long until Chinese armies returned to Vietnam. The Trung sisters exhibited both resilience and pugnacity when resisting enemy forces, but ultimately their efforts were futile.
During the age of exploration and expansion, the primary site for conquering was the Americas. Spain acted against the norm, and captured the Philippines. Conquering the archipelago in 1521, it took only 50 years for Spain to establish an infrastructure in the Philippines. Priests and missionaries were exiled to the Philippines for both social and humanitarian reasons. They wanted Christianity and its ideals to further disseminate throughout the globe. The Philippines being the first accessible port, played a pivotal role in Spain’s global trading network. The Philippines had the unique ability to channel all trading traffic between Mexico and China.
European trade with China can be best described as restricted or limited. The Chinese saw no use for foreigners, as they could only offer inferior technology and goods. The number of ports in China was limited to one, and this port was strictly supervised. When the Qing dynasty conquered the decaying Ming dynasty, the policy of isolation and restriction of trade to its bare minimum remained regnant. Europeans made attempts at forging communications with the Qing, but seldom did the Europeans ingratiate themselves with the Chinese. When placed correctly in time, the Qing’s decision to ostracize foreign traders seemed both justified and advantageous. Unfortunately, when looked at in retrospect, this decision was both unforgivable and disastrous.
Similar to China, Korea enforced a policy of strict isolation. In earlier history, Korea welcomed foreigners and had numerous and far-ranging contacts across the globe. While embracing worldwide interaction and trade, Koreans held Confucian philosophy as sacrosanct. Confucianism denigrated merchants, as their economic prosperity was based solely on the labor of others. In Korean society, Merchants and foreigners were equated, resulting in a loathing of foreigners. The weight of Confucian beliefs was heavier than that of the cultural richness and economic growth that would have accompanied trade.
Two other events constructed the base for Korea’s turning towards isolation. In the 1950’s, Japanese forces destroyed Korea, leaving Korea in a state of devastation and disarray. Following this, the Manchu dynasty conquered Korea and while designing its empire, established Korea as a tributary state. Under the status of tributary state, Korea was forced to pay exorbitantly high taxes, and acknowledge Chinese superiority. All obligations that Koreans were required to fulfill were done grudgingly. These events left Korea feeling powerless and vulnerable. In response, Koreans chose isolation as their new, regnant policy. Korea was given the name “The Hermit Kingdom” (hermit meaning a person living in solitude) as a result of their impregnable walls of isolation.
Japan, unlike their neighboring countries of China and Korea, welcomed western traders. European nations arrived at a time of turbulence, when power-greedy Daimyo were at war with themselves. The Japanese spared no time in acquiring western military technology, which facilitated the return of unity and order to the area. European missionaries were allowed entrance with significantly greater ease than had been in China. The number of Japanese that embraced Christianity grew rapidly. The inclusion of European traders and missionaries into Japanese society was immeasurably beneficial in the years following the civil warfare amongst the Daimyo.
As mentioned previously, the initial efforts of foreigners hastened greatly Japan’s recovery time. Despite this boost provided by Europeans, Tokugawa shoguns became increasingly hostile towards foreigners. Recently after Europeans had begun to settle and ingratiate themselves with the communities, Japan discovered that Spain had seized the Philippines. This event precipitated the Japanese’s expulsion of foreigners, as they saw the incoming Europeans as an invading force. Additionally, the Japanese suspected that many people’s allegiance lay with the Pope. By 1636, the Tokugawas had shut the door, banning all foreigners from even approaching Japan.
History has shown that geography’s effects are ubiquitous. It is sometimes culpable, but sometimes praised; it has been given god-like status by some peoples, and yet cursed by others. Geography has no predictable modus operandi, as all its actions revolve around capriciousness. Geography has had incredible influences, far more than humanly acquirable. Geography has brought the downfall of civilizations, yet the triumph of others. Geography, and the fashions in which it has affected people will remain indelible in history.