- Pre-European colonial period
- General characteristics
- Diverse traditions in the performing arts
- Characteristics of dance
- Characteristics of drama
- Origins and development of the performing arts
- Diverse national forms and traditions
- General considerations
- Religious-aesthetic traditions
- Thailand and Laos
- Cambodia and Vietnam
- Vietnam kingdom of Champa: c. 2nd–15th century
- General considerations
Southeast Asian arts
Our editors will review what you’ve submitted and determine whether to revise the article.Join Britannica's Publishing Partner Program and our community of experts to gain a global audience for your work!
Southeast Asian arts, the literary, performing, and visual arts of Southeast Asia. Although the cultural development of the area was once dominated by Indian influence, a number of cohesive traits predate the Indian influence. Wet-rice (or padi) agriculture, metallurgy, navigation, ancestor cults, and worship associated with mountains were both indigenous and widespread, and certain art forms not derived from India—for example, batik textiles, gamelan orchestras, and the wayang puppet theatre—remain popular.
The term Southeast Asia refers to the huge peninsula of Indochina and the extensive archipelago of what is sometimes called the East Indies. The region can be subdivided into mainland Southeast Asia and insular Southeast Asia. The political units contained in this region are Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines. The Philippines originally was not included, because Philippine history has not followed the general historical pattern of Southeast Asia, but, because of its geographic position and the close affinities of its cultures with the cultures of Southeast Asia, it is now usually regarded as the eastern fringe of Southeast Asia.
A common geographic and climatic pattern prevails over all of Southeast Asia and has resulted in a particular pattern of settlement and cultural development. Mountain people generally have a different culture than that of the valley dwellers.
The cultural setting of Southeast Asian arts
Southeast Asia has been the crossroads of many peoples who have been contending against each other for centuries. The first to come were the Austronesians (Malayo-Polynesians), sometimes described as Proto-Malays and Deutero-Malays. At one time they occupied the eastern half of mainland Southeast Asia, but later they were pushed toward the south and the islands by the Austroasiatics. At present, peoples of Austronesian origin occupy Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. There were three main Austroasiatic groups, the Mon, the Khmer, and the Viet-Muong. The Mon were at one time dominant, but they lost their ethnic identity in the 18th century and became absorbed by the Burmese and the Tai; only a few thousand Mon are now found living near the Myanmar-Thailand border. The Khmer from the 9th century to the 15th built a great empire, but much of its territory was lost to its neighbours so that only the small kingdom of Cambodia remains today. The Viet-Muong now occupy Vietnam. A Tibeto-Burmese tribe, the Pyu, founded an empire of city-kingdoms in the Irrawaddy Valley in the early centuries of the Common Era, but the Pyu disappeared, and the Burmese, taking the leadership, founded their kingdom of Pagan and have occupied Burma (now Myanmar) up to the present day. In the 13th century the Tai-Shan lost their kingdom of Nanchao in Yunnan, China, and entered the Mae Nam Chao Phraya Valley to found kingdoms that gradually evolved into the kingdoms of Siam (Thailand) and Laos.
In Southeast Asia, winds of change often came as storms. Indian commerce expanded into Southeast Asia in the early centuries of the Common Era and, in spite of its peaceful nature, caused revolutionary changes in the life and culture of the peoples of the region. The Indians would sojourn in the region in small numbers for two or three monsoons only. The success of their commercial venture and the safety of their persons depended entirely on the goodwill of the inhabitants. The Indians brought new ideas and new art traditions. Since these ideas had some affinity with indigenous ideas and art forms, the natives accepted them but were not overwhelmed by an influx of new traditions. The Hindu and Buddhist cultures of the Indians made a tremendous impact and came to form the second layer of culture in Southeast Asia, but the first layer of native ideas and traditions has remained strong to the present day.
Changes often came to Southeast Asia, usually because it possessed a commodity that was in great demand by the rest of the world. The Indians came because they were looking for fresh sources of gold after the Roman imperial source had run dry. In the 15th, 16th, and the 17th centuries, insular Southeast Asia attracted Islamic merchants from India and farther west and later the Portuguese and the Dutch as a rich source of spices. As with the Hindu and Buddhist merchants of the past, the Islamic traders came not as missionaries, though they did spread their religion in the region. The Portuguese came as conquerors and as militant missionaries of their Roman Catholic form of Christianity, and, for those reasons, their cultural traditions were unacceptable to the natives. In the 17th century the Dutch came as conquerors and colonists for whom the attraction was first spices and then coffee, rubber, and petroleum. Since mainland Southeast Asia produced no spices for export, it was less vulnerable to the navies of Portugal and The Netherlands, so the region was not greatly affected by the Muslims, Portuguese, and Dutch. In the 19th century, Britain and France became interested in mainland Southeast Asia as the back door to China and sought to possess it as a colony. By the end of the 19th century, Burma had fallen to Britain, Siam was allowed to retain its independence only with the tacit permission of the two powers, and the rest had fallen to France. When in the mid-20th century the whole of Southeast Asia became free again, European culture and European art forms clearly had made little impact.