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India, China and Indochina

India, China and Indochina

Luis H. Francia, in his History of the Philippines: From Indios Bravos to Filipinos (New York: The Overlook Press, 2010), says in passing:

The long unquestioned assumption has been that China and India were major influences on Southeast Asia, whose smaller states or communities were perceived as beneficiaries of supposedly more sophisticated continental cultures. But the reality was, as it is now, more complex than that. Interactions among different cultural agents were more layered and diverse than is conventionally presented. In fact, according to Solheim, archaeological excavations in Thailand indicate that domestication of plants began as early as 10,000 B.C. The excavations turn up an imprint of a grain of rice carbon dated to about 3,500 B.C., a thousand years before its presence was detected in India or China. According to Solheim, Thai metallurgy began in about 4,000 B.C. and fine quality bronze was already being produced by the third millennium, some 500 years before it was found in India and 1,000 years before China.

Having sent this passage to several friends expert on Southeast Asia, I received a comment from Timothy C. Wong, to whom I replied as follows:

The whole question of influence is problematic. When I stand before a Champa, Angkor or Thai temple, I see no Chinese influence whatsoever. As for Indian influence, in the case, say, of Angkor, we are told that classic Indic treatises on architecture were available; we can see many inscriptions in Sanskrit; Angkor Wat represents the peaks of Mount Meru, visible in Indian temples; the Indic gods are everywhere apparent.

But just as Angkor Wat is not a Chinese temple, so it is not an Indic temple either. Physical evidence is ambiguous. What may appear to be “Indic” is not necessarily so. Let me take the example of Vergil and the question of whether or not he is “Homeric.” Over the past two centuries of scholarship there has emerged quite a different view of Vergil's relation to Homer than what had prevailed during the immediately preceding centuries.

By a careful reading of the Aeneid and a comparison with the Iliad and the Odysssey it has been determined that almost every line of Vergil alludes to Homer, that the books of the Aeneid deliberately alternate between the Odyssean and the Iliadic. Does this make of Vergil a second Homer? Or is he, like a decadent Alexandrian such as Callimachus or Apollonius, producing entirely different work by merely alluding to Homer?

The extreme form of this activity is the sophisticated copy that reproduces every detail of the original but to different effect. Girolamo Vida, a Christian, overwrote the Aeneid, giving to every episode, every line, every word a Christian allegoresis. Japanese painters copy a Chinese painting but by inserting it into a Japanese context imbue it with a different meaning. A Ch’ing literatus such as Wang Yuan-ch’i paints two identical paintings.

(See the very end of the following section of my “Special topics” presentation: “Kant and Chinese Literati Landscape Painting”)

By calling one an imitation of Huang Gung-wang and the other an imitation of Wu Chen he is making a very serious comment, but only a close student of the tradition would understand. Compare Vergil's title for what we call in English the Aeneid. He has called it Aeneis, a Greek-sounding name that is actually an obscure Latin form of the name. So his work, the Aeneid, Vergil is saying, is half Greek and half Roman.

In so doing he has made a precise statement about his epic, one that by analogy we might extend, say, to Angkor Wat, which is half Hindu and half Khmer. By half “Greek” Vergil is also saying “Homeric, classical and Alexandrian.” By “Khmer” we do not quite know what we mean, for we have yet to unravel the various strands that were doubtlessly intertwined in the culture of Angkor. The same applies to Champa and Thai cultures.

In one sense Homer is greater than Vergil; in another sense Vergil is greater than Homer. By analogy, in one sense Hindu culture is greater than Khmer culture (it is certainly antecedent); in another sense Khmer culture is greater than Hindu (older is not necessarily better; if this were the case, the archaic culture that lies behind Homer would be better than Homer). This is part of the problematic of the influences among various cultures.