The Region

Following Anthony Reid (1988), Southeast Asia will here be taken to refer to the area of Asia lying between the southern regions of China and the northwestern extremities of New Guinea. This region encompasses both the land areas of mainland Asia draining the eastern Himalayas, characterized by large rivers and plains, and the many volcanic islands lying between the Pacific and Indian oceans. A feature of the region is its high temperatures and monsoonal rainfalls, which, prior to recent times, supported an abundant flora and fauna.

Human settlement also flourished in this environment from around 18,000 B.C., when the earliest hunter-gatherers are thought to have existed in the region (Higham 1989). Evidence suggests that village settlements developed from around the third or fourth millennium B.C., and more complex, centralized polities from the first century A.D. (Coedes 1975; Higham 1989). The larger "city-states" of mainland Southeast Asia developed from the sixth and seventh centuries A.D. It is from the time of the development of these complex polities that the earliest written records of Southeast Asian peoples date.

Prior to the nineteenth century, the region was, as a whole, sparsely populated, the inhabitants concentrated mainly in large trading cities and areas of wet rice cultivation (Reid 1988). With the development of "city-states" and an increase in commerce and trade both within the region, and with China, India, and the Middle East, important changes occurred in Southeast Asia. These changes, which affected the size and distribution of Southeast Asian populations, their occupations, living conditions, and diet, were further enhanced by the contact with the West, via both Africa and the Americas, which developed from the sixteenth century. This culminated in the colonization of much of Southeast Asia by European powers, beginning with the establishment of a Portuguese colony at Malacca in 1511.

The development of the region was, however, confined to certain sections of the region and its population. Until very recently, a considerable proportion of the people of Southeast Asia lived much as they had hundreds of years ago. There remain, for example, hunter-gatherer communities in remote areas of Borneo and Northern Thailand. Even for villagers living in rural areas, and the urban poor, many aspects of thought and culture continue to reflect traditional concepts and values. For this reason it is difficult to make a general distinction between "antiquity" on the one hand, and the "premodern" and "modern" periods on the other. For the sake of convenience, however, in this essay "antiquity" will be used to refer to the period prior to the entry of Europeans into the Southeast Asian region. The period following the entry of Europeans into the region, up until the beginning of the present century, will be termed the "premodern era" of Southeast Asian history.

The peoples who inhabited the region in antiquity spoke languages representing a diversity of families, including Austronesian, Austro-Asiatic, and Tai. However, though there were considerable regional variations in their customs and rituals, a good many of the peoples of the region were unified by some basic cultural features. Thus, throughout much of Southeast Asia, transport was (until recent times) mainly by water, dwellings were of wood and bamboo, and rice and fish formed the basis of the diet. Similarly, the custom of betel chewing, and sports such as cockfighting and takraw, played with a rattan ball, were common to many peoples. Trade, and the ease of maritime access within the region, probably facilitated the process of acculturation (Reid 1988).

Beliefs regarding the soul and the spirit world were also widely shared throughout Southeast Asia. It was believed that if the soul, or life-force, contained within the human body were weakened or disturbed in some way, then health could be im paired. The outside world was believed to be populated by spirits that had the potential to inflict harm on humans (Anuman 1962; Endicott 1970; Terwiel 1978). Practices performed in order to strengthen the soul, or to propitiate the spirit world, were thus common to the region as a whole (Reid 1988).

The natural wealth of Southeast Asia, together with its intermediary position between the East and West, has ensured that contact with some of the world's major civilizations has taken place over a long period of time. Early contacts with China and India were later followed by Arabs and then Europeans. Many features of these civilizations - in particular, religion and writing - were to become important in Southeast Asian life. However, at least up to the premodern period, as Reid points out, ties within the region were generally more important than those with peoples beyond it (Reid 1988).

This "distancing" from civilizations outside the region is reflected in the pattern of the adoption of cultural features. There is strong evidence to suggest that aspects of other civilizations were restated in terms of the indigenous cultures concerned (the phenomenon termed "localization" by Owen Wolters in 1982) in many of the areas where such borrowing occurred. It will be argued here that this process of adaptation was also prominent in the classification of, and response to, disease.

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