Curriculum History

Southeast Asia in World History

Considering how a Southeast Asia-centric World History course would look as an experiment in decolonization.

The massive Borobudur temple built on the island of Java in the 9th century. Wet-rice agriculture + Indian Ocean exchanges = awesome.


I show students the annotated map below at least once in all of my World History classes, usually accompanied with facts about India—greater population than the Western Hemisphere!—or Indonesia—more people than you think!—delivered enthusiastically for emphasis. Occasionally this gets me wondering about how a Southeast Asia-centric World History course would look, both as a thought experiment in decolonization and as a way to consider how my students with Southeast Asian identities might see themselves more often in World History.

Created by Reddit user valeriepieris , cited in Washington Post

What might stand out in such a course? Instead of or in addition to Greek and Latin, students would learn about the significance of Sanskrit and Pali. They might grasp the importance of Buddhist monasteries as cultural and economic anchors of Medieval societies at least as clearly as Christian institutions. The study of the importance of global pepper trading would start, like the peppercorns themselves, with pepper plants, rather than on European tables. The students might even know, as I am just now grasping, that the distance from the pepper exporting ports to the nutmeg producing islands is similar to the width of the continental US. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, in my case, students would not see a teacher who looks like history’s main protagonists.

This comparison with Eurocentric World History is another instance of how granularity, or the level of detail, contributes to which regions get the most class time in World History classrooms. While reading about the decentralized, agrarian societies of early Southeast Asia I noticed that I was not trying to memorize specific terms for Javanese administration, such as watak and wanua (Hall, cited below, 127), but was retaining terms with interregional connections, such as maharaja. Meanwhile, redoubts of the legacy curriculum, such as the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for Social Studies, aggrandize details from the medieval European political economy, for instance by turning the word manor into an -ism. Medieval Europe like Southeast Asia in the same period can be generally described as politically decentralized, organized by personal loyalties among elites, and largely agrarian. No manorialism and no watakism for me.

While I do not plan to center my World History classes on Southeast Asia, a teacher could, especially if they included southern China and stretched the idea to Austronesian societies in Oceania, as Western Civilization curricula do with European settler colonies. World History teachers interested in how South East Asia fits into their courses might appreciate this collaborative episode from two of my favorite podcasts, On Top of the World and Southeast Asian Crossroads.


In order to bring more Southeast Asian history into my classes I need to expand my own knowledge. Thus, Kenneth Hall’s A History of Early Southeast Asia was my first summer read (not necessarily a classic in the genre, but I have to do me, as the kids say). Hall grounds his survey of the political economies of the region up to the early sixteenth century at the intersection of the local and the interregional. This is an important corrective for me. Southeast Asian societies were much more than products of the Indian, Chinese, and Middle Eastern cultures about which I know more. Southeast elites fused cultural elements from outside the region with indigenous understandings to maintain and enhance their positions.

World History teachers should remember that SE Asia, like all regions, was and is its own center. Indigenous traditions and realities incorporated materials and ideas from outside the region, but made them their own. Decolonizing our approach means being accurate about the arrival of outside influences. Wet-rice agriculture produced the surpluses that made Borobudur and Angkor Wat possible, for instance. I will adjust my introduction of these amazing places to emphasize this, along with describing how local elites used Indic cultural elements. Also, Islamic polities were not significant until the 13th century. Our coverage must include them, of course, but should not start with them. Similarly, European imperialism certainly played a role, but that did not include broad territorial control until the 19th century.

Hall’s book is an also an excellent example of historians’ habit of keeping an open mind. He revised his understandings of the region based on further research, especially in archaeology and the translation of epigraphs on monumental architecture.  With more research I wonder about putting together a set of sources for students to examine that includes a texts from a Chinese and Indian travelers and an epigraph from a Southeast Asian temple. Students could experience how historians construct knowledge about the region.

The Way Forward


  • Use Lynda Shaffer’s article “Southernization” (Journal of World History, Vol. 5, No. 1, 1994) early in the Fall to frame the “Great Context” for the modern history of Afro-Eurasia.
  • Emphasize the importance of Indian Ocean exchange networks.
  • Facilitate class discussion of sources from leaders of new states in Africa and Asia after World War Two, including Ho Chi Minh and Sukarno.


  • Introducing and discussing Angkor Wat and Borobudur within the context of wet-rice agricultural productivity. We can work outward from there to exchange networks and Indic religions. Jason Fernandes shared an article on images of women at Angkor Wat that I may use.
  • Discussion of the east Java-based Majapahit Empire, c. 1300 – c. 1500, as an important maritime polity. Majapahit Empire profited from growth in East-West trade through the South China Sea and India Ocean.
  • Read “New Maritime Patterns and Ship Technology”, c. 1000 – c. 1500 from the Hall book (211-217), perhaps in conjunction with “Southernization.”
  • Examples of subaltern women from the European colonial era as mentioned by Eric Jones in the podcast episode above. Jones authored this article on the topic.

Additional resources

From Christopher DeCou, shared on Twitter


  • Southeast Asia Crossroads episode with Lisa Niziolek from Chicago’s field museum discussing the museum’s research into remains from a ship wreck in the Java Sea could be useful for students and teachers. In addition to explaining interregional trade through the Java Sea, Niziolek describes how science and archaeology can contribute to the production of historical knowledge.
  • Head on History episode on Islam in Southeast Asia describes the diffusion of Islam to the region and how people there blended Islam with indigenous traditions.
  • Senyawa, a contemporary Indonesian musical ensemble that “embodies the aural elements of traditional Indonesian music whilst exploring the framework of experimental music practice, pushing the boundaries of both traditions.” Future #ClassroomMusic
  • Ha Noi Duo, another fusion between traditional and modern music, this one Vietnamese. Nguyên Lê, an avant-garde guitarist and Ngô Hong Quang, a young traditional musician, made this album.

Please share comments and suggestions for bringing more of Southeast Asia into World History!

By Eric Beckman

I am a veteran high school history teacher interested in decolonizing history curricula, anti-racist pedagogy, and e-learning.

4 replies on “Southeast Asia in World History”

Yes, you are on to something here regarding SE Asia. It’s only taught from the colonial period onward, and then as one slice among others. In California’s standards, for example, SE Asia is the only major area that isn’t studied from the early Common Era (in spite of 2 million plus ethnic Southeast Asians in the state).

The Java and Angkor idea is interesting, but I wonder if you have thought of broadening your focus to mainland SE Asia vs the island zones. Angkor isolated leaves out the context of its competition and communication with the Champa, and Sukhothai civilizations. Or go back even earlier to the Bagan, Lavo, early Champa, and early Khmer civilizations. My focus would be to begin with these earlier strains or even earlier, beginning with Ban Chiang and make it a 3 act play – Ban Chiang, early Khmer/Lao/Champa, early Thai/Khmer/Champa/Dai Viet — preceding the colonial era.

Let me know what you think!

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