Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Essay on Cambodia

Cambodian People, Society, Culture and Civilization

The Cambodians are “passive,” “shy,” “docile,” and “easy-going” people. They are also slow in changing their way of life and remain rather backward and “primitive.” The words in quotation marks are some of the adjectives used by scholars or “experts” of Cambodian study to describe the characteristic traits of the Khmer (Cambodian) people who have inhabited the western portion of the Indochinese Peninsular.

These perceptual observations, especially, the view of Cambodian society as “unchanged,” are both impressive and striking because the Cambodian ways of life, both in the past and present, seem to be forever intertwined. Without a doubt, if one looked closely at the Cambodian lifestyles as depicted in the carvings on the walls of the monuments at the ancient city of Angkor, and at the lifestyles of ordinary Cambodians who live around the region of Angkor nowadays, one could certainly see the resemblance. The similarity between present-day Cambodians’ way of life and their ancient counterparts is such a timeless attribute that many people (both scholars and casual observers alike) seem to fail to look beyond the surface. As a result, the view of Cambodian society vis-a-vis their way of life as backward and unchanged remains one of the prevailing precepts throughout the ages. After all, time changes; and, as time changes, so do people. Therefore, the Cambodian people, I believe, are no exception to this natural phenomenon.

Though most assessment of the Cambodian characteristic traits rendered by scholars who had or have studied Cambodian culture and civilization appears “valid” to a certain degree, the notion of describing cultural, social, and/or characteristic identity of a people is (and I strongly believe) nothing more than an intellectual stereotyping. Given the fact that, there are more to society, culture, and civilization than meeting the eye, the business of writing about or describing any particular people vis-a-vis their society, culture, and civilization is certainly a daunting task. Perceptional errors and prejudices are inevitably bound to occur. As far as human society, culture, and civilization are concerned, no amount of knowledge could uncover the complete truth. At best, we could perhaps only skim the surface and uncover a small portion of the overall picture while the rest of it remains hidden. In a sense, the study of human society, culture, and civilization is almost like the human genome project. There are so many more hidden facts out there waiting to be discovered.

Evidences of human settlements in mainland Southeast Asia dated back to at least as early as 10,000 BC. Among these early traces of settlements are the Hoabinhian cultures, so named after the village of Hoa Binh located along the Red River Delta in Northern Vietnam where they were first discovered. According to archaeological evidences, the Hoabinhian cultures appeared to spread from Northern Vietnam to Southern Thailand. Though there are no firm indications that the Hoabinhian people were the first and only group of people to settle in mainland Southeast Asia, based on similar artifacts and stone tools found in different caves in the region, it appears that they were, at least, the precursors of Southeast Asian civilizations.
In terms of place(s) of origin, the Hoabinhian cultures seem to be shrouded in mystery. Though some experts believe that they were parts of the larger cultures of China and India, the hypothesis remains inconclusive, for there are so many broken links between pre-historic Southeast Asian cultures and their counterparts in China and India. For example, according to the artifacts found on mainland Southeast Asia, prehistoric Southeast Asian people appeared to have developed a distinct culture independent of influences from either China or India. One of the evidences of this independence is the development of metallurgic technology. According to a bronze spear head found near the village of Ban Chiang, Thailand, prehistoric people of mainland Southeast Asia appeared to have made bronze tools in about 2,000 BC, which was only 800 years or so after the Bronze Age began in Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq). If the trail of archaeological evidences were valid, after it began in Mesopotamia, bronze tool making technology reached China about 800 years later which, in effect, put China and Southeast Asia matching neck and neck into the Bronze Age. Also, given the fact that people did not have instant Internet-speed means of disseminating information then, it is hard to imagine that the Bronze Age moved into China and filtered down into Southeast Asia in such a short period of time. If it took some 800 years for bronze tool making technology to travel from Mesopotamia to China, it would take at least another 300 years for this technology to travel from China to Southeast Asia. Thus, it is very unlikely that pre-historic people of Southeast Asia learned their bronze tool making from China. On the other hand, it is quite possible that both geniuses in China and Southeast Asia developed their bronze tool making at about the same time. Furthermore, based on metal artifacts found at Ban Chiang, it appears that pre-historic people of Southeast Asia might be or were among the first to move into the Iron Age.
(Excerpt from the Cambodian Royal Chronicle)

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