Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Asian Civilisations Museum Visit: Some Thoughts - Part 1

While I'm interested to visit ACM (Asian Civilisations Museum), I was waiting for some special exhibits that add extra incentive to pull me out of my procrastination. Jackie Chan's 12 Bronze Heads is one such exhibit, which is on show in ACM until end of May.

The front entrance

The 2 ancient Chinese (one martial and the other civil) official statues of the Ming Court that guard ACM (in addition to the many security guards). Either this lovely official couple or the 4 Heavenly Kings, which would guard 4 corners of the museum.

Martial Official statue, Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore Civil Official statue, Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore

The previous incarnation of ACM housed exhibits that were mainly centred on Chinese civilisation. The ACM today had been expanded and contains exhibits that focus largely on histories and cultures of SE Asia where Singapore is a part of. It also contains exhibits of Chinese, Indian and Muslim cultures as SE Asian cultures are variously shaped by these 3 large influential cultures.

The region where most Muslim live is labelled Middle East, and one often forgets that Muslim are in fact Asian. And the world's largest Muslim country of Indonesia is also in SE Asia (not Middle East).

The 3 major Singapore ethnic groups happen to consist of peoples of these 3 cultures. It follows that Singapore is a microcosm of Asia. It may not be so surprising because of Singapore unique strategic position, which drew the peoples of Southern India and Southern China that I outlined it in this article.

What piqued my interests even more than SE Asian is the Vietnamese ancient artifacts. This is because I grew up in Vietnam during the Vietnam War and fled there not long after the Commies arrived (because my family's Chinese ethnicity. Of course, large percentage of native Vietnamese also fled Vietnam during the late 1970s and 1980s). I was still a teenager then. This meant I never really understood the history of Vietnam. Specifically, I saw nothing but dominant Chinese cultural imprints on Vietnamese culture. I was never aware of the Champa people or culture, which was part of the ancient Vietnam history.

Because of the large geography and lengthy history (big space and long time) of China and India (let's call them Chindia), they exert their cultural influence on their neighbouring countries. A bunch of countries that are known as Indochina because they're sandwiched (or more correctly cornered) between India and China. Needless to say, these countries' cultures would be greatly transformed by these 2 old and large civilisations to various degrees.

I always thought how Indian culture had shaped the cultures of Indochina much more than China. Of course, one should expect that Chindia have different degrees of cultural imprints on Indochina. While China had deep cultural imprints on Korea and Japan in ancient time, it has much less influence in Indochina compared to India.

I could think of 2 distinct, but related factors.

1. Lateral Movement
Jared Diamond
"Jared diamond" by Aude.
Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons
According to Prof. Jared Diamond at UCLA, especially in his Pulitzer Prize book Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), geography alone are responsible for the rise and subsequent spread of civilisations. In particular, civilisation moves side way in lateral ( East-West or West-East) direction (as supposed to vertical North-South) direction.

He suggested it has something to do with similar temperature zones. He pointed out the rise and expansion of Fertile Crescent as an example. He also pointed out why the Pre-Columbian American civilisation didn't reach the same heights as the European or Asian civilisation because their civilisations run in the vertical direction.

I'm over-simplifying of course. But this is the gist. It lends some credence to the reason for the spread of Hindu culture across Indochina much more so than Chinese one. The spread of Chinese culture to Indochina involves the vertical direction, which goes against the grain (literally and figuratively). The spread of ancient Chinese culture to Korea and Japan involves the horizontal direction, which is the more natural order, according to the professor.

Maybe I've given prof. Diamond one more example of his theory. As far as I remember (or not remember), this example was never cited in Guns, Germs, and Steel.

2. Natural Barrier
As I said before, the 2 reasons are distinct, yet related. The Himalayas - the tallest peak in the world - acts as a natural barrier between Indochina and the ancient capitals of China.

In fact, the Silk Road was established in the horizontal direction from China to Europe, but nothing similar was established in the closer neighbour because crossing the Himalayas was a daunting obstacle. The Silk Road never moved from Xian to Indochina or even India.

Yes, the Chinese classic Journey to the West is a metaphorical chronicle of how arduous a trek from China to India. So such journey between China and India wasn't taken lightly.

The same journey between China and India, if taken by sea, would be far easier. But then as I pointed out in Zheng He's Historical Voyages, ancient Chinese was isolationist and hydrophobic.


This leaves Vietnam to be the black sheep in Indochina as far as the Sinicisation was concerned. I.e. Vietnam is singled out to be the country where Chinese cultural imprint is far deeper than the rest of Indochina. This is not only because Vietnam is furthest from India and closest to China. It also has no natural barrier. Its history would eventually moves in that direction.

But this hadn't been always the case. In fact Sinicisation of Vietnam occurred later in their history. During the Champa period, Vietnam was far more similar to Cambodia and the rest of Indochina than China.

Linga and Yoni, Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore Linga and Yoni, Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore
Linga and Yoni, Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore Linga and Yoni, Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore

The Champa Kingdom that occupied most of central part of Vietnam was most similar to the ancient Cambodian, which in turn had deep Indian cultural imprints.

The worship of sexual organs are common among tribal societies, and certainly not limited to Asian cultures. Take the pagan worship of goddess of fertility and sex in period that were later - in terms of anthropological development - than the Cambodian. This worship of goddess of fertility and sex was the next logical evolution from the worship of genital symbols.

This pagan worship was later evolved into Christian Easter celebration (so I was told). The association of the bunny rabbit with Easter also supports this as rabbit is also considered fertile creature with such expression as "multiply like rabbits", not to mention the use of the bunny logo and costumes by Playboy magazine. Anyway, the point wasn't if Easter has pagan origin.

When the North part of Vietnam, which has a far deeper Chinese cultural roots, conquered the Champa kingdom and the rest of Vietnam, the Chinese cultural influence supplanted that of its existing Indian heritage. The rest was, as they say, history.

These exhibits show the ancient culture past of Asia, but in the more recent past, Western civilisation is added to the Singaporean cultural mix, making Singapore not only a cultural microcosm of Asia, but the world. This is really a Singaporean cultural assets.

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