Southeast Asia is so diverse that some doubt it is a region. Indeed, divided up into eleven nations, the region is home to literally hundreds of peoples whose speech, dress, and demeanor all differ richly. Yet beneath today’s political and ethnic mosaic are great continuities in rice, trade,1 and urban life2 that give this corner of Asia its distinctive character.
Rice is a key to the region. Jane Richardson Hanks (see the following article) captures how deeply Siamese country life once revolved around rice. Other villages might tell other stories, but lifestyles across the region center on rice. How did a single crop become so vital to so many? A full answer would require one to go back to rice’s domestication in South China’s Yangtze basin around 6000 BCE, and then trace how some Asian cultures evolved around rice and others didn’t. Within this epic, our essay looks only at mainland Southeast Asia, and, skipping over rice’s entry and spread, goes back just a dozen centuries or so to show how a wet-rice specialization made the region we now know.