The Middle Ages in European history was the millennium between 500 AD and 1500 AD, beginning with the fall of the Roman Empire and ending with the reformation, renaissance and maritime empires. But what about Asian history? Does it make sense to speak of the Middle Ages globally? - Yes and no.
Yes, the European expansion effected all parts of the world and definitely marks the beginning of a new area in Asia and the Americas, too. But there is an important exception from the rule. The 16th century is not a most significant threshold in Chinese history. The 14th and 17th century saw much more significant changes in China. However, Japan was heavily inflenced by the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century. It resulted in isolation, but this important decision is nevertheless an answer to the European aggression. In India, the islamic Moghul Empire marks an end of thriving regional powers at the very beginning of the 16th century. Southeast-Asia and Sri Lanka were came into immediate contact with the Western naval powers and doubtlessly were heavily influenced by this beginning of the European modern era.
And what about the beginning of the Middle Ages? Again, the 6th century is not a prominent epochal change in China. In Japan, Shotoku Taishi’s “17 articles” were written down in 604 and the 6th and 7th century saw the influx of Chinese cultural elements. There are no dramatic changes shaping many centuries in Southeast-Asia. The Indianization, the most important cultural change in the first millennium, had already begun in the first or second century AD. However, the term “Middle Ages” makes sense concerning India. The 6th century saw the decline of an imperial pan-Indian structure of administration and its replacement by regional powers heavily depending on military support of subordinated principalities, which were not directly controlled and had their own sources of taxes. This is strikingly similar to the structural changes that shaped medieval Europe during exactly the same period. And one of the root causes is the same two, namely migration of Central Asian peoples.
And Sri Lanka? Did Sri Lanka see the dawn of a new era in the 6th century, too? The Moriya dynasty reigned from 463 till 691 and dynastic changes did not effect the regionally organized culture of the island dramatically. However, with a delay of two centuries, the Indian history of the early Middle Ages heavily influenced Sri Lanka’s fate. The flourishing of India’s regional powers had an important side-effect: Southern India became much more powerful than previously, when all pan-Indian empires had been of northern Indian origin. The 6th century saw the emergence of the Pallava empire. This effected Sri Lankan history very much, indeed. Relations with the Pallavas were friendly most of the time, because of a common enemy, the Pandyas, closer neighbours of Sri Lanka. But there is a third Tamil empire effecting Sri Lankan history in the longer run, namely the Cholas, a very traditional regional power at the Kavery river, which became increasingly powerful and finally overcame its northern and southern neighbours, namely the Palolavas and Pandyas respectively. Right from the beginning, Sri Lanka was part of these inner-Tamil power struggles in southern India. And the new powerful Tamil kingdoms influenced Sri Lankan politics more than ever. Indeed, the Sri Lankan kingdom was very weak during the last centuries four centuries of the Anuradhapura period (7th to 10th century). And this indirectly inspired cultural developments on a decentrailized level. All in all, the history of the second half of the first millennium differs significantly from the first half.
So, it is not complete nonsense to use the term “Middle Ages” when talking about Asian history in general or Sri Lankan history in particular.
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