The economic interaction between Southeast Asia and China is well known and fairly well documented. The basic premise is that China's possession of technological knowledge and capabilities enabled it to produce manufactured products that were often not matched outside of its economy. At the same time, its geographical predisposition and its limited flora and fauna resources caused it to look abroad for primary resources for its material needs. One of the key sources of such materials was Southeast Asia. The region was a major supplier of raw materials and natural products to China from as early as the mid-first millennium, although this role took off strongly only from the late tenth century onwards. A wide range of high and low unit-value products, including select and bulk volume items, were imported by China during the eleventh through the second millennium AD.
In considering the issue of material cultural influences between China and the societies of Southeast Asia, the basic assumptions have hitherto been one of transfer from a more sophisticated culture to a less sophisticated other. The premise is based primarily on technological know-how, artisanal or aesthetic finesses, or iconographic complexities that embody specific representations. The notion that there may have been gaps in the recipient society that were thus filled in the process of transfer, including economic and sometimes social gaps, have been argued to be the structural context within which such material cultural influences have occurred across Asia. The developments in the ceramics traditions of such Southeast Asian societies as Vietnam and Thailand in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and the development of the silk industry of Vietnam, are prime examples of such arguments.
However, if we were to reimagine the flows of material cultural influences, we might gain a different perspective on the flow of the transfer processes. Material cultural construction, for instance, does not begin only at the point of manufacturing, or the value-added stage in which human knowledge application is the key ingredient, but at the stage of raw material availability and acquisition. The raw materials determine the nature of the final product, with the influence, of course, of the means by which the materials are manipulated.