All the major Asian civilisations were present in the South China Sea at the end of the 10th century: the Cirebon shipwreck occurred in a very lively political, economic and cultural scene, in an open, dynamic world.
China – whence the majority of the cargo of ceramics originates – experienced a period of deep division after the fall of the Tang dynasty in 907. "Five Dynasties" followed one another in rapid succession in Kaïfeng (Henan) between 907 and 960. In the south of the country, the "Ten Kingdoms" which shared power corresponded roughly to the natural regions and the limits of the present provinces. The Song dynasty established its capital at Kaifeng (Henan) in 960 and struggled for two decades to take control of the small southern kingdoms. In 971 its armies marched into Guangzhou (Canton), thus ending the reign of the South Han dynasty established in 905. In 978, the Song also annexed the Wuyue kingdom (Zhejiang), where the main green stoneware kilns were situated. In the north of the country, the situation was evolving in a very different direction: in 907 a dynasty of Qidan origin was established in Rehe (Liaoning). It conquered Beijing (Hebei) in 947 and ruled North China under the name Liao. When the Jurchen swept the Liao aside in 1125 and began their Jin dynasty, they also ousted the Song from their capital Kaifeng and forced them to flee south, where they established a new capital in Hangzhou (Zhejiang) in 1127. In this turbulent century, Chinese political influence over the outermost regions of the empire decreased inexorably. The northern part of Vietnam, under Chinese domination since the start of the Christian era, became independent in 938. Thanks to its strongly sinicized elite, a separate country formed under the reign of the Ly dynasty (1009 – 1225) who settled in Hanoi in 1010.
In the southern half of present-day Vietnam, and in Continental and Insular South-East Asia, the Indian cultural influence was clearly predominant due to old trading exchanges dating back to the start of the Christian era. Agrarian states based on rice cultivation on flooded plains grew up, clashed and succeeded one another, while coastal states with poor agricultural resources turned to international trading and even piracy. The tenth century saw the apogee of the Champa, settled in the narrow strip of land that snakes along the coast of Vietnam constituted of several different regions that were predominant in turn and the epigraphy of which preserved the sanskrit names. Archaeological research in these latter decades has revealed the quality of their Buddhist and Sivaite religious monuments built in brick. The Champa came into conflict with the Khmer empire, settled in the Angkor region since 802, whose leaders controlled the aquatic resources, guaranteeing the success of the rice-growing, and were great builders of Hindu and Buddhist temples.
In the tenth century Malaysia was booming, its geographical position naturally conferring a major role in maritime trading. The Malay peninsula, the region which is now Central and Peninsular Thailand, was then under the influence of Srivijaya, a country of which few archaeological traces remain but whose economic power and wealth were recognized even in China. Its City-State capital was established at Palembang in the south of Sumatra.
From the 7th century, Palembang emerged as a major centre for Buddhist studies. In 671 the Chinese pilgrim Yijing (635 – 713) spent time there studying Sanskrit before travelling by sea to the Buddhist Nalanda University in Bengal. He settled in Palembang on his return from India to set about his translations of the sacred scripts.
In the 8th century Hinduism was still favoured by the courts of Central Java, including the Sanjaya court. Candi Borobodur, one of the most famous places of worship and pilgrimage in Buddhism, was initially designed as a Shivaite temple mountain before the new Sailendra dynasty, which had Buddhist leanings, transformed it into a proper mandala (meditation diagram) through works on a gigantic scale undertaken over several decades. The influence of the Vajrayana (‘Diamond Vehicle’), the ultimate form of Buddhism which was well developed in the north of India in the 7th century, became more apparent in the architecture and decoration of the monument from the second quarter of the 9th century. This was also the period in which Vajrayana texts and ritual objects proliferated in Indonesia. The success of this esoteric and strongly ritualised form of Buddhism can probably be accounted for by its elitist nature, which accorded well with the social hierarchisation imposed by the Indianised courts. People began worshipping the five ‘Victorious Ones’ (Jina) or Dhyanibuddha (‘Meditation Buddha’), and the Trikaya doctrine (‘Three bodies’) was expressed in complex mandala.
In 1011, the great Indian monk Atisha (982 – 1054) came to Srivijaya with his disciples before travelling on to India and Tibet. Until around the 13th century, the Vajrayana influence was apparent in the region: among the many remains of Buddhist monuments dotted around the Padang Lawas site in Sumatra there is a representation of Heruka, the fierce Vajrayana divinity, dancing on a corpse.
The political situation changed from the end of the 10th century and the centre of Javanese power moved towards the east of the island. In 990 Palembang came under attack by the armies of Dharmavamsa, a king in the East of Java, and was only regained in 993, but Srivijaya was in irreversible decline by the 11th century.