Skip to main content Accessibility help

The Structure of Southeast Asian History: Some Preliminary Observations

  • Harry J. Benda


The purpose of this essay is to suggest some major and pertinent questions regarding the nature, structure and problems of Southeast Asian history, rather than to provide ready-made answers to them. I am well aware that the very positing of such questions may appear premature in view of the youthfullness — not to say the woefully underdeveloped nature — of Southeast Asian historiography, particularly in the United States. Yet in a sense this innocence of youth may be an appropriate excuse for asking whither we are bound in our search; another, more pragmatic rationalization can be found in the undeniable fact that the teaching of ‘Southeast Asian history’, in which we are willy-nilly engaged, demands that such questions be asked, if not authoritatively answered.



Hide All

1. Hall, D. G. E., A History of South-East Asia (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1955).

2. See e.g. Mende, Tibor, Southeast Asia Between Two Worlds (London: The Turnstile Press, 1954).

3. Two recent German works on post-war Southeast Asia include Ceylon, viz. Wolfgang Appel, Sudost-Asien im Brennpunkt der Weltpolitik (Wurzburg: Marienburg-Verlag, n.d.), and Sarkisyanz, Emanuel, Sudostasien seit 1945 (Munich: R. Oldenbourg, 1961).

4. Anthropologists, from von Heine-Geldern to Murdock, often include Taiwan and parts of Southern China in ‘Southeast Asia’, while from the point of view of comparative customary law even Madagascar has some affinities with our region.

5. For an excellent discussion, see Hughes, H. Stuart, ‘The Historian and the Social Scientist’, The American Historical Review LXVI (19601961), pp. 2046. Hughes' emphasis on the significance of anthropology seems particularly appropriate to Southeast Asian history.

6. Les etats hindouises d'Indochine et d'Indonesie (Paris: E. de Boccard, 1948), passim. Coedes does not endow the ‘infrastructure’ with great intrinsic significance, however.

7. The late Professor B. Schrieke's reconstruction of the empire of Majapahit on the basis of Mataramese data, though highly ingenious and suggestive, must therefore be treated with extreme caution. See his Indonesian Sociological Studies, Part Two (The Hague and Bandung: W. van Hoeve, 1957), pp. 97101, 228301 and 308309 for illustrations of his method. Professor Clifford Geertz has warned me against the use of ‘social laboratories’ in the case of Bali and the Philippines.

8. Harrison, Brian, South-east Asia: A Short History (London: Macmillan Co. 1954). ‘Hinduization’ appears too restrictive a term, especially with regard to Buddhism.

9. For a recent treatment, see Phelan, John L., The Hispanization of the Philippines: Spanish Aims and Filipino Responses, 1565–1700 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1959).

10. See e.g. Lingat, Robert, ‘Les regimes matrimoniaux du Sud-Est de l'Asie’, Publications de l'Ecole Francaise d'Extreme Orient, Vol. 34 (1952) and 34–bis (1955). Lingat speaks of a common parentage which united the Burmese and Siamese customary matrimonial law with the primitive (i.e., pre-Chinese) law of Vietnam (Part I, pp. 165–166). On the differences between Southeast Asia and China and India, respectively, see ibid., pp. 75–76, 111–112, 165–166.

11. Cf. Cuisinier, Jeanne, Sumangat: L'ame et son culte en Indochine et en Indonesie (Paris: Gallimard, 1951). See also the systematic study by Textor, Robert B., An Inventory of Non-Buddhist Supernatural Objects in a Central Thai Village (Ph.D. dissertation, Cornell University, 1960).

12. Wittfogel, Karl A., Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957). In several respects, Wittfogel seems to have exaggerated the extent of political control exercised by his ‘oriental despots’. Max Weber's ‘patrimonialism’ often provides a more accurate analysis. See Weber, Max, Wirtsch.aft und Gesellschaft (Tubingen: J. C. B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1947, Part II, esp. pp. 702–705. See also the suggestive article by S. N. Eisenstadt, ‘Internal Contradictions in Bureaucratic Politics’ Comparative Studies in Society and History I (1958–59), pp. 58–75. I gladly acknowledge my indebtedness to Professor W. F. Wertheim, who has discussed these problems with me.

13. This polarization is brilliantly developed by van Leur, J. C., Indonesian Trade and Society: Essays in Asian Social and Economic History (The Hague/Bandung: W. van Hoeve, 1955).

14. Redfield, Robert, Peasant Society and Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956), pp. 70 ff.

15. This polarization may, it seems to me, some day also throw additional light on the relationship between Srivijaya and the Javanese Sailendra dynasty. Could one and the same dynasty successfully and simultaneously rule over both kinds of polity?

16. Cf. Wright, Arthur F., Buddhism in Chinese History (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1959).

17. See Khoi, Le Thanh, Le Viet-Nam: Histoire et Civilisation (Paris: Les Editions de Minuit, 1955), pp. 174 ff.

18. The paucity of historical materials has always made it extremely difficult to ascertain the causes of the disappearance of Buddhism in India, but a powerful Brahmanic reaction to Buddhism may well have been one of the major determinants. Cf. von Glasenapp, Helmuth, Brahma und Buddha: Die Religionen Indiens in ihrer geschichtlichen Entwicklung (Berlin: Duetsche Buch-Gemeinschaft, 1926), pp. 252253. R. C. Mitra, in his more recent The Decline of Buddhism in India (Visva-Bharati Studies No. 20 [Calcutta, 1954]) opposes such an interpretation, largely in terms of doctrine, and stresses the Hindu acceptance of the Buddha as a reincarnation of Visnu (pp. 139 and 159, resp.) I am indebted to Professor Ludo Rocher for drawing my attention to this important book. I believe that the key to the problem does not lie in the study of syncretic beliefs, but in the realization that Brahmans and Buddhist represented socially, economically and politically distinct and potentially hostile interests. Thus the ‘acceptance’ of Buddhism may well have taken place after the decline or destruction — of the Buddhist organizational establishment had become a fact.

19. Max Weber has stressed the urban origin of Buddhism, and its attractions to urban dwellers. See his The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism, translated by Gerth, H. H. and Martindale, D. (Glencoe: The Free Press, 1958), p. 226.

20. Cf. Chesneaux, Jean, Contribution a l'histoire de la nation Vietnamienne (Paris: Editions Sociales, 1955), p. 33.

21. The weaknesses of Wittfogel's analysis of religion in Oriental Despotism have been pointed out in S. N. Eisenstadt's review in The Journal of Asian Studies XVII (1357–58), pp. 435446.

22. Cf. Cadiere, Leopold, Croyances et pratiques religieuses des Annamites, 2nd. ed. (Saigon: Societe d'Etudes Indonchinoises, 1958) Vol. I, pp. 6 and 31, resp. See also Khoi, Le Thanh, op. cit., pp. 281282, and Truyen, Mai Tho, ‘Le Bouddhisme au Viet-Nam’, in Presence du Bouddhisme, ed. by Berval, Rene de (Saigon: France-Asie, 1959), pp. 808809.

23. This is particularly necessary to guard against aprioristic assumptions concerning continuity in the village economy. For an excellent pioneering study, see Geertz, Clifford, The Development of the Javanese Economy: A Socio-Cultural Approach (Cambridge, Mass.: M. I. T., 1956).

24. For an excellent and thorough discussion, see Smail, John R. W., ‘On the Possibilities of an Autonomous History of Modern Southeast Asia’, Journal Southeast Asian History II, 2 (1961), pp. 72102. Unfortunately this article appeared too late to be properly discussed in my present papers. I find myself in overall agreement with Smail's argument. The point raised here, has, however, not received attention in his treatment.

25. Van Lsur's oft-quoted dictum (op. cit., p. 169), ‘a thin, easily flaking glaze on the massive body of indigenous civilization,’ epitomizes this view.

26. Ct. Phelan, , op. cit., Ch. VI.

27. Cf. Devendra, D. T., ‘Buddhism in Ceylon’, in Presence du Bouddhisme, loc. cit., p. 866. See also ‘Introduction du Bouddhisme au Laos’ by Pierre-Bernard Lafont, ibid., p. 892, and Karuna Kusalasaya, ‘Buddhism in Siam’, ibid., p. 910.

28. On this point, see the illuminating essay by Johns, Anthony, ‘Sufism as a Category in Indonesian History and Literature’, Journal Southeast Asian History II, 2 (1961), pp. 1023. Johns' thesis offers a truly significant explanation of the spread of Islam in Southeast Asia.

29. Cf. Coedes, Georges, Pour mieux comprendre Angkor (Paris: libraire d'Amerique et d'Orient, 1947), pp. 6566; Lawrence Palmer Briggs, ‘The Ancient Khmer Empire’, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, N. S. XLI (1951), pp. 253254; Groslier, Bernard and Arthaud, Jacques, The Arts and Civilization of Ankor, tr. by Smith, E. S. (New York: F. Praeger, 1957), p. 196.

30. von Heine-Geldern, Robert, Conceptions of State and Kingship in Southeast Asia (Data Paper No. 18, Cornell University, Southeast Asia Program, 1960), pp. 78. Professor D. G. E. Hall has also drawn attention to the significance of Singhalese Buddhism for periodization. See his articles, ‘Looking at Southeast Asian History’, The Journal of Asian Studies XIX (1959/1960), pp. 247248, and ‘On the Study of Southeast Asian History, Pacific Affairs, XXXIII (1960), p. 272.

31. These ‘innovations’ were, indeed, originally introduced into Buddhism in the third century B.C. by Asoka, King. See Weber, , The Religions of India, op. cit., pp. 237242. But it was apparently only with the spread of Singhalese Buddhism that this, and other, aspects permeated Southeast Asian Buddhism.

32. These structural changes are of far more crucial significance than any alleged geographic differences between an ‘agressive’ Northern Mahayanism and a ‘peaceful’, Southern Hinayanism. For a trenchant critique of this controversy, see Paul Mus' Introduction to Presence du Bouddhisme, loc. cit, pp. 190192.

33. See Schrieke, , op. cit., Part One (The Hague, Bandung: W. van Hoeve, 1955) p. 77.

34. Ibid., Part Two, pp. 4 and 100, resp. In a paper on ‘Reconstruction of Malaysian History’, presented to the First International Conference of Southeast Asian Historians at Singapore (January, 1961), Drs. Syed Hussein Alatas developed a similar critique.

35. On the penetration of Islamic orthodoxy into Java in the early nineteenth century, see Drewes, G. W. J., ‘Indonesia: Mysticism and Activism’, in von-Grunebaum, G. E. (ed.), Unity and Variety in Muslim Civilization (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955), p. 298. Professor J. M. van der Kroef has drawm my attention to the importance of Wahhabism to Indonesian Islam.

36. Cf. van der Kroef, J. M., ‘On the Writing of Indonesian History’, Pacific Affairs, XXXI (1958), pp. 352371.

37. The term was coined by the Indian historian, Pannikkar, K. M., in his Asia and Western Dominance: A Survey of the Vasca da Gama Epoch in Asian History, 1498–1945 (London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1953). His book has often been attacked) for its extreme ‘Europocentrism’. Cr. Hall, D. G. E., East Asian History Today (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 1959).

38. Cf. Glamann, Kristof, Dutch-Asiatic Trade 1620–1740 (Copenhagen: Danish Science Press/The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1958). See also Bastin, John, The Changing Balance of the Early Southeast Asian Pepper Trade (Kuala Lumpur: Department of History, University of Malaya, 1960).

39. The classic study is still Emerson, Rupert's Malaysia: A Study in Direct and Indirect Rule (New York: Macmillan, 1937).

40. The case of Thailand demonstrates the structural importance of continued political independence. While the native officer class was by definition absent in colonial areas, in this non-colonial Southeast Asian country the traditional elite produced its modernizers from among the military. See my essay, ‘Non-Western Intelligentsias as Political Elites’, The Australian Journal of Politics and History, VI (1960), pp. 205218.

41. In Jacoby, Erich H.'s Agrarian Unrest in Southeast Asia (New York: Columbia University Press, 1949) we find a rather uncritical approach to such problems as the connection between urban-centered nationalism and agrarian unrest. See esp. Ch. 8. Jacoby's treatment of these questions is by no means unique; in fact, it is rather typical of recent works on Southeast Asia.

42. I have dealt with these aspects of Indonesian Islam in my The Crescent and the Rising Sun: Indonesian Islam under the Japanese Occupation, 1942–1945 (Bandung/The Hague: W. van Hoeve, 1958), pp. 1100, passim.

Cf also Roff, William R., ‘Kaum Tua-Kaum Muda: Innovation and Reaction in the Malay Community of British Malaya, 1900–1941’, a paper presented at the First International Conference of Southeast Asian Historians in Singapore, January 1961. Published in Papers on Malayan History (Singapore, 1962).

43. See Geertz, Clifford, The Religion of Java (Glencoe: The Free Press, 1960), Chs. 10–14, passim, and Wertheim, W. F., Indonesian Society in Transition: A Study of Social Change, 2nd rev. ed. (The Hague/Bandung: W. van Hoeve 1959), Ch. 8.

44. Cf. Benda, Harry J. and McVey, Ruth T. (eds. and trs.) The Communist Uprisings of 1926–1927 in Indonesia: Key Documents (Ithaca: Cornell University, Southeast Asia Program, Modern Indonesia Project, 1960), Introduction.

45. It is regrettable that in the brillant work on the evolution of Javanese social structure by the Dutch sociologists D. H. Burger this aspect is neglected. Only some of Burger's articles, ‘Structuurveranderingen in de Javaansche Samenleving’, published in several installments of Indonesie during 1949–50, have so far been translated into English. A similar lacuna concerning Islamic elites mars the otherwise highly useful work by Gullick, J. M., Indigenous Political Systems of Western Malaya (London: The Athlone Press, 1958).

46. Professor Hugh Tinker of the University of London elaborated on this theme in the course of his challenging presentation to the First International Conference of Southeast Asian Historians at Singapore in January, 1961.

47. This critique concerns the interpretation of the late John S. Furnivall, whose pioneering work on British and Dutch colonialism has markedly influenced modern writers on Southeast Asia. Thus in Furnivall, 's Colonial Policy and Practice: A Comparative Study of Burma and Netherlands India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948) the thesis is developed that the introduction of English law had bred agrarian unrest. ‘As far back as 1883’, observed Furnivall (p. 296), ‘dacoit bands flourished’. Surely, dacoity had a far longer history in Burma? Mr. Lee S. Bigelow, a graduate student at Yale University, in an as yet unpublished paper has recently shown that Furnivall's claim concerning the steadily increasing crime rate in British Burma is not borne out by the statistical data. Another unpublished paper deserves mention: Brohm, John F., ‘The Problem of Law and Order in Modern Burma: A Reassessment of Views Previously Held’. (1958, 14 pp.).

48. Here, again, we are confronted by the legacy of John Furnivall. Only quite recently have some scholars, notably anthropologists like G. William Skinner and Maurice Freedman, approached the problems of the Plural Society critically. See e.g Maurice Freedman and Willmott, William E., ‘L'Asie du Sud-est et le probleme des Chinois d'outre-mer’, Revue Internationale des Sciences Sociales (1961), pp. 258285.

49. Cf. the excellent study by Piekaar, A. J., Atjeh en de oorlog met Japan (The Hague/Bandung: W. van Hoeve, 1940).

50. Professor Yoichi Itagaki presented an interesting analysis of ‘Some Aspects of the Japanese Policy for Malaya under the occupation, with special Reference to Nationalism’ at the aforementioned Singapore conference. (Published in Papers on Malayan History, Singapore, 1962).

51. The best discussion is still Devillers, Philippe, Histoire du Viet-Nam de 1940 a 1952 (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1952), Part I.

52. See The Crescent and the Rising Sun, op. cit., pp. 103194, and Piekaar, op. cit., passim.

The Structure of Southeast Asian History: Some Preliminary Observations

  • Harry J. Benda


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.