Blogs > Cliopatria > The idea of Southeast Asia

Sep 18, 2007 11:45 am

The idea of Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia as a distinct subject of study is a pretty recent development. Before World War II, it existed largely as a kind of 'Little China' or 'Little India' -- that is to say, an extension of the scope of Sinological (East Asian) or Indological (South Asian) studies. Even today, it's still somewhat subsumed under these putative 'parent' civilizations. Here in Cambridge, for example, the Asian and Middle Eastern Studies Faculty conducts teaching and research of what they designate the 'major civilizations of the Middle East, East Asia and South Asia'. Southeast Asia isn't on this list, and is rather often studied as a kind of repository, or crossroads, of these greater civilizational influences.

Example: religion. The states that comprise Southeast Asia are often classified according to their dominant religious traditions -- Sinic Confucian Southeast Asia (Vietnam), Indic Buddhist Southeast Asia (Burma, Thailand, Cambodia), or Middle Eastern Islamic Southeast Asia (Malaysia, Indonesia) -- and of course, European Christian Southeast Asia (the Philippines). Some of this is genuine religious transfer and ideological exchange; some of this is an institutional feature -- that is to say, there was Indology and Sinology before there was Southeast Asian Studies. The assimilative character of Southeast Asia is clear: despite the ideological and religious exchange between India and China, there is no such thing as Indic China or Sinic India.

In the post-war years, though, Japanese occupation of the region (1942-45) wiped out all the incumbent apparatus of colonial rule, and the ensuing tumult of nationalist struggles, independence and communism sparked a sudden need for scholarly investigation. In America, Cornell and Yale introduced Southeast Asian programs in the 50s and 60s, with Berkeley, Michigan, Ohio, Northern Illinois, Washington and Wisconsin following suit. In the UK, the London School of Oriental and African Studies was formed; St Anthony's College in Oxford gave a special place to graduate study of Asia and Southeast Asia, and specialist departments in Hull, Kent and Sussex sprung up within the decade.

What's interesting (for me, anyway) about all this is that we're seeing and living through, I think, the germination of an idea of 'Southeast Asia' -- one whose young tendrils are snaking slowly backwards into history, shifting the landscape of the past on which our gaze is fixed. We're now writing early histories of Burma, Thailand, Indonesia etc., not as their more natural ethnic, linguistic or cultural entities, but rather as potential nations of the future: nations defined, as Nicholas Tarling puts it, by the 'accidents' of colonial rule. We're writing histories of Southeast Asia when a few hundred years ago (and some say, even under a hundred years ago), Southeast Asia as we understand it today didn't actually exist. The first major histories of the region as a whole, indeed, only appeared in 1954 and 1955 respectively. People in Southeast Asia didn't even sympathize with any overarching 'Southeast Asian' identity until very recently (the advent of the putative 'Asian values' idea is an important milestone in this). In some important respects, then,"Southeast Asia" is really only about half a century old.

Lest we dismiss this as merely a semantic and inconsequential distinction, I want to point out a parallel: 'Europe', as we understand it, is also a relatively modern idea. It replaced 'Christendom' in a complex intellectual process lasting roughly from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century, during which time luminaries like Voltaire, Rousseau and Edmund Burke, waxed lyrical over what this new 'Europe' was and was to become. Through this protracted ferment, a new idea of Europe was hewn roughly from old, familiar soil, and we can see its scope and real consequences today: the European Union and the endless debate about who gets to be in it, the old academic bluster of 'Eurocentrism', the tired thrill of American travellers"doing Europe" -- not to mention just who and what count as European anyway.

I'm not at all suggesting that Southeast Asia is headed towards the grand institutions of a common currency, common regional identity etc. What I am suggesting, though, is that we are starting to see in Southeast Asian historical writing today what was a centuries-long process in Europe in the early modern period: the formation of a concept. The number of journal articles that purport to be 'contesting Southeast Asian pasts' and eking out 'new terrains' in its historiography is truly staggering. It's not surprising to me either that many recent historians of Southeast Asia (though I politely exclude myself) seem to have jumped onto the textual deconstructionist wagon. With so much to disentangle historical truths from -- from modern colonial conceptions of the state right back to ancient epic and court histories and archaeological evidence -- finding meaning amidst these disparate sources seems a pressing matter indeed.

The history of Southeast Asia is literally in the making. And so I think there's a lot that historians in general can learn from peeking in on Southeast Asian historiographical debates now and then -- I think it'll be like watching a tree grow.

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More Comments:

Rachel Leow - 9/19/2007

This sounds right. It's WW2 that really sparked a sustained Western interest in the region, & I'm inclined to think the category of 'Southeast Asia' was something initially extrinsic to the region (e.g. the SEAC), rather than a concept that developed from within, like 'Europe'.

Alan Allport - 9/18/2007


I have read that the first really significant use of 'South East Asia' as a taxonomic concept was the formation of South East Asia Command - SEAC - by the Allies in 1943. Is this true?

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