Historiography of Southeast Asia Research Paper

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Embracing the southeastern peninsula of Eurasia and the Indonesian and Philippine archipelagoes, Southeast Asia has recorded its history in a dozen written languages and countless oral traditions. Indic models of writing were influential in the millennium before 1200 CE, and Chinese and Islamic ones in the subsequent six centuries, while European enlightenment interpretations of history became increasingly dominant in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Diversity has always been a hallmark of this region. The Vietnamese emulated the Chinese literary tradition with their dynastic chronicles; cyclical Indic ideas had a longer career in the Theravada Buddhist societies of the mainland, while linear Muslim and Christian ideas became influential in the islands. Nevertheless, synchronicities are apparent in the developments within seemingly autonomous literary and historiographic traditions.

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Oral poetry and traditions were important for most peoples, but particularly for those in the highlands and eastern islands (including the Philippines) which did not absorb Indic or Chinese literary forms. As late as the 1960s, at least one people in Roti (near Timor) retained oral historical narratives which accurately recorded the names of chiefs for three or four centuries. Most of the written chronicles which took shape in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries incorporated older traditions with the repetitive features of oral narrative.

1. Chronicle Traditions

The dynastic chronicles of Vietnam were expressed in Chinese and followed the model of didactic Chinese chronicles heavily informed by the moral perspective of Tang and Sung Confucianism. Some such work survives from the fourteenth century, but the most important is the strictly Confucian chronicle composed by Ngo Si Lien in 1479. This in turn incorporates the Dai Viet suvky of Le Van Huu (1272), which included a historical justification for the independent imperial status of Dai Viet—then occupying little more than the Red River delta.

The remaining written traditions grew out of Indic models in Sanskrit and Pali, or in the Malay case from Islamic writing in Arabic and Persian. Sacred histories, in Mon (the then language of what is today southern Burma), Burmese, and Khmer, as well as in Pali, traced the establishment of Buddhist law and practice from the time of the Buddha to the founding of local temples in Southeast Asia. Among the earliest examples are the northern Thai Mulasasana (around 1420) and the Pali Jinakalamalipakaranam (1516), both written by monks in Chiang Mai.

Royal and dynastic chronicles are almost as old. The Pararaton, a unique chronicle in old Javanese of the Javanese kingdoms of Singosari and Majapahit down to 1481, was written after the fall of Majapahit to Muslim forces around 1527. The earliest extant yazawin (royal genealogy or chronicle) in Burmese was written by the monk Shin Thiawuntha in 1520. Dynastic chronicles ( phongsawadan) were being compiled in Thai from at least the sixteenth century, although the Luang Prasoet text conventionally dated 1680 is the oldest of the extant versions which have come down to posterity. Written by an astrologer at the cosmopolitan court of King Narai (1657–1688), this chronicle marks a trend to more secular dynastic history well aware of Siam’s position among its neighbors as well as European, Indian, and Chinese visitors.

The advent of Islam created more discontinuities in the south than Theravada Buddhism did in the north. As Southeast Asian Islam shifted from an Arabic to an indigenous idiom in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Malay language written in Arabic script became its favored vehicle. Only in Java and South Sulawesi, and of course in non-Muslim Bali, did the older literary idiom and alphabet continue alongside the Arabic/Malay one. Probably the oldest extant Malay chronicle is that of the Kings of Pasai, in north Sumatra, the first substantial Islamic state in Southeast Asia, from the 1290s. This text, Hikayat Raja-raja Pasai, is known in only one copy, made in 1814 from an older version held in Demak, the fifteenth-century capital of Muslim Java. Since it ends with the story of the fourteenth-century conquest of Pasai by HinduBuddhist Majapahit (Java), and the bringing of many Pasai Muslims as captives to Java, its kernel may have originated with this group of Malay-speaking Muslim exiles. It represents a collection of semi-mythical stories about the Pasai kings, much more reflective of local oral traditions than of mainstream Islamic historiography.

Several Malay texts celebrating other royal lineages, first written down in the sixteenth or the early seventeenth century, take this story-telling mode to a high art form extremely illuminating for the historian, though usually devoid of chronology. The Hikayat Banjar, for example, tells the story of the establishment of the leading Islamic state in southern Borneo through a conservative ethic extolling the virtues of a Javanese cultural model. Much the best-known text of this genre is the ‘Genealogy of (Melaka) Kings’ (Sulalat’us-Salatin), a version of which Thomas Raffles printed and popularized in 1821 under the name ‘The Malay Annals’ (Sejarah Melayu), in a conscious attempt to provide a national history for Malays. It weaves through a host of lively anecdotes its political message that the great metropolis of Melaka fell to the Portuguese in 1511 because the fundamental contract between ruler and ruled was violated by the last Melaka ruler. Originating in some form a generation after this Malay disaster, the text appears to have been essentially created in the early seventeenth century by the Johor writer Tun Seri Lanang, though subsequently much modified. Not much later in time, but a great deal more Islamic in spirit, was the encyclopedic ‘Garden of Kings’ (Bustan as-Salatin), written by the Gujarat (India)-born theologian Nuruddin Ar-Raniri around 1640. Written in Malay at the behest of the Sultan of Aceh, in northern Sumatra, this includes a substantial chapter on the history of Aceh, and another on Melaka, and represents the most skilful use in Malay of Islamic traditions of historiography.

Java’s conversion to Islam was a turbulent and drawn-out process centered in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The syncretic Islamo-Javanese courts which emerged from it produced a chronicle tradition in Javanese verse known as babad, part mythical, part prophetic and instructional, and part genealogy. The central narratives designed to show the legitimacy of kings descending through the complex upheavals of the wars of Islamization are collectively known as the Babad Tanah Jawi. All modern historians, beginning with Raffles, have drawn on this set of traditions, although the task of editing a canonical text has so far defeated modern scholarship. The most chronologically accurate of the early Javanese histories, the Kartasura verse chronicle Babad Ing Sangkala, was written in 1738 but thought to incorporate a particularly accurate text originally compiled before 1670. A particularly interesting school of historical writing developed in South Sulawesi (Celebes) in the Makasar and Bugis languages. The written syllabary was only introduced ( probably from southern Sumatra) in the fifteenth century, and appears to have been especially valued for the recording of aristocratic genealogies. Marriage alliances among the numerous Bugis and Makasar states required a careful chronicle of previous marriages and begettings going back to the supernatural origins of the leading families. From around 1600, genealogies were developed into state chronicles at Makasar, then a major maritime power much influenced by Islamic and European literary models. From the 1620s, this chronicle tradition could draw on court diaries, which recorded royal births, deaths, and marriages, as well as notable foreign visitors, wars, and innovations. Keenly aware of chronology, the state histories adopt a critical tone towards their sources, a distinctly linear notion of the progress of the kingdom through various innovations, and a desire to learn from failures as well as successes. The Goa (Makasar) chronicle began with an explanation of why it was important that future generations remember the past, ‘to avoid the twin dangers, either of our thinking that we were all great kings, or of others alleging that we were worthless.’

2. An Autonomous Modernity?

While the seventeenth century witnessed remarkable new departures in historical writing, there was a further development in the late eighteenth century of more abundant historical writing in a self-conscious, secular, and historically careful pattern in several Southeast Asian traditions. While the better survival of manuscripts written after the wars of the eighteenth century may be one explanation, there also appears to have been a creative sense of crisis among Tai and Vietnamese writers in particular which gave rise to reflection on the past. An early sign of this trend was U Kala’s Great Chronicle of Kings (Mahazawingyi), the first comprehensive and chronologically reliable Burmese chronicle, written in the 1720s. In the late eighteenth century this was incorporated into the first history which might be called national, the ‘New Chronicle of Myanma’ (Myanma Yazawinthit), also the first to use its sources in a critical sense.

Among Vietnamese, the new trend was embodied by the scholar-official Le Quy Don (around 1726–1784), who wrote a Le Dynasty history in biographical form, often also referred to as a national history—The Complete History of Dai Viet (Dai Viet Thong Su). His encyclopedic Miscellaneous Records of Pacification in the Border Area (Phu Bien Tap Luc) is a careful accumulation of primary sources relating to technological, economic, cultural, and political developments in the southern Vietnamese kingdom (known to foreigners as Cochinchina) which was a rival of his own. The Tai kingdoms endured a mauling from Burma in the late eighteenth century, and virtually all responded in the period 1790 to 1830 by carefully reconstructing their histories with a view to avoiding such disasters in the future. In Java for a similar reason there was a spate of chronicle-writing after a long period of warfare ended with the peace of Gianti in 1755.

3. European Influences

These elements of modernity all preceded any direct European influence on the writing of history. The nineteenth century, however, gave rise to numerous writers who were in contact with European scholarofficials with their own agendas for gathering histories of Southeast Asian societies. Among the earliest of these were writers in Malay who cooperated in the quest for manuscripts of English and Dutch officials. Munshi Abdullah bin Abdul-Kadir (1797–1854) was a Malay writer for Stamford Raffles, and used his understanding of British mores to launch a critique of the Malay society of the sultanates. In his vivid autobiographical works, Hikayat Abdullah (1849) and Hikayat Pelayaran Abdullah (Chronicle of Abdullah’s Voyages), he introduced such concepts as progress, race, freedom and the rule of law into Malay historical writing. The Riau court writer Raja Ali Haji (around 1809–1870) was in regular contact with the Dutch Malay scholars of his day and learned something of their perspective on history. The spirit of his two outstanding histories, Genealogy of Malay and Bugis Princes (Silsilah Melayu dan Bugis dan sekalian rajaraja-nya, 1865) and The Precious Gift (Tuhfat al-Nafis, around 1866) is nevertheless heavily didactic in the best Islamic tradition.

European writer-officials brought to the study of Southeast Asia an approach often extremely skeptical of chronicles, and more concerned with the written records of European travelers and the epigraphic and archaeological evidence from the early states. Beginning with Stamford Raffles’ History of Ja a (1817) there was a fascination with the ruins of vanished kingdoms, and a tendency to find their successors in a state of decline which could only be reversed by European rule. The Edinburgh-trained doctor John Crawfurd (1783–1868) deserves particular attention as an historian and encyclopedist of Southeast Asia as a whole. His History of the Indian Archipelago (3 Vols., 1820), followed by the Descripti e Dictionary of the Indian Islands and Adjacent Countries (1856) covered almost the whole region, based on first-hand knowledge of Java and Singapore as an administrator, and the official missions he led to Burma, Siam, and Vietnam in the 1820s, each of which yielded published reports which began the rendering into English of the chronicle traditions of these countries.

The Philippines was the area best endowed with early European writings because of the prominence in the colonization of the islands of Spanish religious orders, each of which produced chronicles. Among the best of these, containing much material about the pre-Hispanic Philippines, were those of the Franciscan Marcelo de Ribadneyra (1601), the Jesuit Pedro Quirino (1604), and the Dominican Diego Aduarte (1640). An outstanding later example of the genre was the 14-volume chronicle of Spanish and missionary activity in the islands by the Recollect Juan de la Concepcion (1788–1792). As nineteenth-century Spanish accounts became ever more negative about the achievements of Filipinos, the first generation of nationalists turned for inspiration to the oldest of the Spanish secular writers, Antonio de Morga, whose Sucesos de las Islas Filipinas (1609) received its first modern edition in English in 1868. The intellectual pioneer of Philippine nationalism, Jose Rizal, published in Paris a new Spanish edition of the work in 1890, with the professed intention ‘to awaken your [Filipino] consciousness of our past, already effaced from your memory, and to rectify what has been falsified and slandered.’

As Southeast Asia became partitioned among the colonial powers in the second half of the nineteenth century, the more talented colonial officials pioneered modern-style ‘national’ histories in English, French, and Dutch. These usually combined some of the chronicle record of ancient kingdoms, the interventions of foreigners, and the rise of colonial power within the borders later marked out by the colonial powers. Sir Arthur Phayre, an army officer who spent the years 1835 to 1867 in key posts in Burma, was the first of these with his History of Burma (1883), followed in 1926 by a book of the same name by G. E. Harvey. Adhemard Leclere wrote a Histoire du Cambodge in 1914, some time before the more demanding equivalent for Vietnam, Histoire Moderne du Pays d ’Annam (1592–1820) (1920), by Charles Maybon. A history of Siam was first published in French on the basis of missionary accounts by Turpin in 1771, but the first of the modern European histories was that of the British Consul in Chiang Mai, W. A. R. Wood (1926), relying much on the chronicles.

Sir Richard Winstedt consciously shaped the Malay-language school syllabus with his revealinglynamed Tawarikh Melayu (‘Malay,’ not ‘Malayan’ History, 1918), in collaboration with Daing Abdul Hamid. Winstedt’s English-language Malaya and its History began its many editions in only 1948, long after the more blatantly imperial British Malaya of Sir Frank Swettenham (1906). The best of the early Dutch writing on the archipelago was devoted to particular kingdoms and culture areas, particularly Java, though the encyclopedic Oud en Nieuw Oost-Indien (8 Vols., 1724–1726) of the protestant pastor Francois Valentijn ranged widely. Only with the need for text-books in Netherlands-Indian schools was there a coherent set of ‘national’ textbooks written, of which the most influential work was the Dutch-triumphalist Geschiedenis an Nederlandsch Indie (1930) of F. W. Stapel.

4. Nationalist History

All of Southeast Asia except Siam Thailand was under Western colonial control from 1900 to 1941, and was ruled by the Japanese for nearly four turbulent years (1942–1945). The sudden Japanese surrender in August 1945 inaugurated a period of revolutionary struggles in the successor states, with relative peace imposed on Indonesia only around 1966, Vietnam after 1975, and Cambodia in the 1990s. The first half of the twentieth century was a period of extraordinary debate and rethinking of the meaning of history, as a Western-educated generation increasingly detached from cultural connections to the past developed new ways of using it for their modernizing purposes. First Social Darwinism and then Marxism were seized upon as means to explain what had to be done to save the nation from colonial humiliation. By the 1950s, a nationalist, anticolonial historiography was dominant everywhere except Malaya Malaysia and Thailand, turning militant opponents of the colonial order into the most exemplary heroes. Marxist categories were selectively adopted, often to devalue the precolonial past as generically ‘feudal.’ Debates remained intense between communist, religious, and ethno-nationalist readings, and often between local and national perspectives.

In Indonesia, nationalist writers suddenly occupied center stage when the Japanese occupation removed all Dutch textbooks. Muhammad Yamin (1903–1962), a Sumatran convert to a Java-centric view of nationalist history, became the most influential writer and patron of a nationalist history which glorified Sriwijaya and Majapahit as precursors of modern Indonesia. His work on the fourteenth-century Javanese kingdom of Majapahit, Gajah Mada (1945) and Tatanegara Majapahit (3 Vols., 1962), has longterm significance.

In Thailand a similarly influential figure through the most nationalist phase was Wichit Wathakan (1898–1962), a commoner who became an immensely popular writer of historical novels and plays, as well as a 12volume world history (1931). After the anti-monarchy revolution of 1932, he replaced Prince Damrong Rajanubhab (1862–1943) as the government’s arbiter of culture and history. Where Damrong had chronicled a Thai identity developed from the monarchy’s gradual adoption of liberal modern values, Wichit glorified the purity and heroism of the Thai race.

In Vietnam the debate between traditionalists, nationalists, and Marxists centered around the evaluation of the Nguyen dynasty which came to power with some French assistance in 1802, and of the Tay Son rebellion which preceded it in the late eighteenth century. Tran Trong Kim (1883–1945), author of the first modern Vietnamese history (1928, constantly reprinted until the 1960s) and briefly Prime Minister under the Japanese, broke with the dynastic chroniclers in accepting the Tay Son leader Quang Trung as a national hero. Nevertheless he accepted the first Nguyen emperor Gia Long, who defeated Quang Trung’s forces, as a dynastic founder and unifier. Dao Duy Anh’s Short History of Vietnamese Culture (1938) was the first and perhaps best of the Marxist-influenced studies which saw Vietnamese culture as constantly evolving through social forces. For later Marxists, the Tay Son were heroic peasant rebels, and the last dynasty a disaster which failed to adapt to historical conditions.

5. Historiography Of Southeast Asia As A Whole

These nationalist preoccupations allowed little incentive for indigenous historians to enquire into larger Southeast Asian historical patterns except through the Marxist mold. One of the few exceptions is Nguyen Van Huyen (1908–1975), later Education Minister in the Hanoi government. As a student and Vietnamese teacher in Paris he discovered Dutch scholarship on Indonesia, and used it to good effect in his study of common patterns of housebuilding in the region— Introduction a l’Etude de l’Habitation sur Pilotis dans l’Asie du Sud-est (1934).

For the most part it was European scholars interested in the precolonial history of the region who found a broader regional perspective useful. Germanspeaking prehistorians like Heger and Heine-Geldern were the first to use the term in describing the presence of bronze-age Dongson drums throughout the region, or similarities in temple architecture. French scholarship of the 1920s and 1930s began to uncover the relations between the ancient kingdoms of Angkor, Champa, Pagan, and Java. George Coedes (1886– 1969) first brought this material together in a pathbreaking book he entitled Histoire Ancienne des Etats Hindouises d’Extreme-Orient (Hanoi, 1944), though better known in its English translation (1968). Coedes broke with the ‘Greater India’ school which regarded the Southeast Asian kingdoms as Indian colonies, but continued to see Indian agency through visiting traders and scholars. Later historians such as Paul Mus, J. C. van Leur, Bernard Groslier, Ian Mabbett, Oliver Wolters, and Claude Jacques, and still more the nationalists, were inclined to see Southeast Asians borrowing selectively and creatively what they found useful in Indian civilization, and even sharing in the creation of that civilization.

Histories of the whole region began to appear in English in the 1950s, the most influential being that of D. G. E. Hall (1955), who came to the first British chair of Southeast Asian History, that of the school of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS) in 1949, after an early career (1921–1934) at the University of Rangoon. The other colonial seedbed of historians of the region was the University of Malaya, opened in Singapore in 1949 and eventually spawning a range of institutions in independent Malaysia and Singapore. Such regional historians as Northcote Parkinson, C. D. Cowan, John Bastin, Wang Gungwu, Alistair Lamb, David Bassett, Jan Pluvier, Anthony Reid, Leonard Andaya, and Barbara Andaya learned their craft in these institutions.

The US borrowed from the British tradition initially, with first D. G. E. Hall and then Oliver Wolters pioneering the teaching of the subject at Cornell University. The first generation of Americantrained historians, generally studying the dynamic of diverse nationalisms, were less inclined to perceive the region as a whole. The most important US history of the region to date, In Search of Southeast Asia (Sleinberg 1971), required the collaboration of six country specialists and is basically divided by country. In contrast, the Cambridge History of Southeast Asia, (Tarling 1992) took the heroic line that each chapter shouldbechronologicallyandthematicallydemarcated, but cover the whole region. This ambitious experiment was dominated by historians based in Australia, New Zealand, and Southeast Asia, reflecting a shift which had occurred in the previous two decades.

The approach of Fernand Braudel and the Annales School was brought to Southeast Asia in the 1980s in relation to the Early Modern, a period which had until then been largely abandoned to the ‘European expansion’ school. Denys Lombard (1936–1998), a colleague of Braudel and founder of the interdisciplinary journal Archipel, developed in Le Carrefour Ja anais: Essai d’Histoire Globale (3 Vols., 1990) the kind of ‘total history’ pioneered by Braudel. Anthony Reid (b. 1939) found both the broad interdisciplinarity and the ocean-centered focus of Braudel useful in giving coherence to his Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, c.1450–1680 (2 Vols., 1988–1993). In global terms, the practice of history in Southeast Asia since 1950 has been relatively weak in economic and institutional history, and has produced few outstanding biographies or intellectual histories in the strict sense. Its strengths have been its interdisciplinarity and its deep concern to explicate cultural diversity and autonomy. The two Southeast Asianists who have most influenced historians were trained in other disciplines. The cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz (b. 1926) defined his task as ‘to uncover the conceptual structures that inform our subjects’ acts,’ and likened it to ‘trying to read (in the sense of ‘construct a reading of’) a manuscript—foreign, faded, full of ellipses, incoherencies, suspicious emendations, and tendentious commentaries.’ Though history is never absent from his numerous studies of Java and Bali, it is most salient in Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth Century Bali (1980), which influentially argued that elaborate royal rituals were the defining acts of Bali states, not simply their decoration or arcane cosmology.

Anglo-Irish Benedict Anderson (b. 1936) made his career at Cornell University, where his brand of culturally-informed political history had more influence on historians than on his own discipline of political science. His pathbreaking Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (1983) was preceded by a series of more specific studies on Javanese and Indonesian political culture, and the influence of the Japanese occupation on them. In the 1980s, deeply alienated from Suharto’s Indonesia, he produced revisionist essays which placed the histories of Thailand and the Philippines in a broader political economy perspective. Among the able historians trained at Cornell, Michigan and elsewhere were a number of Southeast Asians who had an impact in their own countries as well as internationally. Reynaldo Ileto (b. 1946) pioneered a new kind of history from below by beautifully demonstrating how popular Christianity provided the idiom of resistance in his Pasyon and Revolution: Popular Movements in the Philippines (1979). Nidhi Aeusrivongse wrote almost entirely in Thai after returning to teach in Chiang Mai, but his revisionism has shifted Thai historiography away from the agency of kings and Westerners to the social basis of cultural change.


  1. Coedes G 1968 The Indianized States of Southeast Asia. University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, HI
  2. Cowan C D, Wolters O W (eds.) 1976 Southeast Asian History and Historiography: Essays Presented to D. G. E. Hall. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY
  3. Hall D G E 1955 A History of South-East Asia. Macmillan, London
  4. Hall D G E (ed.) 1961 Historians of South East Asia. Oxford University Press, London
  5. Reid A, Marr D (eds.) 1979 Perceptions of the Past in Southeast Asia. Asian Studies Association of Australia Heinemann, Singapore
  6. Steinberg D J (ed.) 1971 In Search of Southeast Asia: A Modern History. Praeger, New York
  7. Tarling N (ed.) 1992 The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia,2 vols. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  8. Woolf D R (ed.) 1998 A Global Encyclopedia of Historical Writing. Garland, New York London, 2 Vols.
  9. Wyatt D K, Woodside A (eds.) 1982 Moral Order and the Question of Change: Essays on Southeast Asian Thought. Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, CT


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