Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, C. 800-1830, Vol. 2

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Strange parallels: Southeast Asia in global context, c. 800-1830, vol. 2

By VICTOR LIEBERMAN

New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. 947. Maps, Notes, Bibliography, Index.

This is a giant work in many senses of the word. Physically, it is gigantic. At close to 1000 pages, reading the book is like going on a long journey with its share of hardships and rewards. In terms of ambition, it wants to retell the history of the evolution of the modern world over a millennium. As a work of scholarship, aside from Victor Lieberman's important primary work on the empires of mainland Southeast Asia, it packs in the equivalent of secondary readings from at least six masters programmes in the regional histories of China, India, Japan, Russia, France and island Southeast Asia.

The equally vast strengths of the book lie in its impeccable scholarship, the author's indefatigable capacity to carefully synthesise research and debates within each field, and to draw comparisons and contrasts between these regions. The argument is, however, not easy to summarise. It is not in the mode of historical sociology where the materials are organised around the argument. Rather it is a vast comparative history which presents the longue duree of eight regions of the world, more or less. Nor does it have an easily identifiable narrative. Rather, the fruits of this work emerge from the integration of ah older narrative with a comparative methodology that yields new subnarratives of considerable interest.

Lieberman's goal remains in large part to understand the distinctiveness of the modern state and society. As such it remains within the Enlightenment-modernisation narrative. His selections are not shaped by Marxist-subaltern goals of conflict and resistance, nor by the telos of a postnational cosmopolitanism, and nor even by the search for alternative modernities--although it would not be incompatible with the last. Thus, his attitude is quite different from, say, Charles Tilly's pioneering work on state-formation in Europe (The formation of national states in Western Europe, 1975), which attends equally to the violence and costs of state-making. Indeed, on occasion Lieberman reveals quite an admiring attitude towards the goals of the territorially centralising state, declaring that the Chinese state developed 'superb homogenising techniques' (p. 534).

Ostensibly, Lieberman seeks to explain the 'strange parallels' between different regions of Eurasia over his period of inquiry, 800-1830 CE. The work distinguishes two types of historical states in this region, namely, those in the 'protected zone' and those in the 'exposed zone'. Geographically, the latter include South Asia and China, which have large northern and northwestern areas exposed to Inner Asian invasions, whereas the former zone includes kingdoms in Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Russia, France and Japan which are relatively protected from direct massive predation. Maritime or island Southeast Asia belatedly developed into an exposed zone, exposed to the 'white Inner Asians' takeover from the sixteenth century. Historically, the two zones are separated by the presence in China and India of precocious civilisations from which the protected kingdoms later crafted their own 'charter kingdoms' towards the latter part of the first millennium. In Frankish/Camlingian France, the charter state derived its ideas from the Roman empire, whereas Kiev derived its ideas from the Byzantine empire.

Lieberman sees two patterns over the millennium. The charter states in the protected zone facilitated a cycle of agrarian and population expansion, commercial growth, and development of new literate elites and charter religious ideologies of integration--in short an early form of agrarian state-building. This pattern was also experienced in China and India, although in these cases, new techniques and cultures of state-formation derived from Inner Asian invasions--such as by the Khitan, Jurchen, Tangut, Turks--combined with the older civilisational forms to create (ironically perhaps) more hybrid forms than the civilisational purity claimed, for instance, by Confucian and Hindu-Buddhist states in the protected zones. …