The Cham of Vietnam: History, Society and Art

By Wheeler, Charles | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, June 2012 | Go to article overview
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The Cham of Vietnam: History, Society and Art

Wheeler, Charles, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The Cham of Vietnam: History, society and art


Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2011. Pp. xx+ 460. Maps,

Plates, Notes, Bibliography, Index.

doi: 10.1017/S0022463412000276

Revisionist endeavours are tricky business. The work to rescue history from nations, cultural groups and other schemes can ensnare area specialists in contradictions that seem to offer no escape. The small niche of Cham studies offers a fascinating example of this problem. Revisionists in the 1980s and 1990s began to dismantle the idea of a singular 'Kingdom of Champa' that had spawned and legitimised their very discipline of study, in favour of the idea of a multicultural, multicentred 'federation of chiefdoms'. It did not take long for the revisionist impulse to reject the existence of a Cham-dominated political system, or even a Chain cultural core in the territory formerly known as 'Champa'. In the case of Cham ethnicity, regional, cultural, linguistic as well as historical continuities have similarly suffered rejection. Given all this difference, does enough commonality remain to justify 'Cham studies' as a singular object study? If so, what new scheme(s) should replace it? This volume, borne of a 2004 symposium at the Asia Research Institute in Singapore, confirms the legitimacy of the revisionist enterprise in Chain studies, and helps make the first difficult steps to address this uncomfortable question that anyone involved in Cham studies must address.

The editors have united the book's articles around a number of themes; discrediting the dominant 'Maspero Narrative' of Cham history (p. 9), however, appears to be job number one. Published in 1926, Henri Maspero's Royaume de Champa established the axioms of a classical Champa that remained unchallenged for decades: a single, hierarchical kingdom, predominantly Chain, Indianised in its sociopolitical form, whose birth, life and death could be verified, and whose legacy survives in relics and vanishing descendants pushed to the margins by inexorable Vietnamese expansion. The first and last essays of this book by Lockhart and Vickery together clarify the artifice of Maspero's thesis, and justify the need for new models. Vickery goes further by subordinating his criticism of past scholarship to a proposed alternative history of 'Champa Revised'. If read first, readers may find that the book's other essays add useful substance, nuance and challenges to Vickery's basic framework. Among the historians, Wade, Whitmore, Shiro and Wong delve further into the Chinese and Vietnamese historical sources that shaped early French standard-bearers. Whitmore and Shiro step back from Vickery's vision of truly separate polities, preferring to see 'Champa' as a mandala-shaped system made of smaller polities who competed and co-operated in the interest of attracting commercial traffic sailing off its shores.

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