Secret Societies Reconsidered: Perspectives on the Social History of Modern South China and Southeast Asia

Secret Societies Reconsidered: Perspectives on the Social History of Modern South China and Southeast Asia

Secret Societies Reconsidered: Perspectives on the Social History of Modern South China and Southeast Asia

Secret Societies Reconsidered: Perspectives on the Social History of Modern South China and Southeast Asia

Synopsis

A discussion of the development of secret societies within China and among Chinese communities in colonial Southeast Asia in the late 18th and 19th centuries.

Excerpt

Providing a forum for interdisciplinary, inter-area, and international exchange among Asianists is a prime goal of the annual meetings of the Association for Asian Studies. When, however, Mary Somers Heidhues proposed bringing China and Southeast Asia specialists together to discuss recent research on "secret societies," neither she nor Carl Trocki, who helped conceive and assemble the panel, suspected where the dialogue might lead.

Entitled Early Modern Socioeconomic Organizations: Kongsis, Triads, and Hui, the session brought together specialists on the early modern histories of both China and Southeast Asia, focusing on the social and economic functions of these organizations, as well as their better-known criminal and political activities. Ambitious in a number of ways, the panel included participants from both North America and Europe (Asian invitees, unable to attend for other reasons, are well represented in the bibliographies) and from the disciplines of history, sinology, anthropology, and political science, and offered papers which covered Mainland China, Taiwan, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Many of us met for the first time immediately before the presentation of the panel and some skepticism was evident: could it have been that participants were drawn by the venue of the conference--New Orleans--as much as by the intellectual agenda?

Whatever the authors' motivations, the papers meshed surprisingly well. Ownby recalls feeling that the Southeast Asian perspective answered many questions posed by his research in Fujian and Taiwan, and that Barend J. ter Haar's focus on messianism in the early Heaven and Earth Society added a cultural dimension which had been missing from recent studies of Chinese secret societies. At the dinner which followed the panel, we discovered that all panelists shared the feeling that the panel had been unexpectedly intellectually rewarding, and that the collection of the individual papers into a book might be worthy of consideration. Heidhues, who first proposed the idea, shared editorial responsibility with Ownby, whose North American location expedited the production process.

As the months proceeded and the original panel participants--JeanDeBernardi . . .

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