Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The "Classical" in Southeast Asia: The Present in the Past

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The "Classical" in Southeast Asia: The Present in the Past

Article excerpt


When historians refer to the "classical" period in Southeast Asia, they usually mean the era roughly between the ninth and fourteenth centuries A.D. When they speak of the "classical" states, they are referring most often to the region's first great kingdoms - Pagan, Sukhothai, Angkor, Dai Viet, Srivijaya, and Majapahit - the civilizations that gave birth to many of the nations in Southeast Asia today. Yet, the very idea of a "classical" Southeast Asia has not been debated sufficiently in the literature.

In part, that may be because our stature as scholars often depends upon the newness of our work, but also because we are sometimes seduced by current and fashionable ideas, usually defined by those involved in it as "cutting edge" scholarship. In addition, there is a cultural bias that considers yesterday passe, so that "currentness" is often self-legitimating while things not current need to be further justified, even if the topic happens to be yesterday's states and societies. Consequently, before exhausting the concerns raised by our pioneering gurus, or completing the spadework needed to make meaningful generalizations, we move on to newer and more "exciting" subjects. What happens is that thirty years later, we rediscover the importance of previously unfinished scholarship and return to it.(1) Such a pattern of development is not necessarily undesirable, for, like our own individual research and writing, the field also needs a respite, returning refreshed, with new thoughts and reflections to ponder, a different set of theoretical and methodological questions to ask, and fresh ideas with which to address old prejudices.

This is precisely what I wish to do here: reexamine what I consider to be several important theoretical issues in the conceptualization and reconstruction of the "classical" in Southeast Asia during the course of the past several decades that have affected our understanding; in particular, to expose the hidden assumptions - the "intellectual baggage" - underlying that process.


The field of Southeast Asian studies has generated some exciting ideas during its half-century of existence. In that development of discovery and rediscovery, the disciplines of history and anthropology have been the two most influential in conceptualizing, analyzing, and writing about "classical" Southeast Asia. But linguistics, philology, literature, geography, art history and even political science have had a bearing on the understanding of this period as well.(2) To be sure, studies by political scientists have not contributed to primary research on "classical" Southeast Asia per se, but have significantly improved our understanding of issues when faced with topics such as legitimacy, authority, leadership, and power.(3)

In this pursuit of "classical" Southeast Asia, several trends, specific and general, have been noticeable. Whereas, it would be fair to say that we have gone beyond George Coedes and the pioneers in some respects, we have also moved closer to their scholarship in others. After a generation or two of objecting to his "indianization" theory, we have increasingly realized not that the conceptualization was wrong, but that we can discern more precisely the extent and quality of Indian influences in a better informed context of indigenization. Similarly with Heine-Geldern's work on conceptions of state and kingship: in some ways, it is more meaningful today than when he wrote it, for during the last forty years the field has produced and acquired the kinds of factual and theoretical knowledge needed to scrutinize the work more intensely.(4) Although Heine-Geldern's ideas have been improved, certainly, and the debate pushed further, the general principles he had formulated and the direction toward which he had pointed us have been largely sound.

Indeed, some of the earlier studies that were focused on specific "classical" kingdoms have yet to be emulated in terms of their sheer factual output. …

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