Continuity

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Yet there is a “there” there. At the very least, the last sixty years of independence have seen the rise of associations such as ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) that express the common political, economic, and social interests of these countries vis-a-vis the rest of the world. This contemporary cooperation in itself justifies a textbook covering the region of Southeast Asia. There is also a history preceding colonialism, one in which premodern kingdoms traded goods and ideas. Although some might frame the region in terms of the very different historical influences of India and China, we contend that Southeast Asian society and cultures cannot be understood simply as a mere backwater reflection of India and China. This is a unique place—one that received, reformed, and restructured influences from China, India, and beyond. It is a region separate and distinct from East Asia and South Asia, replete with its own internal, regional variations. We are not original in making this point. Others have argued that there are widespread cultural traits that unite Southeast Asia as a cultural region (cf. Wolters 1999; Reid 1988). External influences were (and continue to be) localized within a matrix of existing belief systems. (In today’s language of globalization this would be called “globalization” or “hybridization.”) The long history of trade within the region and thus exchange of cultural ideas, political models, and economic linkages gives it cultural coherence. It is also united by histories of migration, with seafaring groups such as the Buginese settling along the coasts of many of the islands of insular Southeast Asia and, especially in the mainland area, by a traditional style of warfare that aimed to “gather people” and tributary alliances rather than to conquer land and establish territorial boundaries (the style of warfare more familiar to students of European history). There are also consistent ecologically based cultural themes in Southeast Asia that set the region apart from East Asia (China, Japan, Korea) and South Asia (India, Bangladesh, Nepal). Southeast Asia is largely tropical and depends on monsoons for agriculture. It is a region where rice cultivation dominates, whether as irrigated rice or dry rice cultivation in mountainous or heavily forested regions. This basic pattern of lowland wet rice cultivation and highland dry rice cultivation has played an important role in the area’s cultural history. Whereas highland communities historically tended to be smallerscale subsistence agriculturalists and foragers, lowland communities on the coastal plains had their own patterns. The wet rice fields of the coastal and lowland valley regions supported denser populations and gave rise to early states that were involved in maritime and overland regional trade.2 Through these trade networks came religious influences from other regions (Hinduism and Buddhism from South Asia, Buddhism and Confucianism from China, Islam from trade networks extending to the Middle East, and Catholicism from Spain and Portugal). These influences were generally incorporated as an overlay on fundamental Southeast Asian cultural ideas of ritual power that can still be discerned in certain practices found in modern states. For instance, consider the Emerald Buddha of Thailand, a sacred relic with a history that captures some of the power dynamics in Southeast Asia. This key relic was captured from a Lao king by a Thai king and has since served as a marker of the Thai monarchy. Like other sacralized objects, it both represents and embodies the king of Thailand’s power. Likewise, consider the kris (alt. keris, kalis) found in much of the Malay world, ranging from Indonesia to the southern Philippines, Brunei, and Thailand. A distinctive, often wavy-bladed ancestral knife that is both weapon and mystical object, a sacred kris is traditionally thought to be embodied with a unique, spiritlike essence and it was important that this essence mesh positively with the personality of its owner or the results could be disastrous. Some kris were traditionally thought to carry legendary powers and potencies, and in certain courts, a particular royal kris was seen as a symbol of a ruler’s mandate to rule (cf. Pederson 2007). Despite the influences of Islam and Christianity, many educated Southeast Asian urbanites still retain respect for the legendary powers of certain ancestral kris, and several recent Indonesian presidents, including former president Suharto, reportedly went to great measures to ensure control over their sacred ancestral kris (Bourchier 2010: 89). These ideas of ritual power and concerns with control over the symbols of cosmological legitimacy are congruent with what Wolters (1999) called a cult of “men of prowess,” people who were able to concentrate spiritual power into themselves. Another related, recurrent theme in Southeast Asian cultures is how precolonial states were based on a central powerful core supported by an ideology of sacred power, the mandala-style polity, rather than a focus on containing and controlling on the basis of borders. This concept has dynamically changed as modern nation-states have been created in Southeast Asia. This has been an anthropologically significant theme addressed in the literature by scholars from Benedict Anderson to Thongchai Winichakul. Southeast Asia was also critical in introducing the now common concept of “situational” definition of identity and shifting ethnic identity, starting with the work of Edmund Leach in northern Burma (1954) and further developed by Judith Nagata in her classic tracing of situational selections of Malay identity in Malaysia (1974). In kinship studies, work in Southeast Asia on the widespread dominance of flexible kin structures allowed anthropologists to deconstruct the idea of descent as a permanent identity based on “blood.” In short, despite its “crossroads” location between China and India in a realm that has long attracted traders and travelers from continents as distant as Europe, these and other studies suggest that Southeast Asia has its own unique characteristics: there is a “there” there.

 

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