- Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c. 800-1830, Volume I: Integration on the Mainland
Victor Lieberman's Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c. 800–1830, Volume I: Integration on the Mainland is the first volume in a projected two-volume work that seeks to reconceptualize the history of mainland Southeast Asia (present day Burma/Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam) for the approximately one thousand years from 800 to 1830, and to then compare this vision of the past with corresponding histories of France, Russia, and to a lesser extent, Japan, China, and South Asia. While the world historian will need to read both volumes to reap the full benefits of Lieberman's labors, this first volume nonetheless stands well alone as an impressive and important effort to construct a meta-narrative for a thousand years of mainland Southeast Asian history.
Lieberman's project is clearly the result of years of work, and this first volume's depth reveals the development of the author's ideas over time. The origins of this work lie in Lieberman's dissatisfaction with the earlier efforts of Anthony Reid to write a meta-narrative for the entire Southeast Asian region, a project that likewise resulted in a two-volume work: Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce: The Lands Below the Winds (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988) and Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce: Expansion and Crisis (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1993). In particular, Lieberman, like other critics of Reid's work, argues that in taking the Malay-Indonesian archipelago as his model for all of Southeast Asia, Reid failed to account for certain political, economic, and cultural particularities in the land-based mainland kingdoms and especially overemphasized the importance of international commerce for that region.
As Lieberman thought more deeply about these issues it is evident that he also read widely. As a result, he came to see that while mainland Southeast Asia was different from its island counterpart, its historical development was similar to those of such distant lands as France and Russia. It is these "strange parallels" that the author will illuminate in the second volume of this work. Before doing so, in this first volume Lieberman sets out his theoretical approach and then constructs a meta-narrative for mainland Southeast Asia over three chapters, each of which deals with a separate section of the region and which Lieberman labels as follows: the "western mainland" (Burma), [End Page 102] the "central mainland" (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia), and the "eastern mainland" (Vietnam).
In creating a meta-narrative for the mainland, Lieberman essentially tries to find an answer to a single issue. In particular, he seeks to discover why it is that whereas in 800 there were numerous small polities scattered across the region, in 1830 there were essentially just three centralized, and ethnically more or less unified, kingdoms (Burma, Thailand, and Vietnam). While this issue which Lieberman sets out to understand is a clear and simple one, his explanations are numerous and sophisticatedly interrelated. Playing down, but not denying or ignoring, the importance of external factors such as trade, Lieberman examines a wide array of internal developments to explain this move toward integration, from agriculture and demographics to culture and religion to climatic change.
While the factors that encouraged integration were complex and diverse, Lieberman nonetheless argues that they created a comparable temporal pattern across the mainland. In particular, Lieberman sees a series of four phases of political and cultural integration, each of which was separated by a disruptive interregnum and each of which in turn became less prolonged and destructive over time. Hence, whereas the collapse of the first major polities in the region, which Lieberman terms "charter states" (Pagan, Angkor, Dai Viet), was followed by prolonged periods of instability in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, by the eighteenth century, polities in Burma, Thailand, and Vietnam, which had built on the institutional and cultural foundations of...