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  • Pockets of Empire:Integrating the Studies on Social Organizations in Southeast China and Southeast Asia
  • Kwee Hui Kian (bio)

When central historical issues regarding late imperial China are juxtaposed with those on early modern Southeast Asia, a very interesting peculiarity, almost an oxymoron, presents itself. As Sinologists preoccupy themselves with questions on why China fell, or, more precisely, fell back behind Western Europe, various scholars are struck by the general Chinese economic success in the history of Southeast Asia.

The situation is an indication of how far both fields of study—early modern Southeast Asia and late imperial southeast China—have ignored each other. In the English-language scholarship, the study of the history of Asia is generally broken up into area studies as Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, and so on, where academics tend to become specialists in one or two countries in each sphere of study. With regard to China and Southeast Asia, various historians like Hsu Yun-chiao, Chen Ching-ho, Lo Hsiang-lin, and Denys Lombard, who, interestingly, were operating predominantly in non-English academia, had long examined the historical interaction between the two regions. Lombard, who had applied Fernand Braudel's longue durée and Mediterranean Sea paradigms in his analysis of Southeast Asian history, was especially a strong advocate for the integration of south China and Southeast Asia as a field of study. In his words, "Wanting to understand Southeast Asia without integrating a good part of southern China into one's thinking is like wanting to give an account of the Mediterranean world by abstracting Turkey, the Levant, Palestine and Egypt."1

These doyens have passed on, however, and new-generation Sinologists and Southeast Asianists generally fail to engage one another. The dissociation between Southeast Asian studies and China studies is very unfortunate, particularly since the historical evidence yielded and the research methodologies developed in both fields in the past two decades could arguably help understand various issues on the other side and stimulate new research directions.2 To [End Page 616] illustrate how integrating the two fields of study would be mutually beneficial and inspire innovative inquiries, this essay compares and analyzes the research on the history of social groupings of the people of Fujian and Guangdong—particularly those termed lineage or clan organizations, and brotherhood societies—both at home and in Southeast Asia.

The topic of Chinese organizations has been of substantial research concern to historians of Southeast Asia, particularly when they look at the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This focus has come into being no less because the colonial states had been fearful of various Chinese brotherhood groupings, or what they coined "secret" and/or "dangerous" societies, and generated much discussion on the subject in the nineteenth century. To contest the negative image by colonial historians, various historians render sympathetic readings to these societies as brotherhood and mutual-help organizations. Generally, the way most scholars have explained how these institutions had arisen in Southeast Asia is along the lines that the Chinese migrants were following traditions from home and that they needed these organizations to survive the challenges in the alien environment.

Since the 1940s, Chinese and Japanese historians doing research on the southeastern parts of China have been interested in clan organizations to answer grander questions on why capitalism did not arise in China. Their general conclusion is that such institutions obfuscated class struggles and thus impeded capitalist developments.3 Historians and anthropologists trained in Western scholarship also began to study these patrilineal kinship organizations in the past two to three decades. Their analyses are oriented toward state-society tensions, that is, how far the Confucianist Chinese state could impose its will on the populace in the very formation of such agnatic kinship institutions.

All in all, aside from some cursory acknowledgments from some historians that the Chinese societies in Southeast Asia were formed along the lines of those in their home societies, both research fields have advanced in a fairly isolated way and remained relatively unnoted by scholars in the other field.

This essay seeks to integrate the research on the social organizations by historians on southeast China and Southeast Asia. The aim is to...


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