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Reviewed by:
  • History, Culture, and Region in Southeast Asian Perspectives
  • Laura Junker
History, Culture, and Region in Southeast Asian Perspectives. O. W. Wolters. Revised edition. Southeast Asian Program Publications No. 26, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1999. 275 pp, $17.00. ISBN: 0-87727-725-7

Anyone who is familiar with historian O. W. Wolters' original publication in 1982 of this collection of essays on the pre-colonial cultural and political landscape of Southeast Asia will be extremely happy to see this new version come to press. The original book, already a provocative and seminal work appreciated by historians and anthropologists alike, consisted of five theoretically wide-ranging essays on such issues as the meaning of "Southeast Asia" as an entity with historical and cultural commonalities, what the process of "Indianization" in first millennium and early second millennium A.D. Southeast Asia really means, and the implications for continuities between historic kingdoms and the prehistoric past. The essays in the 1982 book were sandwiched by introductory and concluding chapters that nicely emphasized some of the broader implications of Wolters' ideas on political structure in historic and "pro-tohistoric" Southeast Asian complex societies like Funan, Srivijaya, Champa, and Majapahit. The 1982 publication also included several appendixes which illustrated Wolters' masterful use of native texts (Malay Sanskrit, Vietnamese, and Old Javanese) to support his notions about how traditional rulers and other "men of prowess" manipulated political alliances and made convincing displays of ritual potency to expand their authority.

One of the most significant contributions of Wolters' 1982 essays and previous historical work was his challenge to the traditional view of "Indianization" as a wholesale cultural overlay. Including not only aspects of Hindu religion and writing but political power structures, this "Indianization" process has been traditionally seen as catalyzing and shaping "state" development in Southeast Asia. While Wolters was certainly not alone in questioning the overemphasis on Indian influence on the emergence of early Southeast Asian kingdoms like Srivijaya and Funan (advanced particularly by Georges Coedès in his classic work The Indianized States of Southeast Asia), he went further than many others in trying to explain how specific cultural factors and historical trajectories in Southeast Asia made Indian concepts of authority and Indian religious precepts a particularly good "fit" with indigenous notions of kingship and ritual potency in first millennium A.D. Southeast Asia. According to Wolters, such factors as the cosmopolitan outlook of Southeast Asians engendered by an early emphasis on maritime trade, social groups formed through fluid alliance rather than territorially based lineages, and political systems emphasizing personal competition for ideological and material supremacy all were instrumental in the adoption by Southeast Asians of exotic models of arts, religion, and government that could be manipulated for prestige and political gain. Wolters makes a strong argument that Hindu (Sanskrit) literary traditions were particularly attractive to Southeast Asians because they emphasized many precepts of rulership that were already part of Southeast Asian politics (such as how to make effective alliances and political coalitions), but by codifying these precepts in literature and art gave material authority and competitive weight to their local bearers. However, Wolters took care in his 1982 essays not to talk in pan-Southeast Asian generalities, but instead emphasized that it was how these foreign models were "localized" (i.e., integrated into local cultures and given local "meaning") that provides the bridge between work on "local" culture history (where he believes that most [End Page 147] historical research is rightly situated) and attacking broader issues of regional scale.

Consistent with his view that it is useful for historians to continually work between what he calls "local statements" and more general regional models of political, social, and economic development, Wolters fleshed out the concept of mandala (a Sanskrit term from Indian manuals of government) in his 1982 essays to describe the type of nonterritorial, fluctuating political structure characteristic of many parts of Southeast Asia. This style of political authority, in which all political relations were personal and immediate rather than remote and hereditarily imbued, fit well with the contemporaneous struggles of anthropologists like Clifford Geertz, Stanley Tambiah, and Robert Winzeler in the 1970s and 1980s to describe the essence of the...


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