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Reviewed by:
  • Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c. 800-1830. Volume 2: Mainland Mirrors: Europe, Japan, China, South Asia, and the Islands
  • Derek Heng
Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c. 800-1830. Volume 2: Mainland Mirrors: Europe, Japan, China, South Asia, and the Islands. By Victor Lieberman. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. 976 pp. $135.00 (cloth); $40.99 (paper); $33.00 (e-book).

Strange Parallels explores the possibilities of envisioning a meta-narrative of parallel sociopolitical developments in Europe, continental Asia, and maritime Asia from the premodern to early modern era. To anchor this macro-level exploration, Lieberman uses the historical experiences of mainland Southeast Asia, namely those of North Vietnam, Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia (or Khmer), to formulate a framework upon which a broad developmental trajectory may be explicated. In narrating the nature of agrarian and commercial expansion and consolidation in the key states of Eurasia, Lieberman attempts to demonstrate their impact on such key forces as culture, society and psychology, and social integration, and the consequent effects that these forces had in generating an integrative force in the societies in question. This framework, elaborated in detail in volume 1, is imposed in the present volume upon the case studies of France, Russia, China, India, Japan, and island Southeast Asia to test the viability of the notion of similitude in the developmental processes of the large sociopolitical developments in disparate regions of the old world.

Lieberman argues that the case studies, representative of the regions in which they are located, all follow the same general developmental trajectory, characterized by the move from point A, that of a charter polity, to point B, that of a consolidated state with extensive territorial holdings, a unified body politic, and a coherent state apparatus. He argues that between 800 and 1830 C.E., all the major societies of the old world developed along this trajectory, arriving at the same terminus state, with inherently similar structural characteristics, by the nineteenth century. This universal experience is mitigated, as evident from the case studies explored in the volume, by the uniqueness of their historical experiences in such areas as the number of cycles of consolidation and fragmentation, the details of the characteristics of the institutions that are developed, and the extent of their territorial holdings. These differences are dependent on circumstantial factors, such as the external economy, external interaction, and external threats, the extent to which are determined by the geographical locations of the case studies, either in exposed zones that are subject to substantial external influence, or protected zones that are buffered from substantial external interactions and contact. [End Page 822]

The title of the present volume is a little of a misnomer, in that Southeast Asia features almost as an appendix to the much larger discourse of world history. On its own, this volume may come across as a little deterministic, as well as abridged, to be justified as a substantive contribution to our understanding of Europe, continental Asia, and maritime Asia. This, however, is not the intention of Lieberman. To truly understand and appreciate Lieberman's arguments, this volume has to be read in conjunction with volume 1, a point noted by Liam C. Kelley in his review of Lieberman's earlier volume published in this journal.

In this regard, one of the most significant contributions of the present volume is in the field of world history and comparative studies. Hitherto, the approaches toward understanding human experiences at the global and transregional levels have been premised upon analytical frameworks developed from western historical discourses, including those by McNeill, Braudel, Wallerstein, and Toynbee. In the process, Southeast Asia and even Asia at large have been positioned in world history discourse in the category of "effect," as opposed to "cause." The present volume subverts this tide of world history scholarship by centering Southeast Asia, a region often regarded as peripheral to, or an interstice of, larger global developments, as the point datum, and generating a theoretical framework upon which European and East Asian developments may be understood (pp. 10, 11). In this regard, Lieberman's efforts at highlighting the notion that the marginality of mainland Southeast Asia actually makes...