Sunday, April 30, 2006

Military prowess, the Punic wars, and the Burmese historical chronicle

Descriptions in histories of completely unrelated times and places sometimes match Burma-Yunnan-Bay of Bengal (c. 1350-1600) perfectly. The historian Adrian Goldsworthy’s eloquent description of Punic Spain (c. 218-211 BC) could almost map directly to the Tai-Yunnan frontier during the early to mid Ming or Lower Burma during the Razadarit era. In Punic Spain were three ethnic groups: the Lusitanians, the Iberians, and the Celtiberians. Political fragmentation as well as local autonomy and political loyalty was a shared characteristic of these groups:

"All three peoples were tribal, but these tribes were far less coherent than their Gallic counterparts, and the focus for loyalty for most tribesmen was the town or city. Invariably fortified and usually set on a hilltop, most of these communities were small, little more than villages. A few on the southern coast, like Saguntum, had grown much larger, possessed a literate culture and were by this period hard to distinguish in prosperity from the Greek and Punic colonies in the region" (Goldsworthy, 2000, p. 246).

The influence of leaders was based on military prowess:

"Various kings and chieftains appear in the narrative of the operations in Spain, but their power does not appear to have been fixed, depending instead on personal charisma and particularly on reputation as warriors and leaders of warriors. Strong leaders who had proved themselves in war, might control many settlements in both their own and many other tribes’ territories, the area loyal to them changing in size as their prestige, and that of rival leaders fluctuated"(Goldsworthy, 2000, 246-247).

Vulnerability to raiding and warfare was largely based on reputation and display of military prowess:

"Warfare, particularly raiding, was endemic throughout the Spanish Peninsula…the peoples of Spain habitually raided their neighbors...Tribes or towns perceived to be weak were mercilessly raided, every unsuccessful attack encouraging similar enterprises. A leader could only expect to command the loyalty of allied communities for as long as he was able to protect them from depredations. A reputation for military might, achieved primarily by aggressive campaigns against others combined with swift reprisals to avenge any attack, deterred raiding, but this was hard to maintain, and even a small defeat encouraged more raids" (Goldsworthy, 2000, p. 247).

Reputation and display of military prowess is at the core of Burmese chronicle narrative. Goldsworthy essentially argues that in this pre-modern context, human agency via leadership in warfare was an important causative factor in historical events. Leadership made settlements less vulnerable to warfare, by creating an image in the minds of other leader members of the ruling elite. I don’t know exactly how you would go about proving this intellectual history (i.e. prove existence of this mentalite in the minds of the ruling elite). Seems pretty unfalsifiable to me, unless of course you were willing to accept the way the whole chronicle record of Burma is written, with its emphasis on military prowess, as proof. It’s nice to find a place where human agency (vs. deterministic structure) rises to the fore as a causative factor in historical events.


Goldsworthy, Adrian (2000) The Fall of Carthage: The Punic wars 265-146 BC, London:Cassell.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

A delaying action by the ruler of Wun (Warfare in the Razadarit era c. 1385-1421)

Before 1390 when Razadarit was still consolidating his hold over Lower Burma, Razadarit's dealings with the town of Wun is interesting deviation of the typical pattern of warfare. Wun is saved the first time from subjugation by Ava’s invasion of Lower Burma after the ascension of Razadarit. When Razadarit finally does get around to dealing with Wun, the ruler of Wun doesn’t want to submit to Razadarit and he negotiates a settlement which is very reminiscent of the negotiated settlements that end sieges that you read about in early modern European history. Note that Razadarit Ayeidawpon is quite explicit about the reasons why Razadarit bypasses Wun. Here it is:

After his victory against Ava, Razadarit once more marched against Wun. Than Laik, the ruler of Wun, “protested that he was only holding the town that he had won and that he was not a rebel like those Martaban, Lagunpyi, Tari, and Thanmaung, that he would not obstruct the king’s march and if he would attack after capturing the aforesaid towns, he would not find it an easy proposition.” Together with his advisers Razadarit decided to accept this settlement because:

1. “The approach to Wun was too restricted,” so it “would be difficult to mount an attack against it.”

2. Than Laik had given them right of way.

3. Than Laik “did not deny vassalage to the king.”

4. “Boats and barges from Wun and Taikalla were to be requisitioned for transport of provisions to Pankataing.”

As Razadarit approached the town of Tari by land and river, one member of the Mon ruling elite of Tari fled to Myaungmya by boat while another two fled to Martaban leaving Tari to Razadarit. Razadarit’s success at Tari convinced the ruler of Thanmaung to submit also. Tari was garrisoned with a force of 5,000 which was enough to resist several attacks by Martaban after Razadarit had left (SL 64).

The Battle of Wun

When Razadarit finally directed his attention to Wun again, the ruler there Than Laik, proved resistant to his entreaties, holding that he owed no allegiance to Razadarit even though he had been a loyal vassal to Razadarit’s father. When they finally were able to breach the defenses of Wun, Than Laik set off for Martaban with 300 men, but the elephant Byat that Than Laik rode was in musth and slow, so Razadarit’s men were able to overtake and slay him (SL 64-65).

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Let the people decide what actually happened (new democratic theory of Chinese history)

Here's the link in Australian Higher Education about the University of Melbourne's recent little flirtation with a sexy new theory of history, but first:

Last year in Chiang Rai three gun shots in the back of the head of three teenagers.

It woke my friend and his wife up. Everyone says that it was police executing gang members, but no one really seems to care what the truth of the matter is, maybe it was gang members killing gang members, yeah that sounds good, and in three months we'll have forgotten all about it. Right.

Meanwhile up at the university the resident postmodernist is telling me that we can never really know what actually happened. The truth, ha, ha, what is the truth?

I'm supposed to get goosebumps, a little frisson [moment of intense excitement; a shudder; an emotional thrill (source) ] from contemplating this postmodernist poetry, I suppose.

Meanwhile, people tell me about how China discovered America. Great book. You wanna read it. You don't wanna read it? Why? They don't publish books if they aren't true, you know.

Gavin Menzies is writing history with public opinion polls, marketing, salesmanship, a little arrogant "I'm going to tell ya the way it was" chutzpah, and of course the backing of the largest country in the world, that if you question, you'll be out of a job.

Is the truth really that important to you buddy? Ok don't say I didn't warn you, the next-month-you'll-be-on-the-street-and-then-definitely no-one-will-believe-you school of history.

History as good marketing, with a chorus of willing postmodernists just to get the universities' participation.

Thank god there are people who still care about the truth! Like Geoff Wade of National University of Singapore:

"Mr Menzies' history is junk, according to Geoff Wade, an Australian scholar at the National University of Singapore's Asia Research Institute who has spent more than two decades studying Ming China's relations with Asian states."

"There are no Chinese or other texts that suggest in any way that these four eunuchs, or any other Ming commanders, travelled anywhere at all beyond Asia, the Middle East and the east coast of Africa," Wade says.

"All other voyages derive solely from Mr Menzies' imagination."

"The currents, winds and dates Menzies cites in support would not have carried the ships anywhere near where he claims.

"There is no archeological, textual or archival material to support the Menzies thesis as set down in 1421."

"Wade thinks it odd that the University of Melbourne would give Menzies publicity and a forum."

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Local political autonomy and loyalty in Razadarit Ayeidawpon

There was a high degree of local political autonomy in the western and central regions of mainland Southland Asia (c. 1350-1600). That's perhaps the best way to summarise the situation of shifting identities, loyalties, and alliances, political fragmentation, and incommensurable historical records mentioned in my last posting.

In the complicated war narratives of Razadarit Ayeidawpon, scholars sometimes forget that there were three (not two) possible loyalties for Lower Burma settlements such as Bassein, Myaungmya, Myanaung, Martaban, Khepaung, and Prome:

1. Razadarit's Pegu whose power and influence was on the rise
2. Ava in Upper Burma
3. Local loyalty to the settlement itself (overlooked)

Before 1390 when Razadarit celebrated his successful consolidation of Lower Burma, these Lower Burma settlements seem to be fighting for their own independence not always out of loyalty to Ava. Some were, of course, such as Laukpya of Myaungmya who, according to the Burmese chronicle, invited Ava to intervene in the politics of Lower Burma in the first place.

Furthermore, the ethnic composition of the ruling elite in these Lower Burma settlements does not always seem to be Mon. Laukpya sounds Burmese, not Mon, and the name has neither of the two prefixes that Mon ruling elite typical attach to their name: Smin and Bannya.

How autonomous were these settlements before Razadarit launched his military consolidation (1385-1390)? Was Razadarit merely reasserting a control that his father the previous king already had, or was he asserting an entirely new stronger control over these settlements? What tax did he extract after consolidation? Troop levies for campaigns and defense against Ava? Monetary taxes on maritime commerce passing through Bassein and Dala? I remember Subrahmanyam making the statement that we have very few sources for 14th-15th century Lower Burma. Are the Kalyani inscriptions in the later 15th century and Tomes Pires in the early 16th all we have?

Elite circulation across localities problematizes the very notion of local autonomy. In the extreme case we have local inhabitants tied to the land and wandering armed rent-seeking elite with a Weberian "monopoly of force" extracting wealth whereever they can find it.

Anyway, it's fun to speculate, but stick to the fact trail in the historical record, let the sources tell their story before we get too carried away with interpretation, that's my first rule.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Local power, elite circulation, and warfare: Burma-Yunnan-Tai Realm (c. 1350-1600)

The revised intro to my paper in-progress. Any comments welcome:

Political control was fragmented and localized in central and western mainland Southeast Asia during the early modern period. Patron-client relations at the local level were most important. Hegemony over whole ethnic regions such as Burman Upper Burma, Mon Lower Burma, and the Tai Realm emerged only gradually:

“…by 18th- or 19th- century standards, ethnicity in the basin remained highly fragmented…within both the Burmese and Mon ecumenes, sub-ethnic loyalties and polyethnic clientage vitiated overarching identities far more substantially than in later periods…the Burman world, like its Shan and Mon counterparts, was fragmented into rival centers, with distinctive historical traditions and perhaps dialects. This then was an obvious difference between the pre-1550 and post-1600 eras: only in the later period did Toungoo centralization begin to fuse Burman ethnicity with a single political loyalty…at each local center the universalism of Buddhist appeals and the fluid, personalized bases of loyalty enabled individuals of quite diverse ethnicities to secure royal favor and cooperate, we therefore find: a) significant minority ethnicities in all armies and courts; b) frequent cross-ethnic defections, which bore no particular stigma; c) shifting alliances between predominantly Shan, Burman, and Mon principalities… (Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in a Global Context, 134-135).

The term "Tai Realm" will be used instead of Lieberman’s "Shan realm" to emphasize the interconnectedness of Tai "muang" from the different Tai sub-ethnic groups stretching across both the western and central mainland regions. The Tai Realm will be taken to include the region of Tai settlements stretching from the Ahom area in modern-day northern Assam, the Kachin and Shan states of Burma, the western frontier of Yunnan down to the Sipsongpanna, the Lan Na region (Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai), Lan Chang, and Ayutthaya.

The basic entity of Tai political organization, the muang, although rigidly organized at the commoner level for agricultural production and discipline in warfare was quite porous and fluid at the elite level allowing for elite circulation between Muang in the form of marriage alliances and changing loyalties as well as alliances and confederations between Muang ruling elite for the purpose of raiding and military action. Another form of elite circulation was mass migration to other geographical positions when inhabiting a certain location became untenable. For instance, Luchuan-Pingmian became untenable as a political center after the Ming Luchuan-Pingmian Campaigns (c. 1436-1449) and Meng Yang became a new center.

Several hypotheses similar to the ones that Lieberman has formulated for fluid ethnic boundaries in the Mon-Burman realm can be formulated for Muang boundaries in the Tai Realm:

1. The Tai Realm was fragmented into rival centers with distinctive historical traditions and dialects.

2. Within the Tai Realm changing loyalties and patron-client relations, that took place in the context of, but often superceded family ties, "vitiated overarching identities."

3. Frequently changing muang identities have complicated the narratives of Tai historical chronicles and made them difficult to correlate with sources from both inside and outside the various Tai historical traditions.

4. At each local center "fluid, personalized bases of loyalty" facilitated cooperation between the elite from different Muang, which led to:

a) Elite from different muang in the army and court of any given muang.
b) Frequent cross-muang defections.
c) Shifting alliances between Muang

Migration between Upper Burma and Lower Burma

In Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in a Global Context Lieberman discusses early modern migration into the territory stretching between the Burmese capital of Ava in the north and the Mon capital at Pegu in the south and the ensuing ethnic complexity of the region:

“...tension was rooted in north-south population movements, which pitted newcomers against established populations...Shan raids on Upper Burma...offer the most dramatic example. But of greater long-term significance – especially in light of the fact that dry zone ethnicity remained heavily Burman – was the continuous movements of Burmans themselves into thinly populated areas in the Upper delta and Lower Burma which since the 11th or 12th century, if not earlier, had been dominated by Mons" (Strange Parallels, p. 133).

Lieberman then goes on to provide some hints on how future, more empirically-based research on migration could proceed using indirect linguistic evidence:

“The spread of Burman ethnicity from the 14th century to the early 16th century can be traced in the eclipse of old Mon communities in the north, in growing settlement of coastal cities, and most especially in the Burmanization of rural districts between the 18th and 19th parallels that once contained sizable Mon populations. Although vestiges of Mon place names survived, by the mid-15th century there is little evidence of Mons living north of the latter line” (Strange Parallels, p. 133).

For the last detail on Mon place names, Lieberman cites a personal communication with the great Mon linguist H.L. Shorto who taught at SOAS and died in 1995 and translated large parts of the Nidana Ramadhipati Katha (a text that is nearly impossible to find in its circa 1912 Pak Lat Mon alphabet published version and which the near impossibility of access to manuscripts housed at the Burmese and Thai national libraries precludes unravelling, see manuscripts 18 and 19 in this Pak Lat Press list). Note that similar work using linguistic evidence has already been published for Tai populations: Hartmann, J. 1998. A Linguistic Geography and History of Tai Meuang-Fai [Ditch-Dike] Techno-Culture. Journal of Language and Linguistics. 16(2):67-100 [See this discussion].

There are scattered references in the Burmese chronicle to Shan members of the ruling elite in what are ostensibly non-Shan areas in both Upper and Lower Burma during the fifteenth century. For example, around 1492 the Burmese ruler of Toungoo, Min-gyi-nyo, attacked a settlement on the frontier between Toungoo and Mon Ramanya that had a Tai ruler (See page 304 of Fernquest, Jon (2005) “Min-gyi-nyo, the Shan invasions of Ava (1524-27, and the beginnings of expansionary warfare in Toungoo Burma: 1486-1539, SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research, Vol. 3, No. 2, Autumn 2005, Link). This is probably just the tip of a much bigger iceberg.

One small and excessively simple idea in Harvey's history:

“Possibly it was a war of migration, in that the main avenue of Shan pressure was from the north and the Ava state, thus reinforced, was able to swarm down on Pegu” (82).

Incubating over a 70 year period, now addresses a much more complicated actual historical reality.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Seven theories of state formation

Here's a nice cribsheet (outline notes) of seven theories of state formation (there are no citations or bibliography so its hard to match the ideas with a source):

1. The social surplus theory (V. Gordon Childe)
2. The circumscription theory (Robert Carniero)
3. The success in competition theory (William Sanders and Barbara Price)
4. The war finance theory (David Webster)
5. The managerial benefits theory (Elman Service)
6. The economics of population growth theory (Allen Johnson and Timothy Earle)
7. The resource-deficient core theory (William Rathje)

A. From Brumfiel's theory: "small-scale local chiefs might want to make their precarious positions more secure, to do so, they might choose to ally with each other, forming a larger political unit." This sounds similar to the centralization step in Di Cosmo's model of the state formation that accompanies mobilization of a society for warfare after a crisis:

[Di Cosmo's paper: (Nicola Di Cosmo, “State Formation and Periodization in Inner Asian History,” Journal of World History 10:1 (Spring 1999): 1-40., pp. 10-26), this weblog's entry]

[Also summarized here: Fernquest, Jon (2005) “Min-gyi-nyo, the Shan invasions of Ava (1524-27, and the beginnings of expansionary warfare in Toungoo Burma: 1486-1539, SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research, Vol. 3, No. 2, Autumn 2005, in "A model of state formation and expansion" p. 373-377, Link1, Link2].

B. The ubiquitous human agency vs deterministic structure (social, environmental) distinction that looms so large in many histories and the philosophy of history (e.g. Isaiah Berlin) is hiding among the theories:

"Individual people formulate goals and strategies based on the opportunities available to them, these may be affected by:
- ecological circumstances
- social circumstances
- their current social position, gender, class, etc."

And: "...states (or, for our purposes, civilizations) emerge as the cumulative effect of certain kinds of strategies used by leaders to maintain and extend their power."

C. Intensification of production is the centerpiece of the "economics of population growth theory of Allen Johnson and Timothy Earle, like the intensification of rice production in Ava period Toungoo that might have spurred expansionary warfare put forth as a hypothesis in Lieberman's Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in a Global Context.

The notes hypothesize that the intensification of production leads to:

Result 1. Increased risk of insufficient production
Result 2. Increased competition
Result 3. Increased demand for capital investments (public works, etc)
Result 4. Increased trade

Result 3 implies irrigation along the lines of O'Connor's argument in: O'Connor, R. 1995. Agricultural Change and Ethnic Succession in Southeast Asian States: A case for Regional Anthropology. Journal of Asian Studies. 54(4):

"O'Connor hypothesized that the development of wet-rice agriculture and the resulting complex political and social structure required to sustain the irrigation system ultimately resulted in Tai dominance over the Mon-Khmer."

"In Southeast Asia, a dependable rice crop produces more calories per acre than any other grain and can support rapid population growth and expansion. Tai irrigation methods ensured reliable rice production and, ultimately, a well-fed population. For the Tai irrigation system to work, the minimal political unit was village-sized, requiring a complex division of labor to ensure system functionality. Alternatively, the Mon-Khmer opted for a less complex system — each family labored independently to grow and harvest rice crops and relied on the elements for adequate rainfall."

"Tai agricultural success resulted in growing population numbers, causing groups of Tai to migrate from their region of origin to other, geographically-similar areas favoring wet-rice agriculture." (Source)

Lieberman cites and adapts O'Connor's argument to support the intensification of agriculture as a spur to state expansion hypothesis mentioned above. Result 2 above also implies that intensification is a spur to warfare:

"Result 2. Increased competition
--Because intensified production requires scarce resources such as good farmland, and because the land has to be improved by clearing, planting, irrigation works, etc., there is more to be gained by taking a neighbor's property. The potential benefits of violent conflict increase.
------groups form alliances, organize for defense, build walls, etc.
----Effect on society:
------These strategies create opportunities for management, leadership, and class differences to develop."

Archaeological rather than textual evidence is essential to support an intensification hypothesis. A lot of the theories in these notes seem to have been developed in the context of Meso-American archaeology (e.g. for Mayan civilization). The archaeology of Burma and Yunnan is much less well-developed.

Alas, there are so many theories. Naming would at least reify their content and make them more comparable with the aid of search engine technologies, the way Wikipedia is currently standardizing terminology for many people through its naming conventions.

Friedrich Hayek vs. Karl Polanyi

In my Bangkok Post weblog today, I got to revisit through Wikipedia (a good refresher of one's memory) Friedrich Hayek and his argument that free markets are a form of spontaneous order:

"Hayek viewed the price mechanism, not as a conscious invention (that which is intentionally designed by man), but as spontaneous order, or what is referred to as "that which is the result of human action but not of human design". Thus, Hayek put the price mechanism on the same level as, for example, language. Such thinking led him to speculate on how the human brain could accommodate this evolved behavior. In The Sensory Order (1952), he proposed, independently of Donald Hebb, the connectionist hypothesis that forms the basis of the technology of neural networks and of much of modern neurophysiology."

"Hayek attributed the birth of civilization to private property in his book The Fatal Conceit (1988). According to him, price signals are the only possible way to let each economic decision maker communicate tacit knowledge or dispersed knowledge to each other, in order to solve the economic calculation problem."

Karl Polanyi [Wikipedia] and Hayek certainly stand poles apart. Reciprocity and redistribution don't seem to play any role in Hayek.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Outline of political anthropology from Guns, Germs, and Steel

Here is an outline of the political anthropology and state formation chapter in Jared Diamond's popularization Guns, Germs, and Steel. It takes time to find all the places where Jared Diamond takes his ideas on state formation from. Like number three below from Weber:

How do kleptocracies keep from being overthrown?
1. Disarm the populace, arm the elite
2. Redistribute tribute in popular ways
3. Use monopoly of force to keep public order
4. Construct an ideology or religion that justifies kleptocracy

If you have to teach economic history to undergraduates in a Thai University though, Jared Diamond's book is invaluable because there is a translation into Thai so students can read the two texts in parallel. Guns, Germs and Steel also brings the subject alive for students with striking examples like the Maori's invading the Chatham Islands (See Wikipedia:Moriori) inhabited by hunter-gatherer social organization that matched the environmental constraints on the island, putting them fatally behind Maori invaders. It seems to be a rather clear case of environmental determinism, although some would disagree, while others would agree.

Jared Diamond also does a good job simplifying some rather difficult concepts like the growing complexity of societies as they move from a hunter-gatherer to a tribal to a chiefdom to a state organization, but he does fail to adequately point out that this was the theoretical creation of Elman Service.

On the origins of the state (presentation, feedback diagrams)

This powerpoint presentation by Scott A. Lukas on the "The Origins of the State" is a nice read with copious feedback diagrams from some intellectuals you wouldn't at first think were relevant to the study of pre-modern state formation.

State formation is a topic that has been debated for over a hundred years. The debate seems to suffer from several kinds of problems:

1. Insularity of academic disciplines: scholars in one discipline don't know about similar ideas in another.

2. Forgetting: With a hundred years of inconclusive debate, it's hard to remember what individual scholars have hypothesized or claimed, unless of course the scholar is Max Weber.

3. Ideas without empirical evidence: The debate takes place in an intellectual vaccum without trying to map it to empirical evidence. Sometimes it almost seems like throwing all the theoretical machinery away and beginning from the ground up with meticulous intercultural historical comparison is the only way out of the labyrinth.

I still don't buy that Mong Mao was a large and unified early modern Tai state, a segmentary state perhaps. Take the definition of state from Johnson and Earle's survey on evolution of social organization used in the presentation:

"The state is defined as a regionally-organized society with a population (of hundreds of thousands or millions) which is economically and ethnically diverse (Johnson & Earle 1981: 246). By 3500 b.c. we see some of the common characteristics of civilization (inscription; cities; full-time craft specialists; monumental architecture; social stratification become even more distinct; and strong hierarchical systems of centralized organization, what we traditionally classify as being “the state.”)"

As for "strong hierarchical systems of centralized organization" the historical record shows high levels of elite conflict and contention for power along with endemic warfare, i.e. the society was hierarchical in name only. Political fragmentation and lack of unity also reflected in the fragmented nature of the historical record itself, saturated with conflicting place and personal names that no scholar since the time of James Scott with his Gazetteer of Upper Burma and the Shan States has been able to sort out. There is a lot of exaggeration in ideologically laden local Tai chronicles about the vastness of Mong Mao. "Mong Mao" or "Meng Mao" is not even used until a lot later, 1588, at least in Wade's polity index for the Ming Shi-lu.)

In general positing a far reaching unified state in the presence of only ideologically-laden evidence like local Tai, Mon, or Burmese chronicles is a fairly common move on the part of pre-modern chroniclers.

I think Di Cosmo's analysis (following Andreski) of how decentralized Mongols or Central Asians, China's northern nomadic "enemies", became much more centralized when faced with the Chinese to their south is pertinent. I'm going to have to thoroughly document the standard accepted interpretation of a strongly unified Mong Mao state (14th-15th century) before I embark on a revisionist argument that it had a decentralized social organization.

Openness, computers, and the internet in historical scholarship

The article I wrote yesterday at my Bangkok Post weblog ("Who’s the boss? You or your computer?") addresses the impact of "openness" in computing and the internet on scholarship.

The article included a caricature of a typical university professor or scholar who is happily married to print publishing and doesn't want to risk any infidelities with widely available computer readable editions. I aimed to point out that the very nature of scholarship will inevitably change(and is currently changing in at least Europe)with the widespread availability of computing technologies and the internet:

"A professor at a university avoids putting his research on the internet. This makes it difficult for other professors to evaluate the quality of his work which makes his job more secure. If you could use a search engine, you could find mistakes, the names of other professors whose ideas he uses a lot, or even create a bibliography that shows where he got his information. All his research is hidden away in paper books deep in the university library."

Much to my chagrin during my trip to the United States last November, I saw much of U.C. Berkeley's content slipping out of my fingers because it is no longer on the shelves in paper but only available via licensed JSTOR pdf files only to students with ID cards. So much for sharing knowledge with the world. Is it the beginning of another dark ages? It seems that only professors and their students will have ready access to this information anymore and not third parties more likely to subject it to peer evaluation and critique like journalists or amateur historians, amateurs having played an important role in the writing of the Oxford Dictionary, for instance. The traditional notion of books in libraries freely available to at least the citizens of a locality has apparently disappeared. There's a huge gap developing. On the internet, readily available to all there are Encyclopedia Britannica quality overviews, but for those who want to drill down deep it will require cash, even for humanities research which is concerned with knowledge as an end in itself and not as a competitive business advantage (which probably should be paid for).

Actually, the masterwork of my favorite scholar Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, the work of the historian of Burma Professor Lieberman of the University of Michigan, doesn't even have a bibliography, but for a good reason. He cites so many works that a bibliography would require a separate volume, not feasible in this era where paper publishing is becoming less and less justified.

Since Lieberman's book Strange Parallels is so useful, often being a tentative exploration of hypotheses to stimulate further investigation, an internet bibliography to supplement the workis a good idea for a cooperative open content project(like Wikipedia) making a bibliography for Strange Parallels available online. (I don't know whether this legally possible though, given copyright law).

My caricature was aimed at much less ambitious works that are difficult to assess in their paper form because they lack some standard and necessary features like bibliographies and extensive indexes that are trivially easy to produce by computer. Recently, I have come across much shorter books that have severe bibliographical problems/handicaps. Like the absence of a bibliography meant it was difficult to get an overall picture of what sources the work relied on. In another book the whole argument seemed to be based on the work of a now deceased scholar who is not only given short shrift in the book, but isn't even mentioned in the bibliography, so you can't even check how much of the previous scholar's work is cited without manually skimming thorugh the whole work. Ugh! This is really inexcusable in this era of ubiquitous computing.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Carniero’s Environmental Circumscription (Feedback diagram)

Here is a crib sheet for Carniero's theory of environmental circumscription in state formation:

1. Warfare usually disperses people rather than uniting them.

2. Environmental Circumscription: An area of circumscribed agricultural land is bounded by mountains, sea, or desert. Productive land is surrounded by unproductive land, i.e. more extensive cultivation would bring severely diminishing returns.

3. If there is no environmental circumscription, than losers in a war can migrate out from the region and settle somewhere else.

4. If there is environmental circumscription:

a. Then losers in warfare are forced to submit to their conquerors because migration is not an option.

b. The populations of the conquered and conqueror are united.

c. The new state organization alleviates the population pressure by increasing the productive capacity of agricultural through more intensive cultivation using irrigation, for instance.

5. Example 1: Amazonian Indians could always retreat into deeper forest, whereas American Indians could not.

6. Example 2: The mountainous river valley’s of Peru were severely environmentally circumscribed. More intensive terrace cultivation under one large state was the result.

7. Primary state development: The six original states: Nile Valley, Peru, Mesoamerican, Yellow River Valley China, Indus River Valley, Mesopotamia.

8. Secondary state development: States that developed from contact with already existing states.

9. Primary state development occurred in areas with environmental circumscription.

Source of diagram: Wheatley, Paul (1983) Nagara and Commandery: Origins of Southeast Asian Urban Traditions, The University of Chicago, Department of Geography, Research Paper 207-208 [Carniero’s feedback diagram is on p. 22, but there is no real textual explanation of it]

Source of explanation: Lewellen, Ted C. (1992) Political anthropology: An Introduction, Second Edition. Westport Connecticut, London: Bergin and Garvey.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Subrahmanyam’s critique of fixed ‘area studies’ (versus perhaps, adaptable ‘regional studies’)

Subrahmanyam, Sanjay (1997) “Connected Histories: Notes towards a Reconfiguration of Early Modern Eurasia” in Lieberman, Victor (ed) Connected Histories: Early Modern Eurasia, Modern Asian Studies 31, 3 (1997), pp. 735-762.

In this paper, Sanjay Subrahmanyam is not enamored with Southeast Asia as a focal point for early modern historical scholarship. He throws into question the practice of producing collections of papers, surveys, courses, or whole academic programs focused on different aspects of "Southeast Asia". It is not an entirely destructive enterprise though. Although he doesn't explicitly name it as such, he does develop a notion of adaptable regional studies (my term) with regions that adapt to research questions rather than research questions artifically adapting to fixed regions.

To give some concrete examples from my experience, when studying the 16th century Portuguese maritime empire, isn't a focus merely on Southeast Asia artificial, shouldn't coastal Africa, India, the Middle East, Japan, China, and Indonesia be included in the picture? The same goes for indigenous inland history. During the early modern period, the southern part of Yunnan is arguably part of Burma's and Vietnam's history, but Southeast Asian history? From 1406-27 mutually interdependent events are happening in Yunnan, Vietnam, and Burma, to label something as only Burmese, Vietnamese, or Southeast Asian during this time period is to intentionally blind yourself to this mutual inderdependence. That's why this weblog is named: “Burma-Yunnan-Bay of Bengal: 1350-1600”.

As Professor Lieberman of University of Michigan has shown in his work Strange Parallels, comparative history doesn't require geographical nearness. If we throw away common geography as an essential condition, shouldn't we also question the necessity of a common time period or era. In fact, the meteoric rise of Maori states during the Maori Musket Wars of the early 19th century was quite similar to Bayinnaung’s mid-16th century gunpowder empire. It was also witnessed by many Europeans. Java and Burma might provide good comparisons for early modern river warfare, but why restrict the comparison to Southeast Asia. The same kinds of warboats were not doubt used in Africa and South Asia [Maori Musket War Links: link1,link2,link3,link4, link5] .

It is not ‘studying a region’ or ‘area studies’ that Subrahmanyam objects to in the paper cited above; it is fixed ideas about what regions are relevant to a study:

“’Area studies’ can very rapidly become parochialism, and we often see an insistence, taken to the limits of the absurd, concerning the unity of ‘Southeast Asia’, ‘South Asia’ or whatever one happens to study…It is as if these conventional geographical units of analysis, fortuitously defined as givens for the intellectually slothful, and the result of complex (even murky) processes of academic and non-academic engagement, somehow become real and overwhelming. Having helped create these Frankenstein monsters, we are obliged to praise them for their beauty, rather than grudgingly acknowledge their limited functional utility” (pp. 742-743).

Subrahmanyam provides a challenge:

“Contrary to what ‘area studies’ implicitly presumes, a good part of the dynamic in early modern history was provided by the interface between the local and regional…and the supra-regional, at times even global…. For the historian who is willing to scratch below the surface of his sources, nothing turns out to be quite what it seems to be in terms of fixity and local rootedness” (749).

He tries to open the readers mind to broader possible uses of this idea of regionalism. India, for one, is obviously connected to Southeast Asia: “it makes little sense, to my mind, to talk of mainland Southeast Asia in this period [early modern] as if it were isolated from the Indian world” (746). It also makes little sense to talk of Yunnan as if it was isolated, at least that is what I am trying to get at in my paper Fernquest (2005) “Min-gyi-nyo, the Shan invasions of Ava (1524-27, and the beginnings of expansionary warfare in Toungoo Burma: 1486-1539, SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research, Vol. 3, No. 2, Autumn 2005. [Link1, Link2]

Subrahmanyman points out that the Bay of Bengal, a body of water, not land, is a medium of interaction and connects Burma, Ayutthaya, Arakan, as well as Sumatra and India:

“How might the local and specific have interacted with the supralocal in our terms? Consider the Bay of Bengal in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Although not a closed sea, the littoral areas of the Bay are a far more tightly knit unit of interaction in this period than the Indian Ocean taken as a whole. Within this zone, we can witness on the one hand the development of networks of commercial exchange (trade between the Coromandel coast of of south-eastern India and Bengal, and Burma, Mergui and the Malay coast), and on the other hand a significant nexus by which military elites, courtiers, and religious specialists crossed the Bay on a regular basis” (745-746).

Although it might mean having to marshall a wide variety of linguistic and other skills 'adaptable regional studies' probably have more potential for a more 'scientific history' because there are simply more examples to falsify a hypothesis with through comparison, than there is by artifically restricting oneself to "Southeast Asia".

Monday, April 17, 2006

Subrahmanyam’s porous intellectual frontiers of early modern Southeast Asia

Subrahmanyam, Sanjay (1997) “Connected Histories: Notes towards a Reconfiguration of Early Modern Eurasia” in Lieberman, Victor (ed) Connected Histories: Early Modern Eurasia, Modern Asian Studies 31, 3 (1997), pp. 735-762.

Subrahmanyam argues that the ruling elite and their ideas passed freely across the frontiers separating polities/societies in early modern Southeast and South Asia. This contrasts with Wyatt’s paper in the same volume that argues that landlocked La Na was fairly isolated from the rest of the world intellectually.

Pegu under Razadarit was on the coast, probably a more porous intellectual frontier for the passage of ideas and texts since water travel is quicker and does not require passing through rent-seeking warring states and stateless regions controlled by bandits. The Mon king Dhammaceti’s late 15th century expedition to Sri Lanka to reordinate and purify the Buddhist Sangha is a good example. This cultural-intellectual exchange only took a few months. The flow of ideas was almost instantaneous. As Subrahmanyam observes, the Bay of Bengal was “a significant nexus by which military elites, courtiers and religious specialists crossed the Bay on a regular basis” (746).

Subrahmanyam hypothesizes that there were regional inter-polity flows of ideas (intellectual content) as well as trade flows:

“Speaking of supra-local connections in the early modern world, we tend to focus on such phenomenon as world bullion flows and their impact, firearms and the so-called ‘Military Revolution', or the circulation of renegades and mercenaries. But ideas and mental constructs, too, flowed across political boundaries in that world, and—even if they found specific local expression—enable us to see that what we are dealing with are not separate and comparable, but connected histories” (747-748).

The well-known story of Tabinshweihti drinking with and being corrupted by the Portuguese adventurer (who was an actual person and not a myth, supposedly doing trade with Aceh, I'll have to find the reference) could signify that the influence of Portuguese ideas had almost as great an impact as Portuguese military technologies, ideas that spoke to the possibility of conquests far away from home, like Malacca in 1511 which would have been a recent event for Tabinshweihti in the 1540’s.

Subrahmanyam hypothesizes that elite circulation (within the region between polities) was important:

“Any consideration of early modern state-building activity that neglects this element of elite circulation misses out on one of the key themes that characterizes the period: namely a change in the nature and scale of elite movement across political boundaries…the permeability of what are often assumed to be closed ‘cultural zones’, and the existence of vocabularies that cut across local religious traditions.” (748).

One thing you get from reading Dr. Pat Pranke’s recent PhD dissertation at University of Michigan, an annotated translation of a Burmese history of the Buddhist religion, is that unlike normal people, monks could pass through political boundaries fairly easily. If we consider Buddhist monks as a freely circulating elite (into Yunnan from the China side also as the Ming Shi-lu shows) we might have to change how we think about the diffusion of ideas.

Subrahmanyam also asserts that messianism was one important ideological currents of the early modern era. The Mon uprising that forced Tabinshweihti to return from his far-flung military expedition to Ayutthaya and Kamphengphet in the east and ultimately led to assassination and fall, had strong overtones of messianism. If the Christian Day of Judgement was “known by certain signs, namely ‘wars and rebellions, the fall of kingdoms and nations, the invasion, devastation and conquest of nation by nation and kingdom by kingdom…’” (747) than a comparable Buddhist day of judgement lay in the trough of the ebb and wane of civilization depicted in the Cakravartin story in Buddhist scripture (studied in great depth in the Cornell PhD dissertation of professor Sunait Chutintaranond of Chulalongkorn University). Subrahmanyam even borrows the term “political theology” from the medievalist Ernst Kantorowicz, pointing perhaps to the well studied Middle Ages as one possible locus of comparison. He also suggests ‘notions of universal empire’, ‘indigenous cosmologies’, and ‘notions of universalism and humanism’ as other loci of comparison. A lot of this has been done already for Thai and Burmese history, but for the early modern period?

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Is the "face of warfare" in Razadarit Ayeidawpon the real face?

Wyatt, David K. (1997) “Southeast Asia ‘Inside Out’ 1300-1800: A Perspective from the Interior,” in Lieberman, Victor (ed) Connected Histories: Early Modern Eurasia, Modern Asian Studies 31, 3 (1997), pp. 689-709.

Some comments that Wyatt makes in this paper on warfare during the fourteenth century seem very pertinent to Razadarit Ayeidawpon:

“The outcomes of the large-scale wars of this period for the most part were determined by personal martial qualities, or by superior tactics (or by trickery), rather than by such considerations as the relative balance of forces on the two sides, or the economic strength of one side or another, or by considerations of morale and leadership save as these were exemplified in the personal qualities of rulers.” (David K. Wyatt (1997) “Southeast Asia ‘Inside-out,’ 1300-1800”, p. 696)

This assessment is based on chronicle narratives like the Chiangmai Chronicle and it also holds for Razadarit Ayeidawpon and the Burmese chronicles of the era. There is a problem here though.

The depiction of warfare has always suffered from strong ideological biases. Highly stylized “battle pieces” higher ends of state-sanctioned political ideology. The military historian John Keegan was the first to provide a thorough critique of this traditional depiction of battle in his groundbreaking work “The Face of Battle”. In traditional battle pieces historical events are pre-selected to support ideological ends. They are portrayed as deterministic, heroic and mythic with clear heroes and villains. The contingent nature of warfare that Clausewitz stresses is downplayed. The viewpoint and actions of lower level participants is ignored, their actions being lumped into collective images with a “highly oversimplified depiction of human behaviour on the battlefield.” (Also see Wikipedia:Battle_of_Agincourt)

In the anthropology of warfare, the fraction of the population that can be mobilized for battle is roughly a function of a society's ability to accumulate a food surplus. The level of military technology is also a function of this surplus either supporting craftsmen to forge weaponry or production for trade, the procedes of which can be used to support weapons purchases. Indians on the north coast of America and the Maoris of New Zealand providing two good examples of this. Perhaps societies studied by anthropologists, like these, are a better source for comparisons than traditional over-studied Europe.

Anyway, the point I want to make, is that there is an ideological layer to many ideological texts. If these ideologically laden texts are the only historical sources available, the historian might have to reach outside of even Southeast Asia to find societies in a similar environmental, cultural, and economic situation to make reasonable inferences about possible actual historical behaviours. Is it really sufficient to assume “everything is culture” and then rely solely on ideological laden indigenous historical texts?

In other parts of the paper, though, Wyatt clearly does point out the insular and ideologically-laden perspective of the ruling elite that composed early modern chronicle texts:

“…the CMC [Chiang Mai Chronicle] (and many related texts) does not say anything about Ayudhya, Siam, Lan Na, or China or the Chinese: the conflicts are described entirely in terms of the ambitions, greed, or personalities of the various rulers involved…One is left with the impression that this inland principality was essentially still very parochial; still concerned with its immediate neighborhood in the small mountain valleys of the interior of mainland Southeast Asia” (p. 698)

The same would judgement might also apply to Burmese Ava (c. 1364-1555) and Mon Pegu (c. 1369-1540) to the west. At times the narrative in Razadarit Ayeidawpon seems to imply a level of theoretical sophistication in warfare that is too high given its insular location. An additional layer of theoretical explication of warfare in the manner of a military manual might have been added at a subsequent period such the late Konbaung or early colonial period. One way at getting at this could be by comparing Razadarit Ayeidawpon with the rendition of these same events in U Kala's Burmese chronicle which may have used an earlier rendition of these events. That's what I'm doing now.

Friday, April 14, 2006

What was Harvey’s Contribution to his own history of Burma? I

Harvey, G.E. (1925) History of Burma: From the earliest times to 10 March 1824, the beginning of the English conquest. New, York, Toronto, Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras: Longmans, Green and Co.

In his preface to Harvey’s history Sir Richard Carnac Temple observes:

“There is one criticism which it would not be difficult to level at this book in places. At times it reads almost like a jumble, in which the wood cannot be seen from the trees. That is not the fault of Mr. Harvey but of his subject” (xi).

Is it really? Historians who came after Harvey seem to have been able to put order to the chaos. Perhaps, this is one way to look at Harvey’s history: a jumble of correct facts without citations to sources. Where these facts came from is also made abundantly clear in the first sentence of Harvey’s preface:

“Mr. Charles Duroiselle, Superintendent, Archaeological Survey, Burma, suggested in 1918 that I should write this book. Since then he has guided my reading and given me access to his notes—the accumulated notes of a lifetime—so that the first half of this book is largely his, and the only reason his name does not appear on the title page is that he has not seen the final draft.”

So what we have here is Duroiselle’s facts and Harvey’s jumble of style and plot, a colonial era legacy that is may be hard to appreciate nowadays. Look at the very title of the history with the exact day that British rule began. One could well imagine a satire where the exact hour and second as well as the astrological position of the stars is also given.

Harvey’s style grates on modern ears. Take for instance, Razadarit’s being a victim of a nagging harem of wives later on in his life. This is one of the few male chauvinist-like episodes that is not in the original text, so it must have been added by Harvey later on. Passages in the original text like the women of Razadarit’s harem goading Razadarit on, encouraging him to grab the king of Ava’s harem and adding it to his already existing collection of wives, obviously seem fictional, but they are only a small fraction of the original Razadarit Ayeidawpon text. Harvey seems to emphasize this aspect of the original text in his history for their lurid melodramatic value and even makes them the centerpiece of whole sections of his historical narrative. Alyssa Phillips has investigated the literary side of Harvey’s history in a SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research paper , but the role of women in particular in royal chornicle texts that are dominated by warfare certainly deserves a more thorough treatment. Women and war are two major themes of Razadarit Ayeidawpon. To what extent were Razadarit’s marital affairs artificially complicated by the original Razadarit authors, and then later by Harvey, to enhance the fictional plot line of the narrative? This remains to be shown with exacting scholarship (if in fact there are enough sources to do this).


Phillips, Alyssa (2005)"Romance and tragedy in Burmese history: A reading of G.E. Harvey's the History of Burma," SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research, Vol.3, No. 1, Spring 2005.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Ferguson’s War and Society Paradigm I

Article: Ferguson, R. Brian (1999) “A paradigm for the study of war and society” in Raaflaub, Kurt, and Rosenstein, Nathan (eds) War and Society in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds: Asia, the Mediterranean, and Mesoamerica, Center for Hellenic Studies, Harvard University.

Brief Review: "R. Brian Ferguson provides an interesting essay and a paradigm for the study of war and society. Sociocultural phenomena are categorized into infrastructure, structure, and superstructure. Ferguson's chapter is a test of this paradigm's applicability to war and society in the ancient and medieval world, using both the essays in this book and previously published research. Some fascinating comparisons and conclusions are reached in this essay, too numerous to report. Suffice it to say that this chapter both summarizes and suggests, incorporating all available literature, how war and society are intertwined throughout history." [Source, Another Review]

My Outline Notes: In this article Ferguson provides a general framework and taxonomy for cross-cultural comparisons of warfare (especially pre-modern and non-western warfare) as well as an extensive review of the literature. The factors enumerated in this study could also be viewed as causal factors behind warfare. There are three anthropological levels in the paradigm:

1. Infrastructure: physical environment, population, practice (labor) and technology (capital)
2. Structure: social, economic, political organization of societies
3. Superstructure: mental constructs of a culture, belief systems, patterned emotional dispositions

And two political levels:

1. Intrapolity factors within states or societies
2. Interpolity: factors between states or societies

Here is a more detailed outline of the first part I made last night over a cup of coffee at a wonderful little caf้ in the garden (Sukhumvit Soi 24 Bangkok). Note, there are still factors at the end that haven’t incorporated into my notes yet.

1. Intrapolity:
a. Infrastructure:
i. “Subsistence practice, the way that food is extracted from nature, is intertwined with broad features of violent conflict” (391).
ii. “hunting techniques could be called a preadaptation to war” (391).
iii. “Nomadic pastoralists can strike at distances and are hard to attack, and livestock gives them a built in incentive for raiding” (391).
iv. “even farm implements can become weapons” (391).
v. “Seasonality of conflict” is a feature of armies of cultivators (391).
vi. Armies of cultivators often receive no pay. Their implicit compensation is the land they have been given to farm. Some have specific military functions to serve (musketeers, cavalry, elephant corps, royal bodyguard) others are general conscripts with not specialized function or weapons.
vii. “The intensified and extended production systems of expanding empires are able to generate food surpluses capable of supporting huge armies” (392)
viii. “the organization and capabilities of a military force are closely linked to the societal system of provisioning, in states no less than tribes.”
ix. An important variable is how long soldiers are removed from production. In mainland Southeast Asia, basically for one dry season, whereas for Roman soldiers, years at a time. This puts a limit on the length and distance of campaigns.
x. wars can be generated by “some critical scarcity of subsistence resources” (392).
xi. “Land becomes a more inviting target as production systems develop and invest more labor in it…especially when political structures are evolved enough to incorporate the bounty of land and its tillers into tribute and tax” (392). Sure, but the issue is whether the conquering center has enough control to tax and extract resources out of the conquered periphery. In fact, a logical continuum between raiding and taxation/tribute can be seen here. If taxes are not forthcoming, a punitive expedition is sent to extract them.
xii. Acquisition of land or territory versus acquisition of people or manpower.
xiii. “Having title to land was sometimes linked to an inherited duty of military service” (393).
xiv. In some ecological environments people were scarce, in others land.
xv. “Population determines the maximum size of an army that a society can mobilize” (394).
xvi. The large army size that can be fielded is one major reason behind the formation of confederacies (394).
xvii. The impact of war on populations is a longstanding issue.
xviii. Some claim that warfare is an adaptive mechanism, “slowing population growth and redistributing people for a sustainable balance with nature.”
xix. Others claim that it has maladaptive effects including “forced nucleations, large danger zones that cannot be exploited, and occasionally the breakdown of social structures which contributed to collective provisioning” (394).
xx. “tribal warfare where all the adult males are mobilized, can produce a very high death rate, exceeding 25 percent” (394).
xxi. War may have a negative demographic effect by reducing agricultural production (395).
xxii. Scorched earth defense tactics can lead to population decline. (395)
xxiii. Fortifications: “The presence of these massive structures was the central reality of all the combat that swirled around them, and the walls necessitated the massive logistical systems of siege warfare” (395)
xxiv. “Weapons technology is both a major determinant of military practice and an expression of overall level of technological development” (396).
xxv. “Development of technology goes in tandem with changes in combat practices” (396).
xxvi. “Changing weapons systems, and the interaction of technology, combat practice, and military organization are prominent themes…” (396).
xxvii. “Combat is men’s work” (396).

Intrapolity structure:

Internal Social Structure:
1. “Among elites inter-marriage is a frequent basis of solidarity and alliance” (398).
2. “Stratification is associated with two tiers (at least) of soldiers, elite and mass” (399).
3. “War offered an avenue for social mobility for men” (399).
4. Armies, civil administration, and organized religion are inter-related and are determinants of social organization (400).

Internal economics:
1. Who provisions a military expedition? (supply and logistics)
2. Land settlement: Are soldiers supplied with salaries or land allotments?
3. There is a connection between chronic warfare, the heavy expenses incurred, and taxation to finance it (401).
4. Tax collection: Wars are often fought over non-payment of taxes.
5. “imperial centers transformed the entire system of production and commerce around them to provide both material support for armies and a continuing supply of troops” (401).

Internal politics:
1. “Development of more expansive and cohesive polities cuts down on localized fighting” (402).
2. “The role of leadership increases in times of war” (402).
3. “Leaders during wars must carefully evaluate and navigate a course balancing internal factional alignments and oppositions with external alliances and conflicts” (402).
4. “Success in war can often be an avenue to wealth status and influence” (402).
5. “war can act as an evolutionary ratchet, a factor that promotes incremental eleboration of centralization and hierarchy” (402).
6. Succession Crises: “With the development of chiefly hierarchies comes the possibility of violent conflict over succession to high-status office” (402).
7. Tribute may necessitate wars just to keep in power (cf. Si Lun fa, maybe he needed to wage wars against secondary states to collect taxes, maybe his popularity was partially due to acquiescence to Ming tax demands.)
8. External military affairs have a major impact on the internal political position of military leaders” …allowing them to advance in position and esteem (403).
9. “Conflict can lead to to either fusion or fission of polities along a variety of social organizational lines, making internal into external, or vice versa” (404).
10. States have the ability to “compel men to fight, even on pain of death.”
11. States also have the “ability to suppress independent military initiatives by local forces” (404).
12. A difference between state and non-state societies is that in state societies their lives depended on military obedience (404).
13. Ancient armies sometimes, but not always, served as internal police (404).

Intrapolity superstructure:
1. Deals with the mental world and cultural psychology (405).
2. War is often an expression of cultural values (405).
3. There were sometimes “local logics of war” (405).
4. “Inculcation of martial values, the development of justifying political ideologies, and the harnessing of spiritual beliefs to the idol of war” are all important here (405).
5. In ethnography chronic warfare is sometimes associated with “belligerent, aggressive male personalities” (406).
6. “With military specialization, warrior classes develop an elaborate warrior ethos” (406).
7. “Writing provides an entirely new medium for valorization of war and warriors” (406).
8. “What distinguishes murder from killing in war is that the latter is provided with social justification. Every polity at war has a pattern of beliefs that accomplishes this vital task” (407).
9. “Revenge is invoked to do two things. First, it means ‘they started it’ --- in one way or the other the intended victims of an attack brought it on themselves…” (407).
10. “War is often seen as a reponse to enemy provocations” (407).
11. “State ideologies often…fuse military leadership, the sacred, and the right to rule” (408). [cf royal chronicle traditions]
12. “war is so thoroughly ritualized…that it is sometimes hard to say what is religion (or magic) and what is not” (408).

2. Interpolity:

1. “Dyadic relations between polities are the building blocks of a system that has its own emergent qualities, endemic warfare being a big one” (409).
2. “unlike much ‘realist’ international relations theory…, polities are not seen here as unitary, independent actors but as potentially divided congeries of people, dialectically interacting with the larger social system” (409).

a. Infrastructure:

1. “Geographic circumscription --- sharp ecological divides that restrict populations to one place – are important contributing factors to both war and political evolution” (409).
2. “Fighting may involve clusters of peer polities with equivalent subsistence systems..or may include adversaries with different ecologies” (409).
3. “Groups with less secure provisions may raid those with better supplies” (410).
4. “The Nile valley is a classic case of circumscription” (410).
5. “Generally, state armies do less well against scattered, mobile, autonomous groupings than against more dense and centralized polities” (410). (cf nomadic)
6. “Regional population characteristics may affect war” (410).
7. “Cross-cultural statistics have failed to establish any correlation between regional population density and intensity of warfare, although connections are apparent in particular cases” (410).
8. “regional population to resource balances affect whether war embodies the politics of exclusion or aims to garner people” (410).
9. Empirically, war is often avoided or exited when local groups have the option or relocating to unoccupied lands” (410).
10. Sometimes “war seems to propel people outwards from areas of high productivity and population growth to, ultimately displacing some into economically marginal areas that act as population sinks” (410).

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Political theory
in Razadarit Ayeidawpon IX

Razadarit's minister Deinmaniyut on chain of command (c. 1383)

The very day that Razadarit ascended the throne of Pegu, the Razadarit Ayeidawpon begins a long excursion on political theory, investigating the nature and impact of political subordination among the ruling elite.

Immediately after his coronation in 1383 Razadarit calls his father’s minister Deinmaniyut to his presence and orders that he be executed. The minister demands to know why he is to be executed, claiming that “only by executing those who committed wrongs would a king’s power and glory increase.” Razadarit explains that, unlike other members of the ruling elite, Deinmaniyut had not approached him before he became king and shown his “respect and fealty". Razadarit accuses the minister of opportunistic behavior, "Now that you come to me only when I am at the pinnacle of kingship with your sweet words, this is your great mistake.” The minister counters that the behavior that Razadarit expected of him was in fact opportunistic and draws a clear picture in Razadarit’s mind of the incentives he is putting in place if he carries out his decision to execute him:

“I had been a servant to your father, the king and had enjoyed his trust. In return I had been awarded the fiefdom of Syriam (Thanlyin). I pay court only to a king who wears a white umbrella, not to on who is without this emblem of kingship. If you should take umbrage for this and have me executed, I lose nothing more than my life but the underpinnings of good administration would be uprooted for good. People would point out my fate as an example of losing one’s life and leaving one’s wife destitute for being loyal only to a crowned king and omitting to make overtures like offering advice to a pretender who later becomes king” (San Lwin, 59-60).

Razadarit understands that he would be setting a bad precedent, so he withdraws his decision to execute Deinmaniyut. The soundness of this logic is proven over and over again during the Mon-Burmese war (c. 1385-1421) as each side tries to win over local rulers to their side. Often the economic calculation is given for not changing sides, hinting that short-sighted political cunning and gamesmanship similar to that found in the writings of Machiavelli often superceded higher-order moral principles like this one.

Jared Diamond's State formation feedback diagram

This was the only place online where I could find Diamond's feedback diagram, here entitled "Factors underlying the broadest pattern of history". The time scale is much too broad but it does show the connection between food surplus, technology, military capability, and state formation.

This is part of my mini-project to make a collection of world history feedback diagrams so I can compare their applicability to the Burma-Yunnan-Bay of Bengal regional history. I'm especially interested in the effects of warfare on state formation in these diagrams. Paul Wheatley reduces three theories of state formation to feedback diagrams including Carniero's environmental circumscription in his 1983 book Nagara and Commandery.

William H. McNeill, one of the first scholars of World History, in this online article entitled "The World according to Jared Diamond" critiques Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel".

Monday, April 10, 2006

Naval river warfare during the Razadarit era (c. 1416) VIII

This continues my series of descriptions of river warfare from the later part of Razadarit Ayeidawpon (condensed from San Lwin’s unpublished translation). This extract describes how (c. 1400):

1. stakes were planted in rivers for defense, and
2. warboats were lured into an ambush.

These river stakes were invisible, unlike the ground stakes that played such an important role in the Battle of Agincourt. The river stakes had much the same shock effect as the Agincourt stakes did on advancing cavalry when the archers shooting behind them withdrew in the face of a cavalry charge (Keegan, John (1976) The Face of Battle, 94-96).

The goal in the episode described here was to use a small contingent of warboats to lure a portion of a much larger fleet of warboats away from the main body and thus reduce their strength, basically a strategy of attrition. This ambush is similar in some ways to a famous ambush during the Punic wars between Rome and Carthage. At night torches were tied to the horns of oxen by Carthaginian forces who needed to make their way through a mountain pass controlled by the Romans. The cattle, providing a distraction, lured the Romans away from the pass into a crowd of javelinmen waiting in the dark (Goldsworthy, Adrian (2000) The Fall of Carthage: The Punic Wars 265-146BC, London: Cassell).

Extract 5: Razadarit’s first efforts to subjugate Bassein and Myaungmya (c. 1388)

Razadarit had a difficult time asserting control over the western delta region of Lower Burma. After Martaban was taken in 1388, news reached Razadarit that the governor he had appointed to rule Dala had allied himself with Myaungmya, so Razadarit had the governor executed. Myaungmya, however, seemed beyond his reach, being well-protected defensively, with ample manpower to wage war with, and a ruling elite that had a high level of solidarity and family ties. Razadarit decided to attack Bassein first. Bassein was controlled by three members of Myaungmya’s ruling elite: Nawratha, Smin Bya Gyin, and Laukshin.

Razadarit’s assault on Bassein was repelled by “sailing ships manned by foreigners who fired their weapons at them causing much casualties,” probably muslim Indians. Meeting this strong and unexpected resistance, Razadarit realized he had misgauged the relative power of the two towns and decided to try an attack first against Myaungmya. After Myaungmya was taken, he would have the resources to move against Bassein.

When Bassein learned of this change in strategy, it sent a contingent of warboats to aid Myaungmya. Razadarit sent Lagunein to intercept the Bassein warboats along the way at Daungpaung Lulin with a small fleet consisting of only about 100 boats with “two heavily armed warboats, four high-sterned galleys and forty fighting boats” as well as supply boats. The Myaungmya side led by Laukshein, numerically superior with 500 to 600 warboats, was encamped upriver at Panpin

Planning to overcome the numerically superior Myaungmya side with a strategem, Razadarit had stakes planted across the river from one side to the other with enough space that his warboats could paddle through them leading unwary Myaungmya boats in pursuit onto the stakes. A small group of light boats that could easily pass through the narrow channels of the river was sent with Lagunein to lure the Myaungmya boats into the trap. As the wide was rising Lagunein paddled upriver and drew the Myaungmya side downriver in pursuit. When they reached Daungpaung Lulin where the trap had been set, the pursueing boats saw the forces on land and thought that Lagunein’s men had abandoned their boats to flee by land and they paddled even harder:

“Lagunein’s men sped deftly through the staked area but the boats pursuing them were impaled on the stakes and those coming up later rammed into them turning that part of the river into a melee of sinking boats and men with those still afloat hopelessly snarled among the wreckage forcing their occupants to abandon them.” A portion of the forces were positioned on the banks of the rivers and attacked when warboats hit the stakes.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Naval river warfare during the Razadarit era (c. 1416) VII

How raids and scorched earth tactics were carried out by river as they were by land is described in this extract from the later part of Razadarit Ayeidawpon (based on San Lwin’s unpublished translation) (c. 1400):

Extract 4: Raiding by river around Bassein (c. 1416)

After his victory over the Mons at Panko, Minyekyawswa sent scouts along Yapyaw Tamut stream to find an out of the way route which they could use to advance on Bassein without being detected, but this stream was found to be too shallow. Around 1416, Minyekyawswa, unable to take Bassein marched towards Myaungmya. Minyekyawswa was unsuccessful in his attack on Myaungmya and withdrew passing by Bassein once again, traveling to Ola upstream from Lamaik.

At this point in its narrative Razadarit Ayeidawpon provides some rich details about life in an environment of endemic and constant warfare. Raiding and scorched earth tactics could suddenly transform an area and make it uninhabitable just when it seemed peace and tranquility had finally returned:

“People from Bassein poured out from within the confines of the city walls thinking that the besiegers had gone away for good. They visited the gardens and parks savouring them when Minyekyawswa then at Kyet Kanet, sent warbboats and other craft accompanying them to take captives. He also had coconut and betel nut plantations razed. Wanting to use the Ngawun river route and and finding it to be too shallow, he had earthen damns built.” The dams however broke and he moved off to Yapyaw Tamut, Razadarit meanwhile moved from Panhlaing to Mitaloun landing, thence to Dala where he had defensive works repaired where necessary” (San Lwin, 136).

Minyekyawswa traveled back to Ava to present the captured nobles to the king. After hearing of the exploits of various warriors, the king of Ava bestowed titles and awarded appanages to them. Minyekyawswa was given a wife.

Some notes on the conventions used here:

1. Dates and the sides of participants are provided in the text only sporadically. I favor the dates from U Kala’s Burmese chronicle which seem more reliable and certain than the dates of Razadarit Ayeidawpon.

2. In choosing “Ava” and “Mon” to describe the two sides in the war, I have chosen clarity and conciseness as being most important. I could have easily chosen a whole panoply of confusing designators for the two sides: Pegu, Peguer, Peguan, Hanthawaddy, Hamsavati, southerner, southern confederation, Razadarit’s side, Talaing, Ramanya, or Ramanna-desa. I do not use “Talaing” because Mons now consider it offensive, how it got to be that way is beyond the scope of this investigation.

3. The use of the simple designators, Ava and Mon, is meant to provide clarity to the narrative, not imply that the Mon state or chieftainship was stronger and more unified than it actually was. The Burmese text itself often becomes difficult to read when the side of historical actors is not clearly indicated in the narrative.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Histories of historians instead of "what actually happened" ?!???

What if the study of pre-modern Thai or Burmese history received as much attention as the European middle ages?

Over the weekend I found the great book "Inventing the Middle Ages" by the late medievalist Norman Cantor. It’s a collection of biographies of 20th century medievalists and the variety of different methodological approaches they've applied to this limited geographical and temporal focus. As one reviewer summarizes the book's content:

"Tolkein and Lewis, whom Cantor grouped with Powicke as ‘The Oxford Fantasists’, disliked the ‘modern’ world and yearned for a return to (or remodelling on) a better age, one they saw in Medieval times. Bloch, hero of the Resistance, granted too much influence to the peasantry. Strayer and Haskins advocated Medieval law for the present, while Huizinga, Power, Postan, Mommsen and Erdmann saw in the Middle Ages a terror in one form or another (the repression of women for Power, decades ahead of other feminists) that had to be surmounted in order to arrive at a more tolerant, reasonable today. Thus the way we look at Medieval times was born of ‘learned research, humanistic theory, assumptions about human behaviour, and the ever-present ingredient of the personal experiences of medievalists…’ Once set, the prestige and power associated with the academic positions occupied by the great Medievalists ensured that their views were perpetuated" (Source).

The reviewer goes on to indicate why Cantor’s approach may be important:

"…the role of the individual historian is very much relevant to the overall study of history, which cannot be considered a solely empirical discipline…the historian is working with traces of the past that were recorded (in whatever form) by people with ideas, hopes, goals, ideological positions and influences just as the historian has still others as he or she selects and interprets them – two layers of theory-ladenness, as it were. The question of why a particular historian chose to emphasise some at the expense of others is one that can be addressed (at least in part) by biography – studying the historian instead of supposing that history is all about determining wie es eigentlich gewesen from the available evidence."

It’s a little scary though that the reviewer claims that post-modern historiographical trends have not gone far enough:

"The second point is that the so-called postmodern (actually anti-representationalist) critiques of traditional historiography barely (if at all) touch on this sociological dimension enumbrated by Cantor. His methodology does not seem to have significantly influenced either side of the current debate, which is puzzling because it would seem to be devastating for the empiricists and indicative of not going far enough for their opponents. Noting that a Catholic scholar may have approached the events in seventeenth century Rome and Florence with an apologetic motive is unsatisfactory because it only touches the surface: apologists are not identical, after all."

I'd just like to add one wee little qualification though, Herr Professor:

Doesn’t the historian have a responsibility to see how far she can go with what actually happened (wie es eigentlich gewesen) before she jumps to the next layer and starts looking at the history of the historian?

The 1418 map that supports Gavin Menzies pseudo-history of Ming China makes this abundantly clear.

I have to admit though, that if U Kala used Razadarit Ayeidawpon to write his coverage of the same events, if you take Razadarit as the base of rich events and historical narrative from which U Kala edited out a much shorter, more abbreviated version, well I would agree with the above that U Kala may have irretrievably determined what we can know about long periods of Burmese history.

Exposing fraudulent historical sources

Are there Chinese or Tai sources for Yunnan that can't be trusted?

This question logically arises after reading Dr. Geoff Wade's recent thorough exposure as fraud of the 1418 Ming map used to support Gavin Menzie's pop history book "1421: The Year China Discovered the World."

The really scary thing is how many people uncritically read and accept this book without looking further into the matter. I'd love to use the book and the map in a critical thinking course, but then of course I'd have to buy copies of it which is really morally unconscionable.

Dr. Wade certainly motivates us to take a closer second look at source authenticity. Unfortunately, none of the manuscripts in the Burmese or Thai national libraries are accessible to do this.

Here's another relevant link with criticisms of the book.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Naval river warfare during the Razadarit era (c. 1416) VI

I’ve collected and summarized descriptions of river warfare from the later part of Razadarit Ayeidawpon (San Lwin’s unpublished translation). Two aspects of river warfare circa 1400 are covered in this fourth extract:

1. Stakes planted in rivers for defense.

2. Ramming and boarding other warboats.

Here is the fourth extract:

Extract 4: Ava attacks Panko (c. 1416)

While Ava was planning to attack, the Mon commander at Panko Binnya Raza, ordered three warboats to position themselves out in front of the shorter hidden stakes used for defense. When they attacked, Ava’s boats aimed for the gaps between the stakes. In the description of the two lines of boats coming together, one-on-one combat in the manner of a duel along with the individual names and personalities of warriors are a prominent feature of the narrative. It is not clear, to what degree this indicates the importance of one-on-one combat by members of the elite in warfare (in the manner of the Iliad, some of the issues that classicists have raised may be relevant here) or is just a rhetorical effect added to heighten dramatic tension. Although there were soldiers on both river and land, all the fighting took place on the river because the fortifications impeded the fighting on land:

“Minyekyawswa [Ava] signaled the governor of Salin [Ava] to attack and after the crew had made the gesture of paying obeisance to the prince surged out with the governor stationed at its helm. Salin hailed from his 156 feet long war boat challenging Smin Payan [Mon], Razadarit’s son-in-law, to show himself. Smim Payan came out to answer the challenge and Salin’s warboat, with the war drums in full cry, rammed Smin Payan’s warboat. The clash of warboats also resulted in the breaking of some of the stakes driven into the riverbed. Smin Payan’s marines grouped at the helm giving a chance for Salin’s marines to board her. Thray Sithu’s [Ava] warboat came rushing to Salin’s aid, crashing through the barrier of stakes and ramming into Smin Payan’s warboat at an angle. Smin Payan fought on undeterred and Razadarit’s sons [Mon] ordered their warboats to go to his aid but no one made a move and just looked on. Three Talaing [Mon] warboats including Deinmaniyut’s Dangaw Hamsa and Binnya Dala Baik were also on the scene but instead of going to the attack went into reverse. At this the warboats of the governors of Pandaung, Malun, and Myawaddy [?] came forward in formation. Even then Smim Payan stood his ground” (San Lwin, 131-132).

Two Mon warboats were rammed in shallow water, rupturing their hulls, but due, apparently, to the shallow water, the men aboard the boats were able to continue fighting. Minyekyawswa, the leader on the Avan side, is said to have transferred from his elephant to a warboat during the battle.

During all the fighting on the river, the stockade prevented the Avan land forces from engaging with the Mon forces. After their naval defeat, Mon commanders gathered together as many men and elephants from what remained of the stockade as they could and fled to the jungle. Avan forces pursued them. The well-known Mon elephant Bakamat in musth lost its riders, fell into a pond that it could not extricate itself from, and was finally taken captive by the Avan side (San Lwin, 132).


One has to speculate or at least pose the question: why fight on the river rather than fight on land? Why stay behind the stockade on land while engaging the enemy on the river?

If boats were available to forces fighting on land, their mobility was increased which would might have allowed them to choose when and where to engage the enemy giving them a critical edge over their opponents in battle.

Collaboration and blogging

History blogging carnivals have greate potential for collaboration in historical scholarship.

Today I addressed the issue of collaboration in my business weblog at the Bangkok Post today.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Naval river warfare during
the Razadarit era (c. 1416) V

This description of how stakes were planted in rivers for defense comes from the later part of Razadarit Ayeidawpon (San Lwin’s unpublished translation):

Extract 2: Battle of Pannin (c. 1416)

Around the time that Ava was occupying Khepaung, Ava’s ally Toungoo sent forces south along the Sittaung river. These forces were intercepted at Paninn by Mon forces from Salat. In the battle between Salat and Toungoo, Salat had the upper hand, but at the end of the day both sides retired to their camps located on sandbanks on opposite sides of the Sittaung river.

Toungoo made defensive preparations by driving a double line of stakes into the river in front of their position. The first front-most line was concealed below the water; the second line in back was visible above the water, probably to lure the attackers onto the first line and their destruction. When the Salat warboats made an assault against the Toungoo position at dawn the next morning, these stakes punctured and ruptured the hulls of the attacking boats, sinking them (San Lwin, 131-132).

Workshop on Asian Expansionisms
(National University of Singapore)

The abstracts for the "Workshop on Asian Expansionisms: The Historical Processes of Polity Expansion in Asia" at the National University of Singapore have been posted to the conference page and they make interesting reading.

Since his new book has finally reached Bangkok, I found the description of Perdue's paper the most exciting. Perdue's paper compares Qing expansion on it's northwestern frontier with expansion on its southern frontier bordering Southeast Asia. It builds on the analysis in his new book, China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia, (Harvard, 2005) holding that, "Strategies that worked well in the steppes, oases, and deserts of Central Eurasia failed in the jungles and forests of Southeast Asia" and that the "environment play[ed] an important role as an inducer of or obstacle to expansion." It also says the role of the mosquito and frontier trade in in inhibiting or aiding expansion will be covered. "In the northwest, the Qing actively used Muslim, Turkic, and Han Chinese merchants to promote commercial ties between the newly conquered regions and the center. The Qing state worked together with merchants to ensure frontier stability. In the south, however, overseas Chinese merchants generally acted on their own, without state protection....the Qing elite drew a different line in this region when it came to protecting commercial interests...Exploration of two frontiers of Qing China should open the way to larger comparisons."

[I wonder how state sponsorship and protection of trade in the south and north during the Qing period compares with the Ming period.]

Monday, April 03, 2006

Naval river warfare during the Razadarit era (c. 1416)

I’ve collected and summarized descriptions of river warfare from the later part of Razadarit Ayeidawpon (San Lwin’s unpublished translation). The extracts are presented in chronological order. Several aspects of river warfare circa 1400 are covered:

1. Stakes planted in rivers for defense.

2. Ramming and boarding other warboats.

3. Blockades of supply lines and of the entry and exit points into a region.

4. Smaller creeks and streams used as an element of stealth to avoid detection when attacking or moving troops.

5. Raids and scorched earth tactics were carried out by river as they were by land.

Here is the first extract:

Extract 1: Avan river patrol from Khepaung captures Paik Thinran (c. 1416)

Not long after the Mon failure to take Khepaung from Ava, a small group of Mon warboats were traveling upriver near Khepaung when they were detected by Avan boats on patrol. The Avan boats quickly doubled back to Khepaung to report their discovery, but the Mon boats pursued them and attacked them from behind:

“A warboat [Ava] in the shape of a water-buffalo moved ponderously and lagged behind. Paik Thinran [Mon] caught up with it and attacked it. Its commander [Ava] and those who could reach the shore escaped but some were drowned. Paik Thinran [Mon] was towing his prize away with his warboat when Letwe Nandayawda [Ava] made a counterattack. In this clash Paik Thinran [Mon] was wounded by a spear thrust. All Burmese [Ava]boats rallied together in this encounter but not a single Talaing [Mon] boat came to aid Paik Thinran and he was made a captive [by Ava]. As further Talaing reinforcements arrived, the Burmese [Ava] turned and made for Khepaung” (SL 129-130).

At Khepaung, Minyekyawswa’s provisions were running low and his soldiers forced to live on “yams and tubers”. He faced the choice of destroying his warboats and marching back north by land or confronting the Mon side in a naval battle. When Paik Thinran, one of Razadarit’s most important generals, was taken captive and presented to him, he decided to stay, calculating that taking this important war captive would deal a mortal blow to Razadarit’s resolve.

The Mons, believing that the Avan forces at Khepaung were too strong, decided to blockade Khepaung by driving stakes into the river to stop boats from passing south, forcing them to retreat to the north. Razadarit at Panhlaing sent elephants to strengthen the Mon forces at Panko and sent Upakaung to disrupt Avan supply lines along the river at Henzada (San Lwin, 130-131).

Minhkaung, the king of Ava, sent the prince Minyethihathu from Taungdwingyi south to Prome to ensure that supplies could get through to Khepaung. He also sent his son Thihathu south with a naval contingent to take Henzada and open up the supply line to Khepaung. Razadarit sent reinforcements to Upakaung in Henzada when he learned of this. The Mons defeat the Avan side in a naval battle and the Avan side leaves the water to flee by land:

“As Minyethihathu [Ava] approached Hsapaka [near Prome], he was set on by…three Talaing [Mon] forces. The warboat of 102 feet length commanded by the governor of Mindon [Ava] was engaged by Upakaung’s and Lauknare’s warboats [Mon] and Upakaung shot and killed the governor of Mindon [Ava] with a bow. His head was taken as prize as his crew fell into disarray. Tuyinyawda and the governor of Pandaung [Ava] were captured alive. Seeing this, Minyethihathu [Ava] urged his oarmen forward but his warboat ran aground and sank so that he had to abandon it and flee on horseback. Other Burmese [Ava] troops following in his wake also turned and made for Prome. They were pursued, but escaped…Binnya Bathein [Bassein, Mon] had carried out a raid on the outskirts of Prome setting fire to houses outside the protection of the city walls and carrying away captives” (San Lwin, p. 130).

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Lieberman, historiography, and scientific methodology

Recently, I reread this blurb on the back of Lieberman’s Strange Parallels (2003)written by the foremost historian of early modern insular Southeast Asian history M.C. Ricklefs:

“…on every page Lieberman’s critical intelligence is fully engaged. It is notable that his reading is not only critical, in the sense of taking nothing for granted in the writing of others, but also self-critical….This gives the book he quality of an ongoing debate…” (M.C. Ricklefs, National University of Singapore)

Somehow, I incorrectly recalled the word “tentative” being used here, an important word in another book I was reading at the time, Alexander Bird’s Philosophy of Science (2002, p. 3). Citing a famous American court case (McLean vs. Arkansas Board of Education, 1982) that found Christian creationism to not be a scientific theory, Bird lists four essential elements for a theory to qualify as a scientific theory:

1. It is guided by natural law.
2. It has to be explanatory by reference to natural law.
3. It is testable against the empirical world.
4. Its conclusions are tentative, i.e. are not necessarily the final word.
5. It is falsifiable.

Four and five seem particularly important to historical scholarship. The controversial "virtual history" or "counterfactual history" as practiced by historians like Niall Ferguson seems to cover the "testable" item above.

Anyway, the point I want to make is that Lieberman’s approach seems like a scientific method or at least in the spirit of a scientific method, for instance like the one Isaiah Berlin conveys in his essay “The Concept of Scientific History.” While essentially arguing that scientific history is not really possible, Berlin also clearly advocates the goals of science:

“…comparing historical method with that of linguistic or literary scholarship. No scholar could emend [my defintion: interpret a text to fill in gaps and provide continuity and wholeness] a text without a capacity (for which no technique exists) for ‘entering into the mind of’ another society and age. Electronic brains cannot perform this: they can perform alternative combinations of letters but not choose between them successfully, since he infallible rules for ‘programming’ have not been formulated. How do gifted scholars arrive at their emendations?…”

Having posed the question, Berlin claims that emulating science, an emulation that will never be completely successful, is what historians, in fact, do:

“They [historians] do all that the most exacting natural science would demand: they steep themselves in the material of their authors; they compare, contrast, manipulate combinations like the most accomplished cipher-breakers; they may find it useful to apply statistical and quantitative methods; they formulate hypotheses and test them; all this may well be indispensable but it is not enough.”

Berlin continues with the difference between historical method and natural science method:

“In the end what guides them is a sense (which comes from study of the evidence) of what a given author could, and what he could not, have said; of what fits and what does not fit into the general pattern of his thought. This, let me say again, is not the way in which we demonstrate that penicillin cures pneumonia” (Berlin, The Proper Study of Mankind (1998), p. 53).

Lieberman does actually use the words "tentative" and "conjecture" occasionally, for instance in describing an intensification of agricultural production during the Ava period in Toungoo as a possible spur to demographic growth, army size, and successful expansionary warfare later on in the sixteenth century.

Allow me to speculate, academic environments may either allow this sort of scientific approach or disallow it according to the way academic discourse is set up. For instance, if there is a low level of collaboration and peer review, compared to the natural sciences where it is very high, papers are not very accessible, and there is endemic academic warfare, well, this would probably select against a more tentative scientific approach, favoring the offensive, with absolute assertion of ideas and resistance to debate. When and where a historian can and should be tentative is an interesting question.