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?