Saturday, March 31, 2007

Vickery on Coedes' history of Cambodia

Vickery, Michael (2000) "Coedes' histories of Cambodia," Silpakorn University International Journal, 1, 1: 61-108, cited in Baker, Chris (2003) "Ayutthaya Rising: From Land or Sea?," Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 34 (1), pp. 41-62 February 2003. [Sadly, the only paper I can find citing it]

I bought Coedes' The Indianized States of Southeast Asia (1968) a long, long time ago and subsequently lost it and really didn't miss it much at all.

I bumped into it again recently and was quite impressed by its regional approach to history during the Mongol era (c. 1250-1350)(Luce, 1958, 1959). It seemed, to my undiscerning eye, to be striving for some overall cross-regional coherence in the interpretation of this period. It even seemed to me that Vickery might have been adulating Coedes regional perspective, based on the following quote:

"In studying the Hsien-Ayutthaya-Martaban-Pegu-central northern Menampolities and the relations between Ayutthaya and Cambodia, it might be helpful to bracket out entirely conceptions of modern boundaries and think rather of an area of ancient common cosmopolitan culture and constantly shifting alliances." (Vickery,2004, 23-24)

Then it came as quite a surprise to me to find that Vickery had written a whole paper on Coedes where he picked him apart, albeit mercifully, and exposed his faults. So I am beginning to do what I vowed to do (after my work at the newspaper each day):

Start systematizing Vickery's approach to the socio-cultural imformation embedded in inscriptions and apply them to Burmese history.

There seems to be an essence of methodology for dealing with the socio-cultural dimensions of inscriptional evidence in Vickery's work that is applicable to the Burmese history of the Ava period (c. 1364-1555) (that I am working on) as well. There is a wealth of admonitions about the way that sources should and should not be used from a scientific standpoint. The inscriptional evidence should probably in some sense provide a foundation or infrastructure for the abundant chronicle evidence for the Ava period.

I know the word "scientific" would make the more deconstructionist historians bristle with contempt and horror, but Vickery’s work, though based firmly on traditional Rankean "what actually happened" or "the way it actually was" also admits that historical sources are contingent artifacts of their creators that makes historical interpretation for many periods intrinsically indeterminate.

Vickery likes science. He notes, that new information must be integrated and our theories adjusted, even if it forces a change in our preconceptions. (Vickery, 2000, 102) One can even entertain more than one theory, Vickery often does, ranking them relative to their likelihood. This is a Bayesian model of science.

Narrative history can also be adjusted. There is no real reason for narrative history to be a mere linear rendition of battles from the perspective of one court. Braudel by layering history into levels of short-term to long-term causal factors (infrastructure; structure – economics, politics, social organisation; superstructure, see Ferguson, 1998) provides a framework for writing thick history in the sense of Geertz’s thick descriptio, thick narratives of events, thick in the sense that background information about economics, politics, culture, and social organisation are interleaved with the narrative.

Vickery holds that students should be "introduced directly to the primary sources, rather than having to guess at what they record via the interpretation of Coedes [general history]." Translation accompanied by critical assessments and annotations need to be valorized above historical interpretations. “I refer to Coedes but teach original sources," he notes.

The fact that Burmese history still relies on Harvey (1925) and Phayre (19th century) is quite sad. Vickery makes a distinction between "academic works" and "popularizations."

"…popular treatments …should present, in non-specialist language for the general literate public, the results of the best scientific work. They should not simply seek to entertain or be vehicles for speculative reconstructions which would not past muster if presented the same way in an academic journal." (63)

He provides an example of over-synthesis from the history of Funan (page 71-72) that I will have to untangle in the future. Remarking of Coedes' books:

"They are monuments of uncritical synthesisation, some of which belongs in historical romance, not in history. Coedes was a great synthesizer – indeed that may have been his greatest talent when functioning as a writer of historical accounts; and he had to find, or imagine, a connection between every detail and some other detail in time and place." (63)

"The problem was in assumptions and presuppositions, not in any lack of sources. Coedes’ historical syntheses, which were the basis for most subsequent work, including Soviet studies, contains defects which were of course not because he was unaware of the content of the inscriptions, but because of the theoretical framework, possibly unconscious, which he imposed on them. This was a view in which history genealogical, narrowly political, and narrative, and it would not be sufficient, in fact, it would probably be impossible, to extract the additional information from the inscriptions in a coherent manner without a new theoretical framework." (64)

No doubt, he would find my attempts at synthesis too thin on the critical side. Vickery’s work certainly provides an abundant corpus of examples of source criticism. His magnum opus (Vickery, 1998) is the best place to begin.


Coedes, George (1968) The Indianized States of Southeast Asia, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. [Google Books]

Ferguson, Brian R (1999). "A Paradigm for the Study of War and Society," cited in Raaflaub, Kurt and Nathan Rubinstein (eds.). (1999). War and Society in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds: Asia, The Mediterranean, Europe, and Mesoamerica, Center
for Hellenic Studies. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Luce, Gordon Hannington (1958). "The Early Syam in Burma’s History." Journal of the Siam Society 46 (1958): 123-214.

Luce, Gordon Hannington (1959). "The Early Syam in Burma’s History: A Supplement." Journal of the Siam Society 47.1 (1959): 59-101.

Vickery, Michael (1998) Society, Economics, and Politics in pre-Angkor Cambodia, Tokyo: Toyo Bunko."

Vickery, Michael (2004) "Cambodia and Its Neighbors in the 15th Century," ARI Working Paper No. 27, June 2004,

Friday, March 30, 2007

Bertil Lintner takes Susan Conway's new to task on "Shan" history

Conway, Susan (2006) The Shan: Culture, Arts, and Crafts, River Books, Bangkok. [Lintner's Review]

The book excels when it covers the author's areas of expertise:

"Conway’s chapters about Shan weaving and dyeing, embroidery, lacquer ware, Shan genealogy and Buddha images, as well as her detailed notes about Shan script and palm leaf manuscripts are extremely informative. Conway also describes in great detail the patterns and meanings of Shan tattoos. So don’t be discouraged by the book’s shortcomings. If you ignore the historical and ethnological parts it’s well worth reading."

But falls short in the areas of history:

"...the Shan do not refer to themselves as Tai Yai—they call themselves Tai, which in China is romanized as Dai. Thaiyai, not Tai Yai, is the name given to them by their ethnic Thai cousins in Thailand who traditionally have believed that the Shan were their ancestors (yai means big or great.)

"Kachin chiefs did nor rule Hkamti Long, which was a Shan state in the Kachin-dominated area of the far north of Burma. The Shan state of Yawnghwe is not “called Nyaungshwe by the Shan and Yawnghwe by the Burmese.” It is the other way round. Yawnghwe is Shan for the valley, or gorge of rice storages. Nyaungshwe is simply a Burmese corruption of the Shan name.

Bertil Linter also whets the readers appetite with tidbits of a topic that has yet to be delved into by historians yet (that I'm aware of) the Kachin expansion into region north of Upper Burma, the modern day Kachin State. The Kachins "migrated less than 300 years ago into the northern parts of what today is Burma, and, according to Ola Hansson, the Swedish-American missionary who managed to convert many Kachins to Christianity and gave them a written language:

“Having obtained a foothold, the conquest of the whole region between the Khamti (Hkamti) and Hukong (Hukawng) valleys, as far south as to the Mogaung river, followed in due time. The Shans and Burmans were driven out, and only the ruins of their pagodas, the trees planted around their monasteries, and the names of their villages remained to tell the story of fierce fighting and wholesale slaughter.”

"The southward movement of the Kachin was halted only when the British colonial power began to subdue the area in the late 19th century. Thus, the question of ethnicity in Burma is not merely, or simply, about the majority Burmans versus the country’s plethora of minorities. Age-old divisions and conflicts also exist between the various non-Burman nationalities, which makes the ethnic issue in Burma far more complex than most foreign analysts assume, and a solution much harder to find than just referring to “the struggle against greater-Burman hegemonism,” as many of the leaders of the minorities often do.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

What philology means to some people

Thomas, Richard G. (2006) "Philology in Viet Nam and its Impact on Southeast Asian Cultural History," Modern Asian Studies, 40, 2, pp. 477-515.

The above paper reads like a witch hunt.

It claims there are problems with the work of the Ecole Francaise d'Extreme Orient and several historians including Michael Vickery, but presents absolutely no evidence to support its contention. The paper merely hurls grandiouse accusations, like this one:

"...those western scientists who cling to the notion that the relationship between signifier and signified is not arbitrary, and therefore that the truth of Southeast Asian archaeology can be grasped in its entirety by the application of hard-nosed philological principles. (98)..."

"98) M Vickery, Society, Economics, and Politics in pre-Angkor Cambodia (Tokyo, 1998)"

Not even a citation of a page!

First of all, the sort of philology that historians like Michael Vickery employ has been the standard historical methodology used since the time of Ranke. It is the same sort of methodology that one finds in the Warring States Project at University of Massachusetts at Amherst, for instance.

A sceptical Rankean approach towards sources with an eye towards finding "what actually happened" is, of course, not the only possible legitimate goal. Historical texts can be appreciated as literature also, the authors of each subsequent text borrowing from previous authors.

It is worth taking a closer look at the Vickery quote above:

1. western scientists who cling to the notion that the relationship between signifier and signified is not arbitrary

[If it was arbitrary, it would be meaningless. People compose and interpret texts with intentions which are not arbitrary.]

3. That the truth of Southeast Asian archaeology can be grasped in its entirety by the application of hard-nosed philological principles.

[Who claims anything can be grasped in its entirety? What Vickery does is hypothesise about the processes that might have been involved in the creation of a text. We are free to disagree with him and present reasons why we disagree.

Philological tools are what one uses to make sense of the way historical texts were constructed from initial authoring through hundreds of years of subsequent copying.

Initially, hypotheses should be stated clearly and without a lot of qualifications. Later on, if the hypothesis does not hold up under the evidence, the hypothesis is qualified. One thing is for sure, the writer of the above does not look at any of the relevant evidence for the claims they are making, namely the actual methods used by actual historians like Vickery.]

Apparently, the reason it was published was that it claimed to be a rebuttal to a previous work which it claims:

"The research [sic] presented here questions Bayly's suggestion that the scholarly output of the EFEO provided positive influences for the thought patterns of young revolutionary Vietnamese intellectuals in their struggle to overthrow the colonial regime." (page 478)

I leave you with one last quote:

"Like Alexander, who showed his love of Pindar, the philologist denied the existence of anything of cultural value in Indo-China except Indo-European culture."

First of all, if translations of texts from non-western cultures and histories were valued more by western academia, then non-western could be contemplated and appreciated more, but finding the universal in the particular does not in itself devalue the particular.

Or this very strange sentence that requres the reader to take an excursion into the very convolutions of the author's brain:

Whether all of them were aware of it or not, the professional philological scientists who worked in Southeast Asia were involved in an experimental project whose goal was to redefine Orientalism as a scientific form of Hellenism." (498)

People like Coedes collected and preserved huge amounts of linguistic, inscriptional, and art historical data. They studied this material in detail and published prolifically. Something that most contemporary scholars don't seem to be able to get up the will power to do. Like Vickery deserve to at least have their work looked at in detail before subjecting it to criticism.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007 for Burmese language dictionary and corpus

Includes a Burmese language corpus and dictionary. They are starting to put the papers of the great historian of Burma G.H. Luce online. Right now only the papers regarding Mon linguistics are online.

As far as the language of historical texts goes, the emphasis is on the language of inscriptions in the SEAclassics project (often difficult to figure out, requireing specialised dictionaries):

"Southeast Asia's golden age of epigraphy spans more than a millennium, from the 5th through the 15th centuries. The SEAclassics Library of epigraphic texts, Indic and epigraphic dictionaries, and research-oriented software tools will make this widely scattered body of work, including the Cham, Mon, Khmer, Pyu, Burmese, and Tai inscriptional corpora, accessible to the international scholarly community. A demonstration of the Corpus of Khmer Inscriptions is available on line."

Don't forget to read the intro for students before you begin

Topographical Maps for Burma-Yunnan border area

Highly detailed topographical maps for Burma and Yunnan:

1. China and Yunnan

Mong Mao is on this map. This set of maps is certainly in need of a better index. Will have to work on one myself. A better map reader than internet explorer's zoom capbility is needed too. Would be nice to make a more detailed map than Wade's Ming Shi-lu map that shows the role that topography played in history.

2. Burma

NC 47-2 Bokpyin (4.4 MB)
NC 47-6 Kra Buri (4.6 MB)
ND 46-4 Ama (3.9 MB)
ND 47-2 Ye (6.2 MB)
ND 47-6 Tavoy (5.8 MB)
ND 47-10 Palauk 1959 ed. (5.8 MB)
ND 47-10 Palauk 1962 ed. (4.9 MB)
ND 47-14 Mergui (4.6 MB)
NE 46-3 Kyaukpyu (6.5 MB)
NE 46-4 Thayetmyo (6.6 MB)
NE 46-7 Sandoway (5.0 MB)
NE 46-8 Prome (6.9 MB)
NE 46-12 Henzada (6.6 MB)
NE 46-15 Sinma (3.8 MB)
NE 46-16 Bassein (6.3 MB)
NE 46-16 Bassein and Vicinity [verso] (961K)
NE 47-1 Pyinmana (6.9 MB)
NE 47-5 Toungoo (6.8 MB)
NE 47-9 Pegu (6.3 MB)
NE 47-13 Rangoon (5.6 MB)
NE 47-13 Rangoon and Vicinity [verso] (1.1 MB)
NE 47-14 Moulmein (6.2 MB)
NF 46-3 Mawlaik (6.5 MB)
NF 46-4 Wuntho (6.4 MB)
NF 46-7 Gangaw (6.2 MB)
NF 46-8 Shwebo (5.9 MB)
NF 46-10 Cox's Bazar (5.9 MB)
NF 46-11 Mount Victoria (6.4 MB)
NF 46-12 Myingyin (5.7 MB)
NF 46-14 Akyab (4.1 MB)
NF 46-15 Myohaung (6.6 MB)
NF 46-16 Yenangyaung (6.1 MB)
NF 47-1 Mong Mit (6.6 MB)
NF 47-2 Hsenwi (6.4 MB)
NF 47-5 Maymyo (6.4 MB)
NF 47-6 Mong Yai (6.5 MB)
NF 47-9 Mandalay (6.3 MB)
NF 47-9 Mandalay, Burma and Vicinity [verso] (1.6 MB)
NF 47-10 Lai-Hka (6.2 MB)
NF 47-11 Keng Tung (6.7 MB)
NF 47-11 reliability diagram, notes, glossary [verso] (1.1 MB)
NF 47-13 Yamethin (6.4 MB)
NF 47-14 Mong Pan (6.7 MB)
NG 46-8 Sibsagar (5.7 MB)
NG 46-12 Tamanthi (5.4 MB)
NG 46-16 Paungbyin (5.9 MB)
NG 47-1 Putao (6.1 MB)
NG 47-5 Maingkwan (5.9 MB)
NG 47-9 Myitkyina (5.9 MB)
NG 47-13 Bhamo (5.9 MB)

Pictures of new Myanmar capital Nay-pyi-daw

Pictures of the new Burmese capital Naypyidaw are to be found in the pages of a blog authored by the deputy editor of the Indian newspaper named The Hindu, Sidharth Varadarajan.

The buildings bear an uncanny resemblance to Mae Fah Luang University in Chiang Rai, Thailand that I taught at for two years, a university that was built by squatter camps full of Burmese migrant workers, by the way.

Varadarajan's blog also has a section devoted to Myanmar.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Money in Yunnan during the Ming (c. 1350-1600)

Macroeconomics in pre-modern southeast Asian economies besides lacking data can also be quite conceptually complex. Take Yunnan, for instance. Several currencies existed, yet markets hardly existed. The currencies included:

1. The Ming emperor injecting paper money into the economy with the money he gives to the tribute missions of different ethnic groups to the capital. Can be seen in the tribute entries of Wade's (2005) translation of the Ming Shi-lu.

2. The longstanding use of cowries imported from the south until the 1700s. Covered in the work of Vogel (1993).

3. Most importantly silver produced in Yunnan and used throughout China. Covered in detail in Sun Lai-chen's (2000) dissertation.

4. Copper cash also, probably.

Stylized facts provide some hints about the role markets and money played in Yunnan:

"Yunnan has peaks upon peaks of mountain ranges and swift gorges winding through them. In the central region where the capital is, the land is well-watered and abounds in food-stuffs. This place does not rely on merchants, yet merchants gather here because it is a place where cinnabar, red mercury, glittering stones, and precious stones are produced. The lands of Linan, Dali, Yongning, Heqing, and Chuxiong can claim to be fertile, but the merchants are extremely few. Such places as Yuanjiang, Lincang, Yongchang, and Lijiang border on foreign territories; their customs are contrary and different." (Brook, 203)

“Comment: The long and difficult routes from Yunnan to the rest of China made the transport of anything but lightweight luxuries prohibitive. Yunnan was an important source of gems, and there were heavy proscriptions against non-imperial trading in gems with the local people (footnote 35: The involvement in eunuchs in this trade is mentioned in the biography of Wang Shu in the Dictionary of Ming Biography)” (Brook, 203-204)

What was happening with all these moneys is an open historical question and requires getting back to fundamental intuitions about the function of money that Brad DeLong touched upon in his blog recently:

Sam Brittan writes: / Columnists / Samuel Brittan - Money is making a comeback: Any IoU that is accepted in payment for services rendered can be regarded as money. There is a legendary exam question about a traveller who paid for a meal on a remote island by cheque. The natives were so impressed by this strange piece of paper that they passed it from hand to hand without anyone attempting to cash it. Who then paid for the traveller’s meal? (Please don’t tell me)...

Ha! I'm going to tell you whether you want me to tell you or not!

There are three possibilities. The check could serve as an expansion of the real money supply, if it is sufficiently easier to carry around and keep track of then previous moneys--previous markers of claims to purchasing power. If so, then nobody pays for the traveller's meal: the traveller's writing the check increased social wealth by more than the resources consumed, and everybody is better off. It is a free lunch.

A second possibility is that the check--being easier to carry around and keep track of--could crowd out and displace some other asset used as money. Say that the nominal (and real) money supplies remain fixed, and that the circulation of the check means that somebody loses their job stringing cowrie shells together, and has to get another lower-paying lower-value job doing something else. In this case, part of the lunch is paid for by the dismissed worker who loses his or her best opportunity. The rest of the lunch, however, is still free.

A third possibility, however, is that the check increases the nominal but not the real money supply. People are happy to hold the check, but the check is no easier to use than other forms of money, which are in fixed supply. In this case the price level rises, and everybody else with money in their pockets finds that their money buys less. In this case their is no free lunch: the lunch is paid for by an inflation tax implicitly levied on other money holders.

Those are the three possible answers. There will be a test.[Source]


Brook, Timothy "The Merchant Network in 16th Century China: A discussion and translation of Zhang Han’s 'On Merchants'," Journal of Economic and Social History of the Orient, Vol. XXIV, Part II, pages 165-214.

Sun, Laichen (2000). Ming-Southeast Asian overland interactions, c. 1368-1644. Unpublished PhD Dissertation, University of Michigan.

Vogel, Hans Ulrich (1993). "Cowry trade and its role in the economy of Yunnan: From the ninth to the mid-seventeenth century," Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, 36, 3 (1993): 211-252; 36, 4 (1993): 309-353.

Wade, Geoff. tr (2005). Southeast Asia in the Ming Shi-lu: an open access resource, Singapore: Asia Research Institute and the Singapore E-Press, National
University of Singapore, []

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Suhkothai history's relevance for Mon history of Lower Burma

Looking beyond the contemporary nation state is important in writing pre-modern history. That the pre-modern state of Burma was very different from modern states of the 19th and 20th centuries is obvious. Limitations of communication and transportation over inhospitable terrain (with horses, elephants, and footpaths) made political control more difficult in pre-modern eras. This meant that the area of effective direct rule was a lot less and that remoter areas of indirect rule often had dual allegiances to the larger states around them. Despite this geographical separation of peoples, ideas and religious practices spread slowly but surely across regional boundaries.

Last weekend I found a thread of Thai history that touches upon Mon history in Lower Burma via the inscriptional and chronicle history of Sukhothai. Griswold and Prasert na Nagara (1972,40-44) has a long discussion about the founding of Martaban and how Ramannadesa [Mon Kingdom] was "tributary" to Sukhothai citing Rajadhirat texts and the Mulasasana. Griswold and Prasert na Nagara(1975, 41) which has a good overview of Sukhothai history covering all the kings. There certainly seems to be a clear intellectual genealogy from Coedes to Griswold and Prasert na Nagara to Vickery. They are all dealing with the same issues and Vickery seems to be going back to Coedes's more regional approach:

"In studying the Hsien-Ayutthaya-Martaban-Pegu-central northern Menampolities and the relations between Ayutthaya and Cambodia, it might be helpful to bracket out entirely conceptions of modern boundaries and think rather of an area of ancient common cosmopolitan culture and constantly shifting alliances." (Vickery,2004, 23-24)

He poses some textual issues that have yet to be resolved:

"There too, a certain Ba๑a U was ruler in Martaban and moved from there to establish a new dynasty in Pegu just about the same time as Uthong was active inAyudhya, and in some versions this occurred in 1369, also a year of important change in Ayutthaya. Just like the Uthong of Ayudhyan history, he is supposed to have comefrom a provincial town, or former capital, to found what would henceforth be a new political center for his people. According to one Mon chronicle,78 his reign was 19 years like that of Uthong-Ramadhipati, although at slightly different dates (1364-1383), and he was also followed by a king entitled rajadhiraj, although a son, rather than a brother or brother-in-law, who, like the first Param Rajadhiraj of Ayudhya, was involved in a long series of campaigns against rivals to the north. This suggests that the foundation stories in both the Mon and Ayutthayan chronicles derive from a common origin, or have contaminated one another." (Vickery, 2004, 23)

I would just like to note that the period in question was a period of continual endemic warfare, so the fact that both of the two kings above were both engaged in warfare is not really that exceptional, rather something to be expected.


Coedes, George (1968) The Indianized States of Southeast Asia, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. [Google Books]

Griswold, A. B. and Prasert na Nagara (1975) "On Kingship and Society at Sukhodaya," In Change and Persistence in Thai Society, ed. by William Skinner and A. Thomas Kirsch, 29-92. Ithaca and London : Cornell University Press.

Griswold, A.B. and Prasert Na Nagara (1972) "King Lodaiya of Sukhodaya and his contemporaries, Epigraphic and historical studies, no. 10," Journal of the Siam Society.

Vickery, Michael (2004) "Cambodia and Its Neighbors in the 15th Century," ARI Working Paper No. 27, June 2004,