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Reading response to History, Culture, and Region in Southeast Asian Perspectives by Wolters

Wolters, O. W. 1982. History, Culture, and Region in Southeast Asian Perspectives. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

photo credit: SEAP, Cornell University

Different from many conventional interpretations of pre-modern SEA history that usually portray SEA as an object of Indianization or Sinicization, Wolters has provided an alternative perspective to re-examine SEA by demonstrating many “local” cultural phenomena and the “localization” process: the Mandalas, Balinese Hinduism, localized Chinese poetry in Vietnam, and the Hindu figures in Angkor Wat—just to name a few. He argued that despite the foreign influences, SEA culture has its own originality that distinguishes itself from the similar “others”. The flexibility in absorbing foreign influences also made SEA an extremely diverse place, where “foreign fragments” could fit into differing local contexts. By looking at many of the similarities shared by the peoples throughout SEA, Wolters suggested that “SEA should be viewed in terms of continuity rather than discontinuity.”

Wolters’ explicit introduction to the Mandala system enabled us to reconsider SEA polities through a very useful non-Euro-centric perspective. The Mandala power structure is distinct from the inter-state relationship based on the European style of “nation” and “nationalism” that many people take for granted. Although their territories had no fixed geographical boundaries, the rulers of Mandalas (men of prowess) were able to mediate disparate groups effectively and thus earning spiritual merits through the networks of loyalties. However, given the fragility nature (cannot sustain for a long period of time) of the Mandalas, Wolters himself also admitted that the framework is not universally applicable in SEA. In this sense, the mandalas “do not take us very far in identifying a shape to the history of the region as a whole,” as the Mandala history is only “a record of certain happenings inside the region and little more.” Additionally, Wolters also pointed out that (1) the mandalas were only a phenomenon of the lowlands, and thus highland people were beyond the reach of the power circles; (2) ruler’s sovereignty extended only over the territories of his own influence; (3) there is an absence of linear history, and therefore inhabitants were not able to move closer and therefore forming the “Southeast Asian” relations—which seem quite contradictory to Wolters’ proposition that “SEA should be viewed in terms of continuity.”

So, here comes my question: how can we construct a seemingly “continuous” (linear) SEA ancient history by only using fragmented historical frameworks like the mandalas?

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