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Reading response to The Flaming Womb by Barbara Andaya

At the very beginning of The Flaming Womb, Barbara Andaya quotes that ”a gender-oriented study should do more than put women into history” and that “it should also through light on the history—male as well as female—into which women are put.” (5) This point reminds me of Philip Kuhn’s approach to the history of Chinese diaspora, which advocates that scholars should not only focus on the study of the diasporic groups themselves, but also “study the ‘others’ whom Chinese have found themselves ‘among’ by breaking up ethnic boundaries.” I find both pieces very helpful in grasping a more panoramic historical landscape behind their respective theme (gender and Chinese diaspora). With such broader context, general yet fundamental questions beyond these themes could be thus tackled more effectively through this kind of “more-textured analysis”.

In the case of The Flaming Womb, Andaya has delicately scrutinized three major intertwined issues through the lens of gender: how the distinctive male-female relationship—in spite of variations among different cultures— paralleled with the geographical construction of Southeast Asia as a region; how the shifts of females social status coincided and were affected by the religious and socioeconomic changes in early modern Southeast Asia over time (esp. the notion of early modernity); and how a “history of women” can help to complicate the region’s history, which remains biased and problematic in many important respects due to the lack of literary tradition and the overwhelmingly male-dominated history construction.

While offering insightful ideas that may profoundly deepen our understanding of various dimensions of Southeast Asian history, as Andaya herself admitted, however, the writing of women’s history has its own intrinsic limitations that are very difficult to overcome—that is, being partial and preliminary due to the dearth of materials. In this sense, I doubt that the study of gender only provide an extra method (channel) to approach early modern Southeast Asian history. But does it also have the potential to become a central theme in early modern Southeast Asian history? If the answer is yes, then how can someone go beyond the footsteps of Andaya and write a more detailed vernacular history of women with limited historical records? If the answer is not that positive (not necessarily no), then the question would be, depending on how to define the notion of “early modernity”, how early a real history of women in Southeast Asia can be dated back to? But should the vernacular history of women necessarily relate to the advent of modernity?

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