Anthony Reid, Imperial Alchemy: Nationalism and Political Identity in Southeast Asia

Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010. Pp. xiii, 248; maps, figures, tables, list of abbreviations, glossary, bibliography, index.

Reviewed by Grant Evans.

I think that it is fair to dub Anthony Reid “professor at large” of Southeast Asian studies, and his latest book demonstrates yet again the breadth and depth of his understanding of the region’s history. There is too a personal element that shadows this latest text, in both his treatment of the Chinese in Southeast Asia (one thinks of his long friendship with the eminent scholar Wang Gungwu), and in his optimism about developments in contemporary Indonesia, with which he has been long associated. Indeed, in his chapter on the importance of Chinese networks to the emergence of various Southeast Asian nationalisms Reid points out that the first “Indonesians” were probably of Chinese descent. Imperial Alchemy makes a special plea for the unmarking of the Chinese and recognition of them as fundamentally Southeast Asian.

But Imperial Alchemy also engages with theories of nationalism and sets out a distinct position on the nature of Asian nationalisms. Perhaps inevitably, given the extant literature, Reid is drawn to make sometimes problematic contrasts between Europe and Asia. The “imperial alchemy” of the book’s title refers to the historical cases in which “imperial constructs were declared to be nation-states” (page 1). Reid writes that the literature on nationalism suggests

that the winners from the collapse of empires would have to be ethnically homogenous nation-states. Yet each major Asian state looks like an anomaly, failing to undergo the kind of culturally homogenous national assertiveness that broke up empires in Europe and the Americas under the new pressures of industrialization and print capitalism. (page 1)

That Asian states did not collapse into ethnic units was a result of a special kind of magic that he calls an “imperial alchemy,” magic that was able to transmute the “base metal of empire” into “the gold of nationhood” (page 2). There were two kinds of alchemy at work, a revolutionary one that insisted that the borders of empire and of the nation-state were one, and federal compromises such that seen in Malaysia.

But the contrasts that Reid draws with Europe are too stark. Only parts of Europe were covered by empires. Some intra-European empires like the United Kingdom have yet to break up, while the Russian/Soviet empire only disintegrated twenty years ago. Furthermore, not all European nationalisms were ethnically based, and one might argue that it has been the task of nationalism everywhere to create homogeneities where they previously did not exist.

Reid proposes a typology of Asian nationalism: ethnie nationalism, central to which are common myths of descent (he notes the ambiguities of “race” in many Asian languages); state nationalism, which historically could produce “an unusual uniformity of high culture” (page 7) as in East Asia, or as in Southeast Asia where monarchs used Buddhism to create homogeneities of culture; and anti-imperial nationalism, which was so dominant that it came to be seen as the only valid variant despite other trajectories in the un-colonised states. This variant “was absolutely crucial as the key ingredient for the alchemy that sought to turn empires into nations in the middle of the twentieth century” (page 9). Reid also proposes an “outrage at state humiliation” for his typology, which he says emerges especially where “the state is unusually central in the self-identification of subjects” (page 10). China is the outstanding case. In Southeast Asia, he suggests that it was the “frustration and rage at the weakness and humiliation of Islam” (page 11) that was fundamental, and he cites the case of Aceh. I am not convinced that this is a separate nationalist variant; rather, it is a more or less dominant theme in most Asian nationalisms.

A central feature of anti-imperial nationalism is its ability to suppress ethnic or religious claims, first in the interest of the general struggle and, later, after independence, to suppress them as treachery. But the possibility of suppression of the latter kind depends on the development of a suitable state nationalism able to secure the imperial borders as national borders and to produce convincing national mythologies. Then reinvented modern ethnicities can be nested within the overall discourse, whether it be Balinese or Batak in Indonesia, or Hmong and Brau in Laos.

An enduring feature of Southeast Asia, Imperial Alchemy argues, is that it was “state-averse” (pages 18 ff.) and that its social structures were held together by ritual and kin. Reid remarks that the classical Southeast Asian kingdoms’ “genius should perhaps be seen in their ability to mobilise large bodies of men and women by means that were not at all bureaucratic” (page 20). In this respect the history of Southeast Asia can be contrasted with that of East Asia.

The “enduring states” (pages 15 ff.) of East Asia – namely China, Korea, Japan and Vietnam – are intriguing, Reid claims, because here a pre-modern state nationalism was more pronounced than in Southeast Asia. This, of course, goes against the grain of most theorising on nationalism, which sees it as a strictly modern phenomenon. But he insists that

we have to see a state nationalism at work in China since very ancient times, operating primarily in a dynastic and elite mode but having the same effect of creating cultural homogeneities … We can also perceive an early dose of anti-imperial nationalism in the way Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese literati insisted on asserting their equality with and difference from the Chinese world-empire while emulating its mores. (page 17)

Indeed, he asserts, here we can see “earlier signs of a modern nationalist consciousness than in Europe itself” (page 17)

As evidence Reid points out that the printed language of China, especially since the eleventh century, reinforced the imperial language rather than the local vernaculars. This point is directed at the argument made for Europe that “print capitalism” reinforced vernacular languages. However, Reid’s argument overlooks the peculiar nature of Chinese characters, which allow speakers of Chinese languages other than Mandarin (Cantonese, Fujianese or Hokkien, Hainanese, Teochew, Shanghainese, etc) to pronounce them in their own fashions. Chinese characters certainly have symbolic power and magical power in Chinese culture, but they do not stand in the same relationship to vernaculars that an alphabetic system does.

What are we to make of the claim that the pre-modern Sinitic states were somehow proto-nationalist? Reid is too good a scholar not to understand that this was an elite form of nationalism, and it is true that the state made attempts to create linguistic uniformity and ritual uniformity. But it is very important to remember that, even in late imperial times, the elite was but a tiny fraction of the Chinese population, and there has to be a major question mark over the degree to which cultural uniformity was really possible. Even today, and even if we restrict ourselves to simply Chinese languages, China is almost as diverse as Europe.

What was unique in the Sinitic states was the attempt to propagate uniformity via the learning of neo-Confucian texts such as the book by Zhu Xi of the Sung Dynasty (960-1279) on family rites. The overwhelming majority of Chinese could not read; popular knowledge of these rites was dependent on their propagation by local literati and officials. It was one of the great insights of the anthropologist Barbara Ward to recognise that this propagation was a problem, and so her final and unfinished work was on, for example, the role of Chinese opera in spreading Chinese culture. Another anthropologist, Woody Watson, claimed in several seminal articles that cultural diversity was mediated by a state commitment to ritual orthopraxy rather than orthodoxy. This argument has been problematised subsequently by research showing that elites remained aware of “barbarian” cultural variations, and also by research pointing out that the literati placed a great deal of emphasis on sincerity in ritual practices, a point that weakens the orthopraxy argument. Others have pointed out the ways in which both ethnic Chinese and minorities adopted state practices but gave them different meanings. Melissa Brown has written the use of ancestral tablets as memorials on the part of people in Hubei province who do not believe that these tablets contain souls; that is, the cultural form is adopted but not the content. And, while opera may be a means of cultural propaganda, it could also be a source of heterodox discourses. Donald Sutton has suggested that mid-Ming (1368-1644) opera troupes were spreading Buddhist ideas about how to deal with the dead that stood in opposition to Confucian orthodoxy (1).

Stephan Feuchtwang has contributed to this broad discussion by arguing that, since the first Ming emperor Yongle (1403-24), there has been an attempt to “set standards of civilisation and rule that sought to create homogeneities within clearly marked boundaries.” He goes on,

My point is not to measure their success but rather to say that in China the idea of a standard, central and bounded civilisation was spread, even though the nature of its content was never agreed by all (2).

This idea or ideology certainly made China unique, especially as it entered the world of modern nationalism. Compared with Southeast Asian kingdoms, Indian kingdoms or European kingdoms, China was not burdened by caste or caste-like assumptions, although in practice class and stratification within the bureaucracy would occasionally assert such distinctions. The reality of social hierarchy (among other things) ensured that the ideological model of cultural uniformity could never be fulfilled. Only an assumption of social equality and its concomitant democracy could fulfil that model, and that fulfilment would only come with modern nationalism. It is for this reason that I disagree with Reid’s attempts to project nationalism back into, for example, ancient China. For it is inseparable from ideas of equality and democracy, and it is this “alchemy” that makes nationalism modern. This is also true in Southeast Asia.

There is much more besides in this stimulating book, which uses examples from Reid’s stamping ground in Maritime Southeast Asia to illustrate the contingent outcomes of various forms of nationalism. One chapter-length tour de force follows another as Reid presents an eye-opening account of the origins of the Melayu, makes his case for the particular nature of Acehnese ethnie nationalism, and draws on immense research and keen personal observation to trace the evolving positions of Batak identity in Indonesia and Kadazan-Dusun identity in Sabah and in Malaysia more broadly. His chapters on the Bataks and the Kadazan-Dusuns both underline Reid’s deeply rooted optimism about Indonesia and force the student of Mainland Southeast Asia to consider how these cases might speak to cases in Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, or Vietnam.

In all, Imperial Alchemy offers a superb riposte to Eurocentric theorising on nationalism, and it will help shift the point of gravity in the debate over nationalism towards Asia. Finally, Reid proposes that we are entering a post-national world in which, appropriately, our future has been foretold in Southeast Asia. In conditions of globalisation the territorial state is no longer the focus of passionate commitment, he says,

As advanced economies become more multi-cultural, they curiously converge from the opposite direction with plural polities such as those in Southeast Asia. Is the pluralism of Southeast Asia pre-modern or post-modern? (page 216)

Grant Evans is an advisor to the Lao Academy of Social Sciences, Vientiane.

1. Watson’s ideas are reconsidered in a special issue of Modern China, Vol.33, no.3, 2007, in which both Brown’s and Sutton’s articles can be found.

2. Stephan Feuchtwang, “India and China as spiritual nations,” Social Anthropology, Vol.17, No.1, 2009.