Constance M. Wilson, ed., The Middle Mekong River Basin: Studies in Tai History and Culture

DeKalb, Illinois: Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Northern Illinois University, 2009. Pp. 412, maps, apps., bib., index.

Reviewed by Richard A. O’Connor.

Whither the study of Southeast Asia? The volume under review invites reflection on how scholarship follows traditions. It is the last publication of Constance Wilson (1937-2010), an historian who embraced the scholarly tradition that I will call indigenization. In this essay, to recognize Wilson’s career, I place her work in relation to the ways that she and her generation indigenized the study of Southeast Asia. First, however, let me review the book in itself, considering the collection’s seven essays by Wilson and three other authors.

The Book in Itself

For better or worse, the volume sets up and yet denies a duality. On the one hand, as its title says, it is about a place–the Middle Mekong river basin. On the other hand, as its subtitle indicates, it is also about a people–the Tai. Although the volume avoids choosing “people” or “place,” as if the two were one, in fact it is largely about a single Tai people, the Lao, rather than the Middle Mekong. The latter, as an ethnically diverse place, cannot be represented by any single group. What the volume offers instead, a Lao perspective on the region, is invaluable but incomplete. Can we understand the Lao in themselves and by themselves? Is “Lao” also a position, not just a people? The authors never ask.

Within this limitation, the volume advances scholarship usefully and succeeds nicely at what it set out to do. Its chapters work well together. Each is a carefully researched and well focused essay that develops a fruitful angle on the common subject. Here the volume’s only overall weakness is the delay in its publication: when more than decade elapses between the initial conference panel and the final published volume, essays that were once definitive, gathering the best available research, can only be useful starting points.

Wilson’s introductory essay summarizes the other contributions and sets the scene historically. Situating the Lao within the broader Tai expansion, her narrowly historical account ignores anthropological explanations (Leach, Condominas, Moerman, O’Connor) and moves quickly into how Tai societies thrived along the Middle Mekong from the thirteenth century onwards. From the fourteenth century to the early sixteenth century, the spread of Theravada Buddhism and trade with Ming China created a “golden era” that invading Burmese and Siamese armies eventually brought to an end. In championing what the Middle Mekong once was and still is, Wilson urges scholars to think outside the nation-state box and to reject its assimilatory agenda for minorities. That is excellent advice, though the volume rarely takes it to heart. Instead, by seeing the Lao as a discrete people rather than a shifting position, it replicates the very ethno-national logic that we are urged to reject. In this scheme, where some peoples get nations and the rest get assimilated, ethnicity and nationalism are two sides of the same coin.

In the second chapter Ratanaporn Sethakul gathers together an impressive range of indigenous chronicles and foreign sources to describe what David Wyatt first characterized as the Tai world. Expanding southward and westward from South China’s mountain valleys, small Tai city-states developed scattered pockets of paddy land. Separated by steep mountains and long distances, these groups began to diverge and yet never lost a shared ethnic awareness. In an essay that is often more a compilation than an analysis, Ratanaporn adeptly delves into Tai beliefs and practices to depict this earlier world.

Working within that Tai world, John Hartman’s chapter brings his considerable skills as a linguistic to showing how the Middle Mekong functioned as a Tai cultural corridor. In particular, by studying the movement of Tai scripts, a literary genre (the Khun Theung/Therng stories), and an elite funerary tradition (cremating with a mythological elephant bird [nok hatsadiling]), he persuasively demonstrates a truly regional dynamic. Like Ratanaporn, Hartman gets beyond the largely Lao perspective of the volume’s other essays.

Wilson next retells two Lao Jataka tales and interprets their meaning. In her view, one (Phra Lak Phra Lam) “celebrates an independent secure Lao culture” while the other (Le Syvsvat) expresses “deep psychological stress” over the loss of sovereignty and “traditional patterns of Lao kingship and values.” Plausible as these readings are, they illustrate the volume’s Lao–rather than Middle Mekong–perspective. Do Lao performances not evoke Khmer legacies and grant local Austroasiatics fructifying powers? And are those same Jatakas not about how peoples and kingdoms–like the Lao and Vientiane–come and go, while places endure? Arguably this Buddhist view is more ecumenical–and realistic–than our own era’s understanding of discrete ethnicities.

Marc Askew’s contribution develops this Lao-specific viewpoint. Working through numerous sources, he develops an insightful and well focused history of the ways in which Tai city-state urbanism shaped Lao life. His theoretical innovation, a “Culture Region perspective,” is exclusively ethnic: it is about how the Lao see and have seen themselves and their surroundings. That neatly avoids imposing a Western viewpoint, only to raise a methodological dilemma: who or what represents the Lao? Askew never asks.

Wilson wraps up the collection with a study of nineteenth-century tribute missions’ assimilation of Lao elites to Siamese court culture. Treating the ceremony as a text, she argues that it “reinforced the social order and its system of ranking.” One appendix on rank in nineteenth-century Siam and Laos and another listing tribute give specifics that other researchers will appreciate.

The Book in its Tradition

While this book stands on its own, it also carries forward indigenization, the scholarly tradition that guided Wilson’s career. Where the West and Western knowledge once claimed universality and the authority of reason itself, indigenization began a pluralist revolution. Overthrowing the centrality of the West, it challenged a host of prejudices that hid women, slighted minorities and denied diversity. It was a sea-change. Scholarship shifted from court to countryside, Great Tradition to Little, elites to minorities, center to periphery. Instead of reciting one grand narrative, scholars came to celebrate many little local stories, seeing the diversity that was always there. Bit by bit, scholarship became more indigenous, more endogenous, more autochthonous until, in today’s hermeneutics of meaning, we study culturally constructed local worlds, each in its own terms. That, anyway, is what indigenizing stood for. What it stood against, of course, was colonialism, imperialism, elitism, the patriarchy. It was a powerful democratizing movement that aligned scholarship on Southeast Asia with the new nations abroad, the ‘60s revolution at home, and dethroning the Western canon on campus.

Wilson and Indigenization

We are caught in sweeping currents here . . . So sweeping, indeed, that it may all sound like a grand narrative about the end of the grand narrative. Lest these words implode in a pouf of irony, then, let me bring Wilson into the picture and place her work within her generation’s intellectual project.

The Project Intellectually: In the field of Thai Studies, Wilson was there from the beginning. Her dissertation topic, Mongkut’s reforms, now looks obvious, but in her day it was path-breaking. Earlier scholars slighted the Thai. While India, China and the West acted, Thai reacted. Great civilizations created, Thai copied. Wilson flipped that around: she showed Thai innovating, choosing how to change, taking history into their own hands. The theory for Wilson’s practice was John Smail’s 1961 article, “On the Possibility of an Autonomous History of Modern Southeast Asia.” This too now looks obvious, but it was not then. It broke from Euro-centric history to recognize how Southeast Asia had its own internal dynamic. “Autonomous” meant history from within Southeast Asia, in local hands. It was a revolution.

There at the start, Wilson stayed the course. Having put Thai history in Thai hands, she then turned from Bangkok to the peripheries, giving voice and agency to the people of the Northeast, the Thai/Burma border, and lastly the Middle Mekong. How so? Take the Middle Mekong volume itself. Here’s the dedication: “For the peoples who live along the great river.” So it is not to loved ones or to mentors at home, or to great figures in the West. No, just the opposite: it is centered “out there,” in Asia, and it is for the people–that is indigenization! Wilson’s essays do the same. The first bids us to “reverse the current approach emphasizing the assimilation and incorporation” of minorities to see how our era’s invention, the nation-state, has “fractured” a once “greater Tai world.” Two later essays treat Lao indigenization of Jataka tales, adapting the Buddhist Great Tradition to fit local life. Wilson assumes their intrinsic worth–and rightly so–but serious scholars would at one time have dismissed these tales as inferior, as corruptions. Indigenization turned that on its head. And the last essay analyzes a royal tribute ceremony as a text. That theory, hermeneutics, changed scholars from outside observers into inside interpreters. It is where indigenization led us.

The Project Institutionally: That characterizes indigenization intellectually. But it was also an institutional movement. Take the Middle Mekong volume again. It is a veritable Area Studies program in miniature. It is not just that it is published by one such program, nor that it is multidisciplinary. It is also that what connects the essays is not an argument or theory or philosophy but just the area. That is how Area Studies programs work: they get people into the same room, not on the same page. Wilson was at the heart of this institutional development. A graduate of Cornell’s Southeast Asia Program, she spent her academic life in Northern Illinois University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies, affiliated with the University of Washington’s Southeast Asia Center in retirement, and served the Association for Asian Studies throughout her career.

The Project Experientially: That is indigenization institutionally, but the project was also experiential. To be credible, to join the movement, you did field-work. Marx might have written Das Kapital in the British Museum, and Frazer The Golden Bough, but suddenly working only with books was improper, incomplete. Staying home was arrogant, incompetent. Going to the field became a rite of passage. It gave you a credibility that no degree could ever offer.

It is hard to exaggerate the importance field-work had and still has. Its collecting rationale is obvious: how else can you get unwritten stories, hear silenced voices, grasp local worlds? But the field-work imperative is not just logical. It is moral: it is right that you surrender yourself to an indigenous world. In field-work, as Nikki Tannenbaum has said, the natives rule. Area Studies programs institutionalize experiencing difference directly. It is a point of pride.

Evaluating Indigenization

How fares the project? If the measure is democratizing scholarship, or deconstructing Euro-centrism, or honoring diversity, then indigenization has been hugely successful. It did what it set out to do. Yet the project also championed the region. By this measure the picture is more mixed. Consider the project’s institutional side.

Institutional: The Area Studies programs that Wilson and so many others built have trained thousands, filled libraries, published copiously. An awesome achievement! The one abiding failure is that jobs, degrees and identities all remain largely disciplinary, not areal. So we are linguists or historians or anthropologists first, and Southeast Asianists second. We have indigenized explanations, not explainers’ careers. Indeed, for better or worse, Western containers still structure the burgeoning indigenous content.

Experiential: What about indigenization’s experiential imperative? Engaging the other–not just intellectually and institutionally but personally–has made field-work obligatory. Is the field experience transformative? Well, it is ever easier to go abroad physically yet stay home mentally, but the faith in field-work as life-changing is important to keep, even if it is–and always was–na├пve to expect. Certainly field-work usefully undermines any arbitrary subjective/objective divide, overturning the false objectivity that Western, colonial and patriarchal perspectives once claimed. That is a huge advance. Yet where does perspectival knowledge leave us? No one knows. Should disciplined scholarship carry any special authority? Does an outside observer have any standing? The rise of subjectivity bedevils indigenization’s intellectual integrity and public authority.

Intellectual: Over the last half-century, thanks to indigenization, the scholarship on Southeast Asian subjects has grown better and richer and deeper. That’s a great achievement. Yet it’s mostly scholarship in rather than on the region. Dendrology, not forestry. Yes, some doubt that there is any forest at all. That is the postmodern logic of indigenization: each place or people lives separately in its own culturally constructed world. I am doubtful. Those worlds overlap and interlock. Groups adapt to one other and become symbolically interdependent. Go deeply into any group and you find regional cultural complexes that have lives of their own.

How do Southeast Asia’s not-so-separate pieces interconnect? We hardly know. Answering that would take the outside observer whom we no longer trust. How significant are regional legacies like, say, the house or animism? Again, we cannot say–that would take the comparisons that we rarely do. We know little about regional realities, perhaps less than colonial scholars knew. Ethnocentric as they were, concepts like “civilization” and “overlays” had heuristic advantages over the way that today’s tidy notion of culture–neat, complete, discrete–imagines endless separate local worlds.

What killed the big picture? Consider three trends. One is specialization. Knowing more and more about the inner workings of ever more local groups is not a problem in itself. To the contrary that knowledge is inherently good. No, the problem comes when we treat heuristic distinctions as ontological truths. It is useful to imagine a group by itself but that does not make it so. Or, to study religion, we may arbitrarily and temporarily ignore how it intertwines with, say, politics and economics. Arbitrarily and temporarily! Yet all too often our unnatural separating gets taken as natural separateness, as if religion and politics really were distinct. That fragmenting is one way in which the region disappears.

Field-work is another. One person can only see and do so much. Again, that is not an inherent problem. Were we to treat going to the field as just a research tool, we would work hard to overcome its highly personal limitations. But we do not. Indigenization gives field-work authority because it is personal, not despite those blinders! So stand-alone projects need no apology. Yet what if some answers can be found only in books, not the field? Indeed, I would argue that the region is in the library, in holding our inevitably idiosyncratic field-work accountable to what has happened in other places and at earlier times.

A third trend is the way in which indigenization seeks its subject in ever deeper meanings, ever further from centers of power, ever closer to the most marginal and maligned. What for Wilson began as a move to an autonomous history, explaining Southeast Asia internally rather than externally, took her from the royal center out into the peripheries. Wilson took just a couple steps down this path, but take Anna Tsing’s brilliant In The Realm of the Diamond Queen. It is about marginality among the marginal on Indonesia’s margins. Here, studying a group with no name, Tsing focuses on a woman playing a male role, shaman, that takes her into imaginary realms. Do not misunderstand–I am illustrating a trend, not criticizing Tsing. Indeed, Diamond Queen rightly won the Benda Prize. But compare Tsing’s inward quest on the margins to Benda’s region-revealing connections at the center. That is how indigenization has changed the study of Southeast Asia. Surely we have gained far more than we have lost, but that is no excuse for failing to reckon the costs.

Serving Society: When it began, indigenization set out to serve society. One way it did that was through revealing the ways in which “objectivity” hid all manner of ethnocentric, patriarchal and authoritarian abuses. That debunking is all to the good, but it has arguably pulled the epistemological rug out from under us. Have we undone the authority that scholarship needs to serve society? That would be tragic. Whatever our personal politics, what we know collectively could serve society far better than it currently does. Here scholarship as a group enterprise has yet to regain the authority that it once had.

Then again, if scholarship had more authority, what would we say? I fear that indigenization has not equipped us well for solving our era’s crises. Why? Our ever-inward theories end in identity politics, not civil society. Stressing only the inside–obsessing over each group’s point of view, its unique meanings and inherent worth–reduces the relations among groups to a state of nature. The more we expect horrors like the Khmer Rouge, the harder it is to see alternatives and to speed recovery. That, anyway, is where scholarly fashion has put us. But it is not how the region works, at least not always and everywhere. Southeast Asia has rich traditions of civility, a host of customs that connect neighbors, protect travelers, broker compromises, open groups to outsiders. Why has scholarship not made more of what is shared, of what connects rather than divides? One answer, I suspect, relates to indigenization’s dismissal of the region.

Reviving the Region?

Can we revive the region as a scholarly project? To suggest how, let’s reconsider a classic of indigenization, Geertz’s “Deep Play: Notes on a Balinese Cockfight.” Geertz goes inside to give us “a Balinese reading of Balinese experience.” The cockfight is “a story they tell themselves about themselves.” That closes the loop, creating a Balinese world with its own separate logic. Inside, Geertz tells us, that story is all about status. And status, he tells us in Negara, runs the Balinese state. That closes a still wider loop: now cockfight and village as well as state and society all echo each other, all enclosed in a separate Balinese world.

No doubt what Geertz found is there to some degree. But how tight is the circle, and what does status leave out? Next to Bali, on Savu, the cockfight is integral to agriculture’s ritual cycle (Fox 1979). Yes, I know, that is another culture. And we all know that each culture lives in its own world. Or so indigenization says. And were Bali once like its country cousins on Savu, that was long, long ago. Meaning, everyone knows, is of the moment. Or so the theory goes.

Two decades after “Deep Play,” Lansing published Priests & Programmers. He found Bali organized around two systems making contradictory claims. One, the status system that Geertz saw, was a realm of royalty and power. The other, an agricultural system, was a realm of priests and water temples. So should we see status competition or agricultural cooperation? I would say both. In seeing status, Geertz takes us into a Balinese story. Were we to see rice, it would take us into another story and, I suspect, closer to Balinese life. Here, in their practices rather than their imaginings, even enemies work together.

Now, so far I have phrased this as competing foci: we could see how status divides or how rice unites. Yet it is also competing theories. It is Geertz’s hermeneutics versus phenomenology. Or, if we stay within hermeneutics, it’s Geertz’s cultural meaning versus Gadamer’s (1989) historical belonging. For the latter, the cockfight would be a rite enacting tradition, not a story stressing status.

How does that get us to the region? While each group tells its own story, different groups can and do share rituals. Where a story has one voice, a ritual joins disparate actors in a common act. As a story, the cockfight is a Balinese symbol. As a rite it’s a regional sign. It is through shared signs, not divisive symbols, that Southeast Asians work with each other.

Beyond Indigenization

I started grad school at the height of the Vietnam War. Understanding the region had urgency. To my mind, no politicians and few scholars could think well regionally yet culturally. Instead of seeing Southeast Asia as it was–like a rain-forest in its intricately interdependent diversity–it was imagined more like a board game wherein one player’s gain was another’s loss. That was tragically self-fulfilling.

Today, a half century after Vietnam, the United States is again in a regional war–or two. Different region, same discourse. Still polarizing, still like a board game, still blind–even hostile–to regional realities that broker difference, that weave diverse peoples together.

Why has this happened yet again? Area Studies has failed to demonstrate that unilateral military intervention is impractical, implausible, even mad. World politics needs a double dose of the indigenization that Wilson and her cohort set in motion. So what they taught still has much to teach. Yet would we do better if we studied people and places not just in themselves but also in relation to the region? I think so, and I think that that is what Wilson’s cohort initially set out to do. Ironically that’s not what happened. Yet it is not only still possible but it is as intellectually promising as ever.

Richard A. O’Connor is Biehl Professor of International Studies at the University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee.


References Cited

Fox, James J. 1979. “The Ceremonial System of Savu.” Pp. 145-173 in The Imagination of Reality: Essays in Southeast Asian Coherence Systems, ed. by A. Becker and A. Yengoyan. Norwood, New Jersy: Ablex.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. 1989. Truth and Method. 2nd Revised Edition. Translated by J. Weinscheimer and D. Marshall. New York: Continuum.

Geertz, Clifford. 1972. “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight.” Daedalus 101: 1-37.

Geertz, Clifford. 1980. Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth-Century Bali. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Lansing, J. Stephen. 1991. Priests and Programmers: Technologies of Power in the Engineered Landscape of Bali. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Smail, John R. W. 1961. “On the Possibility of an Autonomous History of Modern Southeast Asia.” The Journal of Southeast Asian History II ,2: 72-102.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. 1993. In the Realm of the Diamond Queen: Marginality in an Out-of-the-Way Place. Princeton: Princeton University Press.