John N. Miksic, The A to Z of Ancient Southeast Asia.

Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2010. The A to Z Guide Series, No. 141. Pp. lv, 497; maps, diags., photographs, glossary, apps., bib.

Reviewed by Patrick McCormick

John Miksic has compiled a five-hundred page volume encompassing the entirety of pre-modern Southeast Asia, with primary focus on the architecture, art, religious practices, and literary forms of the earliest periods in the region’s history. The book features maps showing the sites of major city-states in the modern nations of the region, in addition to schematics of major archaeological and religious sites, including Candi Sewu and Barabudhur in Java, Prasat Thom and Preah Vihear in Cambodia, and temples of Bagan and Champa. There is further a collection of photographs of individual monuments of Bagan, Champa, Thailand, Java, and Cambodia in the middle of the book, although these photographs are not linked to specific entries.

The A to Z of Ancient Southeast Asiar includes appendices with lists of kingdoms and rulers, with reign dates arranged chronologically, and coverage of the “usual suspects”: Java, Funan, Cambodia, Champa, Lan Xang, Melaka, Ayutthaya, Sukhothai, Lanna, Vietnam, and Burma. Also covered are such less commonly included states as Pasai, Funan, and Arakan and Chinese and Indian dynasties. The author has not included the ancient Mon polities, though the Mons are thought to rank among the earliest civilizations on the mainland of Southeast Asia. A two-page appendix discusses the language families of the region. This appendix is followed by a short glossary of terms that presumably could not find convenient homes among the volume’s entries. The volume also features a lengthy bibliography. The latter is divided into general works, Chinese sources (some appearing in European languages), and then works grouped by the modern nations of Southeast Asia or ASEAN, with the addition of Champa. In addition to works in English, the bibliography includes a number in French, Dutch, and Malay-Indonesian.

The title’s A to Z, the name of a larger series of reference works published by Scarecrow Press, implies something of a reference manual. Despite the reference to “dictionary references” on the volume’s back cover, the work actually stands somewhere between a single-volume dictionary, with short entries, and a full-fledged multi-volume encyclopedia, with lengthy descriptive essays. Indeed, the lengths of entries vary from just a few lines to several pages. An example of the latter, the entry on the name “Jayavarman” (pp. 168-173), displays the fruits of Miksic’s decades of work with archaeological and primary sources. The author does not seem to have taken the term “ancient” too strictly; we find an entry on, for example, Islam (pp. 152-154) that tells us about that religion’s spread in the region, which only gained speed towards the middle of the second millennium CE. Miksic provides us with abundant information on those aspects of Hindu practices and deities that had an impact on pre-modern Southeast Asia. Particularly useful here are his descriptions of iconography and of the ways in which both iconography and forms of worship changed over time as they were adapted to the Southeast Asian context.

To see more closely the kind of information that Miksic can furnish his readers, we can consider a sample entry, one related to his particular area of expertise, archaeology. Under “Trowulan” (pp. 396-397), Miksic tells us that this is a village from fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Majapahit, gives us the probable Javanese etymology of the name, and refers us to one of the maps in the beginning of the book. He guides us through the site first through the perspective of the Deswarnana, a Javanese court poem of the fourteenth century, telling us about the Buddhist and Sivaite elements to the palace of Trowulan at that time. The author then correlates the site with recent archaeological research, giving us an indication of the extent to which extant remains correspond to the literary description, before placing the site within a larger Southeast Asian context as a very large early urban settlement.

A reference work is no small undertaking, whether in dictionary or encyclopedia format. Few, if any, individuals can truly have encyclopedic knowledge of potentially so vast a field as ancient Southeast Asia. The author of The A to Z of Ancient Southeast Asia has a subtle and deep knowledge in the areas of his specialization, especially archaeology, ancient history, Sanskrit, ancient Javanese texts, and Hindu practices. His areas of special expertise seem to be Cambodia and the civilizations of the Indonesian Archipelago. The reader is, I believe, likely to find entries in these areas not only the most useful but also, for the views and new information drawn from the author’s own expertise, the freshest and most stimulating. For those areas falling outside of his immediate expertise, Miksic has had to rely on secondary scholarship. A problem arises in the case of such entries. While the author alone is more than qualified to write a broad study on his areas of expertise, the idea of a reference work or “dictionary” necessitates the inclusion of materials that may fall beyond any one scholar’s ken. Those materials may in the end not best serve the reader.

Just within one small corner of Southeast Asian studies, Burma studies, there have recently been debates about the historicity of “standard” primary sources and discussion of the nature and completeness of the few English-language translations of those sources. Also, the state of secondary scholarship within Southeast Asian studies is uneven. Indonesian and Thai historiography, for example, is several generations into being expanded, rewritten, revised, and reconsidered, featuring not only an ever-growing body of commentary on sources but even criticism and theory. Compare this with the state of Burma studies: very few sources have been read in Burmese, much less translated or commented upon. This is not to mention the state of work on sources in Burma’s other languages. Outside of the context of archaeology, consider, for that matter, the state of studies on those civilizations that now do not correspond conveniently to a modern nation-state, such as the Chams and the Mons. Not being seen as direct ancestors to the modern majorities in their home countries, their histories tend to suffer relegation to obscurity.

One of the uses of a reference work is to read through an entry to get a concise picture of the state of knowledge in a particular field or on a particular topic. The reader going through Miksic’s entries will be amply rewarded, though I would have very much appreciated citations within the entries. For example, the author tells us that there are Burmese-language inscriptions at Angkor Wat (p. 24, in the entry for “Angkor”), but I do not know how to follow up on this lead. I found the entry on Kambu (pp. 182-183) tantalizing: Miksic tells us that the term refers to a mythical ancestor of the Khmer people and that it is related to the term Kambuj─Б, from which the name “Cambodia” is ultimately derived. He tells us that the first reference to the latter term is in a Cham inscription of 817 CE, and also that Thai chronicles describe battles between Kambujas and Mons. These are the kinds of juicy tidbits of information – new to me – on which one might be keen to follow up, but for which references are not given in the volume’s entries. Furthermore, because sources are not cited, I have not been able to gauge the extent of the author’s own original contributions to various entries. I wonder whether this omission does not do disservice to Miksic himself, in that those of us not familiar with his <em>oeuvre</em> may fail to realize the extent of his contribution to the state of knowledge on pre-modern Southeast Asia.

The point here is not to criticize the author for what this book may lack from the perspective of a single reviewer, but rather to observe that the author has attempted to provide the community with a comprehensive reference work on the early era in Southeast Asian history. That is a wholly welcome and useful undertaking. Future such endeavors might be better served through the joint efforts of multiple scholars, each working in his or her own area of expertise. Then again, are there other John Miksics working in parallel on other parts of Southeast Asia?

Over the past several decades, scholarship on Southeast Asia has become increasingly narrow in focus, whether divided along disciplinary lines or according to sub-regional specializations. The proliferation of academic programs in individual disciplines has fostered this narrowing of focus. Typically, graduate students are encouraged to concentrate on one country, or even one region or ethnic group within one modern nation-state. There are further regional divides within Southeast Asia, with scholars focusing either on the Mainland (often with Vietnam pushed to the side) or the Island World. The inherent time limits of degree programs mean that, inevitably, many Southeast Asianists do not have the opportunity to expand their knowledge beyond the constraints of a specific country or discipline. How many new scholars training today could hope to cover the breadth of all of Southeast Asia, mastering more than one Southeast Asian language, let alone begin to place Southeast Asia into a larger global set of interactions between the region and South and East Asia? Next to members of earlier generations, few young scholars today seem to have the cross-disciplinary perspectives or extensive field experience to be able to step back and present a larger, overall picture of Southeast Asia as a region.

Patrick McCormick is an independent scholar living in Burma. He earned his doctorate at the University of Washington with a dissertation entitled, “Mon Histories: Between Translation and Retelling” (2010).