Like any field, the field of Southeast Asian history maintains certain “truths” which the people in the field learn and teach others about.

One such “truth” is the idea that states in premodern Southeast Asia were distinct. Supposedly unlike states in the Chinese and European settings, polities in Southeast Asia did not have clearly defined territorial borders and bureaucratic structures, but instead consisted of “powerful centers” which were surrounded by smaller “centers” which served as tributaries.

In the field of Southeast Asian history, this form of state is called a “mandala.” And in 1968, this is what O. W. Wolters, one of the main theorists of the mandala, wrote about this form of polity:

“The mandala conception was an ancient and familiar one in South-East Asia, except among the semi-sinicized Vietnamese. A remarkable illustration, seen from the Javanese point of view, is contained in a 14th-century poem [the Nagara-kertagama], where Java, overlord of the archipelago, is described as ‘ringed’ by many countries ‘protected by the Illustrious Prince’ of Majapahit. The protected countries included the Thai kingdoms, Cambodia, and Champa. The single South-East Asian country of ‘ally’ status in the Javanese mandala was Vietnam, an exception which suggests that Vietnam, with its un-Indian background, was seen as being different from the rest of the region.”

[O. W. Wolters, “Ayudhyā and the Rearward Part of the World,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 3/4 (1968): 174.]

So according to Wolters the mandala was something special to Southeast Asia. However his description of 14th-century Majapahit being surrounded by protected countries could just as easily be used to describe 14th-century Ming Dynasty China, surrounded as it was by tributary kingdoms.

So why make a distinction?

As far as I can tell, there is no good reason to make a distinction because the idea that the form of states in premodern Southeast Asia was different from the form states took in places like China is based not on historical information but on an erroneous imagined idea of what the premodern state was like in China.

In the first millennium BCE, the various kingdoms (guo, 國) in the area that is today China were little more than powerful centers. Yes, they had officials, but there was no bureaucracy which reached out over the land to any clearly-defined borders.

Over time this of course changed, but very slowly. Many borders long remained ill-defined and the court dealt with different peoples in the empire in different ways.

As late as the period of the Qing Dynasty, when the bureaucracy was at its largest, the court still relied on various non-bureaucratic means to rule over their empire.

Rather than following bureaucratic norms, for instance, the Qing dealt with people like the Tibetans and Mongols in very culturally specific ways, and local officials within China proper were as adept at using local spirits to control the population as they were at referring to written legal codes.

So why keep talking about the mandala if it’s supposed distinctness is not true?

I would argue that many of the “truths” that we find in academic fields are upheld not because they are actually true, but because it is easier to do that (and it feels good to think that one’s field is special) than it is to learn enough about other fields to discover the inadequacies of one’s own views and beliefs.

The mandala has made historians of the Southeast Asian past feel special long enough. It’s time to develop a more accurate understanding of premodern polities, one which takes into account their many commonalities.