I got really depressed this weekend listening to a “senior scholar” in the field of premodern Southeast Asian history give a talk. The speaker is very well published, and has been active for decades, but I found nothing that was new or insightful in anything that he had to say.
Why was this the case? The main problem is that the author does not use primary sources. He cannot read any Asian languages, and bases his scholarship largely on secondary scholarship in English. This places incredible limits on what he can do, and yet it has not stopped him from publishing extensively.
The situation of this one scholar is not unique. The field of premodern Southeast Asian history in the West suffers badly from a lack of scholars who can read primary sources in their original languages.
Sometimes people defend this sad state of affairs by saying that “oh, but there are so many languages. . .”
Yes, there are. But people who work on the classical period in Europe, for instance, have to learn multiple “difficult” languages, such as ancient Greek, Latin and Hebrew, and modern languages like French and German. . . so can’t historians who focus on premodern Southeast Asia learn at least one???
Others say, “oh but there are so few sources for premodern Southeast Asian history.” That is also false. There are thousands of classical Chinese texts and inscriptions in Vietnam that have not been examined closely. There are many palm leaf manuscripts in Northern Thailand, and plenty of manuscripts in the Thai National Library that scholars have not studied. Add to these the materials that exist in Sanskrit, Burmese, Lao, Mon and yes even Malay, and there is no excuse to not make use of indigenous sources.
Why don’t people use these sources? I think the simple answer is because it is difficult to learn to read a classical Chinese text or a Sanskrit inscription or a Northern Thai palm leaf manuscript. It takes many years of work, and rather than do that, many people chose to focus on something like. . . trade, the topic of the talk this weekend. After all, it’s a lot easier to count how many ships arrived in a certain place than it is to try to determine how someone in the past thought.
But the result of this “taking the easy way” was on full display this weekend as this senior scholar talked about. . . nothing.
The first Europeans who studied about Southeast Asia did tend to have good linguistic skills, and they also relied on the assistance of indigenous scholars. Therefore, scholars like Henri Maspero and Georges Coedès were able to produce information based on classical Chinese texts and Sanskrit inscriptions, respectively.
However, people like that just produced what we might call “preliminary knowledge” about the region. Everything they did needs to be revisited. But very few people have done so, because so few people have acquired the linguistic skills to do so.
I think there was some hope when the field of Southeast Asian history took off in the US in the 1960s. People like Craig Reynolds, Reynaldo Ileto and Barbara Andaya did produce work based on indigenous materials at that time, but these efforts did not get sustained.
Instead, we’ve seen the rise of great “synthesizers” who tie together all of the work that has already been produced so far, that is, people like Anthony Reid, Kenneth Hall and Victor Lieberman.
The problem is that they are “synthesizing” work that is still “preliminary.” For many topics we only have a single study. What if that study is not accurate or is biased by a certain perspective? How can one build upon a single study like that?
The result of these developments is that the knowledge that is getting produced about premodern Southeast Asian history is becoming increasingly superficial, and increasingly distant from the sources and past realities.
Making everything even more depressing is that there are now people from the region who likewise do not have the linguistic skills to engage in primary source research, and they are now discovering the “expert knowledge” of the figures who created the field of Southeast Asian studies in the West and are taking this knowledge seriously.
Rather than believing the Anthony Reids and Kenneth Halls, people should do what those scholars can’t do – read primary sources from the region in their original languages – and come up with their own ideas based on what they find in primary sources, and through their critical reading and interpretation of primary sources.
Of course there are some people who do this. This recent work on sources about Sipsong Panna by Foon Ming Liew-Herres, Volker Grabowsky and Renoo Wichasin is a good example. But works like this are far and few between.
Meanwhile, we have many superficial works based on secondary scholarship. And having heard that talk this weekend I can report that one more is on the way.