In 1979 Claude Jacques published an essay entitled “‘Funan,’ ‘Zhenla’: The Reality Concealed by these Chinese Views of Indochina.” His point in this short work was to argue that Western scholars had relied too heavily on an uncritical reading of Chinese sources to reconstruct the history of pre-Angkorian Cambodia, and that this was particularly problematic in that the Chinese sources did not clearly represent reality but were filtered to some extent by the worldview of their authors.

Jacques begins that article by stating that “On glancing through the history of ancient Cambodia, it is evident that authors prefer, more often than not, to refer to the country during the so-called ‘pre-Angkorean’ period (that is before A.D. 802) by using Chinese names – Funan, Zhenla – rather than ‘Cambodia’ or one of the indigenous names (or more precisely, Sanskrit names which have become indigenous), even though some of them like Bhavapura, have long been well known.”

He adds to this point later in the opening paragraph by stating that “Moreover, we can easily see that this method of giving a name to the country is the clearest indication of another fact: that the history of pre-Angkorean Cambodia was, to begin with, reconstructed much more on the basis of Chinese records than on inscriptions found in Cambodia itself.” (371)

[The in Early South East Asia: Essays in Archaeology, History and Historical Geography, eds., R. B. Smith and W. Watson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), 371-379.]

Jacques therefore encourages scholars to make more use of indigenous sources in constructing the history of early Cambodia. At the same time, he acknowledges that Chinese sources are still valuable, but argues that scholars have to read them critically.

This article became extremely influential. However, I don’t think that it has been understood properly, for Jacques was critiquing Western scholars as much as Chinese sources. Yet in the years since he published this work, I have heard the latter point made much more often than the former.

In fact, I have heard scholars of Southeast Asian history say countless times that the Chinese saw “kingdoms” in Southeast Asia when in reality there were no such entities. Instead there had been “mandalas,” but the Chinese projected their own idea of a “kingdom” onto what they saw and represented places like Funan as such. [The idea that there was a distinct form of polity in Southeast Asia – the mandala – is also problematic, as I argued previously here.]

It has always bothered me when I’ve heard people say this, because the people who I have heard say this have always been people who do not read Chinese. Nonetheless, they somehow have the confidence to declare that the Chinese “misunderstood” Southeast Asia.

I would argue that this is not accurate at all. When I read early writings in classical Chinese on the region that we today call Southeast Asia, I don’t see the problems that Southeast Asianists confidently proclaim to be there.

Instead, the problem I see is with the Westerners who have read classical Chinese sources to study about early Southeast Asian history.

Take for instance Paul Wheatley’s 1961 work, The Golden Khersonese: Studies in the Historical Geography of the Malay Peninsula before A.D. 1500. In that work, Wheatley cites the 1317 encyclopedia that Ma Duanlin [馬端臨] compiled, the Wenxian tongkao [文献通考], to present the following information in it about a polity called Panpan that probably existed in the early centuries A.D. on the Gulf of Siam:

槃槃國梁時通焉. . . 外城者曰那延猶中夏剌史縣令

“The kingdom of Panpan entered into relations with China during the Liang dynasty (502-57). . . Provincial officials are called nayan, and correspond to the Chinese cishi and xianling. [Wheatley translates these last two terms in a footnote as “Prefects and subprefects respectively.”]”

Let’s begin with the first sentence. In the original text, there is no word corresponding to “China” and no word corresponding to “dynasty.” It simply says, “During the Liang, the Panpan kingdom/polity made contact.”

Moving on to the second sentence, in the original there are no “provincial officials.” The text simply has “those outside the citadel.” Further, they do not “correspond to” but are “similar to” the positions mentioned.

Are those positions referred to as “Chinese” positions? Kind of. The term that is used is “Zhongxia” (中夏) which is a slightly more literary way of saying “Zhongguo” (中國), the “Middle/Central Kingdom.”

Should we translate such terms as “Chinese”? I would say that it is better to make more literal translations, or to leave the terms un-translated because to translate such terms as “Chinese” gives the sense that there is some identifiable and unchanging essence of “Chinese-ness.” I think that this is very difficult to demonstrate, or at the very least, is very difficult to get people to agree upon. I therefore think that it is more historically accurate to just use whatever term the author you are reading used.

Finally, as for translating cishi and xianling as “prefects and subprefects respectively,” Wheatley did not have the benefit in 1961 of a resource like Charles Hucker’s A Dictionary of Official Titles in Imperial China, but scholars at the time undoubtedly knew that in this period cishi oversaw regions and xianling oversaw districts, and that in between these two entities were commanderies. So these two positions were not in an “A and sub-A” relationship to each other. It was more like “A and sub-sub-A.”

Is that important? Yes, because this author was not saying that there was a “correspondence,” but that the officials in Panpan were “similar” or “like” in a more general sense. And the two titles that the author chose to compare the Panpan officials with signified this by referring in a general sense to “regional” officials and “local” officials.

Finally there is the issue of translating “guo” [國] as “kingdom.” This term was used in many contexts. Zhongguo [中國] was the “Middle/Central Kingdom.” Zhuhouguo [諸侯國] were “vassal states.” Within the empire, a ruling house would offer territories to the princes in the royal family and these regions were called wangguo [王國] or “princedoms.” The same term was also used to refer to the “kingdoms” that presented tribute to the central court.

The term “guo” therefore had a wide range of uses, and as such, when a “Chinese” wrote about “Southeast Asia” and used this term, it does not mean that he was viewing “Southeast Asia” through a “Chinese lens.” “Guo” was simply a generic and flexible term for a “polity,” and in many cases it signified little more than that there was some kind of “capital” with a “ruler” in it.

The real problem in my opinion is not that Chinese sources are “biased,” but that Westerners in the twentieth century read these sources with preconceived ideas in their heads about what “China” is and how “Chinese” see the world. “China” to them was something like the nineteenth-century world of the Qing Dynasty, with its massive bureaucracy staffed by erudite officials. They assumed that this is what “China” had always been like, and these preconceived notions entered into their reading of earlier sources.

I think these two sentences in Wheatley’s translation make this clear. Compare what Wheatley wrote with a more literal translation:

“The kingdom of Panpan entered into relations with China during the Liang dynasty (502-57). . . Provincial officials are called nayan, and correspond to the Chinese cishi and xianling. [“Prefects and subprefects respectively.”]”

“During the Liang, the Panpan polity made contact. . . Those outside the citadel are called nayan and are similar to Zhongxia regional inspectors and district magistrates.”

Wheatley imposes a bureaucratic mindset on the writer of these lines, but the text does not show this. In the original there is no “China,” “provincial officials” or any direct “correspondence.” All it shows us is that there was a ruler and that he had some people who served him. Some were in his citadel, and some were outside.

Finally, in addition to not liking to hear people repeat this claim that the “Chinese imposed their view of the world” on “Southeast Asia” and therefore did not represent it accurately, the other thing I don’t like is to hear Southeast Asianists say that “the Chinese sources say. . .” or “according to the Chinese sources. . .”

Again, it is always scholars who cannot read Chinese who I hear say this. Their knowledge of “the Chinese sources” comes from the work of people like Wheatley who, as we have just seen, did not necessarily render those sources accurately into English.

To some extent he imposed preconceived notions into his translations, and at others he simply got information wrong.

In the same passage cited above, Wheatley writes of Panpan that, “It is situated in the north of a large island separated from Linyi (Champa) by the Small Sea. From Jiaozhou it is forty days’ journey by ship.” (49)

On the preceding page of his book, Wheatley sites another source which says that the kingdom of Panpan “is located to the southwest of Linyi (Champa) on a bay of the sea. To the north it is separated from Linyi by the Small Sea. One can reach it by boat from Jiaozhou in forty days. . .” (48)

在南海大洲中北與林邑隔小海自交州船行四十日至

在林邑西南海曲中北與林邑隔小海自交州船行四十日乃至

You would never realize it from Wheatley’s translation, but these two passages are almost identical, and yet Wheatley both reads and translates them differently. A translation that demonstrates the similarities between these two lines would look something like the following:

“It is situated on a large island in the South Sea [Wheatley leaves out ‘the South Sea’ entirely]. To the north it is separated from Linyi by the Small Sea. Traveling from Jiaozhou by ship, it is reached in forty days.”

“It is situated to the southwest of Linyi on a bay of the sea. To the north it is separated from Linyi by the Small Sea. Traveling from Jiaozhou by ship, it is reached after forty days.”

So from reading Wheatley’s The Golden Khersonese can we be confident that we know what “the Chinese sources” say? Not really. Can we be confident that the “Chinese view” “concealed” the “Southeast Asian reality” that was there? To be sure, all texts contain some kind of perspective, but the one that Chinese texts have been accused of imposing on the Southeast Asian reality by Southeast Asianists comes not from the texts themselves, but from the minds of the men who read (and in the case of Wheatley, at times misread) them.

In the end, this all relates to what I wrote about previously regarding the state of knowledge concerning premodern Southeast Asian history (here). Just because one person has read through some Chinese sources or some Cham inscriptions doesn’t mean that we “know” what those writings say.

In the twentieth century a great deal was done to “begin” the process of researching and understanding premodern Southeast Asian history. And here people like Paul Wheatley made enormous contributions. However, as remarkable as the work of such scholars was, it was all essentially a first attempt, and first attempts can rarely survive unchallenged. That they have in the field of Southeast Asian history says more about the condition of the field than it does to the quality of the scholarship.

Wheatley was one of the pioneers in the world of English-language scholarship on early Southeast Asia. Pioneers are meant to be followed. Unfortunately that hasn’t happened to the extent it should have, and needs to.