Well since the “Vietnamese Historical Scholarship is Dead” post is getting some attention these days, it’s a good chance to follow up on something that I only mentioned in passing in that post, namely an article by Richard A. O’Conner: “Agricultural Change and Ethnic Succession in Southeast Asian States: A Case for Regional Anthropology,” Journal of Asian Studies 54.4 (1995): 968-996.

I really like this article. The opening paragraph basically serves as an abstract for the entire essay:

“In the first millennium A.D. mainland Southeast Asia’s first great states arise, but then in the span of a few centuries these Indianized realms collapse and their Pyu, Mon, Khmer, and Cham peoples decline. In their place Burmese, Tai, and Vietnamese states arise and go on to rule the mainland as their peoples come to dominate the second millennium. Case by case these shifts appear to be ethnic and political successions wherein the strong displace the weak, but seen together regionally the similarities suggest an agricultural change whereby an irrigated wet rice specialization from upland valleys displaced gardening and farming complexes native to the lowlands.” (968)

Basically, what O’Connor argues is that the “rise” of the Burmese, Tai and Việt and the “decline” of the Pyu, Mon, Khmer and Cham was not a case of later “ethnic groups” conquering earlier ethnic groups, but of the creation of a new “agro-cultural complex” that succeeded an earlier one.

To quote, he notes that “New and old both grow wet rice, but upland irrigators appear to displace lowlanders who flood farm and house garden. Actually, as some lowlanders took on the newcomers’ language and identity, this shift was less one population displacing another physically than one agro-cultural complex replacing another culturally.” (970)


An agro-cultural complex, to O’Connor, is a combination of technical practices, social arrangements, and cultural/ritual practices and beliefs. In other words, people who form an agro-cultural complex use the same tools to farm. They have some kind of social arrangements so that they can cooperate to engage in things like collective irrigation projects. And culturally they come to uphold similar beliefs about the necessary rituals to carry out in order to ensure the fertility of the land, etc.

The first agro-cultural complex in the region was one of “garden-farmers.” This is how O’Connor describes this agro-cultural complex:

“The mainland’s first great states arose in four culturally distinct but agriculturally similar traditions. To represent this similarity I refer to these agriculturalists as garden-farmers: ‘garden’ indicates the importance of horticulture and especially house gardening; ‘farmer’ recognizes the grain farming that focused on rice; and the hyphen suggests the interconnectedness that constitutes a complex. Adding water technology we get ‘flood-managing garden-farmers’ to refer to a diverse set of lowland agro- cultural complexes.”

O’Connor then goes on to describe these four culturally distinct but agriculturally similar traditions, namely those of the Mon, Khmer, Cham and Pyu.

He then talks about the “wet rice” agro-cultural complex of the Vietnamese, Burmese and Tai, and notes that “An agricultural contrast is now clear. A wealth of historical and ethnographic evidence suggests the newcomers were wet rice specialists skilled in irrigation, whereas their predecessors were house-gardening rice farmers who managed runoff and waterway floods to water their crops. These agro-cultural complexes entailed social differences too.” (976)


There is much more to this article, but this is its core idea. At the end of the article, O’Connor then has a section on “Ethnic Waves vs. Agricultural Change.”

“To explain how the mainland changed, colonial scholars once posited immigrant waves where stronger races displaced earlier peoples. . . A wave theory survives only where scholars ignore the historical record and ethnographic analogies. There is no direct evidence that an actual influx of immigrants ever displaced earlier peoples.

“To be sure, this is a highly mobile population, but their movement is piecemeal and multidirectional, not wave-like. Surely some Burmese, Tai, and Vietnamese did enter the lowlands long ago, but these clusters of cooperating households can hardly have seized empires or swept away earlier peoples.

“Thus the prior question is not ‘how did these newcomers defeat their predecessors?’ but ‘how did these immigrant farmers get a foothold?’ That question has an agricultural answer. The next question, ‘how did this upland complex come to dominate the lowlands?,’ may well have a military or political answer but it comes centuries later. The wave theory conflates these two.” (987)

So to use the example of Vietnam, what O’Connor is saying is that it was not the case that an already existing ethnic group (the Việt) moved southward. Instead, there was an “agro-cultural complex” that spread first, and then eventually there was a political conquest.

The point about the “agro-cultural complex” is that it creates some unity among peoples, but not a unity as thorough or strong as an ethnic one. The ethnic unity comes much later.

For instance, a few Tai-speaking families might move into an area where people who speak other languages live. Those other peoples might adopt the agricultural practices of the Tai, and some of the gods they worship, but continue to speak their own language, and continue to follow many different cultural practices. Over time, however, they might adopt the Tai language too.

So it’s not the “Tai” that spread, but part of an “agro-cultural complex” and certain aspects of this complex (like the technology) probably spread faster than others.

There is a lot more than can be said about this, but what I like about this article is that it provides a way to envision the human diversity that likely existed in the past, diversity that gets erased when we think in terms of distinct ethnic groups like the Burmese, Tai and Vietnamese.

Also, I think it is also helpful to try to conceptualize people like the Việt or the Tai forming in this manner. In other words, it was not the case that the Việt existed first and then started to engage in wet rice agriculture. Instead, it was likely the other way around. It was by engaging in the wet-rice agro-cultural complex that a group that (much later) came to be referred to as the Việt started to form.

The images above are from gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France.