Sometimes I think there must be something wrong with me because I study about Southeast Asian history and I deeply dislike the writings of the late O. W. Wolters.

O. W. Wolters was one of the “founding fathers” of Southeast Asian studies in the US. Some of the ideas that he came up with, like the concept of the mandala and the man of prowess, have been incredibly influential, but I do not subscribe to these ideas.

One of my problems with his work is that I simply don’t find anything that he said about Southeast Asia to be actually specific to Southeast Asia, and therefore, by promoting various supposedly “Southeast Asian” concepts, what I think Wolters did was to ultimately parochialize the study of Southeast Asia.

His idea of the “man of prowess,” for instance, is the same as Weber’s idea of charisma. So why create a new term to talk about something which is not unique? If you use the same term, you can communicate with scholars who work on other parts of the world, and you can benefit from each others work. Creating a new term for the same concept cuts off scholarly communication and parochializes ones own work. That is exactly what I think Wolters did.


Today I looked at a piece he wrote called “Southeast Asia as a Southeast Asian Field of Study.” In this essay, Wolters talked about various cultural features that he argued could be found among the elite throughout the region of Southeast Asia in the past.

In this essay, as in others, Wolters presents his information in an extremely opaque manner. He acknowledges that these cultural features are not unique to Southeast Asia, but he nonetheless presents them as if they were essential for understanding Southeast Asia. . .

What are these cultural features? Wolters lists eight of them. Here are the first three (I quote):

1. The only time that mattered was “now.”

2. Because “now” was the time that mattered, importance was attached to being up-to-date or “contemporary.”

3. The possibility of being “up-to-date” was often linked to and sustained by the sense of being an integral part of the whole of the known “world” rather than merely belonging to one’s own patch of territory.

Ok, so if cultural features are important enough to distinguish one part of the world from others, then they must be absent to some degree in another part of the world. So where in the world can we find a region where people don’t live in the “now” and do not try to be “up-to-date”?

As far as I can tell, there is no such place, and there never has been any such place. Therefore, these concepts don’t really tell us anything about Southeast Asia.


While I disagree with these (and many other of Wolters’) ideas, today I read a sympathetic (but critical) review by Justin McDaniel of a recently published volume on Wolters’ life and work [Early Southeast Asia: Selected Essays by O. W. Wolters, ed. Craig Reynolds (Ithaca: Southeast Asia Program Publications, Cornell University, 2008)] that made me see something somewhat positive in Wolters’ work.

Wolters spent many years working as a colonial official in British Malaya, and was imprisoned by the Japanese in World War II. These life experiences in Southeast Asia must have influenced how Wolters viewed the region, however he never made this explicit.

Nonetheless, McDaniel makes the following important point: “. . . I think a broader point about the way we train students nowadays can be drawn from Wolters’ life. So often graduate students in North America, Europe, and Australia begin their training after a few months in Southeast Asia as a volunteer, tourist, or summer program participant; then they spend an additional year as a Fulbright, Knox, Luce, or Mellon fellow. While this might be enough to write a narrowly conceived dissertation, it is not sufficient to develop long-term relationships with local scholars or to experience the region as a ‘whole’ in any extensive way.”

[His review is in the Journal of the American Oriental Society 128.4 (2008), 805-808.]

I partially agree with this point. I don’t think that Wolters’ time in Malaya necessarily prepared him to write about medieval Cambodia or Vietnam (indeed, I find his writings on Vietnam to be deeply flawed), but I do think that his non-academic experience did enrich the way in which he viewed the world, and gave him the inspiration and ability to think “big thoughts,” and I agree that as the academic profession has become increasingly standardized, there are now fewer and fewer people who enter academia with the same kind of intellectual and linguistic strengths that Wolters possessed when he began his life as a scholar.

Big ideas (even flawed ones) are essential. They are what push knowledge forward. O. W. Wolters had big ideas.