As is well known, during the colonial period, various European scholars came to envision a process in the past where Southeast Asia came to be influenced by outside forces. In other words, scholars argued that people like the Vietnamese had historically been Sinicized and people in places like Cambodia had historically been Indianized.
Then with the establishment of centers of Southeast Asian studies in universities in North America, the UK and Australia in the post-World War II era, the pendulum swung to the other extreme, and scholars talked about “localization.” The idea here was not that Southeast Asian societies had been influenced from the outside, but that people in Southeast Asia had “selected” elements from foreign cultural traditions that they then “localized,” or adapted to local conditions.
One of the greatest proponents of this idea of localization was the late O. W. Wolters. Wolters argued, for instance, that when Vietnamese scholars in the past cited the “Chinese” classics, they “drained” those texts of their original meaning, and used them for local purposes.
I’ve always wondered what would have happened if Wolters could have gone back in time 200 years and explained to a scholar like Lê Quý Đôn that in texts like his Quần thư khảo biện or Thánh mô hiền phạm lục, in which he cites extensively from “Chinese” texts, that what he was doing was “draining” those texts of their original meaning and using them for local purposes. . .
I imagine that Lê Quý Đôn would have felt so insulted that he would have wanted to see Wolters punished for such “heterodox” ideas.
In some ways the ability of historians to interpret the past in ways that people who lived in the past could not is a good thing. People today, for instance, can write about something like slavery in ways that are probably more perceptive and critical than people could at the time when slavery was legal.
In other ways, however, viewing the past from the present can be problematic, such as when we wrongly determine what was important to people in the past by projecting our own preferences and values onto them. This is what I feel happened with the concept of localization.
The idea of “Sinicization” – that there was some wave of influence that flowed and changed the ways of people in its path – is obviously simplistic. However, the idea of “localization,” is equally problematic.
On the one hand, it problematically assumes that there is some kind of coherent “tradition” (i.e., the “Indian tradition” or the “Chinese tradition”) out there that is homogenous and complete, and that there are also people who are outside of that tradition who have the power and ability to “select” what they want from that tradition, and to “localize” those elements that they select.
Reality, however, is nowhere near this simple or clear-cut.
On the other hand, the concept of “localization” also misrepresents the ideas of local people. In many cases, local people engage with cultural images/ideas/practices not because they want to be local, but precisely because they want to be the same as what they see in those images/ideas/practices.
While he does not engage in this debate about the concept of localization, in his A Thousand Years of Caps and Robes (Ngàn năm áo mũ), Trần Quang Đức nonetheless provides a fantastic example that challenges the importance of the idea of localization that scholars like O. W. Wolters proposed.
Put simply, what Trần Quang Đức points out is that rulers in early Việt dynasties wore certain caps and robes that had supposedly been worn in “Chinese” antiquity. Then, however, in the nineteenth century when the scholar, Phan Huy Chú, examined the past, he claimed to not be able to find evidence of the usage of certain caps and robes in the past. And then after that, Emperor Minh Mạng instituted the usage of certain caps and robes which he claimed had not been used before in Việt history, but which Trần Quang Đức points out had in fact been used before.
Trần Quang Đức uses this information to argue that when new dynasties came to power (not only in Vietnam but in places like Korea and Japan as well), they needed to establish what their official robes and caps would be like. However, it was often the case that previous records had been destroyed. So they needed to find information about what the “proper” attire for a ruler and his officials was, and to do this they always sought out information from the same source – “Chinese” antiquity.
Did the way that the Koreans and Vietnamese ended up dressing always perfectly resemble the way rulers and officials supposedly dressed in “Chinese” antiquity? No, but it is not because Vietnamese and Koreans didn’t try, and it is not because they wanted to look differently.
They tried to look the same as people in antiquity rather than to localize. But of course nothing is ever perfectly replicated, so differences did emerge.
Trần Quang Đức therefore argues that in the end what happened is that you had “a lot of similarities and not many differences” (đại đồng tiểu dị) between the way that the people in royal courts dressed throughout East Asia throughout history.
This expression that Trần Quang Đức uses, đại đồng tiểu dị 大同小異, literally means “big same small different” and comes from classical Chinese. It is, I think, very helpful for visualizing the problem with the way that the concept of localization has been used.
People like O. W. Wolters promoted and celebrated signs of difference, because to him this represented the agency of people in Southeast Asia, something that colonial-era scholars had denied.
However, what this example of clothing demonstrates is that while the Việt ruling elite did indeed have agency, they acted not to be different, but to be the same. They wanted “same-ness” (đồng 同) not “difference” (dị 異) and because of their efforts (or their agency) the same-ness ended up being “big” (đại 大) rather than “small” (tiểu 小).
So by identifying the “small differences” and glorifying them as signs of “localization,” we misrepresent what it is that people in the past valued and tried to accomplish.