In 1993, the same year that O. W. Wolters gave the speech in Jakarta about Southeast Asia that I mentioned in the previous post, Vietnamese scholar Đinh Gia Khánh published a book called Văn hóa dân gian Việt Nam trong bối cảnh văn hóa Đông Nam Á (Vietnamese Folk Culture in the Context of Southeast Asian Culture).

Đinh Gia Khánh stated directly in the first lines of the preface of that work that “Taking the title of ‘Vietnamese Folk Culture in the Context of Southeast Asian Culture,’ this study aims first and foremost to establish the place of Vietnamese folk culture in the folk culture of Southeast Asia in particular, and in Southeast Asian culture in general.”

[Với nhan đề “Văn hóa dân gian Việt Nam trong bối cảnh văn hóa Đông Nam Á,” chuyên luận này nhằm mục đích trước hết là xác định tọa độ văn hóa dân gian Việt Nam trong văn hóa dân gian Đông Nam Á nói riêng và văn hóa Đông Nam Á nói chung.]

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To do this, Đinh Gia Khánh relied on the earlier work of French scholar George Coedès to argue that there was a “cultural substratum” (cơ tầng văn hóa) across the region. In his The Indianized States of Southeast Asia, Coedès described this cultural substratum as follows (I’ve attached images from Đinh Gia Khánh’s text below for those who read Vietnamese. He makes many of the same points.):

“. . . with regard to material culture, the cultivation of irrigated rice, domestication of cattle and buffalo, rudimentary use of metals, knowledge of navigation; with regard to the social system, the importance of the role conferred on women and of relationships in the maternal line, and in organizations resulting from the requirement of irrigated agriculture; with regard to religion, belief in animism, the worship of ancestors and the god of the soil. . .”

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So in 1993, O. W. Wolters and Đinh Gia Khánh both argued (as Coedès had earlier and as people continue to do so today) that there was “something” that tied Southeast Asia together, and while Wolters and Đinh Gia Khánh focused on different points, they both concurred that this “something” had very deep historical roots.

Putting aside the fact that many of the factors that these scholars identified can be found in other parts of the world and therefore don’t distinguish Southeast Asia, let’s assume for the moment that there was a cultural substratum that existed far in the past.

Does that matter? If so, how?

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I was reminded of these questions when I came across a book by Thai historian Sujit Wongthes, Where Does Thai Music Come From?. Anyone who is familiar with the history of Southeast Asia will immediately recognize that the image on the cover of this book is from a “Đông Sơn” bronze drum.

These bronze drums are now used to demonstrate the antiquity of a cultural tradition in the area of what is now Vietnam, and in works like Trần Ngọc Thêm’s Tìm về bản sắc văn hóa Việt Nam (In Search of the True Characteristics of Vietnamese Culture), the same image is used to note the early existence of music in “Vietnam.”

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There is a problem, however, with both of these works. Sujit Wongthes argues that “Thai” music is part of the “family lineage” (krua yaat เครือญาติ) of music from all of mainland Southeast Asia, or what he calls Suvarnabhumi, while Trần Ngọc Thêm implies that the instrument that we see people playing on the bronze drums (the khene) is part of “Vietnam’s” musical tradition.

Both people are claiming on behalf of modern nations cultural traditions that existed long before each respective modern nation did.

That said, today the khene can be heard quite widely in Thailand. You don’t hear it in “mainstream” music, but it has been incorporated into modern Lao music, and there are many ethnic Lao in northeastern Thailand, and many of them move to Bangkok to work, so music that employs the khene can easily be heard.

In Vietnam, by contrast, the khene is not part of any major musical tradition. There might be some people in the mountains who play it, but it has not “survived” and remained part of the larger society.

So does this mean that “Thai” musical culture is more closely related to the “Southeast Asian cultural substratum” than the “Vietnamese” music tradition is? After all, today we can easily hear on a radio station in Thailand the sound of the khene, an instrument that is represented on the Đông Sơn bronze drums from the time when the “Southeast Asian cultural substratum” was formed.

Or perhaps the idea of a “Southeast Asian cultural substratum” just isn’t a very helpful concept. If it is helpful, then what does it help explain?

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