Daily Archives: April 30, 2015

10 posts

Vol. 4, No. 1, BOOK REVIEWS, Kosal PATH

Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 1

Brothers in Arms: Chinese Aid to the Khmer Rouge, 1975–1979
Andrew Mertha
Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014, 192p.

Andrew Mertha’s book, Brothers in Arms: Chinese Aid to the Khmer Rouge, 1975–1979, not only provides historical insight into the bureaucratic structure of China’s aid to its client state, i.e. Democratic Kampuchea (DK) between 1975 and 1979, but also explicates the causal effect of the fragmented Chinese and DK bureaucratic institutions, the variation of which determines the degree of China’s ability to assert influence over DK. The main contribution of this book rests on two major breakthroughs. First, Mertha’s access to a variety of high-quality archival sources in Cambodia, combined with extensive interviews with former Chinese and Khmer Rouge officials and cadres, illuminates new details on this important subject. Second, his method of structured, focused comparison is rigorous and cutting-edge social science; he meticulously constructs descriptive accounts of and systematically traces the variation of bureaucratic-institutional fragmentation/integrity and its corresponding difference in the outcomes (i.e. China’s ability to influence DK). He does through three empirical cases, namely military aid, economic aid, and trade in chapters 4–6.

This book answers the following question: why was a powerful China unable to influence its far weaker and ostensibly dependent and client state Cambodia? Grounded in Graham Allison’s “bureaucratic politics” level of analysis of foreign policy decision-making, Mertha focuses on inter-ministerial competition and bureaucratic-institutional infighting and fragmentation in China and DK as the main units of analysis (chapters 2–3). The central argument in this book is that the varied degree of fragmentation of bureaucratic institutions in China and DK as they interacted with each other at the implementation stage of China’s aid policy explains the corresponding degree of China’s ability to exert influence over DK during the period 1975–79 (p. 9). Before delving into the structured, focused comparison of the three empirical case studies, Mertha asserts that both regimes in Beijing and Phnom Penh share at least three common attributes, namely the Leninist single-party state, significant rural development, and power in the standing committee of the Party. However, he makes the case that the degree of institutional integrity varies significantly because of differences in the ways in which individual bureaucrats navigated the two institutional environments in China and DK. As Mertha summed up, “both countries suffered from subversions of the formal institutional structure, whether fragmented, as in China, or fluid as in DK” (pp. 11–12). Thus, to Mertha, the fragmentation of bureaucratic institutions in both countries is the most important explanatory variable of China’s ability to influence the DK during this period. In the three empirical cases (chapters 4–6), the main causal inference from the three case studies can be summarized in the table below:



In the case of Kraing Leav military airport, China’s influence was severely limited by a political and military stalemate as the then-DK Defense Minister Son Sen, with strong backing of Pol Pot, was able to push back China’s assertion of its influence by dictating its preference for the location and the content of the agreement (pp. 87–89). Although the Chinese Military Attaché at the Chinese Embassy was under a “clear command-and-control” authority structure of the Chinese military (p. 91), it was “unable to influence DK in the implementation of China’s military aid policy (p. 97). In the case of the Kampong Som petroleum refinery project, the fragmentation of China’s vast network of bureaucratic institutions that oversaw energy and petroleum severely limited China’s ability to exert its influence over DK’s energy sector which would potentially lock down DK’s dependence on China’s crude oil in the long term. The Chinese could not shape DK’s energy policy even when the relevant DK authority was in disarray (pp. 108–109). However, in the case of the DK’s foreign trade development, China was able to assert enormous and lasting influence over DK trade and commerce institutions because the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Trade, Ministry of Foreign Economic Relations, and Ministry of Communications were able to overcome bureaucratic infighting. This, he further argues, is because the DK Ministry of Commerce was “institutionally complex and fragmented” but still a viable partner for Chinese counterparts (pp. 120, 125). Mertha asserts that this is the only area where China was able to exert significant influence over DK in this highly asymmetrical relationship.

This book is not without its shortcomings. I will highlight two issues. First, by privileging the causal role of bureaucratic politics as the key theoretical framework for this study, Mertha brushes aside the role of top decision-makers in shaping policy outcomes (pp. 16–19), and more importantly argues that there was no notable difference between the leftists and pragmatists in Beijing when it came to China’s DK policy. Both ignored the “negative externality” of their policy on human suffering in Cambodia and prioritized China’s ideological and strategic interests in Cambodia during this period (pp. 17–18). This assumption is somewhat problematic because the change of leadership in Beijing in July 1977 had a significant impact on the direction of China’s overall foreign aid policy. When Deng Xiaoping was at the helm in Beijing in late 1977, he immediately began to restore China’s economic health, which had been severely damaged by the Cultural Revolution in 1966–76 (Teiwes and Sun 2007). This raises an important question: what did pragmatists like Deng and his allies in Beijing want from DK after 1977? This leadership change had a significant impact on China’s management of foreign aid and Chinese bureaucratic institutions that handled China’s aid to the DK. Deng and his economics-minded allies, especially Vice-Premier Li Xiannian, aggressively pushed to manage China’s economy in general and in particular, cut down on waste in China’s material aid overseas. This was a major shift from Mao Zedong’s “give whatever the Vietnamese ally requested” during the Vietnam War, 1965–73. In fact, economics-minded leaders like Vice-Premier Li Xiannian and Foreign Trade Minister Li Qiang were extremely displeased with the mismanagement and waste of Chinese material aid in North Vietnam as early as 1973 (see Path 2011). Hence there was a sobering lesson and strong sense of “generosity” fatigue in Beijing as they moved to aid DK after 1975.

The shift described above most likely had a direct impact on the configuration of China’s aid to DK, as discussed in Mertha’s three empirical cases covering the period of China’s aid to the DK during 1975 and 1978. In the eyes of the pragmatists like Deng Xiaoping, Pol Pot’s anti-Vietnamese stance and his war against Vietnam obviously served Deng’s desire to stage a punitive war against Vietnam. But the scope of Cambodia’s post-1975 nation-building under the Pol Pot genocidal regime (pp. 5–53) also presented a huge economic burden for China (pp. 50–53). To reduce Cambodia’s reliance on Chinese aid, Beijing needed to help Cambodia stand on its feet and the development of DK foreign trade and commerce was the next logical step forward. Interestingly, in this book Chinese reports from Phnom Penh back to Beijing in 1977–78 are riddled with a litany of complaints about Cambodia’s misuse and waste of equipment and material aid, and the severe lack of skilled workers, professionalism, and capable leadership (for instance, see pp. 104–111 in chapter 5). It is likely that for the pragmatists, the economic cost of propping up a failed state like Cambodia under the Pol Pot regime outweighed the expected gain in terms of political influence. The extent to which a new leader like Deng Xiaoping ordered the bureaucrats to cut down on the misuse and waste of Chinese material aid somewhat undercuts the centrality of Mertha’s “bureaucratic politics” argument.

Second, although this book provides new insight into the scope of China’s aid to the DK, the exact size of that aid remains unknown. For instance, the figures for economic and military aid documented in this book (pp. 80–82) are “China’s pledges of aid” and we still do not how much of that was actually delivered to the Khmer Rouge. In short, the exact scope and size of China’s aid to the DK remains a subject for further research. As Mertha suggested, access to Chinese sources on this topic would provide a fuller picture.

This book is the first to provide such insightful details on China’s aid to the DK between 1975 and 1978, but certainly not the last one on this subject. To historians, this book is certainly a major breakthrough in the history of China’s aid to the DK. But as a political scientist, Mertha’s central aim in this book is the generalizability and applicability of the findings in this particular case to China’s foreign aid decision-making at present. The last chapter (chapter 7) of this book lays claim to its important relevance to the bureaucratic-institutional level of analysis of China’s foreign aid policy today. This book is a useful resource for students of China’s foreign aid policy.

Kosal Path
Brooklyn College, City University of New York


Allison, Graham. 1969. Conceptual Models and the Cuban Missile Crisis. American Political Science Review 63: 689–718.

Path, Kosal. 2011. Economic Factor in the Sino-Vietnamese Split: An Analysis of Vietnamese Archival Sources. Cold War History 11(4): 519–555.

Teiwes, Frederick; and Sun, Warren. 2007. The End of the Maoist Era: Chinese Politics during the Twilight of the Cultural Revolution, 1972–1976. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Vol. 4, No. 1, BOOK REVIEWS, Woonkyung YEO

Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 1

To Nation by Revolution: Indonesia in the 20th Century
Anthony Reid
Singapore: NUS Press, 2011, 348p.

To Nation by Revolution is a collection of articles written by Anthony Reid, who has been praised not only for his seminal book Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, but also for important works on diverse themes that have been critical in the formation of Indonesia. At first glance, the book looks quite disoriented: the 12 chapters were written over a quite long time span, and the topics of the chapters appear to be rather fragmented. However, reading through the entire book, readers find that these seemingly fragmented chapters are interconnected through the mediating role of the “Revolution” and sociopolitical transformations linked to it.

Reid sees the Indonesian Revolution as more analogous to the French Revolution than to the Russian Revolution and in this book the term is used to represent a kind of political phenomenon. However, the Revolution is not confined to the “Revolusi,” Indonesian struggle (1945–49) for independence against the Dutch. As Reid himself states, this book is rather about the “manner in which Indonesia entered the modern community of nation-states, through political revolution” (p. viii). In light of this perspective, the Revolution here does not merely denote political changes, but also connotes sociocultural transformations Indonesians have experienced for a longer period of time beyond the 1940s.

The themes of the chapters testify to the wide thematic scope of the Revolution, and of the changes resulting in and from the Revolution. The majority of the chapters analyze topics directly or indirectly related to the Revolusi (1945–49) and adjacent time period. Yet some chapters deal with themes, temporally or thematically far away from the Revolusi. The most interesting cases are chapter 2 (“The Late Death of Slavery”), chapter 3 (“From Betel to Tobacco”), and chapter 12 (“Chinese and the State”). These issues appear to have nothing to do with other chapters on political changes in Indonesia in the mid-twentieth century. They are, however, not unrelated to others in that they explore transformations that led to a break with past tradition in Indonesian society. Subsequently, these paved the way for the “Revolution” and the emergence of a nation-state, baptized with a new zeitgeist such as modern knowledge and new political system. Yet, the Revolusi in the 1940s did not come without any preliminary symptoms: “revolutionary” social transformations in the colonial period such as the abolition of slavery and the replacement of betel by tobacco were among those factors that contributed to the political revolution in the mid-twentieth century.

In this regard, I think that chapter 5 (“Merdeka: The Indonesian Key to Freedom”) is pivotal in linking the two seemingly unrelated phenomena—sociocultural transformations (chapters 2 and 3) and political changes—analyzed in other chapters. Merdeka, originating from Sanskrit maharddika (eminent, wise, illustrious), came to legally mean non-slave status in Malay, and, with the introduction of the Western political concept, it came to take on the meaning of “freedom” and functioned as a key political term in anticolonial movements (pp. 107, 116). In the context of the Revolusi, Merdeka signified the ultimate freedom: independence (p. 120). Thus, considering the etymological history of the term Merdeka, research on the Indonesian Revolution should also pay attention to diverse social reforms (such as land reforms and labor movements) against the backdrop of political upheaval. The inclusion of chapter 9 (“Gestapu”) can be understood in this light: to Reid, the coup in October 1965 and the subsequent birth of an authoritarian state was not just a tragic political event: by eliminating social aspects of Merdeka and making it completely a political independence, the New Order brought about the decline or demise of the Revolution that Indonesians (and probably Reid) have envisioned.

Another interesting point is the time span of the publication dates of the chapters: almost 40 years. The oldest one (chapter 9) was published in 1968, while the most recent one (chapter 11 “Why not Federalism”) came out in 2007. This temporal gap between chapters may raise skepticism on the coherence of the entire book. At the same time, however, it is one of the merits this kind of compilation can produce: reading this book provides an opportunity to trace the diversity and changes over many years in Reid’s scholarly interests in contemporary Indonesia. These factors make the publication of this collection of diverse articles more plausible. As the author points out, each chapter exhibits his perspectives and scholarly debates in the period when they were written, so it is understandable that he deliberately meant to leave the articles as unmodified as possible. This is particularly positive in that the book provides other scholars of modern Indonesia with room for (re)interpretation of what has been written by one of the most prominent trailblazers in the field.

However, this book also contains weaknesses, some of which ironically come from the above-mentioned merits. First, primarily because of his intention to keep the articles as unchanged as possible, there is inevitable redundancy in some parts of the book. For example, while chapter 7 (“The Japanese Impact”) investigates the Japanese Occupation period (1942–45) in detail, parts of chapters 1 and 8 also cover the period. A slight streamlining of some chapters might have made the book more compact and cohesive. The most regrettable point is that the book does not include a newly-written introduction. To some extent, chapter 1 (“Indonesia: Revolution without Socialism”) plays its part as an introductory chapter. However, it would have been much better if it had included Reid’s own reflection (if not evaluation) of his research and perspectives on Indonesian society over the past four decades. I agree that the publication of this book is justifiable in that it would benefit Indonesianists by bringing together the scattered writings of the author (p. viii). However, I believe that a new (introductory) chapter reflecting his current interpretation of the (concept and scope of) Revolution would have given more scholarly legitimacy for the publication of this book.

Despite these minor weaknesses, To Nation by Revolution is still a good read, filled with useful information and (still) provocative insights. By welding a social history point of view in analyzing political issues and events, this book (and each chapter) problematizes the definition and significance of the Revolution. By doing so, it provides diverse angles to look at Indonesian society in the twentieth century.

Woonkyung Yeo 여운경
Department of Asian Languages and Civilizations, Seoul National University

Vol. 4, No. 1, BOOK REVIEWS, Kai CHEN

Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 1

Business Practices in Southeast Asia: An Interdisciplinary Analysis of Theravada Buddhist Countries
Scott A. Hipsher
London: Routledge, 2010, 207p.

Modern Buddhist Conjunctures in Myanmar: Cultural Narratives, Colonial Legacies, and Civil Society
Juliane Schober
Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2011, 248p.

An image come to mind when talking about Theravada Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia: devout monks who dwell in the remote wilderness or forest dwellings and care no more about the secular world. Business Practices in Southeast Asia by Scott A. Hipsher and Modern Buddhist Conjunctures in Myanmar by Juliane Schober succeed in re-examining something we think we know about the Theravada Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia (i.e., Cambodia. Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand), and providing readers with a better understanding of the four countries in which Theravada Buddhism has significant economic and political power.

Business Practices in Southeast Asia explores the cultural features that are influenced by Theravada Buddhism in entrepreneurial behavior and business practice in these four countries. This book has 12 chapters. Chapters 1–2 overview Theravada Buddhists and the impact of Theravada Buddhism in the four countries. In Hipsher’s words, Theravada Buddhism does “bind the nations together in a way that makes this a distinctly recognizable region” (Hipsher, p. 16). Chapters 3–6 successively examine the extent to which companies in the four countries are influenced by Theravada Buddhism. Chapters 7–10 explore features of companies in Theravada Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia, such as business strategies, tactical management, marketing, finance, labor relations, and so on. In the final two chapters, Hipsher stresses the interconnections that exist between secular politics and Theravada Buddhism, and then predicts future trends. In the words of Hipsher, companies in the four countries of Theravada Buddhism will “continue to be influenced by Theravada Buddhist values,” while “increasingly use globally available technology” (Hipsher, p. 179).

The most significant contribution of this book is that it reveals five distinctive features in the Southeast Asian Theravada Buddhist societies: (1) they are hierarchical, but paternalistic; (2) flexible; (3) possess a low level of control; (4) practice moderation and pragmatism (taking the middle path); and (5) focus on the individual (Hipsher, p. 30).

In the view of Hipsher, in contrast with impersonal strategic management in the West (e.g., human resource management and labor relations), many companies in the Theravada Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia are family owned; in other words, “there is no separation between ownership and management” (Hipsher, p. 48). Hipsher concludes that these local companies are more personalized, relationship-oriented, and less bureaucratic, in contrast with those in the West. However, with non-core operational business practices (e.g., accounting, billing, and shipping), there is a higher level of convergence with international practices.

Theravada Buddhists believe that souls transmigrate and kamma gained in precious lives determines the social order in the present. Therefore, Theravada Buddhists generally accept the legitimacy of rulers and employers, because they assumed the individuals “earned a significant amount of kamma in previous lives” (Hipsher, p. 151). So it’s not surprising that companies in these societies are characterized by patron-client relations and values that follow a “middle path.”

Patron-client relations are common throughout Theravada Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia. Within these relations, employees believing in kamma “readily accept differences in power and wealth” (Hipsher, p. 125). At the same time, the patron (employer) does provide “both tangible and intangible benefits to one’s clients in order to retain their respect and loyalty” (Hipsher, p. 120), such as preferring personal relations in hiring and training employees.

According to the “middle path” value of Theravada Buddhism, “success is important but does not necessarily mean unlimited growth and expansion” (Hipsher, p. 77). In daily practice, the “middle path” means “to be serious in one’s work and studies, but not too serious, and to ensure one also enjoys ones’ life” (Hipsher, p. 27). Following this value, most Buddhist employees prioritize low-stress workplace, rather than pursuing material possessions.

Alongside Hipsher’s thought-provoking book, Modern Buddhist Conjunctures in Myanmar by Juliane Schober focuses on the “conjunctures” between Theravada Buddhism and secular politics in Myanmar from pre-colonial seventeenth to early twenty-first century. An attached chronology and exhaustive notes improve the readability of this book to some degree.

Modern Buddhist Conjunctures in Myanmar has eight chapters. The first two chapters contextualize the conjunctures between Buddhism and different realms in the pre-colonial (including the three Anglo-Burmese Wars) and colonial eras, while highlighting the construction of Buddhist rationalism as an essential push factor that relied on and used Buddhism moral and political leverage to challenge the government.

Based on personal fieldwork in Myanmar since 1980, Schober’s core argument is to question the Weberian narrative of “otherworldly” Buddhism (Schober, p. 10). In her opinion, “Buddhist public acts performed by monks and laity in Buddhist societies are simultaneously—and necessarily—political and religious” (Schober, p. 20). In addition, Schober discovers a lesser-known fact: the Sangha has not been uniform for a long time. Due to the decline of Buddhist education and different attitudes toward politics, in the mid-nineteenth century, the Sangha experienced fragmentation, leading to many factions developing different attitudes toward the politicization of religion. It’s not surprising that some Buddhists factions were employed by modern domestic movements to “resist the power of the state” (Schober, p. 14), while other Buddhists factions provided the State Law and Order Restoration Council (1988–97) with legitimacy through religious means. In the early twentieth century, the Young Men’s Buddhist Association was initially supported by the colonial government. This is obviously contrary to the Weberian description of Buddhism as otherworldly.

Chapter 3 contextualizes the colonial reaction toward Buddhism. In the case of Buddhist education, colonial education itself hastened the decline of Buddhist education, which no longer retained its “privileged status it commanded prior to the British presence” (Schober, p. 13). Though successive governments allowed monasteries to offer basic education, coverage was limited in rural areas.

Chapters 4–5 highlight how since the early 1900s, some lay Buddhist associations tried to change traditional Buddhist practices and develop Buddhist nationalism, specifically elite lay organizations such as the Young Men’s Buddhist Association (YMBA) that advocated “civil Buddhism under colonial domination” (Schober, p. 72).

In the pro-colonial era, successive governments (e.g., U Nu Government in the years 1948 to 1962, Ne Win Government in the years 1962 to 1988, the State Law and Order Restoration Council [1988–97], and the State Peace and Development Council [1997–2010]) tried to control the monastic community (particularly the Buddhist Sangha), its doctrines, and its social influence. For example, they championed Buddhist nationalism to consolidate their legitimacy in ruling Myanmar. As a result of this, many young monks were mobilized, but many members of the Sangha remained silent.

In Chapters 6–7, Schober analyzes the political realities to show how “the legitimation political authority remains entrenched in the political divisions” (Schober, p. 117). In the case of the “Saffron Revolution” of 2007, the struggles between the Sangha and the military regime revealed conflicting visions of moral authority held by the monks. Many participated in the government’s “administrative structures in a perfunctory way” (Schober, p. 108). At the same time, some “provided logistical support for widespread anti-government mobilization, relayed information through an internal monastic network, and even stepped up to administer some judicial and civil infrastructure” (Schober, p. 107).

Chapter 8 concludes by predicting the direction of future conjunctures between the Sangha and secular politics. As Schober concludes, partnership between the Sangha and the state might maintain an “overwhelming social and political synergies,” while “their mutual contestations certainly harbor the potential for divisive conflicts” (Schober, p. 145).

Both Business Practices in Southeast Asia and Modern Buddhist Conjunctures in Myanmar provide valuable insights into the changes that Theravada Buddhism has wrought on both local politics and economy. Both books recognize that at present, several issues will remain unresolved. For instance, Schober believes that Buddhism has become “a really accessible source of power for supporters of the state as well as for those who contest, implicitly or overtly, the authority of the security of the secular state” (Schober, pp. 141–142). In the opinion of Hipsher, due to business practices, outsiders in family-owned companies have limited opportunities for advancement, which often results in leaving their employers and seeking out better opportunities.

There is a common omission in the two books. Both show little concern about Buddhists’ involvement in violence. In Hipsher’s book, Buddhists’ involvement in violence deviates from their believes in kamma and “middle way” values. In Schober’s book, Buddhists’ involvement in violence should be regarded as another expression of monastic resistance to the state. At present, Buddhist extremism is thriving in Myanmar, which is engaging in violence against Muslims. Radical Buddhist monks have been accused of spreading hate speech and fueling sectarian violence as was evident when the country was ravaged by anti-Muslim violence in 2012 and 2013, violence that left more than 200 people dead and tens of thousands homeless, mostly Muslims (Radio Free Asia 2014). In March 2014, Buddhist mobs even attacked international aid agencies over perceived pro-Rohingya bias, triggering a mass humanitarian withdrawal from Rakhine State (Integrated Regional Information Networks 2014). If the authors would consider Buddhists’ involvement in violence, their arguments and predictions on the future trend will be more inclusive.

Rich in insights and elegant in presentation, both books are well documented and thoroughly researched. They represent a welcome and original contribution to the study of Theravada Buddhism, and offer new directions for future research. They are to be highly recommended to researchers, students, and practitioners alike who seek to gain both stimulating theoretical and more practical insights into Theravada Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia.

Kai Chen 陈锴
College of Public Administration, Zhejiang University, China


Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN). 2014. Grassroots Moves to Quell Myanmar’s Communal Violence. July 15, 2014, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/53ce2ed84.html (accessed September 25, 2014).

Radio Free Asia. 2014. Myanmar Buddhist Monks Launch Group for ‘Defending Religion’. January 15, 2014, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/532adeaab.html (accessed September 25, 2014).

Vol. 4, No. 1, BOOK REVIEWS, LOH Kah Seng

Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 1

The Ruling Elite of Singapore: Networks of Power and Influence
Michael D. Barr
London and New York: I.B. Tauris, 2014, 200p.

Michael Barr’s research on the recent political history of Singapore has not generally been well-received by Singaporean academics, to say the least. This is not surprising: Barr roundly dispatches meritocracy and multiculturalism, two basic building blocks of the Singaporean psyche, and finds instead elitism and Chinese dominance, which he traces to the work of one man, former long-serving prime minister Lee Kuan Yew. Independent-minded Singaporean scholars tend to avoid attributing all things on the tiny island to one individual and to find nuances in their study of postcolonial Singapore (Hong 2002).

In his latest book, Barr sets out to map the networks of power in Singapore from the 1960s to the present. In his idea of networks, political leaders are less actors unto themselves, whose personal ambition and command of power may change the course of history, than hirelings of Lee who fulfilled his vision for piloting the city-state’s course. The networks of elitism and Chinese dominance produce a stable authoritarianism. In this sense, the book expands on Barr’s first book (2000) on Lee’s psychological make-up and the second (co-authored, 2008) on the making of Singapore as Lee envisaged. In the beginning of The Ruling Elite of Singapore, Barr cites from Lee’s memorable speech in 1966 that Singapore’s survival depended on 150 people (p. 1).

The book is mainly descriptive. The first two chapters introduce the approach and argument before substantive discussions are made in the next three chapters. In Chapter 3, Barr charts the creation of an English-educated elite from the 1950s to the 1970s by a select group of People’s Action Party (PAP) leaders, among whom Lee was only the first among equals. While rival groups were crushed or co-opted in the process, Chapter 4 highlights a turning point in the 1980s when Lee attained sole power and could dictate the type of ruling elite to be recruited. Chapter 5 lays out the key aspects of Lee’s policy: the increasing emphasis on Chinese elites and elite schools, with adverse consequences for social mobility, and on male military scholarship-holders. The classic product of this process was Lee’s son, current prime minister Lee Hsien Loong, also a “retired” brigadier-general and the “uber Singaporean” (p. 91).

The last three chapters of the book are generally weaker and less interesting. Chapter 6 discusses the impact of the 2011 elections on the elites: a few lost their titles but this was hardly the “bloodbath” that Barr suggested (p. 103). The last chapter predicts that even without the elder Lee, Lee Hsien Loong’s position is likely to be secure in the near future. At least Chapter 7 in between is useful in pointing out some of the failings of elite rule in Singapore and the need for a transparent government.

The weaknesses of the book are apparent. As Barr himself admits, it is difficult for scholars to penetrate the walls of secrecy that enclose Singapore’s elite makers and gatekeepers (such as the work of the little-known Directorship and Consultancy Appointments Council). Barr relies mainly on official speeches and statements and on interviews with people who were part of the system. The sample of interviews, many of which are understandably anonymous, is small; what they say is important, but probably more in unraveling the claustrophobic worlds of Singaporean elites (and critics) than in depicting networks of power.

Aside from a tendency to exaggerate (e.g. Goh Chok Tong’s “quasi-coup” against Lee Kuan Yew in the 1990s, p. 59), Barr deserves much credit for his sustained research into closed-off areas of Singapore history, where archival sources are limited and interviews are inflected by the experience of living under an authoritarian regime. There are important questions that Barr could have addressed in his book. For example, were all the selected elites content to play their role as handmaidens of Lee’s Singapore? Goh’s efforts to assert his independence, though trivial in comparison with political fractures in democratic and post-authoritarian countries, and the occasional conversion of a former senior civil servant to an opposition party candidate suggest that elite formation was a more fraught and unpredictable process than Barr indicated.

The book also does not explore the policy and social ramifications of the elitism. Did the recruitment of an ethnic Chinese, military-type leader affect government policy since the 1980s? In his second book, Barr examined elitism and Chinese ethnocentrism as played out in Singapore’s educational system, but there is very little discussion of their impact on government policy and their social effects in The Ruling Elite of Singapore. The book feels incomplete; one hopes that Barr would provide some answers in his subsequent research.

In focusing on elitism, Barr has tackled an important and difficult subject. As he rightly notes, it is disturbing that the population has generally internalized the elitist ethos alongside their acceptance of meritocracy and multiculturalism: Singaporeans desire to succeed as part of the elite as long as it is based on endeavor and merit, no matter one’s ethnic background. However, while elitism may be dominant, it is not hegemonic. There is substantial work on the social history of Singapore that suggests that people have ways of mediating, reinterpreting, or critiquing official policy beneath the outward appearance of acquiescence (Loh 2013; Yeoh 2003; Kong and Yeoh 2003). This is possibly a way to write a more comprehensive history of elitism in Singapore that departs from Lee Kuan Yew without rejecting his considerable role.

Loh Kah Seng 罗家成
Institute for East Asian Studies, Sogang University


Barr, Michael D. 2000. Lee Kuan Yew: The Beliefs behind the Man. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon.

Barr, Michael D.; and Skrbiš, Zlatko. 2008. Constructing Singapore: Elitism, Ethnicity and the Nation-building Project. Copenhagen: NIAS Press.

Hong, Lysa. 2002. The Lee Kuan Yew Story as Singapore’s History. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 33(3): 545–557.

Kong, Lily; and Yeoh, Brenda S. A. 2003. The Politics of Landscapes in Singapore: Constructions of “Nation.” Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.

Loh, Kah Seng. 2013. Squatters into Citizens: The 1961 Bukit Ho Swee Fire and the Making of Modern Singapore. Singapore: NUS Press and Asian Studies of Australia Association Southeast Asia Series.

Yeoh, Brenda S. A. 2003. Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore: Power Relations and the Urban Built Environment. 2nd ed. Singapore: NUS Press.

Vol. 4, No. 1, BOOK REVIEWS, CHIN Hsuen Wei

Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 1

Rethinking Chineseness: Translational Sinophone Identities in the Nanyang Literary World
E. K. Tan
Amherst, NY: Cambria Press, 2013, xii+260p.

In Southeast Asian studies, a gap often exists between social science and humanities scholarship. This divide has arisen due to differing research methodologies, methods, approaches, materials, issues, and perspectives. In this sense, E. K. Tan’s Rethinking Chineseness: Translational Sinophone Identities in the Nanyang Literary World deftly bridges the divide as it copes with an issue, Chineseness, which is a common interest of scholars in both spheres. The underlying critical concept of “Sinophone” has widened the research horizons of literature and Chinese studies, and also been increasingly accepted in fields like comparative literary studies, Southeast Asian studies, cultural studies, diaspora studies, anthropology, and sociology. By focusing on two writers from Malaysia and one from Singapore (all who write in different languages), the text juxtaposes influential theories of Chineseness with Sinophone theories to persuasively negotiate the current value of Chineseness as an identification marker of Sinophone communities. Using both the Sinophone and Anglophone literary works and associated cultural practices of these three writers as evidence, Rethinking Chineseness uncovers a Sinophone identity that is always transitional and open for (re)construction.

Sinophone studies place key focus on identities of Chinese-descent communities across the world and related representations of everyday local life experiences. While existing works in the field do respond to such crucial issues to a certain extent, Rethinking Chineseness is comparably outstanding for its substantial combing and correlation of interdisciplinary theories, such as those of Ien Ang, Rey Chow, Allen Chun, Shih Shu-mei, Tu Wei-ming, Wang Gungwu, Wang Ling-chi, Chow Kai-Wing, Tan Chee-Beng, Jing Tsu, Stuart Hall, Aihwa Ong, Donald M. Nonini, Chen Kuan-hsing, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, and Felix Guattari. This meticulous study potently justifies its research rationale and repeatedly enhances the conversing space of the studied topic with insights from other fields. Indeed, Rethinking Chineseness astutely weaves a thought-provoking dialogue with the above-mentioned scholars into literary textual and historical contextual analysis to deploy convincing argumentation throughout the book.

To Tan, who is basically a literary scholar, literary imaginaries are products of social realities and manifestations of Sinophone community dialogues with nation-state narratives. In this view, Sinophone subjects frequently mobilize imaginaries to navigate certain demarcating discourses like the universal hegemony of Chinese culture and Chineseness; these imaginaries hence move beyond nationality and ethnicity to differentiate what is Chinese and what is not in the historical and social-political milieus of the Sinophone community. In other words, the writing and deployment of imaginaries is a conscious practice in the cultural politics of identification. It provides a way for Sinophone subjects and communities to express agency and escape from imposed forms of identification. This dynamic legitimatizes the investigation into the Sinophone subjects’ perception of desires and memories as “Chinese” or local through analyzing and evaluating their literary imaginaries. With this basic foundation, Rethinking Chineseness extensively examines expressive works like novels, war narratives, and plays to find out how Sinophone subjects and the following generation of these sojourners reconstruct and articulate their memories, desires, dreams, hopes, and longings when they reinvent their ethnic culture in different stages of migration (p. 38).

In chapter 1, “Filling in the Blanks: War and the Inscription of a Sinophone Malayan Identity,” Tan scrutinizes Malaysian-born writer Vyvyane Loh’s English-language novel, Breaking the Tongue (New York: W. W. Norton, 2004), a coming-of-age story of an anglicized Peranakan boy, Claude Lim, whose life in British Malaya is disrupted by the Japanese occupation during World War II. Tan analyzes how the protagonist searches and reconstructs his local identity through personal and collective memories after spiritually struggling due to war trauma, restricted acquaintance with cultural heritage and identity uncertainties—i.e. the “blanks” suggested in the chapter title—as well as the experience of tongue mutilation, a symbolic detachment and break from the familiarity that is meaning-corrupted and repressive to the formation of an autonomous self. Tan employs this novel to suggest that nothing can impede the negotiation of a Sinophone subjectivity within the local circumstance (p. 43).

By exploring Malaysian writer Chang Kuei-hsing’s Sinophone novel Elephant Herd (Qun xiang, Taipei: Shibao wenhua chuban, 1998) in chapter 2, “Prosthesizing an Origin: Metanarratives and the Making of Sinophone Malaysian Myths,” Tan explicates how the protagonist, whose ethnic longing and local identity are obscured by his limited knowledge of China and immigrant history, reconstructs his identity by transforming Borneo into a realistic space of cultural and national identification (p. 162). Tan emphasizes that the artificial myths fabricated in such a fiction reflect the narrative strategies of Chang’s Sinophone writing as minor literature. Chang frequently engages metanarratives (metahistory and metafiction) and ultimately alters the structural representation of the genre by using the Sinophone Malaysian experience and the poetic language of the Chinese tradition to delineate a unique literary form of local content and aesthetics. Such a language of inventiveness suggests that Chineseness as a designator of Chinese identity has evolved into a floating signifier. Indeed, Tan contends that Sinophone writing is far more than a mere documentation of homelessness and exile, as Sinophone Malaysian writers’ creolized environment and distinct historical experience enable them to convert the geographical homeland into a linguistic sign. To them, the choice of Sinophone writing is intended to create linguistic fluidity for constructing a sense of belonging (p. 164).

In chapter 3, “Transcending Multiracialism: Open Culture and the Making of a Sinophone Singaporean Identity,” Tan features Singaporean playwright Kuo Pao Kun’s notion of open culture. By examining two multilingual plays of Kuo, Tan expounds on Sinophone attempts to promote a common cultural identity that celebrates the intermingling of past and present as well as the local and global in an effort to transcend the cultural, linguistic, and racial compartmentalization formed by Singapore’s bilingual policy. Tan details the quest of a common culture embracing diversity, difference, and openness through discussion of Mama Looking for Her Cat (1998) and Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral (1995). Utilizing examples like Zheng He’s journey and a carnivalesque market scene, Tan proposes that the open culture allows culturally orphaned Singaporeans to re-root and re-route their cultural parentage by actively mingling their lived experience, history, and memory. Such an invention of culture and identification exposes Singaporeans to a new option for a localized cultural heritage of their own (p. 210).

By demonstrating different dimensions of cultural translation, the introductory chapter and the three long core chapters collectively elucidate how the experience and mentality of Chinese emigrants and their descendants transition from a hope to “return,” to a desire for a sense of belonging, to an eventual ability to creatively articulate difference and connection. This progression is usually represented in discourse as “overseas Chinese,” “Chinese diaspora,” and “Sinophone,” respectively. Tan thus cogently argues that Sinophone identities are translational, i.e. both relational and translatable, as they are formed by the coexistence of national, regional, ethnic, and local identities (p. 18). Sinophone communities, Tan underscores, assume and integrate traits from other cultures to build and rebuild their distinguishing Sinophone characteristics and thus recreate their ancestral culture (p. 41). Although resonant with previous concepts like Aihwa Ong’s “flexible identities” and Tan Chee Beng’s claim that there is no global Chinese identity, Tan goes further by critically rethinking the instrumentality of Chineseness as an effective theoretical category, especially in terms of its availability in the local context. He hence alters Chineseness to a linguistic symbol that continuously produces new meaning. In contrast to the theory of the diaspora first defined in the context of the Jewish community that focuses mainly on the notion of “returning to the original homeland,” Rethinking Chineseness reveals the mental experience of “not returning to the imaginary homeland” of diaspora Chinese.

The book is significantly contributive in its scrupulous theoretical mapping of Sinophone genealogy and its detailed close-readings of the selected literary texts and practices. It skillfully investigates three writers of different generations and backgrounds, a cross-boundaries research perspective that uses impressive conceptualization and sufficient contextualization to essentially strike at the core of Sinophone notions and concerns. Although its approach is primarily rooted in literature and cultural studies, it is definitely worth reading for anyone interested in Southeast Asian studies, area studies, or Chinese studies.

Chin Hsuen Wei 陳雪薇
Department of Chinese Studies, National University of Singapore

Vol. 4, No. 1, BOOK REVIEWS, Agus Suwignyo

Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 1

In Search of Middle Indonesia: Middle Classes in Provincial Towns
Gerry van Klinken and Ward Berenschot, eds.
Leiden: KITLV Press; Boston: Brill, 2014, xvi+242p.

In 2012, the Indonesian Daily Kompas conducted a survey aiming to calculate the actual number and define the characteristics of what it called “the middle class cohort” of the country’s population. Involving 2,550 people above 17 years of age who lived in the cities of Jakarta, Bandung, Yogyakarta, Surabaya, Makassar, and Medan, the survey employed the World Bank criteria of education level, occupation, and purchasing power parity (PPP) to determine the class categories of the respondents. The survey result shows that 1% of the respondents belonged to the upper class, 3.6% to upper middle class, 50.2% to middle class, 39.6% to lower middle class, and 5.6% to the lower class. In the World Bank criteria this means that the surveyed cohort groups, successively, earned and lived on more than US$20 per day, between US$10 and 20, between US$4 and 10, between US$2 and 4, and less than US$2. This result echoes the World Bank’s own survey earlier that year as quoted by the Daily Kompas, in which 56.5% of the entire Indonesian population of 237 million in 2012—thus forming an actual number of 134 million people—is seen as belonging to the middle class category. Kompas and the World Bank surveys represent analyses of the socio-economic diversification of the Indonesian population over the past five years, which generally depicted a growing middle class. Whereas the criteria used for the grouping of the surveyed respondents perform an established standard of income and expenditure method typical of economists, they do not satisfy other scholars who work on the social, anthropological, and political aspects of demographic population. This edited volume, In Search of Middle Indonesia, is an attempt to break these established criteria and definition of “middle class” and to offer an alternative to studying this paradigmatic term and phenomenon.

In Search of Middle Indonesia explores the expanding middle class in Indonesia not by measuring people’s consumption but by raising “more relational, political questions” (p. 2). Its basic premise is that “class is not essentially a question of income or expenditure categories; it is a political concept, intended to explain why differences remain between the behavior of rich and poor people over matters of common goods” (p. 2). The authors in this book agree on the statement that “the possession of consumer durables says nothing about new political commitments” and that “simply reducing the income threshold to the poverty limit and calling everyone above that ‘middle class’ begs many analytical questions about political action” (p. 3). While it does not abandon the income and expenditure methodology, this book employs an ethnological approach to find answers to its prime question “Why is Middle Indonesia so influential, locally and in Indonesia as a whole, though it is neither particularly rich nor particularly central in geographic terms?” (p. 8). This book thus examines “middle class” in terms of agencies and their characteristics of behaviors and seeks to clarify the motives that prompt such behaviors by exploring ethnological rather than statistic data.

In Search of Middle Indonesia is organized around three theoretical concepts, namely class, the State, and everyday culture, each of which consists of three individual studies. Three of the chapters concerning Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara emphasize previous studies some of the authors have done on this provincial town (see authors’ biographies pp. vii–ix). Other studies focus on what the authors consider “middle towns,” mostly provincial capitals. It has to be noted that the selection of the geographical locality of these studies reflects the authors’ shared consciousness of two points: the importance of a non-Java centric approach and the centrality of non-metropolitan urban lives in the making of Indonesia’s middle class.

In the first part of the book, about class, Ben White overviews the concept of Middle Indonesia based on Clifford Geertz’s “intermediate town” (1963) and Robert and Helen Lynd’s “Middletown” (1929; 1937). For this he presents a reflection on the theoretical implications that these concepts bring about in any understanding of the changes of the Indonesian people, society, and State today. Next, Nicolaas Warouw examines class relations among manufacturer workers in the towns of Cilegon and Pekalongan while suggesting the re-positioning of “citizens back in the ‘social contract’ with the state” (p. 67). Jan Newberry examines the structure of mobility in a kampong located in a suburb of Yogyakarta in order to understand “the middle class from below” (p. 71).

The second part of the book, on the State, presents Sylvia Tidey’s observation on the social segmentation and competition for resources in the town of Kupang, East Nusa Tenggara. Tidey argues that in today’s Kupang, ethnicity is a major factor that explains why social segmentation and competition for resources have increased and how they are constructed in daily life. Wenty Marina Minza, also in the second part, discusses the work aspirations of youth in the town of Pontianak, West Kalimantan. Like Tidey, Minza points out the important role ethnicity plays, in her case, in the youth’s orientation for jobs. She elaborates the fact that non-ethnic Chinese youth in Pontianak mostly desire the status of government employee (Pegawai Negeri Sipil, PNS). Meanwhile, Amalinda Savirani evaluates the post-Soeharto economic reforms and their impact on the “way the construction sector operates” in the town of Pekalongan in the north coast of Central Java. Savirani shows how strong ties between local politicians and contractors had not disappeared in post-Soeharto Pekalongan although the latter had lost considerable power over the system of contract distribution (p. 134).

Part three begins with Cornelis Lay’s autobiographic reflection on his hometown now and then, Kupang. Lay witnesses the changes that have taken place in Kupang as he grew up and feels he has become “part of the complex yet paradoxically simple matrix of events taking placing in that space” (p. 169). Then, there is Noorhaidi Hasan who discusses the changing role of Islam in the Central Java’s Kebumen and South Kalimantan’s Martapura. Hasan puts forward the thesis that the rise of the global resurgence concerning Islam that has followed the 9/11 events in the US has stimulated the growing consciousness of Islamic religious identity, social status, and life style among the Indonesian middle class in the two towns. The last chapter of this volume is Joseph Errington’s analysis of linguistic dynamics, again, in Kupang that he claims to have reflected “the broader process of geo-social integration and class formation in Indonesia at large” (p. 219).

Generally speaking, this book attempts to offer an alternative to the commonly accepted concept of “middle class” on three points. Firstly, even with income and expenditure criteria, the number of the middle class in Indonesia today has multiplied so drastically that it exceeds any existing assumption scholars have traditionally argued. The common assumption is that the Indonesian middle class has fallen to a relatively small number and comprises a very tiny elite percentage of the population. For example, in his seminal work The Emergence of the Modern Indonesian Elite (1960, republished 1984), Robert van Niel says that in 1900, out of a population of 27 million inhabitants in Java and Madura, 2% compromised the middle class. This then went up to about 7% of an Indonesian population of 60 million people in 1942 (ibid.). Meanwhile, although “scholars and politicians alike routinely said the middle class made up around 10% of the population,” in 1985 economic historian Howard Dick, as cited in the book being reviewed here, claims a middle class figure of 16.6% out of the total Indonesian population (p. 3). All these claims are however, being refuted. As this book argues, in Indonesia today “many more people than [previously assumed] have become consumers” and “recognizably [their] political behavior has changed.” Although this book does not provide numbers of its own as to suggest what it presumes to be the new estimated figure of the Indonesian middle class today, the results of both the Kompas and the World Bank surveys cited earlier do confirm the premise of an expanding Indonesian middle class that this book attempts to examine.

Secondly, unlike many other studies, which traditionally identify the middle-class phenomenon of metropolitan cities, this book deliberately selects Indonesian provincial towns as geographical localities in which the middle class question is paradigmatically situated. The logic underlining the selection is both political and theoretical. The authors of this book believe that after 1998 “the strong push for decentralization amidst the democratization that followed did not come from the national elite, but from a much broader provincial classes” (p. 2). There emerged a push for spatial dimension in politics. One of the sources for this push was “not the globalized metropolis, but the provincial towns—a place that foreign researchers rarely visit” (p. 6). In the context of provincial towns, the self-employed medium scale entrepreneurs, the private and public sector clerks, the teachers and the youths, although sharing global consumerist aspirations, were only “partly assimilated with the national bourgeoisie” (p. 6), and had a less secure income than their metropolis counterparts. Yet, this intermediary group holds control over their towns that becomes a power blow to the grip of the national politics given the local autonomy and decentralization.

Thirdly, the book offers a “non-quantitative” definition of the taken-for-granted concept of “middle class” and a way of studying it. The authors of this book understand provincial towns as an intermediary between the highly dynamic, global looking urban life and the relatively quiet life in rural localities. Although the physical space studied in this book covers geographical spaces of provincial towns, Middle Indonesia is referred to more as a paradigm than as an operational framework. “The middle class” of the Middle Indonesia cohort is thus meant as an imaginary locality which, while bridging the political and economic gaps between metropolis and periphery, drives the course of power relationships between the two. This theoretical framework constitutes one of the fresh, or refreshing insights that the book offers to understand Indonesia’s present day middle class.

Although the Introduction of this book conveys a theoretical framework that binds tightly the chapters as an entirety, the three themes that it attempts to use in the organization, i.e. class, the State, and everyday culture, seem to be loosely presented. Readers might wonder how the ethnographic details of the individual chapters are related to each other to frame the paradigmatic inter-relation of the class, the State, and the everyday culture upon which they are categorized. For the latter to be present, it seems that the book requires a concluding chapter, which is absent. This being said, given its title “In Search” of Middle Indonesia, this book is missing, to a large extent, the historical perspective that might be useful for situating the ethnographic data either in its entirety or in the individual chapters.

Last but not least, reading this book in the context of the post-parliamentary and presidential election of 2014, it is worth noting one more point. The local government election bill recently passed by the Indonesian Parliament (Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat, DPR) has cancelled the popular direct vote system of the election of local governments (governors, mayors, and regents) that has been effective since 1999 and brings it back to the representative vote system by Local Parliaments (Dewan Perwakilan Rakyat Daerah, DPRD) like in the New Order. Whether the re-centralized, albeit local, election system will influence the dynamics and political commitment of the middle class in provincial towns is yet to be seen. It is not the task of this book to answer this. Yet, by emphasizing the role of politics in the construction of the middle class in provincial towns, this book sounds to me a bit too optimistic about the future of decentralization and democracy in Indonesia. It is very likely that the new bill, unless it is revoked before the local election rounds starting in 2015, will soon lead to a return of oligarchy in which elite-dominated political parties will put to an end the dynamic and energetic courses of life the middle class has lived in provincial towns over the past 10 years.

Agus Suwignyo
Department of History, Gadjah Mada University


Bambang Setiawan. Siapa Kelas Menengah Indonesia? [Who is the Indonesian middle class?]. http://nasional.kompas.com/read/2012/06/08/13003111/Siapa.Kelas.Menengah.Indonesia, accessed on October 5, 2014.

―. Kelas Menengah Indonesia Konsumtif dan Intoleran [The middle class: Consumptive and intolerant]. http://nasional.kompas.com/read/2012/06/08/11204529/Kelas.Menengah.Konsumtif.dan.Intoleran, accessed on October 5, 2014.

Niel, Robert van. 1960. The Emergence of the Modern Indonesian Elite. The Hague: W. van Hoeve. Re-published: 1984, Dordrecht and Cinnaminson: Foris Publications.


Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 1

Dreaming of Money in Ho Chi Minh City
Allison J. Truitt
Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2013, xii+193p.

The scholarly study of banknotes (notaphily) is not a new phenomenon. But it did not take systematic modern form until the 1920s. (Ironically, it emerged under the Weimar Republic just as Germany was entering a three-year period of hyperinflation.) Since then, the number of numismatic associations has grown considerably, as have specialized publications. Banknote News is one relevant example. Banknote News issues breaking stories about international paper and polymer money. Collectors are the primary audience, and the website contains hundreds of links to vendors for people who wish to purchase the bank notes they covet. One of the links directs collectors to the 2014 edition of The Banknote Book. It includes 205 stand-alone chapters, each of which can be purchased separately as a country-specific catalog. (The Vietnam chapter provides detailed information on notes the State Bank of Vietnam issued, but only from 1964 to present, color copies of them, as well as their current market valuations.) The four-volume set currently runs 2,554 pages and details more than 21,000 types and varieties of currency, some dating back centuries.

The global community of currency collectors and the desires that shape their relationships to different forms of money provides a useful entry point into Allison Truitt’s fascinating book, Dreaming of Money in Ho Chi Minh City. Truitt is similarly interested in state-issued currencies, especially with regard to how people conceptualize the interplay of their material and symbolic properties. But her interests do not end there. The ethnographic focus of the book is instead upon interpersonal relations, as mediated by different currencies (primarily coins, paper, and gold), which she dubs “monetary pluralism” (pp. 149–150).

The author’s attention to interpersonal relations enables her to raise new questions about the cultural politics of identity in Vietnam’s economic capital, Ho Chi Minh City, which she rightfully acknowledges is not always representative of the country as a whole. Nevertheless, the central questions around which the book is organized are not specific to it. The questions are applicable everywhere, and I reproduce them here for this reason. First, she asks, “Can people exert control over state-sponsored infrastructures such as territorial currencies?” Second, “How do we come to have faith in the currency we handle?” Third, “How do people personalize money so that it becomes a vehicle for expressing qualities other than exchange value?” And, finally, “What happens when those efforts fail?” (pp. 3–4).

The author describes how ordinary people—butchers, unlicensed money changers, small shop owners, street traders, lottery ticket purchasers, and so on—responded to the above questions over the course of six chapters. The first chapter provides a historical account of the “problem” competing currencies (Indochinese piasters, revolutionary-era financial notes, U.S. dollars, gold bars, and demonetized national currency) posed for people living in the south during the twentieth century. Chapter two features the rise of consumer culture, a process that began during the mid-1990s when a series of reforms known as “Renovation”(Doi moi) accelerated the shift from a centralized command-and-control economy to a decentralized marked-based one. Truitt’s insights into what this process looked like at the household-level lays the foundation for chapter three. It features the methods prosperous households used to hide their growing wealth and to maintain its value in the face of mounting inflation, a consequence of the country’s gradual reintegration into global financial markets. Chapter four reorients the reader’s attention to the role “fictive” currencies, such as “spirit” money (tien ma), play in Vietnamese ritual life. Particular emphasis is placed upon how “subjective” debts rather than “contractual” debts are (re-)produced through social interactions, and the complicated ways they link people over time and across territorial spaces. Chapter five, though very brief, presents an intriguing discussion of how Vietnamese assess the quality of cash with regard to its physical “appearance, feel, even its denomination” (p. 107). These assessments shape everyday interactions with others due to the prevalence of counterfeit notes, the frequency with which people reject bills that are either too worn or too large to make change, as well as the challenges banks face in terms of enrolling customers in what is still a predominantly cash-and-carry society. The final chapter features the strategies people employ to transform little money into big money through a range of illicit activities, most commonly by: participating in underground lotteries, speculating on land-use certificates (buying and selling land is still illegal), and investing in over-the-counter markets rather than the stock exchange to avoid state controls created to limit price fluctuations.

The resurgence of interest in the anthropology of money began several years ago. This book, with its insightful discussion of money and the role it plays in shaping new subjectivities, is a welcome contribution to this literature. According to one of the leading figures in this field, Bill Maurer, scholarship on this topic typically falls into one of three broad categories: the large-scale transformations of economic systems; the relationship between quantification and commensuration; and the materiality and fictions of finance (2006). Truitt’s book intersects with all three subfields, and it demonstrates what can be gained by working across their boundaries in addition to within them. For example, she challenges simple, linear assumptions about the ascendancy of neoliberalism in Vietnam following decades of state socialism. Her findings instead show that the “transition” from one economic regime to another has not replaced prior relationships to money and value, some of which date back to the colonial period. Instead, these relationships continue to coexist—in ways that are harmonious at some moments and contradictory at others. Similarly, her field data demonstrates that the “gift economy” still flourishes despite the increasing commodification of everyday life. It does so, she elaborates, precisely because the perpetuation of “subjective” debts (on), i.e. social and moral obligations, is always asymmetrical and thus incommensurate in nature, which paradoxically strengthens rather than weakens social ties. Finally, she explains why speculative economies are not limited to the financial sector, but crucially shape the accumulation of religious merit, especially among women, as well.

The book contains many more insights into economic beliefs, values, and practices among Vietnamese in Ho Chi Minh City. The author does not always adequately explain their broader significance, however. For instance, there is little discussion of the theoretical literature on the anthropology of money, including ethnographic studies conducted in post-communist Europe and post-socialist Asia, many of them at the same time as her field research (see, e.g.: Mandel and Humphrey 2002; Ngai 2003; Ledeneva 2008; Rofel 2012). Admittedly, the book is written for the educated readers, not simply specialists. Nevertheless, these studies also examine how culturally inflected understandings of “national integrity, political authority, and membership in a globalizing world” (p. 3), to borrow her phrasing, are reflected in and shaped by the ways people talk about and use money. Some discussion of this literature, to highlight where patterns converge and where they do not, would open up greater space for comparative work, which is very much needed in this subfield.

The sheer number of ethnographic vignettes in each chapter is not always an asset either. The stories are rich in detail, and the author is able to convey what they mean, often in a highly in a nuanced manner, to the reader. But the chapters are thematically organized, not analytically driven. Consequently, the chapters can come across as a loosely linked series of “snapshots” into people’s lives, which obscure in the process the book’s theoretical contributions to debates in the literature.

The author conducted the bulk of the field research during 2001–02, supplementing it with a second trip in 2007. Based on this reviewer’s experience, the author’s analysis remains accurate. But the length of time that has passed raises an important question, which the brief epilogue does not sufficiently address. What changes have occurred since then? Attitudes about official corruption have undergone a noticeable shift, for example. There has been a steady increase in the percentage of people who purchase health and accident insurance as a hedge against the unknown rather than accepting such events as “fate.” And, the numbers of Vietnamese who participate in leisure activities, such as tourism at home and abroad, have exploded along with the rise in household incomes. All of these trends affect how people in Ho Chi Minh City think, feel, and use money today and, in turn, how they interact with one another on an everyday basis. Such trends are noteworthy, and they deserve further study.

Despite these modest shortcomings, Truitt’s book has laid a strong foundation for future research in this area. Scholars will find the book to be a valuable resource, as well as an excellent text for undergraduate courses. So, too, will general readers, particularly those interested in the complex lives of money in other cultural contexts.

Ken MacLean
Department of International Development and Social Change, Clark University


Ledeneva, Alena. 2008. Blat and Guanxi: Informal Practices in Russia and China. Comparative Studies in Society and History 50(1): 118–144.

Mandel, Ruth; and Humphrey, Caroline. 2002. Markets and Moralities: Ethnographies of Post-Socialism. Oxford: Berg.

Maurer, Bill. 2006. The Anthropology of Money. Annual Review of Anthropology 35: 5–36.

Ngai, Pun. 2003. Subsumption or Consumption: The Phantom of Consumer Revolution in “Globalizing” China. Cultural Anthropology 18(4): 469–492.

Rofel, Lisa. 2012. The Traffic in Money Boys. Positions 18(2): 425–458.

Vol. 4, No. 1, BOOK REVIEWS, IMAMURA Masao

Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 1

Being and Becoming Kachin: Histories Beyond the State in the Borderworlds of Burma
Mandy Sadan
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, 470p.

Over the past 15 years, Mandy Sadan has single-handedly launched new historical scholarship on the Kachin people. The Kachin, a group of highlanders who mostly reside in the northern region of Myanmar, had long been widely known among academics, thanks to Edmund Leach’s 1954 classic Political Systems of Highland Burma: A Study of Kachin Social Structure. The lack of access to Myanmar, however, has meant that until very recently scholarly discussions were often more about Leach and his theory than about the Kachin people themselves. Sadan, an English historian, has introduced an entirely new set of historical studies from a resolutely empirical perspective. The much-anticipated monograph, Being and Becoming Kachin: Histories Beyond the State in the Borderworlds of Burma, brings together the fruits of her scholarship, including a surprisingly large amount of findings that have not been published before. This publication is certainly a cause for celebration, especially because it is rare that such a thick monograph exclusively focused on one ethnic minority group is published at all nowadays.1) With this monograph, Sadan has again raised the standard of Kachin scholarship to a new level. Students of Kachin studies will be indebted to this book for decades to come.

Being and Becoming Kachin is not an accessible book, however. Sadan herself admits in her Introduction that “the primary concern of this book is to explore the historical, ongoing, lived complexities” (p. 20) and as such her determination to do justice to the “complexities” of the subject has made the book exceptionally long.2) She uses the word “complex” often—too often, in my opinion—to characterize the subject matter in order to justify the length of this 512-page tome. It is not available as an e-book, and the price of this book is unforgiving. As a result, it is unlikely to be widely available, especially in Southeast Asia. Aware of these concerns, Sadan has created a very impressive accompanying website (www.mandysadan.weebly.com), which presents not only chapter-by-chapter summaries but also extremely rare archival materials in digital formats. The website is a truly commendable effort, which should inspire many other scholars.

In this review, I will not perform the conventional task of offering chapter-by-chapter summaries, mainly because we can easily find excellent summaries on the Internet.3) Rather, I will treat this monumental book as the culmination of Sadan’s distinguished scholarship and raise a few broad questions about her method. I will therefore refer not only to Being and Becoming Kachin but also to some of Sadan’s earlier studies. I will first highlight what I consider to be the book’s most original and promising contributions, and then move on to address methodological and historiographical issues. Calling into question her strong faith in secular historiography and textual positivism, I will argue that the historical narratives that are produced and consumed among the Kachin people themselves deserve more scholar attention. My contention is that the Kachin self-representations, which are replete with Christian evangelical rhetoric today, are a worthy object of sustained inquiry.

One of the most important contributions of Being and Becoming Kachin is the spatial scope with which Sadan reframes the geography of “Kachin.” Her study broadens the geographical scope of “Kachin” by consistently including the adjacent areas of Jinghpaw-speaking communities: “Singpho” area of northeast India and the “Jingpo” area of southwest China.4) Refusing to treat the Kachin space as a periphery of a nation-state, she treats this region as one integral area. This geographical perspective was always latent in her scholarship, but in this book it is explicitly articulated and substantiated throughout the book. While ethnicity was the primary focus in her previous studies, she emphasizes this geographical framing in this monograph. Although I am not convinced that the terminology of “borderworld” serves her purpose well, it is a refreshing approach, which distinguishes Being and Becoming Kachin from almost all other studies that bear the word “Kachin,” including Sadan’s earlier work.5)

Being and Becoming Kachin particularly shines where it uncovers little-known historical events in northeast India, starting from the encounter between the Singpho and the British East India Company in 1824. Sadan skillfully relates these events to the greater “Kachin” geography. On the China side too, she identifies a number of relevant events in Yunnan (and beyond) and brings to light historical linkages across the border. One such event is the so-called Panthay Rebellion, whose impacts on the Myanmar side have hardly been explored before (pp. 143–146).6)

While Sadan explores both the Indian and Chinese sides, the strength of the book is the former. Her meticulous reading of British archival documents is unparalleled and breathtaking. As Fiskesjö (2014) has pointed out in his review, however, the voluminous Chinese-language sources are not covered as comprehensively. It would be unfair, however, to expect Sadan to cover the Chinese-language literature on top of everything else she has already unearthed and presented. It suffices to say that thanks to her pioneering work, we are now able to identify more clearly than ever the gaps to be filled by other scholars.7) Being and Becoming Kachin brings to light a vast amount of archival sources in more than 1,500 footnotes. (It is hoped that the book will be eventually made available on a searchable, digital format.)8)

In Sadan’s view, upland Southeast Asia has been poorly served by academics, who fail to back up their arguments with verifiable empirical references. She names in particular three studies: Political Systems of Highland Burma by Edmund Leach, System, Structure, and Contradiction by Jonathan Friedman, and The Art of Not Being Governed by James C. Scott, arguing that these works, although thought-provoking, are not sufficiently grounded in historical evidence. In the section titled “Kachin history and the problem of anthropology,” Sadan argues that for these scholars “the concern was to develop totaling, ahistorical . . . interpretations” (p. 15).9) She demands that a scholar provide the reader with references so that the study can “be tested and critiqued properly” (Sadan in Farrelly et al. 2014, 479).

Modern academic scholarship is, in George Stocking’s words, “not search but re-search.”10) Being and Becoming Kachin exemplifies this “re-search” principle of modern academic scholarship. Sadan’s insistence on this “re-search” principle, however, raises certain methodological and historiographical questions. To put it simply, is this an adequate mode of inquiry if we want to understand how the Kachin themselves view their history? How should we seek to understand and engage with the historical accounts produced and consumed by the Kachin people themselves, which do not follow the academic conventions? How should we analyze their religious and mythical narratives, which do not adhere to the standard scholarly practice? In fact, Sadan does not address these questions herself. She has been dismissive towards the historical narratives that circulate among the Kachin themselves.

Sadan has repeatedly expressed dismay that Kachin self-representations are dominated by Christian evangelism and that they are reductive, essentializing, and dogmatic as a result. In her 2007 paper, “Constructing and Contesting the Category ‘Kachin’ in the Colonial and Post-colonial Burmese State,” she wrote: “it has been very hard to challenge, refute, renegotiate or decolonize the constructions of traditional Kachin morality and society that are perpetuated by the Kachin institutional churches,” calling for a secular history of Kachin resistance against Christianity (2007, 52–53). In Being and Becoming Kachin too, she observes that the influential Christian evangelism has made “the secular appraisal of the Kachin past . . . difficult” (p. 403). From her point of view, the problem is that “the Kachin people lack an adequately researched secular history” (2007, 65–66), and that “Kachin elites . . . lack the secular academic training in historical and anthropological disciplines that would enable them to translate . . . into more globally understood conventions” (2010, 147). Her insistent demand reminds me of the observation made by Webb Keane in his paper “Secularism as a Moral Narrative of Modernity”: “secularity often presents in compulsory terms, even as an ethical demand” (Keane 2013, 159). It appears that Sadan is disturbed by the “morally and politically troubling anachronisms, premoderns or anti-moderns” of the Kachin (ibid., 162).11) I wish Sadan had reflected more on her own reactions and spared more thoughts as to why secular historiography has to be so privileged.

In Being and Becoming Kachin, Sadan engages with the issue of Kachin Christianity at length for the first time, devoting a whole chapter titled “Virtue” to it. The primary concern of this chapter is to dismantle the popular teleological narrative enjoyed by Kachin Christians. According to this narrative, the Kachin embraced Christianity during the colonial era and the religious conversion unavoidably led to a war against the oppressive state. Sadan analyzes archival data to show that the Kachin conversion actually took place not before but during the insurgency. This is certainly an important and necessary corrective. Sadan’s refutation of the evangelical account, however, leaves what seems to me a larger question untouched: why does the evangelical narrative appeal so strongly to the Kachin, despite the factual inaccuracies that could be pointed out rather easily? Is it conceivable that the evangelical narrative spreads because it is able to gloss historical facts as a simple, reductionist, essentializing story? Sadan herself admits that “Christianity is a useful resource for unifying discourses of historical experience among a diverse set of communities,” but this particular kind of discursive resourcefulness needs to be analyzed more specifically (p. 463).

In pursuing these questions about a variety of narratives, I find it helpful to consult Purity and Exile: Violence, Memory, and National Cosmology among Hutu Refugees in Tanzania by Liisa Malkki.12) When Malkki arrived at a refugee camp in Tanzania, she found that the refugees were constantly telling historical stories among themselves: “Unexpectedly, [the camp] turned out to be a site that was enabling and nurturing an elaborate and self-conscious historicity among its refugee inhabitants” (Malkki 1995, 52–53). She found out that the historical narratives told by the refugees “went beyond merely recording events. It represented not only a description of the past, nor even merely an evaluation of the past, but a subversive recasting and reinterpretation of it in fundamental moral terms. In this sense, it cannot be accurately described as either history or myth. It was what can be called a mythico-history.” Malkki’s insights remind us that people everywhere create quasi-historical narratives but that they are typically mythical and religious. These mythical narratives need to be taken seriously because they often reveal how a community shares situated knowledge and moral visions. Following Malkki, it is worth asking what kind of mythico-histories are being created by the Kachin. I realize that the questions I am raising here are more anthropological than historical. But studying a people like the Kachin makes us understand that the two are inseparably intertwined.13) A methodological implication of this inseparability between history and anthropology is that ethnographic evidence might come to play a central role in writing a Kachin history and investigating the Kachin historiography.

It should be noted that Sadan too presents ethnographic descriptions and relies on unrecorded conversations in Being and Becoming Kachin. In the chapter on Christianity, for example, she assesses the impacts of the missionaries on the Kachin view of history and offers the following in a footnote: “These comments are based on extended conversations . . . in a variety of settings, especially during the period 1996–9” (p. 365). These “extended conversations” surely fail to meet the “re-search” principle, as they are impossible to trace and verify. This is obviously a common issue for those of us who try to learn from speaking with ordinary people during long fieldwork. Studying a people like the Kachin thus challenges our own conventions.

In Being and Becoming Kachin, Sadan convincingly repudiates the erroneous view (espoused by scholars like Robert Taylor) that the upland peoples like Kachin were “essentially deluded supporters of [the British] oppressive order” and “politically unsophisticated” (p. 260). When it comes to the Kachin’s religious behavior, however, she appears to uphold a similarly unfounded view, implying that the Kachin are ultimately deluded supporters of an oppressive order and that they are not sufficiently sophisticated to “decolonize” themselves. For all the groundbreaking work Sadan has done, she appears to too hastily dismiss the Kachin subjectivity when it comes to their encounter with Christianity. To suggest, even implicitly, that “the Kachin have been misled by colonial officials and foreign missions” (2007, 53) and that they remain unaware of this deceit today is quite antithetical to her scholarship, which has been skillfully uncovering the Kachin-centric perspectives.

Perhaps it is worth recalling that these questions of subjectivity have been raised among historians of Southeast Asia too. Many years ago, David Wyatt urged us to think about “what was happening inside people’s heads” (Wyatt 1997, 689). Commenting on Victor Lieberman’s “externalist approach,” Wyatt wrote that it is “necessary and useful,” but he also suggested that historians also investigate “internal” change—how people’s views and perspectives changed over time.” Such a goal would require us to engage with the historical accounts that are appreciated by the studied people themselves. We would like to know better how the Kachin people talk about their history among themselves as they endeavor to make sense of their present predicament and to envision their collective future. In order for us to write a Kachin history, it seems necessary that we seek to understand the “method” of the Kachin historial narratives, however erroneous they are from the empirical positivist perspective.

Rather than framing Christianity with the binary of domination and resistance, it might be more useful to investigate the Christianization as a historical and ongoing process with many unexpected twists and turns. Such an approach would make us more cautious towards the view that Christianization is a one-way street of colonial domination. In her studies of South Africa, Jean Comaroff has stressed how “Christianity was inseparable from the whole logic of the way colonialism had been made and was then being unmade” (quoted in D. K. Kim 2010, italics added). An example of this unmaking can be found in the formation of the African National Congress in South Africa; the founders came out of the African Independent Churches, “whose leader had taken the Bible—which had entered the community as a colonizing, civilizing text—and read another message out of it.” For our purpose here, it is worth recalling that the founders of the Kachin Independence Army were Baptists. Comaroff also urges us to observe how Christianity itself changes as it travels, asking: “Is Africa becoming Christianized or was Christianity becoming Africanized?” (ibid.). A similar question can be raised for the Kachin context: while the Kachin are Christianized, isn’t Christianity also Kachin-ized at the same time?

If we take the Christianization as a historical process in which the evangelical rhetoric has been slowly yet steadily adopted and modified among the Kachin, then many new historical questions emerge. What aspects of the evangelical rhetoric did the Kachin first come to adopt? Has the evangelical rhetoric been uniformly shared among various ethno-linguistic groups and across various denominations within the “Kachin?” How do the non-Christian Kachin in China and India view the ethno-nationalist narrative? How does the Kachin military use the evangelical ethno-nationalist narratives without alienating its non-Christian members? How do Kachin evangelical Christians solve contradictory narratives?

I have taken this opportunity to write much more than a conventional book review and raise a number of questions here, because Kachin studies is entering a new phase, thanks to Sadan’s path-breaking work. Asking these questions was unthinkable 15 years ago. For those of us who follow the paths she has opened up, it is necessary to engage even more deeply than ever with methodological questions. It is Sadan herself who identifies method as “the greatest problem” in Being and Becoming Kachin (p. 26).

Imamura Masao 今村真央


Appadurai, Arjun. 2000. Grassroots Globalization and the Research Imagination. Public Culture 12(1): 1–19.

Asad, Talal. 1990. Multiculturalism and British Identity in the Wake of the Rushdie Affair. Politics and Society 18(4): 455–480.

Farrelly, Nicholas. 2012. Spatial Control and Symbolic Politics at the Intersection of China, India and Burma. PhD thesis, Oxford University.

Farrelly, Nicholas; Maran, La Raw; and Sadan, Mandy. 2014. Sojourn Symposium Review of Being and Becoming Kachin: Histories Beyond the State in the Borderworlds of Burma by Mandy Sadan (OUP 2013). Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia 29(2): 467–482.

Fiskesjö, Magnus. 2014. Review of Being and Becoming Kachin. New Mandala, accessed December 18, 2014, http://asiapacific.anu.edu.au/newmandala/2014/05/16/review-of-being-and-becoming-kachin-tlc-nmrev-lxx/.

Forbes, Andrew D. W. 1988. History of Panglong, 1875–1900: A “Panthay” (Chinese Muslim) Settlement in the Burmese Wa States. The Muslim World 78(1): 38–50.

―. 1986. The ‘Panthay’ (Yunnanese Chinese) Muslims of Burma. Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 7(2): 384–394.

Friedman, Jonathan. 2000. System, Structure, and Contradiction: The Evolution of ‘Asiatic’ Social Formations. 2nd ed. Walnut Creek, California: AltaMira Press.

Harding, Susan Friend. 2000. The Book of Jerry Falwell: Fundamentalist Language and Politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

―. 1987. Convicted by the Holy Spirit: The Rhetoric of Fundamental Baptist Conversion. American Ethnologist 14(1): 167–181.

Ho, Tsui-Ping. 1997. Exchange, Person and Hierarchy: Rethinking the Kachin. PhD thesis, University of Virginia.

Keane, Webb. 2013. Secularism as a Moral Narrative of Modernity. Transit: Europäische Revue 43: 159–170.

Kim, David Kyuman. 2010. God Was on Everybody’s Side: A Conversation with Jean Comaroff. The Immanent Frame, accessed January 21, 2015, http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/2010/01/25/god-was-on-everybodys-side/.

Leach, Edmund Ronald. [1954] 1968. Political Systems of Highland Burma: A Study of Kachin Social Structure. Boston: Beacon Press.

Malkki, Liisa H. 1995. Purity and Exile: Violence, Memory, and National Cosmology among Hutu Refugees in Tanzania. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sadan, Mandy. 2010. Syphilis and the Kachin Regeneration Campaign, 1937–1938. Journal of Burma Studies 14(1): 115–149.

―. 2007. Constructing and Contesting the Category ‘Kachin’ in the Colonial and Post-colonial Burmese State. In Exploring Ethnic Diversity in Burma, edited by Mikael Gravers, pp. 34–76. Copenhagen: NIAS Press.

Scott, James C. 2013. Review of Disturbing History: Resistance in Early Colonial Fiji, by Robert Nicole. The Journal of Pacific History 48(3): 340–341.

―. 2009. The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Tagliacozzo, Eric; and Willford, Andrew. 2009. Clio/Anthropos: Exploring the Boundaries between History and Anthropology. Stanford University Press.

Walker, Anthony R. 2003. Merit and Millennium: Routine and Crisis in the Ritual Lives of the Lahu People. New Delhi: Hindustan Pub. Corp.

Wang, Zhusheng. 1997. The Jingpo: Kachin of the Yunnan Plateau. Tempe, AZ: Program for Southeast Asian Studies.

Wyatt, David K. 1997. Southeast Asia ‘Inside Out,’ 1300–1800: A Perspective from the Interior. Modern Asian Studies 31(3): 689–709.

1) An obvious exception is Anthony Walker’s immense study, Merit and Millennium, a 900-page study of the Lahu in Thailand and China.

2) In a post-publication forum in Sojourn, Sadan has stressed again that Being and Becoming Kachin is “ultimately attempting to achieve . . . a recognition of the depth and complexity of the [Kachin] history” (Farrelly et al. 2014, 479).

3) Magnus Fiskesjö (2014) has also written an excellent summary for each chapter in his engaging review, which is available online. Sadan herself offers a summary on the accompanying website: www.mandysadan.weebly.com/book-summary.html, accessed January 15, 2015.

4) The Jinghpaw (Jingpho) language is the lingua franca among the Kachin people. Jinghpaw is spelled in various ways—“Singpho” in India and usually “Jingpo” in China.

5) The only exception I am aware of is the work by Nicholas Farrelly, whose unpublished 2010 dissertation examines the “Kachin” in the three countries. Farrelly has written a review of Being and Becoming Kachin (Farrelly et al. 2014).

6) A rare exception here is the work by Andrew Forbes. See Forbes (1986; 1988). It should be mentioned that the Panthay Rebellion is usually called the Du Wenxiu Rebellion in China.

7) There have been excellent studies on Jinghpo and Zaiwa in Yunnan, most notably by Wang Zhusheng (1997) and Ho Tsui-Ping (1997), but to date no-one has conducted a substantive historical and ethnographic research on the cross-border dynamics.

8) Sadan herself seems to defend the paper format when she says that the “materiality of the book is significant” (Sadan in Farrelly et al. 2014, 477). But by “materiality” she actually means the length of the book.

9) Sadan has reiterated this point in the post-publication forum by saying that her book was “definitely a reaction to this kind of Kachin imaginary”—the kind of imaginary entertained by scholars like Leach and Scott (Sadan in Farrelly et al. 2014, 479).

10) Quoted in Appadurai (2000, 11).

11) For a penetrating analysis of this moral disturbance, see Talal Asad’s essay on the British reaction to the Rushdie Affair (Asad 1990).

12) Another useful study here is Susan Harding’s study of the rhetoric of Christian conversion. See Harding (1987; 2000).

13) As James Scott has noted: “no historian ought to be allowed to walk out the door in the morning without being strapped to an anthropologist who can recover the rich texture of human action and understanding” (2013, 341). For a set of insights into the relationship between history and anthropology, see Tagliocozzo and Willford (2009).

Vol. 4, No. 1, BOOK REVIEWS, Janet Alison HOSKINS

Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 1

Sounding Out Heritage: Cultural Politics and the Social Practice of Quan Họ Folk Song in Northern Vietnam
Lauren Meeker
Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2013, 192p.

Sounding Out Heritage is an exceptionally appealing and well-designed book, from its colorful cover to its smoothly presented theoretical arguments and its detailed ethnography of the “modernity” of traditional Vietnamese folk songs. Quan họ folk songs come from the Bấc Ninh province of northern Vietnam, and—as the author documents in great detail—they have already been the focus of intense efforts to conserve them, record them, verify their authenticity, and in 2009 to inscribe them as elements of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. But Meeker is the first non-Vietnamese author to take this “soundscape” seriously and to ask how this once remote village-based style of singing has become an important part of modern Vietnamese cultural politics.

Her argument also addresses issues of how cultural heritage is related to material exchange, how it is realized and modified by different forms of performance, and what sentiments it may evoke in its singers and their audience. The new “cultural market” which has emerged in Post-renovation Vietnam has brought reclusive older women singers out onto the public stage, and it has re-valorized an intimate form of singing as a “living treasure,” linking the present market economy to a long history of musical connections between the village and the court.

In twenty-first century Hanoi, the nostalgic and romanticized countryside has been represented as the seat of cultural authenticity. Following the August Revolution of 1945, rural folk songs began to emerge as a tradition that had escaped the contaminations of colonial oppression and could be both heart-warming and progressive. Musical nationalism developed both as a way of ritualizing optimism (“the sound of singing drowns out the sounds of the bombs”) and as an affirmation of what was most distinct about the Vietnamese as a people. Correcting some songs to make their lyrics more “patriotic” brought them into line with socialist goals, and emphasized sustaining the social collectivity more than individualized sentiments of love or loss.

Quan họ is an embodied practice, with its own etiquette, forms of address, and ritual protocol. The songs were sung at temple festivals to worship local deities, so they were part of the “world of superstition” condemned by nationalist campagians in the 1950s, but since 1965 they have resurfaced as part of the “indigenous foundations” of the nation, inscribed with communal ideals and moral values. A “mythology of interruption” asserted that this practice had vanished, and while villagers may have remembered things a bit differently, the idea that quan họ had to be “restored” allowed for a new, officially sanctioned, and nationally recognized form to appear (pp. 71–72). In this nuanced way, Meeker shows that she can “read against the grain” of some of the accounts written by Hanoi academics, and she uses the local knowledge gained from elderly female singers to complicate the “quan họ movement” ideology.

She also documents the fact that many Bắc Ninh singers feel uncomfortable about the way control over the representation and narration of these songs has been whisked away to Hanoi once quan họ was recognized as a “national heritage” in 1990. An alternative origin story, told by an older woman, presents the oldest songs as having been inscribed on a strip of yellow silk that was “taken away by the center.” Certain stories, like this one, have become inaudible in the face of a national heritage movement that authorizes some local voices and silences others.

Quan họ is performed by pairs of men and women who address each other as equals (em) in a village context, and they exchange tender sentiments. In staged and televised performances, in contrast, male and female singers use the hierarchical terms anh (for the man) and em (for the woman), introducing an age and gender hierarchy seen as appropriate for romantic love, and especially the intense yearnings for an unattainable beloved. Disembedded from the social relations of local life, the “modern” formats of stage shows and competitions cannot reproduce the intimacy, egalitarianism, and sense of shared creation of earlier quan họ performances.

At UNESCO-sponsored quan họ clubs in ancient temples, new electronic microphones are used to amplify the singing out to a wider audience, just as urban Vietnamese can come to visit village festivals to “hear” their traditions. Instead of being sung in dark and crowded temples, many of these “modern” songs are now performed with microphones on dragon-shaped boats, floating in a picturesque pond that evokes the timeless and organic natural world. Although none of this new staging is actually “traditional,” it often “feels more natural” to spectators, who have their own notions of authenticity. Participants learn to tune in to the ways in which their practice of a particular local form is part of a larger, diverse national culture.

The larger theoretical issues that Meeker’s study addresses concern the ways a local practice can be defined and re-framed as cultural heritage, and what the consequences of this “heritagisation” (to borrow a term from Endres [2011]) might be. Specifically, she argues that songs are seen as representing sentiments (tình cảm), but there are differing conceptions of how sentiment is embodied and enacted. Revolutionary ideologists after 1945 wanted to root this musical practice in an essential Vietnamese character, which was both communal and egalitarian. Village quan họ singers, on the other hand, lived their singing as rooted in the body and in social interaction. The emotions evoked by the songs should be expressed in actions which are morally, socially, and politically appropriate. Negotiations about how to do so (and who gets to make those decisions) are traced out in each of her chapters.

When local culture becomes a UNESCO certified Intangible Cultural Heritage it needs to be mapped in relation to an identifiable standard. Meeker argues that the “culturalist discourse” of the heritage paradigm can become as totalizing and influential as earlier Marxist evolutionary models that saw temple singing as “primitive superstition.” Older women officially designated as “masters of folklore” (nghệ nhân) can qualify for state support if they were trained before 1945. But this enshrining of 1945 as an official “sign or brand of Vietnamese cultural authenticity” (p. 148) feels arbitrary to village singers, even though they are also very concerned about losing elements of their culture and protecting what they see as “authentic.” Although anthropologists have critiqued the idea of the authentic as an essentialization of what is in fact a cultural construction, it is a concept that remains meaningful for quan họ singers, as well as for academic folklorists and for government heritage policy.

It is unfortunate that Meeker’s monograph, which deals so extensively with the impact of hearing quan họ songs, does not come with any recordings of actual performances. (In contrast, Barley Norton’s somewhat similar 2009 study of chầu văn songs, Songs for the Spirits: Music and Mediumship in Modern Vietnam came with a DVD showing both village and commercialized performances.) But Lauren Meeker has also worked on several films, and it is strange that the book does not ever refer to these films or provide information about their distributors. In my opinion her book should be taught in combination with the viewing of these films. She worked with Jayasinhji Jhala to make Drums on the Red River in 2007 (in collaboration with the Vietnamese Institute for Culture and Art Studies), and has reflected on this collaborative process in a very interesting co-authored article (Meeker and Jhala 2013). The film documents a festival in northern Vietnam where quan họ songs are performed, and it is presented in a “conversational style” in which participants narrate their own experiences to the camera.

Lauren Meeker has recently finished another documentary titled Singing Sentiment (2014). It provides a detailed portrait of the practice of quan họ singing as perceived by one older woman, Bà Vân, her daughters, and various other figures in the community. It provides a more personal perspective on the arguments presented in the book Sounding Out Heritage. And of course it allows us to actually see and hear the songs as they are performed in the home, at the temple, and in the context of village festivals. The ceremony that closes the film, full of dark robed ladies, and disciplined ritualism, provided me with the most vivid glimpse of a northern Vietnamese festival that I have seen. The mixture of “gaiety and gravitas” as the effigy of the village god is brought to make a formal visit to the deity, is rendered through details of costume, protocol, and propriety.

Meeker has integrated visual and written forms of presentation quite skillfully, so that the two complement each other but do not overlap. Sounding Out Heritage contrasts the social practice of singing these songs in an everyday village setting with their display as a form of “folk culture” and national heritage. By showing how cultural heritage is negotiated and constituted from the center, it provides us with a deeper understanding of the differences between these standardized performances (full of colorful costumes and mimed gestures) and the intimate, everyday life of the songs as embedded within social relations. Both the book and the films show a remarkable mastery of Vietnamese sources and the finer points of Vietnamese etiquette, as well as a compassionate perspective on a rapidly changing society. Using the book and one of the films together would work very well for undergraduate courses in Asian studies, ethnomusicology, gender studies, and anthropology. The two would also work well in graduate courses dealing with these topics, as well as ethnographic methods, “shared anthropology,” and the contested field of visual anthropology.

Janet Alison Hoskins
Anthropology and Religion Department, University of Southern California


Endres, Kristin. 2011. Performing the Divine: Mediums, Markets and Modernity in Urban Vietnam. Copenhagen: NIAS Press.

Meeker, Lauren. 2014. Singing Sentiment. Color DVD, 43 minutes. Berkeley: Berkeley Media LLC.

Meeker, Lauren; and Jhala, Jayasinhji. 2013. Drums on the Red River: The Making of a Vietnamese Ethnographic Film. Visual Anthropology 26(3): 247–265.

Norton, Barley. 2009. Songs for the Spirits: Music and Mediumship in Modern Vietnam. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Phuong, Lan; and Jhala, Jayasinhji; Hoang, Son; and Meeker, Lauren. 2010. Drums on the Red River. Color DVD, 73 minutes. Watertown, MA: Documentary Educational Resources.


Contents>> Vol. 4, No. 1



Exploration and Irony in Studies of Siam over Forty Years
Benedict R. O’G. Anderson
Ithaca, NY: Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University, 2014, 166p.

Professor Crocodile Who Blocks the Canal

Helpfully compiled and arranged both chronologically and thematically in one volume, the various essays, articles, and reviews that make up this book reflect the wonderful skepticism, relentless questioning, daring iconoclasm, contrarian perspective, critical intelligence, penetrating insight, mordant humor, wide-ranging and in-depth knowledge of the country, its people and beyond, and above all, the tender and deeply-felt love and care which Professor Ben Anderson, the world-renowned doyen of nationalism and Southeast Asian Studies at Cornell University, has consistently brought to the study of Siam/Thailand over the past 40 years. Like “Jorakhe khwang khlong” or a crocodile who blocks the canal (and thereby obstructing the smooth flow of the canal traffic) in a traditional Thai saying, this body of his work was indeed widely recognized as a paradigmatic watershed in Thai studies that has altered and shifted the hitherto dominant, conservative, elitist, state-centric, royal-nationalist mainstream to an inundation of revisionist counter-streams and sub-streams since the 1990s.

I first encountered Khruu Ben’s (or Teacher Ben as he likes to be called) path-breaking, seminal literature review essay “Studies of the Thai State: The State of Thai Studies” (first published in 1978, Chapter 1 of this volume) shortly after I left the communist-led maquis in northeastern Thailand in the early 1980s when I was asked to translate it into Thai by the editor of Pajarayasan Magazine, an independent intellectual periodical under the patronage of Sulak Sivaraksa, a well-known conservative Buddhist intellectual who happened to be one of the two commentators of this essay when it was first publicly presented. Still fresh from the jungle and blinkered by the rigid Maoist ideological frame of reference, I could hardly fathom the ground-shaking impact of its message, which attempted to overhaul in toto the axiomatic foundations of Thai studies as practiced up till then by both Western scholars and their Thai official nationalist counterparts. Argued defiantly, systematically, solidly, and meticulously, the review essay contains Ben’s central revisionist vision of modern Thai history that has proven to be most thought-provoking, stood the test of time, and rendered it an indispensable item in any serious reading list on modern Thai politics in the past four decades. This central vision was subsequently expanded upon and developed further in other writings of his also included in this volume. Let me lay it out point-by-point here as briefly and succinctly as I can for the readers’ benefit.


1. In order to properly understand the essence and trajectory of modern Thai history, it is imperative to conceptually separate the Thai nation from its monarchy. Not only are the two non-identical and not only do they have different interests, but in many cases their interests also clash (p. 21).

2. The state built by the Jakri dynasty during the reigns of King Rama V to VII (A.D. 1868–1935) was by no means a modern nation-state but an absolutist dynastic auto-colonial one that carried out modernization in some aspects to a certain degree but delayed and/or obstructed it in others, particularly those that were related to the vested interest and position of the monarchy itself. Hence, the rise of the Siamese absolutist state did not amount to the successful building of a modern nation-state. On the contrary, it hindered the latter alongside the coming of Siamese nationhood (pp. 28, 34).

3. In contrast with erstwhile European absolutist states, the Siamese one was too short-lived (lasting about 40 years from 1892–1932), and the reach and effects of its power were too shallow. Since it had not transformed Thai society and economy widely and profoundly enough, the political reaction that finally came about in the form of a constitutionalist putsch, staged by the self-styled People’s Party of junior military officers and government officials, was merely “the partial, mystified revolt . . . of absolutism’s own engine, the functionalized bureaucracy” (p. 39), with very limited dynamic for revolutionary change. It fell far short of a real popular revolution, with only superficial and intermittent mass mobilization and participation, wholly inadequate for a radical overhaul of the Thai state and society (pp. 39–40).

4. The various well-known symptoms of political and administrative malaise of the Thai bureaucratic polity (à la the late Fred W. Riggs in his Thailand: The Modernization of a Bureaucratic Polity, 1966), namely chronic political instability, inefficiency, lack of coordination, corruption, favoritism, factionalism, formalism, unresponsiveness to extra-bureaucratic/popular demands, etc., resulted from the protracted, laggard, and incomplete transition from the not completely extinct absolutist state to the oft-aborted, stillborn popular nation-state (p. 40).

5. The Thai bureaucratic polity was similar to the old absolutist state in the sense that, devoid of popular representation and political accountability, it also tended to be a moi-state i.e. serving the interests of the state and its bureaucratic rulers themselves. And yet, with the supposedly divine absolute monarchs irreversibly replaced by usually profane commoner military strongmen-cum-bureaucrats, the bureaucratic polity fatally lacked the traditional supernatural/sacred legitimacy of the ancien regime. Unable to avail themselves of the legal-rational legitimacy of a modern elective democracy “which corresponds to the facts of effective control” (to quote Riggs) either, the military-bureaucratic elite had no choice but to seek a symbiotic modus vivendi with the surviving monarchy in which the latter served as the national palladium that lent royal-nationalist legitimacy to the former in exchange for armed protection of its security, untouchable status, ideological hegemony, and material interests (pp. 67–69).

6. Hence a frequent and facile lapse of the Thai bureaucratic polity into military absolutist dictatorship such as the one under Field Marshal Sarit-Thanom-Prapart from 1958 to 1973 which was duly blessed by the royal palladium. And with the plentiful military and economic aid, support and investment of the U.S. and its anti-communist allies, plus the technocrat-planned and directed market-led socio-economic development, the said military absolutist dictatorship had indeed achieved what the Jakri absolute monarchy of yore failed to do i.e. a rapid, extensive, and profound wholesale transformation of the Thai economy and society in less than two decades. Most significantly were the continuing migration of millions upon millions of poor and landless peasants into Bangkok and other regional urban centers in search of work, further education, and a better life together with the rise and/or huge expansion of various bourgeois strata in the city and countryside. When it finally emerged in October 1973, the political reaction to the stagnant, corrupt, unchanging, and intransigent military regime took the form of an unprecedented, largely spontaneous, mass uprising of half a million student-led demonstrators in downtown Bangkok, which Ben memorably called “Siam’s 1789” (p. 107). It opened the way to the rise of Thailand’s first popular nationalist movement (pp. 47–76).

7. If one looks at it through the optic of the political rise of the Thai bourgeoisie, the 1970s and 1980s witnessed the gradual and cumulative consolidation of bourgeois political power through an elective parliament amidst the decline and final collapse of the radical popular movement led by the communist armed rural insurgency on the one hand, and the terminal decay of bureaucratic polity along with the eventual retreat back to the barracks of the military on the other. Ironically, no matter how corrupt and murderous it was, the progress of bourgeois parliamentary regime became an inevitable trend that at long last was turning the page to a new chapter of Thai political history, or so it seemed especially after another successful popular uprising against military dictatorship in May 1992 (pp. 101–127).


It is the above-synopsized central vision of Ben as contained in this book that has inspired, framed, and deeply influenced various subsequent landmarks in Thai studies in the past four decades, ranging from Dr. Seksan Prasertkul’s Marxist-revisionist works on the economic dependency of the Siamese absolutist dynastic state and the anti-Western stance of the local immigrant Chinese entrepreneurs, and the current crisis of the Thai nation-state under economic globalization, Professor Thongchai Winichakul’s pioneering works on the mapping of Siam and the rise and development of royal-nationalism, to Professor Nidhi Aeusrivongse’s works on the Siamese absolutist state and the Thai official imagined community, for instance.

And yet, as the publication dates of his writings in this book indicate, there was a long hiatus of 18 years (from 1993 to 2011) during which Ben, having retired from active teaching at Cornell with no new Thai students under his supervision and engaged in other projects on post-Suharto Indonesia, global anarchism, nationalisms in the East, etc., had not published any serious work that focuses on Thai politics and history per se. Besides, it was a period in which tremendous, far-reaching changes had happened to the country, namely, the apogee and decline of royal hegemony and the network monarchy, the so-called Tomyamkung East Asian economic crisis of 1997, the emergence of the middle-income peasant, national majority electorate and local political society in the countryside, the rise and fall of the multi-billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra’s elected capitalist authoritarian regime from 2001 to 2006, the resumption of ferocious Muslim secessionist insurgency in the deep South since 2004, the military coup of 2006, and a series of alternate violent mass mobilizations and revolts against the existing governments—the so-called “color wars” between the anti-Thaksin royalist Yellow Shirts and the pro-Thaksin democratic Red Shirts—that has oft-times rendered the country almost ungovernable, cost over a hundred deaths and thousands of injuries so far, and remained intractable if dormant till the present. These new developments, somewhat beyond the scope of Ben’s central vision, have been effectively and illuminatingly dealt with by such recent important works as Pasuk Phongpaichit and Chris Baker’s Thaksin (2004), Andrew Walker’s Thailand’s Political Peasants: Power in the Modern Rural Economy (2012), People Information Center’s Truth for Justice: The April-May 2010 Crackdown (in Thai, 2012), and Apichat Satitniramai et al.’s, Re-examining the Political Landscape of Thailand (in Thai, 2013).

Ben’s intellectual return to Thailand (Chapters 6–9 of the book) focuses instead on the contemporary cultural and artistic scene, providing subtle and sensitive, learned and comparative, incisive and eye-opening critical analyses not only of the wonderful works of such world-renowned Thai film directors as Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Anocha Suwichakornpong, but more importantly of the current cultural political mentality of the dominant largely Sino-Thai urban bourgeoisie, who, being culturally and ethnically removed and isolated from both their rural fellow countrymen and the Western intelligentsia, are blindly following and aping the withered octo-and-nonagenarian non-majoritarian royal-nationalist military-bureaucratic elite. It is only with these insights into the consciousness of this class that one can begin to understand the latest, 13th military coup of the country earlier this year and what future may lie ahead for retrojected Thainess and Thailand.

Kasian Tejapira เกษียร เตชะพีระ
Faculty of Political Science, Thammasat University


Apichat Satitniramai อภิชาต สถิตนิรามัย; Yukti Mukdawijitra ยุกติ มุกดาวิจิตร; and Niti Pawakapan นิติ ภวัครพันธุ์. 2013. Thobthuan phumithas kanmeuang Thai ทบทวนภูมิทัศน์การเมืองไทย [Re-examining the political landscape of Thailand]. Bangkok: Thailand Universities Healthy Public Policy. Thai Health Promotion Foundation (Thai Health).

Pasuk Phongpaichit; and Baker, Chris. 2004. Thaksin. Washington: University of Washington Press.

People Information Center [ศูนย์ข้อมูลประชาชนผู้ได้รับผลกระทบจากการสลายการชุมนุมกรณี เม.ย.-พ.ค. 53 (ศปช.)]. 2012. Khwamjing pheua khwamyutitham: Hetkan lae phonkrathob jak kansalai kanchumnum mesa-phreutsapha ความจริงเพื่อความยุติธรรม: เหตุการณ์ และผลกระทบจากการสลายการชุมนุมเมษา-พฤษภา 53 [Truth for justice: The April–May 2010 crackdown]. Bangkok: People Information Center.

Walker, Andrew. 2012. Thailand’s Political Peasants: Power in the Modern Rural Economy. Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press.