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Vol. 7, No. 1, BOOK REVIEWS, Chi P. PHAM


Contents>> Vol. 7, No. 1

The Penguin History of Modern Vietnam
Christopher Goscha
London: Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books, 2016.

The Penguin History of Modern Vietnam by Christopher Goscha traces the story of modern Vietnamese nationbuilding back thousands of years. The titles of its 14 chapters cover in chronological order events that are commonly seen as milestones in the forming of modern Vietnam: Chinese invasion (Chapter 1, “Northern Configurations”), French colonization (Chapter 2, “A Divided House and a French Imperial Meridian Line?”; Chapter 3, “Altered States”; Chapter 4, “Rethinking Vietnam”; Chapter 5, “The Failure of Colonial Republicanism”; and Chapter 6, “Colonial Society and Economy”), the First Indochina War (Chapter 7, “Contesting Empires and Nation-states”; Chapter 8, “States of War”; and Chapter 9, “Internationalized States of War”), the Vietnam War (Chapter 10, “A Tale of Two Republics”; and Chapter 11, “Towards One Vietnam”), and stories of a unified Vietnam (Chapter 12, “Cultural Change in the Long Twentieth Century”; Chapter 13, “The Tragedy and the Rise of Modern Vietnam”; and Chapter 14, “Vietnam from Beyond the Red River”). Nevertheless, amidst a wide range of scholarship about the history of modern Vietnam, Goscha’s The Penguin History of Modern Vietnam is unique in constantly stressing on the multiplicity of modern Vietnam’s past. Thus, it implicitly criticizes contemporary scholarship on Vietnamese history that has been produced under postcolonial theory and criticism by foreign scholars and under nationalist historiography by Communist Vietnamese historians.

Throughout the book Goscha uses synonyms for the word “multiplicity,” such as “plurality,” “diversity,” and “heterogeneity,” typical terms of postmodern literature, to highlight his vision of “multiple Vietnams.” Moreover, the author explicitly states in “Introduction: The Many Different Vietnams” that “rather than positing one Vietnam, one homogenous people, one history, one modernity, or even one colonialism, this book investigates modern Vietnam’s past through its multiple forms and impressive diversity” (p. xxx). Accordingly, as presented in the book, the history of Vietnam includes a series of interlocking forces and people; they occurred and acted at specific points in time and space, each generating its own range of possibilities and eliminating others at the same time. As evidence, the author begins his story of Vietnam’s past with “a mosaic of a hundred Vietnams” in the open zone running between present-day central Vietnam and Southern China, where diverse people, routes, and ideas intersected. For thousands of years, as Goscha describes, people arrived in the low-lying Red River basin via the eastern coast and overland; Austroasiatic peoples also arrived in this area by way of Southern China; and the Dong Son civilization, home to vibrantand diverse peoples and cultures, was constantly in rivalry and fragmentation.

Emphasizing pluralism in writing Vietnamese history, the book differentiates itself from existing scholarship about modern Vietnam, which exclusively celebrates the Vietnam of Ho Chi Minh—Vietnam as winner, as Ho Chi Minh, or in general as a Communist nation-state—and Vietnam of Western colonialism—modern Vietnam as the product of only Western colonialism. Instead, the history of Vietnam written by Goscha is derived from the perspectives of the “others” that are largely silenced in official Vietnamese historiography. Goscha calls these perspectives “thoughts of alternatives,” which are the perspectives of competitor states and their leaders, with whom Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnam had to engage and won over. These others, as shown in the first three pre-1858 chapters, include non-Viet peoples; and, as shown in the following five post-1858 chapters, include French Vietnam administered by different French colonialists, the Associated State of Vietnam led by Ngo Dinh Diem, the Republic of Vietnam forged by different presidents, and highland Vietnams managed by different men. Goscha believes that these alternative polities help to understand present-day Vietnam. This present-day Vietnam is characterized by Communist leaders authorizing a capitalist economy and inclusive nationalism since their official adoption of Reform policy, while ceaselessly maintaining the legitimacy of the single Party in “a post-communist world” through school texts, official histories, museums, billboards, and the media (pp. 484–485). Therefore, Goscha’s book definitely provides audiences in Vietnam with a new story of modern Vietnam in which voices of “the others” or the “alternatives” are counted as integral forces, a story that is different from the one written by Party historians.

Goscha’s history of modern Vietnam is groundbreaking also with its approach that goes beyond the Franco-centered one: Goscha affirms that today’s Vietnam is not only a product of French colonization but also of pre-French Asian empires’ expansions, and even of its own colonial history. In other words, understanding the modern Vietnams, according to Goscha, means recognizing that they have been constructed through the intersections of imperial projects of the Chinese, French, Vietnamese, Russians, and Americans. Accordingly, modern Vietnam started with the brief “Chinese colonization” in the early fifteenth century when the Ming created “gunpowder empires” and brought new forms of modernity, statecraft, and violence to the region while imposing direct political rule and cultural assimilation. Goscha’s belief in the plurality of modern Vietnam is evident also in his telling stories of reform-minded Vietnamese mandarins following models of economic, political, and scientific modernization from Japan and China for their nationalist projects. For Goscha, even during the French colonial period, French and European expansion was not the only source for creating a modern Vietnam; Asian connections were.

Interestingly, the way that Goscha tells stories about the pre-existing “Asian colonization” of “Vietnam” seems to echo historiographies of French-colonized Vietnam written by postcolonial scholars. In other words, Goscha’s stories about colonization and decolonization, regardless of time and space, follow similar directions: colonialists culturally, politically, and economically dominate their subjects with armed forces and cultural assimilation; in response, local elites maintain an anticolonial stance regardless of their ambiguous choice between resistance and colonial collaboration.When telling stories of Chinese colonization, Goscha uses terms and ideas that accord with those appearing in postcolonial analyses of French colonization. Reading chapters in which the author describes Chinese rule spreading aspects of Han culture into Jiaozhi, audiences would easily be reminded of accounts of the French colonialization of Vietnam in works by postcolonialist scholars such as David Marr, Nicola A. Cooper, and Gail Kelly. For example, Goscha tells the reader that the Ming conquest of Dai Viet was undertaken with brutal military force, modern weapon technologies, and discourses of natives as “barbarians”; in response, a certain segment of the Dai Viet elite joined the empire while other stook up arms to gain independence. Many Sinicized elites resisted the Chinese imperial expansion, but they also wanted to build a better life within the empire. These descriptions of Sinicized native elites during the Chinese colonization sound similar to accounts of politically, culturally, and economically ambiguous French-educated Vietnamese intellectuals in postcolonial works about Vietnam such as Vietnamese Tradition on Trial, 1920–1945 by David Marr and The Birth of Vietnamese Political Journalism: Saigon, 1916–1930 by Philippe Peycam.

Noticeably, Goscha points out, native leaders of pre-French Vietnam built a postcolonial Dai Viet based on the Chinese legacy of culture, military, civil service, and bureaucracy. As described, the Ming empire destroyed native intellectuality and culture but also modernized Dai Viet by introducing the Confucian canon, print technology, paper, a legal code, and notions of statecraft. While native leaders successfully repulsed Chinese colonization, they also took the colonizer’s Confucian culture, technology, statecraft, and economy as models in their postcolonial state-building: Le Loi and his successors promoted Confucian statecraft through the construction of more schools and academic institutions, the acceleration of the civil service examination program, and the promulgation of a law code with Confucian characteristics. This way of constructing postcolonial Dai Viet is similar to the way that leaders of the two republican Vietnams and the unified Vietnam, as Goscha describes in Chapters 10 and 11, built their postcolonial states. According to this view, the modernity of present-day Vietnam has multiple forms that were created at different points in time and space by multiple colonial forces; these forms “often blend with and build upon pre-existing ones” (pp. xxxiv); modernity coexists with the “pre-modern.” This approach argues against postcolonial scholarship about Vietnam, such as France in Indochina: Colonial Encounters by Nicola Cooper, Indochina: An Ambiguous Colonization, 1858–1954 by Pierre Brocheux and Daniel Hémery, and Print and Power: Confucianism, Communism, and Buddhism in the Making of Modern Vietnam by Shawn Frederick McHale. These works implicitly share the idea that the French were the sole force to create the history of modern Vietnam.

Another interesting point in Goscha’s story of modern Vietnam is that it is viewed from a comparative world history perspective. According to this view, the modern Vietnams are not historically exceptional; instead, they run parallel and are similar to modernizations of other states in the world. For example, Goscha notes that the process by which Vietnam entered into and extended its participation in the Chinese empire is similar to the way Gaul entered the Roman empire. As such, the “Vietnams” have, at different times and spaces, been products of larger historical processes in the world. In other words, the Vietnams have hardly ever been alone and isolated in the larger dynamic regional and world modernizations: they were either forced to participate in or actively participated in modernizing circles around them. As such, the history of modern Vietnam is part of the histories of the modern world at large.

The comparative world history perspective effectively allows Goscha to view “Vietnams” not as passive victims of foreign forces as commonly seen in existing scholarship about this country. Pre-French Vietnam and post-1975 unified Vietnam, for Goscha, are products of colonial expansion and modernizing forces themselves: Le Thanh Tong and Ming Mang were remarkable colonizers that modernized ethnic communities such as the Cham and Khmer, and unified Vietnam has been a colonizer of many ethnic minorities throughout the country. Goscha’s story of the modern Vietnams, including stories of how they were colonized and modernized by others and how they colonized and modernized others is groundbreaking. This groundbreaking position is especially true in the context of most existing scholarship by postcolonialist academics outside Vietnam viewingmodern Vietnam as a passive product of French colonization, and most existing scholarship by nationalist historians within Vietnam emphasizing the modern Vietnam as a victory of the Party’s effort. Overall, Goscha’s book offers alternative ways of looking into modern Vietnam that go beyond European modernization and Party consolidation.

Chi P. Pham
Institute of Literature (Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences)


Vol. 7, No. 1, BOOK REVIEWS, Yi LI


Contents>> Vol. 7, No. 1

Yearning to Belong: Malaysia’s Indian Muslims, Chitties, Portuguese Eurasians, Peranakan Chinese and Baweanese
Patrick Pillai
Singapore: ISEAS Publishing, 2015.

What are the experiences of ethnic minority communities in present-day Malaysia? How do they negotiate their often multiple and fluid identities with national policies and politics that are based primarily on ethnicity? Patrick Pillai, drawing on years of fieldwork in different locations in Peninsular Malaysia and long-term interactions with ethnic communities, provides valuable observations on not one, but five cases of less-studied minority communities in Yearning to Belong: Malaysia’s Indian Muslims, Chitties, Portuguese Eurasians, Peranakan Chinese and Baweanese. This book investigates Indian Muslims in Penang, Chitties and Portuguese Eurasians in Malacca, Peranakan-type Chinese in Terengganu, and Indonesians from Bawean Island, all in one volume. This itself is an admirable achievement as such a variety often comes from an edited volume by multiple contributors, yet Pillai manages to pull them all together, assembling historical backgrounds, second literatures, and firsthand data to create a panoramic picture of ethnic relationships in Malaysia today.

We start with the first group, Indian Muslims in Penang, in Chapter 1. After a brief history covering the precolonial and colonial eras, the chapter looks at the religious and cultural impacts of this long-standing Muslim community on Malaysian society, in the form of religious buildings, political leadership, and intellectual influence as well as aspects of everyday life such as food and language. It then focuses on the identity challenge of the community, which finds itself in an awkward position being Muslim yet not ethnic Malay (although the constitutional definition of Malay itself is not strictly an ethnic one). Due to this ethnic ambiguity, Indian Muslims are often classified into three different types of (non-)citizenship: Malay Muslim citizens, Indian Muslim citizens, and Indian Muslim permanent residents (non-citizens). The strict classification comes with significant differences in access to state resources. The rest of the chapter explores the difficulties and discriminations it brings, and some feasible solutions adopted by individual members.

Chapter 2 brings us to Malacca, a port renowned for it hybrid history and multiethnic heritage. It focuses on one minority group, the Chitties, or descendants of Hindu settlers from South Asia who arrived in Malacca around the time when Islam was introduced to the peninsula. This group, sometimes known as Peranakan Indians, maintained extensive interactions with other communities in Malacca and underwent a sequence of decline, dislocation, and dispersion under Portuguese, Dutch, and British colonial rule over the following five centuries. Like the Indian Muslims in Chapter 1, the Chitty community follows a highly hybrid tradition in its religious rituals, material culture, and performing arts. The interethnic exchange has been so extensive and complicated that in some cases the Peranakan Chinese, instead of other Indians (Chitties’ closer ethnic “relatives”) or Malays (the major group), functioned as its cultural intermediary (p. 49). Today the Chitty community, despite its shrinking population and diminished influence, has managed to keep a residential, religious, and ethnic space in the “Chitty village” near central Malacca and is actively seeking bumiputera (indigenous as recognized by the constitution) status for “land security, social recognition and economic opportunity” (p. 66) to cope with unfavorable ethnic policies and aggressive commercial developers.

Remaining in Malacca, Chapter 3 discusses the Portuguese Eurasians, who have managed to obtain bumiputera status, and their own identity search through another ethnic space, the Portuguese settlement on Malacca’s seafront where poor Eurasian fishermen live and work. The ancestors of Portuguese Eurasians came slightly later than the first arrivals of the Chitties, as a result of the Portuguese conquest of Malacca in 1511. As in so many other cases in this cosmopolitan port, its unique Portuguese cultural elements merged widely with the Malaysian culture in terms of food, costumes, language, and songs over centuries of intermingling, while Catholicism remained a defining feature. The most interesting part here is the community’s unconventional route to claim bumiputera status, with partial success (pp. 101–109). The process is not lacking controversy, especially when this was entangled with the changing agenda of the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the country’s ruling political player, in the mid-1980s to solicit wider support from non-Malay voters, and a personal interest taken by Mahathir, the most influential prime minister in postwar Malaysia. So far this is an unfinished story, as the community is now facing a potential intra-ethnic income gap (p. 109) and over-tourism (p. 92) in addition to continued efforts to obtain full recognition as bumiputera.

In Chapter 4 we move to Malaysia’s east coast and investigate the Peranakan-type Chinese in Terengganu. Terengganu is a Malay-majority state that has Thailand on its northern border (although this further layer of potential ethnic hybridity is only slightly touched upon in the chapter) and whose minority Chinese population accounts for merely 3 percent. Therefore, unlike other Peranakan or non-Peranakan Chinese from the west coast, the Chinese in Terengganu are often isolated from the mainstream Malaysian Chinese. Yet, recent historical discussions suggest that Terengganu, located on the historical China-Southeast Asia maritime corridor, might well be one of the earliest Chinese settlements on the peninsula, perhaps dating back to as early as the visit of Cheng Ho’s fleet in the fifteenth century. Today, the Terengganu Chinese experience differs by location (rural vs. urban) and by generation (grandparents and parents vs. youth), some contributing factors being access to Chinese-medium schools and improved transportation and social mobility. Remarkably, this is a community that does not utilize its multiple identities, as eligible as it might be, to seek social recognition in the constitutional framework. Instead, certain segments of the community are disappointed over prevailing policies (p. 143).

Perhaps the most unique story amongst all is of an Indonesian-origin group, the Baweanese, and their migration to and settlement in Peninsular Malaysia. The last chapter is based on Pillai’s 2005 doctoral thesis, with detailed fieldwork supplemented by follow-up visits in later years. Unlike other groups discussed so far, the Baweanese began migrating to Malaysia in the British colonial era and continued, almost without interruption, well into the current century. Originating from a tiny island in the Java Sea, the Baweanese have a long tradition of emigration to Singapore and Malaysia as workers as well as religious teachers. The labor shortage in Malaysia during its economic boom in the 1970s and 1980s brought a particularly large number of Baweanese workers. Although relative newcomers, the Baweanese are Muslim with close connections to the Malay majority historically, ethnically, and religiously. Therefore, the Baweanese case sheds new light on the road to bumiputera and its fluid nature. Starting from a less marginalized position, the community utilizes its multiple identities to form strategic working and social relationships with its Malay neighbors and colleagues. Still, it takes three generations to become a full-fledged Malay citizen of Malaysia (pp. 173–178), and a significant generational difference is ensured in terms of lifestyle, socioeconomic prospects, and realities.

Such an amalgamation is a result of years of painstaking fieldwork, long-term relationships with the communities, a deep understanding of their challenges, and firsthand experience of the country’s ethnic policies. As a journalist-turned-sociologist, Pillai is well positioned to bring these pieces together, often from an insider’s vantage point. In addition, his narrative interweaves a wide range of opinions from observers and actors on the ground, including scholars, politicians, community leaders, stakeholders, and members of the community. The rich information and easy-to-read style make the book a good read not only for academics who seek up-to-date case studies, but also the general public within and outside of the region who want to know more about intermingled communities in a multiethnic country and their shared experiences, past and present.

Running through all five cases is one core story: the process of assimilation and acculturation in an ethnicity-conscious country. Some common themes appear repeatedly, such as material culture, performing arts, religious practice, and communal festivities. Knowing the key position of assimilation and acculturation, Pillai defines them at the opening of the book, claiming that acculturation is “cultural change in the direction of another ethnic group” that can be mutual, while assimilation is “the adoption of the ethnic identity of another group, thus losing one’s original identity” and is one-way (p. xviii). However, readers may wonder why certain themes are categorized as leading to acculturation while others are considered to facilitate assimilation. What is the significance of each theme in our understanding of a community’s experience and identification? And if some themes are about acculturation and others are related to assimilation, what are the decisive factors that set them apart? If all themes appear to be cultural, then why, for instance, is religion more fundamental in defining an ethnic identity than is language or cuisine? Where does culture end and identity begin? Given the book’s numerous and succinct examples, it feels particularly important to further investigate these key concepts.

Despite the large amount of data collected by the author, in more than one case readers may find there could have been better-organized and more critical ways to present these valuable primary sources. For instance, narratives quoted from local historians on the early arrival of Indian Muslims in Penang could be further supported by archeological and textual evidence (p. 10), and the discussion of their contribution to popular Malay food might be supplemented with sources other than from the Internet (pp. 17–18). A large portion of the author’s participatory observations, questionnaires, and interview transcripts remain unprocessed in the appendix of some chapters. It might be worth further analyzing them and weaving the results into the main text.

Reading about all five communities’ challenges and adaptations, and the fascinating life stories of individual members, one wonders what exactly they are “yearning to belong to.” Pillai mentions that his motivation in writing this book is to highlight “shared histories and cultures, common universal spiritual values and . . . interlinked future” (p. xv). In the conclusion he reflects on Malaysia’s ethnicity-based policies and provides helpful recommendations to improve interethnic understanding and increase ethnic harmony. The ethnicity problem might have administratively started under the British colonial system (p. 206), but postwar politics continue to transform the ethnic minority communities’ collective identity. Apart from the Terengganu Chinese, all other communities in the book strategically employ their hybrid histories and fluid identities to maximize their political, economic, and social standing in a uniquely Malaysian way by obtaining constitutionally acknowledged bumiputera status, with various degrees of success. Indeed, apart from acculturation and assimilation via cultural channels, a process that has been convincingly elaborated in this book, perhaps we also want to further explore another vital element that determines the experience of postcolonial Malaysian minority communities, that is, the political influence of prevailing ethnicity-based policies. This single element, as the book has more than sufficiently revealed with details, above all defines the ethnic experience for minority communities in Malaysia and differentiates it from any other context. We may even ask whether, if there were no ethnicity-based policies, these communities would be the same as we see them today. Would they still yearn to belong, and if so, what would they want to belong to?

Yi Li 李轶
SOAS, University of London


Vol. 7, No. 1, BOOK REVIEWS, Gde Dwitya Arief METERA


Contents>> Vol. 7, No. 1

Electoral Dynamics in Indonesia: Money Politics, Patronage and Clientelism at the Grassroots
Edward Aspinall and Mada Sukmajati, eds.
Singapore: NUS Press, 2016.

A central theme in the debate regarding Indonesian politics after democratization concerns its underlying logic. Democracy qua institution promises a heightened mobilizational power of the demos, and thus some scholars argue the salience of political participation in contemporary Indonesian politics. The implication is that institutional logic underpins post-New Order Indonesia (Pepinsky and Ford 2014). Some other scholars, however, propose that democracy does not necessarily come with such empowerment of the people. The institutional effect of democracy can go hand in hand with oligarchy, defined as a form of politics where wealth defense is its central motive (Winters 2011). The financially endowed few, who wield disproportionate material power to protect their oftentimes non-democratic interest, can hijack democracy in this kind of politics (Hadiz and Robison 2004; Winters 2011). Indonesia after democratization, according to this camp of scholars, is one such case of entanglement between oligarchy and democracy. Not surprisingly, accompanying the presence of competitive elections since 1999 in Indonesia is the recurrent reference to “money politics,” especially at the local level (see, for example, Erb and Sulistyanto 2009).

The central contribution of Edward Aspinall and Mada Sukmajati’s edited volume is its pioneering effort to clarify such so-called money politics. More specifically, this remarkable book describes the varieties of electoral strategies that involve the distribution of material benefits as well as the central mechanism through which politicians wield their material power to win an election. These themes have arguably been neglected in the literature despite the abundant references to money politics in Indonesia.

The authors of the book operationalize money politics into concepts such as patronage and clientelism and scrutinize voter-politician linkages during Indonesia’s 2014 legislative election. Patronage is defined as the material benefit politicians distribute to voters in exchange for political support in the form of votes. Relatedly, clientelism is defined as a personalistic relationship within which that material benefit is distributed. Patronage distribution must meet three additional requirements, however, to qualify as clientelism. These requirements are: (i) reciprocity on the part of voters in the form of political support, (ii) the hierarchy of power relations between politicians and voters, and (iii) iteration, understood as the ongoing nature of their relationship (pp. 3–4).

With the distinction drawn between patronage and clientelism and their relationship made explicit, it is possible to conceive that not all patronage distributions qualify as clientelistic. Some are not clientelistic since not all patronage is reciprocated by political support in the form of votes. Also, very few practices of patronage distribution are built upon personalistic, face-to-face interaction between voters and candidates. Even fewer such distributions develop into ongoing relationships. These tensions inherent in patronage distribution, especially one regarding achieving reciprocity on the part of voters, are well captured by the analytical purchase of the two concepts. In addition, the two concepts enable us to ask empirical questions such as: What are the strategies that politicians employ to ensure reciprocity from voters? This excellent conceptual groundwork of the book serves as the foundation for a set of 22 empirical chapters documenting dynamics of patronage distribution during the 2014 election campaign. The rich and textured narratives in each chapter speak volumes about the rigorous ethnographic method the authors employ. Unifying all these chapters are several key findings that compose the primary value of the book.

First, the book codifies the varieties of patronage found during the grassroot campaigns. Of all possible forms of patronage, outright vote buying is the most common. A set of chapters covering West, Central, and East Java (Chapters 13, 14, 15, and 16) mainly document vote buying in remarkable detail, including the social legitimacy accorded to it by voters. Despite its illegality, voters accept the practice of vote buying and take it as either an expression of gratitude on the part of candidates or a means to punish their alleged corrupt behavior (pp. 245–247). The terms utilized to euphemize the distribution of money are numerous, including uang makan (food money), uang pulsa (money for mobile phone credit), uang lelah (literally “tired money,” meaning money to compensate for labor performed), and uang transport (transport money) (p. 93). This set of chapters is a novel contribution to the empirical literature on Indonesian electoral politics. Other varieties of patronage that the book registers include individual gifts to voters in the form of consumables and merchandise bearing the name and image of candidates, community services such as free medical checkups, club goods such as donations to targeted communities, and pork barrel projects.

Second, the book demonstrates that patronage distribution is not merely one among many campaign strategies of candidates in the 2014 legislative election. It is the dominant mode of campaigning. All chapters register the practice of patronage distribution as the dominant strategy, with only a few candidates trying to refrain from engaging in this practice. Even those candidates who pledge not to buy votes end up distributing some form of patronage (see Chapter 18 by Ahmad Muhajir, covering South Kalimantan). It is, therefore, largely a question of what kind of patronage candidates distribute rather than whether candidates engage in patronage distribution at all.

Third, the central mechanism of distributing patronage in Indonesia is dominantly informal networks of vote brokers rather than party machines. This intermediary actor between voters and politicians is commonly referred to as tim sukses, or success team. The informal networks of tim sukses are preferable to party machines since they often have close personal relationships with voters. These close relationships between tim sukses and voters elicit trust as well as “the feeling of gratitude and obligation” that helps mitigate the problem of reciprocity after patronage distribution (p. 29).

As the introduction of this review has mentioned above, the entanglement of democracy and oligarchy is a central theme in contemporary Indonesian politics, which this book helps to clarify. The cases of Blora and Southeast Sulawesi, for example, demonstrate that local oligarchs, or politico-business elites, are the dominant players in the election game (see Chapter 15 by Zusiana Elly Triantini, and Chapter 20 by Eve Warburton). In the case of Blora, they are the very actors that introduced vote buying in the 2004 legislative election. A decade after, vote buying had become an established practice in Blora (p. 252). Sabet, a local term in Blora for brokers, are the actors helping local oligarchs as candidates distributing patronage. This patronage might take the form of goods, cash, or even services such as holding a local volleyball competition (pp. 252–253).

Intensity of patronage distribution, however, does not guarantee victory to candidates. As Eve Warburton demonstrates in her excellent chapter on Southeast Sulawesi, a materially powerful local oligarch could lose despite the huge amount of money he distributed days before the election (pp. 348, 358–360). In the context of various candidates employing a similar strategy of patronage distribution, the strength of local networks that brokers mobilize makes a difference. Vote buying alone cannot guarantee victory since the amount of money that candidates wield to win an election does not necessarily correspond to the number of votes they project to gain. Candidates always get fewer votes than they initially expect. Thus, only candidates that have both money and active networks, or basis, come up victorious.

The book explicitly limits its aim to presenting descriptive accounts of the dynamics of patronage distribution. However, it is not without opportunities for theory building. These opportunities, unfortunately, are left unexploited and are only suggested as a further research avenue (pp. 34–37). For example, consider the following theoretical questions regarding the organizing logic underlying the distribution of patronage. Under a condition of the uncertainty of where and to whom to distribute patronage, what explains the decision of brokers to target a specific demographic and not others? Relatedly, under the condition of multiple patronage distribution from various candidates, what explains the decision of voters to cast votes for certain candidates and not others? It seems that ethnicity and religion play a significant role in answering these two related questions, as the cases of the legislative election in Medan and Bangka Belitung suggest (see Chapters 4 and 5 respectively). Brokers in the two regions tend to distribute patronage to targeted religious or ethnic groups that share their candidates’ ethnic or religious background. This strategy of ethno-religious targeting (pp. 74–77) is intended to ensure victory in areas that demonstrate potential as their voter base. Similarly, voters in the two regions in the context of patronage distribution by several candidates tend to cast their votes for candidates who share their religious or ethnic background.

This minor comment regarding a possible addition to the book should by no means be taken as discounting the value of the book. Aspinall and Sukmajati’s edited volume undoubtedly is a major empirical contribution to the study of Indonesian democracy as well as patronage and clientelism in the context of developing countries. Students of Indonesian electoral politics will engage and build their work upon this pioneering volume.

Gde Dwitya Arief Metera
Department of Political Science, Northwestern University


Erb, Maribeth; and Sulistyanto Priyambudi, eds. 2009. Deepening Democracy in Indonesia? Direct Elections for Local Leaders (Pilkada). Singapore: ISEAS.

Hadiz, Vedi; and Robison, Richard. 2004. Reorganizing Power in Indonesia: The Politics of Oligarchy in the Age of Market. London and New York: RoutledgeCurzon.

Pepinsky, Thomas; and Ford, Michele, eds. 2014. Beyond Oligarchy: Wealth, Power, and Contemporary Indonesian Politics. Ithaca: Southeast Asia Program Publication, Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University.

Winters, Jeffrey Alan. 2011. Oligarchy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Vol. 7, No. 1, BOOK REVIEWS, LE Hoang Anh Thu


Contents>> Vol. 7, No. 1

Essential Trade: Vietnamese Women in a Changing Marketplace
Ann Marie Leshkowich
Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2014.

Bến Thành Market, where Ann Marie Leshkowich did her field research for Essential Trade: Vietnamese Women in a Changing Marketplace, is the most famous market in Ho Chi Minh City. Built more than 100 years ago and still standing at the heart of the city, this market and its iconic clock tower are a familiar sight for all Saigonese, domestic and overseas tourists, or simply anyone who has read a guidebook about Ho Chi Minh City. The market still holds firm to its reputation as a traditional Vietnamese market, where transactions of goods and money have never ceased since its opening in 1914 under the French colonial regime. As a long-standing market that has witnessed myriad political, economic, and social transformations in Ho Chi Minh City, Bến Thành Market was a fruitful site for Leshkowich to conduct her research on commercial activities, social and political transformations, petty traders’ trading practices, and subjectivity formation during a turbulent period of shifting to socialism and to post-socialism in southern Vietnam.

Starting her fieldwork in 1988, when Renovation (Đổi Mới) started and gradually reformed Vietnam’s socialist economy into a market economy following a socialist direction, Leshkowich observed myriad transformations in politics, government, and state regulations targeting private businesses. Alongside these vigorous changes, Leshkowich encountered many timeless claims about gender, trade, class, kinship, and social relations that were constantly reproduced in state narratives and in public perceptions about women petty traders. Intriguingly, these forms of essentialism were also internalized by the petty traders themselves in their daily work and social interactions, although many of these essentialist perceptions about their trade and womanhood did not match the reality; some even denigrated them as ignorant, low-class, superstitious, greedy, and incapable of being virtuous mothers and wives.

In her book Leshkowich explores essentialist perceptions about gender, class, and trade that traders used to talk about themselves, and which the government used to classify traders as low class and trade as a feminine activity. However, instead of completely accepting or debunking these essentialist claims, Leshkowich uses essentialism as an analytical lens that offers an insightful understanding of traders’ formation of subjectivity in response to these dominant social and cultural conceptions about their gender, class, and trade. Leshkowich argues that women traders embody and enact these essentialized claims about their gender and trade to become socially legible subjects who can react meaningfully to the social, political, and economic circumstances that they are enmeshed in. In so doing, they also manage to secure a strategic advantage for their businesses during highly volatile political and economic periods.

The seven chapters of the book gradually unfold Leshkowich’s engaging ethnography, theoretically integrating discussions and analyses on the operations of essentialist perceptions about gender, class, family, kinship, and social relationships in southern Vietnam’s marketplace, and how these ideologies are enacted and performed by women petty traders in their everyday work to cultivate a socially desirable gendered and classed subjectivity. All the chapters are eloquently interconnected by the same characters appearing several times in the book, giving the reader an easy-to-follow storyline and many opportunities to get to know the traders and their world by turning the pages.

In Chapter 1 Leshkowich carves out the setting in which the traders’ stories will be developed. This chapter chronicles the history of Bến Thành Market since its construction following the French colonial regime’s master plan to civilize and modernize the Vietnamese indigenous trade. The chapter discusses space-human interactions by illustrating how the market’s space was eventually transformed by stallholders and their ways of doing business to become an icon of Vietnam’s traditional chợ (marketplace). Stallholders who inhabited such a traditional space were also naturalized as those who performed traditional kinds of trade.

Chapter 2 introduces the reader to the essentialism about gender and trade, which is a theme that recurs in the following chapters. It tells the story of the socialist government’s configuration of commerce in the south right after 1975. During this immediate postwar period, women had more advantages than men in owning market stalls to earn a living for their families. This endorsement of women’s trade was based on the socialist state’s belief in a naturalized notion that women were an underclass whose productive activities were merely to support their own families and thus were not associated with bourgeois capitalism. This movement led to petty trade being dominated by women, and thus further reinforced the essentialized beliefs that women, unlike men, had the natural skills for trade, and that petty trade was naturally a woman’s domain. By defining petty trade as a feminine activity, the socialist state reshaped southern Vietnam’s political economy. In response to this, women stallholders consciously internalized the state-endorsed narrative that entangled trade, class, and gender as a strategy to secure their businesses during this difficult period.

Chapters 3, 4, 5, and 6 characterize personal and social networks that have a direct impact on women’s trade, and discuss how through their performance of these interpersonal relations for pragmatic reasons, as well as for conformity to gender essentialism, women enact a socially recognizable gendered, relational, moral, and classed subjectivity. Chapter 3 describes the family nature of many businesses operated in Bến Thành Market. Leshkowich points out that while familism reflects traders’ performance of the naturalized perception of Vietnamese people as being family oriented, it is also traders’ pragmatic response to the postwar social and political circumstances. In keeping their stalls looking “small” and classified as family businesses, stallholders defend their enterprises from appearing “capitalist.” Their family businesses are also evidence of their conformity to the state-idealized image of a Vietnamese cultured family as an economic unit and a repository of Vietnamese traditional values and culture amid the threat from a Western market economy, excessive materialism, and individualism. By presenting themselves and their stalls surrounding this rhetoric of traditional family-centeredness, women traders bestow a sense of virtue upon their identities as traders, whose morality is often questionable in Vietnamese traditional thought.

Continuing the discussion in Chapter 3, Chapter 4 portrays the rich personalistic network that traders rely on to facilitate their businesses. This chapter characterizes the binary of inside and outside in the Vietnamese conceptualization of social relationships. Leshkowich argues that this essentialist distinction between inside and outside is, in reality, made in fluid and permeable ways by the traders to grow their networks, sustain and develop their businesses, and make the marketplace appear not just as a harsh environment for profit-seeking but also a community infused with an ethic of care and feminine sensibility. While relying on their “inside” network of kin for assistance, stallholders also focus on turning “outsiders” such as customers, competitors, creditors, or moneylenders into “insiders” by cultivating mutual obligations, sentiment, and trust. Leshkowich concludes that in utilizing insider tactics to cope with the uncertainties and anxieties of doing trade under market socialism, traders are also crafting a sense of self infused with feminine care and morality.

Chapter 5 discusses one of the prominent outsiders in the traders’ network, which is the government. In describing disputes over resources between traders and cadres, this chapter opens up a complex discussion on memory of war, postwar differentiation in status and class between non-revolutionary traders and revolutionary cadres, and traders’ experiences of market socialist governmentality during Renovation. This chapter unfolds many unexpected twists of analysis and narrative. For example, traders’ warning about wandering ghosts inside Bến Thành Market was in fact a metaphor for the never-diminishing existence of the state’s control. Wandering ghosts also speak to the lingering memory of the war, and the postwar hardship and humiliation that many traders and their families experienced. This chapter makes a valuable contribution to the literature of gender and war in Vietnam, especially when it highlights the voices of people whose memory of war is marginalized in official history making. Leshkowich argues that gender essentialism was again drawn upon by both women traders and the government in their narratives of the present conflicts, to conceal and divert attention from the unspeakable past tensions between them. This argument would benefit from further development as it may illustrate another dimension in traders’ formation of gendered subjectivity through their embeddedness in the present connections with male authorities, while delving into the memories of their past aspirations and social status.

Chapter 6 turns to another dimension in the everyday interpersonal relations of traders, which is with spirits and deities. Spiritual activities enable traders to inculcate a moral and caring femininity that conforms to social and cultural expectations. They also reinforce the commonly held image of female traders as superstitious, weak, and ignorant. This image, however, affords women a protective rhetoric for their status as traders. Engagement in spiritual practice turns the marketplace into a community where care, obligation, and sentiment are cultivated not only between humans but also between humans and spirits.

The seventh chapter nicely bundles up elements of gender, class, subjectivity, traders’ social and political status, and socialist governmentality into an elaborate discussion on class making and classed subjectivity. Leshkowich draws attention to the contradiction between the socialist ideologies of “class-ification” and the actual process of class making and class performance, which both the state and women traders pursue for their own needs and advantages. The book closes with an epilogue where Leshkowich’s narrative zooms back out to an overview of Bến Thành Market as a marketplace and an icon of traditional petty trade, and how it is positioned in the redevelopment plans of Ho Chi Minh City in the 2000s. Through updates on what has happened to the market and its traders, the epilogue shows that Bến Thành Market continues to embody both timelessness and change.

Essential Trade is a fantastic ethnography of the everyday life of women petty traders in Ho Chi Minh City, and an important contribution to the literature on southern Vietnam’s society, history, and economy. It offers a brilliant analysis and insightful understanding of commercial practice, gender dynamics, class making, social stratification, and the operations of socialism and post-socialism in people’s lives. One aspect that may benefit from further exploration is the empowerment that women get from owning a business and playing an important economic role in their families. Leshkowich briefly mentions the potential empowering aspect of matrilineal familism in trade, in the ways women traders create jobs for relatives, afford middle-class lifestyles for their own families, and mobilize their husbands to help them at their stalls as well as in household tasks. It would be intriguing to find out how women traders balance their internalization of gender essentialism with their obvious economic power in their performance of a socially acceptable gendered subjectivity as family-oriented moral and caring women. Further exploration may reveal a dimension of gendered subjectivity that is formed through negotiations between power and modesty, or between the enactments of timeless feminine traits in their interactions with the “outside” society versus the “inside” kin network.

Le Hoang Anh Thu
College of Asia Pacific Studies, Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University


Vol. 7, No. 1, BOOK REVIEWS, William B. NOSEWORTHY


Contents>> Vol. 7, No. 1

Animism in Southeast Asia
Kaj Århem and Guido Sprenger, eds.
London and New York: Routledge, 2017.

Animism in Southeast Asia is a rich study that reaches well beyond the bounds of regional and disciplinary expertise. Surely, anthropologists of religion in Southeast Asia will have some commentary on the work, but so should scholars who work in the fields of global history, anthropology, sociology, religious studies, politics and society, and any number of subdisciplines. The rich comparative approach between Amerindian—in particular, Amazonian along with Ojibwe—animism and Southeast Asian animism broadens the possibilities of analysis for experts who work in East, South, and Central Asia, and the Middle East as well as African contexts. It would be useful for courses such as “Introduction to World Religions” and “Asian Religions in a Global Perspective,” and a necessity for courses on the study of Southeast Asian religions. While most individuals understand animism to be the worship of animal spirits, and many would still posit there are particular pejorative connotations to the usage of the term, even when the term is used without such intent, Animism in Southeast Asia completely reforms the foundations of the study of animism through a collection of detail-driven case studies and theoretical revelations.

Animism in Southeast Asia is conveniently organized for ease of use. With theoretical discussions by Tim Ingold, Kaj Århem, and Guido Sprenger bookending the work, it is divided into two simple parts by nature of the location of the case studies. In the first part, readers will find case studies from mainland Southeast Asia and the Philippines, while in the second part they will find case studies from insular Southeast Asia. There are absences in the work, as with any single volume attempting to cover the vast diversity of Southeast Asia, a region that boasts a significant variety of large, well-known religious communities (Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, and so on) and where the most popular traditions have hundreds of millions of adherents. Furthermore, it is a well-known fact that the politics of Southeast Asian governments often put bounds upon the limits of scholarly inquiry. Cases from the study of animism in Burma and Thailand are conspicuously absent from the current collection. That said, this is a strong collection of essays that provide valuable studies of many understudied communities in Southeast Asia. For example, Signe Howell’s study on the Chewong upland minority of Peninsular Malaysia provides rich stories associated with the solidification and explanation of animistic practices, as well as an innovative rethinking of animistic ontology based upon the Chewong conception of the ruwai, which Howell takes to be “analogous to ‘the Fruit’” from Karl Marx’s discourse on The Holy Family (p. 69). The ruwai in this sense is a critical otherworldly substance that can present itself in various “thisworldly” forms, as it were, ranging from an elephant, to a leaf monkey, or a rambutan fruit.

After Howell’s study of the Chewong, Animism in Southeast Asia moves toward an explanation of personhood, particularly among the Rmeet community in upland Laos, in which Sprenger expertly highlights how interethnic relations are transformed and transposed upon interspecies relationships in animist conceptions of the cosmological order in Rmeet religious understanding. This, in turn, is followed by two studies among the Katu of Vietnam and the Central Annamite Cordillera, by Kaj Århem and Nikolas Århem respectively. The particularly innovative theoretical work of Kaj Århem, in this case, draws upon the Katu practices of animism to propose a distinction between symmetric (restricted) exchange and asymmetric (unrestricted) exchange, as they are practiced in animist worlds, and what the implications of this difference might be. As Århem posits:

Symmetric and asymmetric worlds are curved cosmologies, to borrow a natural science metaphor. Elementary social facts such as exchange, reciprocity, and notions of intersubjectivity take fundamentally different shapes in the two worlds. So also, the idea of predation and its human form, hunting—with great implications for notions of existential security, illness and curing, and human-animal relations: in a symmetric world, hunting and the consumption of game food carry the threat of counter-predation, a possibility which is ruled out—perhaps inconceivable—in an asymmetric world. However, in both worlds, the conceptualization of the human-animal relationship is diagnostic of their particular forms of animism. (p. 111)

In a volume of detailed theoretical explorations, Århem’s suggestions about the problem of the hunter in an animist community, calls readers to entirely rethink what they thought they knew about animism. Drawing upon the example of hunting practices, the distinction between the symmetric and asymmetric types of animism becomes clear. It is also through substantial comparative work in the Amazon that Århem is able to take the position that there are different forms of shamanism in Southeast Asia and Latin America, a position that he clarifies later in the volume.

The issue of the problems created by the relationship between animistic spirits and humans is taken up in Jon Henrik Ziegler Remme’s study of Ifugao communities in the Philippines. In the end, Remme posits that there are two ontological life forms of animistic spirits or essences: one that humans can perceive, and one that humans cannot (p. 151). Although the book then moves on to studies in insular Southeast Asia other than the Philippines, after Remme’s contribution—with a notable study of Bentian Dayak communities put forward by Kenneth Sillander—the question of human-spirit relations remains as a theme moving forward. However, Sillander shifts the focus of the conversation by emphasizing the sets of taboos and “precepts of adat”—often described by scholars as “customary law”—that further shape the contours of these relationships. Monica Janowski then shifts the location and emphasis of the conversation again, by focusing on beliefs about spirits among the Kelabit and Penan of the upper Baram River in Sarawak state, Malaysia, on the island of Borneo. Janowski provides a useful thematic categorization or, rather, typology of the spirits of Sarawak, examining spirits of humans, animals, trees, places, and hard objects to build substantial evidence leading to at least two major theoretical suggestions. The first suggestion highlights the position of grain crops in establishing the relative “separateness” of human society from the natural world, in a sense, while the second questions the long-standing categories of “physical” and “interior”—positing instead a relational understanding of the animist features of Penan and Kelabit cosmology (p. 199).

The final four case studies in Animism in Southeast Asia dance across the island world, although they remain mostly in the eastern archipelago. Matthew H. Amster’s research on animism and anxiety focuses on the Kelabit of Sarawak. Timo Kaartinen’s study of the boundaries of humanity is also concentrated in the eastern archipelago, although it focuses on the animism of the Kei Islands in Eastern Indonesia. Sven Cederroth’s study then island-hops to provide a rich, thick description of the cosmological order of the gods and spirits of Wetu Telu communities in the Lombok region of Nusa Tenggara Barat Province, Indonesia. This study is particularly innovative as Cederroth has taken care to record and translate prayers, providing beautifully fluid English-language versions that could be cited as primary source material in university-level teaching. Similarly, David Hicks’s comparative work on the myth cycles of the peoples of Sumbawa, Flores, Kei, the Alor Peninsula, and Timor provides rich, accessible source material for studies on Eastern Indonesia. Furthermore, Hicks highlights a series of motifs that emerge across these narratives: water, life and abundance/plentitude, an instrument of impalement or entrapment, the quest, the social/familial relationship, deception, and visibility/invisibility. The themes help to construct how Hicks thinks about animism from a theoretical perspective, but it is also important to highlight that they demonstrate a particularly useful and important method of comparative narrative analysis, which scholars may well find useful in other contexts.

In the concluding chapter of Århem’s substantial contributions to the Animism in Southeast Asia volume, the author highlights two forms of shamanism: one Southeast Asian and the other Amazonian, made possible at least in part by Århem’s over three decades of expertise on the subject. In the portrayal of these two types of shamanism, Århem points directly to their different forms of spirit possession. In the Southeast Asian form, Århem highlights that the spirit essence is an external presence that enters the shaman/medium as a receiving subject and acts through them. This contrasts with Amazonian shamanism, where the animal spirit physically transforms the shaman into the actual spirit during the ritual. In other words, in Amazonian shamanism “ritual possession” is “ritual transformation by an animal spirit,” whereas in Southeast Asia “ritual possession” is just that—possession by an external force. His point is well taken, although it does raise the question of whether Århem is willing to consider Hmong shamanism a Southeast Asian tradition. It is possible that Århem considers Hmong shamanism an East Asian tradition, and therefore under a different field of study. At the same time, because of the substantial Hmong population of Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, there are many scholars who would consider Hmong shamanism a Southeast Asian tradition. The reason this point is notable is because, unlike other forms of Southeast Asian shamanism that fit Århem’s model, in Hmong shamanism the shamans themselves travel into the spirit world to commune with spirits in another realm, and hence the relationship between the shaman and the non-human world takes on a third form that is not comparable to either of Århem’s Amazonian or Southeast Asian models.

While there is much more to these distinctions than can be briefly summarized in this space, Århem and Sprenger’s work has begun a useful conversation, especially since colleagues in the field of religious studies, history, and Southeast Asian studies might view Århem’s theories as provocative findings, pushing toward a comparative understanding of Southeast Asia and Latin America, and a deep analysis of Southeast Asian religious communities.

William B. Noseworthy
Department of History, University of Wisconsin-Madison


Vol. 7, No. 1, BOOK REVIEWS, Dat Manh NGUYEN


Contents>> Vol. 7, No. 1

The Divine Eye and the Diaspora: Vietnamese Syncretism Becomes Transpacific Caodaism
Janet Alison Hoskins
Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2015.

Founded in 1926 in colonial Cochinchina, Caodaism remains one of the least understood Vietnamese religious traditions. Although the Great Temple of Caodaism in Tây Ninh attracts thousands of visitors each year, most people stop at an impressionistic understanding of the tradition, marveling at the colorful architecture, the eclectic veneration of Eastern and Western religious figures, and elaborate ceremonies. However, carved into this spectacle is a story of religious imagination and political schisms, of struggles against colonization, of desires for national sovereignty and reconciliation, and of the establishment of a global Vietnamese community in the diaspora. Janet Hoskins’s The Divine Eye and the Diaspora: Vietnamese Syncretism Becomes Transpacific Caodaism provides us with a comprehensive and sympathetic study of Caodaism and its connection to the struggles of the Vietnamese people, in both Vietnam and the diaspora.

Based on 10 years of fieldwork in California and Vietnam, and interviews with Caodaists in France, Canada, Cambodia, and Australia, Hoskins tells two narratives, one of the historical development of Caodaism in colonial French Indochina and the other of the postwar diaspora of Caodaists and their projects of developing a global Caodaism that is “at once cosmopolitan and indigenous” (p. 6). Hoskins interweaves these two narratives by presenting five paired biographies (Chapters 1 through 5) of members of the founding generation and their followers or descendants in California. Such a historical-ethnographic approach provides readers with a sense of how the colonial past informs and inspires the contemporary development of present Caodaist practices and institutions in the context of postwar diaspora.

The Divine Eye presents significant contributions to the examination of Vietnamese syncretic and transnational religion. Examining the biographies of the founding members of Caodaism in colonial Indochina, Hoskins dispels the characterization of Caodaism as a peasant “traditionalist movement” founded on confusing and “outrageous syncretism” of both Eastern and Western elements, including Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Christianity, and European Spiritism (Fitzgerald 1972). Rather, she argues, Caodaism “represented a conversion to a kind of modernity” in which “Caodaists . . . wanted to sit as equals with Catholic religious leaders, to have their own Vatican and their own high-ranking clergy, and thus have Vietnamese spirituality recognized on the same plane as the faith of their French colonial masters” (p. 5). This argument is noteworthy considering that the founding members of Caodaism were educated in French institutions and/or held appointments within the French colonial administration.

Early Caodaists were particularly conscious and selective in their incorporation of Western cultural and religious elements in their vision of Caodaism. On the one hand, while Caodaism includes Jesus in its pantheon to represent the way of the saints (đạo thánh), the son of God is relegated to the third level of spiritual practices, underneath the Buddha, Lao Tzu, and Confucius. On the other hand, French historical figures, such as Victor Hugo and Jeanne D’Arc, were venerated because these figures had either engaged in Spiritist practices or demonstrated anticolonial sentiments and sympathy toward the subjugated subjects. As Caodaism was created based on the practice of spirit sénance, both in the Chinese tradition of phoenix basket writing and French Spiritism, important religious figures and French historical figures were said to have communicated directly with the Vietnamese people and endowed them with a vision of a new millenarian religion that redeemed them as the chosen people who would lead the world spiritually (p. 83). Thus, the historical founding of Caodaism demonstrates a form of historical consciousness—one in which colonial subjects not only claim the same status for their Asian traditions as Western ones, but also attempt to transcend the Western façade of modernity and create a modernity with a more encompassing Eastern spiritual doctrine (p. 5). Building on theories of religious syncretism and religious fields (Chen 2010; Goossaert and Palmer 2011), Hoskins argues that Caodaism represents a form of explicit syncretism—the conscious project of mixing and combining different traditions to produce new doctrines and a new religious field in which religious elements are hierarchized, as opposed to idiosyncratic and instrumental implicit syncretism—whose goal is to create a self-defensive religious field against colonial encroachment on Vietnamese tradition and religion (p. 15).

Of course, there were competing visions of what constituted Caodaism. Hoskins’s reading of the biographies of the five founding members of Caodaism reveals the conflicting personalities and agendas of Caodaist leaders and how these were situated within the shifting socio-political contexts of South Vietnam from the early 1920s to the fall of Saigon in 1975. Chapter 1 of The Divine Eye tells the story of Ngô Văn Chiêu, the “invisible” founder of Caodaism who had the first contact with the Supreme Being Cao Đài in the shape of a radiant Left Eye. While seen by many Caodai followers as the founder of Caodaism, he declined to take on the position of the “Pope” (Giáo Tông) and subscribed instead to a life of ascetic meditation (p. 41). The institutionalization of Caodaism was subsequently developed by Phạm Công Tắc, whose flamboyant and charismatic leadership is discussed in Chapter 2. A French-educated Saigon Spiritist and a civil servant, Phạm Công Tắc played an essential role in crafting the Caodai official declaration in 1926, in compiling the Caodai Religious Constitution based on his direct communication with the divine, in establishing the Caodai Holy See in Tây Ninh, and in composing spiritual messages in the Romanized cursive of Quốc Ngữ (pp. 71, 78). Different from the quietist Ngô Văn Chiêu, Phạm Công Tắc developed a modernist millenarianism that relied on divine guidance to establish religious authorities and mobilize the masses against colonial rule (pp. 71–72). His leadership produced schisms within Caodaism and increasing Caodaist engagement in the political sphere.

From the early 1940s, Caodaists witnessed the establishment of the Caodai military forces under the leadership of Trần Quang Vinh, the adopted spiritual son of Victor Hugo featured in Chapter 3. The fate of Caodaists from 1940 to 1975 was determined by the shifting alliances among Caodai forces, the French, the Japanese, the Viet Minh, the Communists, and the South Vietnamese government that during critical junctures led to the killing of many Caodaists, the exile of Phạm Công Tắc, and attacks on Caodai leadership and establishments. The Fall of Saigon in 1975 resulted in an exodus of South Vietnamese, a large number of whom were Caodaists, to North America, Europe, and Australia. Among these Caodaists was Đỗ Vạn Lý, featured in Chapter 4, an intellectual educated in Japan and the United States who served as a diplomat under South Vietnamese President Ngô Đình Diệm and who established the Caodai Saigon Teaching Agency dedicated to the teaching of meditation, religious doctrine, and esoteric philosophy (pp. 132, 134). The Teaching Agency, still operating today in Ho Chi Minh City, declared no affiliation to the Holy See in Tây Ninh and promoted a form of intellectual Caodaism that does not rely on religious hierarchy and titles (p. 134).

In the diaspora, Caodaists have been called by the divine to reestablish Caodaism. They continue to face disagreements over theology, religious practices, and institutional arrangements, while attempting to innovate and construct a Caodaism that is transnational in nature. Across Chapters 1 through 5, but particularly in Chapter 6, Hoskins documents how Caodaists in the United States have been able to use the resources of the diasporic community and of virtual technology to establish various Caodai temples in California, and to reach out and gain new followers, including those who are not Vietnamese. For many of these “converts,” Caodaism offers a universal message of unity, redemption, and forgiveness (pp. 198–202). For the Vietnamese, Caodaism has been transformed from a “religion in diaspora”—that is, a religion of the people who were displaced as “victims” of the Vietnam War—into a “religion of diaspora” reformulated based on the 1926 prophecy given by the Supreme Being Cao Đài, designating the Vietnamese as the chosen people who would “become the master teacher of all humanity” (p. 147). Caodai’s millenarian, syncretistic, and universalist message provides overseas Vietnamese with a sense of connection to both the religiously and ethnically plural American society and the international network of Vietnamese in Vietnam and abroad (p. 231). This is not to say that all Caodaists abroad have a fond opinion of the Communist government and even the Caodai Holy See in Vietnam. In fact, Caodaist leaders abroad are divided in terms of their relationship with the Hanoi government and the Holy See, with leaders like Trần Quang Cảnh (Chapter 3) attempting to work with the Communist government and get Caodai temples in California to be affiliated with the Holy See, and others vehemently criticizing such an attempt.

Rich in historical-ethnographic data, The Divine Eye provides scholars of Southeast Asia with a nuanced and sympathetic understanding of the syncretic tradition of Caodaism. Hoskins engages with and builds on the scholarship of religious syncretism and transnationalism, examining not only the historically conditioned process of religious imagination, but also how diasporic communities rearticulate and rework religious messages and boundaries to “manage and overcome religious differences and geographical challenges.” Readers of The Divine Eye will also appreciate the documentary on Caodaism produced by Janet and Susan Hoskins in 2008 as a companion to the book. While Janet Hoskins has conducted interviews with Caodaists in Canada, France, and Australia, little of these non-US materials are presented in the book. Moreover, since she focuses predominantly on Caodai leaders, the voices of ordinary Caodaists are not heard. The Divine Eye portrays Caodaism as a rather elitist project formulated by colonial French-educated intellectuals who aspired for a particular form of Asian modernity. What were—and are—the motivations for ordinary practitioners of Caodaism to participate in the religion? If they were to aspire for a form of modernity, would their understanding of modernity be similar to that of the anticolonial intellectual elites? And how would the “conversion” process to Caodaism by ordinary Caodaists differ from that of intellectual Caodaists, and more interestingly, how would it differ from that of Christian conversion in both colonial and contemporary Vietnam? Despite these shortcomings, The Divine Eye is a remarkable contribution to a rather thin scholarship on Vietnamese religious and diasporic studies.

Dat Manh Nguyen
Department of Anthropology, Boston University


Chen, Kuan-Hsing. 2010. Asia as Method: Toward De-imperialization. Durham: Duke University Press.

Fitzgerald, Frances. 1972. Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

Goossaert, Vincent; and Palmer, David. 2011. The Religious Question in Modern China. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hoskins, Janet; and Hoskins, Susan. 2008. The Left Eye of God: Caodaism Travels from Vietnam to California. 54 minutes. DVD Documentary. Documentary Educational Resources.


Vol. 7, No. 1, BOOK REVIEWS, Dinah ROMA


Contents>> Vol. 7, No. 1

Writing the South Seas: Imagining the Nanyang in Chinese and Southeast Asian Postcolonial Literature
Brian Bernards
Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2015.

Wrought from Water: “Nanyang” as Transoceanic Imaginary of the South Seas

This book is one of expanse. Of waterways, currents, borders shifting over time with the sheer influx of people, the aspirations that propelled their journeys, settlements evolving into communities and cultures, the slow, hesitant returns to places of origin, the fertile rain forests not only of their imaginations but of an entire ecological system—all these serve as the scaffold to the recent book by Brian Bernards, Writing the South Seas: Imagining the Nanyang in Chinese and Southeast Asian Postcolonial Literature.

Writing the South Seas is not only a remarkable inventory of the discursive productions articulating the Nanyang as a literary trope but inescapably a work on travel theory which resonates with recent retrievals of travel writings under a new critical lens. For a long time, travelogues were relegated to the category of “subliterary.” They were adjudged mediocre for not being on a par with so-called serious literature. Their style and intent cut across disciplinal fields that defied easy categorization into conventional genres. But it is basically this discursive ambivalence that renders these narratives a fertile source of sociocultural extrapolations. Orientalism, for instance, as it is invoked in this book underlies a production of knowledge of the South Seas as an imagined geography by imperial China. Such a construct was circulated by earlier explorers and perpetuated through various time periods.

Moreover, the theme of movement as it is indelibly captured in the Nanyang imaginary is further engaged in Writing the South Seas for its variations—upward mobility, return voyages, extended passages—against the multifaceted circumstances that spurred them. Hence, what permeates this entire volume is a maritime vocabulary representing not only the physical passages of people across the seas but, more important, the consequent traversals occurring in the realm of culture, language, and literature as Chinese immigrants adapt to a new environment. The result is a rich tapestry of writings that embody the experiential gamut of Chinese immigrants physically uprooted from their place of ancestry but unfailingly re-visioning a world amidst the changes.

It is here that Bernards’s work achieves a veritable contribution to the growing work on Southeast Asian postcolonial literatures as he surveys the spectrum of writings that materialized from a century (1850s–1940s) of voyaging to the South Seas of almost 20 million Chinese, mostly from cities in Southern China such as Amoy, Swatow, and Hainan Island. This was a crucial historical time of colonial and national upheavals that coincided with the opening of strategic oceanic pathways for maritime exploration and mercantile goals. For many others, the arduous crossing was simply in pursuit of a dream of a brighter future.

The key destinations were Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and Thailand, where earlier heavy Chinese influence could be traced. Looking at the map that opens the book reveals at once the extent of the outward movement from China into the South Seas. The thickest passage can be glimpsed where the waters are most unimpeded, the direction effortless, perhaps borne by the current winds, guided by the nightly constellation, driven by the utter need to discover a new frontier. This was how new vistas were opened: the life-changing passage, the perseverance, and, most of all, the steadfast imagining.

To chart the scholarly command undergirding Bernards’s work is akin to the perils and triumphs of navigating the seas: one can get lost in its immensity. But Bernards, in this feat of a book, systematically provides his readers with anchors in appreciating the complex cultural and literary configurations by which Nanyang, as a literary trope, has been discursively inscribed into the future lives of Chinese voyagers, emigrants, and settlers. At the outset, Bernards disabuses his readers of the use of “Southeast Asia” as it has recently been made fashionable. Arguing that many of today’s geographical delineations are creations of Western hegemony, Bernards insists on a far-reaching view of how the waters, in their fluid state, make the notion of geography more malleable.

Yet it is not as if the South Seas—the itinerary, the place of destination—was an altogether uninhabited region for China. It had been imagined as the “fantastical realm of ‘southern barbarians’ in the patriarchal worldview of imperial China” (p. 30). Also, its etymology as a maritime zone locates it as “outside of civilization” (p. 15). But how the transformative passage of the Chinese forged the South Seas into the literary trope of the “Nanyang” demands a closer look at the process of displacement, encounters, and exchanges, the inadvertent commingling of cultures. Bernards, in illuminating the book’s conceptual framework, lays out terms such as “hybridity,” “diaspora,” and “multiculturalism” to highlight how these may fall short of capturing the dynamism intrinsic in the Nanyang imaginary. Drawing from the various thinkers on creolization such as Benedict Anderson, Nancy Morejón, Supriya Nair, and Edouard Glissant, Bernards argues that “creolization” is the most apt as it encompasses the ongoing phases of encounters and changes among cultures toward the creation of a distinct one. In brief, “it is the unceasing process of transformation” (p. 22).

Each chapter of the book embodies the textured imagining from which Chinese sojourners have wrought Nanyang. Chapter 1 foregrounds the New Literature arising from the dichotomous sentiment of the southbound writers against Western imperialism and Chinese feudalism as configured in the China-Western-Japan tripartite. As a takeoff from the massive 1919 May Fourth student movement, Chinese writers left for distant voyages in pursuit of the “enlightenment ideal via the South Seas itinerary” (p. 53). Writing in the vernacular but looking to the modern world for inspiration through their travels, the writers who experienced Southeast Asia in their itinerary were captivated by the region’s tropical contrast. The “South Seas color” teeming in the New Literature reflects a heightened perception of tropical peoples and cultures. However, much of these views did not fully depart from the patriarchal Chinese views of the “feminized” and “erotic” other. This “Nanyang orientalism” muddles the cosmopolitanism pervading the times. Foundational writers of the New Literature were Xu Zhimo (1897–1931) and Xu Dishan (1893–1941).

From the search for the “enlightenment ideal,” Chapter 2 focuses on the theme of “national salvation.” The South Seas as a literary trope was at best an intellectual prism for the southbound writers to appraise their nationalist fervor hostile to Western incursion and imperial China’s feudalistic beliefs. Those who inspired such a stringent reflective stance among the writers were the Nanyang Hauaqia (South Seas Chinese) who were acknowledged as the region’s true “hands-on architects of its modernity and cultivators of its wealth” (p. 55). The works of the southbound writers that came out of their travels during the decade of the 1920s–30s were viewed as “writing back to China” while simultaneously creating a niche in the local Sinophone literary scene in Malaya and Singapore. Two of the pioneering writers of the era were Lao She (1899–1966) and Yu Dafu (1896–1945). Lao She produced canonical novels that celebrate multiethnic, multi-linguistic colonial environs, while Yu Dafu, known as an uncompromising literary critic, was recognized for his role in encouraging the articulation of a homeland Nanyang among creole communities.

Chapter 3 scrutinizes the deepening process of creolization among the Sinophone Malaysian writers as they found themselves at a crucial postwar, postcolonial turn. To defy nativist conceptions of Malaysianness, Sinophone Malaysian writers adapted a “transnational” mode in addressing their predicament. Taiwan became a cultural haven for these writers’ “Nanyang diaspora” as it revitalized their Chinese origins. Sinophone Malaysian critics of this time—Ng Kim Chew, Tee Kim Tong (Zhang Jinzhong), Lim Kien Ket (Lin Jianguo)—wrote from Taiwan with a vigorous revisionist aim about the Sinophone Malaysian literary history. As racial tensions peaked in Malaysia with the 1969 Kuala Lumpur ethnic riots, a surge of Malaysian students found their way to Taiwan. Writers during this time found not only a refuge in Taiwan but also an accommodating sanctuary that was bound in a symbiotic relationship with the local literary scene.

The lush rain forests of Borneo become a site for the enquiry into cultural identity as manifested in the extensive works of Li Yongpin (1947–). Chapter 4 draws from the critical framework of postcolonial ecocriticism to take stock of the effects of decades of colonial, neo-imperialist, and multinational exploitation of the Bornean environs that led to the displacement of indigenous communities. The ecopoetics of two other writers, namely, Pan Yutong (1937–) and Chang Kuei-hsing (1956–)—the latter described by Bernards as “Sinophone literature’s foremost architect of the Borneo rainforest” (p. 124)—successfully couple aesthetic elements with political efficacy. In the sensuous setting of the loamy marshland, many of the characters found in Chang’s novels are embroiled in narratives of love, alliances and betrayal, and victimization.

Chapter 5 delves into the literary transformations of the term “Nanyang” within Singapore’s multiethnic and multilinguistic population. What distinguishes Singapore’s national literature is how it is defined as the “sum total of its literatures in the official languages of English, standard Chinese (based on spoken Mandarin), Malay, and Tamil” (p. 137). This upholds the nation’s individual racial groups while recognizing their literary origins, and simultaneously instilling a transnational spirit to its literary yield. Attendant to this is the nation’s policy of multiracialism and meritocracy, which overrules the nativist tendencies inherent in such demographics and levels the playing field among socioeconomic sectors. The works of the Sinophone authors Yeng Pway Ngon and Chia Joo and the Anglophone novelist Suchen Christen Lim, however, engage in-depth neat national categories of self-representation to revisit the heritage historically entrenched in a maritime Southeast Asia (p. 140).

A successful story of Chinese integration in Thailand is the focus of Chapter 6. However, this “successful story” is not without its intricacies. Framing the integration are measures of assimilation and accommodation that the Thai monarchy imposed to stem the growing economic influence of the Chinese migrant population in Thailand. A majority of these voyagers came to Siam (then Thailand) as early as the eighteenth century as rice traders. But with a Western-educated monarch, King Vajiravudh, ever watchful of his constituents, and fired by the anti-Semitic sentiment in Europe, policy measures such as the Nationality Act diffused the highly visible Chinese Other. Chinese names, for instance, had to be registered using Thai appellations. More repressive political moves strengthened the direction for a “Thai for Thais” conviction (p. 171) that included the closure of Sinophone schools and ban of Teochew opera performances (p. 172). The literature spawned during this period, such as the writings of the Sinophone Thai author Fang Siruo (Phonlachet Kitaworanat, 1931–99), drew on multiple spaces from which struggles and identities were continually redefined against concerns such as censorship and disenfranchisement.

The book concludes with a reference to a 2008 television serial drama titled The Little Nyonya that riveted a sizeable portion of the Singaporean population. The drama reawakened the Nanyang imagination in an engaging platform—audiovisual. The Nanyang imagination was enfleshed, given a voice. With the serial drama successfully reaching millions of people, Bernards notes that the “aesthetic possibilities” of the “Nanyang imagination” may exponentially increase if represented in film and theater, music, and the arts as a contrast to the “written word” of literature that has been the concern of this book.

Bernards proposes future studies on the Philippines and Indonesia, which in his view best represent the archipelagic spirit of Southeast Asia. While these countries have been referred to tangentially in individual chapters, there is definitely much more to explore in the Chinese reimagining of Philippine literature, for instance. There have been pockets of studies on contemporary Filipino-Chinese literary writings; but a scholarly undertaking with the breadth and depth of Writing the South Seas, outlining the range of assimilation, resistance, and integration of Chinese immigrants into the local community, will open up new areas of historical and literary relations that have eluded official narratives.

Lastly, the 2017 celebration of the 50 years of the founding of ASEAN is a historic milestone. The region’s growing presence in the global geopolitical arena has spurred the establishment of formal studies of the region so as to encourage a deeper knowledge among neighboring states. As a reservoir of people’s memories and aspirations, literature has been at the core of these studies. In this regard, Bernards’s Writing the South Seas has broken through a critical threshold. It provides readers with a more progressive view of what may now comprise postcolonial Southeast Asian literatures. While some of the titles mentioned in the book have been visible on a standard Southeast Asian literature syllabus, they often stand as discrete titles lacking the wide-range contextualization found in Bernards’s work. This is to state that readers can now come to the writings with the knowledge that the novels, essays, plays, and poems were produced not only in a distinct place and time; it was the seas that enabled the thoughts, the images, the words. And however the southbound writers imagined their destination, the waters, in calmness and rancor and, most important, in the crossings they allowed, blurred geographies, renewed identities, and moored the voyagers to a new homeland.

Dinah Roma
Department of Literature, De La Salle University Manila




Contents>> Vol. 7, No. 1

Ship of Fate: Memoir of a Vietnamese Repatriate
Trần Đình Trụ. Translated by Bac Hoai Tran and Jana K. Lipman
Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press in association with UCLA Asian American Studies Center, 2017.

Among the first words to describe Trần Đình Trụ’s Ship of Fate: Memoir of a Vietnamese Repatriate is “resilience,” for his South Vietnamese perspective admirably intimates the many trials that test—without budging—his one goal of reuniting with his family. The reader sympathizes with Trần Đình Trụ very early in his memoir, because despite long days away at sea at the beginning of his career, he always patiently looked toward going home. And yet when Jana Lipman writes in the introduction that this memoir has “survived multiple iterations and reflects more than one moment in time” (p. 4), she highlights the possibility of the memoir, as a written work of memories, to also be resilient in the face of its own tests of time. Indeed, it would not be the first time the author writes about his life, since for many months during his first year in the reeducation camp self-examinations were a daily exercise. And this being a translation, we are duly reminded of the time and the challenges that go into the work. This latest iteration, contributed by Lipman with Bac Hoai Tran, is a crucial one, for they have managed to render the resilience of both story and storyteller relevant and accessible to a wider audience.

Based on my knowledge of the Vietnamese language, one of the language’s more beautiful but also difficult aspects to grasp is the extensive use of implied and figurative speech. Meanings that are inherent in simple, everyday words—pronouns, for example—can make the language elusive and even arduous to translate. Where Lipman has mentioned Trần Đình Trụ less generously with details, such as in his relationship with his wife and in encounters with his family, I genuinely wondered what other clues, possible those untranslatable, I might have been able to parse out from the Vietnamese version. Perhaps subtle implications such as those behind personal pronouns might more satisfyingly reveal the intimacies beyond the English “you” or “me.” This curiosity is one indulged by a speaker of Vietnamese but does not speak to the quality of the translation. Eloquent and intricate, the translation brings non-Vietnamese speakers and readers a concise narrative that respects the palpability of Trần Đình Trụ’s struggles put in writing. Able word choices manage to evoke the same specific sentiments as the Vietnamese equivalent: the recurring “rest easy” is very much the reassuring “yên tâm,” and the connotation of a gentle wife is immediately that of “người vợ hiền.” In both the original and the translation, however, accessibility remains at stake. In making a text more widely accessible with an English translation, the risk of filing away nuances that are exclusive to the language is inherent. But as important as the accuracy of words or nuances are, the translators also seem to acknowledge that certain sentiments do not translate easily into words for the writer. In other words, sometimes the parts that remain untranslatable are beyond the linguistic problem of going from one language to another.

Specialists and non-specialists alike will find this translation into English enriching and useful; the historical elements along with the pull of betrayal, loss, and suspense make the memoir an informative and intriguing read. One learns another angle of the Vietnamese refugee experience and reevaluates the generalized trajectory of refugees escaping Communism and evacuating a “lost nation.” Trần Đình Trụ’s own reflections also shed light on the ambivalent Vietnamese perception of the American presence in Vietnam, for not everyone who lived in the South identified as pro-American or anticommunist or both. While officers such as Trụ were grateful for the resources and training provided by the United States, they were also well aware of the latter’s power and ability to withdraw aid at any point. Trụ’s narrative, along with its translation, contribute an important perspective that, while being indeed a Southern Vietnamese perspective, draws upon the complexities of political positions and sides rather than advocates them.

The author begins with his childhood, which does more than set up the story chronologically, for it also provides the reader with crucial historical context as well as the author’s own development of values. We learn of his travels to other countries as well as the privileges and liberties reaped by Southern Vietnamese officers in the late 1960s at the pinnacle of US intervention. Writing about the days leading up to April 30, 1975, when many political leaders and civilians were pining to leave the country, Trụ openly questions one’s sense of duty to the country. While the United States has always been associated with the weight of abandoning what was started in Vietnam, Trụ directly calls out the responsibility of the South Vietnamese officers who were trained to defend their country. What purpose did any US intervention serve if these officers did not stay to utilize the tools that were given to them? On the one hand, this critical perspective prompts us to reconsider how the idea of patriotism can change when one feels defeat or loss for one’s country. It is understandable that people should leave, for how can they feel patriotic or even connected to their country when everything recognized as such is removed, replaced, or destroyed? Yet on the other hand, Trụ very much resists the idea that Vietnam depended on the United States, without skills of its own, because such reliance also relinquishes the effort and responsibility of nation building solely to the Americans. It is a stark reminder of the different ways “nation” can be understood at the time of nation building. For Trụ, who was evacuated to Guam, his strong desire for repatriation speaks to his understanding, which is that while the leaders of his nation were replaced, his land and country still remain.

The struggle for repatriation occupies much of the narrative, which focuses on the author’s time as a refugee on Guam during the latter half of 1975. The memoir thus provides important details regarding the refugee population on Guam, the divisions within the refugee community, and the bureaucratic obstacles dealing with the UNHCR, the United States, and the Vietnamese government. The horror of the reeducation camps is also presented, but the passing of the years in these camps is reflected in the length of the section: a single chapter, where years of a mundane but uneasy life are conflated without precise indications of time. In this sense, the memoir is more informative than it is lamenting; where Trụ dwells are where facts can be recalled more objectively. In fact, the gratuitous passages about protests and shady characters seem to overpopulate his retelling of events and unfortunately do not compensate for the brevity of the already few intimate moments.

Lipman’s introduction very deliberately prepares the reader for Trụ’s matter-of-fact, simple, and reserved tone throughout the memoir. Her introduction convincingly defends Trụ’s overall style in order to point to an important quality of the memoir for the attentive reader. Often, the instances in which language seems to be missing reflect the difficult nature of instances being retold and revisited. In more superficial ways, this tone does seem to glide over the suffering and the pain we can sense the author experienced. But the “strained, stilted passages” (p. 18) that describe his reunion with his family for the first time after six years correspond to the guarded and even insular nature of memories. While the idea of a memoir seems to promise truth and transparency in its accounts, the way memories are actually inscribed in our minds is not straightforward. Whether it is an experience of trauma, trial, relief, or even joy, the memory or forgetting of these experiences will occur differently. An event is not simply stored as a memory, and a memory is not simply reiterated as a memoir. Trụ testifies in his own words where he stands in the process of writing the memoir and retelling his story—“we each had our own sorrow”—or again later when leaving the ship Việt Nam Thương Tin, “our memories remain locked in our own minds” (p. 164). While these statements follow particular events in his story, they reflect a consistent adherence to the privacy, specificity, and intangibility of an individual’s sorrow and memory of it. In a way, it is similar to the untranslatable, that which slips through words, from one language to another, from one interlocutor to another, that which, for what it is worth, should be left intact.

Yen Vu
Romance Studies, Cornell University


Vol. 7, No. 1, BOOK REVIEWS, Faizah ZAKARIA


Contents>> Vol. 7, No. 1

The Pearl Frontier: Indonesian Labor and Indigenous Encounters in Australia’s Northern Trading Network
Julia Martínez and Adrian Vickers
Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2015.

Transnational histories from below are notoriously difficult to access through conventional archives. The Pearl Frontier: Indonesian Labor and Indigenous Encounters in Australia’s Northern Trading Network rises to this challenge by tracing the economic and social worlds of the waterways framed by the islands of Eastern Indonesia and Northern Australia. Labor—its movement and agency—is at the center of this inquiry. The monograph seeks to track the submerged history of indenture in the pearling industry that lies at the geographical fringes of two colonies, and later, nation-states. The historical experiences of “pearling indents,” as these workers became known, are a means for Julia Martínez and Adrian Vickers to discuss issues of race and the “color line” in Australia. Such themes remain pertinent today as Australia grapples with its refugee policy and the attendant questions of who gets to become Australian and why. In a study that spanned the late nineteenth century to the 1960s, the authors of this book clearly demonstrate that this dilemma is not new. The spotlight here is on migrants from Eastern Indonesia who were accepted as temporary casual labor at Australia’s frontiers but repeatedly barred from accessing the mainland during this period.

This interest in movement between borders distinguishes this monograph from extant histories of Eastern Indonesia, many of which are focused either on the spice trade from European sources or nationalist, anticolonial figures that are of interest to the history of the Indonesian state.1) The first three chapters of The Pearl Frontier establish that the pearling zone “joined the areas of Indonesia and Australia that were most remote from their centers of government . . . much that happened on the frontier was at the edges of state control” (p. 11). This argument is made from three perspectives: geographically, environmentally, and socially. Drawing on the work of naturalists such as Alfred Russell Wallace, these chapters demonstrate that this region, whose flora and fauna have been described as a “zoogeographical area constituting a transition zone between Sundaland and the Sahul” (Schepper 2015, 99–152), also had a long history of maritime mobility. The Timorese town of Kupang functioned as a regional hub, and pearling became a major economic activity from the 1860s and 1870s. Chapters 4 to 6 reveal that the development of this industry occurred with minimal state control, thus allowing a different socioeconomic world to take shape. Even as the “White Australia” policy became law in 1901, the pearling industry appeared to exempt itself from the letter of the law by continuing to recruit non-white labor on temporary contracts and evaded official scrutiny as these non-white workers were only stationed ashore for a few months. As a result, the Northern Australian towns of Broome and Darwin became increasingly diverse. Paired with the Eastern Indonesian hubs of Aru and Kupang, Indonesian, Japanese, and aboriginal labor as well as Arab and Chinese capital came into the region. The social world in these towns had its own hierarchy, with pearling masters of European descent at its apex but considerably more fluidity in social status.

Biographies, newspaper accounts, and oral histories of white pearling masters and their non-white labor are the sources that underpin this analysis. Martínez and Vickers read these for the perspectives of both the masters and their indentured labor. What emerges is a nuanced picture of the indenture system in the pearling industry, where the masters adopted various strategies to maintain control over labor, ranging from constant surveillance and discipline to a form of traditional patron-client relations between employer and employed. However, large parts of this history remain stubbornly submerged, especially the relations between the various non-white groups themselves. For example, the book opens with an intriguing anecdote about an Alorese migrant worker named Abdoel Gafoer who came to Broome in the early 1920s and eventually married an indigenous Australian woman, becoming a respected member of the Yaruwu community. His repeated movements across maritime borders over several short-term contracts become a running thread in the book, suggesting deeper interactions between minority groups in the industry. Those deeper interactions are not fleshed out, given how Gafoer’s story serves to string the chapters together with little sustained explanation of how his experience illustrates social mixing among non-whites.

Similarly, the experiences of Japanese labor do not receive adequate attention, although the Japanese constituted the largest proportion of foreign divers in the pearling zone. As a result, the book leaves the reader with more questions than answers about the intersecting encounters between foreign labor and indigenous Australians. Such caution in treating the available sources might be warranted, in view of relatively recent criticism that indigenous historians in Australia read too much into sparse indigenous sources.2) That said, The Pearl Frontier seems to skirt direct engagement with historians such as Keith Windschuttle. Although it briefly revives an argument that the latter dismissed, which is that “pearling masters engineered antagonism as a means of labor price control” (p. 106), no new evidence has been presented to justify the revival. What is clear from the monograph is that antagonism as well as cooperation coexisted between the Indonesian, Japanese, and indigenous groups, but the causes, consequences, and relative intensity of these dynamics remain murky. Consequently, the book’s arguments remain somewhat aloof from the mainstream historiography of Australia.

It is, nonetheless, a great achievement to fish a marginal figure such as Gafoer out of the archives. That he even surfaced at all was due to his struggles to obtain Australian citizenship in order to stay with his indigenous wife and daughter, despite his marriage being unrecognized by the Australian government. A pathway to citizenship cracked open with the advent of World War II, which is the subject of Chapter 7. Many indentured workers were evacuated from Thursday Island, Broome, and Darwin to Australian cities in the south. The final two chapters track the decline of labor migration as Indonesia replaced the Dutch East Indies. Existing labor migrants on the Australian side of the border then struggled to gain recognition and citizenship in a country that had benefited from both their labor and, in some cases, their wartime service. Naturalization was made possible only when the White Australia policy was weakened in the 1950s, underscoring the racist bias of such exclusion.

Pearls are centralized in the title of the book, and the authors use them as an insightful lens into the social processes of migration and integration into society. There is, however, surprisingly little about how pearls were formed, their watery habitat, and the methods of extracting pearl shells, especially in the last third of the book. A few dispersed pages over the middle of the book highlight the dangers and risks posed to humans who dive for pearls. The latter themselves remain an ahistorical object in this study. And yet, the pearl underwent considerable transformation as the seas became increasingly polluted over the twentieth century, while the area has become a space for resource contestation (Carino and Monteforte 2009, 48–71). Increasingly, scholars are also acknowledging that a story of labor is often a story of the environment. Antje Missbach (2016, 749–770) recently highlighted that the environment in Eastern Indonesia factored into the decisions of underemployed fishermen to turn to smuggling people into Australia in order to supplement their meager income from overfished waters. Along this vein, The Pearl Frontier could have benefited from greater attention to the changing environment in which pearls were extracted. Specifically, the discussion on disputed borders between Australia and newly independent Indonesia in Chapter 8 appears to be incomplete without deeper inquiry into the shift from harvested to cultured pearls after World War II, and its impact on technology as well as labor in the pearling industry.

In sum, this lively and ambitious monograph is solidly researched and pushes the envelope on how we might define and study an economic zone by successfully sailing around national boundaries. However, more could have been done to interrogate theoretical paradigms in the writing of transnational as well as indigenous history. A few suggestive analytical frameworks such as cosmopolitanism in indenture are introduced at the beginning of the book but remain regrettably underdeveloped in the content chapters. Consequently, it is a volume that piques further curiosity rather than forges new ground. Still, it is a valuable addition to a growing literature on Eastern Indonesia and revisionist Australian history. It is highly recommended for scholars of migration and those with an interest in Indonesia-Australia relations.

Faizah Zakaria
School of Humanities, Nanyang Technological University


Carino, Micheline; and Monteforte, Mario. 2009. An Environmental History of Nacre and Pearls: Fisheries, Cultivation and Commerce. Global Environment 2(3): 48–71.

Hägerdal, Hans. 2015. Eastern Indonesia and the Writing of History. Archipel 90: 75–98.

Missbach, Antje. 2016. Perilous Waters: People Smuggling, Fishermen and Hyper-precarious Livelihoods on Rote Island, Eastern Indonesia. Pacific Affairs 89(4): 749–770.

Schepper, Antoinette. 2015. Wallacea, a Linguistic Area. Archipel 90: 99–152.

Windschuttle, Keith. 2002. The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Volume One: Van Diemen’s Land, 1803–1847. Paddington: Macleay Press.

1) See Hägerdal (2015, 75–98) for a historiographical overview of Eastern Indonesia.

2) See, among others, Windschuttle (2002).




Contents>> Vol. 7, No. 1



The New Way: Protestantism and the Hmong in Vietnam
Tâm T. T. Ngô
Critical Dialogues in Southeast Asian Studies. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2016.

Ever since the release of James Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed (2009), academic research on the peoples of “Zomia”—upland Southeast Asia and Southwest China—has been gaining popularity. Scott’s controversial thesis has been critiqued nearly as much as it has been quoted, but the debate has opened more space for scholars of this vast highlands region to explore and expose its unique socio-political dynamics and demonstrate its influence on contestations of power across states, regions, and beyond. If Scott overemphasizes the historical role of state evasion in highland-lowland dynamics, he also underestimates its ongoing significance to understanding contemporary Southeast Asian society by claiming that his analysis “ceases to be useful” after 1945 (Scott 2009, vii). Tâm Ngô’s book about the growing influence of Protestant Christianity among the Hmong in Vietnam is a timely and important case in point, using rich ethnographic data to reveal how recent religious change is still profoundly influenced by highland-lowland, state-periphery, and transnational relationships.

The book’s title, The New Way, is a literal translation of the Hmong name for Protestant Christianity, implying a radical break with the “old way” of traditional Hmong culture and religious practice toward modernity. Over the past 30 years Vietnam’s northern highlands have witnessed phenomenal mass conversions among the Hmong, an impoverished and marginalized ethnic minority group, with perhaps up to a third of the one million Hmong population in Vietnam now identifying as Christian. In this context, Ngô’s ethnography attempts to give both in-depth insights about the complex factors involved in individual conversion narratives as well as a broad overview of Hmong religious change across Vietnam and beyond. Indeed, although this book is ostensibly about Hmong Christians in Vietnam, in fact Ngô devotes a significant proportion of the text to the US Hmong diaspora and maintains that transnational ethnic and Christian relationships are crucial to understanding how faith is articulated in the Vietnamese highlands.

Ngô opens and closes the book with Karl Marx’s famous thesis that “men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please” (p. 170), yet her emphasis of Hmong agency throughout the book challenges this thesis to some extent. Instead, she argues that Hmong people make different and unexpected decisions based on their cultural resources and are not ultimately determined by the “weight of their traditions” or external forces. In the first chapter, Ngô sets the scene for her fieldwork site before giving a historical synopsis of Hmong marginality to the Vietnamese state, starting from the colonial legacy of French Catholicism and decolonial conflict, moving on to various state assimilation and development initiatives. Here Ngô makes a unique contribution to understanding Vietnam’s ethnic politics by exposing the 1950–78 “eliminating the bandits” (tiễu phỉ) policy program, which, along with land reform and other campaigns, had a destructive impact on Hmong social structure and further alienated Hmong communities from national government agendas.

In Chapter 2 Ngô relates the remarkable story of Christian conversion via Hmong-language radio broadcasts from the US-based Far East Broadcasting Company (FEBC). While Ngô situates this religious change within the wider context of ethnic minority conversion to world religions, this case is unique in that no missionaries were physically present to evangelize to the Hmong of Vietnam in the late 1980s. Instead, highlands communities accidentally stumbled across the FEBC radio channel to hear a diasporic Hmong pastor sharing an indigenized gospel message, before rapidly spreading the message from village to village. Chapter 3 then explores the complex transnational relations formed between Vietnamese and US diaspora Hmong Christians who are recently making more contact as Vietnam opens its borders and highland regions to tourism. This nuanced study reveals how it is not only Hmong in Vietnam who receive “remittances” of faith and modernity, but also how the Hmong diaspora—who are themselves a marginalized minority in the United States—are impacted, regaining a new sense of ethnic identity as they encounter more “authentic” Hmong in the Asian homeland.

Chapter 4 deals with the millenarian tradition embedded within Hmong culture, opening with a fascinating account of some reactions to apocalyptic rumors of the imminent return of the mythical Hmong King Vang Tsu, whose name is also used to refer to the Christian God. Conceptualizing Communism and Christianity as competing paths to modernity and noting their similarities, Ngô claims that neither has managed to quench Hmong millenarianism, but rather the latter continues to activate it. However, her account of the most well-known recent millenarian event at Mường Nhé in 2011 tends to replicate “official” discourses—either from the FEBC or the government—but does not give voice to the full range of interpretations by other actors, such as Hmong participants themselves. In Chapter 5 Ngô digs deeper into conversion testimonies to draw out the different material and spiritual motivations at play, being careful not to reduce the actors to “rice-bowl Christians.” The importance attached to socioeconomic and political forces, as well as the pragmatic responses and aspirations for modernity, is largely consistent with this reviewer’s fieldwork among Hmong Christians in Vietnam.

Ironically, by undermining the traditional Hmong religious structure, the government’s “anti-superstition” campaigns have paved the way for Hmong Christian conversion, which is now considered a threat to national security. This theme is picked up in Chapter 6, where we get a glimpse into the state perceptions of Hmong “backwardness” as well as “illegal” religion and its heavy-handed attempts to “persuade” Christians to abandon their faith. Moreover, religious change has opened fault lines within communities as non-Christian Hmong perceive conversion as an act of betrayal, while Christian teaching demonizes some aspects of traditional culture. Finally, Chapter 7 brings a Foucauldian analysis to the new morality adopted by Christians, especially with regard to sin, subjectivity, and sexuality. Ngô argues that strict Protestant teachings against premarital sex and polygyny constitute a new “technology of the self” and cause further social conflict by discouraging interfaith marriage, but regrettably she does not reconcile this with an earlier claim about conversion being seen as empowering for Hmong women (p. 109).

This book represents a great achievement as the summation of extensive independent fieldwork on a topic that is essentially the convergence of three “politically sensitive” topics in Vietnam: religious change, ethnic politics, and transnational groups. Ngô has become the first academic to publish English-language research about this topic based on ethnographic methods, which is no mean feat given the government restrictions placed on academic research in upland Vietnam (Turner 2013). Being a Vietnamese national was surely an advantage, helping Ngô to both secure research access and give detailed linguistic insights on the Vietnamese discourse about the Hmong—although peculiarly she omits reference to the Vietnamese-language academia related to Hmong Christianity. On the other hand, her positionality as a member of the ethnic Kinh (Vietnamese majority) in the context of ethnic and religious discrimination is potentially problematic. Ngô is very reflexive about engrained racism and shows no trace of the Kinh chauvinism that is present in some related research coming from Vietnam. Nevertheless, by limiting the account of religious persecution to the official documents rather than the numerous harrowing testimonies of human rights abuses to Hmong Christians (see Reimer 2011), perhaps Ngô underemphasizes the brutality of the Vietnamese authorities’ response to mass conversions.

Other questions left unanswered by the book include which denominations and variants of Protestantism are active among the Hmong, and how Ngô arrives at the figure of 300,000 Hmong Christians—a contested figure that other sources (based on equally scant evidence) estimate to be much lower, or sometimes higher. In spite of a few oversights, however, this book remains a deeply impressive, well-written work that combines compelling personal narratives with erudite and useful theoretical analysis. Themes about religion as a “way” or “medium”; transnational identities; the competition (and overlap) between Christianity, Communism, and millenarianism will certainly be useful not only for Hmong scholars but also for those researching religious change in other parts of the world. Hopefully Ngô’s ethnography will inspire other scholars from Southeast Asia to challenge stereotypes regarding supposedly “backward” ethnic minority groups and move toward a deeper understanding of social transformation in Zomia.

Seb Rumsby
Department of Politics and International Studies, University of Warwick


Reimer, Reg. 2011. Vietnam’s Christians: A Century of Growth in Adversity. Pasadena: William Carey Library.

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

Turner, Sarah, ed. 2013. Red Stamps and Gold Stars: Fieldwork Dilemmas in Upland Socialist Asia. Vancouver: UBC Press.




Contents>> Vol. 7, No. 1

Jit Phumisak and His Images in Thai Political Contexts

Piyada Chonlaworn*

*ปิยดา ชลวร, Faculty of International Studies, Tenri University, 1050 Somanouchi, Tenri, Nara 632-8510, Japan
e-mail: 2515226[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.7.1_103

Jit Phumisak (1930–66) is one of the most well-known figures among Thai leftist scholars and activists in the 1950s. He was born slightly before monarchical absolutism was abolished, and he grew up in an anti-American atmosphere when socialism was booming. Apart from his numerous writings, what makes Jit different from other socialists and Marxists of his time is his legendary life and untimely death. He became a cultural hero and a legendary figure among young activists in the mid-1970s democracy movement. His image, however, was constructed and modified by different actors under different agendas. This paper reviews Jit’s life and work by focusing on the construction of his image by the military regime, Communist organization, scholars, political activists, and local authorities from the 1970s to the present, taking into account the different political situations in Thailand throughout these periods.

Keywords: Jit, Marxism, radical intellectuals, Cold War era, political polarization


After Thailand changed from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy in 1932, the country fell into a vicious cycle of elected civilian governments and coup d’état-led military regimes. The authoritarian military regime after the end of World War II can be divided into three periods: the Phibunsongkram era, 1948–57; the despotic Sarit-Thanom era headed by Sarit and his clique between 1958 and 1973; and the recent royalist military regime that overthrew Thaksin and his sister Yingluck’s governments in 2006 and 2014 respectively.

Each despotic era saw attempts to resist the authoritarian government and calls for social revolution. As Craig Reynolds and Lysa Hong point out, in each period—notably the first two—“the climate for political, economic, social and historical analyses as well as for imaginative literature was shaped by the nature of the regimes in power” (Reynolds and Hong 1983, 78). Roughly three generations of radical movement can be identified. The first generation was mainly Sino-Thai Communists—lookjin according to Kasian Tejapira—who had close ties with Communist Parties in China and Vietnam before and during World War II. Together with participants in the Boworadet rebellion, they were taken in as political prisoners (Kasian 2001, 26–27). Some were journalists and writers who co-founded the Siamese Communist Party in 1930, which was renamed the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) in 1952. The second generation was Thai and Sino-Thai urban intellectuals who introduced and spread Marxism and socialism throughout Thailand through print media during the Phubun and Sarit eras from the late 1940s to the 1960s. The third generation consisted of university student activists who opposed the military regime of Thanom in 1973 and 1976 and were crushed by police and paramilitary forces in the October 1976 riot; they went into the jungles and carried out an underground movement. It was in the postwar era, during a short civilian government, that Marxism entered the Thai cultural market in the form of considerable numbers of printed commodities (ibid., 59). Apart from numerous books, radical newspapers such as Mahachon and magazines such as Aksornsarn were produced by socialists and Marxists such as Supha Sirimanond, Asanee Pholachan, Thaweep Woradilok, and Seni Saowaphong.

Among leftist intellectuals of the 1950s, one cannot overlook the poet, musician, and intellectual named Jit Phumisak (1930–66). Jit was born slightly before monarchical absolutism was abolished and grew up in an anti-American atmosphere when socialism was booming. He was among many socialist writers of his time who were influenced by socialist predecessors, but what makes him different from other socialists and Marxists is that after his untimely death his works that had been banned were secretly reproduced by young activists (Reynolds 1987). The year 2016 marks 50 years after his death, and it is interesting to see how his image has changed through the times: from a Communist to a revolutionary figure, a scholar, and recently an adviser on lucky numbers. This paper reviews Jit’s life and work by focusing on the construction of his image by different actors—the military regime, the Communist Party of Thailand, scholars, political activists, and local authorities—from the 1970s to the present, taking into account different political situations in Thailand throughout these periods.

Life and Work

Those who have studied Thai political history would know Jit as a Marxist intellectual, while linguistic and literature students would know him as a talented poet representing peasants and the working class. But most of all, he is probably known and remembered by socialists and political activists as a rebellious and progressive thinker who dared to criticize the Thai monarchy and Buddhism.

Jit was born on September 25, 1930 in a typical Thai middle-class family. His father was a civil servant working in a tax office, and his mother was a housewife. He was born in Prachinburi Province, in the east of Thailand. Because of his father’s job he moved from place to place in his childhood, and he moved to Bangkok when he was 16.

Jit showed an interest in writing from the time he was in high school. He wrote many poems, most of which were about love, flirting, and travel. In his childhood he lived in Battambang, which used to be part of Thailand during World War II but is now in the northwestern part of Cambodia. There he gained knowledge about the Khmer language, history, and archeology and was able to read stone scripts, which led to an interest in Thai classical literature. When he was young he wrote, “I have a dream of becoming one of the literature intellectuals, but in the real life I was so poor. . . . I wanted to buy books but had no money” (Wichai 2003, 167). Even though the poems he wrote in this period were about love and flirting, there is one he wrote in 1946 that showed his patriotic feelings when Thailand lost Battambang to the French. In the poem he said that if Thailand became strong and powerful again, all the lost territories would be returned to it (Wichai 2007, 5–6).

Being talented in linguistics and a voracious reader, he enrolled in the Faculty of Arts at Chulalongkorn University in 1950. During his college years he adopted Marxist ideology and wrote a number of articles that were published within and outside the university. Two articles that he wrote for Chulalongkorn’s prestigious yearbook, of which he was an editor in 1953, provoked a controversy in the university, resulting in his being thrown from the stage by conservative students. This became known as the yonbok incident. In the yearbook he wrote an article criticizing Buddhist monks for their greedy and materialistic behavior and a poem condemning fun-loving women who got pregnant, saying that they did not deserve to be called mothers.1) These articles did not only cost him a suspension from the university for one and a half years, but raised suspicions among the police that he was a Communist. This was because criticizing Buddhism and women, two core values in Thai society, was regarded as a Communist act at the time (Prachak 2015, 150). However, during and after his suspension Jit continued producing a large number of works criticizing Thai feudalism, imperialism, and monarchy-centered historiography in the form of poems, articles, literature reviews, and translations of socialist novels.

One of his most well-known works, The Real Face of Thai Feudalism Today, made known to non-Thai scholars by the English translation and analysis by Craig Reynolds (1987), explicitly criticizes Thailand’s social structure based on sakdina—or feudal values—that has long persisted in the monarchy and the ruling class and points to the feudal remnants in Thailand in the late 1950s. It was first published in a journal in 1957 and was banned not long after. Amid the anti-Communism policy of pro-American oligarchy, Jit was arrested and imprisoned in 1958, the year Marshall Sarit Thanarat imposed a coup d’état. He was in jail with other political prisoners for six years without trial and was released in 1964 with a verdict of “not guilty.” Then he went into the jungles to join the CPT in the northeast, only to be shot to death by a village headman and paramilitary force in 1966 at the age of 36. Since he was labeled by the authorities as a Communist, his murder was justified—the village headman who shot him was said to have been rewarded by the American authorities with a rifle and a round-trip ticket to Hawaii. After Jit’s death, his body was not properly cremated, and the details about his death are a mystery until today (Reynolds 1987, chapter 1).

As stated above, Jit was not the only leftist writer at the time. From the 1932 revolution until the post-World War II period, there were Sino-Thai Communists and left-wing intellectuals who introduced Marxism to Thai intellectual society through print media such as books, newspapers, and journals. But what made Jit distinct from previous and later generations was probably that, apart from his academic writings being debated among academics, because of his controversial biography he became a cultural hero and a model revolutionary among young generations in the mid-1970s democracy movement (ibid., 14).

During his lifetime Jit produced many genres of work: essays, poems, academic monographs, and songs. His works can be divided into different themes: academic work on Thai and Khmer history, etymology, ethnography, reviews of Thai classical literature and art, translations of Marxist novels, and others such as critiques on women, Buddhism, and his memoir about life in prison. Being influenced by Marxist ideology, almost all of his works had a clear purpose: to criticize the Thai ruling class, call for social change, and serve as a voice for peasants and the working class. Among the 16 songs he composed, “Saengdao haeng sattha” (Starlight of faith) is probably the most well known. He composed this song while in prison to encourage himself and others to overcome trouble and injustice (Wichai 2009, 153–154), and it became a symbolic song among social resistance protesters from the mid-1970s democratic movement to recent years, as will be discussed below.

Socialism and Marxism in Thailand

Even though Phibunsongkram imposed a coup d’état in 1947, ousting the civilian regime led by Pridi Phanomyong, the period between 1945 and 1958 is seen as a golden age of Thai social literature and an important formative period for the postwar Thai left-wing and national liberation movement (Flood 1975, 62). The Thai left-wing movement had started a bit earlier with the founding of the Thai Communist Party during World War II by those who got inspiration from the Chinese Revolution, gaining support from left-wing members in the Free Thai (or Seri Thai) group.2) At least 23 Thai radical publications in the form of newspapers, weeklies, and biweekly and monthly magazines were released during 1946 and 1967, though most of them were short-lived due to Sarit’s suppression after the 1958 coup d’état (Kasian 2001, 150).

Among the radical publications of that time, a monthly journal called Aksornsan was one of the most well known. Founded by the pro-Pridi veteran journalist Supha Sirimanond in 1949, it became a platform for Thai socialist intellectuals to spread their ideas and studies on Marxism through the translation of foreign works. Even though the journal was not all left wing, as half the writers were right-wing intellectuals, the articles written by socialists such as Kulap Saipradit, Asanee Pholchan, and Samak Burawat were influential in spreading Marxist ideas.3) Asanee, using the pen name Intrawuth, wrote a number of articles criticizing the ruling class for legitimizing their power through Buddhism and literature. For example, he criticized a famous classical work written during the Ayutthaya period called Lilit Phra Lor (The narrative poem of Prince Lor), a tragic love story of a handsome prince and two princesses from another country. Intrawuth argued that the novel was nothing more than a shallow and erotic story widely read among the ruling class and that it led people to be submissive to the royalty.4) Other articles by him include an introductory study of Marxism and translated works by the Chinese socialist Lu Xun and Joseph Stalin’s work on historical materialism (Suthachai 2006, 148). It is said that through Aksornsan avant-garde writers such as Asanee played an important role in introducing a new concept of art—art and literature for life. They believed that art and literature should be created to represent peasants and the working class, leading to a revolutionary society (ibid., 164).

Aksornsan was closed down in 1952 by Sarit’s order due to its Communist character. Despite its short life, the journal inspired many young readers who later became serious socialists, including Jit. He got both the methodology of analysis and the content of his works from earlier writers who contributed to Aksornsan.5)

When and how did Jit embrace socialism and Marxism? It can be said that Chulalongkorn University, ironically a right-wing and conservative institution, was the place where he learned about Marxism and embraced its ideas. It was not a coincidence considering the socialism and Marxist study that was getting more attention in the early 1950s by leftist intellectuals of that time. Jit was probably inspired by many articles in Aksornsan and came to know about and admire the Chinese revolutionary Lu Xun through the journal.6)

Jit’s Critique of Sakdina Literature

Even though Jit was well known for his seminal work The Real Face of Thai Feudalism Today, there are other writings that deserve attention. This section will focus on one of his reviews of Thai classical literature.

As a keen reader of Thai and Khmer classical literature, Jit reviewed a number of Thai classical literary works written from the Sukhothai to the mid-Bangkok period (thirteenth century to the 1860s). Parallel with The Real Face, his purpose was to criticize a traditional way of poem writing that focused on the monarchy or courtiers rather than the lives of ordinary people, and to call upon readers to pay more attention to the social aspect of these works.

He first reviewed Nirat Nongkhai (Travelogue to Nongkhai), a long travelogue written in 1869 by a low-ranking court official named Tim Sukhayang (official name Luang Phatthanapongphakdi). It was about a military expedition from Bangkok to Nongkhai in the Northeast to suppress rebels in Laos, then Thailand’s vassal state. Tim was in that expedition, too, and he described in his work how hard the journey was and pointed to the wrong decision and lack of strategy of the supreme commander who ordered the expedition, Phraya Borommahasrisuriyawong (Chuang Bunnak), an influential high-ranking courtier in King Chulalongkorn’s reign. Upon finding out that he had been criticized, the commander was very angry and used his influence to pressure King Chulalongkorn to punish Tim. Not long after the travelogue was published, it was banned and burned by a court order and Tim was physically punished and imprisoned. Jit pointed out that Tim had been punished because of his courage in criticizing his commander, if not disobeying him, which was considered unacceptable in Thai society. The uniqueness of this work is that while most nirat or travelogues written in those days are descriptive narrations of the scenery of each place the poet visited and about his subjective feeling of missing home and his loved ones—by and large using erotic expressions—Nirat Nongkhai goes beyond the traditional style by touching upon the political factions in the palace at that time. The author also describes the social and economic lives of the people and places he encountered, which, from Jit’s viewpoint, serves well as a historical source. On the one hand, Jit urged his readers not to read travelogues just for pleasure but to look deeper at their social implications (Jit [Sithi] 1975, 4–13). On the other hand, he used this work to demonstrate a hierarchy and patron-client system in Thai society from the old times to the present (ibid., 89).

Jit also reviewed a classical work titled Lilit Ongkan Chaengnam (Oath of allegiance), one of the oldest works of literature in Thai history, written anonymously in the early Ayutthaya period (mid-fourteenth century). The poem is mainly about the scary curse and calamity if one betrays or becomes disloyal to the King. It was written in parallel with the oath of allegiance ceremony held twice a year by Brahmin monks, when court officials were required to drink “sacred” water as a symbol of allegiance to the King. The ceremony, being influenced by the Angkor kingdom, has a long history dating back to the Sukhothai period and lasted until the 1932 coup d’état (which Jit viewed as a commoners’ revolution) (Jit 1994, 111–112, 116). The literature is considered by Thai conservative scholars as a piece of great writing that helped to unify civil servants from different parts of the kingdom, and the ceremony itself was viewed as protection from all calamities. However, in Jit’s view, it was written with the purpose of elevating the status of Thai Kings as God-Kings, or Devaraja in Hindu ideology, and legitimizing the King’s power by making an oath of allegiance look sacred and thus making people submissive. He argued that this ceremony actually took place in order to threaten the King’s subjects, as those who failed to make their oath to the King would be regarded as rebels and face the death penalty, which in his opinion was irrational and a form of exploitation (ibid., 102–113). In the context of anti-Communism at that time, he compared the act of insurrection in ancient times to his times, when the government viewed Communism as an insurgency (ibid., 103).

In contrast to the court-centered literature discussed above, Jit reviewed a popular novel titled Raden-Landai (The story of Raden and Landai). Written in the early nineteenth century by Phra Mahamontri, a police department commander in the King Rama III reign, whom Jit regard as a sakdina civil servant, Raden-Landai is the story of a beggar of Indian origin named Landai and two women—Kra-ae and Pradae. Kra-ae is Landai’s girlfriend, who sells sweets in a market. Pradae is a beautiful Malay woman from Patani who is taken to Bangkok as a slave and later is sold into marriage to a man named Pradua, a cow breeder who is probably of Indian origin as well. Landai meets Pradae and falls in love with her, leading to their adulterous affair and awkward confrontation with Pradae’s husband. Things get complicated when Kra-ae becomes jealous and involved in the love affair (ibid., 36–73).

Written in a funny and satiric style with some erotic scenes, Raden-Landai seems to have been enjoyed by both courtiers and commoners of the time, as it was later adapted as a play. According to Jit, the distinctive feature of this novel is that it is a story of poor and marginalized people, in contrast to the conventional and narrow-minded mainstream theme of the time, which was usually a love story involving a King or prince. Little is known about the author, but Jit praised him greatly for his “courage to break the conventional style of sakdina literature and his progressiveness a state civil-servant of that time could have” (ibid., 28–29).

Except for Raden-Landai, Jit labeled this literature “sakdina literature” as it was written to serve Thailand’s monarchy. He pointed out how influential and proactive the monarchy was in boosting its legitimacy through literature. His purpose was thus to make readers aware of the influence of the monarchy, not by excluding these literary works but by critically reading them from a new perspective, that is, a socialist viewpoint (ibid., 116).

Jit in Thai Politics

Jit was born shortly before Thailand changed from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. During his lifetime Thailand was under Marshall Phibunsongkram and Sarit’s dictatorship. Within the context of the Cold War, Phibun, who initially lacked a firm grip on his government, strengthened his position by allying with the United States. One of their common agendas was anti-Communism. Sarit, who overthrew Phibun’s regime in 1958, adopted an anti-Communist policy that he used also to crack down on his political rivals. Under the government’s agenda, Communism was regarded as a foreign threat that was anti-Buddhism and anti-monarchy. This discourse easily gave authorities the power to detain suspects without trial. The CPT became an underground organization after briefly enjoying its freedom of expression during the civilian government of Pridi Phanomyong after World War II.

Prior to Sarit’s coup, Jit had written a number of poems and articles criticizing the materialism and imperialism that was sweeping Thai social and political life. Unsurprisingly, this led to the arrest and imprisonment of Jit and other leftist journalists and anti-royalists between 1958 and the 1970s on the charge of being Communists and Communist sympathizers. As Reynolds points out, the Sarit government’s attempt to attribute the ideas and activities of Jit and other leftists to a Communist foreign power was a way of reducing the danger of those ideas and activities and of diverting attention away from any substantial problems at home (Reynolds 1987, 28–29). While in Lard Yao prison, Jit called himself a “political poet” and continued to write over 60 poems and monographs to raise political awareness against dictatorship and the pro-capitalist regime. In prison he got to know many members of the CPT, which was probably the reason he joined the Party in late 1965. His relationship with the CPT was, however, somewhat ambiguous. Reynolds points out that his relations with the Party were not smooth, and that Jit was not a Party member in his lifetime as the CPT conferred membership on him only after his death (ibid., 38). Somsak contradicts these statements arguing that Jit was closely involved with the Party in many ways, such as composing songs for it, and that many Party leaders recognized him (Somsak 1993, 22–36). Some CPT members were close friends of Jit’s family, and that was the reason they obtained Jit’s manuscripts and printed them after his death. Whatever the argument might be, it can be asserted that Jit was labeled a Communist even before he joined the Party and it was actually the anti-Communist regime that pushed him and many others to join the Communist Party.

The Image of Jit in the Mid-1970s

Almost 10 years after Jit’s death, Thailand experienced a popular uprising in October 1973 that overthrew the authoritarian regime of Thanom and Praphat and called for a constitution. This was, for the first time in Thai political history, a victory of the democratic movement led by university students and the royalist masses. After that the country enjoyed a couple of euphoric years of democracy, while the Communist movement was revitalized by the CPT. In the 1970s, leftist publications that had been banned during the oligarchic years were reprinted and republished. Jit’s provocative works such as The Real Face, Collected Poems and Literary Reviews by “Political-Poet,” and Thiphakorn: Artist, Warrior of the People (Collection of Jit’s Essays on Literature) were reprinted, and his hidden monographs were discovered and made public (Somsak 1993, 29; Kengkit 2014, 128).7) The works of Jit and other Marxists became widely read and reinterpreted by young students who found inspiration from them and were ready to take part in politics and demand for democracy.

The attempts by the CPT and new leftists to radicalize young people did not involve only publishing socialist and thought-provoking books, but also the myth-making of revolutionary heroes. Che Guevara is the most explicit example: he was popularized by the Party as an intellectual who joined an armed struggle. But later, the focus seemed to shift from foreign figures to domestic ones, and Jit came to be regarded as the “people’s warrior” and a patriotic figure: a Thai version of Guevara.8) Apart from his biographies, songs and poetry about him were composed by famous artists of the time.

While the CPT was at its peak in spreading propaganda in October 1973 and October 1976, there was at the same time resentment among the urban middle class toward the increasing radicalism of students. This middle class later became a social platform for newly emerged rightists with support from conservative elites, which led to the tragic massacre of university students at Thammasat University on October 6, 1976 (Prachak 2015, 136).

The demonstration originally took place to oppose the return of ex-Prime Minister Thanom to Thailand after his exile, but it ended in the mass killing of over 100 university students by right-wing government and paramilitary forces. More than 3,000 were arrested and 19 were charged and put on trial for “rioting” and threatening the nation, religion, and monarchy (Thongchai 2002, 253–254). As a result, many thousands of students who fled the arrest had no choice but to join the CPT in the jungles.

What is the connection between the CPT and the student movement in the October incident? There was an allegation that the CPT might have manipulated the demonstration in order to end radicalism among urban students and force them to join the armed struggle in the jungles, even though the claim was viewed as lacking substantial basis (ibid., 251–252). The direct result of the massacre was that the CPT was able to recruit many young students and continued publishing underground books about Jit, making him a “revolutionary hero” along with other socialists such as Asanee Pholchan (Thikan 2014, 157). His poems about revolution in the jungle and the marching songs that he composed while in prison were later sung by young people. His most well-known song, “Saengdao haeng sattha” (Starlight of faith), inspired young people who joined the underground movement to fight against the authoritarian regime and boost their sense of socialist patriotism. Students who joined the CPT in the jungles after the October incident already knew about the legendary Jit, so they were eager to learn more about him and his works (Reynolds 1987, 39).

Jit might be regarded as a Communist and revolutionary-cultural hero. But at the same time we should bear in mind, as some studies point out, that his image was heavily created, modified, and reproduced by CPT members and leftist activists in the mid-1970s, largely with the aim of inspiring young people to join the armed struggle under the Party’s leadership, and that the construction of Jit’s image 10 years after his death was focused more on his life and mysterious death than trying to understand or materialize his political ideas. In other words, the CPT seemed to put more effort into creating a hero than into spreading Marxist ideology among young people (Chusak 2014, 46–47; Kengkit 2014, 117–120).

Jit in the Post-Communism Era

After the student uprising/massacre incident in 1976, Thailand’s political ideology was split into the urban-based right wing and the jungle-based left wing led by the CPT. But due to several factors, such as the alliance between the Thai and Chinese governments in the 1980s and the divisions between students and key members in the Party, the CPT began to lose popularity among leftist elites (Thongchai 2002, 259–261). At the same time, there was a decline in Marxist studies and the rise of trends such as nationalism and community studies in Thai academic circles. This change paved the way for another group of intellectuals who never joined the Party and resented Communism. They attempted to replace Jit’s image as a revolutionary with that of a scholar whose academic works shed light on Thai literature, etymology, and history. As a result, there was a changing trend in the publication of his works during this period by some publishers and scholars—from a socialist theme to various other themes under linguistics and history.9) In other words, with the decline of the CPT Jit’s image was “de-radicalized” and de-politicized (Kengkit 2014, 118–126).

Jit’s works have also been analyzed from the approach of gender studies by recent academics. His viewpoint about women can be seen in many of his poems, articles, and translations of foreign novels. In his article “Adit pachuban lae anakhot khong satri Thai” (The past, present, and future of Thai women),10) he used Marxist theory to analyze the social status of Thai women from traditional sakdina to the contemporary period. He pointed out that in Thai feudal society, women were treated only as providing men with sexual pleasure and as servants, and despite the rise of the middle class following the regime change in 1932, the status of Thai women—especially in rural areas—was still undermined by the economic, political, and social monopoly of the ruling class and capitalists. In Jit’s eyes, Thai women had long been exploited and needed to fight for justice (Jit [Somchai] 1979). Although his studies on women under Marxism have their limits and need more explanation with regard to the patrimonial system in Thai society, Jit is regarded as a pioneer in women’s studies who provided a systematic framework for analyzing the social problems of Thai women (Sucheela 1997, 142–143). His work has inspired later generations of scholars to develop more research and theories on women’s studies in Thailand.11)

Jit in Contemporary Thai Politics

Following a coup that overthrew Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006, Thai politics has been trapped in a color-coded polarization between the anti-Thaksin faction, known as the Yellow Shirts, and the pro-Thaksin faction, or the Red Shirts. The Yellow Shirts—consisting mostly of the urban middle class—are led by the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) and the aristocratic Democrat Party and attempt to protect the monarchy and democracy from Thaksin’s family politics and alleged corruption. On the other hand, the Red Shirts—led by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD), Thaksin’s representatives—are formed mostly of low-income grassroots citizens in the northeast region who have been mobilized and view themselves as commoners fighting for democracy and justice against the aristocrats.12) This yellow and red polarization presents not only a political divide but also the division between the urban middle class and the rural grassroots that has long existed in Thai society—as some have pointed out, a “crisis of identity” (Nostitz 2009).

In this scenario, Jit’s image as a warrior who stands beside weak and marginalized people has been utilized again, interestingly by both the Yellow Shirts and the Red Shirts. In the protest against the Thaksin regime in 2005 and 2006, the Yellow Shirts-PAD acted upon their slogan to “fight (the tyranny) for our King” while denying the existing democracy. To reinforce their patriotism, they sang many songs—including Jit’s “Saengdao haeng sattha”—that were once sung by the CPT and leftist students back in the 1970s. Ironically, the PAD compared “the stars” to the King without realizing that the composer of the song was actually anti-monarchy (Prachak 2015, chapter 10)!

Similarly, when the Red Shirts and UDD protested against the military dictatorship and military-backed Abhisit government in 2006–10, causing many casualties, Jit’s song was sung among other revolutionary songs, as a symbol of the “people’s revolution” and “democratic fighters” against dictatorship. The image of Jit was used this time to fit in with the UDD’s political discourse of “commoners (or subjects) against aristocrats,” or commoners overthrowing aristocrats. Pictures, posters, and books of Jit together with those of other legendary socialists such as Nai Phee and Pridi Phanomyong were sold at the protest site, a scenario similar to the October 14 student uprising. As a result, together with speeches by its key members and other methods, the UDD was able to mobilize over 10,000 people each time it held a demonstration. Not only rural commoners but a number of urban middle-class people also joined the protest.

Furthermore, following Prayuth’s military regime, which ousted the Yingluck government in May 2014, a number of anti-coup groups were arrested under different charges including lèse-majesté. Among them, a group called New Democracy recently marched to a police station demanding the release of a woman who was suspected of lèse-majesté and put in jail with other suspects. Her son, who was a police officer, and other supporters lit candles and sang “Saengdao haeng sattha.”13) Under these circumstances, it is notable that regardless of Jit’s true purpose, his song has become a symbol of dissidents fighting for justice against the authorities, and he himself has been made a “free-floating signifier” by different political dissidents (Chusak 2014, 63–64).

The (Ironically) Changing Image

As part of an attempt to construct local identity in many parts of Thailand in recent years, Jit’s image ironically changed from a Communist threat to an important figure in Sakonnakhorn Province, once a stronghold of the CPT. The village where he was killed and his statue there became attractions, drawing not only locals but also tourists who passed by.14) In Nongkung village, where he was killed, a group of activists and academics built a statue commemorating him 47 years after his death. At the same time, a big billboard sign saying “Jit Phumisak Memorial Road” was built at the entrance of the village by the Sakonnakhorn Provincial Administration Organization. Villagers reportedly hold an event to commemorate his death every year on May 5.15) Moreover, more than 30 years after his death Jit was recognized again, this time by the local people—not only as an intellectual, but surprisingly as a “sacred spirit” who gave hints for the underground lottery. Locals respectfully call him “Achan Jit” (Teacher Jit) or “Chaopho Jit,” a term for someone of power and influence, or part of the Mafia. People coming for a lottery hint worship him with cigarettes and a certain brand of beer, which they believe are his favorites.16)

This paper has examined some of Jit’s biographies and the creation of his image by different actors from the 1950s to recent years. All in all, what is Jit’s influence and legacy for the younger generation of Thais? Suffice it to say that he remains a cultural icon for political antagonists, especially in an era of a military regime. Jit might not be regarded as Thailand’s most influential writer compared to the award-winning Kukrit Pramoj, but for a certain group of people—especially those who joined the student uprising in 1973 and those who went into the jungles after October 1976—he remains a legendary figure from an intellectual as well as political stance. It can also be noted that, though not directly, Jit’s life has inspired people to fight for democracy and the rights of free speech, as we can see from the case of an independent and non-profit Web newspaper like Prachathai.17) Similarly, in 2006 Samesky (Fa-deokan) publishing house was founded as an attempt to publish thought-provoking books about politics and history, especially the October 1973 uprising and its repercussions.18) Despite sporadic state censorship and pressure, these alternative media continue to serve as a platform for the anti-authoritarian movement and demands for freedom of the press. Despite its low profile and limited budget, Prachathai has gained a number of readers and supporters during the past 10 years. Jit’s discourse on social justice might often be neglected by the contemporary social resistance movement, as some suggest (Kengkit 2014, 117–137), but as long as political struggle continues in Thailand, Jit and his various images will undoubtedly continue to be remembered and live among anti-government dissidents. That is probably his true legacy.

Accepted: December 11, 2017


In English

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Reynolds, Craig. 1987. Thai Radical Course: The Real Face of Thai Feudalism Today. New York: Southeast Asia Program, Cornell University.

Reynolds, Craig; and Hong, Lysa. 1983. Marxism in Thai Historical Studies. Journal of Asian Studies 43(1): 77–104.

Somsak Jeamteerasakul. 1993. The Communist Movement in Thailand. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Monash University.

Thongchai Winichakul. 2002. Remembering/Silencing the Traumatic Past. In Cultural Crisis and Social Memory: Modernity and Identity in Thailand and Laos, edited by Shigeharu Tanabe and Charles F. Keyes, pp. 243–283. London: RoutledgeCurzon.

In Thai

Chusak Patarakulwanich ชูศักดิ์ ภัทรกุลวณิชย์. 2014. Jit Phumisak nai khwamsongcham khnong krai lae yangrai จิตร ภูมิศักดิ์ ในความทรงจำของใครและอย่างไร [Jit Phumisak in whose memory and how?]. In Jit Phumisak: Kwamsongcham lae khon runmai จิตร ภูมิศักดิ์ ความทรงจำและคนรุ่นใหม่ [Jit Phumisak: Memory and new generation: Collected articles in the seminar “80 years of Jit Phumisak”], edited by Suthachai Yimprasert สุธาชัย ยิ้มประเสริฐ, pp. 34–71. Bangkok: Jit Phumisak Foundation.

Ja New nam rong phleng “Saengdao haeng sattha” chut thien na Kongprappram จ่านิวนำร้องเพลง “แสงดาวแห่งศรัทธา จุดเทียนหน้ากองปราบปราม [Second Lieutenant New, lighting candles, sang with his supporters “Saengdao haeng sattha” in front of Police Department]. 2016. Prachachat Thurakit Newspaper. May 7., accessed August 4, 2016.

Jit Phumisak จิตร ภูมิศักดิ์. 1994. Bot wikro moradok wannakadi Thai บทวิเคราะห์มรดกวรรณคดีไทย [Analytic essays on the heritage of Thai literature]. Bangkok: Sayam (reprinted from the 1980 version).

Jit Phumisak [Sithi Sisayam] จิตร ภูมิศักดิ์ [สิทธิ ศรีสยาม]. 1975. Nirat Nongkhai: Wannakadi thi thuk sang phao นิราศหนองคาย วรรณคดีที่ถูกสั่งเผา [Nirat Nongkhai: Literature that was ordered to be burned]. 2nd ed. Bangkok: Phinong Saengtham.

Jit Phumisak [Somchai Preechacharoen] จิตร ภูมิศักดิ์ [สมชาย ปรีชาเจริญ]. 1979. Adit patchuban lae anakhot khong satri Thai อดีต ปัจจุบันและอนาคตของสตรีไทย [The past, present, and future of Thai women]. In Prawatsat satri Thai ประวัติศาสตร์สตรีไทย [The history of Thai women], edited by Kulap Saipradit กุหลาบ สายประดิษฐ์ et al., pp. 83–161. Bangkok: Chomrom Nangsu Saengdao.

Ken Sarika เคน สาริกา. 2013. Ban Nong Kung Pho So 2556: Manut song na บ้านหนองกุง พ.ศ 2556: มนุษย์สองหน้า [Ban Nong Kung village in 2013: Two-faced figure]. Komchadluek Newspaper. April 25., accessed August 8, 2016.

Kengkit Kitiriangrap เก่งกิจ กิติเรียงลาภ. 2014. Khwammai lae thana khong Jit Phumisak: Rao cha chotcham khao yangrai ความหมายและฐานะของจิตร ภูมิศักดิ์: เราจะจดจำเขาอย่างไร [The meaning and importance of Jit Phumisak: How should we remember him?]. In Jit Phumisak: Kwamsongcham lae khon runmai จิตร ภูมิศักดิ์ ความทรงจำและคนรุ่นใหม่ [Jit Phumisak: Memory and new generation: Collected articles in the seminar “80 years of Jit Phumisak”], edited by Suthachai Yimprasert สุธาชัย ยิ้มประเสริฐ, pp. 116–139. Bangkok: Jit Phumisak Foundation.

Prachak Kongkirati ประจักษ์ ก้องกีรติ. 2015. Kanmueang wattanatham Thai wa duay khwamsongcham watak ham lae amnat การเมืองวัฒนธรรมไทยว่าด้วยความทรงจำ วาทกรรมและอำนาจ [Thailand political culture: Memory, discourse, and power]. Bangkok: Sameskybooks.

Samanchan Phuthachak สมานฉันท์ พุทธจักร. 2016. Hasip pii kan chakpai khong Jit Phumisak, chak ‘Phii Baihuey’ suu Achan Jit 50 ปีการจากไปของจิตร ภูมิศักดิ์ จาก ‘ผีใบหวย’ ถึง ‘อาจารย์จิตร’ [Fifty years after Jit Phumisak’s death: From Lottery-hinting Ghost to Achan Jit]. Prachathai Online Newspaper. May 4., accessed May 5, 2016.

Samosorn Nisit Chulalongkorn Mahawitthayalai สโมสรนิสิตจุฬาลงกรณ์มหาวิทยาลัย. 1953. Nangsu Mahawitthayalai Chabap 23 Tulakhom 2496 หนังสือมหาวิทยาลัย ฉบับ 23 ตุลาคม 2496 [Mahawitthayalai yearbook 23 October 2496]. Bangkok: Chulalongkorn University.

Sucheela Thanchainan สุชีลา ตันชัยนันท์, ed. 2014a. Jit Phumisak lae vivata rueang phet saphawa nai sangkom Thai จิตร ภูมิศักดิ์และวิวาทะเรื่องเพศสภาวะในสังคมไทย [Jit Phumisak and discourse on gender in Thai society]. Bangkok: P Press.

―. 2014b. Phuying nai thasana khong Jit Phumisak ผู้หญิงในทัศนะของจิตร ภูมิศักดิ์ [Women in the eyes of Jit Phumisak]. In Jit Phumisak: Kwamsongcham lae khon runmai จิตร ภูมิศักดิ์ ความทรงจำและคนรุ่นใหม่: รวมบทความในโอกาสสัมมนาในงาน 80 ปีของจิตร ภูมิศักดิ์ [Jit Phumisak: Memory and new generation: Collected articles in the seminar “80 years of Jit Phumisak”], edited by Suthachai Yimprasert สุธาชัย ยิ้มประเสริฐ, pp. 337–363. Bangkok: Jit Phumisak Foundation.

―. 1997. Phuying ni thasana Jit Phumisak lae naewkhit satrii suksa ผู้หญิงในทัศนะของจิตร ภูมิศักดิ์และแนวคิดสตรีศึกษา [Women in the eyes of Jit Phumisak and theory of women’s studies]. Bangkok: Paluk.

Suthachai Yimprasert สุธาชัย ยิ้มประเสริฐ. 2006. Nithayasan Aksornsan kab khabuankan sangkhomniyom Thai (2492–2495) นิตยสารอักษรสาส์นกับขบวนการสังคมนิยมไทย (พ.ศ.๒๔๙๒ -๒๔๙๕) [Aksornsan journal and socialism movement in Thailand 1949–53]. In Chak Aksornsan thueng Sangkhomsat Prarithat จากอักษรสาส์นถึงสังคมศาสตร์ปริทัศน์ [From Aksornsan to Social Science Review], edited by Narong Phetprasert ณรงค์ เพ็ชรประเสริฐ, pp. 115–167. Bangkok: Center of Economics and Political Studies, Chulalongkorn University.

Thikan Srinara ธิกานต์ ศรีนารา. 2014. Kankitkan khwam pen Communist ook jak Jit Phumisak lang Phokhotor การกีดกันความเป็นคอมมิวนิสต์ออกจากจิตร ภูมิศักดิ์หลังพคท [Deconstruction of the Communist image of Jit Phumisak after the CPT]. In Jit Phumisak: Kwamsongcham lae khon runmai จิตร ภูมิศักดิ์ ความทรงจำและคนรุ่นใหม่: รวมบทความในโอกาสสัมมนาในงาน 80 ปีของจิตร ภูมิศักดิ์ [Jit Phumisak: Memory and new generation: Collected articles in the seminar “80 years of Jit Phumisak”], edited by Suthachai Yimprasert สุธาชัย ยิ้มประเสริฐ, pp. 140–176. Bangkok: Jit Phumisak Foundation.

Villa Vilaithong. วิลลา วิลัยทอง. 2013. “Thanthakarn” khong Jit Phumisak lae phutongkhang thang kanmueang “ทัณฑะกาล” ของจิตร ภูมิศักดิ์และผู้ต้องขังการเมือง [Years in prison of Jit Phumisak and political prisoners]. Bangkok: Matichon.

Wichai Wipharasami วิชัย นภารัศมี, ed. 2009. Khon yang khong yinden doi thathai: Chak Mahawitthayalai Latyao thueng wara sutthai khong chiwit คนยังคงยืนเด่นโดยท้าทาย จากมหาวิทยาลัยลาดยาวถึงวาระสุดท้ายแห่งชีวิต [Collected poems and articles of Jit Phumisak from prison years to the last period in his life]. Bangkok: Sameskybooks.

―, ed. 2007. Dondan dumdiao khondiaodae: Khrongkan sanniphon Jit Phumisak ด้นดั้นดุ่มเดี่ยวคนเดียวแด. โครงการสรรนิพนธ์ จิตร ภูมิศักดิ์ [Collected poems by Jit Phumisak]. Bangkok: Sameskybooks.

―, ed. 2003. Lai chiwit Jit Phumisak หลายชีวิต จิตร ภูมิศักดิ์ [Many lives, Jit Phumisak]. Bangkok: Sameskybooks.

1) Samosorn (1953); Prachak (2015, 150–158).

2) The Party evolved from the Communist Party of Siam, the earliest form of a Communist Party in Thailand. It was established in 1930 by Chinese migrants in Thailand but was dissolved in 1936. For further information, see Somsak (1993) and Kasian (2001).

3) The journal was later criticized by the Right as being too radical and by the Left for being insufficiently militant. Most writers—both right wing and left wing—deserted the journal.

4) Aksornsan 2(1) (2493) (1950). The title on the front page reads “Does Lilit Phralor Lead People Astray?” (Suthachai 2006, 157).

5) For example, Asanee Pholchan, or Nai Phi. Jit’s argument on the function of art that should reflect lives of the working class in Art for Life, Art for the People, the only book published when he was alive, was influenced by earlier writers in the magazine.

6) Aksornsan 4(1) (2495) (1953). The title on the front page reads “The Real Story of Ah Q by Lu Xun.”

7) “The Real Face of Thai Feudalism Today” was first published in the journal Nitisat in 1957 and then banned, and was reprinted several times—in 1974, 1977, and 1979. Thiphakorn was also first published in 1957 and reprinted in 1974 and 1978. Collected Poems and Literary Reviews by “Political-Poet” was first printed in Prachatipatai newspaper in 1964 and reprinted in 1974 by Naew Ruam Naksuksa Chiangmai (Chiang Mai). For further information, see Reynolds (1987, 177) and Somsak (1993, 26).

8) The key figure who spread Jit’s image as a revolutionary was one of the CPT’s members, Manot Meethangkool, or Uncle Prayote, who had a personal relationship with Jit’s family. For further information, see Somsak (1993, 28), Chusak (2014), and Thikan (2014).

9) For example, Phasa lae nirukkatisat (Linguistics and etymology) (Bangkok: Duang Kamol) was published in 1979 by the editors of the Lok nangsu Journal; Ongkan Chaengnam lae khokhitmai nai prawattisat Thai lumnam Chaophraya (The oath of allegiance and new thoughts on Thai history in the Chaophraya Basin) (Duang Kamol) was published in 1981 by Suchat Sawatsi; and Sangkhom Thai lum Maenam Chaophraya kon samai Si-Autthaya (Thai society in the Chaophraya river basin before the Ayutthaya period) (Bangkok: Mai-ngam) was published in 1983 by Wichai Napharasami (Thikan 2014, 160–161).

10) Jit [Somchai] (1979).

11) For example, Sucheela Tanchainan’s studies examine Jit’s works and his discourse on the role of women and how they inspire the present status of gender studies in Thailand. See Sucheela (2014a; 2014b).

12) UDD leaders used this discourse as a slogan to mobilize their supporters, but their discourse remains ambiguous as to who belongs to the aristocratic class and who belongs among the commoners.

13) Ja New nam rong phleng “Saengdao haeng sattha” chut thien na Kongprappram (2016).

14) Special report, Samanchan (2016).

15) Ken (2013).

16) Special report, Samanchan (2016).

17) Founded in 2004, Prachathai does not only provide news and information to the Thai public under strict state censorship, it is also a platform for alternative political and cultural ideas not welcomed by the mainstream media.

18) The publisher plays a leading role in collecting and reprinting Jit’s old monographs and discovering new ones. Six volumes have been published since 2004 under the project titled “Krongkan Sanpaniphon Jit Phumisak” (Collection of Jit Phumisak monographs), edited by Wichai Wipharasamee.


Vol. 7, No. 1, Yerry WIRAWAN


Contents>> Vol. 7, No. 1

Independent Woman in Postcolonial Indonesia: Rereading the Works of Rukiah

Yerry Wirawan*

*Department of History, Sanata Dharma University, Mrican, Gejayan, Yogyakarta, Indonesia
e-mail: yerry.wirawan[at]

DOI: 10.20495/seas.7.1_85

This paper discusses the strategic essentialism of gender and politics in modern Indonesia by rereading literary works of Siti Rukiah (1927–96): her first novel, Kedjatuhan dan Hati (1950), and her collection of poems and short stories Tandus (1952). It locates Rukiah’s position in modern Indonesian politics and the literary world to understand how she crafted her literary skills. It highlights the importance of her hometown, Purwakarta, as the locus of her literary development. It argues that as a representative female writer of the time Rukiah offered important contributions to the nation’s consciousness of gender equality and liberation from the oppressive social structure.

Keywords: Rukiah, Purwakarta, female author, postcolonial literature, Indonesia


During the early years of Indonesian independence, the young generation (Pemoeda) played an important role in the nation’s literary world. Writing was a medium to express the restlessness and rebellion of the young generation (see Teeuw 1967; Soemargono 1979). Writers of the period were collectively known as the “1945 Generation,” and Chairil Anwar (1922–49) was the towering figure of this generation—his poems were praised for the prose he formulated to express a sense of courage and boldness. Siti Rukiah (1927–96) was a little younger than Anwar, yet she produced exceptional works. She, too, wrote a number of poems during this period, and in 1948 she was a correspondent for Poedjangga Baroe (New writer), a Batavia/Jakarta-based avant-garde literary magazine. She was one of the authors of this generation who productively published literary works in postcolonial Indonesia.1)

After the transfer of sovereignty in 1949, Rukiah continued her writing activity and involvement in politics throughout the 1950s and 1960s. She joined the leftist artist group Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat (LEKRA, League of People’s Culture) in the 1950s. Unfortunately, her bright talent and career were halted abruptly in 1965 amid the brutal purge of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI, Partai Komunis Indonesia). She was detained and sent to prison without due process, and after her release in the late 1960s she lived the rest of her life in difficulty with six children. Although her name is mentioned in contemporary Indonesian literary textbooks, only a few young Indonesians are able to access her works.2)

Rukiah’s writings and life have attracted a number of scholars of Indonesian literature.3) Annabel Teh Gallop (1985) examines her literary works by focusing on their emotional and intellectual ideas. From her analysis, she concludes that Rukiah’s Kedjatuhan dan Hati (The fall and the heart) is, in fact, a representation of the author’s love affair and psychological conflict. Julia Shackford-Bradley (2000) offers a different reading on Rukiah. Based on textual and language analyses as well as interviews with Sidik Kertapati, she sees Rukiah as constructing herself on the ambivalent choices that she faced at the time of her writing. She concludes that the revolutionary figures in Rukiah’s works were Rukiah’s own inventions—in other words, fictional (Shackford-Bradley 2000, 254). Alicia Marie Lawrence (2012) compares Rukiah to Eden Robinson (an indigenous female writer from Canada) and finds that Rukiah’s writings were a product of the communication of her emotional experience, based on her submissiveness as an indigenous woman. She concludes that Kedjatuhan dan Hati represents the voice of a subaltern woman and that in current light, reading it may have some practical value for community organization and political decision making.

Although these studies have different methods, they focus on Rukiah’s literary works as her personal achievement and reflection of inner conflict rather than a direct expression of the revolution that she experienced. They also analyze Rukiah in comparison to other (female) literary figures: Shackford-Bradley compares Rukiah to Kartini, Hamidah, and Soewarsih Djojopoespito; Lawrence compares her to Robinson. This comparative reading is useful to understand Rukiah’s creative inspiration and distinctive qualities as compared to other female authors. Understandably, Shackford-Bradley’s and Lawrence’s readings emphasize the literary values of Rukiah’s works rather than the historical trajectory of the socio-political conditions that allowed Rukiah to write. As such, they fail to consider Purwakarta (in West Java), her hometown, as an important locus that forms Rukiah’s consciousness and in turn informs her writings.

This article intends to place Rukiah’s literary works as the historical documents of a young Indonesian woman during the revolution. It emphasizes Purwakarta and its surroundings as providing the context of Rukiah’s early writings: the novel Kedjatuhan dan Hati (1950) and her anthology of short stories Tandus (Desert) (1952). This article starts with a brief summary of Indonesian women writers and their movement during the colonial period. Following that, it discusses Purwakarta—where Rukiah once resided and produced a number of literary works—in the context of the Indonesian Revolution (1945–49). This is followed by a short biography of Rukiah and the historical context of her stories. In the last part, this article analyzes and (re-)interprets her texts on socio-political issues, especially on modernity. This article argues that although Rukiah’s literary works can be read as her individual achievement, they are also a result of the socio-political transformation that affected her hometown and her life.

Female Authors during the Colonial Era

During the colonial period native women had to suffer multiple forms of repression due to the colonial system and patriarchal tradition, while male figures dominated the media and political organizations. Nonetheless, they used writing as an important medium to channel their concerns and views on social issues that affected their lives. There were at least two prominent Indonesian women whose literary works were published and widely read during colonial times: Raden Adjeng Kartini and Soewarsih Djojopoespito. Interestingly, they came from different family backgrounds, and thus they can be considered to represent the diversity of Indonesian female intellectual figures in the pre-independence period.

Kartini was born to a noble family on April 21, 1879 in Rembang, Central Java. Due to her aristocratic background, she was able to attend Dutch elementary school, at least until the age of 12 years. During her adolescence, following Javanese tradition for noble young girls, she had to discontinue her studies and avoid social activities in order to prepare for marriage (pingit). During this time of seclusion, Kartini spent most of her time reading books and corresponding with a number of Dutch pen friends. Her letters demonstrate her critical thinking on various issues (they were written in eloquent Dutch). Her primary concern was girls’ right to education and the local traditional practice of polygamy. At the age of 24 Kartini became the fourth wife of a nobleman, but unfortunately on September 17, 1904 she died at the age of 25 after giving birth to a son.

Although Harsja Bachtiar regards Kartini’s seclusion as a consequence of her nobility, her life represents the dilemma of standing as a modern woman versus living in line with tradition.4) In the beginning of the twentieth century in the Dutch Indies, education access for girls, underage marriage, and polygamy were certainly the main issues facing native women as reported in colonial surveys.5) Given such a situation, Kartini’s life (except her tragic death) represents the ideals of a native woman who was not only fluent in a European language and could express her thoughts and concerns but also an enlightened native. In order to push for social change in the colony, an edited collection of Kartini’s letters was published in 1911 (the Malay version was published in 1922) and became a best seller in colonial society. Royalties from her book were donated to establish Kartini’s school in 1912. These efforts to increase education for girls were eventually supported by the colonial government, which adopted the ethical policy of girls’ education and attempted to modernize the colony.

In the following period, the increasing number of educated women gave rise to the presence of women activists in the first decade of the twentieth century. The first native women’s organization was Putri Mardika (Free Daughter), founded in Batavia in 1912. This organization aimed to help women who wished to continue their education, to increase their self-confidence, and contribute to society. In 1913 Putri Mardika published its own newspaper, which discussed various issues including polygamy and child/underage marriage (see Vreede-de Stuers 1959).

In the 1920s, the women’s movement gained popularity among native activists. There were an increasing number of social organizations with a women’s section. Two months after the Second Indonesian Youth Congress, 30 women’s organizations arranged the First Indonesian Women’s Congress in Yogyakarta on December 22–26, 1928. This congress concluded with an agreement to form a women’s federation, Perikatan Perempuan Indonesia (PPI, Indonesian Women’s Union). However, the First Indonesian Women’s Congress did not mention clearly its political stance on the nationalist issue in its communiqué. Sukarno, the most prominent nationalist leader at the time, regretted the result of this congress (see Wieringa 2010).

A different picture of the relationship between female activists and male domination in the nationalist movement is described in an autobiographical novel published in 1940, Buiten het Gareel (Out of harness). This novel was written in Dutch by Soewarsih Djojopoespito, who was born on April 20, 1912 in Bogor. She was educated at Kartini’s school before moving to Middlebaar Uitgebreid Lager Onderwijs, or Dutch lower secondary school, in Bogor. In 1931 she became a teacher at Taman Siswa in Batavia, where she met her future husband, Soegondo Djojopoespito, a key person in the youth congress in 1928 (see Shackford-Bradley 2000, 199).

Her story took place in the 1930s, when there was a great deal of anticolonial sentiment among native intellectuals. Buiten het Gereel recounts the story of Sulastri, a teacher at a private school (or sekolah partikelir),6) and her husband, Sudarmo, a political activist. The novel describes the couple as “proletarian intellectuals,” meaning that Sulastri and her husband were educated figures although they were not part of the elite class. This depiction was in line with a phenomenon at the time of an increasing number of young people among the native population who chose to have an independent career in the private/nongovernmental sector rather than seeking a position in a government office. Nevertheless, working as a political activist required Sudarmo to repeatedly relocate to different cities. Sulastri dutifully followed her husband, as was expected of an ideal wife. Despite their unsettled life, Sulastri was able to manage their meager income.

The novel provides a contrast to the common image of Kartini as the ideal woman. Sulastri is described as being more articulate: she could express her opinions freely and decide her own life and path, both as a female activist and as a devoted wife. Although the novel describes Sulastri as a woman of her own thoughts, it actually uncovers an unequal relationship between male and female intellectual-activists. Sulastri’s life is still tied to Sudarmo’s as she (still) consents to live under her husband’s authority.

During the Japanese period, women’s organizations were dissolved. In turn, the Japanese military administration established Fujinkai, which was led by the wife of a top local officer. It was obligatory for all civil servants’ wives to register as its members.7) It also recruited a number of ordinary women to train in order to support the Japanese army at war by engaging in such activities as visiting wounded soldiers, knitting socks, and entertaining Japanese and Pembela Tanah Air (PETA, Defenders of the Fatherland) soldiers (Wieringa 2010, 144). Later, these practical skills came in useful in supporting the Indonesian Revolution.

Purwakarta Area during the Revolution8)

Purwakarta is located in the Karawang area, which is approximately 80 kilometers from eastern Jakarta. When the republic moved its capital to Yogyakarta in the beginning of 1946, this area soon became the frontline of the battlefield. The local population of Purwakarta undoubtedly supported the republican cause and embraced the revolutionary idea due to the misery they had to suffer during the colonial period. Under Japanese occupation, Karawang and its surroundings were forced to supply rice crops and manpower labor (romusha). Those who failed to fulfill the military’s authority of this obligation were detained and persecuted. Consequently, there was great resentment among the common people, who joined gangsters to wreak revenge against the Japanese and Allied forces during the revolution.

After the defeat of Japan, people in the Karawang area immediately manifested their discontent and resentment against local Japanese. The PETA units in Rengasdengklok (60 km north of Karawang) seized power early in the morning of August 16, 1945. They disarmed a few Japanese and raised the Indonesian flag. The PETA’s revolt in Rengasdengklok spread rapidly to Purwakarta. The alliance between the conservative nationalists, the PETA, the police, and the civil service was formed while the PETA disarmed the security and took over the town from the Japanese. Although the Japanese immediately succeeded in crushing this insurrection, the revolutionary spirit had started in the Karawang region (Cribb 1991, 49–50).

Meanwhile, political tensions were rapidly rising in Jakarta. The young generation organized under Angkatan Pemuda Indonesia (Youth Generation of Indonesia) formed a joint command organization, the Lasykar Rakyat Jakarta Raya (LRJR, People’s Militia of Greater Jakarta), in Salemba (in central Jakarta) on November 22, 1945; they were headed by a former medical student (ibid., 71). Their main task was to defend the town, although they had limited military arms. And this dire situation made them powerless with the coming of the Allied forces to Jakarta. On December 27, 1945 the Allied forces were instructed to restore order with repressive measures, including searching resistance groups in the kampungs of Jakarta. Apparently, this repression was too heavy to fight against. In less than a week, it was reported that Allied forces detained 743 people and successfully controlled the town. Facing this critical situation, the LRJR had to leave Jakarta and moved their headquarters to Karawang (ibid., 72–73).

The LRJR reorganized their army group in Kawarang in a relatively simple way.9) Inspired by the heroic struggle in Surabaya, they planned to push away the Dutch and British by launching a massive attack on Jakarta. Thus, they needed to strengthen their forces by connecting the struggle with other armed groups in the region (ibid., 75). With the help of these groups, the LRJR succeeded in controlling a strategic position in the front line. Purwakarta was an important city for their struggle, and it was from this city that they broadcast political programs to gather mass support using transmitters of the Radio Republik Indonesia (Radio of Republic of Indonesia).

It should be remembered that the Indonesian Revolution involved various groups with competing ideological perspectives (see Anderson 2001). The armed groups were generally divided based on religion, nationalism, and socialism. The LRJR itself had numerous affiliated units, and the LRJR in Karawang was closely associated with Pesindo (Indonesian Socialist Youth) although never a part of it (Cribb 1991, 75). Interestingly, the LRJR extended their struggle into educational activities so that they could improve political consciousness among their members and common people in the region. This strategy certainly reflected their mass-based politics. There was a high level of illiteracy among the people in the region, and the educational work was a struggle of its own. On the other hand, the LRJR realized that providing a political education was important to build up a system of village defense (pertahanan desa), which in turn would help the organization.

Rukiah in Purwakarta10)

Rukiah was born on April 27, 1927 in Purwakarta. She went into education training during the Japanese occupation and worked as a teacher at a girls’ school in her hometown. According to Sidik Kertapati, her interest in writing led her into contact with leftist artists in Purwakarta and Bandung (Shackford-Bradley 2000, 254). In the coming years, her network of artist friends was instrumental in her accessing the literary world.11) Rukiah’s first poem was published in Godam Djelata,12) a magazine edited by Sidik Kertapati (1920–2007), a prominent revolutionary, member of the LRJR, and Rukiah’s future husband.


Fig. 1 Rukiah, c. 1952–53 (Photo: Family collection)


After finishing her training, Rukiah rapidly developed her literary career. When she was 21 years old (May 1948), she worked for Pudjangga Baru as its Purwakarta correspondent. In the same year, she worked for Mimbar Indonesia and Indonesia. It was during this time that Rukiah developed genuine concerns about the cultural life of her hometown. In 1949 she founded the cultural magazine Irama (based in Purwakarta) and became its editor. Despite her literary activities, Rukiah maintained her job as a schoolteacher. Purwakarta was not simply a hometown in a nostalgic sense but became the breeding ground for her to launch a writing career on her own. According to Sidik Kertapati, Rukiah stayed home during 1948–49 (ibid., 257) and produced a number of poems, short stories, and a novel and prepared them for publication in the following years.

In another testimony, Pramoedya Ananta Toer shared a memory that gives another nuance to Rukiah’s literary activities:

In 1949 Rukiah created [the journal] “Indonesia Irama” and held her position as editor while engaging in activities to help the guerilla forces. . . . She avoided being arrested for these activities on numerous occasions, through her associations with the local Wedana, but she witnessed the killing of one of the guerilla fighters who she had been harboring in her house. In 1949 she was given the task to visit prisoners of war being held in Bukit Duri. (ibid., 257–258)

Pramoedya’s testimony confirms Rukiah’s involvement in the revolutionary struggle that took place in her hometown. Her “engaging in activities” may have been due to her educational background and nationalist ideals, which inspired her to take risks by harboring independence fighters. In turn, Rukiah was inspired by her experiences among the independence fighters. As we shall discuss below, she expressed her thoughts and restlessness about this subject in her stories.

Rukiah’s Entry into the Literary World

Rukiah moved to Jakarta in 1950 and began working as an editorial secretary at Pudjangga Baru. In the same year, her novel Kedjatuhan dan Hati was published. It seems that it received a lukewarm response within literary circles in Jakarta. But that changed with the publication of her collection of poems and short stories, Tandus, in 1952. In 1953 she won a literary prize from the Badan Musjawarah Kebudajaan Nasional (National Cultural Board) for Tandus.13)

It should be noted that the early years of postcolonial Indonesia were marked by the attempt of several Indonesian artists to define the future of Indonesian culture. On February 18, 1950, a group of Indonesian artists declared the Surat Kepercayaan Gelanggang (Gelanggang Testimonial). This manifesto emphasized that Indonesian culture was part of the world’s culture rather than an isolated phenomenon. A few months after the declaration, a group of leftist artists founded the Lembaga Kebudajaan Rakjat (LEKRA, Institution of People’s Culture) on August 17, 1950. In contrast with the Surat Kepercayaan Gelanggang, in its manifesto LEKRA underlined that the people were the sole creator of culture and the new Indonesia must be based on the struggle against feudal and imperialist cultures. In short, LEKRA criticized Surat Kepercayaan Gelanggang supporters as adopting the culture of the capitalist class (Dharta 2010).

It is difficult to conclude when exactly Rukiah joined LEKRA. In the first congress of LEKRA on January 28, 1959, she put forward the ideal that progressive artists should visit peasants’ villages and labor camps.14) She was elected as a member of the National Council of LEKRA, along with some of her artist friends such as the painter Affandi (1907–90), Hendra Gunawan (1918–83), and the writer Rivai Apin (1927–95).15) Yet, her choice to join LEKRA was not surprising. In her works she already expressed, to a certain degree, her support for leftist ideas.

Women and the Revolution in Tandus

Although Tandus as a collection was published two years after Kedjatuhan dan Hati, some of the poems and short stories were written much earlier. The collection consists of 34 poems and six short stories, and Rukiah wrote them before she worked on the novel. In fact, some poems were already published elsewhere before 1950: for example, Buntu Kejaran was already published in Pujangga Baru in 1948.

As Gallop (1985) has discussed Rukiah’s poems extensively from a literary point of view,16) the focus here is on Rukiah’s short stories in Tandus.17) The background of these stories is mainly the revolution, and the main character is the common people. Although most of the narrators are female, male protagonists play a key role. This structure reminds us of Du Perron’s critical commentary on Soewarsih’s work that Sudarmo (the husband) is the hero, not Sulastri (the wife) (Du Perron 1975, xii). Indonesian women’s writings show that women had an inferior position to male activists and guerrillas in the Indonesian political context of the period.

Like her poems, Rukiah’s prose employs a simplicity of style (“kesederhanaan baru”), a new genre in Indonesian literature at the time that was invented by Idrus (1921–79), a well-known Indonesian writer (Gallop 1985, 44). In this context, Purwakarta and its people became an essential part of Rukiah’s works to represent the simple life in the region. In contrast, newness and revolutionary ideas always came from the foreigner. Rukiah has successfully highlighted the presence of common people in the region when they confronted or embraced revolutionary ideas.

The simplicity in style is clearly presented in Rukiah’s first short story, “Mak Esah” (Esah’s mother).18) It tells of an elderly woman who lives alone in a house 4 kilometers from a kampung named Tandjungrasa. This is the only story in which Rukiah details the location of the protagonist’s village, as if she wants to highlight that it is based on a true story.

The story describes the woman as an honest person who lives in her own world with her simple thoughts, as she believes that she has done good deeds in her life and thus expects God will help her. Ironically, her kindness and simplicity do not protect her from being affected by political events. The story informs readers that people actually have forgotten her name and instead call her by the name of her oldest son, who died during the Communist insurrection in 1926. Since then, misery keeps coming into her life. Her husband dies at the beginning of the Pacific War, and her daughter, Rumsah, passes away from malaria during the Japanese occupation (1942–45). During the revolutionary period, the elderly woman does not believe in political change as she does not see the difference in the meaning of merdeka (freedom). For her, merdeka simply means another king: an Indonesian king with a pitji (traditional cap). Nonetheless, when a group of guerrillas seek shelter in her house, she willingly lodges them simply because they look nice and polite. The next morning when a group of Dutch soldiers raid her house to look for the guerrillas, they burn down her house and shoot her dead while she is still unable to understand what happened and her role in it. Her “simple” life illustrates the political gap between the guerrillas and common people whose lives are still miserable and who have to bear all the costs despite the political changes after merdeka.

In “Isteri Peradjurit” (The soldier’s wife), Rukiah tells of a couple who live in a village in West Java, somewhere near Garut. The story revolves around its protagonist, a beautiful young woman named Siti, who is the couple’s only child. The couple are known simply as Pak Siti (father of Siti) and Mak Siti (mother of Siti). Pak Siti works on the family’s vegetable farm and is supportive of his daughter’s education despite Mak Siti insisting that a woman’s place is in the house. At the age of eight, Siti goes to the school for girls in town. After Siti finishes her studies, Pak Siti gives her sewing equipment so she can work as a tailor. This background gives the reader a sense of the simplicity in the lives of the characters as something they can relate to their own situation.

As the story unfolds, however, the family’s simple life is complicated by the arrival of the Japanese occupation army. Pak Siti refuses the order of the Japanese, who have mobilized the people to plant castor beans (Ricinus communis) to serve the needs of war. His main concern is his farm and the survival of his family, as the family has no interest in political matters. His refusal to follow orders costs him his life: one morning he is picked up in a truck (mobil tidak bertutup) and never returns home. The story continues by introducing Hasjim, a young man from Garut, who is rumored to be a fugitive from the Kempeitai (Japanese secret police). He falls in love with Siti, and three months later they get married. Hasjim introduces Siti to politics, books, and his friends. When the revolution breaks out, Hasjim wants to join the army but Siti worries about it as she is pregnant. Eventually, she lets him join the revolution when their child is born.

Although the story illustrates the troubles of a simple family who live in a small town, it shows how politics affects the lives of its characters based on their gender. Readers see how the male characters can do whatever they please based on their political outlook (they are either politically naive like Pak Siti or politically engaged like Hasjim). As a result of the males’ political outlook, it is the female characters (Siti and Mak Siti) who have to cope with the burden of life on their own shoulders. While the male characters are free to act on their political outlook, the female characters are compelled to follow what their husbands want to do. It seems the message that Rukiah wants to convey is how revolution (even in a small town) was experienced differently by males and females, and it was the females alone who had to strike a balance in their life. Even when females wanted to express their political outlook, the conditions of the revolution did not allow them to do so. Thus, the story works as a criticism of unequal gender-based political expression of revolutionary ideals.

This notion of women’s political outlook is described also in “Antara Dua Gambaran” (Between two perspectives), the story of Ati, a young female teacher and writer who lives in a small town during the Japanese occupation. Ati has a lover, Irwan, a law student who is a political activist. Irwan introduces Ati to one of his classmates, Tutang. The story describes Tutang and Irwan as two young men of completely different characters. While Irwan is a passionate political activist, Tutang is a quiet, obedient, and tidy person from a middle-class family. Despite her mother’s preference for Tutang, Ati chooses Irwan as her lover as she sees Tutang as an orang kosong (empty person). Yet, Irwan reminds her to be more friendly and patient with Tutang and even suggests that she learn writing from him. Ati follows Irwan’s suggestion, and from there her perception of Tutang gradually changes.

The proclamation of independence in 1945 transforms the lives of these three characters. Irwan has been getting more involved in politics and has become the leader of a people’s militia in West Java (Lasjkar Rakjat se-Djawa Barat). Meanwhile, Tutang works as an editor of a magazine in Jakarta. Ati continues her work for a while as a teacher and spends more and more time reading and writing. The political situation with the revolution forces Irwan to continue his armed struggle in the mountains. Later, Ati hears of Irwan’s death and chooses to marry Tutang. The story portrays the limitations of women’s political outlook during the revolution. They had the freedom to read and write, but their political expressions were confined within males’ prerogatives. This story also shows that advice from a male protagonist (Irwan’s suggestion to Ati to approach Tutang despite her objections) is always correct.

In “Surat Pandjang dari Gunung” (Long letters from the mountains), Rukiah narrates the love story of Hambali, a guerrilla fighter, and Isti, a schoolteacher of Taman Siswa in a small town. The title of this short story refers to the love letters Hambali sends to Isti, in which he discusses political issues and difficulties during the war, as well as the educational activities carried out by guerrillas in the mountains. As communications between guerrilla fighters and the general population are difficult and closely monitored by the Dutch, Isti receives these letters discreetly from a courier boy, Haja, one of her students. Haja is an orphan: his mother has passed away, and his father was killed by the Dutch army. Having no family, Haja later chooses to follow Hambali to war and thus has to leave school. Isti fails to persuade Haja to remain in school. Isti represents the life of many women during the revolution who were unable to intervene in decisions made by males to go to war. She is allowed to know about the revolution only from the letters sent to her, and nothing else. Ironically, these letters could be confiscated by the Dutch and used to implicate her as a sympathizer. In the end, Isti chooses to burn all the letters.

“Tjeritanja Sesudah Kembali” (His story on returning) is the story of a 26-year-old man, Nursewan, narrated by his close friend, a young woman. The young woman is known only by her nickname, Rus. Rus informs the reader that Nursewan is a simple man who has uncertain feelings about his future. Having failed to date women of his choice, Nursewan decides to join a guerrilla army. Rus cannot believe that Nursewan is capable of doing such a thing. When Rus leaves her hometown for work in Yogyakarta, she loses contact with Nursewan. However, one of her friends later informs her that Nursewan did, in fact, join the guerrilla fighters. Toward the end of the story Rus finally meets Nursewan in a hospital in their hometown, where he explains in detail his reasons for joining the guerrilla fighters. The story illustrates how men had the option of joining the guerrilla fighters (and could make a claim to being heroic) even though their reasons may have had nothing to do with the revolution. As the story is narrated in the first person by a woman, it highlights how women saw the revolution, which was used by men as an excuse to escape from women’s rejection of their love and at the same time to claim their masculinity.

The Fallout of Revolution in Kedjatuhan dan Hati

As does Tandus, Kedjatuhan dan Hati reflects factual problems experienced by common people during the revolution. The story is about Susi, a young woman who lives in a small town (presumably Purwakarta) with her two sisters and parents. Susi’s mother is the most dominant person in the family, and she is obsessed with materialistic achievements. Meanwhile, Susi’s father is a quiet man. The eldest sister, Dini, is described as an independent young woman who has less self-confidence and feels a little unhappy in the family for being pressured by their parents to marry. The second sister, Lina, is described as the most beautiful and their mother’s favorite daughter. Susi is described as a sincere young woman.

The story informs the reader that Dini and Susi are expected by their mother to marry wealthy men. Under such pressure, they decide to leave their family home. Dini continues her studies abroad, while Susi joins the Red Cross.

It is at work that Susi meets Lukman, a Communist guerrilla, and falls in love with him. However, Susi and Lukman have different views of marriage. Susi would like to have a traditional wedding ceremony. Lukman, on the other hand, does not like ceremonies and is unable to guarantee a “normal” life as he is devoted to politics and revolution. After having a long debate, Lukman accepts Susi’s request:

Karena engkau jang minta, apa sadja perintah itu, aku patuh menurut, sekalipun perintah itu mengambil sepotong kejakinanku. (Siti Rukiah 1950, 54)

Because you asked for it, I will follow and obey whatever your request is although it may eat away some parts of my belief.

They end the night with some time in private. The following day, Susi demands an immediate marriage but Lukman responds that he has to leave for war. Susi is very disappointed and decides to return home.

Upon coming back home, Susi finds Lina, her youngest sister, has matured greatly. Their mother, however, is becoming more insecure. To reconcile with these changes, Susi finally agrees to marry Par, a wealthy man who helped her family through difficult times. It is then that Susi finds out she is pregnant (by Lukman). When finally Lukman comes to see her again and asks her to live with him, she refuses.

The story illustrates male superiority by showing Lukman leaving Susi behind even though initially he had agreed to stay with her. This story also shows the dilemma of a young Indonesian woman during the revolution. Susi has to choose between living with the new revolutionary values or old traditions, between romantic love or arranged marriage, while maintaining her own independent life. Facing this dilemma, Susi chooses to make a practical decision. As such, the story informs us that revolution failed to change the oppressive traditional social structure and create a more egalitarian postcolonial society, and women were caught in the middle. Women’s aspiration to be independent and have a family of their own choice was not fully realized. In postcolonial Indonesia, women still have to depend on their partner, financially and emotionally, and to disregard their own ideals. Thus, the story shows the limited impact of political changes on women’s status.


Like Kartini and Soewarsih Djojopoespito, who came before her, Rukiah expressed her concerns about the status of women. Kartini represents the enlightened female author of the early twentieth century under the colonial ethical policy. In her novel, Soewarsih Djojopoespito represents the rebellious female activist at the dawn of nationalism among the natives. This article shows how, in her own context, through literary works Rukiah was able to express herself as an independent woman to challenge the “normalized” ideals of her revolutionary male friends.

Aside from their literary value, Rukiah’s literary works provide an important documentation of the revolution for the historiography of Indonesia. Kedjatuhan dan Hati and Tandus are based on her experiences and observations during the revolution in Purwakarta that allowed her to write detailed accounts of the common people and beyond their seemingly simple life. Rukiah provides a detailed picture of how revolutionary ideas brought by outsiders drastically changed the lives of simple people in Purwakarta, regardless of how ignorant the latter might have been on political issues. This article also shows how her short stories uncover the complex issues of revolution, such as the political gap among the people, the old traditions that were still maintained in the lives of many young women, and the unequal gender-based political expression of revolutionary ideals. In that sense, Rukiah’s literary works provide a deeper picture of the revolution beyond the revolutionary heroism and political rhetoric of merdeka for all.

Rereading Rukiah’s literary works in the present time brings us to a deeper understanding of the development of the nation’s consciousness for gender equality and liberation from the oppressive social structure. Female authors have come a long way in expressing their thoughts and aspirations about the ideals of an independent woman who is not afraid to express her critical thinking and political outlook. Post-1998 Indonesia has legally ensured women’s rights, but it falls short on providing space for women’s political empowerment. Rukiah’s literary works provide fruitful insights on the status of Indonesian women today.

Accepted: December 11, 2017


I am indebted to Rukiah’s family for generously providing me with their mother’s photo and to Ita Nadia and Hersri Setiawan for LEKRA’s materials. I would like also to thank anonymous reviewers for their constructive suggestions. Any errors that remain are my sole responsibility.


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1) See Siti Rukiah, Kedjatuhan dan Hati (1950); and Siti Rukiah, Tandus (1952). The first female author to have published a novel in postcolonial Indonesia was Arti Purbani (Widyawati, 1948). Arti Purbani is the pen name of Raden Ayu Partini Djajadiningrat (1902–98), the wife of Hoesein Djajadiningrat (1886–1960).

2) On November 6, 1965, Duta Masjarakat, the newspaper of Nahdlatul Ulama, reported that although Tandus was republished by Balai Pustaka, its distribution was halted (See “Stop Naskah2 Lekra di Balai Pustaka,” Duta Masjarakat, November 6, 1965). Interestingly, her brief biography (including her involvement in LEKRA) appears in an online encyclopedia published by the Ministry of Education of Indonesia. See Ensiklopedi Sastra Indonesia,, accessed April 20, 2016.

3) Some of her works are translated by John McGlynn. See S. Rukiah Kertapati (1983); Siti Rukiah (2011). In 2017 Ultimus, an independent publishing house in Bandung, republished Rukiah’s works: see Kejatuhan dan Hati (2017) and Tandus (2017).

4) See Bachtiar (1979). For comparison, see Gouda (1995).

5) Nine elite women were interviewed in the 1914 colonial survey on the status of native women: Raden Ajoe Soerio Hadikoesoemo, Raden Ajoe Ario Sosrio Soegianto, Oemi Kalsoem, Raden Adjeng Karlina, Raden Adjeng Amirati, Raden Adjeng Martini, Mrs. Djarisah, Raden Dewi Sartica, and Raden Ajoe Siti Soendari. See Onderzoek Naar de Mindere Welvaart der Inlandsche Bevolking op Java en Madoera, Verheffing van de Inlandsche Vrouw, IXb3 (Batavia: Papyrus, 1914). For a summary, see Vreede-de Stuers (1959, 150–151).

6) These schools were founded across the country by native Indonesian nationalists to fulfill education needs for all Indonesians.

7) This kind of leadership was often taken as a model during the New Order period (1965–98). In fact, one organization, Dharma Wanita, continues this practice even today.

8) This part relies extensively on the study by Robert Cribb (1991), which provides details on the militias and their armed struggle around the Purwakarta area.

9) Cribb (1991, 749) notes, “Although Sutan Akbar was leader, with R.F. Ma’riful as his deputy, the organisation’s policy was directed by a political council (dewan politik) consisting of Khaerul Saleh, Armunanto, Johar Nur, Kusnandar and Akhmad Astrawinata, with later also Mohammad Darwis, Syamsuddin Can and Sidik Kertapati, all of them capable and experienced young politicians.”

10) This part relies mainly on Gallop (1985).

11) Sapardi Joko Damono (1997, 276–279) concludes that most writers in the revolution, in fact, started their writing career before the war. Therefore, Rukiah was an exceptional writer at that time.

12) Brief information on Godam Djelata can be found in Cribb (1991, 74).

13) Badan Musjawarah Kebudajaan Nasional was an important cultural institution founded by the Indonesian government to support national cultural development in the 1950s. Rukiah married Sidik Kertapati in 1952 and gave birth to their son in 1953. It is interesting to note that H.B. Jassin (1962) wrote a bitter critique on Tandus 10 years after it was published. That is partly because in 1962, LEKRA and its opponents were very tense, and this might have influenced Jassin’s view on Rukiah’s earlier work.

14) Njoto (1959).

15) Rukiah wrote a poem titled “Sahabatku” (My friend) as a dedication to one of her painter friends.

16) Gallop (1985) classifies her poems in seven categories: life, truth, desire, revolution, inner struggles, love, and writing.

17) I do not discuss “Sebuah Tjerita Malam Ini” because it was written in 1951, after the revolution was over. The other five short stories were written between 1948 and 1949.

18) Gallop (1985, 43) notes that the story was first published in the Pujangga Baru in 1948 and titled “Gambaran Masyarakat” (A picture of society).