Sunday, 21 April 2013

Books on Indonesia

Southeast Asian history often feels a little cut off from the rest of the world.  Scholars seldom appear conversant with major languages, like Chinese or Arabic, that are vital for understanding the region, and as a Chinese speaker I am more than a little perturbed by the fact that southeast Asianists are often relying on transcriptions and translations that are over a half a century old, in some cases much more.  Chinese sources for Timorese history used today were translated in 1880 by W. P. Groeneveldt and haven't been translated since, and many other sources are not much younger.  This results in errors - or, at least, it results in orthographies that are incorrect and that make the rest of the work feel a bit more amateurish than it actually is.  This is especially bad when it comes to Indonesia.

Kalingga, for instance, is usually named 'Ho-ling' after the Wade-Giles transcription of 訶陵, its Chinese name, even in recent works.  Kenneth Hall's A History of Early Southeast Asia (2011) uses it, as does Paul Michel Munoz's Early Kingdoms of the Indonesian Archipelago and Malay Peninsula (2006).  Aruteun, another early Javanese (Sundanese?) kingdom, is known by 'Ho-lo-tan' in the same works.  These are not the modern transcriptions and they look stupid if you actually know Chinese.  Nanzhao, an important kingdom in Yunnan invaded at different times by the Tibetans and Chinese and famed adversary of the early Burmese (Pyu) cities, is often seen as 'Nanchao' (even 'Nan Chao'), as it is in Michael and Maitrii Aung-Thwin's book.  Munoz uses 'Yi-tsing' for Yijing, and it seems like he uses a number of different transcriptions for Xuanzang and Huining, other travelling monks - despite his claim that '[he had] tried as much as possible to use Pinyin rendering'!  (He does at least get Nanzhao right).

Munoz's book is the one you'll find for sale at Indonesian archaeological sites, which is a bit distressing because it isn't very good.  Munoz isn't an academic; that's fine, of course, if the scholarship is of high quality, but unfortunately quality scholarship isn't what his book contains.  Or rather, quality recent scholarship is lacking, and the bibliography is terrible.  Munoz is mostly correct about the facts and the book is certainly interesting.  He manages to sum up several major debates surprisingly well, including the debate about how and why Indian influence entered Indo-Malaysia in the first place (perhaps ultimately the desire for gold).  His section on Kutai is also quite good.  It's also quite a feat to corral the disparate facts of ancient Indonesian history into a single book, no matter if it's good or not.  And Munoz is clearly a talented amateur.

But he makes mistakes both major and minor: he claims that Pagan (the major Burmese city of the eleventh-through-thirteenth centuries) fell due to Mongol invasions (the consensus is that it did not, but fell instead due to its own structural problems), and says, among other things, that Tai people speak Austroasiatic languages (especially interesting given that Munoz also connects Austroasiatic languages to the Mesolithic Hoabinhian cultures of southeast Asia, which seems like an impossible correlation).  It is also clear that he doesn't know Old Malay, which wouldn't necessarily be a problem if he didn't go ahead and claim that the Kota Kapur inscription is in Sanskrit.  Munoz provides a transcription of the Kota Kapur stone, and I could tell by sight that it isn't in Sanskrit (unless vulan, tidak, ni, and yan have all become Sanskrit words without my noticing).

The book also needed a good editor - quite badly, I'd say, as there are all sorts of errors, not just historical and epigraphic ones - and it also needed the input of a prehistorian.  Munoz makes many claims about proto-Austronesian and proto-Malay culture that seem a little ridiculous, such as the idea that Austronesian speakers are typically 'egalitarian'.  He clearly privileges western Indonesia over eastern, barely mentioning Sulawesi, the islands of the Sawu sea, or any part of Maluku.  This is astounding, especially when you consider that Moluccan spices and Timorese sandalwood were some of the most important reasons for visiting the archipelago in the first place (oh, and the native social structural forms found on the eastern islands seem to give useful glimpses into Indonesian/Austronesian life prior to 'Indianisation' - perhaps needless to say, they give no indication of 'egalitarianism').  This seems to be because Munoz precisely follows the models of earlier scholars like Georges Coedes, instead of examining older issues in a slightly newer light.

The scholarship is there for a study of ancient eastern Indonesia to work; there are some holes in some areas, especially when it comes to the Central Malayo-Polynesian branch of Austronesian, but there are also plenty of full-length books on the Indonesian spice trade, almost all of which originated in the eastern endRobin Donkin's Between East and West is a good place to start.  There are also plenty of studies attempting to link placenames in cantos 13 and 14 of the medieval Javanese poem Desawarnana with locations in eastern Indonesia, including the discussion surrounding the Galiyao confederacy of villages in what is now the Solor archipelagoThis would all go to waste if it weren't linked up to wider studies of ancient Indonesia.  Basically, we're lacking a sensible book on ancient Indonesia that accounts for recent scholarship on all fronts.

Why is this?  Why can I go to the bookshop and find a couple of great books on Angkor by brilliant scholars but not a single good book on ancient Indonesia?  Is the Indo-Malaysian archipelago not interesting enough to have a solid, popular work written about it? I find that a little hard to believe: Indonesia is the world's fourth largest nation by population and the second most biodiverse nation on earth, after Brazil.  It contains gigantic poisonous lizards, black wasps with fangs almost as long as their legs, a flower that smells like a decomposing corpse, and the world's largest Buddhist temple (Borobudur, of course - that wiki article is, by the way, better than Munoz's section on the topic).  There used to be headhunters and spice traders and other extremely exotic things.  It's clearly an interesting place.

It deserves better treatment.  What it really needs is an excellent popular work of the same calibre as those on Angkor - not necessarily one with lots of in-text citations (Harvard 2013:1) but one with clear exposition, a good editor, and, most important of all, up-to-date global scholarship.  It needs a book to bring its ancient history alive for the ordinary reader or visitor.  We need to cut out those 'Nan Chao' and 'Ho-lo-tan' references, get rid of archaic assumptions about early Austronesian societies, and throw in a lot more reliable linguistic and archaeological data.

Here's my vision of that book: It should ideally start by outlining the geography of the region (something Munoz fails to do), including some discussion of the Wallace line and its implications for Indo-Malaysian history.  Flora and fauna need to be covered because the flora, especially nutmeg, clove, mace, and sandalwood, drove exploration.  Early prehistory needs a look-in, including Homo floresiensis and the arrival of humans in Australia via eastern Indonesia.  The Austronesian expansion should rely on archaeological, linguistic, and ethnographic works instead of resting on inferences about Neolithic populations, especially as this is one of the best-studied and most concrete of all human migrations.  The Chinese sources should be written in pinyin and characters should be included, at least in an index.  (I'd like it if Sinologists could use it as a source as well, so that's actually quite important, else southeast Asian studies will always remain separate from broader Asian scholarship.)

Eastern Indonesia should certainly be included and phenomena such as the Austroasiatic, Austronesian, and Tai expansions into the Malay archipelago should be considered within a modern scientific framework (ie, the book should show how we know what we know about these things, and should attempt to correlate language with archaeology according to the current consensus - ie, Austroasiatic with rice agriculture c.2000 BCE, etc).  Effort should be made to emphasise what life might have looked like for the average person in the archipelago, even if this is always going to be speculative to some degree (this is part of the reason why archaeology is so important).  Which crops and animals were eaten?  What was the agricultural foundation of the Sumatran and Javanese states?  How did the spice trade work?  How did Sanskrit and Pali enter Indonesia, and how did the scripts diversify?

There are many more criteria that I would have for a book like that, criteria that seem to be common-sense elsewhere.  There are plenty of examples of excellent popular works on ancient history, and it would seem sensible to follow some of those, including Coe's Angkor.  There's every reason to believe that such a book would be popular enough to counter-balance the effort of producing it.  So my question is, why doesn't it already exist?


  1. "Why can I go to the bookshop and find a couple of great books on Angkor by brilliant scholars but not a single good book on ancient Indonesia"

    Well, for the exact same reason you cannot find good books on the history of Champa, Funan or other important Southeast Asian kingdoms: no Angkor Wat.

    Western interests in Angkor is almost entirely driven by Angkor Wat. It inspires scholars to become experts in the period and it provides a financial incentive for writing 'popular' works of scholarship. Srivijaya just doesn't has the same brand recognition.

    (This is a general problem with Western scholarship on the Eastern world in general. See my comments on the deficiencies of Chinese military and political history of its most famous eras).

  2. But that's the thing: Indonesia does have an Angkor Wat, in the form of Borobudur. It's at least as beautiful as Angkor and is in an even nicer setting. It has plenty of other temples too, and it's been a safer country than Cambodia for a much longer period (there aren't any landmines on Java, for instance), so it's a bit of a mystery. It may have something to do with the fact that it was the Dutch, rather than another major power, who took control of Indonesia, but other than that, it's quite hard to explain the world's ignorance of the place.

  3. Arthur Waldron devotes the last fourth of his book, The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth (Canto original series)
    how the structure became famous in the West and collected all of the fanciful attributes often attributed to it. I would love to see a similar account detailing how the Western world became so interested in Angkor Wat.

    One difference between Borobudur and Angkor Wat that may account for the varying levels of attention paid to each by Westerners is the amount of attention each site is given by Cambodians and Indonesians. There is no greater or more significant symbol of the Khmer people than Angkor Wat; it is on the Cambodian flag, its civilization is remembered as the high point of Khmer culture, and at the common level it is a byword for anything Khmer. I have come across "Angkor Market" (a grocery), "Angkor T-shirts", "Angkor video" and many other logos or company names of this type. Khmer folk are very nationalistic (or perhaps patriotic), and Angkor is really the only thing they have to hold on to.

    Indonesians, in contrast, seem a lot less dependent on their national identity. (My experience with Indonesians is incredibly shallow in comparison of my experience with Cambodians, so this may not be representative. The Indonesians I have talked to were all studying in America, all from Java, and all Christian.) And if Indonesian nationalism (or even the identity of average Indonesians) has an Islamic tint, a Buddhist temple complex like Borobudur is not the type of heritage it would champion.

  4. Indonesian nationalism is extremely important, and Indonesia is dependent on its national identity in a way few countries are. Without the nationalist movement, the country would have fallen apart decades ago. But it's an almost entirely secular movement based on Pancasila, the five founding principles of Indonesia, rather than on Islam, and it's really, really Javanese in concept, barely representative of other attitudes in the archipelago. It's a blend of different mythological and political-scientific ideas brought together primarily by Sukarno. It was inspired equally by Thomas Jefferson and Javanese syncretic Hindu-Buddhist-Heathen-Islam.

    But you're right, this nationalism, even while not explicitly Islamic, certainly wouldn't see Borobudur as a good representative of Indonesia. Khmer nationalism is more like ethno-nationalism, while ethno-nationalism is what threatens to tear Indonesia apart. Raising Borobudur up as the icon of the nation would only give fodder to critics who argue that Indonesia is little more than a Javanese empire. So you're right - there probably is a connection between nationalism/patriotism and the lack of attention paid to Indonesia.

    Most Javanese Christians are of Chinese ancestry, and the Chinese Christian population has little reason to be all that friendly to the idea of Indonesia. It's easy to get the impression that Indonesian nationalism is unimportant. Check out the Indonesian film trilogy Merah Putih ('Red and White', the colours of the Indonesian flag, of course) to see one of Indonesian nationalism's modern faces.

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