ideas, review

a funny look into Orientalism in Southeast Asia

Orientalism involves a system of imagined reality about the East, in this case Southeast Asia, according to the comparison of Western and Eastern civilizations based on Western standards (Said, 132). The biased evaluation of Southeast Asia was deeply associated with European visitors and settlers’ scheme to extract resources and transform social order for their own benefits (Owen, 4). Thus, in order to legitimize imperialist rule, the image of early Southeast Asia presented by Orientalists was distorted in the socio-economic, political, and cultural aspects.

If they were to deny the advancement and flexibility of Southeast Asia’s economic pattern, then they were wrong. Before settlers set in, people in the lowlands inhabited river plains where the soil, sunshine, and rainfall constituted the perfect condition for rice-paddy agriculture. The people living in the mountain ranges generally depended upon a shifting pattern of swidden agriculture, which required burning down crop leftovers to fertilize the land. The lowland and upland habitants were connected in extended family connection (Owen, 21) to exchange forest goods with products made in the plains (Pearson, Feb. 4). These transactions formed the early form of markets in Southeast Asia (Owen, 25). Foreign trade also took place early, by which the Southeast Asian Royalties boosted revenues from import and export taxes (27). Foreign support was seen in naval technology and vessels introduced into the area. The Chinese merchants facilitated the commerce by mobilizing networks connecting hinterlands with coastal/island areas in market forms eclipsing earliest European traders. Cities and villages in Southeast Asia in the 18th century were in close ties because of the ongoing trade (28).

Early Southeast Asian administrative function was often arbitrarily viewed by the Orientalists as overt tyranny. Given the condition of labor scarcity in the vast mainland Southeast Asia, control over population was crucial to guaranteeing sufficient production. The power of regulation was determined by the degree of population’s allegiance, largely measured by corvee labor, to local lords or the central court (50). This system of labor control might seem harsh to Orientalists, but in fact a laborer was able to maintain a flexible identity by associating himself with alternative lords (54). Thus, the people were awarded with a degree of freedom as seen in the Confucianism-infused Vietnam, where benevolent rulers could gain more favor and loyalty from the people (58). Generally the polities in the region are characterized as Mandala states with fluid boundaries with power trickled down from the center to the periphery, and neighboring states shared overlapping territories (Pearson, Feb. 16).

The Orientalists also attempted to apply the systematic study of Greco-Christian religions onto native philosophical systems in Southeast Asia. While in fact, a wide variety of beliefs including animism, Chinese-influenced and Indian-influenced ones, functioned to serve religious purposes in Southeast Asia (Pearson, Feb. 11). Early arrivers tried to present themselves as salvational figures with the mission to liberate the indigenous people, and in order to convince the indigenous of Catholicism’s legitimacy, they attempted to deny and overturn the indigenous belief system (Pigafetta, 45).

The European colonizers’ approach to effeminizing Southeast Asian people in their own interests also had a counter-effect to themselves. The kind-hearted British journalist Orwell did not have an overall pleasant time in Burma, as he was plagued by his elephant shooting experience as the only armed white man in the district burdened with expectations from Burmese onlookers. He could have been better-off disassociating himself with the label of a European representative blatantly flaunting off his “civilized” attributes. Given their wit, they should have stopped doing it “to avoid looking like a fool” (Orwell, 5).

Orwell, G. (1936). Shooting an Elephant. Retrieved from Orwell Project by O. Dag :

Owen, N. (2005). The Emergence of Modern Southeast Asia . Honolulu: Universtity of Hawaii Press .

Pearson, T. (Feb, 2015 ). HIST 198 Modern Southeast Asia .

Said, E. (1994). From Orientalism . In P. Williams, Colonial Discourse and Post-Colinial Theory: A Reader (pp. 132-149). New York : Columbia University Press .


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