Anthony Reid, A History of Southeast Asia: Critical Crossroads, Wiley Blackwell, 2015 – Review

[ndlr] Signalement d’un CR de lecture par le  Professeur Craig J. Reynolds.


I first read this book in the warm humid climate of northern Queensland. As in Java, volcanic activity early in the earth’s history has left rich, fertile soil where grains, fruit and vegetables thrive. Rainfall can be plentiful or sparse; irrigation and water control are the keys to taming nature’s whims. This setting was just right to appreciate Tony Reid’s comprehensive, detailed and readable history of Southeast Asia. The book begins with a discussion of the people inhabiting the region’s humid tropics. As with many studies of the past being written today, climate and geography are not mere backgrounds but causal in human history.

Among the book’s many virtues is Reid’s ability to break down the two thousand years he had to cover in order to guide the reader through space and time. He encapsulates periods concisely in chapters of modest size. The charter era; gunpowder kings; becoming a tropical plantation; the last stand of Asian autonomies; the victory of the nationalist idea in the 1930s; the military, monarchy and Marx; and the making of nations and making minorities are just some of the themes pursued in this book. Without fussing about overlaps and exceptions, he divides the region’s religions five ways: the Islamised south; the Theravada Buddhist north; the Christianised east; Confucian Viet culture; and older Southeast Asian religious practices. Some readers will recognise the Age of Commerce (1580-1630) as the book’s centre of gravity but considering the geographical and temporal challenges he faced, I felt the coverage was remarkably even.

Reid says Southeast Asia is not India and not China but in doing so, asserts that the region cannot be understood without considering these Asian giants. Interactions with India and China are one of the book’s strongpoints, although I thought that the analysis of the relationship with China was more insightful than with India. To come to terms with the complexities of the twentieth century, he defines and develops an idea of Southeast Asian modernity by making comparisons with early modern Europe. In one of his most ambitious statements, this comparison leads him to state that the region played the most central role in world history as a crucible for the birth of modernity and the unification of markets. Women were especially vital in Southeast Asian economies as traders, healers, therapists and occasionally, rulers.

Lire la suite / Read more : Australian Institute of International Affairs