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Book Review


Craig A. Lockard, Southeast Asia in World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. Pp. vii + 256.


     Writing the broad history of an entire region is a difficult task. Craig Lockard's objective in this book is even more onerous: to synthesize the discrete histories of a very large and plural region, integrate those histories into world-historical narratives, and write a concise volume that is accessible to students and teachers in both high school and university settings and to the general public. Despite the level of difficulty involved, Lockard succeeds in writing a volume that is a lively, entertaining, and well-organized introduction to Southeast Asian history that is worth reading. It is particularly well suited for those with little prior knowledge of Southeast Asia.

     Lockard's book is not without its flaws. Some of these, including monocausal interpretations of major events, are understandable and perhaps even inevitable for a book of this scope. Others, such as occasional factual errors, cartographic errors, conclusions without reasoning, and a reliance on dated scholarship and historical interpretations, are more serious. However, these shortcomings need to be put in their proper context. Those who are not specialists in Southeast Asia will find Lockard's book a far more digestible and entertaining summary of that region than any other book available, and for the introductory reader, that may be a concern that outweighs the danger of misinformation.

     Lockard is a master of the parable, the illustrative short quotation, and the anecdote. He peppers Southeast Asia in World History with a plethora of evocative vignettes that illustrate each of its eleven well-organized and thematically cohesive chapters. For example, he illustrates the gradual development of prehistoric Southeast Asia with the Malay proverb that tells us "it takes a long time to build a mountain" (5).  In illustrating the difficulties of coping with globalization and international tourism, Lockard reminds us of Linus Soryadi's poignant words about the commodification of an ancient Indonesian site: "When it is lush the bodhi tree falls without a crash/There is no replacement/There is another version without the centers/For shopping and handicrafts" (170). The entire book is replete with such short stories and poems, which are engaging and carefully chosen to represent a vast array of individuals, from kings to mercenaries to rock stars to people on the street. In this sense, the book succeeds in giving the introductory reader not just a sense of Southeast Asia's role in global processes but also a sense of the rhythms of particular Southeast Asian lives.

     Nearly every chapter of the book manages to encapsulate the history of several countries in concise thesis statements. Given the difficulty of simplifying the vast amount of information involved, these statements are impressive in both their scope and accuracy. In describing the 1950-1975 period in Chapter 9, Lockard explains that the "euphoria" following the gaining of independence was "short lived." "The new nations now faced severe problems," he tells us, including "underdevelopment, promoting national unity in ethnically divided societies, and dealing with the opposition to new ruling groups" (153). Considering the many different forms of government, wars, political revolutions, and cultural changes of this period across the many states of Southeast Asia, Lockard provides a very effective description of the common elements of these experiences.

     Lockard's book is also useful to a wide array of audiences. One of the book's greatest strengths is that it is equally useful as a general history of Southeast Asia and as an interpretation of Southeast Asia's importance in a larger global context. The themes Lockard describes in his eleven chapters, such as the integration of major religious traditions, including Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam in Southeast Asia, the building of classical empires such as Srivijaya, Angkor, and Pagan, the "age of commerce" and the spice trade, imperialism, and decolonization, are at once crucial to the story of Southeast Asian societies and reflective of larger trends in world history. Lockard is conscious of the scope of his audience and is careful to construct a narrative that genuinely serves these interests.

     Nevertheless, Lockard's book has several shortcomings, which seem to be concentrated in Lockard's treatment of mainland Southeast Asia. As is frequently the case in mass-produced textbooks, there are a number of cartographic and interpretive flaws in this book. The map of pre-modern Southeast Asia that Lockard provides indicates approximate boundary lines for early states even though they lacked firm political borders. In several cases, these boundaries are misleading and the names of polities are misstated. The "Funan and Its Neighbors" map (27) presumably depicts mainland Southeast Asia at the height of Funan around the second century C.E.  Yet this map lists a country--"Vietnam"--that did not exist throughout the period of Funan's presence. During this period, most of northern Vietnam was administered as part of the Chinese province of Jiaozhi. The map lists Hanoi as the main city in "Vietnam," even though Thăng Long (which would later become Hanoi) was not founded until 800 years after the height of Funan. The size and borderlines of the other early mainland Southeast Asian states such as Zhenla and Funan seem almost arbitrarily drawn. The map gives the reader the impression that these polities were much larger than archaeological evidence would indicate. In reading the book and viewing the map, the student would assume that the Zhenla and Funan were dominant at the same time. While the rest of the maps are considerably better, some problems persist. The consistent representation of "Champa" as a single nation when recent research has shown that it consisted of several independent states is one example. The designation of Vietnam's year of independence as 1975 is another. This choice of year may be comprehensible in an American context but does not reflect accurately the independence date celebrated by Vietnamese themselves.

     Lockard's book also contains a number of factual errors. Some of these errors are relatively minor. For example, Lockard claims Siamese leader Taksin moved the Siamese capital from Ayutthaya downriver to Bangkok, whereas Taksin's capital was at Thonburi. Similarly small errors, such as Lockard's claim that the Japanese military arrested Vichy French administrators in Vietnam in 1944, when in fact they were arrested in 1945 (147), are scattered in a few places throughout the book.

     Two errors in Lockard's account of modern Vietnam, however, are more serious.  He states that the Vietnamese Nationalist Party (Việt Nam Quốc Dân Đảng, or VNQDĐ) was crushed after it instigated the Yên Bái mutiny in 1930, "which destroyed most nationalist groups except for the communists," who after 1930 remained "better organized" and "underground" enough to become the leading revolutionary force against the French. This interpretation will confuse novice readers. It ignores the fact that in 1930-31, far from going underground, the Communists led the Nghệ-Tĩnh Uprising, which crushed the leadership of their party. In fact, though the VNQDĐ broke into factions in the early 1930s, groups such as the Trotskyites and Anarchists enjoyed considerably more success than the Indochinese Communist Party in the early 1930s precisely because so many ICP members had been killed or imprisoned, and it was not until the government of Indochina began offering amnesty for political prisoners during the Popular Front period (1936-39) that the communists began to recover. The success of the Communist Party had more to do with its reorganization after this amnesty into the Việt Minh coalition, the support it received from the allies during World War II, and the assassination of plausible rivals in the mid-1940s than it did with a power vacuum after the Yên Bái mutiny. In effect, Lockard's statements obscure the reasons for the successful rise of communism in Vietnam, which is clearly one of the most significant aspects of Southeast Asia's twentieth-century interaction with the wider world.  

     Lockard claims that South Vietnam's President Ngô Đình Diệm instituted repressive policies in the late 1950s as a response to the National Liberation Front, when that organization was not founded until 1960. While this date discrepancy seems relatively minor, it causes Lockard to reverse his analysis of cause and effect. Since the foundation of the NLF occurred after the institution of restrictive policies by the Diệm administration, it is much more likely that Diệm's repression inspired the founding of the NLF than the other way around.

     In certain passages, Lockard's recounting of events does not reflect recent research. In his discussion of devaraja cults, he implies that ancient rulers actually represented themselves as literal "god-kings," whereas Michael Vickery and Charles Higham have suggested that this was not the case. In addition, he promotes the idea that by the 1400s Vietnam had conquered most Cham areas, an assertion that has been contradicted by more recent research. He argues that Vietnamese settlement of the Mekong delta began in earnest by the 1500s, when in fact most substantial settlement in that area occurred at least a century later.  

     Lockard is too quick to use the particular national character of nations to explain historical events. He more than once attributes Thai successes to Thai "tolerance" and "flexibility" in ways that have the effect of making the Thai state's efforts to repress ethnic minorities such as Malays in the contemporary south and Chinese in earlier periods less serious. While some historians would agree with Lockard's sweeping statements about how the Vietnamese national character evinces a determination to resist foreign invasion, these statements have been criticized in recent scholarship. Moreover, Lockard applies the interpretation of the Vietnamese determination to avoid foreign invasion too broadly. Lockard claims, for example, that such a spirit to resist foreign invasion gripped the Trần family in defending its land against a Mongol takeover. At the very least, this interpretation fails to explain why many members of the Trần clan actually defected to the Mongol side.

     Southeast Asia in World History is a suitable and readable introduction to Southeast Asia for a beginning reader, particularly at the high school and introductory college level. The events and interpretations in the book concerning mainland Southeast Asia can mislead them, and those with a serious interest in Thailand or Vietnam might supplement their reading with other available texts to avoid being confused by these errors. Nevertheless, readers will enjoy the clarity and simplicity of the Southeast Asian story that Lockard tells.

Wynn Gadkar-Wilcox is Associate Professor and Co-Chair of the Department of History and Non-Western Cultures at Western Connecticut State University and served as the editor for Vietnam and the West: New Perspectives, published in 2010. He can be reached at


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