Session Abstract: This panel considers how Southeast Asia’s precolonial empires produced knowledge about human variety through identification, classification, ethnographic description, and administrative action. Although historians have shown that European and Chinese imperial agents used ethnology to underwrite “civilizing missions,” these papers shift the focus to the precolonial polities of mainland Southeast Asia. In nineteenth-century Burma, Siam, and Vietnam, imperial elites and their subaltern officials also devised and, at times, improvised categories of difference in order to better manage the diverse peoples in their cities, at their ports, and on their frontiers.
Rather than taking ethnic categories as a given, we consider examples of what James Scott and Leo Von Geusau have called “administrative ethnogenesis.” Collectively, our papers argue that ethnographic knowledge, ethnic differentiation, and the categorization of human life into groups represent practices that were not simply derived from European colonial models. Instead, we emphasize the historical complexities of modern concepts like “tribe,” “ethnic group,” and “race” by drawing connections to the precolonial past.
Four historians of Southeast Asia will elaborate the imperial lineages of ethnic difference in distinct yet interrelated contexts. Aurore Candier examines how the European concept of “nation” progressively informed precolonial “categories of people” (lumyo) in Burma. Matthew Reeder analyzes early efforts to conceptualize “peoples” in Siam. For imperial Vietnam, Vu Duc Liem traces how shifts in demographic categories reflect designs on Khmer lands while Bradley Camp Davis elucidates the bond between ethnographic knowledge and imperial rule in the Central Highlands. Penny Edwards will offer commentary and moderate discussion.
Paper Presenter: Bradley C. Davis – Eastern Connecticut State University
Paper Presenter: Matthew Reeder – Asia Research Institute / National University of Singapore
Paper Presenter: Aurore Candier – Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique