chapter  3
31 Pages

A new/old look at “classical” and “post-classical” Southeast Asia/Burma: Michael Arthur Aung-Thwin

Problems and issues of “classical” Southeast Asia: “Classical” as an etic-emic concern When we fi rst studied “classical” Southeast Asia as graduate students under John Whitmore in the early 1970s, we seldom discussed the implications of using the term “classical period” or “classical states”, as there were more important things to do, such as writing a history of one. We also did not fret too much that the term “classical” itself implied political and other consequences beyond our academic concerns. Even with regard to only academic matters, did we mean it in the sense that it was a zenith of something, such as “classical music?” Or did we mean it in the sense of something older than the period of time in which we were living, as in “that car is a classic model?” 1

And partly because the notion of “classical” was not new at the time-Harry Benda had coined it earlier 2 —we assumed its appropriateness and used the term without thinking much about some of the academic (or political) implications of such usage. That it came from European historiography, and used there as a heuristic device to make a clearer distinction between the Greco-Roman, the Medieval, and the Renaissance worlds did not seem to bother us much at the time. In retrospect, perhaps it should have, for among other reasons, our major examples of historiography-Southeast Asian chroniclers written in the Sri Lankan Buddhist tradition-did not use “periods” to organize their histories; certainly not the Western linear scheme of ancient, medieval, and renaissance. To the former, “history” was rajavamsa (genealogy of kings) whose content was basically a sequence of events that recorded royal activity considered important to its writers. In other words, the periodizing of Southeast Asian history per se was not an “autonomous” (emic) exercise, 3 so that even conceptualizing a “classical” era in Southeast Asia as a distinct “period” had been taken from our understanding of, and imitating Western historiography.