AAS Annual Meeting

Southeast Asia Session 267

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Session 267: The “Age of Commerce” in Mainland Southeast Asia: Case Studies on a Contested TheoryThis is one of two panels examining critically the impact of Anthony Reid's work on Southeast Asian Studies and follows the new, creative format. There will be no discussants but rather active participation from the audience.

Organizer: Nhung Tuyet Tran, University of Toronto, Canada

Chair: Tana Li, Australian National University, Australia

Among Anthony Reid’s important contributions to the study of Southeast Asia was the theory that events internal to Asia triggered an “Age of Commerce,” characterized by rapid commercialization, the centralization of strong states, the dramatic rise in cross-regional trade, and the spread of externally-validated scriptural religions. While the thesis has been influential in subsequent studies of Southeast Asian and World history, it has also elicited critique in the applicability of the thesis to Mainland Southeast Asia in the early modern period. Did the wealth, commercialization, and centralization of state power truly create such profound social shifts within local society in Mainland Southeast Asia? This panel examines the Age of Commerce and critiques of the thesis through three case studies in Ayutthaya and Vietnam. In the first, Maurizio Peleggi examines how Thais represented their ‘others’ in the supposed cosmopolitan environment that wealth from the overseas trade created in Ayutthaya created. Was this flourishing port city as inclusive as has been represented? In the second paper, Li Tana interrogates whether the Age of Commerce Thesis applied to North Vietnam, which has often been qualified as exceptional. She examines the impact of long distance trade in silver and silk in North Vietnamese society and in particular, to the social and religious changes apparent in the seventeenth century. Nhung Tuyet Tran’s paper follows from Li Tana’s examining how the effects of those social changes on the (relative) success of Catholic conversion in Vietnam. Was this a result of a profound social shift created by the economic changes in the long distance trade or were there other underlying factors. All these papers take case studies of particular issues that have been posited as outcomes of the Age of Commerce in Southeast Asia, but have not yet been examined critically. There are no formal discussants but active participation from the audience will be encouraged.

“Representing the Other in Thai early modern visual culture”
Maurizio Peleggi, National University of Singapore, Singapore

One of the leading port-cities in Southeast Asia’s ‘Age of Commerce’, Ayutthaya was the capital from 1351 to 1767 of the eponymous kingdom that ruled over the central region of modern-day Thailand. Ayutthaya was also a cosmopolitan city, which housed traders’ communities from Europe, the Middle East and East Asia, as well as a large resident community of Chinese émigrés. French Jesuits were a familiar presence there and even designed buildings for the royal palace in the nearby town of Lopburi; while the influence of a Greek court counselor, Constantine Phaulkon, eventually triggered in 1688 a dynastic fall and xenophobic backlash. Several European visitors of Ayutthaya wrote narratives of their stay that included in their published form engraved illustrations of Thai peoples, objects and places. The converse was also true. A characteristic of the visual culture of Ayutthaya is the representation of the Thai’s Other – be he Chinese (jin), Persian and Arab (khaek), or European (farang) – in illuminated manuscripts, temple murals and decorated artefacts. This paper examines the nature of Thai representations of foreigners in the context of early modern economic and cultural exchanges between Europe and SE Asia, focusing in particular on their social function in Ayutthaya’s cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic and religiously tolerant society.

Tongking in the Age of Commerce
Tana Li, Australian National University, Australia

This paper will try to estimate the size of 17th century Tongking's overseas income and examine the social changes occurred within this context. The greatly improved field of the last five years shades valuable light onto the 17th century Tongking. We learnt that a large volume of silver flew into the Tongking society, significant enough to influence some of the policies. But once it flew into the country, where did the silver go? Can we trace them from the surviving evidence, to see the impact of this foreign silver? The paper will try to trail the footsteps of the silver to the exchange, production, and consumption to reveal the constant interactions between foreign and domestic trade, between commerce and the state, and between commerce and the society. It will conclude with a review of the cultural and religious changes in the 17th century Tongking society.

God in the Age of Commerce: Catholic Conversion in Vietnam, 1600-1700
Nhung Tuyet Tran, University of Toronto, Canada

Did early modern Vietnamese Catholics “consciously repudiate [an] evil past” in favor of the new promise of a Christian ideal or did they gradually adapt to the tenets of Catholicism, shaping it to fit their daily lives? In the last century of the Age of Commerce, Anthony Reid has argued, the spread of scripturally-validated religions of like Islam and Catholicism into Southeast Asia was so successful because of profound dislocations in the region as a whole. Changes internal to the region, such as rapid commercialization, the direct contact between Southeast Asians and the religious heartland, and the expansion of the crusades to Southeast Asia politicized the conversion process in the region and all helped to stimulate conversion to Christianity in Southeas Asia. This paper examines Reid’s theory on the impact of the Age of Commerce on Catholic conversion in Vietnam (Tonkin and Cochinchina) its first hundred years. Was the relative success of Catholic conversion in Vietnam a result of these profound dislocations that were present in the rest of the region, or were the circumstances particular to the socio-economic developments in early modern Vietnamese society?