Victor Lieberman. Strange parallels: Southeast Asia in global context, c.800-1830. Volume 2

Victor Lieberman. Strange parallels: Southeast Asia in global context, c.800-1830. Volume 2: Mainland Mirrors: Europe, Japan, China, South Asia, and the Island.Cambridge University Press, 2009.

By: Do Truong Giang, National University of Singapore

This work is the second one in a two-volume series of Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in global context, c.800-1830.[1] In this huge book, the author attempts to link Southeast Asian history to a larger context of Eurasian history. V.Lieberman presents his extraordinary talent for assembling, connecting and analyzing enormous of materials to provide us an extensive context of Eurasian history, as well as present comparative analysis of many major early modern polities of the Eurasian Continent. The entire period from the mid-or late first millennium C.E. to the early 19th century is under examination in this comparative study. In continuing the previous work, this volume also applies ‘secular-cum-cyclic patterns’ of construction in the territories of Europe, Japan, China, South India and island Southeast Asia – all of these terrains ranged around the edges of Eurasian continent. The term of strange parallels in this series is considered as an ‘administrative integration and disintegration’ that were synchronized over the period of one thousand years and between regions that even had no contact with one another.

Chapter 2 to 4 examines the analogous history of Russia, France and Japan – typical protected zones in Eurasian continent. In these areas, the ‘indigenous-led integration’ experienced a large amount of familiar features with mainland Southeast Asia. Chapter 5 and 6 examine the relations between Southeast Asia and precocious and durable civilizations in China and South Asia – exposed zones in Lieberman’s classification.  The last chapter aims to develop new perspectives on island Southeast Asian history and compares this region with mainland Southeast Asia. According to V.Lieberman, all of these examined regions experienced a period of early states/charter states and were followed by a series of successor states/post-charter states of increasing power and strong social integration as well. The author then argues that, there were differences in the moment of rise and decline of charter polities and post-charter polities between protected zones and exposed zones due to several of motivations.

The author differentiates protected zones from exposed zones- two zones of integration in pre-modern Eurasian history. Eurasia’s protected zones, in his view, including Southeast Asian region, Europe, Japan, Korea, might be Nepal, Bhutan, Assam and several coastal areas in South Asia. He argues that protected regions were in contrast with exposed regions whose political history was permanently shaped by external powers, generally Inner Asian empires. The author identifies several synchronized trajectories in mainland Southeast Asia, Europe and Japan, such as: Inner Asian powers had very little influences in these regions, and indigenous elite rulers remained politically and culturally in control; internal geography encouraged political and cultural cohesion in these areas; and, chronologically, the time of rise and collapse of charter and post-charter states were quite analogous in Western Europe, Russia and mainland Southeast Asia during the examined period.

In contrast, Lieberman defines exposed zones like China and South Asia as ‘those of Inner Asian exposure, developmental chronology, and physical scale’. Exposed Zone once to be the homeland of precious and durable civilizations, and these areas also experienced much of the disputes and interactions with Inner Asia Empires during their long-lasting history. In author’s observation, chronologies of Inner Asian advance in South Asia and China during their history were broadly synchronized. In exposed zones, charter polities were found much earlier than those of protected zones; however, the recurrent prosperity and decline of these regional polities were less stable than those of protected zones. Another significant feature in these regions, according to Lieberman, is that external powers finally adopted indigenous cultures, including manuscripts and administrative patterns.

The history of maritime Southeast Asian area is also examined in comparison with mainland Southeast Asia, as well as in the context of interaction with European powers. Maritime Southeast Asia before the arrival of European was considered in the context of protected zones. From the time of Iberian Powers arrival, however, the history of this region gradually turn into the context of exposed zones. According to the author ‘after 1511 Europeans, in effect, converted parts of island Southeast Asia from protected zone to exposed zone status’ (p.827). Looking at the history of maritime Southeast Asia from 1511 to 1660, Lieberman identifies the European intervention in this region resembled with Inner Asian Empires, in which he calls ‘White Inner Asians’. ‘White Inner Asians’ powers like their Inner Asian counterparts ‘championed an official language, ethnicity and in most case an official religion/cult’ (p.828-829).

V.Lieberman, as he defines himself as an expert on Burmese history and mainland Southeast Asia, uses much of secondary sources and relatively fewer primary documents in this study. Such a reality could lead his readers to question about the reliable of those sources. The author’s attempt to study the history of the Eurasian continent as a whole is a fertile work; however, several comparisons in his book are still problematic and arguable. For instance, in his view, the history of Europe and Southeast Asia as a marginalized region are comparable; or, the impact of European Empires in Island Southeast Asia during the period of 16th to 19th Centuries could compare with the role that Inner Asian Powers played in China or South Asia. I could also figure out another confused matter, in which he asserts that ‘no Asian polity, with the fleeting exception of early Ming China, moved beyond a purely local maritime hegemony’ (p.825). By this statement, Lieberman tends to support for his assumption of impacts of external powers to Southeast Asian area (a protected zone as he classifies). In this sense, how could one explain and understand about the flourishing of Funan and Srivijaya kingdoms – typical maritime polities in classical Southeast Asian history, as well as the assaults and domination of Chola kingdom (Southeast of Indian Sub-continent) in Southeast Asia during the period of 11th – 12th centuries?

Despite its remained debatable issues, this monumental book sheds light on the integration of Southeast Asian history into the global context, as well as encourages comparative study in world history. Consequently, this book is an essential contribution to the fields of Southeast Asian history and, in a larger context, Eurasian history as an ‘interactive sphere’. This enormous work also suggests me to examine my interest topic under a comparative study and lay it into a larger context, particularly Southeast Asian history as a whole. In this sense, the history of Champa kingdom constituted and contributed to the pre-modern history of Southeast Asian region, and Champa history share lots of common features with adjacent states.


[1] Victor Lieberman. Strange parallels: Southeast Asia in global context, c.800-1830. Volume 1: Integration on the mainland. Cambridge University Press, 2003.

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