What comparative studies for Asia?

Yves Goudineau

1May 2004

2Paul Mus will have been one of the last to consider Asia as a whole: from the Indus River to Japan and from Tibet to the Indonesian archipelago. The author of the brilliant Borobudur (1935) identified a regional protohistoric cultural foundation on which the Indian and the Chinese civilisations were built, both being part of the steppes of Central Asia.

3As if caught in the middle of this double civilising movement, South-East Asia was formed at the last stage. It was a time when the two civilising forces met, although they kept their distance. The aforementioned foundation was built upon at a later stage and its impact is still noticeable today. For Mus, it was possible to understand the overall movement in the long-term from this common foundation, shedding light on gradual ideological stratification processes (Hinduisation, Sinicisation), changing phenomena, (such as the emergence of Buddhism) and the forming of religious, commercial and political networks of varying size and duration.

4Such a perception involved learning how to go beyond the barriers in specialised Oriental Studies, and to avoid limiting the scope to modern political borders. By doing so, Mus wanted to establish the possibility of structural and historical comparative studies, to analyse these multiple networks in Asia.

5Today, social scientists, especially anthropologists, are suspicious of such foundations. They would go as far as considering them unacceptable, when archaeologists would find it difficult identifying distinct regional evolutions within Asia on such a large scale as early as the Neolithic era. Social scientists are already glad to be able to draw similarities between sub-Himalayan lithic cultures.

6The issue of comparison persists, however, as does that of refusing to stop research at the border, which remains largely discussed. If there can be an Asia Network for research, its purpose should be to conduct comparative studies on Asia. Considering Asia as a whole can be problematic; the borders must be broken between the different disciplines and a venture should be pursued out both locally and nationally, as was wished by Mus. Nevertheless, “keeping an open mind” should not be an excuse for hasty speculations or dubious hypotheses, as was the case for a long time. We must justify the relevance of broadening the scope and making sure it does not lead to taking less care in our analysis.

  • 1 “Ethnic” refers to cultural as much as religious aspects.

7In this regard, multi-ethnicity issues – a characteristic of almost every South-East Asian state – offer a good example of the need for studies that stretch beyond the borders, rather than national studies. Whether it is about Chinese, Indian, Hmong or Bugis migration networks, which are considered carriers of imported, or other cross-border cultures or religions, it is clear that this double local and international perspective is almost always required. On a broader scale, by highlighting this recurrence of multi-ethnic contexts, the states believe that they can protect themselves from criticism against the fate of their minorities in general1. However, this seems to lend itself particularly well to comparative studies and cooperation between disciplines. The effervescence of identity debates between politically dominant cultural groups and minorities, from one end of the continent to the other, is coupled with recurring “comparable” situations that actually gain from being compared.

8The identity issue is so persistent and covered by the media around the world to such an extent that today many people tend to confuse anthropology with reflecting on identity. The challenge therefore lies in finding out if the Asian context is unique. This is because Asia is always considered as being geometrically variable; there is no pre-established context for relevant comparison. Thus, replacing the common Asian foundation as defined by Mus with a supposedly shared framework does not enable us to make any sort of progress. On various scales, and according to the areas under comparison that are being constantly reconstructed by analysis, it is without doubt that there are some problematic cases specific to Asia, which justify the relevance of comparative studies within the continent. As an example, let’s go back to the multi-ethnicity issue in terms of the relationship with history. Certain dominant cultural groups rewrite national or regional history without hesitation so as to justify their authority and legitimacy in the country or certain internal colonisation processes. The ruling classes’ right to forge the past, historical revisionism included, continues to echo throughout Asia. This practice may even be stronger or more likely than anywhere else. Comparing the rewritings of Japanese, Burmese or even Vietnamese history is enlightening. Minority groups retaliate by re-establishing roots as well, building a cultural history often on a subjective basis and sometimes under the instigation of “ethnic” Christian or non-Christian NGOs.

9Everywhere, the rapid explosion of these “rediscoveries” of tradition that can become state cultures in new nation-states, as illustrated by Roberte Hamayon, requires us to identify the specific social processes at work in each case. It also justifies an inter-Asian comparison that is relevant more often than not.

10In conclusion, if there is an Asia Network, it is widely agreed that it must develop a partnership with Asian researchers. We cannot forget, however, that we are often confronted with what appears to be ideological bias in local research, with specialists regularly involved in openly nationalist endeavours. This is especially true for those who work on the aforementioned issues. We should probably take a step back to evaluate and remember that ideological bias has been blossoming for a long time in Western research, and we need to make an effort to understand the conditions under which knowledge is produced locally and be critical of our own methods. Researchers working on Asia, let’s make one last effort to engage in comparative studies!


1 “Ethnic” refers to cultural as much as religious aspects.


Yves Goudineau

École française d’Extrême-Orient