'Coedes' Histories of Cambodia'

by Michael Vickery

The case against George Coedès, not as an epigraphist but as an 'historian with the wrong framework'.

Publication: Communication to "Colloque George Coedès aujourd‟hui", Bangkok, Centre d‟Anthropologie Sirindhorn, 9-10 September 1999 | Silpakorn University International Journal (Bangkok,), Vol. 1, N. 1, January-June 2000, pp. 61-108.

Published: 2000

Pages: 37

Language : English

In the ongoing, often heated debate over the extent of "Indianization" or "Hinduization" of Ancient Southeast Asia, this contribution was, at the turn of the 21st century, the first demolishing critique of George Coedès' forays into regional history. His book Les états hindouisés d'Indochine et d'Indonésie (1948 and 1964, The Indianized States of Southeast Asia, 1968) is, according to the author, "for Southeast Asian history what Aristotle is for Western philosophy, or Ptolemy and Copernicus for Astronomy--classics which specialists in the fields must know, but not a reliable base for beginners."

Since then, modern scholars and researchers have reignited controversies around 1) where exactly was located 'Funan'? 2) Was 'Srivijaya' a kingdom located in modern Indonesia, or a misrepresentation of Cambodia by Chinese travelers? Did Srivajaya even exist? Is it correct to assume that 'Dvaravati' was a real political entity located in modern Thailand? Yet the assumption that 'civilization came to Southeast Asia from India by Indians' is no more held as a starting point.

And the author to note: "In general, an opinion of Stutterheim which Coedès cited now seems much more accurate than the Hinduism of Coedès, “the whole of the Hindu culture in Indonesia was acquired from books and manuals, the Hindus themselves playing a very insignificant role, or none at all.”. Coedès did not agree with that, but at least he acknowledged that all of the sources for the process are to be found in Southeast Asia, and they “show us the result, but very rarely the chain of events which produced it”. As I would put it, Southeast Asian navigators were traveling to India far back in prehistoric times, and it was they who brought back ideas and models from India. This explains the great differences between the assumed models and the results, and the differences between the „Hindu‟ cultures of the different parts of Southeast Asia."

He proceeds: "As Pierre-Yves Manguin put it in his contribution to the conference on “George Coedès Aujourd‟hui”, “Nothing could be more mistaken [than Coedès‟ views about the backwardness of Southeast Asia before the arrival of the „Hindus‟]. The archaeological research of the last 30 years has proved that the „Indianization‟ of Southeast Asia happened after a millennium of steady exchanges with India, in which certain populations of Southeast Asia, who were beginning to organize themselves within political systems of increasing complexity, played a decisive role, particularly in the setting up of seafaring merchant networks exporting gold and tin”.

There are many examples given of Coedes's reluctance to correct erroneous interpretations of Chinese sources (for instance the correspondance with Paul Pelliot about Zhou Daguan's mentions of war between the Khmers and the Thais), yet the author is particularly severe when he blames his take on Suryavarman I: "There are good examples of scholastic involution, refusing to allow new information to displace obsolete conceptions. First, with respect to a special title characteristic of Suryavarman, even though by 1944 he had renounced an earlier theory that Suryavarman had come from the Malay peninsula via the lower Menam Basin to Angkor, he still insisted in 1944 and 1948 that one of Suryavarman's titles, kamtvan, derived from Malay tuan, „master‟. Aymonier had long before correctly identified that title with the Khmer word for „grandmother‟, which Coedès only realized in 1954. In Coedès 1964 he finally got it right, but without giving credit to Aymonier."

Photo: George Coedes with a Chola-style statue of Suryavarman, date & place unknown (coll. G. Garanchon)

Tags: Indian influences, maritime routes, Southeast Asia, geography, EFEO, Cambodian history, prehistory, Indianization

About the Author

Portrait of Michael   Vickery

Michael Vickery

Michael Vickery (April 1 1931, Billings, Montana, June 29 2017, Battambang, Cambodia) was an American historian and lecturer with a passion for Cambodia.

His doctoral thesis research in Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia lasted from 1970 to 1977, when he completed it under the title Cambodia After Angkor: The Chronicular Evidence for the Fourteenth to Sixteenth Centuries. That same year, Vickery received a Doctor of Philosophy in history from Yale University.

Known for his liberal views, he later specialized in history of modern Cambodia, contributed numerous columns for the Phnom Penh Post from 1992 to 2007. He also taught Ancient History at the Royal University of Fine Arts (RUFA) in Phnom Penh.

A bibliographical notice on Michael Vickery.