Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit have already proved themselves one of the most creative and complementary marital partnerships in the business of interpreting Asia. While they eschew partitioning responsibility, suffice it to say that together they offer both an elegant Cambridge style of historical analysis and great empathy for the Thai sources and context. Following their innovative and successful A History of Thailand (2005), Baker and Pasuk have recently turned their attention to elegant English editions of some crucial Ayutthaya texts. The scholarly effort of rendering into poetic English two colorful epic poems, Tale of Khun Chang Khun Phaen: Siam’s Great Folk Epic of Love and War (2010), and Yuan Phai, Defeat of Lanna: A Fifteenth-Century Thai Epic Poem (2016), was accompanied by a study and translation of The Palace Law of Ayutthaya and the Thammasat: Law and Kingship in Siam (2016). These works provide a cultural depth lacking in earlier surveys, and are drawn on liberally throughout Baker and Pasuk’s A History of Ayutthaya: Siam in the Early Modern World. The Palace Law, for example, provides a vivid picture of the military style of court culture that the authors see as characteristic of the sixteenth century in Siam (105–111). Baker and Pasuk (their naming practices, including in the bibliography, reflect that the Thai personal name is more critical than the surname) argue that the history of Ayutthaya has been undernourished in comparison with that of other great Asian kingdoms, firstly because Siam lacked the class of curious colonial scholar-officials eager to excavate the past, and secondly because the royal narrative established by Prince Damrong, an influential minister of the interior under King Chulalongkorn (r. 1868–1910), attributed all that was regrettable in Thai history to Ayutthaya’s borrowing from Angkor hierarchies. This royalist narrative preferred thirteenth-century Sukhothai as a model of a “pure” essence of Thainess, harmonious but free. A Southeast Asianist might quibble that nationalism elsewhere also chose to marginalize the early modern in favor of more ancient polities that were easier to romanticize as models, and that the court of Siam’s King Narai (1656–1688), and its relations with France, England, and the Vatican, already has a literature unparalleled by that of any other Southeast Asian early modern reign. This, however, only makes the balanced and nuanced treatment by Baker and Pasuk more valuable—well beyond the limits of Thailand. They have mastered the new scholarship showing the intense pluralism of Southeast Asia before the modern nation-state, and the many strands that merged in the cosmopolitan port-city of Ayutthaya to forge a new Thai identity. Crucial among them were the older, Mon-Khmer culture of the Chaophraya delta, the Buddhist sacred and royal centers on the northern tributaries of that river, and the trading communities that plied the Gulf of Thailand and beyond. This reader might have gone further than the authors did in exploring the specifically Chinese input in Ayutthaya’s origins as emphasized in the Van Vliet chronicle and Charnvit Kasetsiri’s early work. The authors note the Chinese role, but wisely prefer to avoid the dangers of provocative ethnic labeling of past identities. Adoption of the “early modern” label suggests that, unlike some earlier Asianists, Baker and Pasuk welcome comparisons. They do not engage economic historical debates about capitalism, enlightenment, or “great divergence” directly. Early modernists may be startled, however, at the extreme urbanism (40 percent ) that Baker and Pasuk describe for seventeenth- century Siam. If the self-sufficient agrarian villages imagined by “peasant studies” scholars a few decades ago existed, they left no mark on the literature, graphic arts, and foreign descriptions of the period. In this respect Baker and Pasuk put Siam more firmly in the “age of commerce” that I posited than I dared do myself, despite attempts elsewhere to draw a line between “agrarian” mainland and “maritime” island Southeast Asia. The authors are, however, wary of embracing a clear periodization. The thematic emphases of three chapters suggest a progression. “An Age of Warfare” (chap. 3) epitomizes the sixteenth century, “Peace and Commerce” (chap. 4) the seventeenth century, and “Ayutthaya Failing” (chap. 6) the lead-up to Ayutthaya’s fall to the Burmese in 1767. The text is more nuanced, and eschews broader comparison with “gunpowder empires” or absolutisms in other parts of the world. Like Louis XIV of France, with whom he had extensive relations, King Narai performed his majesty with magnificent public spectacles and processions, a pattern that neither monarchy extended into the eighteenth century. Was this significant? Contrary to the “Ayutthaya Failing” chapter’s title, the authors insist that “there was no decline towards the fall” (258). In place of my argument for the 1688 “Siamese revolution” marking a significant turn toward agrarian self-sufficiency and cultural vernacularization, Baker and Pasuk assert (though without the economic data to convince) that it was rather the growing prosperity of Ayutthaya that undermined its capacity to defend itself. The final chapter is a useful discussion of the kingdom’s transition to Bangkok and its new dynasty, and the legacy left to it by Ayutthaya. A History of Ayutthaya is punchy but balanced, faithful to sources but accessible, erudite (notably in the king-list appendix) but earthy, even racy. This book is a marked step forward in understanding Ayutthaya’s place both in the trajectory of a nation and in global early modern history. In a nice blend of legitimating their innovations and acknowledging their limitations, Baker and Pasuk end with the words of King Chulalongkorn in 1907: “If someone comes up with a better interpretation and more accurate reasoning, we should happily appreciate the major benefit of having a clearer and more reliable history” (276). © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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