a1 University of Hawai'i, Manoa
The identity of “Southeast Asia” has been debated since the 1950s, when the region began to develop as an area of academic viability around which courses could be constructed, programmes built, and research published. Much less controversy has accompanied the growing use of “early modern”, a term which seems set to displace “precolonial” in periodizing Southeast Asian history. The phrase, of course, comes from scholarship on Europe, where it was popularized as a result of efforts to find shared “periods” that would facilitate the writing of a general history. It would be surprising if questions as to the applicability of “early modern” in Southeast Asia do not spark off some debate, especially in light of subaltern writings that reject the notion of modernity as a universal. For such historians the very invocation of the word implicitly sets a “modern Europe” against a “yet to be modernized non-Europe”. But whatever decision is made regarding terminology, scholarship on Southeast Asia is increasingly viewing a period that stretches from about the fifteenth to the early nineteenth century as rather different from those traditionally described as “classical” and “colonial/modern”. The term “early modern” itself is at present a convenient tool for historical reference, and only time will tell whether it will find general acceptance.