On the Historiography of Srivijaya

This post is written especially for current students in GOVT 3443/ASIAN 3334, Southeast Asian Politics.

Earlier this semester we briefly discussed the great kingdoms of pre-colonial Southeast Asia, from Dai Viet to the Khmer Empire to Pagan to Majapahit. One kingdom that we mentioned briefly was the Srivijayan Empire, a maritime state whose territory spanned Sumatra and the Malay peninsula. Here is the map that I showed you.

Later we mentioned Srivijaya one more time, in addressing the rise of the Malacca sultanate.

A theme in this part of our lectures was (1) the difficulty of describing the polities of pre-colonial Southeast Asia, owing to the incomplete and fragmentary evidence available to us today, (2) the role of colonial powers and colonial-era scholarship in producing the knowledge that we do have, and (3) the attendant result that it appears that we only can start talking about “politics” in depth in Southeast Asia when we start to get European records.

We tried our best to react against this, noting that in addition to the local evidence that has survived in the form of monuments, temples, constructions, inscriptions, and others, we do have other records left by Chinese and later Arab and European traders. We discussed the concept of the mandala as the dominant pre-colonial political form, of Zomia as outside of the lowland mandala polities, and the distinction between hulu and hilir. Still, we didn’t have much by the way of concrete discussion of any of these empires; for that, you can look to other great classes here for more on these empires’ history, architecture, art, and religion.

However, because I am not a historian of pre-colonial Southeast Asia (and neither are any of you! at least not yet), I presented these pre-colonial empires as basically facts. So, too, did your SarDesai reading. It was not up for debate whether or not the Khmer Empire was a great empire–it was–or whether Ayutthaya was the central political actor in the Chao Phraya valley. It would be unthinkable for me to even debate that.

As it turns out, the same is not true of the Srivijayan Empire.

This blog post by Liam Kelley, a historian of Vietnam, introduces a striking argument that has sparked a serious debate about the status of the Srivijayan Empire. The author’s claim is that the sources that scholars have used to describe Srivijaya as a great empire are talking about something else–in the author’s view, Angkor. The argument is not that there was no such thing as Srivijaya, as there are inscriptions that use the word Srivijaya that have been found in southeastern Sumatra. Rather, the point is that this Srivijaya is not the same thing as the polities described in the important pre-colonial sources that have served as our main evidence for the Srivijayan Empire.

He makes this argument by analyzing the primarily Chinese accounts that serve as the evidentiary basis for describing Srivijaya as an important pre-colonial polity, such as accounts of Chinese traders spending months in Srivijaya learning Sanskrit before later traveling to what is today India. We do not have local evidence of this, we have only the accounts of others, as well as the names of the places that they used, written in the Chinese of the time. Kelley argues that those words (such as Shi-Li-Fo-Shi) do not describe Srivijaya. You can read his posts for all the gory details.*

Remember the important distinction between Srivijaya and the empires of the mainland. Whereas many of those formed around great riverine systems (Mekong, Irrawaddy, Red River, etc.) that allowed the empires to amass large population bases through the intensive cultivation of rice, Srivijaya was a maritime-facing polity. It has been described recently as a thalassocracy: an empire with a maritime focus. Majapahit on Java was a thalassocracy. But Majapahit also left reams of evidence in Java itself of its own existence, and of its own greatness. The same is not true of Srivijaya.

I must insist that I am not qualified to evaluate the argument that Kelley presents. I must also insist that even if it were true that the sources used to describe Srivijaya are actually talking about some other place, this does not logically entail that there was no such thing as Srivijaya: this word appears in inscriptions found in Sumatra, so it describes something.** But there are some important points to take away from this emergent debate, even if it turns out that Kelley is entirely wrong.

First, the evidentiary basis for what we know about Srivijaya is very incomplete. Kelley is not the first to note that the analyses of Srivijaya rest to a large degree on the accounts from others traveling through the region. There is precious little evidence of Srivijaya that comes from the territories where it was located. To say anything about the politics of pre-colonial Southeast Asia in this case requires us to work very hard to assemble an evidentiary base.

Second, the effort to discover and analyze Srivijaya is intimately tied with colonial-era scholarship. I did not fully appreciate, for example, that the first concrete proposal of the existence of a Srivijayan Empire came from George Cœdès–a French archeologist–in 1918. That is not that long ago! He has been described as having “discovered” Srivijaya. A lot of scholarship about Srivijaya rests on his interpretations of words in Old Malay found in contemporary Thailand, and those interpretations are much more contested than I realized.

Third, these facts interact in what might be uncomfortable ways when it comes to post-colonial scholarship and our understanding of the pre-colonial polities of Southeast Asia. The concept of the Srivijayan Empire is important to the concept of Indonesia itself, much like Majapahit is, as a pre-colonial antecedent to the post-colonial state. Much of the post-colonial scholarship on Southeast Asia sought to uncover what John Smail called in 1961 an “autonomous history of Southeast Asia.” That is a history of Southeast Asia that sees the region in its own local terms, rather than merely as a reflection of Indic, Chinese, Arab, and European influences*** as they spread culturally, economically, religiously, and politically throughout the region.

I value this search for an autonomous history of Southeast Asia as well. And yet I am forced to think critically about the possibility of writing that history when the accounts that we use to do so were not produced by Southeast Asians in Southeast Asia.


* Also the graphics are great. I wish that these existed as a series of TikToks too.

** But careful. Kelley suggests that Srivijaya describes a person, not a polity. And indeed, to anyone familiar with the Sanskrit influence on naming conventions in Southeast Asia, when you stop to think about it, “Sri Vijaya” sounds like a royal title.

*** Here we grapple with the question of Orientalism in the study of Southeast Asia, because the region itself is the subject to the external gaze of others in the East, not just Europeans.