Lieberman Finds Strange Parallels He Can’t Explain

The historian of Southeast Asia sees patterns across Eurasia, but can’t really explain them.

Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c. 800-1830

In the two volumes of Strange Parallels, Victor Lieberman manages if anything to put Southeast Asia in a global context.

Studying a period of over a thousand years, Lieberman’s two voluminous books propose a new world history, one that curiously originates in a traditional backwater of historiography: Burma. Developments there serve as a blueprint for what Lieberman believes must be interpreted as an “Eurasian-wide pattern of secular integration punctuated by coordinated periods of collapse” roughly between the years 800 and 1830.

From studying the history of Burma to the three continental realms of Southeast Asia, Lieberman derives the notion that all of the “rimlands” of Eurasia, which also include Japan, Western Europe, even Russia, are subject to similar administrative cycles of consolidation during the aforementioned period. He identifies ancient empires in these regions as “charter states” which were all “regarded by local successor states as normative and legitimating.” Their political and ideological organization was initially duplicated and later sophisticated by successive polities situated in the same area. Between subsequent periods of consolidation, the interregna of collapse became ever shorter. By the early nineteenth century, in Southeast Asia at least, this phenomenon had “yielded an unprecedentedly powerful and extensive formation.”

It deserves notion that the author does not pretend that these consolidations in different parts of the world — which weren’t merely political but cultural as well — were very similar. But within each regions, “judged by local standards, political and cultural cohesion in 1830 exceeded that in 1600, which exceeded that in 1400, and so forth. In every region,” according to Lieberman, “judged again by local standards, political and cultural networks in 1830 were unprecedentedly extensive and […] internally specialized.”

What is driving this mounting cohesion? The author deserves praise for noticing the parallels between far flung parts of the world but despite some 1,500 pages of extensive and impressive scholarly analysis, the reader is left without a clear answer to the question that matters most.

Still confined to Southeast Asia, Lieberman is able to postulate one theory. The parallels within the region, he believes, stemmed “from fluid synergies between demographic, agricultural, military and foreign commercial pressures, all of which, including maritime stimuli, remained potent throughout the period” under his review. At least on the mainland, it is reasonable to presume that even in premodern times, developments in one realm could affect those in another. But how to account for similarities in consolidation between Siam and France? Or Russia and Japan?

The second volume sets out to answer this very question: “Why during at least a thousand years did regions on the far reaches of Eurasia, with distinctive social and economic systems and little or no contact, experience parallel consolidations?”

Until the colonial European powers ventured into East Asia during the 1500s, these regions did indeed have very little contact with one another. They all shared, however, the effects of Inner Asian empire building with the closer polities of modern day China and India particularly prone to nomadic invasion. The states in the “protected zone,” by contrast, were relatively isolated from the recurring waves of Inner Asian expansionism. “Political and cultural leadership” in these parts of the world “thus remained in the hands of indigenous elites.” That may be debatable but there is no doubt that the political histories of China and India and other continental zones under Inner Asian influence are very different from those of the Eurasian “rimlands.”

At the same time, in Europe as in Southeast Asia, indigenous elites were engaged in near constant competition with each another and states were their instruments in these battles. Early modern European states were almost exclusively devoted to warfare and Lieberman admits as much. War can serve as a powerful catalyst for political consolidation — but not everywhere.

China nor Japan, for different reasons, had to actively compete with other states. China, unlike Japan, fell victim to foreign, Manchu invasion in the early 1600s but remained fairly stable for centuries thereafter, in large part thanks to its huge size and population.

Japan faced virtually no foreign threats at all, certainly not after the Mongols tried and failed twice to conquer the islands in the late thirteenth century. Yet whereas state competition in Europe and Southeast Asia is supposed to have represented the greatest spur to modernization, Japan, without adversaries, attained a much higher level of sophistication early on.

Lieberman fails to account for these discrepancies and can’t seem to reach the sort of conclusion he is aiming for. He likes to maintain very broad parameters of “parallels” moreover, arguing that even when it takes half a century for developments in Southeast Asia to resonate in Europe or vice versa, we can still consider these events not merely comparable but “synchronized,” if not related.

In the end, Lieberman fails to move beyond observing parallels and making comparisons to tells us why it happened — unless one is inclined to accept an almost purely climatological account of history.

That is not to say his work has failed at such. Strange Parallels is an unprecedented effort to recount the chronology of Eurasian political and cultural consolidation and may well be remembered as pioneering in the field of world history. It is an outstanding reference to historians of any period and compels us to reconsider notions of exceptionalism and the balance between indigenous and foreign impetuses and impediments to development and growth. But it fails to deliver on its promise — which was an extremely ambitious one to begin with.