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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 1 .


Asian Freedoms
Edited by David Kelly & Anthony Reid

(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998)
228pp. Index. 45.00; ISBN 0-521-62035-X. Pb.: 14.95; ISBN 0-521-63757-0.



This book, edited by David Kelly and Anthony Reid, contains ten essays discussing the notions of freedom, or the lack of them, in various Asian countries and cultures. The book argues that "authentic conceptions of freedom are found throughout the Asian region, where they have emerged in complex ways from local institutions and practices." (back cover of the book) Paradoxically, however, many essays actually argue for an opposite view, namely, that freedom was not an authentic value emerging from Asian peoples' own cultures and traditions. W.J.E. Jenner argues that political freedom as a concept or a right cannot be found in Chinese cultures before the nineteenth century. Ian Mabbett argues that Buddhism's notion of spiritual freedom of individuals has no direct connection with political freedom, and it was often stressed side by side with strict social hierarchy and discipline. Vera Mackie shows that traditional Japan was dominated by a vision of a Confucian-style family-state where hierarchy and obedience were emphasised. Alexander Woodside demonstrates that freedom was regarded by eighteenth-century Vietnamese Confucian elite as "pernicious", upsetting cosmos order and social order. The only essay that argues in a contrary spirit is Anthony Reid's discussion of the concept of freedom ('merdeka') in Indonesia. He argues that by the eighteenth century, at least one Indonesian people, the people of Wajo', appear to have arrived quite independently at a well-defined idea of freedom as a positive value and a set of recognised rights, including the freedoms of thought, expression, and travel.

In the introduction of the book, however, the editors make a less strong and more plausible claim: "Western ideas of freedom have been widely accepted in Asia, but they have had radically different careers depending on the local stock of concepts of practice onto which they have been grafted". (p.6) This claim is well supported by some of the essays. David Kelly shows modern and contemporary Chinese intellectuals quickly learnt and accepted the Western idea of freedom as representing something of universal value, and essential to the revival of the Chinese nation. Thanet Aphornsuvan discusses how the Thai elite took the idea of freedom from the West to oppose Western colonialism and to redefine the essence of the Thai nation as an independent state. Josef Silverstein describes how contemporary Burmese intellectuals tried to blend together Western notion of freedom and Buddhist insights in order to articulate a new democratic vision of society.

Despite that the general lesson drawn from the book is mixed and uncertain, the book provides an interesting exploration of the developments of political ideas and cultures in Asia.


Joseph Chan, The University of Hong Kong



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