Southeast AsiaApproaching Westernization In Eurasian History
Contemporary ideas of what constitutes "Western culture" reflect its postcolonial origins and twentieth-century politics, just as the idea of the "West" may have had slightly different meanings between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the history of Southeast Asia, Europeans had competing ideas about the cultural values they represented and were attempting to infuse into the societies they encountered. Spanish policy in the Philippines was exceptionally different from Dutch policy in Indonesia, and the Spaniards and the Dutch certainly did not see each other as representing a single, unified, cultural domain. These motivations were often couched in religious or political agendas that many times reveal tensions between empires as much as they disclose the tensions within. Scholars gazing toward the past sometimes project "Westernization" into the histories of exploration, trade, and colonialism, despite the fact that those participating in these global exchanges probably saw and articulated their missions in slightly different ways. Caution must be employed when considering Westernization as a process because it was often much more disparate in nature than coherent. Nonetheless, using Westernization as a category of analysis can provide a useful lens into the history of global interactions with Europe.
In the history of colonialism, the term Westernization reveals the geographic context and self-referential perspective that would inform the ways in which peoples of Asia would be categorized and understood, though elites within these societies would also adopt the term to represent their notion of "modernity." This association can be attributed partly to the rhetoric of colonialism, which blended Europe's cultural forms with theories of human development in order to organize and tabulate the communities and societies that came under colonial authority. Colonized elites would appropriate these conceptions of modernity and apply them to their own societies, fundamentally changing their own identity in relation to the world. Within these discourses, the "East" or the "Orient" was seen as something homogenous, unified, and fundamentally opposite to that which was European, even though the idea of a coherent "West" encountering a coherent "East" tended to overstate the complexity, nature, and composition of these societies. In addition to Asia, this process of European interaction also occurred in Africa and the Americas, producing very similar narratives of exchange, acculturation, and domination. Whatever the context, early European scholars, traders, soldiers, and missionaries viewed themselves and the people they encountered as coming from very different worlds. In some instances, Europeans would view Westernization as the process of making others more like themselves, though they probably did not consider this transformation as "Westernization" per se. Throughout history, Westernization would come to have different meanings, effects, and forms, but in essence it refers to one of many global processes that have characterized the interaction of human societies.
From a regional perspective, the history of Westernization in Southeast Asia can be seen in much the same way: It is but one of many continuing processes that have contributed to the region's character. For a millennium, Southeast Asia has benefited from its unique geographic location of being both a mainland and maritime crossroad between the Indian and Chinese cultural zones. This vital location has given it exposure to three great religions (Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity), global trade, and the movement of peoples from all over the world. Many scholars have chosen to consider the dynamics of regional change in the context of Islamization, Indianization, and Sinicization (modification under Chinese influence), to which Westernization might be compared. While these regionally specific processes may be associated with particular times in Southeast Asia's deep past, closer readings of how these exchanges occurred in specific cases reveal that all four processes continue to interact, intersect, and overlap, thereby illustrating the complexity of these ideas and their interrelatedness in the Southeast Asian context.
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