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Imperial Alchemy
Nationalism and Political Identity in Southeast Asia


  • Author: Anthony Reid, Australian National University, Canberra
  • Date Published: November 2009
  • availability: Available
  • format: Paperback
  • isbn: 9780521694124

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About the Authors
  • The mid-twentieth century marked one of the greatest watersheds of Asian history, when a range of imperial constructs were declared to be nation-states, either by revolution or decolonisation. Nationalism was the great alchemist, turning the base metal of empire into the gold of nations. To achieve such a transformation from the immense diversity of these Asian empires required a different set of forces from those that Europeans had needed in their transitions from multi-ethnic empires to culturally homogeneous nations. In this book Anthony Reid explores the mysterious alchemy by which new political identities have been formed. Taking Southeast Asia as his example, Reid tests contemporary theory about the relation between modernity, nationalism, and ethnic identity. Grappling with concepts emanating from a very different European experience of nationalism, Reid develops his own typology to better fit the formation of political identities such as the Indonesian, Malay, Chinese, Acehnese, Batak and Kadazan.

    • One of the premier historians of South East Asia examines the strength of rival nationalisms in Indonesia, and the likelihood of Aceh or other ethnic minorities making their own claims for statehood
    • Provides a better theoretical basis for understanding the great unresolved case of nationalism in China, through examining Southeast Asian cases in detail
    • Despite the plethora of books devoted to this subject in other arenas, there is virtually nothing comparable on Southeast Asia
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    Reviews & endorsements

    'Imperial Alchemy is a masterful historical account of how homogenizing ideologies and structures of the modern state transformed an already diverse set of identities into the current myriad forms of nationalist and political identities. Using his remarkable depth as one of the most respected historians of Southeast Asia, Reid skillfully traces the evolution of diverse political identities in various locations of the region, from their colonial legacies to the modern day, without sacrificing the richness of precision and detail. This book is a major contribution to the study of nationalism and ethnic identity in Southeast Asia.' Jacques Bertrand, University of Toronto

    'Exceptionally stimulating, Imperial Alchemy integrates precolonial and colonial history, mainland and island Southeast Asia, Southeast Asia and the wider world to produce an entirely novel perspective on Southeast Asia's diverse and idiosyncratic political identities. This is an outstanding example of the originality and breadth of vision everyone associates with Tony Reid.' Victor Lieberman, The Marvin B. Becker Collegiate Professor of History and Professor of Southeast Asian History, The University of Michigan

    'How is it that the imperially-shaped states and borders of Southeast Asia have shown such tenacious resilience in the face of the bewildering ethnic variety of the region? Anthony Reid's stylish, magisterial Imperial Alchemy explores how 'the base metal of empire' was 'transmuted into the gold of nationhood'. Drawing on a lifetime of close research into local histories of identity of Southeast Asia, Reid combines probing theoretical reflection, brilliant synthesis, and a command of the intricacies of regional ethnicity as broad as it is unmatched to create an absorbing, provocative account of the often troubled gestation and maturation of the nation-state in Southeast Asia.' R. E. Elson, The University of Queensland

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    Product details

    • Date Published: November 2009
    • format: Paperback
    • isbn: 9780521694124
    • length: 264 pages
    • dimensions: 227 x 153 x 13 mm
    • weight: 0.43kg
    • contains: 9 b/w illus. 3 maps 7 tables
    • availability: Available
  • Table of Contents

    1. Nationalism and Asia
    2. Understanding Southeast Asian diversities
    3. Chinese as the Southeast Asian 'other'
    4. Malay (Melayu) and its descendants: multiple meanings of a porous category
    5. Aceh: memories of monarchy
    6. Sumatran Bataks: from statelessness to Indonesian diaspora
    7. Lateforming ethnie in Malaysia: Kadazan or Dusun
    8. Imperial alchemy - revolutionary dreams.

  • Author

    Anthony Reid, Australian National University, Canberra
    Anthony Reid is a Southeast Asian historian, currently again at the Australian National University after periods at the National University of Singapore (2002–7, where he was founding Director of the Asia Research Institute) and the University of California, Los Angeles (1999–2002, where he was Professor of History and first Director of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies). Previously, he worked at the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, the Australian National University, Canberra (1970–99) and the University of Malaya (1965–70), and had visiting positions at Yale University (1973–4), the University of Auckland (1976), Oxford University (1987), Washington University, St Louis (1989), the University of Hawaii (1996), Cambridge University (2005) and the Social Science Research Training Center, Makassar, Indonesia (1980–1). He was awarded the Fukuoka Asian Culture prize in 2002, largely for Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 1450–1680 (2 volumes, 1988–93). He is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities, and a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy and the Royal Historical Society. His other books include The Contest for North Sumatra: Atjeh, the Netherlands and Britain, 1858–1898 (1969), The Indonesian National Revolution, 1945–1950 (1974), The Blood of the People: Revolution and the End of Traditional Rule in Northern Sumatra (1979), Charting the Shape of Early Modern Southeast Asia (1999), An Indonesian Frontier: Acehnese and Other Histories of Sumatra (2004) and To Nation by Revolution: Indonesia in the Twentieth Century (2011). He has also edited or co-edited over 20 books, including Essential Outsiders: Chinese and Jews in the Modern Transformation of Southeast Asia and Central Europe (1997), Asian Freedoms (Cambridge University Press, 1998), Verandah of Violence: The Historical Background of the Aceh Problem (2006) and Negotiating Asymmetry: China's Place in Asia (2009).

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