Harry J. Benda Prize
The Harry J. Benda Prize of the AAS is given annually to an outstanding newer scholar from any discipline or country specialization of Southeast Asian studies for a first book in the field. The award, which honors one of the pioneers in the field of Southeast Asian studies, has been presented since 1977.
$1,000 to the author.
Guidelines for Submission
- Original, scholarly, nonfiction works in English with a copyright date of 2018 or 2019 are eligible for the 2021 prize.
- Reference works, exhibition catalogs, translations, textbooks, essay collections, poetry, fiction, travel books, memoirs, or autobiographies are not eligible.
- Publishers must complete the book nomination form. Each press may nominate a maximum of six books for the Benda Prize.
- Only publishers may nominate books.
- Upon receipt of a completed nomination form, publishers will be provided with addresses for prize committee members. A copy of each entry, clearly labeled “Benda Prize,” must be sent to each member of the committee.
Nominations must be received by June 30, 2020 to be eligible for the 2021 awards.
Benda Prize Committee
Erik Harms (Chair)
University of Virginia
Winner and Citation
Christian C. Lentz, Contested Territory: Điện Biên Phủ and the Making of Northwest Vietnam. Yale University Press, 2019.
Contested Territory is a meticulous account of state-making practices in the region surrounding the town of Điện Biên Phủ, known to most of the world as the site of a decisive battle where “the Vietnamese defeated the French” in 1954. Combining critical geography, ethnographic fieldwork, and painstaking research in Vietnamese and French archives, the book moves beyond hagiographic tropes about Điện Biên Phủ to describe a vast territory that resists simplification. While Điện Biên Phủ means “border post prefecture” in Vietnamese, ethnic Tai locals call it Mường Thanh, indicating how it is part of a complex human geography marked not only by variegated physical terrain but also by competing concepts of sovereignty. As the book unfolds, readers learn just how elusive control of this place has been and continues to be. Even the name of the region is contested: the place so casually called Northwest Vietnam (Tây Bắc) has at times been understand as a military zone, at other times as a collection of provinces with Vietnamese names, and in yet other formulations as a place composed of mandala-like Tai mini-polities known as muang. People in the region have been described in the archives as bandits or patriots, colonial collaborators or revolutionary cadres, ethnic elites, or, more often, completely overlooked as peasants or swiddeners outside of history. The meaning of the region has shifted according to partial and contingent histories, and political structures have ranged from colonial constructs like the Tai Federation or the Zone Autonome Nord-Ouest to a range of experiments such as the Thái-Mèo autonomous zone, or the Sơn-Lai Interzone, which are themselves either understood as zones of ethnic insurgency or anticolonial solidarity. Scholars, for their part, have called it part of Vietnam, the “highlands”, Zomia, or, more recently the Dong world.
To carry readers through this multi-layered socio-political (and even agrarian, military, and logistical) history, the book is not only packed with archival detail, but is informed by robust anthropological understandings of the region’s ethno-political factions, alliances, and modes of social organization, as well as rich geographical theorizing about the role territorialization plays in expanding state control. The book shows that “Northwest Vietnam” was never a given but instead emerged through a long and arduous process inflected by postcolonial, anti-colonial and revolutionary Vietnamese struggles that continue to be contested by local people in the region. In addition to the complex inner debates within the emerging Democratic Republic of Vietnam and their anticolonial struggles against France, we learn of complex sovereign visions expressed by different ethnic groups in the region, such as the Dao/Mán, Hmong/Mèo, Khmu/Xá, Mường, Tai/Thái, as well as the Rhade and Sán Dịu/Trại, Tày/Thổ. All of these groups engage in their own projects of territorialization that sometimes align with each other, sometimes contest each other, and in turn engage in complex ways with Kinh Vietnamese visions of a region on the edges of an emerging post-colonial nation. As Lentz so clearly shows, the years leading up to and following the battle of Điện Biên Phủ were marked not by an inevitable march to conquer territory, but a struggle to figure out what territory even meant, and how to align it with an emerging state which was itself an imperfectly imagined work in progress. While “Điện Biên Phủ” the battle has become a central symbol in the project of imagining Vietnam as a coherent sovereign S-shaped nation-state, Lentz’s book masterfully shows that the region in the top-left shoulder of that S is a slippery place of always contested ruling projects.