Education About Asia: Online Archives

Southeast Asia: An Introductory History

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Seventh edition

by Milton Osborne


How does one teach the history of Southeast Asia? In a survey course, it is extremely easy to show the region’s diversity. Yet emphasizing diversity without mentioning commonalities leaves beginning students floundering. Milton Osborne’s Southeast Asia: An Introductory History strikes an excellent balance between particular histories and overarching themes. Indeed, it is easier to grasp Southeast Asian history as a whole with Osborne’s book than with the other introductory texts on Southeast Asian history. Furthermore, at 263 pages, his book is long enough to provide a substantive narrative to frame the course, but short enough to allow the instructor to supplement it with numerous other readings.

This book is aimed at beginning students who are mostly studying modern Southeast Asian history. In his introduction, Osborne notes that he has been “concerned to preserve the book’s introductory character” (viii). In keeping with this approach, he does not advance controversial new interpretations or complex theories.

The book has roughly three sections: the “classical” and precolonial period; the period from the beginning of the European advance to the end of colonialism; and the independence period. A chapter on art and literature is added, as is a 1997 postscript. From chapter lengths alone, it is clear that historians of premodern Southeast Asia will be unhappy with this book, while those who focus on modern history to the 1950s will find it more than adequate.