The Ming Shi-lu as a Source for the Study of Southeast Asian History

Any student of the Southeast Asian past quickly comes to realize how the paucity of written sources relating to the period prior to the 16th Century restricts the reconstruction of the early history of the region. The reliance which must be placed on those works which do exist determines that much history is written from a single source or based on a single viewpoint. Works relating to the period, such as the Nagarakertagama, the Sejarah Melayu, other sejarah and hikayat of the archipelago, the Vietnamese Annals, the various recensions of the Ayudhyan Annals, the Cambodian annals, the chronicles of the various Tai polities and other such historical accounts can be compared with only a very limited number of alternate sources, and are essentially seen as "the account" of the polity during that period.

Thus any external source containing references to the polities of Southeast Asia can be seen as a possible repository of data and viewpoints useful for comparing against the indigenous accounts and histories. For Southeast Asia, one of the more obvious external sources for the period prior to the 16th century is constituted by Chinese works.

The use of Chinese sources to re/construct the histories of Southeast Asian polities and societies is certainly not a new endeavour. The successive Chinese dynastic histories all contained accounts of areas which are today parts of Southeast Asia and, in many cases, the historical evolution of these polities, often based on earlier dynastic histories, constituted an integral part of the accounts. Over the last century, collections of such references have been compiled by Groeneveldt, Feng Cheng-jun (馮承鈞) and Gu Hai (顧海), while other historians have made much use of Chinese accounts in writing histories of the early polities of Southeast Asia. Pelliot's Le Fou-nan, Stein's Le Lin-yi and Taylor's The Birth of Vietnam, for example, all use Chinese texts as their major sources. Even Jacques (1979), when suggesting that indigenous, rather than Chinese, sources should constitute the primary element in the reconstruction of the early history of mainland Southeast Asia, concurrently affirmed the importance of the Chinese sources. Of course, the Chinese official histories, like histories generally, were conditioned by the purposes for which they were compiled. Thus, in using these sources, one is subject to the "tyranny" of Chinese state historiography, where the viewpoint recorded is that of the Chinese bureaucratic elite, where the values used to judge are those of Chinese elite culture and where the decisions on what to record were taken on the basis of traditional Chinese historiographical criteria. However, it is precisely because the aims and prejudices of Chinese historians generally differed from those of Southeast Asian historians that the Chinese sources provide such a useful adjunct in the study of Southeast Asian history.

The dynastic histories have been the major sources of Chinese references used in the writing of Southeast Asian history. These dynastic histories have the advantage of being divided into sections and subjects, which makes the finding of information about particular polities or persons a reasonably straightforward task. Another genre of Chinese writing, the annalistic (chronologically-arranged) works, however, has not been exploited as fully as the dynastic histories. This is simply due to the vast amount of time necessary in seeking out references of relevance to any target of enquiry. The subject of the present study, the Ming Shi-lu (明實錄 --hereafter MSL), is such an annalistic work, and its 40,000 manuscript pages of unpunctuated text have provided quite a deterrent to even the most persistent enquirers. It is for this reason that the references to Southeast Asia contained therein have until now remained greatly under-utilized by scholars. For the present project, the references relevant to Southeast Asia have been identified and translated into English, and presented in a database which is searchable through several variables.

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  • the Ming Shi-lu as a source for Southeast Asian History [a pdf download: 457k]
    • 1. Introduction to the Ming Shi-lu
    • 2. The Nature of the Ming Shi-lu
      • 2.1 - The Contents of the Ming Shi-lu
      • 2.2 - The Editions of the Ming Shi-lu
      • 2.3 - Collections of MSL References
      • 2.4 - Indexes to MSL References
      • 2.5 - Characteristics of the MSL as a Historical Source
    • 3. The Chinese "World View" and Rhetoric of the Ming Shi-lu
      • 3.1 The Emperor / the Chinese State
      • 3.2 The Civilizing Role of Chinese Culture
      • 3.3 General Attitudes to Non-Chinese Persons
      • 3.4 The Place of Other Polities and Peoples