Book Reviews

Art & Archaeology of Fu Nan

Pre-Khmer Kingdom of the Lower Mekong Valley

by
James C. M. Khoo
, editor
29.0 x 21.0 cm, 174 pp., 93 colour and 2 b&w plates, 9 drawings, 6 maps, bibliography, index, hardbound

ISBN-10: 974-524-035-4 $45.00
ISBN-13: 978-974-524-035-3


Book review Ian Glover,

(The Journal of the Siam Society, Volume 93, 2005)


The ancient kingdom, or polity, known as Fu Nan is thought to have extended across part of present-day Vietnam and Cambodia and perhaps into parts of Thailand and Malaysia. It came to the attention of Western scholars through the research into Chinese historical records surviving from the early centuries of the Christian Era by the great French sinologist Paul Pelliot (1903). It was later given material form through the fieldwork of another distinguished French scholar, the archaeologist Louis Malleret (1959-62), who worked on behalf of l’École Française d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO) in the western part of the Mekong Delta under difficult conditions during the Pacific War. Thereafter, war and civil turmoil made conditions for further field research impossible until the late 1970s, when Vietnamese archaeologists led by Le Xuan Diem Dao Linh Con and Vo Si Khai from the Centre of Archaeology, of the Institute of Social Sciences (CAISS), Ho Chi Minh City, started an active programme of research in the whole of the delta region. A little later, renewed interest in Vietnam by the EFEO led to a revival of archaeological research around Oc Eo in the trans-Bassac regions of the Mekong Delta, led by Pierre-Yves Manguin (EFEO) and Vo Si Khai (CAISS), the second of whom contributes to this book.
    With the return of relative stability in Cambodia in the 1990s a joint Cambodian-American archaeological team instigated a multi-disciplinary field programme (LOMAP) in southeastern Cambodia, in and around Angkor Borei, long thought to be a, or perhaps the, capital of Fu Nan in the early centuries of the Christian (or Common) Era. Miriam Stark contributes a preliminary summary of the results of this programme.     This is a timely and useful book: timely because few results of this renewed archaeological research are available other than in Vietnamese language or in scholarly journals and specialised conference papers which are difficult to find by the average reader interested in the background to what we might call the foundation culture of all the historic kingdoms of Southeast Asia. This well-illustrated book provides a reasonably comprehensive and up-to-date account of the pre-war research on Fu Nan and on some of these later programmes, and it is only to be regretted that Pierre-Yves Manguin was unable to provide an account of the important, and still unfinished, EFEO research at and around Oc Eo.
    In Chapter 1, John Miksic provides an introduction to the history of research on Fu Nan, emphasizing the role of the kingdom, and especially the locations around Oc Eo, in the development of long-distance trade between the Mediterranean, India, Southeast Asia and on to China. This is, in general, a well-informed and balanced account of often controversial and ambiguous data drawn from ancient Chinese historical records and field archaeology in many countries, and he points to some of the problems in explaining how such a large and apparently rich kingdom could have flourished over several hundred years in a difficult environment, rich, it seems only in water and rice. Clearly the role of Oc Eo as an entrepôt in external trade was significant, but not sufficient to my mind to support the size of populations and monumental religious structures which have been revealed by archaeologists. For the prehistoric background to Southeast Asian historical cultures, Miksic relies heavily on Higham’s (1989) book, now to some extent replaced by his newer (Higham 2002) account. But when Miksic emphasizes the unique nature of Oc Eo as an early historical trading kingdom, he writes a little too soon to recognize the significance of the work now being undertaken by Manguin and his Indonesian colleagues at Batu Jaya on the north coast of Java, not so far from modem Jakarta, where a complex of over forty early Buddhist stupas scattered across an extensive area of present-day rice fields suggests the presence there of a major settlement. Some early dates and the presence of Indo-Roman rouletted ware sherds place the settlement in the early centuries of the Christian Era (or Common Era).
    Miksic dates the beginning of South-east Asian trade with the West to around the 2nd century CE (page 2), but in this he is surely too conservative for, as Stark points out in Chapter 3 (p.99), there is evidence from Angkor Borei, as well as from several other sites from Thailand to Vietnam, to document trade with India to several hundred years earlier. The 2nd-3rd century of the CE marked a second and intensified stage of the trade, and adoption to some extent of Indic styles and ideology (Bellina 1998), cited here on p. 99 but missing from the bibliography.
    Chapter 2 by Vo Si Khai presents a detailed but, to this reviewer, rather confusing summary of the mainly Vietnamese research in the Mekong Delta since unification of the country in 1975. There are no references to sources, although I assume that it is largely derived from the 1995 book Oc Eo Culture-Recent Discoveries (Le Xuan Diem et al 1995), with some details from the joint EFEO/CISS research, although the last is not specifically acknowledged. The author starts with a summary of the discovery of the Fu Nan kingdom by Western scholars, followed by a historically uncritical summary of Chinese sources on Fu Nan, both of which are covered well enough in the brief, but more nuanced account, by Miksic in the first chapter.
    In sections on pages 46-68, and especially on page 63, Vo Si Khai sets out the concept of an ‘Oc Eo Culture’ based on the material culture found during surveys and excavations and which he distinguishes from the historian’s concept of the Fu Nan kingdom as known from the Chinese sources. He then describes identified sites in a number of distinct ecological situations: marshy lowlands, slightly elevated areas, and sandy coastal regions. He also distinguishes between three types of site: settlements, religious centres, and burial sites. The confusion in the account comes mainly from the difficulty on relating the 90 groups of sites mentioned, of which 20 are said to have been excavated (page 52), with the 50 sites located on the map on p.39. On this, I could not find a number of the sites mentioned in the text, such as the ‘Long Thanh-Nhon Trach Relics’ and the ‘Vinh Cuu-Thong Nhai sites’ in Dong Nai Province (page 49), where only two sites in Dong Nai Province, numbers 43 Cay Gao and 44 Dong Bo are located. The 50 sites located on the map are numbered, but these numbers are not used in the text descriptions and more than one name for a site location seems to be used. This may represent differing uses in Vietnam, but it makes it very difficult for others to make use of the rich and rather new data presented.
    The chapter includes 34 photographs, as well as a number of plans and maps, and these make a significant contribution to its value - especially those of materials and structures found in situ, such as the stone lintel at Go Binh Ta (page 46) and the discovery of stone Vishnu images at Dong Thap (pages 53-4). Others, however, are illustrations of material in museums, lacking contexts other than the province of their discovery, and are not well-integrated into the text.
    Finally, Vo Si Khai attempts a chronology for the Oc Eo culture (pages 64-7) based on some 49 radiocarbon dates, correlates this with dates derived from Chinese historical texts, and finds that they fit together reasonably well. Source laboratories for the C14 dates are given, but too little information is provided on exactly the nature of the samples dated. Samples of wood from carved images, structural timbers, for example, are likely to suffer from an ‘old wood’ factor and date from some unknown time before the felling of the tree and its use in a structure. And dates for some stone architectural sites such as Nen Chua (page 64) are listed with no explanation of how this was done and how the, presumably organic, samples dated relate to the structures.
    An Appendix on page 85 presents a list of these dates recalibrated, presumably against a dendrochronological curve—which one and by whom is not stated—and with age ranges given to a 68.2% probability rather than the 95% probability, which is usual for calibrated dates. These give a more reasonable estimate of the age of the dated samples, but are listed only by the laboratory reference number and not by site, and so it is not easy to check these against the site descriptions given in the main text—and of course does nothing to overcome the problems by raised the inadequate specification of sample context and nature of the material dated.
    In Chapter III Miriam Stark, a professional archaeologist based at the University of Hawai’i, presents a concise and well documented account of the LOMAP project at and around Angkor Borei in southeastern Cambodia. However, she goes over much of the same ground as other authors in discussing the historiography of Fu Nan and the work of earlier generations of mainly French scholars on the temples and images of the lower Mekong area. From page 93 onwards she describes what is known about the site of Angkor Borei, thought by many to be a , or perhaps the political capital of Fu Nan, if there ever was a single such location, and summarises the work there from three excavation seasons from 1996 to 1999 by the Lower Mekong Archaeological Project (LOMAP) - a cooperative Cambodian-American field and training programme. One of the most significant outcomes of this research, which is still continuing, is to show that the occupational history of Angkor Borei extends at least as far back as the fourth century BCE—some 600-700 years before the Chinese historical accounts mention Fu Nan—and this fits in quite well with the results from other recent excavation programmes in Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam which are showing that trade and some cultural links between South-east and South Asia had developed at least by the mid-1st millennium BCE.
    In the final sections of the chapter, Stark summarises the occupational history of Angkor Borei and offers brief but useful observations about the regional environment and what can be deduced about the social organization, language(s), economic and ideological organization of the ancient populations of the Mekong Delta. As a short preliminary report on LOMAP—one of several by the same author, most of which are listed in the book’s bibliography—this is a model of clarity and concision.
    Chapter IV by Heidi Tan, ‘Remarks on the pottery of Oc Eo’, is a modest but still useful description of material found in An Giang and neighbouring provinces over the past two decades or so. It seems mainly to be based on Le et al. (1995) and the author does not seem to have had direct access to collections in Vietnamese museums nor to those from the most recent LOMAP and EFEO/CAISS fieldwork led by Stark and Manguin. Little of the material she illustrates comes from specific and dated contexts. This limits the long-term value of the chapter. However, she does present a clear and useful description of the main pottery forms, fabrics and finishes, and in figure IV-7 (page 112) illustrates an exquisitely moulded image of two musicians, one playing something like the Burmese harp, or a lute - perhaps this was the “Fu Nan music” played at the Wu capital at Nanjing in the 3rd century (Miksic, page 9 here).
    Chapter V is by Kwa Chong Guan, not an archaeologist but an experienced historian now working for the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies at Nanyang University. Kwa outlines the background to the recognition of the category of Pre-Angkorian art through the discovery of the Vishnu statuary at Phnom Da and other locations in south-eastern Cambodia. He summarises the debates surrounding its relationship, if any, with the later and much better-known works from the Angkor region. This is a thoughtful and elegant essay, well-written and documented, and is in this reviewer’s opinion by far the best thing in the book. Paul Dupont’s ‘method’, his dating and thesis regarding this material (Dupont 1955), is sensitively analysed, but in the end rejected, together with the historically-derived concept of a simple linear evolution of a single dominant polity in ancient Cambodia: the sequence usually summarized as Fu Nan - Zhenla - Sambor Prei Kuk - Angkor. Recent discoveries of mitred Vishnus in many different styles distributed from southern Thailand, the Sumatran island of Bangka and throughout the Mekong Delta, some of which-may well be earlier than the ‘classic’ pieces of sculpture from around Angkor Borei, all go to support the ideas promoted by Claude Jacques and Michael Vickery of numerous small competing polities in the Mekong Delta region, linked by networks of trade and ritual practice, but none conforming to the classic notion of a paramount state as understood by the Chinese visitors of the 3rd century CE, and with no single art style.
    The final chapter, VI, is by the volume’s editor and the late Ha Du Canh, a well-known collector and enthusiast for the early art from present-day Vietnam. After going over some of the same historical ground as the earlier writers, they take a closer look at some of the numerous, mainly small, mitred Vishnu images from the greater Mekong Delta area and illustrate a few of them, as well as six well-preserved if eroded standing Buddhas from the waterlogged soils of the delta. Some pieces, such as a fine sandstone linga and yoni , a stone seated and a standing Ganesh (pages 136-8), all in Vietnamese provincial museums, are surely genuine ancient sculptures for which specific find contexts may be recorded. However, the six Vishnus, a Maitrea and an Avalokitesvara head which are illustrated and briefly described are attributed to private collections, probably those of one or other of the authors. They point to the rather crude execution of some of these, the Southeast Asian and lively nature of the facial expressions, and suggest that these images may have come from small domestic shrines rather than from major temples of ruling elites. This is plausible, but one might also wonder whether, considering the lack of provenance of these pieces and the extensive trade in ancient antiquities and modem replicas in and from Vietnam and Cambodia in recent years, that some of these and others of the numerous mitred Vishnus which have flooded into the illicit art market in recent years may not be as old as they are represented to be. Certainly no substantial account of the art history of the region should be based on such dubious material.
    In a Summary and Conclusion (page 145) the editor asserts that “The main significance of this book… rests on Vo Si Khai’s [chapter] The Kingdom of Fu Nan Archaeology” but this is, to the present reviewer, the weakest section of the book for the very reasons outlined above, useful though it is as a summary of some 20 years’ work by Vietnamese archaeologists.
    To summarise, what should we make of this book, finely produced and well illustrated on a topic of great current interest to Southeast Asian archaeologists and historians? It certainly is timely; it will be useful both to specialists and to those with broad cultural interests in the region and will undoubtedly go onto the shelves of a lot of libraries and researchers.

[Read a review from the Straits Times, Singapore] [More Orchid Press Reviews]