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43a The History of the Book in Southeast Asia (1): The Islands

The Oxford Companion to the Book

Edwin Paul Wieringa

43a The History of the Book in Southeast Asia (1): The Islands 

Edwin Paul Wieringa

  • 1 General introduction

  • 2 Writing systems

  • 3 Dating systems

  • 4 Book forms

  • 5 Printed books

1 General introduction

The region of insular or maritime Southeast Asia, which today comprises six young nation-states, encompasses not only hundreds of languages and literatures but also quite different cultural and political backgrounds. Indonesia (independence: 1945), Malaysia (independence: 1957), and Brunei (independence: 1984) are countries with Muslim majorities, whereas the populations of East Timor (officially Timor-Leste; independence: 2002) and the Philippines (with the exception of the Islamic South; independence from Spain declared in 1898, but only achieving sovereignty from the US in 1946) are predominantly Roman Catholic. The city-state of Singapore (independence: 1965), previously a British colony and part of Malaysia, is often referred to as a ‘Chinese enclave’ by its neighbours.

Until the 20th century, the overwhelming majority of the myriad language communities in this region were pre-literate. However, most of them have rich and varied oral traditions. It has been argued that even in the ‘literate’ societies—such as among the Malay-speaking group—oral habits still persist in written composition. Whereas reading is normally a silent and private activity in present-day Western societies, literature is often still reproduced orally and publicly in maritime Southeast Asia.

This region is home to some of the world’s oldest and richest literatures. For example, the earliest inscription in Old Javanese is dated ad 25 March 804, and the first dated poem in Old Javanese idiom, composed in Indian metres, is preserved in a stone inscription, dated ad 856. Probably the longest literary work in the world is found in South Sulawesi: an old Buginese epic, known as I La Galigo, telling the story of the mythical ancestors and founders of the local kingdoms. Its size is estimated at c.6,000 folio pages.

The history of the book in maritime Southeast Asia is beset with gaping lacunae, not least because writings on perishable materials of plant origin such as *palm leaf and bamboo rarely survived the centuries. Most pre-19th-century MSS have fallen victim to unfavourable climatic conditions, while fire, floods, and vermin also have taken their toll. Moreover, the tsunami of 26 December 2004 almost completely destroyed several important library holdings in Aceh, North Sumatra.

2 Writing systems

Three kinds of writing system successively entered maritime Southeast Asia: Indic, Arabic, and roman scripts. For the period before the 16th century, the only reliably dated sources of information are haphazard stone and metal-plate inscriptions. The earliest known inscriptions are in Sanskrit on seven stone pillars in what is now the Kutai region in East Kalimantan, dated to the 4th century, and described as (early) Pallawa script. Pallawa script as found in various parts of the archipelago is a lithic script used for monumental purposes.

By the middle of the 8th century, a rounder and more *cursive script, called Kawi or Old Javanese, begins to appear in inscriptions. Apparently, Kawi was intended for writing on palm leaves. Different styles of Indic scripts in the archipelago have been identified, especially for the 13th–15th centuries, but the paucity of inscriptions does not allow an exact reconstruction of the expansion of writing systems.

Around the 16th century, four families of Indic scripts can be distinguished in Indonesia: Batak, South Sumatran, Javanese-Balinese, and Bugis-Makasar. These four related but distinct Indic writing systems are syllabaries, in which the letters represent consonants with the inherent vowel /a/, altered by adding dots or dashes. The interrelationship between them is still shrouded in mystery. In 2002 a Malay tree-bark MS, said to date from the second half of the 14th century, was discovered in Kerinci, South Sumatra. Intriguingly, however, this text—known as ‘The Tanjung Tanah Code of Law’—is written in a script strongly resembling 17th- or even 18th-century Javanese script.

Following the advent of Islam in the 13th century, Arabic script was adopted for writing several Austronesian languages (see 38). Malay was almost exclusively written in a modified version of the Arabic script called Jawi, whereas the use of the Javanese version of the Arabic script called Pégon was generally reserved for writing religious texts.

The Europeans, who entered the region in the 16th century, championed the use of roman script. Dedicated to translating the Bible into indigenous languages, Christian missionaries were especially active in employing this script. Its use in printing gave roman script an overpowering advantage, strongly supported in the 19th and 20th centuries by colonial governments. In the 20th century, roman script became the accepted medium for the public sphere throughout the entire region. In the Philippines, Indic syllabaries closely connected to the Indic scripts in Indonesia had been in use before the 16th century, but under the Spanish colonial system roman script rapidly superseded the ancient Philippine alphabets.

3 Dating systems

Ancient systems of chronology—intimately associated with agriculture and astrology—have been identified among several maritime Southeast Asian peoples. These age-old and now obsolete *calendars manifest a strong Indian influence. For example, the Batak possess a chronological system imbued with Sanskrit-derived terminology that is used to find auspicious moments. Regional versions of the octaval calendar, a rather simple system based on an eight-year cycle, have enjoyed great popularity among the Muslim communities of maritime Southeast Asia for ages, but nowadays outside Java its workings are forgotten. The modernization process which forcefully set in around the turn of the 20th century has promoted a globalization of time-reckoning: modern printed books bear *imprints with dates in the Christian era, whereas Islamic publications follow the calendrical practices of the Middle East.

4 Book forms

Although almost all writings before c.1500 are inscriptions engraved in stone or metal (with hardly any surviving MSS), after that date there are only a few inscriptions, but many MSS. In the pre-modern period, two traditions of writing stemming from different cultural sources can readily be discerned: an ‘Indianized’ tradition, bringing with it a syllabic script and a tradition of using palm leaves; and an Islamic tradition originating in Western Asia, bringing with it an Arabic script and a tradition of writing on paper.

Before paper was introduced, palm leaf was the most popular writing material, and in the Javanese-Balinese tradition its use continues today, especially in Bali. Most widely used are the leaves of the lontar-palm (Borassus flabellifer or flabelliformis); a MS consisting of a bundle of these leaves is also called lontar. Both sides of the leaf are incised with a knife, and the script is then blackened with lampblack. The leaves are bound in bundles by string through a central hole. A coin with a hole is knotted at the end of the string, which is then wound around the boards, holding the leaves together. Important texts were kept in wooden boxes, sometimes beautifully painted and carved. The leaf of the nipah-palm (Nipa fruticans) is thinner than that of the commonly used lontar, and is usually inscribed with a pen or *writing brush and ink.

In South Sulawesi the common word for MS is lontaraq, clearly a borrowing from Javanese/Malay lontar. A few extant palm-leaf MSS from this region have a singular shape in that they look like audio or video cassettes: their contents are written on rolled-up palm leaves, and by unwinding the roll the text ‘unfolds’ before the reader’s eyes between the two reels, not unlike a *scroll. However, such palm-leaf examples are rare; all other MSS from South Sulawesi, written by the Bugis, Makasarese, and Mandarese peoples, are on paper, almost exclusively European.

In Sumatra, the Batak used the inner bark of the alim tree (Acquilaria malaccensis) for their folding-book MSS, characteristically folded in concertina fashion. The bark books, generally characterized as ‘books of divination’, used to be compiled by magicians and healers. However, people outside the priestly circle also crafted MSS, using bamboo to write letters and lamentations. South Sumatran MSS, which are written on bark, bamboo, rattan sticks, and goat or buffalo horn, also reflect an ancient writing tradition that antedates Islam in Sumatra. The oldest specimen of a South Sumatran MS is a tree-bark book in Lampung script containing a version of the Malay Hikayat Nur Muhammad (Story of the Muhammadan Light), presented to the *Bodleian Library, Oxford, in 1630 (MS Jav. e. 2).

The use of paper is closely associated with the spread of Islam from the 13th century onwards. In this respect it is a telling fact that nearly all Malay MSS have been written on paper, known as kertas, a loanword from Arabic. By the 18th and 19th centuries, the high-quality products of European *paper mills were eagerly imported in the archipelago. Today, paper is the most widely used material for all writing. With the advent of printing and machine-made paper (see 10), the age-old traditions of MS writing were practically discontinued.

5 Printed books

The introduction of print in the region is intertwined with European colonial involvement. The first book printed in the Philippines was the Doctrina Christiana en lengua española y tagala in 1593, explicating basic Roman Catholic teachings in Spanish and Tagalog, written by Friar Juan de Plasencia, and printed with woodblocks (*xylography) in Manila. The only known surviving copy is in the Library of *Congress (Rosenwald 1302). Until the late 19th century, printing presses were owned and run by Roman Catholic orders. After Spain ceded the Philippines to the US in 1898, English was to become the language of government and education. Books in Tagalog generally have a nationalist outlook.

In the Indonesian archipelago, the Dutch East India Company issued a printed Malay translation of the Bible in 1629, but only from the 19th century onwards would the impact of European printing make itself felt. The puzzling question of the ‘delayed’ use of printing by Muslims is still unclear. The jealousy of scribes is sometimes mentioned among the reasons for this reticence, as well as an aversion to the mechanical reproduction of books dealing with God’s word, but inadequate capital must also have played a considerable role. The invention of *lithography by *Senefelder around 1797 paved the way for a revolution in the Islamic book world (see 38). Lithographed books ideally fitted the traditional views on the art of book production, carefully preserving the form of MSS, while the newly available technique needed much lower capital investment than printing with movable type.

The British missionary Walter Henry Medhurst (1796–1857) seems to have been the first person to use lithographic printing in maritime Southeast Asia. His lithographic press in Batavia (Jakarta) printed texts in Malay-Arabic, Javanese, and Chinese scripts. The Revd Benjamin Peach Keasberry, who learned about printing from Medhurst, established a *printing office in Singapore in 1839, working together with the Malay language teacher and writer Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir Munshi. Abdullah Munshi has been called the ‘father of Malay printing’. During the 1840s and 1850s collaboration between Keasberry and Abdullah Munshi resulted in a number of printed Malay books, of which Abdullah’s own autobiography, Hikayat Abdullah (Abdullah’s Story, 1849), brought its author lasting fame.

The first known Islamic printed book in the archipelago was an edition of the Qur’ān published in Palembang in 1848. A Malay version of a devotional text in praise of the Prophet Muḥammad was printed in Surabaya in 1853. The third lithographic press in the archipelago was established in the 1850s at the Buginese-Malay court on the island of Penyengat in Riau. By the 1860s, Singapore emerged as the region’s Muslim printing centre. Its printing industry was run by a few men from the north coast of Java. In Singapore they were not subjected to the highly restrictive Dutch press laws, and could take advantage of the city’s strategic position as the most important assembly point for the increasing number of Southeast Asian pilgrims in transit to Mecca.

At the beginning of the 20th century, however, the Singapore book printers’ position was challenged by imported, better-quality products from Bombay (Mumbai) and the Middle East. In 1884, the Meccan-based ulama (Islamic scholar) Ahmad bin Muḥammad Zayn from Patani became the supervisor of the Malay press established in Mecca under the auspices of the Ottoman government. Understandably, works of Malay scholars from the region of Patani in southern Thailand were most numerously represented in the Meccan editions.

In the gradual transition from MS to print, two decisive streams of printing activity may be distinguished. On the one hand, Islamic printing mainly reproduced texts belonging to the traditional Arabic-script MS literature. On the other hand, the European and Chinese printing presses created a new Malay literature in roman script. In the 20th century, book production was increasingly based on *type. The Dutch colonial government set up its own bureau for popular literature in 1908, known as Balai Pustaka (Institute of Belles-Lettres), which actively attempted to transform Indonesian writing traditions in accordance with modern Western tastes. This institution had a tremendous influence upon the development of the Malay language used in Indonesia, which came to be known as ‘Indonesian’ (Bahasa Indonesia). The Malay Translation Bureau, established by the British in the Malay Peninsula at about the same time, was far less successful. However, in independent Malaysia the governmental Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka (Language and Literature Agency), established in 1956, plays a powerful role in promoting Malay as the national language.

Print caused an explosion in the amount of reading material: already in the 1860s the number of books produced by one Singapore printer in one year equalled the estimated number of all Malay MSS extant (c.10,000 items). The mass production and distribution of texts greatly augmented the reading audience and broadened its composition. However, the oft-made claim of the so-called ‘literacy thesis’—that literacy, the technology of writing and printing, develops a ‘modern’ mentality, transforming ways of thinking and representations of tradition—is debatable. Although the proliferation of print is generally regarded as the driving force of ‘modernity’, the fact that the new print media were not exclusively a ‘modernizing’ domain is easily overlooked. ‘Traditionalists’, too, crossed the print threshold, indicating that print per se did not necessarily change time-honoured thinking and received wisdom. Undeniably, however, print technology was to play a formative role in shaping public discourse and in forging different ‘imagined communities’ of people sharing the same world view.

43a The History of the Book in Southeast Asia (1): The IslandsClick to view larger

A printing press above a Malay advertisement for the printer in Tanah Abang (a sub-district of Central Jakarta, Indonesia), from Haji Adam’s 1926 booklet Syair Mikraj Nabi Muhammad SAW (‘Poem on the Ascension of the Prophet Muḥammad, peace be upon him’). Private collection Professor E. P. Wieringa, Cologne


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