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1. An Embryonic Peasantry

To speak of Southeast Asian peasants today might immediately conjure up images of immensity and profusion: vast landscapes segmented into tiny, brilliantly green rice fields away to the horizon, tightly bunched and dusty villages thronged with legions of people — and their cattle, pigs, chickens and ducks—threading their way evenly about their business, a great bulk and multiplicity of crops to feed surging populations, the busy and fastidious exploitation of nature to the limit of its gifts. Whatever one might think of the aptness of such images in capturing the reality of the contemporary Southeast Asian rural world, there can be no question that they bear little correspondence to peasant life at the turn of the nineteenth century. Then, the ecology of the region remained largely undisturbed; a few foreboding exceptions to one side, the region consisted, from mountain top to often swampy shore, of enormous expanses of unexploited and thickly vegetated land; even as late as 1888, indeed, the Pahang region of Malaya ‘had a forest cover that extended from the seashore to the top of all but the highest mountain ranges’.1 One European spoke romantically in the mid nineteenth century of the ‘dense forests’ of Borneo and Sumatra: ‘trees of gigantic stature, of abundant foliage, and hung with a thousand creeping plants, entangled, fantastic, brilliant with flowers, and equal in their gaudy splendour to the growth of the Brazilian woods’.2 Such forests and woodlands were home to a great diversity of wildlife: elephants, tigers, rhinoceroses, deer, wild pigs, to name the most obvious; according to one European observer, peasants guarding their crops at night from small watch platforms were ‘at the eminent risk at night of being picked off by a tiger’.3
R. E. Elson

2. The Context of Change: Politics, Economics and Demography

Before we can begin the task of charting changes in peasant life and production over the two centuries since 1800, we need, in addition to a general sense of the setting of peasant life and livelihood around the turn of the nineteenth century, an outline of the broader context which shaped those changes. There are two components of this context which are of particular importance for my purpose, and to which I shall devote this chapter. The first is a schema of the economic and political developments which conditioned the manner and speed of changes to peasant livelihood. For the most part, those developments were themselves a function of the mostly burgeoning power and reach of the state in Southeast Asia, first in its colonial (and quasi-colonial) and later in its independent mode, as it sought in various ways to enhance its dominion over people and to inte-grate them with a commerce which was now of global dimensions. The second, in important senses a condition of the first, was the onset of continuing and rapid growth in population in the region, which was to have a fundamental impact on the nature and function of the peasantry itself. This chapter, then, seeks to periodise the years since 1800 according to a variety of phases through which various states passed as they con-structed the broad contours within which the transformation of peasant life and livelihood took place, and concludes with a summary discussion of the nature and extent of population growth throughout the region. This context in place, we shall be better positioned to assess the broad outlines of social and economic change among Southeast Asia’s peasantry over the last two hundred years.
R. E. Elson

3. The Changing Varieties of Peasant Production

Around the turn of the nineteenth century, the productive activities of Southeast Asia’s peasants were limited in scope, output volume and specialisation by low market demand, relative isolation, poor infrastructures, and simple technologies. Much the greater part of what they produced was aimed at meeting their own subsistence requirements, and the methods of production they employed were primarily geared to that end. Over the succeeding two centuries, however, the transformative potencies of state strengthening, global commerce and demography wrought change — sometimes elaborative, sometimes gradual, more recently radical and rapid — to peasants’productive patterns. This chapter seeks to describe and explain the evolving varieties of productive arrangements to which Southeast Asia’s peasants, under the impact of new demands and restraints, resorted over the long stretch of these years.
R. E. Elson

4. Land and Landholding

The dominant theme of the nineteenth century was the emergence across the Southeast Asian landscape of a colossal horde of peasant producers, filling up the valleys and expanding through the hill country in their search for the land which was their primary resource. Land and its use structured their lives in fundamental ways. The labour it demanded to make it pro-ductive, the rice and other food it yielded, the power relationships spun about its allocation and use, all were defining characteristics of rural life. The land was, therefore, at the heart of the processes of peasant change. Movement, settlement and exploitation, in the contexts already outlined, created new relationships with the land, between peasants themselves and between peasants and their masters. This chapter seeks to establish how the changing context of social and economic life transformed not only conceptions of landholding and access to land, but also more fundamental appreciations about the place of land in peasant life, and to analyse the implications such changes carried for Southeast Asia’s peasantry.
R. E. Elson

5. A Revolution in Labour

The distinguishing feature of the organisation of peasant labour around 1800 was its highly personal and informal cast. Within the village itself, many agricultural tasks and other work associated with agriculture were performed not by individual peasants alone, nor even by their households, but by larger horizontally-ordered groups formed within the village to carry out cooperative labour. In lowland rice agriculture, for example, the job of transplanting rice seedlings into a household holding or harvesting the mature crop had to be performed rapidly, and required the services of more workers than a single household itself could provide. Similarly, in swidden agriculture, planting was often done by larger work groups to ensure its rapid completion. Labour relations between village and supra-village authorities were mediated through vertical and personalised chains of leaders and followers; through them, the state laid obligations upon peasants to perform unpaid compulsory labour services, ranging from collecting forest produce to road and bridge building, as well as the construction and maintenance of water works. Outside the formal state sphere, the wealthy and influential enjoyed the services of their slaves and those bonded to them through debt.
R. E. Elson

6. Commerce and Credit

The extraordinary growth in numbers of small-scale rural producers in Southeast Asia through the nineteenth century and their emergence as a new, expansive and dominant class of peasants was, to a substantial degree, a consequence of the transformative agency of markets. The greatly invigorated power and prominence of commerce in peasant life, exalted above and beyond its erstwhile role of simply supplying existing needs and disposing of limited and irregular surpluses, was crucial to the rise of peasantries and, as we shall see, to their eventual decline. It brought enormous changes to what peasants produced, the land upon which they produced it, the ways in which their labour was brought to bear in productive relationships, indeed, to virtually every aspect of their lives and livelihoods.
R. E. Elson

7. Power and Prosperity

The outline of village social structure sketched in the opening chapter characterised it in terms of personal ties with both a horizontal orientation — kin and kin, neighbour and neighbour — and a vertical one, attachment to beaded series of patrons within and especially outside the village. In many places, it was the component hamlets of villages — dusun in Java, thon in Vietnam, for example — rather than the village as such which were the local, historically and socially forged cores of fellowship and community. The village was, in essence, institutionally fragile and often impermanent, ceaselessly subject to the tensions inherent in personalised politics. In the course of the development of stronger states in the last decades of the nineteenth century, the basis of village politics and its relation to the state were transformed, fundamentally and forever, as the village was created as a permanent administrative component of state power. This chapter analyses this process, and how it both built upon and shaped relationships of power within the village and between the village and the state, and considers how such relationships affected the distribution of prosperity amongst villagers.
R. E. Elson


Time passes quickly. Its rapid passage brings changes which our minds, fervently seeking constancy and tranquillity, are slow to recognise and sometimes reluctant to admit. It is this cerebral stubbornness that renders shocking the idea that the age of the peasantry in Southeast Asia has come to an end. It is true, of course, that Southeast Asia’s populations are still overwhelmingly rural in residence and that the majority of the region’s workforces find employment in spheres closely associated with rural pro-duction. It is also true that many rural Southeast Asians still construct their sense of self and community in ways not wildly dissimilar to that of their forebears a century ago. But simply to proclaim these things in the name of enduring continuity is to ignore the longer trajectory of the region’s history, and the manner in which multiple, varying and ever-changing contexts have shaped the structures of society at different times.
R. E. Elson


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