Shadows of Empire

Colonial Discourse and Javanese Tales

Shadows of Empire

Book Pages: 376 Illustrations: 23 b&w photographs Published: March 1996

Author: Laurie J. Sears

Asian Studies > Southeast Asia, History > Asian History, Postcolonial and Colonial Studies

Shadows of Empire explores Javanese shadow theater as a staging area for negotiations between colonial power and indigenous traditions. Charting the shifting boundaries between myth and history in Javanese Mahabharata and Ramayana tales, Laurie J. Sears reveals what happens when these stories move from village performances and palace manuscripts into colonial texts and nationalist journals and, most recently, comic books and novels. Historical, anthropological, and literary in its method and insight, this work offers a dramatic reassessment of both Javanese literary/theatrical production and Dutch scholarship on Southeast Asia.
Though Javanese shadow theater (wayang) has existed for hundreds of years, our knowledge of its history, performance practice, and role in Javanese society only begins with Dutch documentation and interpretation in the nineteenth century. Analyzing the Mahabharata and Ramayana tales in relation to court poetry, Islamic faith, Dutch scholarship, and nationalist journals, Sears shows how the shadow theater as we know it today must be understood as a hybrid of Javanese and Dutch ideas and interests, inseparable from a particular colonial moment. In doing so, she contributes to a re–envisioning of European histories that acknowledges the influence of Asian, African, and New World cultures on European thought—and to a rewriting of colonial and postcolonial Javanese histories that questions the boundaries and content of history and story, myth and allegory, colonialism and culture.
Shadows of Empire will appeal not only to specialists in Javanese culture and historians of Indonesia, but also to a wide range of scholars in the areas of performance and literature, anthropology, Southeast Asian studies, and postcolonial studies.


“A great virtue of the book is that Sears seeks to find no single ‘meaning’ to wayang. This enables her to make the very fruitful move of asking what goals various commentators—Dutchmen, Javanese, and a few other Westerners—have pursued in putting forth their interpretations. . . . Clearly, no reading of the genre is disinterested, and it makes for fascinating intellectual history to trace how the trope of wayang has bobbed up in so many places over the past couple of centuries. Sears has read a great array of historical materials very closely, and she complements this careful scholarship with considerable ethnographic experience. The combination makes for a rich mix of sources, and Sears provides many enthralling insights into the past and present of shadow plays.” — Ward Keeler, Journal of Asian Studies

“Sears has produced a work of great breadth, scope, and inclusiveness, extending from a reexamination of early Javanese history to analysis of performances and texts from the 1990s. . . . By stressing the political implications of wayang and charting the involvement of Dutch colonial administrators, Javanese nationalists, and Indonesian politicians in wayang, Sears does a great service. She not only adds to the understanding of wayang as a theatrical form but also gives us a strong sense of the shifting meanings and uses of this form through time and from place to place.” — Benjamin Brinner , American Ethnologist

Shadows of Empire casts new light on the history of Java and analyzes historiographical method in the light of theoretical developments in the study of colonial history. Its emphasis on shadow theatre as text, as performance, and as oral tradition makes an important new contribution.” — Jean Gelman Taylor, University of New South Wales

“A challenging book. Laurie Sears provides a wide range of provocative insights into Javanese and colonial culture and a radical rethinking about the wayang as a major area for the negotiation of power relationships between the Javanese and the Dutch.” — Amin Sweeney, University of California, Berkeley


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Price: $28.95

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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Laurie J. Sears is Associate Professor of History at the University of Washington. She is editor of Fantasizing the Feminine in Indonesia, also published by Duke University Press.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Note on Spelling and Translations vii

Preface ix

Acknowledgments xix

Introduction: Histories, Mythologies, and Javanese Tales 1

1. Hearing Islamic Voices in "Hindu-Javanese" Tales 34

2. Colonial Discourse and Javanese Shadow Theatre 75

3. Failed Narratives of the Nation or the New "Essence" of Java? 121

4. Javanese Storytellers, Colonial Categories, Mahabharata Tales 170

5. Revolutionary Rhetoric and Postcolonial Performance Domains 214

6. Fictions, images, and Allegories 266

Selected Glossary 303

Selected Bibliography 311

Index 335
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Winner, Harry J. Benda Prize, Southeast Asia Council of the Association for Asian Studies

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-1697-8 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-1685-5
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