How to Behave: Buddhism and Modernity in Colonial Cambodia, 1860-1930 (Southeast Asia: Politics, Meaning, and Memory)

This ambitious cross-disciplinary study of Buddhist modernism in colonial Cambodia breaks new ground in understanding the history and development of religion and colonialism in Southeast Asia. In How to Behave, Anne Hansen argues for the importance of Therav?da Buddhist ethics for imagining and articulating what it means to be modern in early-twentieth-century Cambodia. The 1920s in Cambodia saw an exuberant burst of new printed writings by self-described Khmer Buddhist modernists on the subject of how to behave (as good Buddhists and moral persons) and how to purify oneself in everyday life in the modern world. Hansen’s book, one of the first studies of colonial Buddhism based largely on Khmer language sources, examines the modernists’ questioning of Buddhist values that they deemed most important and relevant. She explores their new interpretations of traditional doctrines, how they were produced, and how they represent Southeast Asian ethical and religious responses to the modern circulation of local and translocal events, people, ideas, and anxieties.

Hansen begins her study in the mid-nineteenth century with a Buddhist purification movement that had been set in motion by the Khmer king Ang Duang. She follows Khmer monks to Siam as they sought out Buddhist scriptures and examines how they carried ideas back to Cambodia and shaped their own reformist movement in a colonial society influenced by French discourses of modernization. Drawing on literary and ethical forms of analysis as well as historical, Hansen not only accounts for this historical rise of modernist values but also introduces readers to modernist worldviews through careful translations of sermons, ritual manuals, ethics compendia, and vernacular folktales.

How to Behave will be of interest to a wide, multi-disciplinary audience in the fields of Southeast Asian studies, religious studies, colonial history, and Buddhist ethics. It adds to the examination of the comparative and pan-Asian contours of religious modernism among scholars of Asia and will be essential reading for those working in the fields of comparative colonialism, nationalism, and religious modernity.

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