Thursday, March 12, 2009

Some Good Books in Asian Legal History (I): Zinoman, The Colonial Bastille

Like most readers of the Legal History Blog, my graduate school training focused almost exclusively on the history of the United States. And, like many other U.S. historians of the last few years, I have taken the “transnational turn,” in my case through an increasing interest in Asian history and U.S.-Asian relations. This post is designed to be the first in a series that introduces blog readers to some really interesting and accessible kind-of-recent books in modern Asian legal history. That’s it: interesting and accessible. Or at least they were to me. I hope that readers—particularly those with advanced expertise in this area—will offer their own suggestions as well. Send them on, either by email or through the Comments feature, and I will compile them for future posts.

In The Colonial Bastille: A History of Imprisonment in Vietnam, 1862-1940 (2001), Peter Zinoman traces French Indochina’s prison system from its construction through the beginning of World War II. Vietnamese Communists often called the colonial prisons a “school for revolution,” and Zinoman traces the ways in which (especially in the 1930s) “the Indochinese prison system provided a curiously stable environment for the reconstitution and expansion” of the Indochinese Communist Party. He also challenges much recent literature on colonial empires that suggests they were “model laboratories” for modern statebuilding. Quite the opposite, he argues. “It was the antiquated and ill-disciplined aspects of the colonial prison that facilitated its transformation into an instrument of anticolonial resistance.”

For me, this book was a reminder of the richness of Vietnamese historiography that U.S. historians rarely (if ever) give to their students when they teach about America’s Vietnam War. Beyond that, The Colonial Bastille is an amazing political and social history of imprisonment that should be of interest to any scholar who has struggled to figure out how to tell the history of prisons.

To be continued…