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Friday Forum: Katherine Bowie

January 28, 2022 @ 12:00 pm - 1:30 pm

Photo of the chief eunuch in the Burmese court, late 1800s; his name was U Hka Gyl.  From O’Connor 1907:21. See full reference in event description.

Eunuchs in Southeast Asia: Of Matrilineality and Theravada Buddhist Harems

Compared to other Asian courts, eunuchs were relatively absent in Southeast Asian courts. Given the close association of eunuchs with Chinese and Muslim harems, this essay considers the role of eunuchs in the Theravada Buddhist courts of mainland Southeast Asia. Focusing on Burma and Thailand, the evidence suggests that eunuchs were imported from castration centers embedded in global trade networks, rose in numbers primarily during the seventeenth century but declined thereafter, and their roles supported rulers but did not include policing harems. That eunuchs were few in number, imported, relatively temporary, and did not police harems suggests that the political logic of Theravada Buddhist courts was different from Chinese and Muslim courts due both to the influence of Theravada Buddhism and matrilineality. Because matrilineality was widespread across Southeast Asia, the presentation will conclude by suggesting that the insights from the analysis of Theravada Buddhist kingdoms shed light on the relative absence of eunuchs from Southeast Asian kingdoms more broadly.

Photo reference: O’Connor, Vincent Clarence Scott. 1907. Mandalay: And Other Cities of the Past in Burma. London: Hutchinson & Co. Page 21.

Katherine Bowie is a Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is former President of the Association of Asian Studies. She received a BA with Distinction from Stanford University and her MA and PhD from the University of Chicago. She has served as Director of UW-Madison’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Eisenhower Fellow to Thailand, Fulbright Scholar, President of the Midwest Conference of Asian Affairs, and multiple years on the organizing committees for the Council of Thai Studies (COTS). Specializing in Thailand, her publications include Rituals of National Loyalty: An Anthropology of the State and the Village Scout Movement in Thailand (Columbia University Press, 1997); Voices from the Thai Countryside: The Necklace and Other Short Stories of Samruam Singh (University of Wisconsin Southeast Asia Series, 1998), and Of Beggars and Buddhas: The Politics of Humor in the Vessantara Jataka in Thailand (University of Wisconsin Press, 2017). Her articles have appeared in such journals as American Anthropologist, American Ethnologist, Journal of Asian Studies and Comparative Studies in Society and History.

This event is free and open to the public. A recording will be available on the CSEAS YouTube channel following the event.


January 28, 2022
12:00 pm - 1:30 pm
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