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Feasting and Power in Southeast Asia Essay


Feasting is a common practice in most societies in the world. The practice has persisted over time and space. It is common in contemporary society as it was common in traditional societies. The practice serves various purposes. For example, people feast to celebrate weddings, initiation, and such other events. The practice brings people together. Southeast Asia is one of the regions in the world where this practice is widespread.

Most of the feasts in this region involve a great deal of planning. The preparations, as well as the feast itself, consume huge amounts of surplus food, time, and effort (Dalton 2001). The practice revolves around consumption of food and drinks within social settings.

Feasts in Southeast Asia (and in other parts of the world) are of great importance to the host and the guests as well. In most cases, the feasts are prepared as an indication of the host’s prestige in the society, as well as to obtain blessings. As already indicated above, the feasts are usually linked to such occasions as weddings, funerals, the completion of a house, a successful raid, and to celebrate a surplus harvest.

The feasts are used not only to entertain the guests and the hosts, but also to achieve prestige in the society. The feasts also play a very important role in establishing social order and categorising people into the various social classes in the society. In addition, they are used to confer political power on the guest or on the host. Feasts are also major sources of socio-economic inequalities in the society (Gregor 2002).

The current paper is written against the backdrop of feasting and its social implications in the society. The major aim of the paper is to discuss feasting as a source of power in Southeast Asia. The various forms of power emanating from feasting (including social power, political power, and economic power among others) are discussed. The author gives an overview of the Southeast Asia region and feasting in general.

The author analyses the various levels of feasting and how they are used to define power hierarchies in the society. The author then outlines the social-political organisation of most communities in the region and how feasting is practiced in those societies.

In addition, the author looks at resource organisation associated with a feast and how the gifts exchanged in such occasions symbolise the power and status of the guest. Finally, the author explains how hosting a feast earns the individual respect from other members of the society. The conversion of this respect into power will be analysed.

Feasting and Power in Southeast Asia

Feasting in Southeast Asia: Historical Context

Southeast Asia has played host to humanity since the beginning of mankind. Prior to colonisation, the communities of Southeast Asia coexisted peacefully with each other. As a result, the whole region was largely united. Since then, many communities in Southeast Asia have adopted a communal- house type of life. A communal type of life is evident where an entire village, an extended family, or a clan, lives together.

The individuals in such communal settings share the resources among themselves, regardless of whether they are related by blood or not. Most societies in Southeast Asia are organised into large villages inhabited by groups of families. The villages are made up of many groups of families, which belong to one or several clans (Velde 1998). Fairing and animal husbandry are the primary sources of livelihood in Southeast Asia.

In this region, feast and ceremonial exchanges play a very significant role in the society. The practices are viewed as major sources of rank and prestige in the society. Most feasts are associated with a particular occasion of rite of passage, such as a wedding, a funeral, successful a raid, and any other occasion regarded as important by the villagers (Dalton 2001).

However, some feasts, such as Ovasa, which is practised in Nias, may be an event on their own. Such feasts are not related or tied to any occasion. Feasts are held regularly in the various villages in this region. They are regarded as very important events to the participants and the host (Beatty 1991).

In most cases, different villages come together to form alliances, as a result creating a complex network of loyalties. The purpose of these networks is to recognise a historical series of wife-givers. The relationship so established is enhanced and celebrated with feats, which are accompanied by the necessary rituals performed for the wife-givers.

The wife-givers are ritually superior in these communities. As a result, they give blessings and are regarded highly during the feasts of their wife-takers. To maintain their position of power, men from high social status have to ask for tributes from a large number of wife-takers. They are expected to redistribute their wealth during feasts (Beatty 1991).

In most Southeast Asian societies, the guests in a particular feast are drawn from several categories. The most important participants in a wife-givers’ feast, for instance, are the two sets of wife-givers involved. The villagers hosting the party are invited as guests and supporters. The guests and supporters are treated differently during the feasts, depending on their social ranking and status in the village.

Senior men from other villages, such as chiefs, may also be invited (Janowski & Kerlogue 2007). The number of high ranking guests invited to a particular feast determines the prestige of the occasion in the society. Feasts attended by social, political, and economic elites are regarded as more prestigious than those organised and attended by the ordinary members of the society.

Feasting in Southeast Asia: Levels of Feasts

Most feasts in Southeast Asia are held at different levels for various purposes and functions. Most of them, however, are held at the household level. Others are held at the lineage, clan, or village level (Gregor 2002).

The level of the feast is, in most cases, determined by the nature of the occasion around which the feast is organised. Such occasions as weddings and funerals bring together members of the whole community. Others, such as birthdays, may only involve members of the immediate family.

Household level feasts are mainly regarded as solidarity events. The main purpose of such feasts is to unite a household and create one economic and social unit. The household feasts reinforce the hierarchy and power held by members of different generations and different sexes. For example, during such feasts, the roles and status of women vary from those of men. In most cases, the household feasts are held to honour ancestors.

In most instances, the feasts are determined by the agricultural cycle. For example, most feasts are held after harvests when people have a lot of free time and enough food to feed the guests. In addition to serving as sources of social solidarity, household feasts may be used as forms of penalties or conflict resolution mechanisms (Beatty 1991).

A lineage or clan level feast may be held for various reasons. Like the household level feast, a clan feast may be held for solidarity socio-economic solidarity purposes. A Southeast Asian family may hold a feast at the clan level on such occasions as those marking the reunion with a lineage member who is coming back to his family from elsewhere (Kirsch 2001). A lineage may also give a promotional or status display feast, such as a funeral.

The feasts vary, depending on class and wealth of the lineage hosting it. Such events are used to promote status and enhancing social ranking in the community. They are used to settle conflicting claims of relative ranking, status, and power among the members of the lineage.

In addition to a feast, it is possible to settle such claims through physical confrontations or other forms of power display. Most promotional feasts also serve as occasions for reinforcing socio-economic solidarity and enhance support for the occasioned social units (Hayden 2000).

In communities living in Southeast Asia and other parts of the world, the village level feast is held to mark various occasions, such as weddings. The major purpose of such feasts is to acquire status and blessings in a particular society. Individuals from a particular class may host such a feast to show solidarity and alliance (Hayden 2000).

Alliance feasts may be hosted by different villages in turns to signify their loyalty to each other. The village feasts are also aimed at recognising social status and hierarchy in a particular village.

The recognition is displayed through gifts to the chiefs and elders. It is noted that the quantity and quality of gift presented to the chiefs and elders depends on the power and social status of the individual. In Southeast Asia, the chief receives the largest portion of gifts, followed by the elders in order of their influence in the society (Suzuki1999).

Socio-Political Organisation and Feasting in Southeast Asia

In most of the communities living in Southeast Asia, people are categorised into three main social classes. The three are ordinary villagers, elders, and chiefs (Ames 1998). Feasting in this region serves as a confirmation of one’s status in the community. It also serves as a means of advancing one’s social division. In most occasions, ordinary villagers host small-scale feasts.

Village elders speak with authority in customary matters and assist the chief to rule the villagers. They often host major feasts to affirm their status in the village. The chief exercises seniority in authority in a given village. The chiefs draw from their political and economic privileges to host the biggest feasts in the village.

The feasts are characterised by exchange of gifts, which should be repaid some time in future. Through exchange of gifts, an individual can increase their influence in the society by having a large number of people indebted to them. The social debts translate to a rise in rank in the individual’s village, granting them more political power (Janowski & Kerlogue 2007).

The host of such a feast as Ovasa mostly aims at acquiring prestige in the society and obtain blessings. The blessings and prestige are acquired by giving gifts during the feast. Prestige is later converted to influence, increase the power of the host in the community (Beatty 1991).

The guests receiving gifts becomes obligated and indebted to the host. By creating a big network of individuals indebted to them, the host achieves prestige and loyal alliances, giving them a higher rank or social status in the society. Blessings are obtained from wife-givers and are characterised by exchange of women and presents (Dalton 2001).

Resource Organisation and Feasting in Southeast Asia

Most people in Southeast Asia conceal their wealth through investments. The concealment is of great importance as it helps them avert envy from other people in the society. In addition, concealing the wealth from creditors or from anyone with a claim, until a more advantageous moment, is highly beneficial. Wealth is essentially measured through what a person has given away in form of gifts or friendly loans (Gregor 2002).

Both transactions are reversible and reclaimable in future, unlike keeping wealth at hand, since it eventually gets consumed or taken away by others. In most instances, households lack the capacity to raise a large number of pigs or such other commodities needed for economic exchange. As a result, the animals are loaned or donated as soon as they mature (Price & Feinman 2009).

When hosting a feast, the dispersed wealth is brought together for consumption. Some of the wealth is brought together to be redistributed to other members of the community. In some cases, the person hosting the feast contributes less than a third of the resources needed to successfully accomplish the fete. The remaining portion of the resources is provided by a multitude of relationships (Ames 1998).

Most of the contributions are converted into debt owed to other people by the person hosting the feast. There are various sources of materials needed to host a feast in Southeast Asia. The various sources include, among others, the pigs owned by the host, rice, gold, friendly loans, as well as reciprocal loans.

Others include tributes from wife-takers, ceremonial donations, as well as repayments on earlier loans made on the day of the feast. Bigger feasts measure the extent of allegiance to the host. Consequently, such feasts are an indication of the power of the host in the community (Suzuki 1999).

The resources of a given feast depend on the status of the person in the society. Individuals drawn from high social status are able to organise more resources than individuals from a lower social status. Friendly loans are neutral in this regard given that the parties may seek allegiance from the transactions. Their contribution may account for a small portion of the resources mobilised by the host (Price & Feinman 2009).

Reciprocal loans, unlike friendly loans, are free from interest. The reciprocal loans signify allegiance between people of different social status. They signify solidarity between people drawn from the same socio-economic status. The quantity of the resources derived from wife-takers depends on the status of the host.

To this end, the hosts affiliated to the chieftain can rely on the tributes from wife-takers to cover for up to two thirds of the resources required to organise the party. Another important thing to note is that repayments of loans and such other sources take up a significant portion of the resources mobilised (Kirsch 2001).

Gifts, Feasting, and Power in Southeast Asia

The food consumed by persons invited in any feast is usually a very small portion of the total resources mobilised during the occasion. Though the portion consumed as food takes up as little as a tenth of the total resources mobilised, it is, nevertheless, important in a feast (Dalton 2001). Portions of cooked meat are divided and served among the guests according to status in the society.

The size of meat is scrutinised, compared, and at times contested fiercely. The remaining portion of resources is exchanged as gifts. As a result of the exchange, the host acquires prestige. The influence of the host also increases as a result of public recognition.

The size of the portions given varies depending on a number of factors (Gregor 2002). One of the factors determining the exchange of gifts during a feast is the status and rank of the guests in attendance. People with more power receive bigger portions than those with less power. A chief, for instance, receives up to three times as much as anyone else invited to the party, depending on his feasting record.

Elders who have previously hosted a feast are given the same amount as the chief. The elders who are regarded as powerful in the society are given amounts that are slightly bigger than those of the rest. Men who have hosted a feast before receive gifts that are slightly less or similar to those given to the elders. The rest of the participants are given gifts that are largely similar without any form of discrimination (Ames 1998).

The debt owed by the host (or owed to the host) of the feast is another significant determinant of the size of units given to a guest. If the host is indebted to a particular guest from a previous feast, they may decide to settle the debt in full, in part, or exceed the debt, thus indebting the guest. The host may also give a portion to someone whom they are not indebted to (Gregor 2002).

However, the size of the portions given out depends on the ratio of the guests to the total resources organised. If more guests than expected attend the feast, the size of the portions is reduced to accommodate each and every participant (Schulting 1995).

Power and Feasting in Southeast Asia

By holding a feast, a host acquires a reputation and a name for themselves in the society. The people who often criticise the host are silenced and the guests are forced to take them seriously. Silencing the critics and taking the host seriously translates to more influence in the society for them (Beatty 1991). The host is respected and their views carry weight in any debate or controversy in the society.

The reason for this is that most customary debates and controversies involve exchange of views. It follows that those who have not hosted feasts lack credence in such matters.

Anyone who has hosted a feast, however, is aware of the fact that they will not have achieved it without the organisational abilities and confidence of their supporters. It is the supporters who loaned them resources, confident that there will be returns (Price & Feinman 2009).

Elders have power over upstart juniors given that they have a wide experience of hosting feasts in the past. In Southeast Asia, individuals who have never hosted a feast are silenced by referring to this advantage, without the need for explicit rebuke.

A disagreement or confrontation of any kind between two individuals can end in a disappointing manner, but with finality, when one party mentions their achievements in hosting feasts. It is possible to resolve a controversy by making a mere reference to the unpaid feast debt. The junior party in such cases avoids further humiliation and submits to the senior party (Janowski & Kerlogue 2007).

The influence of a feast has two possible sources. One of them is the sense of obligation that the recipient has towards the giver. The recipient of a gift is not shamed, but rather honoured by the gift. Though there is no immediate pressure to reciprocate, there is always the expectation that the generosity will be reciprocated (Kirsch 2001). The gift returned cancels the asymmetry introduced in the first payment.

Consequently, individual debts are not in any way affected by the gifts given out during a feast. The debts are not publicly recognised and they do not affect the status of the debtor. However, subordination may result when the debtor submits to the wills of the creditor. The implication of the submission is that the debtor will not contradict the creditor and will support them when possible (Clarke 1998).

The other possible source of influence during a feast is the ‘renown’ or status acquired by the host, which commands public respect. In this respect, what matters is the number of pigs killed and the feasts hosted, rather than particular portions.

However, to achieve power, one need not exhaust their stock or run up a huge debt with others (Leach 2001). A man of power should not be diminished by a feast. They should be able to support future projects and solicit the help of wife-takers with regular gifts. It is not possible to gain power if one is not wealthy (Ames 1998).

In addition to their personal abilities, the authority and power of a chief in Southeast Asia depends on public support and the influence created from their network of debts. Feasting increases their influence as a result of public acknowledgement, as well as glory and spiritual potency (Clarke 1998).

The influence derived from a feast depends not only on the resources available, but also on the manner of doing things, the character of the host, and the timing of the occasion. In addition to the inherent power, an equally important trait is the concept of charisma. A chief should be able to charm others, bending them to his will, and even defeating rivals in combat (Beatty 1991).


In this paper, the author discussed feasting as a source of power in Southeast Asian communities. The author gave an overview of the region and the feasting practice. The author analyzed levels of feasting and how they are used to define hierarchy and power.

The author looked at the social-political organisation of most communities in the region. In addition, the author looked at resource organisation associated with feasts and how the gifts exchanged during a feast symbolise the power and status of the guest. Finally, the author explained how hosting a feast earns the host respect and power in the society.


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Clarke, M 1998, Feasting among the Akha of Northern Thailand, Archaeology Press, British Columbia.

Dalton, G 2001, Tribal and peasant economies, The Natural History Press, New York.

Gregor, CA 2002, Gifts and commodities, Academic Press, London.

Hayden, B 2000, Torajan feasting in South Sulawesi, Archaeology Press, British Columbia.

Janowski, M & Kerlogue, F 2007, Kinship and food in Southeast Asia, NIAS Press, Indonesia.

Kirsch, T 2001, Feasting and social oscillation: a working paper on religion and plateau, Archaeology Press, British Columbia.

Leach, ER 2001, Political systems of highland Burma, Beacon Press, Boston.

Price, TD & Feinman, G 2009, Foundations of social inequality, Plenum Press, New York.

Schulting, R 1995, Mortuary variability and status differentiation on the Columbia-Fraser society in Upland Southeast Asia, Cornell University Press, Ithaca.

Suzuki, PT 1999, The religious system and culture of Nias, Nias Press, Indonesia.

Velde, P 1998, Prehistoric Indonesia: a reader, Floris Publications, Dordrecht.

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