The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia was originally published in 1992 in two hardcover volumes; this reissue as four paperbacks, with individual volumes priced at barely more than paperback novels, makes it much more accessible. For this edition Tarling provides a brief preface to each volume and a general introduction, in which he addresses problems with the concept of "Southeast Asia" and the arbitrariness in choosing temporal divisions at 1500 and 1800. Neither these nor the thematic divisions between chapters are rigid, though, and the same topics are often treated in different ways by different contributors. Some chapters are perhaps a little idiosyncratic, but overall the work finds a nice balance between comprehensiveness and variety.
Volume one (to 1500) opens with a historiographical essay by J. D. Legge, surveying the history of the writing of Southeast Asian history — and of attempts to deconstruct that as a project. New to this edition, this is the only major addition to the 1992 hardcover. Peter Bellwood covers Southeast Asian prehistory, combining linguistics, genetics, and archaeology in what is effectively a condensed version of his highly regarded book on the subject. Keith W. Taylor presents an idealist survey of the early kingdoms, with analysis such as "The universalized vision of authority that was credible among the Khmers, relatively isolated from alien threats in the lower Mekong basin, was too catholic, too indiscriminate, and too amoral for the political and intellectual process that evolved in the Irrawaddy basin" and an attempt to recreate indigenous historical traditions that seems rather over-optimistic given the paucity of the sources. Kenneth R. Hall takes a rather different approach, attempting to reconstruct the economic and trade foundations of the major states: Fu-nan, Srivijaya, early Javanese polities, Singhasari and Majapahit, Angkor, Pagan, Champa, and Vietnam. And J. G. de Casparis and I. W. Mabbett cover religion and popular culture, treating Brahmanism, Saivism and Vaisnavism, and Buddhism, entering into debates about "kings as gods" and the extent of syncretism, and touching on the arrival of Islam.
Volume two (1500 to 1800) begins with a chapter by Leonard Y. Andaya on the arrival of outsiders (Chinese, Japanese, Portugues, Spanish, and Dutch) and the resulting innovations and adaptations in Southeast Asian societies, with a focus on technological changes in cities, ships, and firearms. Barbara Watson Andaya presents a political overview, focusing on centralization (more noticeable on the mainland) and the change from personal patron/client relations to institutionalised manpower control. Anthony Reid argues that a period of economic expansion began before 1500 and the arrival of Europeans, but that by 1700 indigenous Southeast Asian states were already falling "behind", becoming disengaged from the world economy in a way that was to have dire consequences for them. Barbara Watson Andaya and Yoneo Ishii cover the coming of Islam and Christianity to the region and some broad themes in religious history: calls to reform, rivalries between traditions, connections with kingship and rebellions, and the role of women. And J. Kathirithamby-Wells, seeing the period from the mid-seventeenth to early nineteenth century as an "age of transition", surveys some of its features, from state building (Buddhist imperialism, charisma and resource control) to economic reorientation and the beginnings of 'national' identities.
In volume three (1800 to the 1930s), Nicholas Tarling begins with a study of European and Southeast Asian motivations, constraints, and responses in the establishment of the colonial regimes and the delineation of modern boundaries; he makes a case that the British set the broader colonial agenda through the constraints they could place on other colonial powers. Carl A. Trocki looks at the political structures of the colonial regimes, at the forms of indigenous "collaboration", variations between direct and indirect rule, problems of law and order, and the creation of new kinds of communities within "plural societies"; he closes with contrasting case studies of Siam and Burma. Robert E. Elson sketches an economic and social history of the region, from liberalism and the impacts of global commerce to management and greater intrusion by states into daily life, closing with the effects of the Depression. Reynaldo Ileto explores how religious alternatives to dominant, state-sponsored traditions provided "a language for articulating discontent and the social forms for mobilizing adherents". And Paul Kratoska and Ben Batson survey modernist reform activity, dealing in turn with territorial movements based on shared experience of colonial rule and ethnic nationalisms based on shared culture, language, and religion.
The contributors to volume four (World War II to the present) faced the problems writing contemporary history brings and their contributions have aged more than the others in the last decade. Arguably it also becomes harder to sustain a regional approach with the increasing power of modern states. But there are nevertheless some fascinating insights and novel perspectives. A. J. Stockwell covers the Second World War, the post-war independence struggles, and decolonisation; included are some comparisons of the Dutch in Indonesia with the French in Indochina. Yong Mung Cheong describes the political structures of the independent states, through phases of revolution, plural political structures, and then maximum government. Norman G. Owen describes economic and social changes: the increasing role of international politics and international trade and technology, growth and accompanying social and structural change, issues of nationalism and equity, environmental issues, and protests and rebellions. Paul Stange highlights the interactions of religions with national and industrial cultures and state regulation as well as changes in popular practice, millenarianism and mysticism, and purist revivalism (with particular detail about Indonesia). And a final chapter by C.M. Turnbull looks at the development of regional identity and institutions (from SEATO to ASEAN) and some of the stresses that have beset the region — the Cold War, the Indochina Wars, Singapore, Borneo and Confrontation, the status of Burma, and so forth.