Five Studies


This book presents five essays on the Thai folk epic, The Tale of Khun Chang Khun Phaen. Someone reading these essays with the tale’s title disguised might find it hard to believe that all five are about the same single work.

That’s the opening sentence of our new book with five essays on KCKP.

We have been working on this book for a long time, but it has been repeatedly delayed by other projects. At last we have got it finished, with help from our friends at Silkworm Books, Trasvin and Susan.

The five essays are spectacularly different. That is partly because they date from two different eras, partly because the authors are rather varied, and partly because KCKP lends itself to many different readings.

Here’s a brief sketch of the five essays.

“A Society Which Lacks Principle” by ML Boonlua Debyasuvarn.

boonlueML Boonlua was the first woman to study in Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Arts, and the first female acharn on Thai literature. Susan Kepner recently published a wonderful biography of her (A Civilized Woman: M.L. Boonlua Debyasuvarn and the Thai Twentieth Century, Silkworm Books, 2013; the picture here is from her book ).

The essay is extracted from a textbooks she published in 1974, probably based on her teaching notes from earlier years as she retired in 1960. In the textbook, she uses KCKP as one of her examples to demonstrate the techniques of literary criticism, mostly following I. A. Richards. The striking part is her conclusion:

“In my judgment, the message of Khun Chang Khun Phaen is that Thai society is a society without principle.”

People do not follow the precepts. The authorities are incompetent. Wrongdoing goes unpunished. Boonlua makes explicit that her judgment applies to the past as well as the present:

“If Thai society had progressed significantly we would not find the society still governed as shown in Khun Chang Khun Phaen, but the essence of current events can be found in the tale. In sum, Thai society is a society that lacks principle.”

“The Aggression of Characters in Khun Chang Khun Phaen” by Cholthira Satyawadhna


Cholthira from a 1979 book

Cholthira’s MA thesis, completed in 1970, created a firestorm, mostly because of the chapter on KCKP. The thesis was never published, and this translated version is its first appearance in print, but anyone in Thai literary circles knows about it because of the furore. Cholthira analyzed KCKP from a Freudian perspective. She suggested that “virtually every character in Khun Chang Khun Phaen of any age and gender displays aggressive behavior,” and showed, in great detail, how Khun Phaen shows sadistic tendencies and Wanthong shows masochistic tendencies.

Cholthira ended by claiming her study

highlights a truth that many may not grasp … that aggression, bloodthirstiness, and the desire for death are buried in the psyche of every human being of any race or language without limitation of age or gender.

The reaction this created can be seen in an article by Suphon Bunnag in 1973. She claimed that Thais “never do anything sexually dirty, and authors will not portray anything titillating because they don’t titillate themselves.” Thai writers “have not put any sexual deviance in their works because we don’t like it.” She argued that Cholthira’s approach was dangerous because

a treasure of the national culture is being misrepresented, and if there is nobody who values this treasure, who wants to preserve it, this literature will disappear, and the language on which it is based will disappear too, and nothing will be left of the national identity

Cholthira was prominent in the 1973-6 uprising against dictatorship. In 1974, she and Boonlua appeared on the same platform to discuss Thai literature in this political climate. Boonlua has left a partial description of the event. Cholthira and Pasuk were in the same class at secondary school, and have remained good friends (see the post on weekend at Walailak).

The other three essays come from forty years later.

Khun Chang Khun Phaen and the Moral Landscape of the Three Worlds Cosmology” by Warunee Osatharom

waruneecrop.jpgWarunee comes from Suphanburi, the cradle of KCKP. She had a career as an anthropologist, historian, and activist, mostly associated with the Thai Khadi Institute in Thammasat University. In 2010-12, around the time of her retirement, she wrote two related articles on KCKP. Warunee is an old friend, and had given us help and advice on the translation. We asked her permission to translate and condense these articles.

In reaction to the fall and destruction of Ayutthaya in 1767, there was a movement to draw on Theravada Buddhism to discipline and strengthen the society. This movement was reflected in a new version of the Buddhist cosmography of the Three Worlds, produced during the First Reign, which incorporated a Discourse on Humanity with extensive instructions on living a moral life. It was also reflected in new graphical representations of this cosmography in illustrated manuscripts which mapped the geography of Siam into the cosmic geography of the Buddhist world.

Warunee argues that the same mix of geography and ethics is found in KCKP. She shows shows that the overall fate and fortune of each major character in the tale depends on how well they comply with or offend against the codes of conduct which are found in the revised Three Worlds of the First Reign, in the inscriptions at Wat Pho, and in several didactic manuals produced in the early Bangkok era.

She concludes that, in early Bangkok, Khun Chang Khun Phaen was transformed from a simple folktale into “a means of propagating the ideology of the Buddhist state and society that the early Chakri court aimed to establish.”

“Space, Identity, and Self-Definition: The Forest in Khun Chang Khun Phaen” by David C. Atherton

david_atherton2While were doing the translation, we put early drafts up on a website to get some reaction and criticism. David Atherton, who was studying for an MA under the guidance of Thongchai Winichakul at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, used these drafts and his own reading of the Thai original for his MA thesis.

He contacted us and gave us some great help on the translation. We loved his thesis. He went on to do a PhD on Japanese literature and now teaches at the University of Colorado. We have not met in person, but have had a long email conversation. With his permission, we reduced the thesis to a suitable length, and he then corrected and finalized the chapter.

David argues that the social spaces of household, village, and city place progressively tighter restrictions on selfhood. The loss of selfhood at the level of the city (mueang) is symbolized by Khun Phaen losing his natal name (Phlai Kaeo) in favor of an official title, and being utterly subject to royal command—sent off to war only three days after his marriage, and later plunged into jail for fourteen years. This is the background to Khun Phaen’s decision at the axial point of the plot to abandon civilization, seize Wanthong, and flee into the forest. At that point, Khun Phaen has lost both his wives, and lost his position at court (because of Khun Chang’s machinations). He decides that “to be completely destroyed is better than to go on living.”

He then shows how the poetry of “enjoying the forest” encapsulates the recovery of selfhood. In the  “wondrous scene” of lovemaking in the forest, the boundaries between human and nature, metaphor and reality are dissolved away. He concludes,

“we may conceive of the forest as a space of self-making not merely for the characters depicted as inhabiting it, but also for the very poets who brought it into being…. it is difficult, after examining the forest in the context of words, identity, and the subjective, not to see a parallel between that vast, unbounded, dark, wild, rich, and beautiful space, and the limitless inner world that exists in some unseen region deep within every human being.”

“The Revolt of Khun Phaen: Contesting Power in Early Modern Siam” by Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit

This essay was first presented at a Thai Studies Conference in 2007, and finally appeared, after many rewritings, in a festschrift for Craig Reynolds.

The idea for the article began from the discovery that Wanthong is sentenced to death, not for adultery or sexual misbehavior, as usually assumed, but for “revolt.” This is the starting point for a discussion of different forms of power, as represented by the king on one side and Khun Phaen on the other. We then wonder aloud why the rebelliousness which is such a prominent theme in KCKP is generally ignored.

As these five essays show, Khun Chang Khun Phaen can be read as a study of a society without principle, as an inquiry into human aggression, as a carrier of Buddhist ethics, as a metaphorical recovery of selfhood, or as a disquisition on forms of power. And of course, in many other ways too. We hope these essays will prompt further enjoyment, appreciation, and study of this outstanding work of Thai literature.

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1 Response to Five Studies

  1. Man Methaya says:

    Thank you for posting this Mr. Baker. In my view, Thai literary criticism has been plagued for decades by the politics especially from the left following the political events in the 70s. I am a Thai and I find it strange that the Thai writers and intellectuals (who are mostly left-wing) have always applied their political views on the literary classics. Perhaps this tendency started in the US whose lit criticism has been invaded by the French theories since the 70s. But I do feel the weakness of these critical viewpoints which treat great classics as something that depends on their approval. It’s easy for feminists to dismiss KCKP because Wanthong was executed by her inability to be faithful.
    Why does it matter that the characters in KCKP do not follow the “precepts”? Does Beowolf or Achilles follow any precept? Why should an epic is of greater merits if it seeks to moralize or instruct the readers rather than to “tell it like it is” or simply to entertain? What kind of weak criticism it is to say that the leading male protagonist in a romance fiction is “aggressive” and that the lead female counterpart shows “masochistic” attitude. Isn’t this what you find in every title of romance novel today?

    It is this kind of weak and juvenile criticisms that hurt Thai literature, IMO. Thailand is not a society with many avid readers. And people who are engaged in reading and evaluating classics cannot come up with any thing constructive to say about what is one of the world’s best epic poem. It’s pointless criticisms like these that turn young people away from their national literature for decades.

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