Folklore Foundation

Folklore Foundation

Seditious Histories: Contesting Thai and Southeast Asian Pasts

By Craig J. Reynolds. 2006. Seattle: University of Washington Press. 376 pages. ISBN: 0-295-98610-7 (softcover).

Reviewed by Mahendra K. Mishra, Independent Scholar

[Review length: 1305 words • Review posted on June 18, 2009]

The book is comprised of eleven well-researched essays on various aspects of Southeast Asian history and culture in general and Thailand, in particular. The author has divided the book into four major sections. The first section, titled “Studying South East Asia,” takes a fresh look at “Old South East Asia,” exploring the paradigm of the pre-modern state. The second, “Seditious Histories,” examines the purloined documents of a historian and an epic narrative of a poet; feudalism as a trope for the past; and engendering the historical writings. The third section seeks to provide the ideological and religious background of Thai ethics and beliefs and also of Thai local knowledge. Section four addresses the dialectics of globalization, which threaten the sustainability of traditional knowledge and of the environment. This multidimensional study cuts across the boundaries of disciplines and offers a holistic approach to interpretations of the history of Thailand. This approach can be profitably applied to the study of other Southeast Asian countries such as India.

Historical narratives as an arena for contesting hegemonies have aroused scholarly interest in cultural studies of Southeast Asia since the publication of Stanley Jayeraja Tambiah’s World Conqueror and World Renouncer in the 1970s. Tambiah explored the close alliance between royalty and the monks through his galactic (Mandala) model of the Thai polity in the Ayuttha period. Since then a number of research projects have focused attention on these historical narratives. While the royalty used genealogies, tradition, and royal chronicle to legitimatize its power and authority and co-opted the influential Sangha in its power discourse, counter-narratives have also been created to challenge the authority of the state.

Reynolds’ book can be seen as an expansion of this theme of counter-narratives, which Tambiah explored in the Cult of Amulets. Tambiah critically examined the role of influential forest monks in challenging royal authority. Counter-hegemonic narratives drew upon different kinds of sources to challenge the official discourse. While the official discourse, for its part, used Buddhist ethical codes, legal codes, and royal history, counter-narratives used collective memory, poems, and folklore, which are known as “manual knowledge.”

The history of Thailand was dominated by the royal dynasties and only they were authorized to write their own history. In the process, they glorified and distorted facts according to their political needs. The evolution of a monarchy breaking the egalitarian local self-rule by appropriating religious and military power took place in all the countries of this region. In his essay, “A New Look at Old South East Asia,” the author examines the geo-political situation of the land, where early state formation took place through trade and communication. The rulers adopted the religious practices and myths of the people to maintain the monarchy.

Transformations of chiefdom into kingship and integration of wet-rice cultivation with military power are some of the indicators of state formation. India, along with many Southeast Asian countries, has witnessed the unfolding of similar processes. The author has made a serious attempt to establish the historiography of Southeast Asia by employing a multidisciplinary approach that combines social histories, chronicles, epic narratives, journalism, religion, literature, and folklore.

Reynolds then poses the question: is the state of Western origin or is it based on an indigenous paradigm such as the “Asiatic model of Production harking back to Marxian Theory of social formations?” To answer this question the author discusses the mode of irrigation and self-rule in villages, where a majority of cultivators were outside the state’s control and the peasants in irrigated valleys were under state control. This forms the basis of “despotic rule” (38). Mandala was the center of power of the king where ceremonies having religious significance and cultural color explained political authority and the obedience of subjects. A state legitimizing itself by this way is called a “theatre state” (44).

A social history of the people has been a neglected area in Southeast Asian studies. However, the trend of countering the hegemony of the royal history of Thailand was introduced by Mr. KSR Kulap. In “The Testimony of the Ayutthaya,” Kulap challenged the validity of the existing historiography. Kulap’s version of Siamese history was banned and he was imprisoned. But the history written by him came to be widely referred to in the historiography of Thailand. Another “seditious history” is poet Nai Thim Sukkhayang’s Nirat Nongkhai, a war epic narrative. He was taken to task for violating the cultural code of the Thai tradition and also imprisoned. Reynolds’ attempt to interpret history through the counter-history of these narratives reveals a “battlefield of symbol manipulation and language interpretation” (100).

The author undertakes a comparison between past feudal Thai powers (shaktina) and present power relations. “Engendering Thai Historical Writing” explores the role of women in the national movement of Thailand. The introduction of anthropology and social sciences in the universities of Thailand has opened up a new horizon of gender study. Women-related issues of labour law, sexuality, and social hierarchy are now in the picture. Reynolds shows how, on the one hand, Thai beauty has become world beauty, and on the other, it falls prey to sexual exploitation and unequal labour laws.

The chapter on “Cultural Studies in Thailand” explores religious-historical writings such as the chronicle of Buddhist Councils in Early Bangkok commissioned by the kings. This chapter situates Thai history in the wider Buddhist landscape of Southeast Asia. Buddhist cosmography as discussed in this book reveals the principles of Siamese metaphysics, which regulate socio-religious life. The concepts of life after death and rebirth, three worlds, and karma, indigenous to Southeast Asian Buddhists texts, have been discussed thoroughly in order to understand early Thai collective memory associated with Buddhism. The Thai Buddhist defence of polygamy explains the socio-religious construction of family where the position of Thai women in traditional society was subordinate to that of men. This position, according to the author, was due to the accumulation of property. Polygamy was validated by power and wealth and by social custom and family tradition through religious-cultural practices. Briefly, this chapter relates religious-historical writings in Early Bangkok to Buddhist cosmology and seeks to bring out the polarity of Buddhist Sangha and Thai polity in the process of legitimizing royal and political elites.

Some of the most stimulating ideas in the book are advanced in the chapter, “The Thai Manual Knowledge: Theory and Practice.” The chapter dwells on how cultural practices were “organized for preservation, retrieval, transmission and consumption” of knowledge. These practices include grammars, cosmologies, medical and astrology manuals, manuals on the art and science of warfare, and the manual on how to behave properly and these were transmitted orally people of all classes.

The chapter “Dialectics of Globalization” deals with questions relating to how national identity, cultural nationalism, ethnicity, and heritage have been influenced by globalization. Thailand has witnessed rapid modernization during the later part of the twentieth century. Use of technology in rural as well as urban areas, reinterpreting the theatrical tradition in light of modern popular culture, the adoption of a free-market economy, and telecommunication and transport, have transformed Thailand. These factors have transposed Thai tradition and modernity into a wider landscape where Thai national identity and international relations coexist uneasily.

Reynolds seeks to examine the connection of the past with the present, the written with the oral, the voice with the unvoiced, and the royal with the rural. Historiography, as perceived by the traditional scholars of Southeast Asia, will no longer remain the same with the publication of this volume. Family history, epic narratives of poets, genealogies of contested histories, and knowledge of the people will now be increasingly used as instruments in the reconstruction of Thai history.

As an Indologist and a folklorist, I am confident that this book is a masterpiece of Thai social history that will lead to the writing of “seditious histories” of other Southeast Asian countries.