Thailand Literature Overview

By | December 17, 2021

The Thai rulers have been instrumental in the modernization of literature. Towards the middle of the 19th century, thanks to King Mongkut (Rāma iv, 1851-68), relations with Western countries were strengthened: these relations later resulted in the reign of his son, Chulalongkorn or Rāma v (1868-1910), in a notable influence of the world and Western culture on local literary life. The sovereign himself published some travel accounts and a valuable historical commentary on official feasts and ceremonies (Phra Rachaphithi Sip Song Duen, “The Twelve Month Ceremonies”, 1888). But it is under the reign of Vajravudh or Rāma vi(1910-25) that modern Thai literature properly began. It is to this sovereign – himself a poet, prose writer, playwright, philologist and artist, author of a hundred works, especially of the theatrical genre – the introduction of European theater in Thailand and the birth of an opinion press. For Thailand 2011, please check

Prince Damrong (1862-1943), who was Minister of Education, also worked with innovative interventions to obtain an ever wider dissemination of studies marked by new teaching methods. Making use of particularly well-known scholars, Damrong in fact favored the research and enhancement of the primitive sources of the Thai literary cultural heritage, planning the systematic collection of all the ancient documents existing in the kingdom; his works, especially in prose, reflect the results of his research on history, literature, religion, local customs. Among the modern authors of classical training who have kept a very refined and poetic style and who draw inspiration from Indian literature, we must remember the poet Nai Chit Burathat (1892-1942), Sammakkhi Phét Khamchan (“The truncated union”, 1914), a poem that stands out for the elegance of the style and for the spontaneity and harmony of the verse; the poet Phraya Upakit Silpasan (1879-1941), a delicate singer of the beauties of nature; Prince P’hitthayalongkorn (1876-1945), to whom we owe some lively compositions characterized by freshness of images and subtle and penetrating irony; Riem E’ng (pseud. By Malai Jupinit, 1906-1963), author of stories that are inspired by the hard and sad life led by the less affluent part of the people and whose best known novel is Tung Mahārāt (“The field of the Great King “, 1864). The ” popular ” literature, partly religious, partly profane – which includes detective-type compositions,, erotic or sentimental stories, lively and compelling pages of humorous tone or social satire – is represented by a production rich in titles, aligned with the rhythms and solicitations of tastes that progressively evolve or completely change, even when the themes indulge still to the suggestions of the supernatural, the mysterious, the fantastic. The pressing transformations of thought gradually translate into corresponding changes in expressive modes: the modern, the lively, the immediate in images and situations markedly condition as many evolutions of the same morphological structure of language, characterized by frequent neologisms and by the conspicuous presence of terms borrowed from foreign languages.

Of all the genres cultivated by Thai literature, the most representative, even if of recent origin, is that of the novel, within which many and various categories are identified, such as the sentimental genre, the religious, the comic, the satirical, the political, the historical, the social, the swashbuckler, the adventure one. Since the beginning of the 19th century, translations of foreign, Chinese and above all English novels had been widespread. The first authentic Thai novel is Phrae Dam (“Black Silk”, 1922), the story of a daring secret agent, the work of Luang Saranu Prabandh (1905-1933), who drew inspiration from A. Conan Doyle. However, the first real great novel is Lakorn Hèng Chivit (“The Theater of Life”, 1929) by Prince MC Akat Damkeung, which had about twenty reprints.

From these years onwards, novels follow one another with increasing frequency, but essentially fall into three main categories: the popular novel, adaptations of foreign works (especially espionage and erotic works) and the novel as a work literary. And it is precisely to this last genre that the best Thai production belongs, which is affirming itself under the reigns of Rāma vi and Rāma vii(1925-35). Among the most significant exponents of this new current, which has the aforementioned Prince Akat Damkeung as its forerunner, some authors stand out above all: Dok Mai Sot (pseud. Of ML Bupha Kuñjara, 1905-1963), nicknamed “ the novelist from the pen diamond ”, whose works symbolize, in the Thai spirit, the novel in its pure state: Phudi (“A being of quality”, 1929) is considered his masterpiece, but also another of his works, Nilae Chivit (“Thus è la vita “, 1929) met with great success; Bunleua ​​(pseud. Of ML Bunleua ​​Thepyasuwan, 1911-1982), author, among other things, of the novel Thutiya Wiset (“The Lady of the Royal Honor”, 1968); K. Surang Khanang (pseud. By Kanha Kiengsiri, b. 1911), which stands out for its simple and precious style and whose best known novel is Ying Kon Chua (“The prostitute”); Botan (pseud. Of Supha Lusiri, b.1945), of Chinese origin, which was awarded (1969) the SEATO (South East Asia Treaty Organization) prize, i.e. the most prestigious literary prize of Thailand for Chotmai Chak Muang Thai (“Letters from Thailand”, 1970). Among the contemporaries whose works have had great notoriety, deserve to be remembered: Praja Punvivat (b.1926), author, among other things, of the novel Mahā Rāja Sond (“The lonely king”, 1971); Prince MR Kukrit Pramoj (b. 1911), author of numerous essays and a chronicle of court life from Rāma iv (mid 19th century) to Rāma vii – the last absolute monarch – entitled Si Pendine (“The four kingdoms “, 1953), continuously republished and considered his masterpiece. His other important work Phai Daeng (“Red Bamboo”, 1955), with a political background, describes the social problems of the residents of a Thai village.

In the modern cultural panorama of Thailand two particular figures stand out. Phraya Anuman Rajadhon (1888-1970), self-taught, wrote, but above all translated, numerous works and articles on themes of religion, linguistics, literature, history, general culture and even short stories; he was head of the Department of Fine Arts and the first director of the Royal Thai Encyclopedia, founded by the Royal Thai Academy. Prince Subhadradis Diskul (b.1923), one of the most distinguished and best-known Thai writers in the international arena, is the author of studies on art, archeology, philology, history, which have had particular significance in the restoration of culture traditional Thai.

While taking due account of this creative fervor, in the end there is a consideration to be made: even if Thailand now possesses her realist novelists, her avant-garde theater, her opinion press, her literary circles, his poetic experiences, there is always a tendency not to completely abandon the line of oral tradition and the authentic values ​​of the indigenous cultural heritage connected with the ancient fund of fantastic tales and with the spirit of farces and popular wisdom. Indeed, some literary associations (in particular the Sirindhorn Anthropology Center) endeavor not only to make the best of the Thai tradition available to the masses, but also to translate the most interesting traditional works into French and English.

Thailand Literature Overview