The Traumatic Origins of Modern Thai and Vietnamese Historical Writing

River Books in Bangkok has just published a new volume entitled, Southeast Asian Historiography, Unravelling the Myths: Essays in Honour of Barend Jan Terwiel. The first chapter is an essay by Thongchai Winichakul called “Siam’s Colonial Condition and the Birth of Thai History.”

The argument of this essay is that modern Thai historical writing emerged in the years after the humiliation of 1893, when French gunboats sailed up the Chaophraya and King Chulalongkorn was compelled to sign a treaty in which Siam gave up land to the French.

Thongchai contends that the elite at that time “projected perceptions of colonial threats and the struggle for independence as shared among the elite at the time retrospectively to the entire past of Siam” (38).

Hence, while the purpose of the chronicle tradition in Siam prior to the twentieth century had been to depict rulers as moral exemplars or righteous rulers, regardless of their ethnicity or nationality, “The new historiography in the early twentieth century appropriated the royal chronicles and turned them into a narrative of struggles for national independence” (35).

Thongchai’s essay is much more complex and nuanced than this, but the above comments point to the gist of his paper.

While this essay is very good on its own, I particularly liked it because it demonstrates that modern Thai historical writing emerged in very similar conditions, and took a similar form, to modern Vietnamese historical writing.

One of Thongchai’s points is that scholars today are no longer aware of the sense of trauma which the elite in the early twentieth century felt, in part because historians today believe the triumphant historical narrative which they produced, a narrative which was written in part to hide or assuage their fear and humiliation. As a result, historians today cannot see how this sense of trauma influenced the way in which they re-wrote (or invented) Siamese history. This is what Thongchai convincingly demonstrates in his essay.

I would argue that this is also the case with Vietnam. There are many historical writings from the early twentieth century which have still not received scholarly attention, and they were written by a similarly traumatized elite, who likewise sought to create a new history which would hide or assuage their fear and humiliation, in this case at being conquered and colonized.

As is the case in Thailand, Vietnamese historians have been willing to believe the new ideas that were created at that time. Again like in Thailand, these new ideas consisted of triumphant narratives about “struggles for national independence” which were re-worked from chronicles about the moral qualities of rulers, irrespective of their ethnicity/nationality (such as Triệu Đà).

Hence, there is a Vietnamese version of Thongchai’s article which is waiting to be researched and written.

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