There are two words in English that confuse people – Tai and Thai. The term “Tai” is used to refer to a language family that includes such languages as Zhuang, Black Tai, Lao, and Shan. “Thai” refers to one group of people within that larger group of Tai-language speakers, the people who live in what is today Central Thailand (well, now it refers to everyone within the borders of the modern state of Thailand. . . but reality is more complex than that – let’s leave that discussion for another day.).


As I mentioned in a recent post, in the early twentieth century, there were Westerners who looked for “races” in Asia and tried to find out where the “Tai/Thai race” had come from. The “findings” of these scholars were expanded upon by Thai nationalists in the late 1930s and what emerged was a narrative of the past which said that the Thai (that’s right, “T-H-A-I” not “T-A-I”) people had originally come from the Altai Mountains in Mongolia.

This narrative that was created was a nationalist victim narrative, and it argued that the (innocent) Thai had been forced to flee from the Altai Mountains and had eventually established a kingdom in the area of what is today Yunnan Province called Nanzhao. However, they were forced again to flee from there, and headed southward where they established the kingdom of Sukhothai.


As the previous post makes evident, people in the PRC were not happy with this narrative, because from their perspective, this gave Thailand a claim to parts of Yunnan, and that had to be resisted, and it was. Politically motivated PRC scholars refuted this claim.

What is interesting, however, is that Thai scholars also resisted this narrative. However, they did so from a very different impulse. They did it from an “anti-Thai-nationalism” (post-modern) impulse.

What has resulted is a weird “agreement” that the “T-H-A-I” did not come from Nanzhao, but this agreement is really based on a misunderstanding, and it ignores the “T-A-I.”

Perhaps a good way to demonstrate this would be to cite what one prominent Thai scholar, Ajarn Sujit Wongthes, has written about this matter. I will quote from one of his writings, and then provide some comments.


“Where do the Thai come from? That’s an old question. It must have first appeared in Thailand about 100 years ago, but I’ve only heard about it in the last 50 years.

Just a few days ago, there was someone who was talking to some other people, claiming that since there was this movie or that drama about the Thai abandoning their territory and that I must not know what I’m talking about.

Let me explain: the original belief was that the birthplace of the Thai was in the area of the Altai Mountains (in Mongolia), and that they were then attacked by the Chinese and forced to move and establish a new base in the Kingdom of Nanzhao.

For the past 30 years, the Ministry of Education has dismissed this idea about the Altai Mountains because it is groundless, but it is still taught these days that the Thai had an original homeland in the Kingdom of Nanzhao (in the northern part of Yunnan Province) and that they were then attacked by Kublai Khan’s troops and had to uproot themselves and move to settle at Sukhothai, the first [Thai] capital city.

What a shame that there still isn’t any evidence that the Thai were the rulers of the Kingdom of Nanzhao. . . [there is some more stuff here, but it is too specific for our purposes here].

There are scholars in one group who endeavor to downgrade this Nanzhao story and have the homeland of the Thai be in Chiang Rung [i.e., Jinghong] or Sipsongpanna before they moved to Sukhothai.

However, the evidence for this is contradictory, because there is evidence that there was someone from Yonok-Lanna in the distant past who migrated [northward] and seized the area of Sipsongpanna and established a base there, but did not go down [southward] from there.

So what is it that I have written that makes people laugh when I say that the Thai do not come from anywhere? The Thai are here, but Professor Nithi Aeusrivongse warns that Thai are both here and there. So I have tried to explain further that the Thai are here, in Southeast Asia, and that [in that context] there is a limit to the meaning of what “Thai” is.

A Thai person in general is someone who speaks a certain language, has a certain lifestyle, a certain worldview, has certain values, has a certain ideology and even a common consciousness about Thai history that bring benefit when combined together with business-politics and social-cultural issues of living in the Thai world, which today is the area of Thailand.

The word “Thai” does not refer to a nationality/race because there is no such thing in this world as a pure nationality/race.”


I hope that I’ve translated this more or less accurately. What is evident from this passage is that Ajarn Sujit Wongthes clearly sees nations/races as constructed. To him there was nothing that we can call “the Thai” before modern times (i.e., the nineteenth and twentieth centuries). The concept of “the Thai” is a constructed/imagined concept, and that construction/imagination took place in modern times.

So did “the Thai” migrate southward from Nanzhao? Of course not!! Because there were no “Thai” until modern times.

On the one hand, I completely agree with Ajarn Sujit Wongthes. On the other hand, so do all of the (politically motivated) historians in the PRC who deal with this issue. So how can people with such differing views and approaches “agree” with each other?

The problem is that there is not a true “academic” agreement on this issue. PRC scholars have a political need to deny “Thai” connections to places in the territory of what is now the PRC, and progressive scholars like Ajarn Sujit Wongthes have a need to counter Thai nationalism and essentialist interpretations of the past.

What is strange is that these two imperatives have reached an “agreement” about the “Thai migration from Nanzhao” issue, but the two sides do not actually agree, because they are speaking two different languages.


As far as I know, Ajarn Sujit Wongthes does not read Chinese. I also know that the PRC scholars who have studied Nanzhao have been extremely simplistic in their refutation of a “Tai” presence there. So there is still an open question. What is the relationship between the “T-A-I” and Nanzhao?

The tiny bit of research that I have done suggests that there is a very important relationship. Ultimately, there is a lot more research that needs to be done on this issue (And that is probably what Ajarn Nithi Aeusrivongse was referring to when he mentioned Thai/Tai being “here and there.”).

There is no question but that Ajarn Sujit Wongthes is 100% on target in talking about the “T-H-A-I,” but Nanzhao is ultimately about the “T-A-I,” and that story still needs to be told.

(As for Ajarn Sujit Wongthes’s writing that I have attempted to translate, the source text is below.)

คนไทยมาจากไหน? เป็นคำถามเก่ามาก แรกมีขึ้นในประเทศไทยน่าจะราว 100 ปี แต่เท่าที่ผมได้ยินก็ไม่เกิน 50 ปีมาแล้ว

เมื่อไม่กี่วันมานี้ มีผู้ถามอีกหลายคน อ้างว่าเพราะมีหนังหรือละครเรื่องคนไทยทิ้งแผ่นดิน หรืออะไรทำนองนี้ที่ผมไม่ประสีประสา


ราว 30 ปีมานี้ กระทรวงศึกษาธิการให้ยกเลิกเรื่องเทือกเขาอัลไต เพราะเพ้อเจ้อไม่มีหลักฐาน แต่ยังคงสอนว่าคนไทยมีแหล่งเดิมอยู่อาณาจักรน่านเจ้า(ทางเหนือของมณฑลยูนนาน) แล้วถูกกองทัพกุบไลข่านรุกรานต้องอพยพถอนรากถอนโคนลงมาตั้งสุโขทัย เป็นราชธานีแห่งแรก ทุกวันนี้ยังสอนอย่างนี้

น่าเสียดายที่ไม่เคยมีหลักฐานใดๆบอกว่าคนไทยเป็นเจ้าของอาณาจักรน่านเจ้า แม้ทุกวันนี้ก็ยังไม่เคยพบหลักฐาน ตำราที่“นั่งเทียน”เขียนอย่างนั้นก็เท่ากับ“ขี้ตู่”ไม่มีทางจะคิดเป็นอื่นได้

มีนักวิชาการกลุ่มหนึ่งพยายามประนีประนอมลดระดับลงจากน่านเจ้า ให้คนไทยมีแหล่งเดิมอยู่ที่เชียงรุ่ง สิบสองพันนา แล้วอพยพลงมาสุโขทัย

แต่หลักฐานและร่องรอยสวนทางกัน เพราะมีพยานว่ามีกลุ่มชนพวกหนึ่งจากโยนก-ล้านนา ยุคดึกดำบรรพ์เคลื่อนย้ายขึ้นไปยึดดินแดนสิบสองพันนา แล้วตั้งหลักแหล่งที่นั่น ไม่เคยมีอพยพลงมา

ผมเขียนอะไรต่อมิอะไรสนุกสนานเฮฮาว่าคนไทยไม่ได้มาจากไหน? เพราะคนไทยอยู่ที่นี่, แต่อาจารย์นิธิ เอียวศรีวงศ์ เตือนว่า คนไทยอยู่ที่นี่ด้วย ที่โน่นด้วย ผมเลยยกมาอธิบายต่อยอดออกไปอีกว่าจะเอายังงั้นก็ได้ คือคนไทยอยู่ที่นี่ ที่อุษาคเนย์ แล้วมีคำจำกัดความ“คนไทย”ไว้ดังนี้

คนไทย โดยทั่วไปหมายถึงคนพูดภาษาไทย, มีวิถีชีวิต, มีทัศนะต่อโลก, มีระบบคุณค่า, มีอุดมการณ์, ตลอดจนมีสำนึกร่วมทางประวัติศาสตร์ไทย ที่มีผลประโยชน์ร่วมกันทางเศรษฐกิจ-การเมือง และสังคม-วัฒนธรรม อยู่ในขอบเขตรัฐไทยอันเป็นประเทศไทยปัจจุบัน

คำว่า “ไทยŽ” ไม่ใช่ชื่อเชื้อชาติ เพราะเชื้อชาติบริสุทธิ์ไม่มีจริงในโลก