Several years ago I spent a few years studying Khmer. I eventually started to do some research in Khmer, but then I got distracted by other things. A few years have passed now, and I don’t know when I will ever have time again to revive my knowledge of Khmer, so I figured that I should at least share what little insights I discovered at that time.

Historian Penny Edwards wrote a wonderful book about Cambodia in the early twentieth century – Cambodge: The Cultivation of a Nation. In that work, Edwards points out that the French sought to create a distance between Cambodia and Siam by cutting off the various connections that had existed between these two countries (religious, intellectual, etc.), as they did not want the Siamese to influence Cambodians.

cambodge

I have no problem with that claim. However, years ago when I was trying to read one of the earliest Cambodian newspapers – Nagaravatta – I came across an article from 1938 that was essentially a Khmer translation of an essay that the Siamese king, Vajiravudh had written a couple of decades earlier called “Mud on Our Wheels.”

The author of this article – Sguanwong (literally, “caring for the family line/lineage/race”) – did not indicate that he was translating Vajiravudh’s essay, but it clearly is a translation of that earlier work.

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This points to a common phenomenon that I have detected. In the early twentieth century, there were many people in Southeast Asia who wrote articles based on articles or books that they had read in other languages, but they did not credit those articles/books for that information (I have seen this with Vietnamese writers saying what Chinese writers had already said). This makes it difficult to detect the transnational movement of ideas, but when we have a knowledge of the information that was being produced in multiple societies, we can still detect this.

Fortunately, when I read this article in Khmer, I was already aware that Vajiravudh had written an essay on this topic in Thai. I stopped trying to read this article in Khmer because I was going to go read the Thai essay first, but I never got around to it. Now my knowledge of Khmer has deteriorated, so I don’t think I’ll return to this project soon.

In which case, I’ll provide here the portion that I started to translate years ago for whoever might be interested.

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[2] We need to know about what is common in the world, and that is that each of us is a competitor with other people who are around us. Our family line is a competitor with other family lines around our family line. Our nation is a competitor with other nations around our nation.

[It then says something like given that this is the case, have you looked carefully at yourself, your family line and your nation, and are you sure all of these elements are striving?]

In fact, in this competition there is no one who needs to be on the losing side. I can predict that all of you (just like the fortunetellers who used to make predictions for the king and his officials in the old days) need to be on the winning side, or at the very least can ask to be an equal.

[This is followed by a question which I don’t get.]

A vehicle (such as an automobile) which can run fast, can do so because we drive it on good roads, without mud and dust [?] which can stick to the wheels. But whenever mud sticks to the wheels, you can probably guess that no matter how expert the driver, that car will not go as fast as we desire. The reason why we, our family lines and nation, do not travel toward a prosperous and modern level of civilization like others is because of mud and dust, that is, we together with the people of our nation who are ignorant, hold to a doctrine of various customs which are devoid of beneficial content. These people obstruct and slow us down.

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[3] Take a look at China, which many people regard as a great country in this world, and which has a huge territory and more people under its power than anyplace else. It should be prosperous [with all of its power?], but that is not how it is. To the contrary, it is a weak country. It is big, but many people have heads like [what???]. [they just follow/rely on others??] among all of the independent countries. Why is that? Have you considered this or not? It is because China is [metitthe]. They largely adhere to old and barbaric customs. They are people concealed in the palm of old ritual practitioners. They don’t think of changing and making plans to bring modern progress [what does it say about cutting their queues here?]. In addition to this, they live almost entirely according to ancient ways, even when there are some people who love the country who strive to lead others along, but people are not willing to follow. The have obstinately stuck to the doctrine of antiquity, which is a meaningless doctrine, all the way to the present. Now that China has fallen into a condition like this, you should know what the reason for this is. Is it not that mud is stuck on [their] wheels and that [their] wheels are stuck in the mud? Is this not a pity? It is so sad to think of [their] future. As for what China’s mud actually is, I cannot explain that here. Please consider this on your own.