Cambodian Literature


Judy Ledgerwoord

Dept. of Anthropology

Northern Illinois University

Aksar roluat jeat roleay Aksar ponnareay jeat thlai thla .

If letters disappear, the nation will disappear

If letters are brilliant, the nation is excellent.

The Khmer word, aksarsastra, generally defined as "literature", comes from the base, aksar, meaning letter or script. In addition to what we would think of as literature, the study of texts, the word also has the connotation of the study of writing, of "letters". Thus studies of Khmer aksarsastra generally begin with the study of Khmer stone inscriptions. Rather than a complete review of all such works, what follows is only a brief glimpse of some of the different genres of Khmer literature and a sense of change over time. The earliest inscriptions in Khmer date from the 7th century AD The "classical" works of Khmer literature were written between the 16th and 19th centuries. Nepote and Khing write of these works:

For centuries, classical Cambodian literature followed a well-defined
pattern. Comprised mostly of verse, its language is characterized
by symmetry and circumlocution, with the rhythm of the sentence
prevailing over punctuation. Its vocabulary was carefully selected and
comprised archaism, borrowed terms and metaphors, the hallmark of
"appropriate" language. It was partly inspired by Indian literature and
was linked to two institutions: the palaces of princes and mandarins,
and the Buddhist monasteries (1981:56).

The stylized language, the use of complex rhyme schemes, and archaic language means that these works are extremely difficult to read. Jacob writes for example of the Ramakerti (the Cambodian version of the Ramayana) that, "with its early pages full of archaisms, obsolete vocabulary and unfamiliar words spelt in a variety of ways, the printed text looked formidable even to Cambodians and was not much read or studied until the 1960's" (1986: xii).

But we know that these texts were set to memory by professional storytellers who would then often travel doing performances. Such was the case with the man that Bizot interviewed in 1969, Ta Chak . Ta (grandfather) Chak had memorized the Ramakerti in 1920 at the age of 23 from palm leaf manuscripts. "He quickly became known," Bizot writes, "and was called to perform at village festivals and then on the stage in the monastery theaters during the big people's celebrations lasting several days" (1981: 263). The entire performance, given five hours each day, lasted about 10 days. It is through such performances that most Khmer
would have known classical literary works.

The whole body of these works is little known. Few of then have been published, and many exist only as palm leaf manuscripts. Given the large number of deaths over the last thirty years, and the disruptions to Khmer society, perhaps no storytellers survive who can give complete performances like Ta Chak .

But the entire body of work has not been lost; rather, some of these stories, such as Neang Kakey and Dum Deav, are among the best known of Khmer works. This is due first to what Nepote and Khing refer to as a "renaissance" of classical Khmer literature in the mid-20th century. Scholars began to collect and study, and then to publish these works. With changes in the education system in the late 50's and early 60's, those works became textbooks in the classroom.

"Modern" versions of these stories began to appear in prose. Nepote and Khing write,

owing to the development of printing, which was cheap and popular,
classical literature, formerly oral (folk) or handwritten, took on a new
dimension. An enormous amount of classical literature was soon being
produced, ranging from traditional publication to the progressive adaptations
using modern audio-visual techniques, including comic strips and television
films; all this proved very popular with the Cambodian public (1981:57).

Piat (1975) also writes about the popularity of this new popular literature. She says that prices were extremely low. The classical poems had all been done in "film strips". These "comic books" used film strips with "bubbles" drawn in with dialogue. Piat points out that these served the extra purpose of acting as advertising for the movie, though they were more expensive to produce than hand-drawn cartoons (1975:251-252).

But still, buying books or attending movies, even attending school, was the realm of a limited percentage of the population. One of the final major factors in the revival of classical stories was radio. They were regularly read on the air, and potentially, Khmer throughout the country could hear them.

A second genre of Khmer literature that virtually all Khmer would be familiar with are the Jataka tales, tales of the previous lives of the Buddha. While the body of Buddhist religious literature is extensive, unless a man remained in the monkhood beyond the brief stay common to most young men, his exposure will be limited to the memorization of a few oft-repeated prayers. The greater depth of knowledge of the vinaya, sutras, and discourses was the exclusive realm of monks. But this is not the case with the Jataka tales. While both enjoyable and useful for conveying religious messages, these stories were and are a popular medium for preaching, and standard pictorial adornment on Khmer temple walls.

Of all these 547 stories, by far the most popular with the Khmer is the Moha Vessandar Jataka . It is regularly recited in its entirety in Pali, with Khmer translation and commentary at religious festivals. The entire performance can take several days. Khmer may not know that a particular story is from the Jataka collection, and may just call it one more reuang preng, folktale, or simply a reuang or story.

A third genre is the chbap, or didactic codes. Composed in verse, these works provide specific advice for daily living to several different and overlapping groups. For example, there are chbap kaun cav, grandchildren's chbap; chbap srey, women's chbap; chbap bros, men's chbap; as well as the chbap peak cas; chbap of ancient advice; and the chbap ker kal , or safekeeping of the heritage chbap.

These works are generally of unknown authorship and are undated. Thierry points out that besides a couple of works that are known to be of more recent origin, these works have generally been passed on from the 14th to the 18th centuries without ceasing to be copied, and without ceasing to be memorized (1978:18-19). She also notes that it is clear that the authors had knowledge of Sanskrit texts, the Niti Castra or "texts of conduct", which are cited in inscriptions and known to be part
of an intellectual inheritance from Angkorian times (1978:18).

The chbap are meant to be memorized and chanted according to particular bat or rhyme schemes. They were learned in temples and later in state schools. The chbap srey was often passed on at home from grandmother to granddaughter or mother to daughter. As Thierry points out, the memorization of the chbap accomplished many goals at once: "the students gained in the same blow the acquisition of religious ideas, of wisdom of experience, and thus of reading and writing itself: a
simultaneous apprenticeship of the text and of the language, of good manners and of tradition" (1978:19-20). The goal was to shape young people who would fulfill proper familial obligations, act according to certain religious precepts, and be good subjects/citizens.

Reuang Preng, folktales, make up the fourth genre. These stories have been told and retold for centuries by all types of individuals. These include a wide variety of storytellers, often travelers who accompanied the telling with a chabey (a two-stringed guitar), sometimes blind men who positioned themselves at a temple or along a main path. But Thierry points out that the notion of "professionalism" with regard to telling these stories is misplaced. Although some, gifted with an exceptional memory, have made a living at it, "old people" would likely be the ones to tell stories in any given village (1978:90). Thus the common reply to the question of where people learned a story is "from my grandmother" or "from my grandfather."

Some of the stories may have been written as early as the fifteenth century on palm leaf and then recopied, but generally they were not written until the early 20th century. The folktales received specific attention in the 1920s and 1930s when the Commission des Moeurs et Coutumes du Cambodge, a research organization begun by the French, and the Buddhist Institute collaborated to collect stories from around the country. The Brachum Reuang Preng Khmaer, collected Khmer folktales, was published by the Buddhist Institute as eight separate volumes between 1967 and 1971. In 1926, the magazine Kambuja Suriya began publication and included some folktales as well as proverbs, Buddhist commentaries, and serialized novels.

The final genre I will mention here is the modern novel. The first novels written in prose appeared in the late 1930's. Since it was difficult to get books published and the author often had to bear printing costs in advance, many works were first published as series in newspapers. Among the most popular were Phka Srapon by Nu Hac, 1940, Sophat by Rim Gin, 1938, and Koulap Pailin by Nuk Thaim, 1936. All three were used as texts in state schools, and all three were made into popular films. Between 1950 and 1975, nearly 1,000 novels were published; in the early 70's they appeared at a rate of about 50 books per year (Nepote and Khing 1981:64).

During Democratic Kampuchea (1975-1979), nothing of significant literary importance was produced within the country, but a few works were published by Cambodian refugees in France (see Khing Hoc Dy 1994). During these horrific years, much of Cambodias literary heritage within the country was destroyed. The national library was used as a storage facility and the grounds were used for raising pigs. The library at the Buddhist Institute was destroyed, though many publications from their presses have survived. It has been estimated that 80 percent of the books and manuscripts in Khmer in the country were destroyed during the Khmer Rouge period (see Ledgerwood 1990b for a discussion of the National Library).

Since 1979 Khmer literature has begun to revive, both abroad and in Cambodia. In Cambodia in the 1980s, under the Vietnamese backed Peoples Republic of Kampuchea, literature was specifically used for state propaganda, and stories often related the heroic acts of soldiers serving the revolution (Khing Hoc Dy 1994). During this time much of the Khmer works published in the refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border and abroad were reprintings of classic works of literature, including folktales and chbap. This same process occurred in Cambodia after the UN sponsored elections in 1993. Classic stories, folktales, novels and other pre-revolutionary literature began to appear in re-printings. The Buddhist Institute has also begun to reprint Buddhist texts. The publication of new works was hindered in the 1990s by a lack of funding, authors generally had to front the money to pay for the printing, without any guarantee that their books would turn a profit. There is also the issue of slowly rebuilding a literate reading public, since a new generation is only now reaching adulthood after the death and destruction of the Khmer Rouge period.

Pictures from Cambodia


Bizot, Francis
1981 "The Reamke," IN Asian Variations in the Ramayana, Iyengar K.R. Srinivasa, ed. Pp. 263-275. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi.

Jacob, Judith
1996 The Traditional Literature of Cambodia. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
1986 "The Deliberate Use of Foreign Vocabulary by the Khmer: Changing Fashions, Methods and Sources," IN Context Meaning and Power in Southeast Asia, Mark Hobart and Robert H. Taylor, eds. Pp. 115-129. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Southeast Asia Program.

Khing Hoc Dy
1994 "Khmer Literature Since 1975," IN Cambodian Culture Since 1975: Homeland and Exile. May Ebihara, Carol Mortland and Judy Ledgerwood, eds. Pp. 27-38. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Ledgerwood, Judy
1990a Changing Khmer Conceptions of Gender: Women, Stories and the Social Order. Ph.D. Dissertation, Anthropology, Cornell University.
1990b "A Building Full of Books" Cultural Survival Quarterly. 14(3): 53-55.

Nepote, Jacques and Khing Hoc Dy
1981 "Literature and Society in Modern Cambodia," IN Literature and Society in Southeast Asia. Tham Seung Chee, ed. Pp. 56-81. Singapore: Singapore University Press.

Piat, M.
1975 "Contemporary Cambodian Literature," Journal of the Siam Society. 63(2): 251-259.

Thierry, Solange
1978 Etude dun Corpus de Contes Cambodgiens Traditionnels. Thesis. University
of Paris.