Thao Hung Thao Cheuang


by Duangduene Nettavong

Cheuang (also written as Cheung, Chieang, Thao Chreuang or Khun Cheuang) is the name of a partly historical, partly mythological figure in the traditional oral traditions and literary works such as Thao Ba Cheuang Legends, the Chronicles of Thao Cheuang, the Writings of Chieang, and other works. The title "Thao" or "Khun or Ba" was given to the prince of a city state. These traditional legends occur throughout the Mekong Basin subregion, from the Tai and Shan peoples, to the north in Yunnan Province and the Shan State and among the Tai speakers in northern Vietnam, as well as in north and northeastern Thailand and to the southern borders of the Lao PDR. The legends are also found in the oral traditions of the Mon-Khmer speaking peoples in the region, which recount the heroic deeds of the powerful leader who unified the various city states and provided for the freedom of the Mon-Khmer peoples.

The writings of Chiang, or the Chronicles of Thao Chiang, are found in fragments and various forms, usually on palm leaf manuscripts, but few copies of the complete epic written in the Lao script have survived to the present day. Those who have read or heard the writings find them difficult to read and understand. Some feel that they use earthy language and ancient styles are not enjoyable or conducive to read. It is clear that these legends have not been recited or read in temple ceremonies or in the homes as the other legends. "Sin Sai" and "Kalaket" have been popularly used in the oral tradition. The Cheuang stories are not well known among the Lao population, because the epic length stories did not survive to the present day on the palm leaf manuscripts stored in the temples and homes within the country. In fact, a great number of these palm leaf manuscripts from several provinces were confiscated by marauding armies. According to the national project "Preservation of Lao Manuscripts Programme" from 1989 until present, no epic poems about "Thao Cheuang" written in the Lao language have yet been inventoried, and only a few shortened versions have been inventoried in the sacred Pali script. Only very short poems in the Lao language called "Lam Chiang" have been inventoried, which are chanted back and forth with the accompaniment of drums in the annual rocket festival.

[Note: Thus far 400,000 bundles of palm leaf manuscripts (fascicles), totaling 6,000 titles, have been inventoried throughout the country in all but two provinces. In these two remaining provinces, Xiengkhouang and Huaphan, all the temples and the palm leaf manuscripts were destroyed during the aerial bombing during the war for liberation from 1958 until 1972].

Thus it is impossible to find complete written records of the epic poem on palm leaf manuscripts for comparison with the document copied by Maha Sila Viravongs in 1942 from the original palm leaf manuscript, a 300-leaf set inscribed in ancient Lao script found in the National Thai Library in Bangkok. No additional research has been done by other Lao scholars since the discovery of the manuscript in 1942. Thus copies of the original manuscript from the Thai library along with the original notes of Maha Sila Viravongs were the primary sources used by the research team to make the research for this publication as complete as possible.

As explained above, there are many versions of the Thao Cheuang writings scattered in many geographical locations and likely written over many centuries. They were recopied in the temples and added to as the versions were handed down over the centuries. This modern publication is an adaptation based on the invaluable epic-length composition of the great poets of the later Xiengthong period (from the 13th and 16th century, preceding the Luangprabang Kingdom). As explained in the compiler's preface these famous poets remain anonymous. According to Lao tradition, the composers' names were rarely recorded, although the names of the scribes who copied the manuscripts are preserved.

If we compare these writings with the sojourns of a person, they have traveled far and endured many obstacles in order to survive until the present day. They were rediscovered in 1942. But it was not for another half century that they were brought back to the homeland. The Thao Hung-Thao Cheuang writings have been called the great epic of the Lao nation, the greatest work of its kind in Southeast Asia. Finally the Lao people have the opportunity to enjoy these great writings and poems, and appreciate both the aesthetic value of Lao poetry and its historical importance in the literature and culture of the region. This adaptation of the Thao Hung - Thao Cheuang Epic into modern prose is the result of a unique cooperative effort which includes both senior researchers and a new generation of researchers, all from differing educational backgrounds. The team leader is Douangdeuane Bounyavong, a noted researcher and writer, who is experienced and recognised internationally as an expert in ancient Lao literature and culture; Sompha, Vikysak, lecturer of the Lane Xang literature era at the National University of the Lao PDR; Qthong Kham Inxou, a well known modern poet and writer, who is the deputy editor of the national literary magazine, Wannasin, published by the Ministry of Information &Culture. He has worked closely with the team leader for the past ten years on the Thao Hung-Thao Cheuang Epic. Two senior advisors, Maha Bounyok Senesounthon, who is an expert of ancient Lao language and literature and advisor for the "Preservation of Palm Leaf Manuscript Programme;" and Acharn Sommai Premchit, Associate Professor of the Social Research Institute of Chiangmai University, Thailand. Special advisors include Dara Kanlaya and Outhine Bounyavong, well known authors in the Lao P.D.R.

In the name of the National Library of the Lao PDR, and the director of the National Project for Reading Promotion, I consider this work to be an important catalysing force to start the momentum for continued efforts towards Lao literature preservation, as this publication increases the visibility of our invaluable cultural heritage in the form of ancient Lao literature. Building up a society of readers who appreciate written as well as oral literature is the mandate of the Lao National Library and also an important goal of the National Project for Reading Promotion. Our first step is to produce quality written works for the general population, both young and old, and to publish these works in sufficient quantity for distribution throughout the country.

This publication of the 20,000 lines of the Epic Poems in the original style is printed page by page alongside the modern prose adaptation. Its completion has been a challenging endeavor, and hopefully will invite the critique of readers and researchers alike. Such critique would demonstrate that this publication has achieved its goal by catching the interest and attention of the readers along with their appreciation of the value of this pioneering work. Thus in the name of the National Library and the National Project of Reading Promotion, I would like to encourage all readers to provide feedback and critique to the project team, in order to improve and advance the work of further research of Lao literature and culture. This complete and enjoyable rendition of the epic poems, with adaptation into modern prose, will be published in two volumes, each approximately 400 pages. Without the support of the Toyota Foundation of Japan, especially the continuing encouragement of the Programme Officer for Southeast Asia, Mr. Shiro Honda, to undertake this research endeavor and without their invaluable support, it would not be possible for this literary treasure to materialise, and subsequently take its rightful place among the literary treasures preserved and enjoyed by the Lao peoples in modern times. On behalf of the Lao people, I would like to express my gratitude to the Toyota Foundation, and sincerely hope that the team of Lao researchers and the National Library will receive assistance from the Toyota Foundations for further research and adaptations of Lao literature.

From the 2000 Edition of Thao Hung Thao Cheuang Epic, Laos PDR

Credit to

Vientiane May 2000
Kongdeuane Nettavong
Director, National Library
Director, National Reading Promotion Project



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