SE Asia’s Literary History – Part 2

Explore the effects of politics, religion and culture on the literature of Thailand, Indonesia and Laos.

Explore the effects of politics, religion and culture on the literature of Thailand, Indonesia and Laos.

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The role of literature in society cannot be overstated: time and again it has proved to be a key tool not only in documenting changing societies and politics but also in affecting these changes. Particularly literature is an instrument that has allowed for the development of national language and identity in several countries and as such has had strong effects on the various independence movements in these countries.

Earlier this year we published an article that began to explore the literature of Southeast Asia from its classical beginnings to modern day authors and texts; however, as each country is so varied in its style, influences and concepts we only managed to cover Vietnam, Myanmar and Malaysia. Therefore, in the below article we’ve decided to explore the literary history and cultural influences of Thailand, Indonesia and Laos.


International influences are massively important when it comes to looking at the evolution of the literature of Thailand, particularly a historical Chinese and Indian influence. Up until the 13th century all Thai literature was written in Chinese. However, unfortunately very little of these texts survive today and it is hard to gain a comprehensive understanding of literature of this time. After this period, texts were much better preserved and we see a change from a Chinese to a clear Indian presence with the majority of works then being written in Pali and Sanskrit.

The Ramakien, the national epic of Thailand, is itself a version of the Ramayana, which is an ancient Indian epic poem that narrates a tale of the prince Rama and falls into the genre of traditional Hindu storytelling. From the 13th century onwards the tale evolved and was continually adapted to create a uniquely Thai version. Several versions of the Ramakien were written and then rewritten by various kings of Siam – particularly King Rama I and King Rama II were known for their contributions to literature. In fact, the role of royalty is key in charting the progression of Thai literature; later King Rama V and King Rama VI were also writers and part of a movement that was focused towards combining Western literature and traditional Thai culture.

At the turn of the 19th to 20th century there was an abundance of western texts being translated and published in Thailand. This then paved the way for a wave of new and original Thai literature, starting primarily with romantic novels but then moving to social criticism in the 1920s, followed by a social realist movement in the 1940s. This in turn was followed by two decades of ‘dark ages’ for Thai literature with restrictions on freedom of speech having a massive detrimental impact on the ability of publishers at the time. However in the 1970s a new generation of authors were allowed to rediscover social realism or the ‘Literature of Life’ and Thai literature began to flourish again. These themes of inequality, economy and politics still pervade Thai written works to this day and with an increasing amount of literary prizes and funding available, Thai literature flourishes more and more each year.

Bahasa (Indonesia)

The evolution of Indonesian literature is very much steeped in Indonesia’s colonial periods and its status as an early port of trade for people from all over the world, particularly India, China, Persia and later Western Europe. Traditional Indonesian literature, which has its main origins in Malay literary traditions, had such a deep influence that its presence was strongly felt in works produced right up until the early 1900s. The major branches were narrative poetry and quatrains and prose fables, fairy tales, chronicles and histories. These pieces were produced throughout the archipelago without much, or any, sense of national unity.

It was from the early 20th century onwards that we can see massive change occurring with the development of a national consciousness, which resulted in more of a unified language and culture, which had previously been so diverse. This change was primarily thanks to improved means of communication and improved education and it allowed for the beginnings of a national literature to emerge. However, the Dutch government grabbed this opportunity and used it to strengthen its control – the Bureau for Popular Literature was set up in order to censor published works such as any political criticism, religious divergence or anything deemed to have ‘pornographic’ content. Libraries in schools were also set up by this institution with a dual folded consequence of improving education and supporting the beginnings of Indonesian literature but also colonial indoctrination of the country’s children.

The early twentieth century also saw the birth of the Indonesian novel, which constituted a break from Malay tradition and began to pave the way for independent Bahasa Indonesian literature production. In 1928 the idea of Bahasa Indonesia as the country’s national language (as opposed to Malay or Dutch) was born and it went from strength to strength. During the 1930s a hot topic of Indonesian literature was national consciousness and the decade saw the beginnings of various intellectual groups forming – discussions were being had. By the mid-1940s Indonesian independence was at the forefront of all nationally produced texts, the 50s and 60s did see production of poetry and short stories but also several leftist magazines – the authors of which were often exiled for expressing their views. Today Indonesian literature still holds politics in high regard but also the romantic novel is massively popular with the public.


The literature of Laos is rich and varied and can ultimately be set apart from the literature of other Southeast Asian countries thanks to its retained variety. Not only has there been a lot of international influences mostly thanks to warfare and colonisation where China, Thailand, France, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar have all played a hand but inside Laos there are still over 47 ethnic groups. Although there is a recognised national language (Lao), literature today can still be grouped by ethnolinguistic families. Laos literary history dates back around 600 years (‘literature’ here referring to texts written in the Lao language by the peoples and emigrants of Laos) but of course the traditions of oral storytelling can be traced much further back.

Laos Classical literature really flourished in the 16th and 17th centuries where, although there was a focus on purely religious and historical texts, there was also the popularisation of Laos epic poetry. Sin Xay is a convoluted and mythical tale that is without a doubt a seminal work in Laos literature. In short it starts with a king who is searching for his sister who was kidnapped by a nyak (a kind of giant) and follows his quest, which ends with him marrying seven daughters of a merchant. His wives bear him odd children (including a snail and a golden-tusked elephant) and so he banishes them, they then follow an arduous journey, which results with finding the lost princess, then some attempted fratricide occurs but it ends with the king’s son, Sin Xay, the King and his sister being reunited.

After and during the Classical period Laos literature can be separated into several distinct branches; we have the epic poetry as discussed above, religious tales, historical stories and folklore. These texts were often didactic and directly followed on from oral traditions: particularly folklore tales that included national myths, legends and various indigenous tribal stories. Modern day literature is far more focused on realism and has a symbiotic relationship with the country’s politics. Modern literature is deemed to have taken shape in the French colonial period where the aim was intellectual political discourse (although most of the discourse took a very pro-government standing). This eventually evolved into a move for a national discourse, which seeming unintentionally became a very decided attempt to create a unique Laos identity and fostered feelings of desire for independence. In the last thirty years literature (after a break due to warfare and upheaval) has begun to re-emerge often as an opportunity to make sense of life in Laos today.

Some interesting readings

If you are interested in some further reading below are a few key texts you may want to look at.

  • Arguably the most important poet in Thai literary history is Sunthorn Phu. His romantic adventure story ‘Phra Aphai Mani’ follows the title character’s epic journey as he learns to play a magic flute, accidentally marries an ogress, enchants a princess and eventually comes to take place as a king.
  • Merari Siregar’s ‘Azab dan Sengsara’ is credited as the first modern Indonesian novel and although a bit directive and expositional in places is well a worth a read as an insight into contemporary society.
  • The works of Toeti Heraty, an Indonesian poet, offer a well-crafted semi-ambiguous insight into contemporary Indonesian society particularly in terms of the role of woman.
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