Southeast Asian Mainland

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Southeast Asian Mainland

David Smyth

Mainland Southeast Asia refers to the countries of Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The national language of each is written in its own distinctive script, and with the exception of Thai and Lao, which are closely related, they are mutually unintelligible. In the past these countries have often been at war with one another and, even today, many citizens of the region have grown up with attitudes of indifference, suspicion, or hostility toward the countries which border their own. translations of novels from one Southeast Asian language to another are almost nonexistent; the novel has developed separately in each of the five countries, responding to literary influences from outside the region more than from within.

There are, however, some similarities to be observed across the region, especially in the patterns of literary production, distribution, and consumption. Before the twentieth century the literature of most of mainland Southeast Asia was generally composed in verse, recorded by hand on palm-leaf manuscripts, and transmitted by oral recitation. The huge technological and social advances that took place in Europe during the nineteenth century spread quickly to the countries of mainland Southeast Asia and helped to create the environment in which the novel emerged. The capital cities grew rapidly, trade increased, and internal communication routes improved; the arrival of printing technology paved the way for the birth of journalism and print capitalism (see PAPER AND PRINT); educational expansion created a reading public and a new middle class with the money and leisure to be able to afford newspapers, magazines, and books; and foreign novels, read by an elite minority in the original language, were then translated or adapted into the local language. When daily newspapers began to appear in the early decades of the twentieth century, a significant number of pages each day were devoted to serialized novels, and the majority of readers bought newspapers to find out what was happening in the more immediate fictional world rather than in the distant real world. The serialization of novels in newspapers and magazines remains widespread in the twenty-first century, sometimes followed by publication in book format (see PUBLISHING).

The demand for new fiction in the early years of the newspaper created opportunities for aspiring writers. When newspapers became less reliant on fiction, many writers switched from fiction to journalism, political commentary, and editing. Making a living exclusively from writing fiction has always been difficult. Today, the financial rewards tend to lie in writing serialized novels for bestselling women's magazines, or film and television scripts. The market for “serious” fiction remains small and confined largely to the national capitals. Print runs, even for an established writer, are typically between two and three thousand copies, and with publishers often unwilling to risk reprinting, many books disappear after the first edition (see REPRINTS). Even the works of nationally recognized authors can be unobtainable for years before a publisher feels that a reissue might be financially viable, and with few public libraries in the region, can become almost impossible to track down. Some enterprising writers publish and distribute their own works, both to keep them in print and to maximize their own financial gain.

Thailand (formerly Siam) is the only country in mainland Southeast Asia to have escaped colonial rule by a European power. Nevertheless, the early history of the novel in Thailand reflects a strong British influence. In the 1890s Thai aristocrats who had recently returned from their studies in England founded the first literary magazines. It was in the pages of one of these magazines, in 1901, that Thais were introduced to the novel genre through Khwam phayabat, a serialized translation of Marie Corelli's Vendetta (1886). During the first two decades of the century translations and adaptations of the works of Western writers, including those by Alexander Dumas, H. Rider Haggard, Anthony Hope, A. Conan Doyle, and Sax Rohmer, were popular. The first original Thai novel was Khwam mai phayabat (Non-vendetta), a lengthy work of more than seven hundred pages, written by “Nai Samran” (Luang Wilat Pariwat) in 1915.

In the early 1920s silent foreign serial films had an impact on the novel. Writers were hired by cinema owners to write “film books” which explained the plots of the weekly episodes to cinemagoers and provided translations of the onscreen inter-title dialogues (see ADAPTATION). Producing these cheap paperbacks provided authors with experience in writing for a commercial market, but also awakened them to the possibilities of creative writing, unconstrained by the limitations of events unfolding on screen. Many went on to make a name for themselves among the first generation of Thai novelists. The film books also encouraged the public in the habit of buying and reading books.

By the late 1920s popular taste in reading had shifted away from translations and adaptations of Western fiction to original Thai stories. Most popular were romantic tales with a realistic, contemporary setting, where the hero and heroine faced some obstacle to their love, be it disapproving parents, prearranged marriage to another person, or a difference in social status (see ROMANCE, REALISM). Such themes recur throughout mainland Southeast Asian fiction. In the next decade novels that commented on wider social issues appeared. Siburapha used the correspondence between the hero and the heroine in the epistolary novel Songkhram chiwit (1932, The war of life) to portray social injustice, religious hypocrisy, corruption, and inadequate health care. Ko' Surangkhanang's Ying khon chua (1937, The Prostitute) dealt with a controversial subject for a female author. Her sympathetic portrayal of the plight of prostitutes and her criticism of polite society's double standards created a considerable stir.

During the liberal climate of the early post-WWII years, a small number of writers, of whom Siburapha was the most famous, wrote Marxist-influenced “literature for life” which aimed to highlight injustice and point the way forward to a fairer society. Their efforts were short-lived, and several were imprisoned in 1952 in a government purge of suspected communists. One of Thailand's most famous and popular novels, Si phaen din (1953, Four Reigns), appeared in the wake of this clampdown on progressive intellectuals. The author, M. R. Khukrit Pramoj, was a staunch royalist and drew on his own personal familiarity with palace life to provide a nostalgic portrayal of traditional court culture.

The 1970s were a turbulent period in the country's history. At the beginning of the decade the radical fiction of the 1950s was rediscovered and played a part in politicizing the student movement which toppled the military dictatorship in 1973. A violent military backlash in 1976 followed and heralded a brief dark age for writers and publishers. But by the 1980s, “literature for life” had had its day: society had become more complex, the political climate less oppressive, and the reading public more demanding. The country's most acclaimed contemporary writer, Chart Korbjitti, made his debut at this time, and while in works such as Chon trok (1980, No Way Out) and Kham phiphaksa (1981, The Judgment) he movingly portrays the plight of the disadvantaged and socially excluded, he does not preach an overt political message.

Burma, to the west of Thailand, was under British colonial rule from 1886 to 1948. The first important Burmese novelist was U Lat, whose novels Sabe-bin (1912, Jasmine) and Shwei-pyi-zo (1914, Ruler of the Golden City) deal with the preservation of traditional Burmese values. They are written in an ornate, traditional style of language and represent a transition stage in the development of Burmese fiction. P. Monin adopted a more natural, economical style in Bi-ei Maung Tint-hnin Ka-gyei-the Me Myint (1915, Maung Tint B.A. and the Dancer Me Myint), which is regarded as the first “modern” Burmese novel. In the 1930s, as writers began to focus more on social issues, Thein Pe Myint created an outrage with his novel Tet Hpon-gyi (1937, The Modern Monk), which highlighted the sexual activities of monks.

In 1962 General Ne Win (1911—2002) staged the military coup that set the country on its isolationist “Burmese Path to Socialism.” Writers were expected to play their part in the socialist revolution by producing works that glorified the triumph of peasants and workers over various hardships. Literary prizes were the potential reward for those who produced works of “socialist realism,” imprisonment the potential fate of those who did not. Ma Ma Lay, author of Mon-ywei mahu (1955, Not Out of Hate) and modern Burma's most important female writer, was one of the many writers imprisoned by the regime. In 1988, massive rioting against the military regime, in which thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators died, led to Ne Win's resignation. But the military quickly reasserted its authority and has since maintained strict control over all forms of printed media, including literature.

To the east of Thailand lie Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, once collectively known in the West as French Indochina. Vietnam was invaded by the French in 1858 and became a French protectorate in 1884. The French colonial regime replaced the traditional character-based writing system with quImagec ngImage', a romanized system of writing devised by Catholic missionaries in the seventeenth century. It was promoted in schools and newspapers, and because it was much easier to learn, it quickly became accepted. The new script, and a new generation of readers and writers who had passed through the French colonial education system and been exposed to French literature, were important factors in the process of literary modernization that began in the early years of the twentieth century. The first modern Vietnamese novels appeared in the South in 1910.

The polarization in Vietnam caused by thirty years of war (1945—75) and more than twenty years of partition (1954—75) is reflected in the country's literature. In the U.S.-supported South, writers enjoyed a degree of freedom to express their opinions, be they anticommunist sentiments, criticisms of the government, or portrayals of social upheavals brought by the intensifying war and the presence of large numbers of American soldiers in the country. In the Chinese/Soviet-supported North, the Communist Party required writers to spread the government's vision of a socialist future, which included the defeat of the foreign aggressors and the reunification of the country. For many writers who had wholeheartedly written stories glorifying the wartime struggle and sacrifices, peace brought with it a sense of disillusionment at the compromises that officially sanctioned literature demanded. But in 1986, in the wake of the liberalizing glasnost policy in the Soviet Union, the government introduced the Image (renovation) program of political, economic, and cultural reforms that heralded a more liberal era. Established writers such as Lê Minh Khuê and Duong Thu Huong were able to broaden the scope of their work, while the freer climate saw the emergence of writers such as NguyImagen Huy ThiImagep, HImage Anh Thái-, and PhImagem ThImage Hoài-, whose works often reflect a disappointment with a postwar society that falls short of its heroic self-image. But even under Image liberalization, there are unwritten boundaries beyond which a writer should not venture. Duong Thu Huong, author of Image (1991, Novel without a Name), has paid a heavy price for challenging those boundaries: her work is now banned in her native country, and she has been harassed, arrested, and subjected to travel restrictions.

Cambodia, once the center of an empire whose influence spread over much of mainland South East Asia from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries, was a French protectorate from 1863 until 1953. The first Cambodian novel, Sophat (1941, Sophat), by Rim Kin, appeared at a time when Cambodian printed material of any kind was very limited. Nou Hach is the most highly regarded of early Cambodian novelists for his novels PhkImage srabon (1949, The Faded Flower), which attacks the convention of arranged marriages, and MImagelImageImageuoImage citt (1972, The Garland of the Heart), which portrays Cambodian society during WWII. He is assumed to be one of more than a million Cambodian citizens who died during the murderous Pol Pot period (1975—78). Kong Boun Chhoeun, whose works first appeared in the late 1950s, is one of very few Cambodian writers to have survived the Pol Pot years. Following the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1978 and the establishment of a new Vietnamese-backed Cambodian government, he and other writers produced state-published novels which portrayed the brutality of the Khmer Rouge and Cambodian—Vietnamese solidarity. Following the withdrawal of Vietnamese troops in 1989 and the move to a market economy, writers began to enjoy greater individual freedom.

From 1883 until 1953 Laos was a French colony. In 1963 the communist Pathet Lao movement launched an armed struggle against the constitutional monarchy, plunging the country into a decade of civil war and partition. Lao prose fiction dates back only as far as the 1960s. Some writers aimed simply to entertain, while others were influenced by the spread of socially conscious literature in neighboring Thailand, and used fiction to criticize the corruption and moral decadence of the government. In areas of the country that were under the control of the Pathet Lao, revolutionary literature that celebrated the people's struggle against the Americans who heavily bombed the country—and the American-backed regime in Vientiane, was written under Party guidelines. After the Pathet Lao emerged victorious in 1975, Lao writers, like those in Vietnam, were expected to glorify the successful revolutionary struggle. In the late 1980s Laos, like Vietnam, saw the introduction of a liberalizing policy, the “New Imagination,” which—within unwritten limits— permitted Lao writers to make constructive criticisms of government policy.

SEE ALSO: Historical Novel, Ideology, National Literature.


1. Kratz, E.U., ed. (1996), Southeast Asian Languages and Literatures.

2. Lafont, P.-B. and D. Lombard, eds. (1974), Littératures contemporaines de l'Asie du sud-est.

3. Smyth, D., ed. (2000), Canon in Southeast Asian Literatures.

4. Smyth, D., ed. (2009), Southeast Asian Writers.

5. Tham Seong Chee, ed. (1981), Literature and Society in Southeast Asia.