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Love, war and betrayal in old Siam

by Jeff Kingston

THE TALE OF KHUN CHANG AND KHUN PHAEN: Siam’s Great Folk Epic of Love and War. Translated and edited by Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit. Silkworm Books, 2010, 970 pp., $60 (hardcover)

Those who like their novice monks prim and proper, taming desires, meditating and selflessly engaging in good deeds will encounter more than a few uncomfortable moments in this bawdy, sprawling, ribald tale about love and ravishing, leavened by scenes of war and betrayal, set in the early 17th century.

Here monks cast “beguiler mantras” that render women randy, take advantage of gullible maidens who fall for their sweet lies while others peep at bathing beauties. Seldom has the sangha (community of monks) been portrayed in such an earthy and irreverent manner, one that acknowledges that robes and prayers are little match for human foibles.

This spellbinding epic emerges from a rich oral tradition, meaning it was a story that grew over time, with various embellishments. Above all it was popular entertainment. Various written versions have survived and here are gathered together in this splendid translation of a story that conveys much about life, customs, courtship and mores in the past that still, much like Shakespeare, resonates powerfully today.

The authors explain that many everyday Thai maxims and expressions refer to this epic and it constitutes storytelling as national treasure and identity. It was originally a poem, and the translators deserve kudos not only for successfully rendering the sense of this in their silky prose, but in helping non-Thai readers to understand many of the obscure references. The numerous footnotes are filled with gems explaining references in the text about Thai society, customs, superstitions and culture that would otherwise have slid by.

The story focuses on a beautiful woman, Wanthong, and two men who vie for her love and favors. Both eventually marry her, sowing a deep discord between them.

The first husband, Khun Phaen, the rakish, handsome one without money and rank, goes off to war, a loyal and brave servant of the king. But while he is carrying out his duty, Khun Chang, the ugly, rich rival deceives Wanthong into thinking she is a widow and bribes her mother to help him in his quest to wed her.

Wanthong tries to fend off her repulsive new husband, but her virtue is no match for his predations as he consummates their union by raping her.

The heroic Khun Phaen returns and spirits her off, but not before they quarrel over the matter of his new Laotian wife. Later Wanthong expresses regret over her jealous reaction, “Feeling slighted made me so mean, hasty, and stubborn beyond reason. I should’ve borne things for half a year and let you beat me to your heart’s content.”

Following a passionate session beneath a banyan tree, reunited with Khun Phaen, Wanthong ruefully contemplates her future, “Now everything’s a disaster: I left my home to come sleep in the wilds where there are no lights, only the moon, no roof, only the shade of the tree. Oh the misfortune of being born a woman! I should be happy but I cannot be. I went astray in love’s pleasures without thinking of shame. Because I wasn’t strong-willed, I now suffer. It’s a waste to have beautiful looks, a pretty name, and a gentle manner if you have a terribly wicked heart. The good in me is the best in the land; the bad nobody can match.”

The king saw more of the bad than the good, proclaiming, “You’re baser than base, the dregs of the city, lustful, insatiable, oily-eyed. . . . Even a harlot has only one man at a time. Nobody has so many sniffing around as you.” Before condemning her to death the king tells her men, “This scourge, this slut, is not suitable for loving.”

Readers, like Thais through the ages, will find this terribly unfair. The grand finale, Wanthong’s execution scene, is brimming with pathos as news of her reprieve arrives moments too late.

This captivating story features intrigue, courtship, hardships, betrayal, seduction, lovemaking and lovers’ tiffs, carried along on plot twists and turns, something like a 17th century soap opera. Khun Phaen is like a superhero, casting spells, challenging wrong, dutiful to a fault while romancing his way through life.

It is spellbinding stuff replete with slices of ordinary life, swordsmanship of all kinds and the bitter taste of loss and loneliness. It is one of those epics that Thais can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably, content to know who lives, who dies, who finds love and who doesn’t, eager to hear the tear-jerking finale again and again.

One can imagine crowds enthralled by each episode, impatiently waiting for the next, hooting as the monk assures the maiden, “I’m not making things up to seduce you. I’m deeply in love and I’m terribly miserable.” And later, “Your breast curves beautifully like molten silver. Let me caress you a little.”

The afterword is perhaps the best place to start this doorstopper, a helpful guide packed with insights that help readers enjoy the story all the more. Baker and Phongpaichit merit praise for bringing us this classic in all its glory and sharing their erudition so accessibly.

Jeff Kingston is director of Asian Studies at Temple University Japan.