A History of Love: Three Thai Literary Classics and Their Meanings Today

Image: Mural from Khun Chang Khun Phaen by Muangsing Janchai.

A History of Love: Three Thai Literary Classics and Their Meanings Today

29 May 2018

Gabriella Samuels

The values of love have evolved throughout history, leaving traces of their transition in works of art and literature. This was at the heart of a fascinating lecture from Thai economist and scholar, Professor Pusak Phongpaichit, and author and historian Dr Chris Baker at Asia House.

The talk was an exploration of the history of love through three Thai literary classics, examining the values they teach and the evolution of these values into the modern day.

In 2017, Professor Phongpaichit and Dr Baker won the prestigious Fukuoka Prize (Grand Prize category) for ‘the prominence of their joint research and their great social contribution as eminent intellectuals in Thailand.’ Phongpaichit and Baker are the first couple to win this award, commending their ability to cooperate in such a way.

The first Thai literary classic they examined was Pra Suthon-Manora, written in the mid-15th century. The story centres around Kinnaree Manora, part bird, part human, who is princess of a mountain spirit realm. Captured by a hunter while taking a bath in a pond of the human realm, she is forced to marry Prince Suthon and the two fall madly in love.

However, trouble in the kingdom and a plot by a jealous court counselor sees Manora forced to return to her realm and leave Suthon. When he discovers this, he chases after Manora, despite the dangerous journey, to prove his love for her to the king. The two return to the human realm and live happily.

Professor Phongpaichit and Dr Baker explained that Manora represents ideal beauty, like other non-human creatures in other Thai tales. The story focuses on a love between a human and non-human, but despite their differences, cooperation is possible. The story teaches the values of the power of love to overcome differences and intolerance.

The second Thai literary classic examined was Lilit Phra Lo, written sometime in the early 16th century. Lilit Phra Lo is an epic, narrative poem of 4,000 lines following Phra Lo, a young and handsome ruler, and princesses Phuean and Pheng. Through song, the princesses hear about Phra Lo and fall in love with him and create their own passionate song so the prince can fall in love with them. After hearing the song, Phra Lo falls in love and wants to meet the princesses, but in his kingdom, his wife, mother, and concubines do not want him to leave. After many attempts, Phra Lo gets away and reaches the kingdom of the princesses to ask the king for permission to love them. The king approves and the three are able to be together.

Unfortunately, soon after he arrives home, Phra Lo and the princesses are assassinated. The three are cremated together, a festival takes place, and the ashes are made relics and enshrined.

The theme of the Lilit Phra Lo is reconciliation. The kingdom of Phra Lo and the princesses are enemies but hoped that their love could overcome these differences—a comparison to Romeo and Juliet. Dr Baker describes Lilit Phra Lo as a “story of love drenched in blood.” Despite, the tragic ending, the poem promotes Buddhist ideals. The cremation and enshrinement of the three show compassion and empathy considered a “foundation of human society.”

The third Thai classic was Khun Chang Khun Phaen. This poem originated through local oral traditions believed to be written in the 16th century. The poem centres around a love triangle: Khun Phaen, who is young and dashing, but poor and unreliable; Khun Chang, who is ‘ugly’ and crass, but rich and dependable; and Wanthong, who is a young beautiful woman.

The love between Khun Phaen and Wanthong is natural and passionate. The two run to the woods together and stay there for a time alone together. Wanthong becomes pregnant and they return to civilisation for the safety of the baby. Upon returning, Khun Phaen is arrested and Khun Chang comes and claims Wanthong for himself. They get married and Wanthong does not see Khun Phaen again for many years. Later in life, Khun Phaen is free and breaks into Khun Chang’s house to get Wanthong back, leading to a fight. The king intervenes and forces Wanthong to choose between the two men. She expresses how she cannot choose either because, although her love for Khun Phaen is natural and passionate, Khun Chang has been a caring husband despite his crass nature. Angered by her inability to choose, the king orders Wanthong to be executed.

Professor Phongpaichit and Dr Baker explained the two meanings derived from the jarring ending. The story promoted monogamous relationships and punished Wanthong for her inability to adhere to them. It also showed that the king has absolute power and with her inability to follow orders, her action resulted in her death.

The three classics addressed not only how love overcomes a certain obstacle, but also the social qualms of love; tolerance of differences; reconciliation of conflict, and the cultivation of one’s life under an absolute ruler. These themes can also be seen in western works, such as the Odyssey, Romeo and Juliet, and Robin Hood.

Although the three Thai classics might be reworked for modern audiences, they still continue to promote these familiar themes. Professor Phongpaichit stated, “These stories and many others celebrate the importance of love.”

Through Professor Phongpaichit and Dr Baker’s lecture, we gained an awareness and appreciation for these wonderful stories.


Images: Thumbnail – the speakers on their wedding day in 1979. Main image: Mural from Khun Chang Khun Phaen by Muangsing Janchai. Both images courtesy of the speakers.