What does "Thai" mean?
What does "Thai" mean? Ever since Siam/Thailand began to think of itself as a modern nation-state, this has been a problem. Who are the Thais? Where do they come from? The importance attached to these questions has made history into a battleground.
In the classic version of Thai history, the Thais came down from the north. They planted rice which brought prosperity, and founded a series of kingdoms - Sukhothai, Ayudhya, Thonburi-Bangkok - which became the most successful state in mainland Southeast Asia.
This is the story of a conquering race claiming an empty territory as its home. It pictures Siam/Thailand as a society of meek peasants and strong rulers. It makes race a central theme of the story. It opens a door for rulers who claim to represent this Thai race. No serious historian believes this version any more. But it has been written into the schoolbooks and drummed into every child. It still turns up in tourist publications and official literature. It remains very powerful.
Since the 1970s, urban intellectuals have been trying to blow this history up. First, they suggested, the Thais were always here. The story of a southward migration, with its overtones of manifest destiny, is just heroic mythology. "Thai" is not a race but a culture formed in a melting pot of Tai, Mon, Khmer, Chinese, Indian and much besides.
Second, Siam/Thailand is not just a society of rulers and rice-growers. From the earliest settlements, trade played as much of a role as agriculture in the creation of prosperity. From the Ayudhya period onwards, commerce rather than warrior kingship made Siam/Thailand the dominant state on the Southeast Asian mainland. For the last two centuries, the Thai elite has been more bourgeois than noble.
Third, people of Chinese origin have been a large element in the melting pot and a major force in the history. The founders of both the Ayudhya and Bangkok dynasties had some Chinese heritage. Over the last half-century, the Chinese-dominated urban merchant class has been the motor of economic growth. Since the 1970s, their sons and daughters have spearheaded the push for democracy.
This new history styles itself as the "jek school", turning the old pejorative term for the Chinese-in-Thailand into a badge of pride.
More recently, there has been another attempt to rewrite Thai history from a completely different angle. It argues that Tai is one of the major cultures of Asia, alongside those of India and China. The Tai peoples - scattered in a band across southeast Asia from southwest China to eastern India - are a major population group. But Tai history has been very different to the Indian and Chinese civilisations. Tai was a culture of the peasant, the village, and the countryside. It was non-urban and anti-state. It was overshadowed in an era of city-based nation-states. But that does not diminish its significance. It suggests a revival now the age of the nation-state is passing.
According to this version, Thailand is the most corrupted version of Tai culture. Here the Tai came down to the sea. They imported Indian religions, Chinese merchants, and western colonial-style government. They lost their peasant core. They became urban-focused and state-dominated. To find the "real Tai", researchers have to seek out communities in China, Vietnam, Burma, Assam which stayed in the hills, remote from city and government. Here they find a culture based on the village community, peasant economics, and a history of opposition to rulers and merchants.
Both of these new histories want to stop rulers using the Thai race-myth to justify power (as they have in the past). But the two histories take very different strategies. The jek version tries to blow up the idea of Thai as a race. The "new Tai" version wants to steal the idea of Thai-ness away from the nation-state by claiming that Tai culture is trans-national and anti-state.
But these two new histories are becoming more opposed to one another than to their common enemy. At a seminar on the "new Tai" history earlier this year, one of the leaders of the jek school gave the closing comment. This approach, he argued, is just an extension of the royalist myth-making of the 1900s and the fascist myth-making of the 1940s. He concluded: "we must save Thai history from nationalism".
Recently, this speaker returned to the same theme. The jek history, he noted, is found in magazine articles, TV dramas and pocketbooks which sell in tens of thousands. By contrast "Tai" history is found in pompous conferences with heavy official sponsorship, and dense tomes like cremation volumes. One is popular. The other is official. He ignores the pretension of the "new Tai" approach to be anti-national and anti-state. For him nationalism is nationalism. And it’s the enemy.
Behind this split there is an urban-rural theme. The jek school wants recognition for the urban Chinese in the history of Thailand. The "new Tai" school wants to counter-balance the urban bias of modern Thai culture by giving the peasantry a historical claim to own Tai-ness. Both schools oppose the historical image of Thailand as a country of peasants and rulers (kings, nobles, generals). The jek school wants to add the Chinese merchants into the picture. The "new Tai" school wants to throw the rulers out, leaving just the peasants.
By treating the "new Tai" writers as no different from the old official nationalism, the jek-school critics are tending to drive these two groups together. Tactically, it might be better to prise them apart. From the other side, the "new Tai" search for a pure peasant history offers no role for the jek. It is hardly surprising that this leaves the jek feeling insecure and critical.
The idea that race=nation=state has been one of the most powerful and most disastrous fictions of the twentieth century. Often it has been underwritten by nationalist versions of history. Rewriting this history will not be easy.