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Southeast Asian Studies: Theories and Methods.

Thai Folklore.
The Tale of Khun Chang Khun Phaen.
(Siam’s great folk epic of love and war)
By Wilawan Janmeeted
A folk tale is a traditional story originally transmitted orally. A story is told from one
successor to another and thus may not be recorded as evidenced. In ancient times, there were
only a few forms of entertainment in a multicultural society. Folk tales are often recorded and
published after some times has passed and therefore differ from the original version.
Furthermore the storytelling is often influenced by the narrator’s tradition, culture, religion,
and imagination. In Thailand, folktales are part of culture and plentiful in the number. The most
popular is probably “The Tale of Khun Chang Khun Phaen”.
The Tale of Khun Chang Khun Phaen is the greatest classic of Thai literature and
praised to be the real “Gem” of Thai literature furthermore the Literature club in King Rama
VI reign had voted and rewarded it the title of most outstanding Thai literature in long poem
category. The original folktale of Khun Chang Khun Phaen is long lost. The text is not the
product of a single author or a precise time, but developed over centuries, with contributions
from many storytellers. Some episodes developed in the oral tradition of storytelling for local
audiences. The plot, is set in the provincial urban society of the central of Thailand.
The minor characters of the original story are drawn from local society, neighbors,
relatives, domestic servants, petty officials, incompetent doctors, monks, hunters, boatmen, and
tribal villagers. The plot is wound around the notable events of everyday life, births, weddings,
cremations, temple festivals, crime, house building, travel, and sickness.
The story’s three main characters are: Khun Chang, Khun Phaen, and Wanthong. They
are childhood friends in Suphanburi.1 Khun Chang is a rich man, wealthy, in possession of
many servants but he also is ugly since he was born. He looks shameful, is short and has a bald
head. Even though, Khun Phaen is handsome, smart, clever and heroic but he is also poor,
amorous and has many wives. When they reach mid-teens, Khun Chang and Khun Phaen
complete for Wanthong’s love. Khun Phaen woos her in a cotton field and weds her, but is then
sent away to war. In his absence, Khun Chang seizes Wanthong. Upon his return, Khun Phaen
quarrels with Wanthong and abandons her, but returns soon after and abducts her away from
Khun Chang’s house into the forest. Khun Phaen kills the men sent after him, thus becoming
an outlaw. When Wanthong is pregnant so Khun Phaen decides to give himself up, The King
throws him into jail. Again, Khun Chang abducts Wanthong. Wanthong grown to enjoy the
comforts of living with Khun Chang. She gives birth to Phlai Ngam (The son of Khun Phaen),
who grows up resembling his father. One day, Khun Chang takes him off into the forest and
tries to beat him to death. But Wanthong discovers him alive, and sands him off to live in safety
with his grandmother in Kanburi2. Fifteen years later, Phlai Ngam needs his mother to be with
him to make his happiness complete. He takes Wanthong away from Khun Chang. Again Khun

1 The province in the middle of Thailand.


2 The province in the middle of Thailand. Nowadays the name has change to “Kanchanaburi”
Chang petitions the King for redress. The King identifies Wanthong as the root of the problem,
and insists she choose finally between Khun Chang and Khun Phaen. She is unable to respond.
In anger, The King condemns her to death. Phlai Ngam secured a reprieve a reprieve from the
King, but before he reaches the execution ground there is a misunderstanding and Wanthong
is tragically executes.
The core story of Khun Chang Khun Phaen is a love triangle which ends with the death
of the heroine. Just because Wanthong cannot decide with whom to be with. Both men privide
a different thing to her. Khun Phaen gives Wanthong romance, adventure, and children but is
utterly unable to provide her with the crucial function of protection because he is always
disappearing off to the army, to the wilds or to prison. Khun Chang gives Wanthong protection
and comfort but their relationship is loveless and barren. That being afraid of the King’s anger
Wanthong is unable to tell the truth that she loves Khun Phaen. She feels a sense of obligation
towards Khun Chang for all his devotion. It’s Wanthong’s indecisiveness that leads to her
death. She calmly accepts all the circumstances of her life, including her death, without blaming
anyone. The King accuses her of lust. Public opinion condemns her as an unfaithful wife but
the truth is far from this, and it’s this contradiction which immortalizes Wanthong in the Thai
literary tradition. The death of Wanthong makes the story special, dramatic, and enigmatic.
This story is still well recognized and popular to the public despite challenges of time
due to its main theme. The main them represents not only realistic events, rational incidents,
pleasant and amusing circumstances, but also illustrates the way of life, social and culture of
the people of that period in the story.
In the early part of the tale there is a series of episodes which remain among the most
famous, even when Khun Chang Khun Phaen itself was lengthened. The basic narrative of
these episodes remained unchanged. The Original Story may have become so popular because
it combines two classic themes. The first is the situation of women and the second classic theme
is of an ordinary man pitted against wealth and power. These twin classic themes of woman’s
lot and of an everyman against wealth and power probably account for this story’s exceptional
popularity in a tradition of tales recited for local audiences. The minor characters of the story
are drawn from local society, neighbors, relatives, domestic servants, and monks.
The Original Story probably began from the execution which serves as the climax, and
was gradually lengthened by popular demand into a tale with many episodes. The development
took place mainly in the folk tradition of oral performance, though large parts were revised by
the court in the nineteenth century.
Nobody knows for sure when the tale was created but it is suggested that it originated
around 1600 CE. Possibly a true story of a young woman’s death was the original spark for the
tale. Parts of the poem were probably written down in the eighteenth century, but none seem
to have survived the fall of the Siamese capital of Ayutthaya in 1767. Although recitation of
this story is still performed, the printed version has greatly influenced the script. In 1950, E.H.S.
Simmonds recorded a recitation of an episode of Khun Chang Khun Phaen in Ang Thong3. He
found that the story deviated from the printed version with a folkish slant (less politics, more
humor, simpler language) but was the main source for the Damrong edition. Parts were

3 The small province in the middle of Thailand


rewritten in the literary salon of King Rama II4 and a few episodes were added or embellished
later, especially by a famous performer known as Khru Jaeng.5

The storytelling is very fast-paced. The work’s entire length is over 20,000 couplets
with a rapid-fire mixture of romance, comedy, violence, sex and supernatural. The performance
of Khun Chang Khun Phaen created a new genre known as sepha.6 Yet nobody is sure what
the word means or where it came from. For at least a century, only episodes from this work
were known by this term. In the Fourth Reign (1851–1868), parts of the royal chronicles and a
few other works were also rendered in this form on royal commission, but all except a few
fragments have since disappeared.
Khun Chang Khun Phaen is written throughout in a verse form called “Klon” with the
rhyming scheme sustained from start to finish, even bridging chapter boundaries. In popular
culture, there were many styles of singing or chanting, known collectively as “Phleng”. Klon
seems to have emerged as a rapprochement between the folk tradition of chanting, the court
tradition of chanting and of poetry. Sepha probably developed through storytellers adopting
the rhythm found in phleng singing, to recite a folktale. Children also learn passages of it in
school, and the poem is a source of songs, popular aphorisms, and everyday metaphors.
The first printed edition appeared in 1872, but the work is known today through an
edition published in 1917-18 by, rather than a replication of the Samut Thai7 text. Prince
Damrong Rajanubhab. He is a half- brother of King Chulalongkorn (King Rama VI). His
edition has around 21,000 lines. He managed the transition of Khun Chang Khun Phaen from
manuscript to book. Prince Damrong Rajanubhab assumed the whole story was assembled for
the first time in the palace during the Fourth Reign (1851-1868). He divided the narrative into
chapters base on the story, but also on two earlier printed versions by Samuel Smith in 1872
and the Wat Ko press in 1890, some published fragments and some of the large stock of
manuscript texts in the National Archives.

4 ( r. 1809-24),
5 a performer of sepha and other forms of entertainment.
6 is a genre of Thai poetic storytelling that had its origins in the performances of troubadours who stylized
recitations were accompanied by two small sticks of wood (krap) to give rhythm and emphasis. The etymology
of the word sepha is disputed.
7 Samut thai is the oldest surviving manuscripts from the early Bangkok era, accordion books made from a
long sheet of paper folded into around thirty strips, each around 8 x22 centimeters,written on both sides.
Used sa paper made from the bark of the khoi tree.
Samut Thai mss of Khun Chang Phun Phaen

The English translation and editing was done by a husband and wife team, Chris Baker
and Pasuk Phongpaichit. Chris Baker was formerly taught Asian history at Cambridge
University and has lived in Thailand for over thirty years. Pasuk Phongpaichit is a professor of
economics at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok. They have written a History of Thailand,
Thailand: Economy and Politics, Thaksin, and have published several translations.
They based their translation on Prince Damrong ’s standard edition but have retrieved
around a hundred passages, anging in length from a half-line to several pages. They took parts
from older version and added the opening and closing paragraphs in the English-language
edition. English translated version was published in 2010, while adding several passages which
Damrong had omitted, and providing alternative versions of some episodes.
The illustrated were created by Muangsing Janchai, who is a native of Suphanburi, the
cradle of this tale, was trained in Thai painting, and studied further in Tibet, India, Nepal,
Burma, Laos, and China. He has executed several temple murals, including a series on the tale
at Wat Phalelai, Suphanburi. To show landscape, architecture, costume, weaponry, ritual
articles, household goods, flora, fauna, and other details that provide a background to the action
in the text.

Khun Chang Khun Phaen in Film, in TV series, and in Animation


The impact of Khun Chang Khun Phaen as described by the poet clearly presents the
consequences in the colorful story. The theme not only had emotional, inspiring, and persuasive
effects on readers. But more importantly, it clearly confirms that the method of problem solving
by violence as acted upon by the characters generally leads to unhappiness, suffering and
misery. Even though the story represent Thai society, holding different societal ranks,
inequality between men and women, and assault that is still common in everyday life, it still
represents the state of today’s society.
Nowadays, the tale is a source for songs, proverbs, and everyday sayings. Episodes
have been adapted into novels, films, TV series and animation. As a great story told in beautiful
poetry, Khun Chang Khun Phaen can be read as a study of a society without principle, as an
inquiry into human aggression, as a carrier of Buddhist ethics, as a metaphorical recovery of
selfhood, or as a disquisition on forms of power. It is certain ways a unique essay about
humanistic realism and the story inform the reader about Thai religion, tradition, and culture.
Moreover, the name of the main characters are used to name streets and temples and the story
has been painted as murals in the monastery in Wat Phalelai in Suphanburi. It thus became a
famous place for tourists.
References
The Tale of Khun Chang Khun Phaen. Siam’s great folk epic of love and war. Translated and
edtited by Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit. Illustrated by Muangsing Janchai, Silkworm
Books. Chiang Mai. 2012.

Thai Literary Traditions. Manas Chritakasem. Institute of Thai Studies, Chulalongkorn


University, Bangkok.1995.

ขุนช้างขุนแผน.หนังสื อชุดวรรณกรรมอมตะของไทย สานวนร้อยแก้ว. เปรมเสรี . บริ ษทั รวมสาส์น (1977) จากัด. กรุ งเทพฯ. 2544.

Modern Thai Literature. Mattani Mojdara Rutnin. Thammasat University Press, 1988.