Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Thai Cultural Context

This was part of a paper I wrote some years ago to present to my colleagues in a media class, trying to explain the possible difference that could exist between an oral culture (which I think is Thailand) and a textual culture (such as the west).

I somehow thought it might be relevant to discussions raised with fellow bloggers, Krajog and Albert.

Culture, according to Jan Vansina (who has studied oral tradition as history), “can be defined as what is common in the minds of a given group of people.” Culture is a society’s collective representation of ideas, values, and images. Each culture expresses and conceives its messages in its own unique cognitive terms. An understanding of a society’s cultural context is, therefore helpful in any attempt at social analysis.

Two of the most important determining cultural elements of Thai society are the closely related ordering principles of Buddhism and monarchy. The King has always been seen as an upholder of moral Buddhist values who holds the order of Thailand in place. A monarch’s role as topmost center of social power fits with the Thai hierarchical model of the universe.

Thai interpretation of Buddhism is blended with elements of Hindu, Brahmin and local animistic spirit worship. Representations of Thai cosmology can be found in abundance in arts and crafts, architecture, and cultural traditions. Temples jedis, tiered royal umbrellas, mural paintings of the Thai universe, flower arrangements, textiles, pottery, silver/copper/neillo wares, and jewelry designs, all contain some form of circular symbols representing Mt. Meru, the center of the universe, which is defined by its seven concentric rings of alternating lands and oceans.

In mandalic form, this central “mountain” is seen as stabilized by four cardinal points (NW, NE, SW, and SE), placing the concentric circles within a square plane.

Sumet Jumsai (a much esteemed Thai architect who explains Thai cosmology from the architectural structures he has studies) believes that this cosmology could predate Indic influence, and that it comes from an ancient interrelationship with an environment where land and water were constantly shifting. (If you are interested, please look up Acharn Sumet’s “Naga: Cultural Origins in Siam and the West Pacific)

This “mandala”, as a cosmological model, has been found to be so prevalent in Southeast Asian region that it has been adopted as a model for explaining local power relationships. The center’s power is dependent on its tributary’s perception of the center’s ability to negotiate (balance, relate, or communicate) with internal and external forces to maintain a stable balance. This center is never seen as absolute, and is always seen in relation to other higher or lower centers of power. The circles or centers are infinitely repeating patterns of self-reproducing patterns, in many ways similar to fractals.

This mandalic model of center, symmetric and balanced, produced in Thai society cultural codes that are deliberately contrasted. The tension between this contrast, such as that between the center and its periphery, is designed to intentionally produce paradoxical polarly opposed forms of behavior in which conflict is resolved by means of relationship. Concepts of power versus moral goodness (pradej-prakun), or connections of goodness and debt (bunkun) or what can be called patron-client relationship is found at all levels of Thai society. This highly interdependent form of social relationship originated from strong oral traditions that evolved from ancient aquatic/riverine centered settlement. These processes of relating and resolving of polar opposites form the basis of Thai society’s dynamism. In this way, unpredicted natural phenomena or unbalanced political crisis have been known to make unpopular kings and prime ministers who were not well-versed in manipulating the symbols of change, balancing adversity, and cultivating beneficial relationships.

Control over natural resources such as irrigation, land and capital were not as important as an ability to mobilize people. This worldview of continuous change and the importance of relationships meant that textual codes of conduct and legality usually had less weight than a “gentleman’s agreement” or word of mouth. Example of such flexibility can be found in how royal succession was not “written” and was flexible. If the King did not declare who he wished as a successor, (in some cases, even if he did), it was a council that had ultimate say in who would be the new ruler. In some rare occasions, blood lineage was not a necessarily a legitimizing element, such as King Taksin. Historically, a King had to prove his legitimacy as ruler through moral deeds and demonstration of ability, such as in the case of King Ramkamhaeng.

The emphasis of causal interdependence of all phenomena produced a Thai concept of time where beginnings and endings are not important. The prevalent belief in the laws of karma and belief in rebirth are clear demonstrations of this concept of repetitive time. Space is conceived not only as one-dimensional spatial but also multi-dimensional relational. The Traibhumikatha expresses the Thai belief in the world as a space for not only physical beings such has human and animals, but also for non-physical beings, such as, spirits, angels, demons, gods, and indescribable chaos.

Thongchai Winichakul (in his book “Siam Mapped) demonstrated how misunderstanding the incompatible concepts of space vis-à-vis colonial powers put Thailand at a disadvantage in the mapping of their territories as it impinged on the traditional Siamese sphere of power, where no clear boundaries need be defined. According to the Thai concept of power, a shifting periphery was tolerated since these outposts shifted alliances and loyalty depending on their perception of which center was more powerful and could offer them better protection.

Thai cultural context is clearly the opposite of Western rationality that is based on reason and logic in which clearly defined space and time are important.

Some images of mandalas from Acharn Sumet's book:

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