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  • Appropriating the Exotic: Thai Music and the Adoption of Chinese Elements
  • Terry Miller (bio)

When I arrived in Bangkok in December 1972, to begin dissertation field research, a well-known Thai music professor known for his frankness said to me, "Don't say that the Thai got this and that from India, China, or anywhere else. The Thai people are quite capable of creating things themselves." With all due respect for his nativist views, Thai culture has indeed been deeply influenced by foreign cultures, especially India and China. However, the end result of this contact is quintessentially Thai. Never having been colonized and not having experienced conquest since the Burmese invasion of 1767, the Thai have long had a special openness to things foreign. Modern Bangkok appears to be as cosmopolitan as any world city, but one must experience this globalization as the Thai do in order to know that, however international (or Western) a place may seem, it is actually "very Thai."

Philip Cornwel-Smith (2005) suggests that transformation, rather than invention, is the key process that has led to the current state of Thai identity:

Making imports Thai is actually an old tradition. While all nationalities absorb outside influences, Thai have retained their distinctiveness and independence despite living at a crossroads of cultures: Chinese, Indian, Western, Japanese, Khmer, Burmese, Malay, and indigenous tribes. The customization of imports is key to that elusive, immutable Thainess, since the essence lies not in invention, but transformation. Anything, given time enough to steep here, can end up very Thai.


Essentially, that has been the process in the relationship between Chinese and Thai cultures. With regard to music I will address not just the broader question of how Chinese culture influenced Thai music, but, specifically, how the segment of the Thai classical repertory called samniang jin ("Chinese accent") relates to Chinese music.

First, what does "Chinese culture" mean in the context of Thailand? Numerous other questions must be addressed too. Who came, when, from where, for what reasons, and what has become of them and their descendants? Is it reasonable to speak of "Chinese-Thai" today, who are they, and how consciously Chinese are they? The answers to many of these questions will depend on who is speaking [End Page 113] and from what experience. There is no denying that Chinese culture pervades Thai culture. It is obvious to all, yet it is also difficult to quantify precisely.

The kind of influence on Thai music discussed here came about after sufficient numbers of Chinese culture bearers migrated to the Kingdom of Siam. Although there were Chinese diplomats and traders in Siam as early as 1314, the formation of Chinese communities came much later (Wyatt 2003, 54). In the late 17th century, a period during which numerous European diplomats, traders, and missionaries visited Siam's then capital city, Ayuthaya, and wrote books about it, it is estimated that about 3,000 Chinese lived there (Coughlin 1960, 14). A number of writers (among them [Alexandre] le Chevalier de Chaumont, François Timoleon Choisy, Joachim Bouvet, and Guy Tachard) described performances of Chinese theater and puppets at the court seen during their visits. Migration increased dramatically during the first half of the 19th century for a number of reasons, including changes in Thai immigration policy, the development of the rubber and tin industries, the need for cheap labor, and for middlemen to handle trade between Thailand and both China and the West.

Until the sack and destruction of Ayuthaya by the Burmese in April 1767, the Siamese kingdoms had been ruled by ethnic Thai kings. Following the fall of Ayuthaya and the resulting chaos throughout the kingdom, a Chinese-Thai general named Taksin (whose father was Chinese) regrouped an army and established a new capital at the Chao Phraya River port of Thonburi late in 1767. Based on Taksin's allegedly developing insanity, an ethnic Thai general named Chaophraya Chakri overthrew him in 1782 and moved the capital across the river to Bangkok. He came to be called Rama I, the first king in the continuing Chakri dynasty where the current king, Bhumiphol Adulyadej, is Rama IX.

Exactly where the earliest Chinese immigrants originated is...


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