Palace Women at the Margins of Social Change: An Aspect of the Politics of Social History in the Reign of King Chulalongkorn

Article excerpt

The reign of King Chulalongkorn of Siam (the Fifth Reign of the Chakri Dynasty, 1868-1910), conventionally regarded as the era when the Siamese elite steered their society through the threats of colonialism for it to emerge stronger than before, has come to be the defining moment in mainstream Thai history, [1] setting the framework for understanding the country's subsequent evolution as guided by confidence in Thai culture and a creative weaving of tradition and modernity. Recent examples of the tenacity of this historical perspective and rhetoric include the comment on the 1997 currency crisis, the worst the Southeast Asian region has faced since the Second World War, by the urbane, cosmopolitan former Prime Minister Anand Panyarachun, to the effect that Thailand could be expected to respond to the crisis in a responsible and realistic manner without adopting any such confrontational stance as Malaysia; in other words, Thailand did not have any hang-ups about the West, not having been a colony, and could be expected be level-headed and circumspect in handling the challenges of globalization, as the kingdom had done with such great success in the nineteenth century.

The Fifth Reign has also provided the framework for Thai social conduct, setting definitions for "proper" Thai behaviour and attitudes in the face of the Western presence which are no less persistent than the more overtly political legacies. One of the outcomes of Siam's non-colonial status is that its elite social norms, in particular those relating to women in the Palace, were not seriously interrogated, and were certainly not "reformed" according to Western values of the day as happened in British India, where knowledge of what were considered Hindu customs, and. interventions in practices such as sati, were very much part of the colonial discourse and project in the nineteenth century. [2] In nineteenth-century Siam, Christian missionaries were indeed critical of polygamy, for example, but were unable to make much impact. [3]

Despite the importance and influence of the Inner Palace, "not even in the elitist historiography of the Thai elite has this, the most obvious topic in women's history, been tackled". [4] The absence of serious historical research concerning women of the palace, specifically seen as the repository of all that is traditional, good and Thai, has left largely unchallenged the images of the ideal female courtly life disseminated over the decades, most effectively through an influential work of royalist historical fiction.

The quintessential nineteenth-century palace woman achieved iconic status as the embodiment of civic virtues through the highly successful historical novel, Si Phaendin (Four Reigns) by Kukrit Pramoj, which was first published as a serial in a daily in l950, [5] a year after China turned communist, and four years after the death by gunshot of Rama VIII. In the novel, King Chulalongkorn's court is postulated as the world that the Thais have lost in the midst of the abandonment of traditional values and experimentation with Western notions of politics such as democracy, and with social mores such as love marriages as opposed to arranged ones. The novel's involvement in Thai public and political discourses is patent. In the tumultuous period of open politics in Thailand between 1973 and 1976, the central character of the Four Reigns, Phloi, was used to battle what was seen as the reckless and destructive turn to Marxism on the part of the youth. Phloi was lauded for possessing an essential spirit of duty, grati tude to elders and benefactors, and an expansive generosity towards others -- traits that were developed growing up in the Palace. For their part, the leftists condemned the novel as a mouthpiece of the Thai royalist elite, and its author for protecting Thai traditional institutions and a value system which did not serve the needs of the people. [6]

This paper offers a critique of the way in which female courtly life in the Fifth Reign has been held up as the model of ideal political behaviour in contemporary Thailand. …