four
Representing Thai Culture

Culture and Representation

In the last chapter, I argued that Buddhism is important for understanding gender relations. While Thai individuals differ with respect to the importance of Buddhism as an influence in their lives, there is no doubt about the importance of Buddhism as a fundamental part of Thai national identity, expressed as respect for nation, religion and monarch. This chapter does not examine Buddhism and politics, but looks instead at the links between the representation of women, and the representation of the Thai nation state. Exploring these relations takes us further behind the scenes at Thai provincial fairs, into shopping malls, and through the many heritage sites preserved by the Thai Fine Arts Department. At many of these sites, we are joined by tourists – both domestic and foreign. And many ask the same questions we ask here: are these authentic Thai experiences in authentic Thai localities?

Thai elite have been playing with historical palimpsests to define and redefine national identity throughout the last century, juxtaposing representations and texts to find the essence of Thainess (khwampen Thai). Mulder identifies Thai as an archetypal presentational society (1992:159), one that resonates with Featherstone's definition of postmodern. He defines postmodernism in the arts as:

the effacement of the boundary between art and everyday life; the collapse of the distinction between high and mass/popular culture; a stylistic promiscuity favouring eclecticism and the mixing of codes: parody, pastiche, irony, playfulness and the celebration of the surface ‘depthlessness’ of culture; the decline of the originality/genius of the artistic producer; and the assumption that art can only be repetition. (1991:7)

In this sense, the Thai were postmodern before they were modern, creating images of themselves based on their own ‘Orientalism’, 1 and

-95-

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Materializing Thailand
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page *
  • Contents v
  • Preface ix
  • List of Figures xi
  • Part I - Orientations 1
  • One - Crafting Thailand 3
  • Notes *
  • Two - Ordering the Past: Representations of Thai Women 35
  • Notes *
  • Three - Buddhism and Gender Ideology 65
  • Notes *
  • Part II - Representations 93
  • Four - Representing Thai Culture 95
  • Notes *
  • Five - Deconstructing Display: Gender and Beauty 129
  • Notes 160
  • Six - Prostitution and Foreign Bodies 163
  • Notes *
  • Part III - Interpretations 199
  • Seven - Modelling Thai Gender Relations 201
  • Notes *
  • Eight - Context and Continuity: Grasshoppers, Turtles and Feminists 227
  • Notes *
  • Bibliography 241
  • Index 269
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