Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Sons of Khun Bulom: The Discovery by Modern Lao Historians of the 'Birth of the Lao Race'

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Sons of Khun Bulom: The Discovery by Modern Lao Historians of the 'Birth of the Lao Race'

Article excerpt

When the late Grant Evans discussed Lao origins when speaking on the dilemmas facing the field of Lao studies a few years ago, he cut right to the heart of this article when he argued that after fifty years, it was time to drop the Nanzhao thesis. (1) He was referring to the oft-repeated claim by Lao historians that the ancient kingdom of Nanzhao in modern-day Yunnan province was actually ruled by Lao and was the origin-point for their migration south. (2) But Evans knew well that decades ago scholars had shown that the kings of Nanzhao were Lolo people, not Lao. (3) This article examines the origins and significance of the Nanzhao thesis as Lao historians articulated it prior to 1975. However, one cannot simply analyse the Nanzhao thesis alone, but rather must consider an entire complex of interrelated and tightly-bound concepts that have been reformulated by Lao intellectuals over many years. My hypothesis is that Lao historians were not simply making claims to an ancient, little-known kingdom in southern China, but rather were engaging in complex cultural transitions by rewriting the hugely important nithan khun bulom story of the nineteenth century into the 'birth of the Lao race' narrative for a modern twentieth-century audience in order to imagine the new national identity through history. The newly written version, as I will show, was now in the spirit of a modern, scientific and racialist account of the Lao people that aligned with the new ethos of the period, namely, popular sovereignty, nationalism and Social Darwinism.

The nithan khun bulom proved fertile ground for elite nationalists to stake their claims. In extant versions from the nineteenth century, (4) this story told of the divine lineage of Lao rulers descended from Khun Bulom, who came from heaven to rule at Na Noi Oui Nu or Muang Thaeng, modern-day Dienbienphu. (5) This was followed by a narrow reciting of the kings of Lan Xang beginning with Khun Lo, the eldest son of Khun Bulom. Included with the nithan khun bulom was the famous gourd story, which told of the origins of the Lao people. In this story, the Lao and the Kha (6) were born from different holes of the gourd by which they came to have different physiognomies and customs, which explained ethnic diversity in Laos. Yet beginning in the 1920s, and especially during the independent Royal Lao Government (RLG) period (1953-75), Lao writers grew sceptical of this account and began to alter it.

To begin this profoundly modernist undertaking, first these writers had to remove the fantastic, unrealistic elements if they were to have a reliable, credible account of their history. This stage often included a review of existing literature and critique of textual sources with philological leanings to purge and purify the history of myths and legends. (7) Second, they replaced the fantastic with the historically verified: Heaven became China and Khun Bulom was remade as Pi-Lo-Ko, the eighth-century ruler of Nanzhao. Finally, often lacking the names of Lao persons to follow in the first historical epoch, they wrote instead of the birth of the anonymous, homogenous multitude they called the Lao xaat (spODTQ), which would be the collective protagonist for the period prior to Khun Bulom. The final product was a modern, scientific history of Lao racial origins reliant on the existing precolonial narrative of Khun Bulom's bloodline, which synecdochally mutated into the origin of all Lao people. (8)

Yet why did the Lao elite become fixated on the 'birth of the Lao race' to such a degree? To put it simply, they viewed history as the key to knowing one's own xaat--race, nation--and further that this was crucial for nationalism to develop in Laos. Maha Sila Viravong may have put it best when he wrote that the 'study of one's own chronicles is truly necessary and extremely important because strong and true patriotism comes from the study of the history, or chronicles, of one's own xaat'. (9) Echoing this sentiment, the diplomat Khamchan Pradit wrote: 'I wish to give the youth a new model to know the greatness of the Lao xaat in Asia and [it] should continue to participate [in the same manner] in the future'. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.