Theara Thun, Program-Specific Researcher, Cross-regional Studies of CSEAS

Current monograph project: Texts, History, and Intellectuals of Cambodia between 1850s-1970s

I am Theara Thun, a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University since August 2019. I am working on the completion of a monograph research based on my PhD dissertation on “Baṅsāvtār: The Evolution of Historiographical Genres in Colonial Cambodia.” The dissertation won the “Wang Gungwu Medal and Prize for the Best PhD Thesis in the Social Sciences/Humanities,” submitted at the National University of Singapore in 2019. Moreover, materials from the dissertation won two “Best Paper Awards” and two “Best Presentation Awards” from two international graduate conferences in Hong Kong in 2016 and 2017. One of its chapters was published as an article in Journal of Southeast Asian Studies (2020).

The monograph I am currently working on demonstrates that the encounter with Western colonial influences led Cambodia and broader Southeast Asia to experience a significant period of what we can call an epistemological “interface” between the perceptions of the past held in pre-colonial chronicle manuscripts and those in colonial-era historical writings. This “interface” brought about the decline and transformation of the long-held chronicle manuscript culture as opposed to new printed historical texts introduced by the colonial government. It also led to the emergence of new ways of making history and new genres of writing among the community of local scholars who produced competing notions of historical scholarship that consequently shaped nationalistic thoughts and collective culture of their society for colonial and postcolonial periods.

My research brings together monasterial and palace chronicle manuscripts to examine their changing significance from the pre-colonial until the post-independence periods (1850s-1970s). Through my extensive archival research in Southeast Asia, Europe and North America, I have collected over twenty manuscripts that were produced between the 18th and the first half of the 20th centuries. This collection represents the highest number of original manuscript sources ever put together in a single study of Southeast Asian scholarship. I examine these manuscripts along with a variety of printed texts such as history books, journals, and novels written in French, Cambodian, and Thai languages. I also examine the role of state-sponsored institutions and local scholars, including palace astronomers, translators, and Buddhist monks, who strategically made use of the colonial influence to produce novel social and cultural values that have profoundly shaped Cambodian society.

Through a variety of close textual analyses, firstly, my monograph hopes to open up avenues for thinking about the transformation of the pre-colonial chronicle scholarship as well as its substantial influence on collective memory and culture during the colonial and post-independence periods. Secondly, it aims to shed light on the role of key local actors who intellectually made use of regional and global colonial influence to reproduce new social, cultural, and political values of their society. Thirdly, my research aims to open up new grounds to think more critically and widely about the role of printing apart from its function in the mass production of texts and images. My monograph makes clear that printing facilitated the strengthening of secular texts because its emergence led to the decline of spiritual meanings and power that the physical form of text, i.e., the chronicles, conveyed to the public. By addressing these important yet understudied areas, this research will contribute to an understanding of textual cultures as well as cross-cultural and intellectual interactions between Southeast Asian societies and the West during the colonial and post-independence periods.

Theara Thun