Southeast Asia's Literary History

Explore how language and literature have evolved through changing national and international politics, religion and culture in Southeast Asia.

Southeast Asian literature, as with all literature, is a reflection of the society that it comes from. However what makes literature from this subcontinent quite so fascinating is not only the variety that can be found - each country is so markedly different from the next - but also its bursting history.

This is a collection of countries that have seen so much political upheaval and change particularly in terms of colonisation and independence for millennia and this makes for a fascinating literary progression.

The major influences on literature from this area are religion, politics, colonisation and oral traditions. In the below article we explore and try to understand how we have come to the present day, charting the path that the literature of these countries has taken from the very beginning with orally transmuted folklore tales and myths, through various rulers, oppressors and liberators, to today's host of modern novels, novellas and poems. We find that there is a huge amount of change and yet also a surprising amount of consistency.

The most notable change, one that can be seen in all of the countries discussed below, is the move from the classical to the vernacular. A change from the ancient (for example in Vietnam the ancient Chinese writings or in Myanmar the stories transcribed onto scrolls and stones) to the colloquial (recording language as it is spoken). This movement allowed literature to become accessible to the masses and was one that started the real journey to literature becoming how we know it today. Below we look in depth at literature from Vietnam, Myanmar and Malaysia.

Vietnam

The history of Vietnamese literature is a fascinating one thanks to the many international influences of colonisation particularly the Chinese and French. As with every country literature reflects society and in looking at the language and literature of Vietnam we are allowed a real insight into the changing lives of its population. Classical Vietnamese literature (works produced prior to the 11th Century) was entirely written in Chinese because of China's control of the country, however it is very different compared to works produced in China at this time. For classical Vietnamese works to be understood now they not only must be translated but completely reworked as the syntax and grammar makes no sense in the modern Vietnamese language.

All official documents as well as artistic pieces were written in Chinese until a vernacular script was created which really took effect from the 13th Century onwards. Chu nom was a way of writing down colloquial Vietnamese in Vietnamese and still today is readily translated into the modern language as it follows the current rules of syntax. Despite the fact that chu nom was never standardised or officially endorsed it gained in popularity for centuries and many great literary works of art were recorded in it.

After this we have chu quoc ngu which we would understand as modern day Vietnamese writing. Although it was created in the 17th Century, it was barely used until the early 1900s when its use was then enforced by the French colonial government. From here on out its popularity grew and grew as increasing amounts of very popular periodicals and poems were produced in this language. There was of course dissension as people resisted using a colonial dictated language but largely it was embraced as a chance to standardise written language and thus boost national literacy rates. This was finally compounded when Ho Chi Minh's new government created new policies enforcing chu quoc ngu resulting in a massive increase in literacy rates. Now all Vietnamese pieces of literature are produced in chu quoc ngu meaning that they are accessible to the masses.

Burma/Myanmar

Burmese literature has been hugely influenced by the country's religion, politics, monarchy and colonisation with its progress often halted by recessive regimes or ideals as well as censorship and the reliance on patronage. The earliest recorded forms of Burmese literature were found on stone carvings and then paper scrolls and always related a religious purpose. This continued into the Bagan Dynasty where the king proclaimed the country's religion to be Theravada Buddhism.  During this time religious works, monarchic tributes and some poems (always falling into one or both of the aforementioned categories) made up Burmese literature.

Throughout the proceeding centuries (from 1400s to 1800s), literature did progress particularly in the form of poetry - this was a massively popular art form - and by the 1600s there were four major poetic genres in Burmese literature. These four forms however did still centre on religious, mythological and royal tales. The next big change (aside from the arrival of the printing press in 1818) was British colonial rule. During this time the Anglo-Vernacular (i.e. fusion of Burmese and English language in teaching, writing, reading) was born and children were now taught in both languages.

Then there came a certain stagnation in literature until the early 1900s as artistic patrons were simply nowhere to be found. However the turn of the century saw change as the movement for Burmese independence produced massive amounts of literature: pro-independence poetry, prose and letters all flourished during this time. Since Burma's independence in 1948 there has been a notable move in the national literature echoing contemporary western literary style and foreign works are increasingly popular. Sadly censorship does play a part here in stifling some of the possibility for literary progress beyond a certain level.

Malaysia

The major influences that can be seen when we chart the progression of Malay and Malaysian literature are religion, morality (didactic texts), social reflection and the tradition of oral storytelling. Malaysian Literature refers to works produced in the Malay Peninsula prior to 1963 and then in Malaysia post-1963. The beginnings of Malay literature are deeply rooted in oral storytelling with stories largely centred on folklore, mythology, romance and epic poetry. In these stories, Indian influences are very clearly visible particularly parallels drawn from Indian epics such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

When the move from oral to written began (although oral storytelling is still well and alive in many areas of Malaysia today) these epic tales were often transcribed into large volumes. At this time the greatest outpouring of Malaysian literature was epic poetry, romantic tales and new forms of Malay poetry that were often focused on producing a didactic message for the listener or reader. In the oral literature of this time there was a large focus on recounting versions of real events as well as discussing spirituality, ancestry and the afterlife. These are themes that still run through Malaysian literature today, particularly the oral literature.

In the 1800s written literature overtook oral literature as the major form in which pieces of work were being produced. This was largely thanks to the rise of Islam in the area, bringing written texts with it as well as a rise of intellectualism. With this there was a burst of modernisation as Malaysian scholars, often educated abroad, brought in foreign influences to the traditional Malaysian literary form. It was at this time that the country saw the birth of the novel or novella. Although still generally sticking to the didactic and promotion of religious or theological concepts, these stories were also often harshly critical of current social and economic problems. There was a sense of realism and romanticism in a gritty yet somewhat idealist portrayal of Malaysian proletariat life.


Some fascinating reading

Above we have given you an overview of the history of the progression of literature and language in Vietnam, Myanmar and Malaysia. A truly fascinating way of gaining an insight into the changing politics, culture and population on a national and international scale. Below are a few texts that you may want to read if you are interested in gaining a further understanding or if you simply want to read something entertaining and fun.  

  • 'Chinh phụ ngam' or 'Lament of a Solider's Wife' by Dang Tran Con is a classic Vietnamese poem originally written in Chinese but then transcribed into both chu nom and chu quoc ngu (English translations can also be found online). It is an emotive piece of work that still massively resonates today.
  • The Burmese journalist and author Ludu U Hla produced a number of poignant pieces that look at ethnic minorities and their interactions within traditional folklore and mythology as well as producing some highly influential biographies and various nonfiction works.
  • 'Spirits Abroad' by Zen Cho, a Malaysian author currently living in London, is a collection of short stories that have become highly regarded around the world. These fantasy stories have a distinctly Malaysian viewpoint that flawlessly intermingles the real or the dull with the magical and fantastical.