THE EARLY LITERATURE OF LAOS
As in neighbouring countries, the earliest literature to emerge in what is now the Lao PDR served to perpetuate the various proverbs, myths, legends and cosmology associated with particular ethnic groups. Today several of Laos ethnic minority groups still preserve a rich tradition of epic stories, performed by village elders who are charged with keeping the ancient art alive.
Late in the first millennium BCE, Buddhist monks began to appropriate the ancient storytelling techniques for the purpose of spreading their faith, giving rise to the development of the jataka, tales of the Bodhisattva (previous incarnations of the Buddha) which were later added to the tripitaka canonical texts of Theravada Buddhism.
Compiled at various dates in several countries and totalling 547 stories in the oldest and most complete collection, the jataka were intended to teach the virtues of self-sacrifice, honesty and morality to the common person. The last and longest, known as the Vessantara (in which the future Buddha in the form of Prince Vessantara perfects renunciation), was later to become Phra Vet, the most popular of all the jataka stories in Laos.
From the 8th century onwards, Buddhist practices introduced into the region by early Mon rulers were slowly adopted by the incoming Tai and syncretised with animist practices. By the start of the Lane Xang era (14th century) Buddhist wats had begun to emerge as important centres of learning in which sacred texts in Pali were copied onto palm leaves for study and recitation.
THE LITERATURE OF LAOS DURING THE LANE XANG ERA
The earliest recorded history of the Lao dates from the period immediately following the establishment of the kingdom of Lane Xang in the late 14th century, but the development of an indigenous Lao literary tradition is usually attributed to the reigns of three illustrious kings of the 16th century – Wisunarath (1500-1520), Photisarath (1520-1550) and Sai Setthathirat I (1550-1571).
The reigns of these kings were marked by a noteworthy flowering of literary scholarship in Lane Xang, including the development of a special script known as tham for the writing of religious texts.
Soon after his accession to the throne, King Wisunarath commissioned the Tamnan Khun Burom (Legend of Khun Burom), a compilation drawn from various existing chronicles designed to legitimise the royal dynasty of Fa Ngum by tracing it back to the eponymous mythical Tai ancestor.
During the reigns of Photisarath and Sai Setthathirat I, close political and cultural ties were forged with Lanna (Chiang Mai), a kingdom with its own thriving literary heritage, and under Lanna’s influence there appeared a Lao version of the panchatantra moral fables and an important collection of 50 jataka tales, 27 of which are unique to Laos.
The Lao version of the Ramayana epic, known as the Pharak Pharam, is also believed to have been created during this period to serve as source material for courtly performance.
Restoring order in the 17th century after a 70-year period of instability, King Suriyavongsa (1638-1690) presided over a second and final golden age of cultural development in Lane Xang, which saw the commissioning of a new court chronicle known as Phongsavadan Lane Xang (Chronicle of Lane Xang, 1656). This period also saw the appearance of the greatest poems of Lao literature, including Champasiton, Kalaket, Nang Taeng On, Nang Phom Hom, Sithone and Manora, Linthong and Sinxay.
At this time too, the epic poem Thao Hung Thao Cheuang – found widely amongst the oral traditions of the Tai and Mon-Khmer speaking peoples – evolved into an important work of Lao literature.
Composed in the style of the jataka tales, these early poetic works are generally afforded a sacred status as they are believed to be translations or adaptations of much older, devotional texts. With the single exception of the scholar called Pangkham, who is believed to have written the 6,000-verse epic Sang Sinxay, the names of their authors remain unknown.
Throughout this period all literature was poetic in form, following a complex series of rules elaborated during the 1940s by eminent scholars Maha Sila Viravongs and Nhouy Abhay. The works themselves were designed to be read out loud on special occasions such as religious festivals, with a view to instilling in the listener the importance of virtues such as honesty and integrity. The reader was usually a monk who began by paying homage to the memory of the writer and the spirit of the manuscript and knew just the right intonation for every passage so as to convey joy or sadness, love or anger, pride or shame. The art of reciting epic poems, jataka tales and other texts from palm leaf manuscripts became known as an nangsu (literally ‘reading a book’), a term which is still used widely today in Laos to describe storytelling of all kinds. An nangsu in turn gave rise to the earliest varieties of the call-and-response folk song genre lam or khap in which the stories would be sung by a moh lam (see Lam/khap – Lao call-and-response folk songs).
THE LITERATURE OF LAOS DURING THE FRENCH PERIOD
Printing arrived late in Laos; the first Lao publications appeared in the 1920s, but print quality remained relatively poor for decades after this, and during the latter years of the colonial period most French-language government publications were still printed in Viet Nam, while Lao-language material was sent to neighbouring Siam.
Throughout the French colonial period illiteracy in Laos remained widespread – traditional literature was intended to be performed before an audience by either a monk or a moh lam, rather than being read silently by an individual, so there was little incentive for the development of reading skills amongst the general population. When publishing houses in neighbouring Siam began to produce cheap copies of traditional Lao stories in the 1930s, it was common for monks from Vientiane to buy and then recopy them onto palm leaves for use during sermons in the Lao temples.
The traditional Lao literature increasingly became viewed as a relic of the past, children of the Lao elite attended colonial schools where they were taught French language, history and culture, and by the 1930s the works of French novelists such as Balzac and Voltaire had become popular amongst the upper classes of Lao society.
The modern Lao literature only began to develop on the eve of independence. The immediate catalyst for its development was the bi-weekly Lao Nhay (‘Great Lao’) newspaper, launched in 1940 by the French colonial government in order to enhance Lao national identity with the purely political aim of countering the idea of a ‘Greater Siam’, which was then being expounded by Siamese leader Field Marshal Phibunsongkhram. During its five years of existence Lao Nhay ran poetry and short story competitions celebrating Lao culture and history and features recalling the ‘glorious lineage of the modern Lao’ dating back to the kingdom of Lane Xang, stimulating the development of poetry, prose and spoken drama. The earliest Lao prose writing dating from this so-called Samay Funfou Xat (National Renovation) era was composed in the French language and translated into Lao, but this subsequently gave way to works composed in Lao. The first modern Lao novel was Phra Phoutthahoup Saksit (‘The Sacred Buddha Image’, 1944), ‘written in easy-to-understand Lao language’ by Pierre Somchine Nginn (1892-1971), a noted composer of French verse and the son of François Nginn, who had participated in the 1892 Pavie mission.
This short-lived period of national renovation also sparked a new academic interest in traditional Lao literature. At this time leading scholars Maha Sila Viravongs (1905-1987, author of the 1935 Grammaire Laotien) and Nhouy Abhay (1909-1963) began to transcribe the ancient texts and Maha Sila Viravongs published Methods of Composition of the Poetry of the Vientiane People and Kap San Vilasimi (1942), which attempted for the first time to set out the rules of Lao versification.
THE LITERATURE OF LAOS ( 1953-1975)
THE MODERN LITERATURE OF LAOS ( 1975 – present)
The established authors such as Outhine Bounyavong, Dara Viravongs, Pakian Viravongs, Douangdeuane Viravongs and Seree Nilamay resumed their literary activities alongside revolutionary writers such as Phoumi Vongvichit, Souvanthone Bouphanouvong, Chanthy Deuansavanh, Khamlieng Phonsena and Theap Vongpakay. They have since been joined by a younger generation of writers.
Phoumi Vongvichit was appointed Acting President of the Lao PDR from 1986 to 1991 after Prince Souphannouvong was forced to step down from the Presidency for reasons of health. Phoumi is now perhaps best remembered for his Lao Grammar (1967), published in the revolutionary heartland of Houaphanh Province. However, he is also recognised as one of the leading modern Lao poets.
Novelist Chanthy Deuansavanh is currently Chairperson of the Lao Writers Association and former editor of its now-defunct monthly journal Xiengkhene Lao. Chanthy received the second SEAWrite Award in 1999 for his work Khang Khun Thi Pa Leuk (‘Overnight in the Deep Forest’).
Since the 1980s Khamlieng Phonsena has won numerous awards for novels such as Khwam Hak (Love), Na Xong Muong (‘Rice Field with Two Irrigation Canals) and Chai Dieu Hak Dieu (One Heart, One Love).
Theap Vongpakay (Dao Neua, b 1945) has also attracted acclaim for his novels Ngao Muon Muang (The District Sword), Pit Adit (Poison of the Past) and Kae Khai Sivit (Finding a Solution to Living). In 2003 Theap received a SEAWrite Award for his first novel Pha Nhou Xivit (‘Storm of Life’).
Today Outhine Bounyavong remains Laos’ best-known writer. He wrote four collections of short stories while working as a journalist, editor, and translator.
A collection of Outhine’s short stories, Mothers Beloved: Stories from Laos (1999), was published in English by the University of Washington Press.
Under the pen name Dok Ked, Douangdeuane Viravongs, daughter of the late Maha Sila Viravongs and widow of Outhine Bounyavong, has published various poems and novels and transcribed numerous traditional stories, of which the best-known is Kam Pha Phi Noi (‘The Little Orphan and the Spirit). She has also authored the popular Lao textiles book Legends in the Weaving (2002).
Researchers of Lao literature should contact the family bookshop Dokked Publishing Co Ltd in Vientiane and make arrangements to visit the Maha Sila Viravongs Library, an important repository of rare books and documents.
A native of Champassak Province, Dr Thongkham Onemanisone (b 1949) was the first Lao writer to receive the prestigious SEAWrite Award in 1998 for his work Pheua Hak Pheua Nang (‘For Love for Her’).
Dr Thongkham’s numerous other works include Phoum Pannya Sisawat (‘Sisawat’s Wisdom’, 1997), Nithan Suphasit (’39 Moral Tales’, 1997), Dhamma’s Path Poems (2000), The Memory of SEAWrite Award Poems (2003) and Sharp, Decisive, Hot and Salty Poems (2004); the Lao Language Dictionary (1992) and Lao Language: Terms and Meanings (1997); contributions to various collections; and a great number of poems and articles featured in daily newspapers and magazines. Now retired from the post of Director of the Ministry of Information and Culture’s Department of Literature and Mass Culture, Dr Thongkham is a founder member and former Chairperson of the Lao Writers Association; he currently works as a columnist for Van Athit Weekly, Wattanatham (Culture) Magazine and Vannasin Magazine.
Viset Savengseuksa (b 1953) is currently Deputy Chairperson of the Lao Writers Association. Known for his novels, he received a SEAWrite Award in 2002 for Nok Ieng Kita Khoay (‘The Bird and the Water Buffalo’).
Writer and journalist Thongbay Photisane (b 1960) won the SEAWrite Award in 2004 for the novel Ngua Kap Kien (‘Cows and Carts). One of a younger generation of novelists examining the social changes taking places in modern Lao society, Mr Thongbay has published three collections containing 20 short stories and over 50 poems. One of the short stories, Thi Pak Chai (‘Heart’s Refuge’), was translated into English and published in a collection of prize-winning ASEAN stories in 2001. Mr Thongbay is currently General Secretary of the Lao Writers Association and editor of Vannasin Magazine.
Born in Champassak, Bounthanong Somsaiphon (b 1953) has been a prolific writer of fiction, poetry, and songs since the mid 1970s and has played an active role as both editor and contributor to various Lao literary magazines. His insightful and often outspoken accounts of contemporary Lao society have attracted considerable acclaim.
Other important younger-generation Lao writers include novelists Phieu Lavanh (Thidachanh, b 1954), Bounseun Songmany (b 1956), Damdouane Pomdouangsi (b 1958), Othong Khaminsou (Houngaloune Denvilay, b 1962) and Sengphouxay Inthavikham (b 1967).
Scholars active in the field of transcribing, editing and publishing traditional Lao literature under the auspices of agencies such as the Institute of Cultural Research (ICR) and the Ministry of Education include Houmphanh Rattanavong, Maha Boun Nhok, Pho Phuangsaba, Somsy Desakhamphou, Othong Khaminsou (Houngaloune Denvilay) and Samlid Buasisawat.
Established in 1991 by Dr Thongkham Onemanisone and the late Mr Souvanthone Bouphanouvong, the Lao Writers Association aims to promote the nation’s literature, enhancing friendship amongst writers and protecting their rights, and facilitating international exchange. It currently has a membership of 100 writers. The Association previously published the literary magazine Xiengkhene Lao, but in recent years this publication has been discontinued.
Established in 1979, the monthly Vannasin Magazine aims to provide a forum for the development of Lao writing and to entertain and educate readers through poetry and short stories which focus on Lao traditional culture, reflecting the daily lives of Lao people and informing them of social problems. In 1999 the Vannasin office launched the Sinxay Weekly newspaper and in 2004 it launched the annual Sinxay National Writing Competition.