Fiction: Southeast Asian Fiction and Religion

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The term Southeast Asia was coined during World War II to refer to the part of the continent of Asia that lies south of China and east of India. The region can be divided into two sections.

There are the "mainland" states: Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The distinct cultures of these states remain strongly influenced by Theravāda Buddhism and elements of South Asian religious traditions. In addition, Vietnam has been strongly influenced by Chinese culture, including Taoism, Confucianism, and Mahāyāna Buddhism.

Below the latitude of approximately seven degrees north of the equator as marked on the Malay Peninsula are the "island" states of Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, and the Philippines. Although the cultures of these states also accepted the influence of Hinduism and Buddhism, from the thirteenth century ce onward they were strongly influenced by the spread of Islam. The northern part of the Philippines was converted to Catholicism after 1535.

Traditional Religious Narratives

The traditional narrative literature of both parts of the region can be divided into two levels. There is the mass of folk literature, which varies from one country to another, and often extensively within each country as well. Being oral literature, this is not available to historical inspection. There is also the written literature produced in the various courts and religious centers; records of some of this, but only a small amount, has survived. From the religious perspective, this written literature dealt in different ways with the stories of the past lives of the Buddha, known as the jataka tales, and with the two Indian epics, the Rāmāyaa and the Mahābhārata.

Cambodia was the site of the earliest kingdom in Southeast Asia, called Funan (first century ce). As the area developed with a variety of religious influences through the Angkor period, it came to incorporate areas that are now known as Laos, Thailand, and parts of Burma and Vietnam. Around the ninth century the Burmans settled in the area known today as Myanmar, where they came into contact with earlier settlers, the Pyu, whose ancient cities attest to the influence of Hinduism and Buddhism. By the mid-eleventh century the pagan dynasty was founded, ushering in a golden age of art and the popularization of Theravāda Buddhism, a trend also occurring in Angkor, whose glory would finally be eclipsed in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries by the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya, itself destroyed by the Burmese in 1767.

In Myanmar palm leaf manuscripts were used for religious, grammatical, literary, historical, legal, and other major texts. The earliest surviving examples of prose, which date from the twelfth century, took the form of folding paper books that included illustrated scenes from the life of the Buddha and the jataka stories. Some similar manuscripts were probably also used in Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos. In Myanmar 8 of the 10 greater jataka, and all 537 minor jataka, were translated by two monks during the second half of the eighteenth century.

The first recorded prose text in Thailand is the aristocratic Phya Lithai's Trai Phum (Sermon on the Three Worlds; 1345). The sermon contains many illustrative stories on Buddhist cosmology; its teachings also served to legitimate the role of the Buddhist king (cakkavatti). Although there are no remaining jataka tales to be found in island Southeast Asia, the stories are included on the wall sculptures of the great eighth-century central Javanese shrine, the Borobodur, and were presumably common at that time.

Both mainland and island Southeast Asian countries developed their own versions of the two epics. The Rāmāyaa has its parallels in the Cambodian Ramakerti, the Lao Phra Lak Phra Lam, and the Thai Ramakian. These are not translations but are distinctive retellings of the story that vary in significant ways from the Indian original. For example, Thailand's Ramakian includes a remarkable infusion of Buddhist elements.

In Java the earliest surviving narrative poem is the Kakawin Rāmāyaa, which is considered by later generations to be the first and finest classical Javanese narrative poem. It was probably written during the second half of the ninth century. The whole of the Mahābhārata and the Rāmāyaa was rendered into Old Javanese parwa (prose texts), beginning a century later (i.e., after 1000 ce). These texts were later transferred to Bali and preserved there, following the fall of Majapahit, the major inland Javanese kingdom, after 1350.

The stories of the Rāmāyaa and the Mahābhārata were not only read; they were also appreciated by cultivated audiences in the forms of religious architecture, as well as in dance and shadow-puppet theater (wayang ). Scholars have divided the repertory of the puppet theater into four cycles: (1) those with animistic themes, (2) stories of Arjuna taken from the Rāmāyaa, (3) stories based on the Rāmāyaa, and (4) the majority, stories from the Mahābhārata.

The earliest prose fiction from Vietnam, Linhnam trich quai, is a collection of fables written in Chinese and dating from the fifteenth century. The collection reveals a mixture of animistic beliefs and Chinese influence and includes the Daoist theme of mortals forming relationships with immortals. There are also records of storytelling in the vernacular for entertainment at palace gatherings during the Tran dynasty (12251400). This Chinese style of literature at the court and in the government bureaucracy was ultimately transformed by an indigenous rich narrative to produce a uniquely Vietnamese style of fiction by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when prose began to acquire more importance as a literary medium.

Traditional Islamic Narrative Literature

Unlike Java and Bali, all surviving texts in Malay are written in an adaptation of the Arabic script and therefore date from after the coming of Islam to the peninsula. There are still many surviving manuscripts based on the stories from the two Indian epics, but they have all been modified to give them a superficial Muslim flavor. For example, the Hikayat Seri Rama (The Story of Seri Rama), last copied before 1590, begins with references to Allah and Adam, the first prophet.

There are five types of Muslim narratives in traditional Malay literature. Some deal with the life of the Prophet Muhammad, from his archetypal existence (Hikayat Nur Muhammad), to his life and miracles (Hikayat Isra' and Mikraj ), and to his death (Hikayat Nabi Wafat ). Also included in this first category are works that deal with members of the prophet's own family (e.g., the Hikayat Nabi Mengajar Anaknya Fatimah, describing the Prophet's instructions on the duties of women, as given to his daughter Fāimah). There are further chronicles about the other great prophets of Allāh, such as Joseph, Moses, Solomon, and Zachariah. (A major anthology of these stories is the Qisas al-Anbiya.) The stories of the "Companions" of the Prophet Muammad include not only his close disciples (Hikayat Abu Bakar and Hikayat al-Mu'minin Umar ), but also his son-in-law, ʿAlī, and ʿAlī's two sons who were later martyred, asan and usayn (e.g., Hikayat Ali Kahwin, on the marriage of Ali). This is a strong indication of the importance of Shiite influences in early Malayan Islam. Works in the next category, chronicles of the great warriors of Islam, present some of the great commanders during the time of Muammad (Hikayat Muammad Hanifiyah ), but also include Alexander the Great (Hikayat Iskandar Dzulkarnain ) and the Yemeni warrior Saif al-Lizan (Hikayat Saif al-Lizan ). The devout men and women whose lives are described are variously ascetics and mystics, kings and judges. The Hikayat Ibrahim ibn Adham tells of a king who renounces his throne to devote himself to a life of prayer; the Hikayat Raja Jumjumah tells of an evil king who was restored to life by the Prophet Jesus and thereafter committed himself to constant contemplation.

It is important to note that although all these narrativesHindu, Buddhist, and Muslimmay, from one perspective, be considered imaginative works, they are definitely not considered as "fictional" (in the sense of "untrue") by those who do, or did, believe in the sacred stories they tell.

The Emergence of Modern Genres

Modern narrative fiction proposes an imagined personal description by a named author of contemporary society and the complexities of psychological description. Such writing was a product of Western influence, which began in the late sixteenth century but made its real impact following the nineteenth century. The consequent vast changes in social and economic structures, and the attendant human problems and situations, were represented to readers through the spread of printing and mass literacy. Such writing often combined with other preexisting factors, including religious literary influences and oral folktale traditions. While much "modern" writing has a secular emphasis, religious themes are also still to be seen in literary works produced throughout the region. Some writings are critical of traditional practices. Others occasionally still use major characters from both of the traditional Indian epics as a device to indirectly criticize political corruption, social inequity, or the loss of traditional values.

The Mainland Buddhist States

In Burma the first presses were established during the 1800s by Christian missionaries who pioneered a translation and printing of the Bible. British colonial rule began in 1862 and with it the gradual development of modern Burmese prose fiction influenced by British literature. Religious themes, sometimes critical of Buddhism, occur in Myanmar's modern fiction. Thein Pe Myint's novel Tet Hpon-gyi (Modern Monk; 1937) criticized corruption in the Buddhist Sangha, causing a great uproar among the monks. Zaw-gyi's memorable short story "Thu maya" (His Spouse, 1960) involves a husband who decides to enter monkhood in order to avoid family responsibilities. Ne Win Myint's short story "Thadun" (1995) is a political satire based on one of the crucial events in the Buddha's growth toward Enlightenment. Despite considerable state censorship, Myanmar has a vibrant contemporary literary culture.

Modern fiction appeared in Thailand from the 1880s, written largely by young male aristocrats who had studied abroad. One of the first published short stories was Krom Luang Phichit Prichakon's popular and controversial "Sanuk nuk" (Fun Thinking; 1885). Set in a famous Bangkok temple, the story describes an imaginary conversation between four young Buddhist monks about their futures and the pragmatic advantages and disadvantages of remaining a monk. Further episodes were banned. With a growing educated middle class, women also became interested in the art of prose fiction. From the 1930s socially concerned fiction with its ethnographic quality became part of the literary landscape that included Thai Buddhist culture. Khammaan Khonkhai's popular 1978 ethnographic novel The Teachers of Mad Dog Swamp reveals the village cycle of Buddhist rituals as a backdrop to the struggles of the protagonist Piya. Having received his university education in Bangkok while living in a wat (temple or monastery), Piya returns to the countryside as a young idealistic teacher. He is spurred into action against the politicians and business elite who are illegally logging the area and have lost their sense of Buddhist morality. Writers of the American era (19651973), like Si Dao Ruang (Wanna Thappananon) in "Mother of Waters, Thaokae Bak, and a Dog" (1977) and Sujit Wongthet in "Second Nature" (1967), criticize the commercialization of Buddhist festivals. Si Dao Ruang has a cycle of stories including "Sita Puts Out the Fire" (1984), which relocates characters from the Rāmāyaa within the modern urban setting of Bangkok.

Laos and Cambodia lag behind the other countries of Southeast Asia in the development of prose fiction. Both countries were colonized in the mid-1800s by the French, who delayed the introduction of printing presses and public education until the early 1900s. In Cambodia traditionalist monks resisted the printing of Khmer script since hand-copied manuscripts were considered sacred. Their objections were overcome by Venerables Chuon Nath (18831969) and Huot Tath (18911975), who enabled the printing of a variety of Khmer texts. In fact, most of the early fiction writers were educated monks. The journal Kambuja Suriya (1926) of the Buddhist Institute, established by the French, was the first to publish modern novels in serialized form.

Early prose writers, such as Rim Kin in Sophat (1938) and Nou Kan in Tun Jhin (1947), were naturally influenced by Cambodian religion. The cultural milieu for their fiction includes magic, ghosts, sages, Hindu deities, Buddhist monks, and pagoda schools. In her novella Gu san mitt min drust mitt (1947), Sou Seth, the first woman writer of modern prose, develops a complex love story in which the male protagonist renounces secular life to become a monk. Nhok Them in Kulap pailin (1943) and Kim Hak in Dik Danle Sap (1941) make use of the Buddhist themes of impermanence, karma, and self-determination. In Dik Danle Sap a corrupt former monk is finally discredited when his moneymaking meditation scam is discovered. Because of the lingering impact of the Pol Pot era (19751979) in Cambodia and government control over literature in Laos, both countries are still struggling to establish strong modern literary traditions.


The development of the modern novel and short story in Vietnam began in 1862 with French colonial control. The influence of the Chinese-language based literati slowly waned as the French modernized the Vietnamese language by employing a romanized script, quoc-ngu, originally developed by the French Jesuit Alexandre de Rhodes (15911660) in 1651. Quoc-ngu was popularized by Vietnamese Roman Catholic writers at the end of the eighteenth century. The most famous of these, Paulus Cua (18341907), is credited with developing modern Vietnamese prose. Some of the first publications of prose were collections of tales: Truyen giai buon (Stories to Dispel Sadness; 1880) and Truyen giai buon cuon sau (More Stories to Dispel Sadness; 1885). The popularity of tales continued throughout the modern period, for example, Nguyen Dong Chi's Kho tang truyen co tich Viet-nam (Treasury of Ancient Vietnamese Stories; 1958). Many of these tales show Chinese and Buddhist influence. Su-tich 18 ong la-han (Story of the Eighteen Arahats), for example, tells of eighteen thieves who renounce their profession, commit suicide, and become arahats (enlightened monks). Other stories relay the deeds of various bodhisattvas including Kuan-yin or are reminiscent of stories in the Dhammapada.

With modernization, the spread of education, and a growing middle class, both male and female writers experimenting with prose fiction emerged from all social levels. From the early 1900s until 1975 writers split over the aesthetics of literature as art for society's sake or art for art's sake. After 1975 social realism became the officially stipulated style for literature until the Doi Moi (renovation) policy implemented in 1986, which allowed for greater freedom of expression.

The most internationally well-known Buddhist fiction writer and poet of this modern period is Thich Nhat Hanh, a Thien Buddhist monk who was exiled from Vietnam in 1966, having been banned from participating in antiviolence protests. The Stone Boy and Other Stories (1996) is a collection of his short fiction that incorporates tales of monks, bodhisattvas, compassion, and loving kindness in the Vietnamese Buddhist tradition. Among the many Doi Moi era writers, two should be mentioned. Nguyen Huy Tiep, a master of the psychological tale, is considered by some to be a postmodernist writer because of his narrative approach to storytelling. In The General Retires and Other Stories (1992) and his other fiction themes include decadent Confucianism and Buddhism in a society that seems to have lost its moral compass. Duong Thu Huong lyrically explores the spiritual malaise of failed political ideology in many of her novels, including Novel without a Name (1995).

Malaysia and Indonesia

Despite sharing a common language, Indonesian/Malay, and a common religion, Islam, the island regions between the British and the Dutch were divided during the early nineteenth century, leading to the development of two distinctly different modern literary traditions. Both of these owe their origins to the rise of popular printing presses. In Malaya and Singapore the presses had strong connections to the Middle East and frequently published translations of Arabic stories. In an increasingly plural society (Malay, Chinese, and Indian) being a Muslim was seen as part of the definition of being a Malay. In the Dutch East Indies the presses belonged to Chinese and Eurasian settlers; after 1908 the colonial government also established its own publishing house, Balai Pustaka, to promote a modernizing and secular literacy. Islam has, therefore, played a more obvious role in Indonesian literature than in Malay.

Hikayat Faridah Hanum (1925), by Syed Sheikh bin Ahmad Al-Hadi (18671934), is often considered the first modern Malay novel, even though it is entirely set in the Middle East. A love story, the novel promotes female emancipation and Islamic reformism in general and criticizes more traditional Muslim figures wherever possible. Following the consolidation of prose in the 1950s, Malay literature was caught up into the Islamic revival movement of the 1970s and a serious prolonged debate about the nature of a "Muslim literature" followed. The main spokesman was Shahnon Ahmad. Shahnon highlighted the natural place of Islam at the heart of rural Malay life and the importance of its morality in maintaining a moral society.

For a long time Islam seemed marginal to modern Indonesian fiction. One exception was the preWorld War II author Haji Abdul Malik Karim Amrullah. His first novel Di bawah lindungan Ka'abah (Beneath the Protection of the Ka'abah; 1938) tells of a young man forbidden to marry his true love because of local custom, who flees to Mecca and finds refuge there and eventually death. The later novel Tuan Direktur (The Director; 1939) contrasts the material values of the businessman with the simple piety of the villager Pak Yasin. After the war Atheis (The Atheist; 1949), by Achdiat Karta Mihardja, explores the spiritual struggles of a young West Javanese man, raised in a repressive and superstitious Islam, that arise when he is confronted with the secularism, rationalism, and self-centered life styles of the capital, Jakarta. The debate about a Muslim literature began in Indonesia only in the mid-1980s and had a much greater influence on poetry than on prose. With the continuing increasing importance of Islam in Indonesian public life, however, a new genre has arisen since 1998: Islamic youth literature. These stories focus on the daily lives of young Muslims and are written in an unselfconscious contemporary Indonesian. A major author in this field is Helvy Tiana Rose. In Segenggam Gumam, a collection of her essays published in 2003, she argues that an Islamic literature should be written by a pious Muslim, that it should be informed by a serious knowledge of the teachings of the faith, and that it should encourage readers to dedicate themselves to God and the Muslim community.


Before Spanish influence, prose narratives in the Philippines consisted largely of origin myths, hero tales, fables, and legends. The native syllabary, possibly influenced by an Indic script, was replaced by the Roman alphabet introduced by the Spaniards in 1565. As the number of Christianized Filipinos grew, old manuscripts on perishable material were left to disintegrate or were destroyed by missionaries "who believed the indigenous pagan culture was the handicraft of the devil himself" (Lumbera and Lumbera, 1982, p. 3). Resistance to the colonizers or isolation from them allowed for some survival of indigenous literary forms during a period when Christianity spread rapidly under the influence of the Spanish friars.

Filipino literature during the 333 years of Spanish rule was "predominantly religious and moral in character and tone" (San Juan, 1974, p. 4). Ladino writers began to compose in mixed Tagalog and Spanish. The power of the Catholic Church grew to such an extent that all literature had to be approved for publication. In 1856 the Permanent Commission of Censors was established, which included four religious members out of a total of nine.

During the late 1800s the Ilustrados of the Propaganda movement emerged in response to this repression. One of them, the great novelist José Rizal (18611896), whose literary brilliance would continue to inspire writers throughout the modern period, exposed the sexual misdeeds and the political intrigues of the powerful Catholic friars in his Noli Me Tangere (1887) and its sequel El Filibusterismo (1891). Realizing that their campaign for reform was failing, these reformist writers shifted from Spanish to Tagalog in the hope of reaching a wider audience. Their nationalistic attempts, which did establish the beginning of a self-conscious Filipino literature, would be further frustrated by the American colonization of the area from 1898 to 1945, an age when the short-story genre would fully develop and women would also become accomplished writers.

The cultural landscape of Catholic influence, with its resonant church bells and solemn rituals, forms part of the aesthetic setting for many romantic or socially critical stories and novels during the modern and contemporary periods, from Paz Marquez Benitez's (18941983) "Dead Stars" (1925) to Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo's (1944) "The Painting" (1993). The appetites of the friars who abetted Spanish colonial oppression are a theme taken up by the next generation of socially critical authors now writing in Tagalog. These include Gabriel Beato Francisco (18501935), in his trilogy Fulgencia Galbillo (1907), Capitan Bensio (1907), and Alfaro (1909), and Iñigo Ed. Regalado (18881976), with his anticlerical and anticolonial discourse in Madaling-Araw (1909). In contrast, Faustino Aguilar (18821955) focuses on the subjective blindness of Filipino religious belief in his novel Pinaglahuan (1907). The popular novelist Lazaro M. Francisco (18981980) in his last two novels, Maganda Pa Ang Daigdig (1956) and its sequel Daluyong (1962), portrays a progressive priest whose humanity illustrates the positive role religion can play in society. The theme of "priest as social reformist" is also expressed in Paulino Lim's political novel Requiem for a Rebel Priest (1996).

See Also

Burmese Religion; Lao Religion; Mahābhārata; Rāmāyaa; Southeast Asian Religions, article on Mainland Cultures; Thai Religion; Vietnamese Religion.


Achdiat Karta Mihardja. Atheis. Translated by R. J. Maguire. St. Lucia, Australia, 1972.

Amilah Ab. Rahman and Nor Azmah Shehidan, eds. People on the Bridge: An Anthology of ASEAN Short Stories. Kuala Lumpur, 2001.

Aveling, H. Shahnon Ahmad: Islam, Power, and Gender. Bangi, Philippines, 2000.

A. Wahab Ali. The Emergence of the Novel in Modern Indonesian and Malaysian Literature: A Comparative Study. Kuala Lumpur, 1991.

Duong Thu Huong. Novel without a Name. Translated by Phan Huy Duong and Nina McPherson. New York, 1995.

Duranf, M. Maurice, and Nguyen Tran Huan. An Introduction to Vietnamese Literature. Translated by D. M. Hawke. New York, 1985.

Francia, Luis H., ed. Brown River, White Ocean: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Philippine Literature in English. New Brunswick, N.J., 1993.

Khonkhai, Khammaan. The Teachers of Mad Dog Swamp. Translated by Gehan Wijeyewardene. St. Lucia, Australia, 1982.

Harun Mat Piah et al. Traditional Malay Literature. Translated by Harry Aveling. Kuala Lumpur, 2002.

Herbert, Patricia, and Anthony Milner, eds. South-east Asia Languages and Literatures: A Select Guide. Honolulu, 1989.

Lumbera, Bienvenido, and Cynthia Nograles Lumbera, eds. Philippine Literature: A History and Anthology. Manila, 1982.

Nguyen Huy Thiep. The General Retires and Other Stories. Translated by Greg Lockart. Singapore, 1992.

Reynolds, Frank E., and Mani B. Reynolds, trans. Three Worlds According to King Ruang: A Thai Buddhist Cosmology. Berkeley, Calif., 1982.

Rizal, José. Noli Me Tangere. Edited by Raul L. Locsin. Translated by Ma. Soledad Lacson-Locsin. Manila, 1995.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Vo-Dinh Mai, and Mobi Warren. The Stone Boy and Other Stories. Berkeley, Calif., 1996.

San Juan, E., Jr., ed. Introduction to Modern Pilipino Literature. New York, 1974.

Yamada, Teri Shaffer, ed. Virtual Lotus: Modern Fiction of Southeast Asia. Ann Arbor, Mich., 2002.

Harry Aveling (2005)

Teri Shaffer Yamada (2005)