Central Thai

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Central Thai

ETHNONYMS: Khon Thai, Siamese Tai, Syam, Tai, T'ai, Thai


Identification. The Central Thai speak the Central Thai (Tai-Shan) dialect, live in central and southern Thailand, and are predominantly of the Buddhist faith. The Thai name for their country is "Müang Thai," meaning "the free country," and their self-name is "Khon Thai," meaning "the free people." The terms "Siam" and "Siamese" were used mainly by Westerners; "Siam" was the official name of the country from about 1825 until 1930.

Location. Thailand is located between 6° and 21° N and 98° and 106° E. The Central Thai primarily occupy the central alluvial plain dominated by the Chao Phraya (Menam) River. This river basin covers approximately one-fifth of the total area of the country. The monsoon winds bring on a rainy season that lasts from May or June to October or November.

Demography. In 1992 the population of Thailand was estimated as 57,200,000. The population density averages 111.5 persons per square kilometer and the population is growing at the rate of 3 percent per year. Tai-speaking peoples constitute approximately SO percent of the population of Thailand. Approximately 13 million of the nation's population speak the Central Tai dialect. Speakers of other dialects of Tai are the Tai-Yuan of the north, the Tai-Lao of the northeast, and the Pak-Tai of the south. Malay-speaking Muslims constitute approximately 4 percent of the population of Thailand, and Chinese, who live primarily in the cities, constitute roughly 14 percent. Bangkok, the capital city, had an estimated population of 5,832,843 in 1989.

Linguistic Affiliation. Scholars have not reached a consensus on the affiliation of the Tai language. Tai has traditionally been considered a branch of the Sinitic Family (which includes various Chinese languages and Tibetan), but there seems to be substantial evidence that there are relationships between Tai, Kadai, and Indonesian subgroups and that these three languages should be classified together as a branch of the Proto-Austric Family (which includes the languages of the Philippines, Melanesia, Polynesia, Micronesia, and Indonesia). Tai is also related to Laotian and Shan. It is monosyllabic and tonal. The Thai script has forty-four consonants, thirty vowels, and nine tonal signs.

History and Cultural Relations

The original home of the Thai people was in the Chinese province of Yunnan. They are believed to have migrated south in successive waves, beginning perhaps as early as about a.d. 1050. The first Thai capital in the area now known as Thailand was established in 1280 at Sukothai. The capital was moved from there to Ayuthia, to Tonburi, and finally, in 1783, to Bangkok, where it has remained. The Kingdom of Thailand has never been colonized by any Western nation, but some territory was lost to the British and French empires when Europeans entered the rice and teak markets during the nineteenth century. The opening of the commercial rice market changed the Thai economy from one of subsistence to one of cash, producing profound economic, demographic, and social changes during the twentieth century. Thailand's absolute monarchy became a constitutional monarchy after a revolution in 1932. In spite of the king's loss of political power, the monarchy has retained its prestige and symbolic value, especially among rural Thai. Political trends since the revolution include a pro-Western foreign policy coupled with very deliberate efforts toward modernization, authoritarian government (in spite of the constitutional veneer), and encouragement of nationalism embodied in the phrase "king, country, religion."


Villages range in size from about 300 to 3,000 persons. Some villages are spatially distinct while others are administrative subdivisions in an area of continuous settlement. There are three major village types: strip, clustered, and dispersed. In the strip pattern, houses are strung along both sides of a waterway or road, with open fields stretching behind. In the cluster pattern, houses are built in a roughly circular pattern among fruit trees, coconut palms, or rice fields; the settlement is connected to the main road by a path or cart track. In the dispersed pattern, each nuclear family lives on its own land, surrounded by its rice fields or orchards. Houses are connected by waterways or paths, and much travel is by boat. Prominent in villages are the temple compound and the school, with a few shops scattered nearby. Two styles of housing are common throughout Thailand. The first, for the more affluent, is the sturdy, paneled or clapboard-walled house of teak or mahogany, raised off the ground, with planked floor, a few windows, and a roof of attap palm, tile, or corrugated iron. The second type of house is a low-pitched gabled house on a bamboo frame with a roof and perhaps a porch, thatched with palm or grass, and with sides of the same or of woven bamboo or matting, and earthen floors.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities . Wet-rice agriculture dominates the Thai economy, with about 80 percent of Thailand's population living in rural agricultural communities. Ordinary rice is produced both as a dietary staple and for cash sales. Agriculture is not widely mechanized in spite of development efforts, and plowing is still done mainly with a single metal-shod plow drawn by bullocks or water buffalo. The crop is harvested by hand. Thai farmers also grow maize, yams, chilies, cassava, eggplant, and beans. Commercial crops beyond rice include sugarcane, tobacco, rubber, coconut, and cotton. Each household catches fish, an important source of food, using nets, scoops, spears, baskets, and hooks. Domestic animals include pigs, chickens, ducks, cattle, and water buffalo.

Industrial Arts. Most villages have part-time or seasonal specialists such as sewing-machine operators, blacksmiths, and boat builders. In some areas there are brass, pottery, and charcoal manufacturers and silk- and cotton-weaving home industries. For the most part, though, industrial and commercial tasks are performed by the Chinese, while the Thai farm and govern.

Trade. Small stores, peddlers, and markets are found throughout rural Thailand. Women bring home-grown produce to the market for sale or to supply other merchants.

Division of Labor. The Central Thai are notable for the near absence of a division of labor by sex. Theirs is one of the few cultures in the world where women as well as men plow and harrow. Both sexes also fish. The traditional home tasks are assigned to women, but men also cook, tend babies, clean house, and wash clothes.

Land Tenure. Since the emergence of the commercial rice market in the mid-nineteenth century, the population has grown steadily. The amount of land devoted to rice cultivation has increased, although there has been little modernization of agricultural technology. The combination of population growth and the increasing production of rice has resulted in landlessness for growing numbers of people. The nonavailability of land has produced a class of laborers who cannot expect to gain their subsistence from the land. Since traditional Thai culture is based on self-sufficient rice agriculture or individually owned land, this situation is producing major changes in Thai society, including permanent or seasonal migration of men to the large cities for wage labor.


Kin Groups and Descent. Three types of kin group have been described: (1) multihousehold compounds that share productive equipment and have cooperative work teams; (2) hamlet clusters that contain independent households of kindred joined either by work reciprocity or by the domination of one wealthy household; and (3) linked hamlets of kin who live at a distance from each other but who are joined by shared life-cycle rites, provision of help to visiting kin, and assistance in securing shelter and employment for migrating kin. Descent is bilateral.

Kinship Terminology. Hawaiian-type cousin terms are used. The social emphasis on age is reflected by the fact that most kinship terms indicate the relative ages of people.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Although polygynous marriage has long been part of Thai culture, most marriages today are monogamous. Marriages are theoretically arranged by the parents, but there is quite a bit of freedom in the choice of marriage partners. Since fellow villagers are often considered relatives, marriages are usually locally exogamous. Marriage with second cousins is allowed. The independent family household, established soon after marriage, is the ideal. More often, though, the couple resides for a short time with the wife's family. Residence with either the wife's or the husband's family on a more permanent basis is becoming more frequent. Divorce is common and is effected by mutual agreement, common property being divided equally.

Domestic Unit. Those people who cook and eat meals around the same hearth are considered a family. This group, averaging between six and seven persons, not only lives and consumes together, but also farms cooperatively. The nuclear family is the minimal family unit, with grandparents, grandchildren, aunts, uncles, co-wives, cousins, and children of spouses added on. Membership in the household unit requires that one perform an acceptable amount of work.

Inheritance. Property is divided equally among surviving children, but the child who cares for the parents in their old age (often a younger daughter) ordinarily receives the homestead in addition to her share.

Socialization. Infants and children are raised by both parents and siblings and, in recent times, by other household members. Emphasis is placed on independence, self-reliance, and respect for others. The Central Thai are notable for almost never using physical punishment in child rearing.

Sociopolitical Organization

Thailand is a constitutional monarchy with a king as head of state and a prime minister as head of the government.

Social Organization. Thai society is hierarchically organized on the bases of age, occupation, wealth, and residence. The rural farmers stand below the artisans, merchants, and government officials of the cities. The clergy stand as a group apart from society. Social classes, in the sense of stable, ranked statuses, are absent in the presence of considerable social mobility. Many interpersonal relationships, however, are hierarchical, and patron-client relationships are common.

Political Organization. Thailand is divided into seventythree provinces (changwat ). The provinces are divided into districts (amphoe ), and these into municipal areas and communes (tambon ). Each tambon is composed of several numbered hamlets (muban ), which appear to be primarily administrative divisions. Tambon seem to range in size from 1,400 to 7,000 people. Each muban has a headman (phuyaiban ) and the head man of the tambon, the kamnan, is chosen from among the phuyaiban. The muban, and probably the tambon as well, are groups whose functions appear to be purely administrative, since only occasionally do the natural communities coincide with them. Thus a village may be composed of people from two different tambon and several different muban. They constitute a community in the sense that all the people of the village recognize the village temple and the government school. There does not appear to be a native Thai term for such a "natural" community and if asked the name of his or her village, the average inhabitant would probably refer to the temple that serves it. The Thai government provides a wide range of services including schools, police, courts, health services, tax collection, and the registration of vital information. District governments maintain the highways, canals, bridges, schools, and irrigation systems.

Social Control. To a large extent, social control is maintained by a Buddhist value system, which places a premium on avoiding conflict and fleeing rather than fighting. Gossip is an important informal source of social control. Because the natural community has no administrative structure, the temple committee, made up of monks and lay people, often concerns itself with village issues as well as temple affairs.

Conflict. In the past, warfare generally arose from disputes over succession to the throne, misbehavior of a vassal, and conflicts with neighboring states. Since the late 1880s a national military establishment on the European model has existed. Since the 1930s military personnel have taken an increasingly active role in politics.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Buddhism is a central and unifying force in Thai society. There are over 31,000 temples and the Thai regularly give gifts to the temple, attend festivals, and have their sons ordained.

Religious Beliefs. Theravada Buddhism is the official religion of Thailand (95 percent of the population) ; there are also Muslims (4 percent), and small numbers of Christians, Hindus, Confucians, and animists. Various supernatural beings play a role in village life. They include the guardian spirits of houses and villages, harvest beings such as the Rice Mother, possession spirits who cause illness, and helpful spirits who provide guidance.

Religious Practitioners. About 85 percent of Thai men are ordained priests, although only a small minority makes the priesthood its life work. The head priest at each temple maintains the basic rules of the monastic order. Priests read sermons, sing blessings, and participate in life-cycle rituals. They often also play a central role in village government. In addition to priests there are exorcists, spirit doctors, and diviners who mediate between humans and the spirit world through incantations, charms, possession, and sympathetic action.

Ceremonies. The religious calendar includes the New Year's Festival in April; the day of birth, enlightenment, and death of the Buddha in May; Lent from July to October; and the Festival of Lights in November. In addition, there is an annual fair and days set are aside for presenting robes and food to the priests.

Arts. Although now discouraged by the government, the tattooing of men is still common. Both art and architecture are characterized by subtlety of design and form, with considerable use of amulets, mystical drawings, and both public and private statuary. Traditional musical instruments such as gongs, clappers, wooden blocks, and the long drum are used alongside Western instruments such as saxophones, flutes, and horns. Dance dramas, repartee performances, and shadow plays are a common form of theatrical entertainment in rural villages.

Medicine. Illness is attributed to fright, prolonged adversity, spirit possession, and an imbalance of elements in the body. Locally purchased home remedies and the services of healers are commonly used.

Death and Afterlife. The funeral is the most important life-cycle event because it signifies the launching of the deceased into his or her next existence. Rebirth occurs after a stay in purgatory, the length of which is determined by one's sinfulness. The older and more prestigious the deceased, the more elaborate the funeral rites. The formal mourning period is seven days, after which the body is taken to the house or a morgue where it may be kept for days or even years until it is cremated.

See also Pak Thai; Shan; Tay; Yuan; Dai in volume 6


Donner, Wolf (1978). The Five Faces of Thailand: An Economic Geography. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Phillips, Herbert P. (1966). Thai Peasant Personality: The Patterning of Interpersonal Behavior in the Village of Bang Chan. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Sharp, R. Lauriston, and Lucien M. Hanks (1978). Bang Chan: Social History of a Rural Community in Thailand. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Terwiel, Berend J. (1975). Monks and Magic: An Analysis of Religious Ceremonies in Central Thailand. Lund: Student-litteratur; London: Curzon Press.


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Central Thai

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Central Thai