Tum Teav: The Classic Cambodian Story

Posted on by Sralang Apsara


The Documentation Centre of Cambodia has recently made some excellent and recent monographs on the Khmer Rouge period available for free download in *pdf format*. I was looking for two works on the fate of the Cham under the regime when I came across a volume that seemed somewhat out of place (although do read on). It is an English translation together with good critical introduction of the Cambodian classic tale, Tum Teav by George Chigas**.

Cambodia has only two pre-modern classical stories; one is the Reamker, which is an adaptation of an Indian story featuring the ideal god-king Ream, his ideal wife Sitha and well-known characters such as Hanuman the monkey general. Tum Teav, by contrast, is inherently Cambodian and has realistic, non-supernatural characterisations of highly flawed human nature. The tale is sometimes referred to as ‘Cambodia’s Romeo and Juliet’ since the story is about two young lovers who defy parental wishes with tragic consequences, but the comparisons don’t go much further (okay, they do secretly meet in a scene that whiffs of ‘balcony’, and secretly wed).

Tum is a handsome novice monk who doesn’t appear to be overly focussed on his religious duties; Teav is a maiden who falls in love at first sight and, as she offers Tum a gift of cigarettes, prays to Buddha that the young monk will be with her for eternity. Tum defies and lies to his abbot and his mother to leave the monastery. He initially spends some time in Teav’s home despite her being ‘in the shade’ (a period of a few weeks when the daughter is supposedly secluded from males and taught how to behave virtuously), and wastes no time in abusing the mother’s hospitality by sleeping with her daughter.

With the pair being secretly pledged to each other, he then leaves to gain employment in the palace as a musician. Teav later joins the court in a different capacity – she is selected as the king’s primary concubine. However, on learning of their circumstances, the king gives them his blessing and has them officially wed.

Teav’s mother is unaware of this event and has alternative plans, intending to marry her daughter off to the governor’s son (she dropped the idea when her daughter was chosen to be with the king, but resurrected it as soon as she learned that her employment at the court wasn’t leading anywhere). She feigns illness as a ruse to lure Teav to her village whereupon she tries to coerce her into taking part in the wedding ceremony. Tum turns up with an edict from the king to stop the ceremony, but on arrival instead of presenting the order, he gets drunk, announces he is Teav’s husband and kisses her in public; his behaviour gets him killed, and only after that does the governor discover the king’s letter. Naturally the lass tops herself.

Unlike the ‘silver lining’ conclusion of Romeo and Juliet, this story finishes with the king exacting rather extreme punishment – slaughtering every family member (including infants) remotely connected to the deception and the murder of Tum, making hereditary slaves of the entire village and exacting crippling extra taxes from a wider area in perpetuity.

As with any oral tradition, there are numerous versions extant, and pinning down the origins of the story is an elusive task. The story probably originated in the 17th or 18th century and is set in Kampong Cham around a century earlier. However in some versions the king in question is purported to be the Rea-mea who reigned in the mid-1600s, coming to the throne through an act of regicide and subsequently converting to Islam.

His opponents had to call in the Vietnamese to depose him and restore the social order (ho hum) – we learn this from chronicles; there is no hint of such religious or political machinations in the story. All Cambodians know the story; it has been part of the secondary national curriculum since the 1950s, but even children who don’t make it that far hear the tale.

Given that it plays such a central role in Cambodian culture, I was particularly fascinated to learn of the way the various versions and school editions embed distinctive interpretations. One of the most influential (and the one which serves as the basis for the version used in schools) sees the events through a rather crude interpretation of the Law of Karma, whereby Tum’s death due to his impulsive decision to disrobe against the wishes of his abbot (who’d asked Tum to wait just a few weeks), and Teav’s demise is attributed to her disobeying her mother’s wishes. A later, more sophisticated, Buddhist interpretation focussed on the way in which the protagonists’ uncontrolled desires (principally Tum’s lust and Teav’s mother’s desire for wealth and status) led to inevitable consequences. Another interpretation produced during King Norodom’s reign linked the story’s finale to Cambodia’s history of excessive violence and subjugation of the poor.

Norodom abolished slavery in the kingdom. A comic-strip version produced in Phnom Penh in 1988 explained to children that the young protagonists were tragic heroes who were destined to fail because their class struggle against feudalism was based on individual aspiration and not part of an ideologically-driven government-organised movement. In 1998 an American scholar was using the text as a prime source for making sense of the Khmer Rouge atrocities. Possibly the most interesting critical study was written in 1973 during the chaos of Lon Nol’s rule, which had contemporary events very much in mind. More recently in 2000 a Rasmey Hang Meas CD (vol. 73) with some very thoughtful lyrical interpretations of the tale championed romantic love over arranged marriage. For anyone seriously interested in gaining insight into Cambodian culture and the Cambodian mentality I commend this text; quite what insight you gain, as you can see, is open to interpretation! I’ll leave you with a brief thought, however.

Whilst the lovers are unquestionably faithful and devoted to each other until the end, and Teav is a victim of her mother’s abuse of parental power (although Teav never told her mother that she’d flirted with a monk, causing him to break his vows, and was having a relationship with him under her mother’s nose whilst her mother was making arrangements for her to marry another; in addition, was her mother motivated by greed, or fear of defying the governor?), Tum’s behaviour is wonderfully ambivalent – the stuff of great literary characterisation. Indeed to my mind, none of the characters is two-dimensional. I see Tum Teav as primarily a classic tale of the clash between social duty and romantic love. Every culture has its version of such a tension, yet modern Western society has all but forgotten the concept of obligation.

In particular, the Westerner who chooses to relocate to Cambodia often champions the ‘freedoms’ that Cambodia offers, which by implication pays even less regard to duty or responsibility. In itself that’s fine, but what I’ve noticed is this: guys who desire to enter into a relationship with a Cambodian girl who is from that 99% of the populace who do not work in bars tend to experience frustrations borne of such cultural differences. This story would prove quite enlightening. * http://www.dccam.org/Publication/Monographs/Monographs.htm **Tum Teav: A Translation and Analysis of a Cambodian Literary Classic, George Chigas 2005

Sralang Apsara

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