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Dropping the Towel: Images of the Body in Contemporary Thai Literature

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Dropping the Towel: Images of the Body in Contemporary Thai Literature
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   1   Dropping the Towel: Images of the Body in Contemporary Thai Women's Writing Susan Fulop Kepner Transnational Asia Pacific: Gender, Culture, and the Public Sphere , Shirley Lim, Larry Smith and Wimal Dissanayake, eds. University of Illinois Press, 1998.   2   Introduction  Images of the body in twentieth century Thai women's writing are  particularly striking in the work of five authors: Boonlua, Suwanee Sukhontha, Botan, Sridaoruang, and Anchan. i  In this essay, I shall demonstrate the ways in which these women, the last three of whom are alive and writing, not only paved the way from the "ladies' novels" of the early twentieth century to the realistic novels and short stories of the past thirty years, but initiated the "re-embodiment" of women in Thai fiction. An Agreeable Mirror  From the 1880s to the 1930s, Thai novels strongly reflected the characterizations and conventions of English and French 19th century fiction. Thai men who studied in England during the reign of King Chulalongkorn (1868-1910), greatly impressed by writers from from Dickens and Trollope to producers of penny-dreadfuls, first translated their favorite works, then adapted them, and finally wrote srcinal Thai novels using the techniques and patterns they had practiced. ii  Thai women did not go abroad to be educated until the 1920s, at the earliest, but they too read Western fiction, studying at home with governesses or in convent schools where their favorite authors included Jane Austen, the Bronts, and Sir Walter Scott. One of the authors whose work is examined in this essay, Boonlua, realized in mid-life the adolescent ambition to translate her beloved  Ivanhoe  into Thai. For decades, modern Thai fiction was almost entirely an upper class avocation. It was easy to transplant the themes, characterizations, and social values displayed in the English novel to the world of the late nineteenth century Siamese aristocracy. Dozens of early Thai novels written   3   by women (and men) could well have begun with the first line of Jane Austen's  Pride and Prejudice , "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife." Indeed, had that novel been translated into Thai (which to my knowledge it was not), its characters and their vocations, avocations and obsessions would have been thoroughly enjoyed and approved by Thai readers. In general, Thai women writers in the modern era (1880- ) have expected to write wholesome stories that were not only entertaining, but uplifting and instructive to young females. Male writers have been given somewhat more latitude in respect to the depiction of realistic human beings, their emotions and activities; but they, too, have operated within the confines of a relatively "decent" literary ethic. Until very recently, explicit descriptions of sexual activity have been entirely confined to pornography, which has been differentiated from "literature." The Body and Its Pleasures in Classical Literature  Women's bodies, as presented in dance dramas and poetry written from the thirteen through the eighteenth centuries, are celebrated in terms of ideal features: blackest, most lustrous hair, palest complexion, darkest eyes, with "[skin] beautiful as burnished gold.... the pupils in their eyes...as black as those of a three-day old fawn.... iii  Indeed, the image of a "young doe" is still used to describe a beautiful young woman.  Negative descriptions of women's bodies were more imaginative, as in this description of evil female spirits, from the same work: ...[They are] always naked and their bodies smell from every  pore. Flies alight on their bodies and burrow into their flesh.... Only sinews and skin barely cover their bones. They are famished. They   4  cannot find anything to eat. When they [give birth]...they eat their  babies' flesh. And still, they do not feel full. iv  Plain but worthy women had their place. For example, in the eighteenth century a female character in  Phra Aphai Mani , a tale composed  by the poet Sunthorn Phu, is highly intelligent, proud, steadfastly loyal to her sovereign Phra Aphaimani -- and famously ill-favored: There was a thirty-four-year-old spinster named Wali who had a swarthy complexion. She was so ugly that not a man bothered to look at her. Her face was pock-marked and not a shade of beauty could be found on her.... [She] inherited the lore of the ancient folk which she thoroughly studied with diligence.... Having committed everything to memory, she burned all the texts.... people regarded Wali as a prophetess... v  An important component of Wali's unattractiveness is her dark, pock-marked complexion. If smallpox would one day be defeated, the unfortunate condition of "swarthiness" would always stand in the way of a Thai woman in literature (or in life) being considered an outstanding beauty. Although the emphasis on pale skin as the chief arbiter of beauty did not srcinate with the interference of Europeans, two centuries of exposure to European and American economic and (to a lesser extent) cultural hegemony -- enhanced during the latter half of the twentieth century by omnipresent visual images of white people on television and in the movies having fun and getting rich and powerful -- has done nothing to reduce the prestige attached to pale skin. Oil and watercolor images of nineteenth-century Thai women with very fair and distinctly Eurasian (or frankly Caucasian) looks have graced the covers of books about women for the past two decades. This trend was propelled  by the work of two artists, both male: Chakrabhand Posayakrit, and   5  Arunothai Somsakul, whose delicate, exquisite miniatures have been described by Herbert P. Phillips as "[removing] people from the here and now...placing them into fantasies of life during the reign of King Chulalongkorn (1868-1910), a period perceived as [modern] Thailand's golden age, toward which there is a profound sense of nostalgia." vi  Western influences aside, in Thailand as everywhere else in Asia relative "whiteness" has long been an identifying characteristic of the woman who does not have to toil in the fields, suffering the darkening and coarsening effects of sun, wind, and rain. Moreover, since Thai Buddhism teaches that everyone is born into the place he or she has earned through the deeds of previous lives, the fact of having been born into a life of privilege -- with the soft, pale skin that is emblematic of such a life -- enhances the significance of, and the preference for, light skin. For centuries, classical dancers at court exaggerated their whiteness with heavy, chalk-white makeup. Other women attempted to live up to another favored image, the "burnished gold" referred to in the poem above, through the cosmetic use of turmeric (the ingredient most responsible for the color of commercial curry powder), which was sometimes applied over the entire body. Teeth already darkened by betel chewing were rubbed with a  black paste that made them sparkle darkly, and contrast nicely with the gold color of the turmeric. Until the end of the nineteenth century, after the topknot had been cut at puberty the majority of adult Thai women wore their hair very short, in a kind of "crew" or "brush cut." Very old women wearing this hairstyle may still be seen in Thailand. vii  In a nice example of the cyclical nature of fashion, at the close of the twentieth century some of their great-granddaughters sport the identical hair style. Traditional dress consisted of a
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