Bangsāvatār: The Evolution of Historiographical Genres in Colonial Cambodia


Theara Thun

PhD defended at: 

National University of Singapore


There were two major historiographical genres in Cambodia during the second half of the 19th century. The bangsāvatār writing was the most popular literary genre practiced prior to the coming of colonial-era history writing. As the literary culture of the ruling elite and religious circles, this genre was practiced and circulated within the royal palace and Buddhist temples. Composed by multiple composers and handwritten in Khmer, the bangsāvatār manuscripts were produced essentially for the purpose of strengthening “kingship” under the reigning monarch and promoting “Buddhism” through religious leaders at the provincial level. Subsequently, the colonial regime had slowly established its own version of Cambodia’s past using modern “history” writing. The colonial historiography emphasized the long-term development of the Cambodian state, its glorious past, national heroes, and the territorial changes of the kingdom at different periods. Existing as “two” separate domains of scholarship and literary practice during those years, the two genres began to intersect with one another during the early decades of the 20th century.
This dissertation studies the “interplay” between the two historiographical genres during the 1900s and 1950s. The study looks at different local individuals who took the predominant role in shaping and circulating knowledge concerning Cambodia’s national past during these decades. It shows how these intellectuals, most of whom were well established in the bangsāvatār tradition, “reacted” to the emergence of colonial scholarship. There were several “types” of local intellectuals who had established themselves either as bangsāvatār scholars or as “modern” intellectuals inspired by the scholarship of French and Thai scholars. The dissertation argues that the encounter with colonialism and colonial historiography led Cambodia to experience a significant “epistemological transition” between the perceptions of the past of the bangsāvatār narratives and that of the colonial-era history scholarship, which some writers now began to reproduce as “pravattisāstra” (a neologism for “history”). Changes in Cambodia’s national historiography during this period reflected the major epistemological characteristics of the two groups of local intellectuals.