Readings from the week: ceremonial rigidity in turn-of-the-century Thailand

This week I’ve been reading Four Reigns, Kukrit Pramoj‘s doorstopper of a novel about life in the Thai court in the 19th and 20th centuries.

What I’ve read so far is set in the reign of King Chulalongkorn, a.k.a. Rama V, in 1892, and what has impressed me so far is the extensive codifications of behavior among the nobility, down to what colors are appropriate to wear on each day of the week (green and bird’s-blood red on Thursday, yellow and light blue or pigeon blue and champa red on Monday). Hierarchies are rigidly enforced even within a single family. The story centers on Phloi, a ten-year-old daughter of a Chao Khun, or minor lord, whose life is uprooted when her mother gets tired of being outranked by the daughter of one of the Chao Khun’s other wives. Phloi’s mother leaves her father and takes Phloi to the Grand Palace to join the household of one of the Sadets, or princesses. So we get to learn all about court ritual through the bemused eyes of a ten-year-old child learning the ropes:

She had had some lessons in the royal language from her mother, and knew that the word sadet had several functions: it was not only a noun and pronoun for royals, but served as the royal verbs “to come” and “to go.” But mother had never hinted that it could be used seven times in rapid succession in a single sentence. “Sadet would like to know if Sadet will sadet to the Throne Hall this afternoon and if Sadet intends to sadet, then Sadet would like to sadet with her.”

It’s very interesting to learn, and I’m also interested–knowing that the book spans fifty years–to see how and whether these rituals and hierarchies change and relax with the progression of the twentieth century.

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