Cambodia Travelogue 2
Friday, January 13, 2012, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Completed the first week of teaching at Pannasastra University of Cambodia (PUC). Although the primary text used for this class is the same I use in my Comparative Arts class at UMass Lowell (a Cambodian classic called Tum Teav), the way the Cambodian students at PUC respond to the text is very different than my students at UMass Lowell.
Since the Cambodian students have all read and studied the story in high school, I spent very little time this week discussing the characters and plot of the story, and most of the time discussing the role of the text in the 1960s after Cambodia gained independence from French colonial rule (1863-1954). Since Tum Teav is perhaps the most important text in the Cambodian literary canon, it played a key part in Cambodia’s attempt to re-invent Cambodian cultural and national identity after almost one hundred years of French rule and cultural domination.
Although these concepts are fairly abstract and difficult to grasp, I was impressed by the students’ eagerness to engage in our class discussions and ask difficult questions. Nevertheless, I found it very challenging to teach these ideas in a setting that is new to me. I have never taught at a Cambodian university before. Consequently, I found myself trying to explain these concepts in ways that I would not use at UMass Lowell, in ways that tried to relate to the specific cultural background of the students. One of the difficult concepts we discussed concerned the emergence of Cambodian literary institutions in Cambodia.
Before the French arrived in Cambodia in 1863, the western notion of “literature” did not exist in Cambodia. Of course there was literary writing, but these texts (written on palm leaf manuscripts) were primarily produced by monks in temples or scribes in the royal palace. So, basically, they were either “religious texts” or “royal texts.” During the French period, French language and literature was used in the educational system especially at the lycée, and by the 1930s, the idea of “literature” and literary institutions (distinct from religious and monarchal writing and institutions) had become established in Cambodia.
After independence in 1954, there was a concerted effort to remove French influence from Cambodian society and assert a distinctly Cambodian cultural and national identity, a modern nation-state that could join the other nations of the world at the recently formed United Nations, for example. In doing this, French literature (Balzac, Flaubert, etc) were removed from the national curriculum and replaced with Cambodian texts such as Tum Teav. “Literature” as an institution was maintained while the texts that comprised it were changed from French to Cambodian.
In the process of discussing this in class, it was clear to me that most of the students were having difficulty grasping these concepts in the way I was presenting them. To make the concepts easier to understand, it occurred to me to compare the various institutions (religious, monarchal, literary, etc) to baskets, an image that is used in Buddhism to explain the three kinds of teachings of the Buddha, referred to as “the three baskets.”
I drew several baskets on the board and labeled them “religious”, “monarchal”, “literary” etc. I explained how after independence from France, Cambodia under Prince Norodom Sihanouk still wanted to keep the “basket” called “literature” created by the French. This was something that Cambodia still needed. It is a necessary feature of a 20th century modern nation-state. What the country wanted to change, I explained, was the contents of the “basket”, the texts, because these were the texts that would be part of Cambodia’s new cultural and national identity.
This seemed to “click” with the students, and would probably not been as effective in my class at UMass Lowell. We went on to compare how this process also took place during Cambodia’s Angkor period (9-15th c.) when Indian cultural influence was very strong but was transformed into something uniquely Cambodian. I think it was a “learning moment” for both the students and me that make teaching in new settings so refreshing and inspiring.
George Chigas, Department of Cultural Studies