Saturday, February 10, 2018

A Review of Four Reigns (Part Seven): Conclusion

[Updated on 21 April 2018 with a couple of additional paragraphs suggesting multilingual subtitles for TV productions uploaded to YouTube and a few minor edits.]

Welcome to the final instalment of a series of posts in which I am reviewing Four Reigns, a translation of Si Phaendin, a Thai classic of historical fiction by M.R. Kukrit Pramoj. Congratulations if you've managed to read through the other posts! Here I will offer some reflections on the work as a whole set within the context of its original publication and how it might be received today. The analysis is based on the publication by Silkworm Books.

Cultural Transmission

In his preface, M.R. Kukrit relates how, when he was preparing the series of columns for Siam Rath, the story arose out of a natural urge to “set down in writing the modes of mores of a disappearing age”. It came naturally, he says, without pre-meditation, with characters gradually emerging as the plot seemed to develop. And that is how the narrative felt to me — there’s a pleasant rambling flow, consistent with a series of regular newspapers columns tumbling off the top of his head, resulting in a wonderful story.

However, also naturally, the work reflects the deeply held views of the author. This is historical fiction, not merely a story, and marshals a considerable amount of factual details. History, despite its emphasis on objectivity, requires interpretation and this is subjective, not neutral, with intentions dependent upon one’s background, views, personality and so on. As such, beyond the intricate descriptions, Four Reigns comes over as gently didactic, with implicit guidance on how to behave as a model citizen centred on the main character, Phloi. The author deploys clever use of language and imagery; humour is used to cultivate reverence for royalty, even to elevate it beyond mortal grasp: any commoner who would rashly compare themselves with them is destined to have “lice on their heads”.

Yet the appreciation is not uniform; it’s not an unqualified paean. After Phloi gets married and lives outside the Inner Court, the author lets slip that her life in the palace was restrictive:

“For she had felt lost on countless occasions ... like a released cage bird who does not know what to do with its newfound freedom. She had longed for some boundaries, some restrictions, ...”

Nowadays the ability to make choices is generally regarded as fundamental to the rights of the individual, though for the spiritual life there’s a different view: monastics voluntarily commit themselves to numerous rules of training that largely remove such freedom of choice. In this way, the training and lifestyle in the Inner Court has a sense of a spiritual discipline, though without the material austerity.

There are also variations between the monarchs, as seen principally through Phloi’s eyes, through vague allusions to the need for modernisation or puzzlement as to particular royal interests. But a constant is Nai Luang (an affectionate reference to the monarch) as the blessed glue holding together Muang Thai (in this context there’s no mention of “Phrathet Thai”, the political term used for the nation as declared after the country had become a constitutional monarchy.)

As the narrative unfolds the characters are generally well developed. Naturally the spotlight is mainly on Phloi, the central figure throughout, whose qualities are summed up by her son, Ot: “honesty, loyalty, fair-mindedness, compassion towards our fellow beings, all this and more.” However, whilst Phloi is admirable as a paragon of virtue, it is Ot I find the most intriguing: gentle in his manners, he appears as the most benign and easily contented — very low maintenance! He has the least status of all of Phloi’s children, but as far as the narrative is concerned, he has an important role in defining Phloi from the close mother-favourite son relationship. He thus acts as a lens or filter, whilst also having complimentary characteristics; Phloi and Ot affirm each other and hence support each other in promulgating certain values to the reader. His views are more serious than those of Choi, Phloi’s very close lifelong friend and hearty antidote to modernity, and in respect of the overall message they are more significant.

Ot himself is sagacious and resourceful; immediately after his father’s death he is the one who gains authority and able to direct affairs. His savoir-faire reminds me of the Admirable Crichton, a butler taking command of a household he serves when they are stranded on an island. At the same time he can be incorrigible in his humorous digs, sometimes unable to hold back from witty and very astute observations. Just taking his conversation on its own merits, without the commentary, I’d find his remarks cutting, tending towards the sardonic, but the text generally relates that it’s all harmless. One wonders: is that the author speaking? Similarly, Ot smiles a lot, but they’re not all the same smiles, a few are “odd” — there are many kinds of smile in ‘the land of smiles’! Similarly, when I ask myself with whom would the author most identify, I notice that the closest by year of birth is Ot, who displays the keen art of observation, just like the author. (It might be fun to have a readers’ poll!)

The details of gossip (chat about relationships) are extensive and could be shorter, but that’s authentic and it’s done in a light and airy way. M.R. Kukrit’s delightful sense of humour prevents gloomy passages from being sustained: even when encounters are cold and malicious, he adds a little comment such as “Thus ended the dialogue — if that was the right term for such a lopsided exchange.” It’s a measured response, I think, to the immense upheaval, seeking to prompt reflection on noble traditions that are eroding or have been lost and to appreciate how they have contributed to a more harmonious society.

Modern literary criticism would subject the author’s intentions to closer scrutiny; is it a mere coincidence that the son who is most like his father is On, a royalist, whilst the argumentative one, An, is the one who pushes through with the modernisation programme? It’s also noticeable that in relation to political dispositions, the characters portrayed in particularly glowing terms are the most loyal to the royal traditions; they are calm, wise and benevolent, whereas some of the most radical proponents of change are shown as rather hot-headed. Was this really the case? Well, Ot’s slightly frightening description of the countenance of radical French intellectuals are strikingly vivid; we know the author could draw on many contemporary accounts, though, of course, this depended on who were the informants!

Some might wonder about those who have no royal connections — how did they fare? Was the absolute monarchy at their expense? The descriptions include various fads that were sparked by the monarch, such as King Chulalongkorn’s comment on the patina of a particular ivory box; then the fashion was for ivory boxes as collector’s items and this being interwoven with poetry. A commonly accepted historical viewpoint considers that the monarchy was a huge drain on financial resources, leaving many in poverty, made stark in the 1920s and 1930s. Yet, this was nothing new. In the 17th Century Simon de la Loubère, special envoy of King Louis XIV, concluded that the locals, though having few possessions, appeared to generally exhibit a greater sense of well-being than those in the West.

Poverty did affect some of Phloi’s relatives who lost their wealth; the author narrates how this affected her half-sister:

Khun Choie talked of being poor as something ordinary, as nothing shameful or repellant. Certainly nothing terrible like, say, an incurable disease. She talked with characteristic frankness and naturalness ... Khun Choei resented nothing.

Whether rich or poor, it’s still the same family and Phloi’s faith was affirmed.

The descriptions of the landscape and natural environment are, I expect, spot on; some passages contain descriptions similar to those I’ve heard concerning my Thai relatives, especially when they first moved to Thonburi. In the narrative, we read that to get to Choi’s family home required walking down a lane then along planks to cross mud. Similarly, when the family first moved to a plot off the Taksin Road, they had to pull up their trousers and sarongs and walk around the edge of fields to reach it.

The accounts of education also tally with what I’ve heard: the wealthy have traditionally sought to have their children educated at a Christian missionary school. My mother related that when she was a child it was generally considered that these schools provided the best education, especially in English language, but they were expensive, so although her parents wanted to send her to one, they couldn’t afford it. At the same time the fear about conversion “to the farang church” was and is strong — for Thailand is predominantly Buddhist and most want to keep it that way.


And what of the patriarchy? It’s obviously there and is often picked up in more recent reviews, but I shall say only a few words as I feel I’m not best qualified to comment.

Ahead of Phloi’s wedding, her royal sponsor, Sadet, advises:

“Your husband’s happiness, your children’s happiness, the good name of the family — all this should come before your personal comfort.”

However, the author is aware of changing attitudes, even in his day, as he conveys Phloi’s views shortly after getting married to Prem:

Phloi ... came to be aware of the way she felt about him. She would not call it love; it struck her as not being at all similar to that love which she had once experienced. I feel myself as belonging to him. This is something absolute and unarguable. I belong to him completely and absolutely. I take him as my owner, as centre and mainstay of my life, forever, unless and until he himself should wish to cease being so. Some women may prefer to stay free of such a tie, but Phloi happened to be that feminine type who finds assurance in it, and happiness in that assurance.

Phloi’s role is well-defined and intentionally so as one who derives happiness from service to others. And as one seeking always to give more than she receives, Phloi’s status actually rises in tandem with that of Prem, her husband, until she becomes a Khunying (“Lady”), though she remains the same person and carries out her life as usual. At the same time, whilst Phloi’s responsibilities are confined to the family, the narrative makes clear that in general this doesn’t preclude the highest responsibilities from women. There are extended passages describing Queen Saowabha acting as Somdet Regent whilst her husband, King Chulalongkorn, is in Europe.

My mother came to the West in the ‘60s when the rights of individuals were being asserted more strongly. She herself had a fiercely independent nature (reflected in a large, varied and entertaining group of friends), rather different in character from Phloi. Yet, when interviewed for a local paper in 1981 she retained views distinctly rooted in Thai tradition:

“... Buddha taught us to do things in moderation, and there is a strong accent put on family life — I feel it is important for me to do what is best for my family, whether it be cooking, cleaning or whatever. All the time I have to think of others and try to get rid of any selfishness. “
(Thursday’s Lotus: The Life and Work of Fuengsin Trafford, p. 164).

Whatever one’s views, the narrative describes how Phloi’s attitudes fostered mutual respect, as her husband, Prem, remarked:

“You owe me nothing. It’s the other way round. You could have found a husband a thousand times better than this one. If there should be any debt at all, then it is I who owe it. I’ll make it up to you, Mae Phloi. I’ll try in every way to make myself worthy to you.”

He remains ever faithful and attentive to her needs, particularly in difficult times, as in Phloi’s final life-threatening pregnancy. In a recent academic paper presented by Kanchana Witchayapakorn and Todsapon Suranakkharin at Naresuan University, ‘Dignity in Humility: The Representation of Central Female Characters in Thai Literary Works’, the authors emphasize Phloi’s character in fulfilling a role of complementarity and argue that she is extolling a cultural feminist perspective that is both dignified and vital in giving strength to the family and society as a whole.

Translation or Adaptation?

The text of Four Reigns is coherent, generally polished and even eloquent. It readily stands alone; although aware of Si Phaendin, I didn’t feel the need to consult the original. In the English version, M.R. Kukrit still paints vivid pictures of the outside world through the domestic situation with a flowing narrative and a great sense of timing, rather like a stage play. The translation particularly succeeds in conveying this flow, allowing passages to convincingly convey the tone even if the English is not perfect, for example: “the two men, their voices heavy and low, their faces clouded with anxiety and hurt and shame.” I understand that the name of the translator, ‘Tulachandra’, is actually a composite for a husband and wife team, Tulaya and Chaemchand Bunnag, with the latter being the primary translator. Chaemchand Bunnag was a professional translator of English literary works into Thai and the quality shows: her handling of idioms and turns of phrase is impressive, making the text sound convincing. And I’m sure that belonging to the extensive Bunnag family is also helpful in knowing the author's intentions.

However, I was curious about the original Thai and chanced across the text of Si Phaendin online, though I’m not sure about the copyright. Then I came across ‘Analysis of the Thai-English translation [of] ‘Four Reigns’ by Abhiradee Rungsirichairat, M.A. thesis, Thammasat University, 2005. This scholarly work reveals that the translation is indeed very liberal, reordering sentences, paraphrasing, omitting details and even one or two characters; the thesis also claims that Four Reigns contains many mistakes, yet even so it still conveys the essence.

To investigate briefly, I looked at the Thai source from which the above quote about Phloi’s sense of belonging to Prem (p.199) was derived, which happens to be just beyond the selection used in Rungsirichairat's analysis. The corresponding Thai is as follows:

ความรู้สึกอย่างหนึ่ง ที่ไม่เคยมี ก็เกิดขึ้นมาในใจ พลอยไม่ยอมรับว่าความรู้สึกนั้นเป็นความรัก เพราะไม่เหมือนกับ ความรักที่เคยมีมาครั้งหนึ่ง ในกาลก่อน แต่ความรู้สึกที่เกิดใหม่นั้น เป็นของแน่นอนไม่มีวันเปลี่ยนแปลง หรือหวั่นไหวไปได้คือ รู้สึกว่าคุณเปรมนั้นเป็น เจ้าของๆตน เป็นหลักที่ตนจะต้องยึดมั่นไว่ในชีวิตนี้ ไม่มีวันที่จะผละออกได้ นอกจากคุณเปรมจะไม่ต้องการตนอีกต่อไป คนเราที่เกิดมาทุกคนย่อมมีจิตใจแตกต่างกัน มีใจที่รักความอิสระ โดยไม่มีข้อผูกพันกับใครบ้าง หรือมิฉะนั้นก็มีใจที่ ต้องการจะอยู่กับคนอื่น หรือเป็นของคนอื่น จะอยู่ด้วยตนเองแต่เพียงคนเดียวนั้นไม่ได้ พลอยเป็นผู้หญิงทั้งกายและใจโดย สมบูรณ์จึงมีใจอย่างประเภทหลัง เมื่อรู้สึกว่าตนมีเจ้าของก็เกิดความมั่นใจ และได้รับความสุขจากความมั่นใจนั้น ความรู้สึกว่าตนเป็นของคุณเปรม นั้นผิดกับความรู้สึกที่พลอยเคยมีต่อแม่หรือเสด็จ เพราะความใกล้ชิดสนิทสนมต่อคน ต่างเพศถึงเพียงนี้ พลอยมิได้เคยมีมาแต่ก่อน

Here is my attempt at a literal translation (with the help of Thai2English and Longdo):

She had a feeling in her heart like she never had before. Phloi did not accept that this feeling was love because it wasn’t the same as the love she had [felt] once before. But this new feeling, she was sure, was of belonging; it could not be changed and was unshakeable. She felt that Khun Prem was in that respect her owner. He was the guiding principle to whom she must hold fast in this life. There was to be no day when she would flee apart from the day when Khun Prem would no longer need her anymore. Since birth our minds naturally all bud [and flower] differently: there’s the mind that loves independence by not having any commitment with someone; or else there’s the mind that must live with or belong to someone else — they cannot live only with that one person. Phloi was a complete woman in body and mind. Consequently, her mind was of the following type: when she felt herself to have an owner then confidence arose and she obtained happiness from that confidence. Those feelings about her belonging to Khun Prem were unlike the feelings which Phloi had towards her mother or Sadet, for Phloi had not come to as intimate closeness as this towards someone of the opposite sex before.

Even allowing for mistakes in my translation, which are quite likely, it's evident that there’s a significant amount of paraphrasing as "happiness in that assurance", with the imagery of the bud and the several clauses omitted. Whilst this may help to maintain the flow of the text, I wonder whether this was in part done to be more palatable to a Western audience. In any case, some of the nuance has definitely been lost, similar to the way a high resolution image is stored with some compression — generally it looks fine, but on closer inspection some of the details cannot be discerned.

As regards issues raised in the thesis about meaning, I think a few of these are invalid as they are actually addressed in the text. For example, in the Silkworm Books publication the issue about lice is indeed brought up twice — i.e., there is first the story, as already alluded to above, “and commoners who tried to imitate them were only inviting the lice of ill luck upon their heads...”, and then Phloi seeks an explanation about the story: “Phloi did not laugh because her mind was on something else. She wanted to question father on those lice of ill luck ...” (p.28 [of the thesis]) Further, some of the use of English language is unnecessarily questioned, such as the idiom, “Are you well?” (p.44), which is perfectly natural. But this is quibbling for the research usefully illustrates how a body of work can be deemed an overall success whilst deviating significantly from a literal translation. At the same time, it should also prompt further close scrutiny of key passages in Four Reigns by reference to the original.

I’d also add that Rungsirichairat appears to have used a different printing or edition as whilst I can find the quotes, the page numbers referenced are generally higher than in my copy. (Actually, the copy that arrived on my doorstep had some defects. The printing process seems to have had a few hiccoughs as there are 5 or 6 leaves either missing or incorrect duplicates and throughout the text there are many soft hyphens that have not been removed, as though the original print run was for a different page setup and then someone forgot to clear them before sending to the printers a second time.)

There are just a few other minor issues that I noticed. For example, Ot address his mother as "my darling”, a term of endearment that I find odd — I’d expect it to be used for couples, between husband and wife, or possibly between a mother and her child, not by a son speaking to his mother, but it might be a term that is used in rarefied circles and/or was in vogue at the time. There are also a few spelling and typographic mistakes, such as “Bali" instead of ‘Pali’ and “Brama chaloka” instead of “Brahma ca loka”, but the explanation is helpful in this latter case. Also, whilst the spellings are in British English, some of the idioms appear to be North American, such as, “I’ll write him”.

Taken as a whole, there is evidently scope for other translations and one was already being prepared by Marcel Barang, but apparently his proposal was rejected and so we have to wait a long time, it seems, for the copyright to expire before any other version is permitted (see footnote below).

Or do we? Whilst watching episodes of Channel 3 TV's 1991 production on YouTube (starting with the first episode), I realized that an alternative avenue might be possible online via subtitling. There are actually at least two TV productions, but so far only Channel 3 has made every episode from its series freely available. All episodes have been uploaded to YouTube (conveniently via a playlist at: If the production follows the original text closely, then it should be straightforward (for Thais or those fluent in Thai) to improve accessibility by adding Thai subtitles. The text from the original could be applied directly in the creation of YouTube subtitles, as explained on their help page for subtitles and closed captions. Any literal translations into other languages, such as that by Marcel Barang, would be equally amenable to transcription in this way.

There’s great potential in reaching new audiences via such online services and working with Channel 3 (or whichever TV company made the film) should at least avoid potential issues in copyright associated with third party captioning. (See e.g. Blake E. Reid's paper on ‘Third Party Captioning and Copyright’ for the Global Initiative for Inclusive Information and Communication Technologies (G3ict). It would be considerable work, so would need a team — perhaps a candidate for crowdsourcing?


This is a literary classic that I really enjoyed. It has explained quite a lot about attitudes prevailing among my Thai relatives, especially of the older generation. It's also valuable as a historical and educational resource: nowadays references can be easily checked with enhanced appreciation through various multimedia archive material available even in English.

M.R. Kukrit’s treatment of Phloi’s character is very sympathetic; as it emerges in her private reflections and interactions with a broad range of people, it is very fine; she is beautiful inwardly and outwardly, drawing the deepest respect from all family members. The characters around her further enrich these qualities, especially Ot with his wisdom. Altogether this goes beyond any particular theme and is perhaps the main reason why the book is easy to read. It also contributes to the continued reverence with which the novel is held. Seeing the world today, we may reflect that Phloi’s qualities, rooted in metta (loving kindness) and karuna (compassion) are much needed to promote reconciliation and harmony.


For other translations, copyright needs to be observed for both the original newspaper articles and the book, Copyright Act B.E. 2537 (1994), superseded Copyright Act B.E. 2521 (1978)
 , which in turn replaced the The Act for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, B.E. 2474 (1931)
, as reported in a useful presentation; the general 
principle is explained (at USLegal, the first site I consulted via a Google search).

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