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- The written literature, mostly restricted to the royal courts or the Buddhist monasteries.
- The oral literature, which is based on local folklore. It is heavily influenced by Buddhism, the predominant religion, as well as by the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata.
Ancient stone inscriptions
A testimony of the antiquity of the Khmer language are the multitude of epigraphic inscriptions on stone. The first written proof that has allowed the history of the Khmer empire to be reconstructed are those inscriptions.
These writings on columns, stelae and walls throw light on the royal lineages, religious edicts, territorial conquests and internal organization of the kingdom.
The Reamker (Rama's legacy) is the Cambodian version of the Ramayana, the famous Indian epic. The Reamker comes in rhymed verses and is staged in sections that are adapted to Cambodian dance movements interpreted by local artists.
The Reamker is the oldest form of Cambodian theatre. The Robam Sovan Macha - a certain dance from the Reamker about Hanuman and Sovanmacha, the golden mermaid, is one of the most renowned pieces of classical dance in Cambodia.
King Thommaracha II (1629–1634) wrote a poem directed to the Khmer young generation which is still a well loved traditional piece of poetry.
King Ang Duong (1841–1860) is known in Khmer literature for being not only a king but a famous classical writer in prose. His novel Kakey or Ka key (from the Sanskrit word for a "female crow"), is inspired in a Jataka tale and has elements of regional folktales. It narrates the story about a woman that is unfaithful to her husband and ends up being punished by him for her betrayal. It contains specific moral lessons that were used in texts in Cambodian schools. Kakey social norms were traditionally taught to high-born young Khmer girls and the story's values have cultural relevance even in present times.
Another work by Ang Duong is Puthisen Neang Kong Rei, a novel also inspired in a Jataka tale. It is about Kong Rei, a faithful wife ready to sacrifice her life for her husband Puthisen the son of one of twelve sisters. Khmer poets and songwriters have used the words "Kakey" for a woman who is unfaithful to her man and "Neang Kong Rei" for a very faithful woman.
Khmer folklore has a rich and varied oral tradition. There are many popular legends, tales and songs of ancient origin about mythical heroes, heroines and ghosts. These were not put into writing until the 19th and 20th centuries. Before then they had been memorized and told for generations.
The oral-tradition legends were often extremely long stories in rhyming verses. The heroes were mostly princes and supernatural beings and the scenarios were often connected to the palaces and the monasteries. One important purpose of these legends and stories handed down for centuries was to transmit norms and values. Most stories emphasize the peaceful resolution of conflicts. References to geographical landmarks and the meanings of the names of Cambodian locations were transmitted through the tales.
One of the most representative of these tales was the story of Vorvong and Sorvong, a long tale of the Khmer oral tradition about two Khmer princes that fell into disgrace who, after a series of ordeals, regain their status. Vorvong and Sorvong was first put into writing by Auguste Pavie as "Vorvong and Saurivong"; this French civil servant claimed that he had obtained the folk legend version he wrote down from a "Old Uncle Nip" in Samraongtong District. The story was put into writing in Battambang. In 2006 the Vorvong and Sorvong story was enacted in dance form by the Royal Ballet of Cambodia.
There are two hills in Kirirom National Park — Phnom Sruoch District and Kampong Speu Province — named after the two heroic princely brothers, Vorvong and Sorvong. Phnom Kong Rei is a local mountain with a Khmer folktale as a reference.
Tum Teav is a classic tragic love story set in Tbong Khmum province that has been told throughout the country since at least the mid 19th century. It is based on a 17th or 18th century poem of uncertain origin, probably having originated in a more ancient Cambodian folk legend. Nowadays Tum Teav has oral, literary, theatre, and film versions in Khmer. Although its first translation in French was made by Étienne Aymonier in 1880, Tum Teav was popularized abroad when writer George Chigas translated the 1915 literary version by the venerable Buddhist monk Preah Botumthera Som or Padumatthera Som, known also as "Som."
The era of French domination brought about a requestioning of the role of the literature in Cambodia. The first book in the Khmer script in a modern printing press was printed in Phnom Penh in 1908. It was a classical text on wisdom, "The recommendations of Old Mas", published under the auspices of Adhémard Leclère.
The influence of French-promoted modern school education in Cambodia would produce a generation of novelists in the Khmer language beginning in the early decades of the 20th century. These new writers would write in prose, illustrating themes of average Khmer people, set against scenarios of ordinary Cambodian life.
The clean break with the ancient Indian and Siamese influence was not abrupt. Some of the first modern Cambodian literary works keep the influences of the versified traditional literature, like the 1911 novel teuk rom p'ka rom (The Dancing Water and the Dancing Flower), Tum Teav (1915) by the venerable Som, the 1900 work Bimba bilap (Bimba's Lamentation) by female novelist Sou Seth, or even Dav Ek by Nou Kan, which appeared in 1942.
The Khmer Rouge years and their aftermath
Between 1975 and 1977, under Democratic Kampuchea, intellectuals were persecuted. Since Cambodian writers were largely from an urban background, they were among the people expelled from the cities in 1975 after the victory of the Khmer Rouge.
During the years that followed Khmer writers were not able to practice their skill. Like all other intellectuals, they were forced to live like peasants, doing rural farmwork and heavy menial chores. Educated people had to hide their condition and many were murdered when Khmer Rouge cadres found out about their former background. As part of Pol Pot's "struggle against superstition", the Buddhist religion, which ran through most of the traditional Cambodian literature, was repressed and Khmer Rouge cadres put a great effort into wiping away Khmer folklore.
The defeat of Pol Pot's regime and the establishment of the People's Republic of Kampuchea brought about a reinstatement of the Cambodian writers' prestige, as well as a partial restoration of Buddhism as the state religion and a renewed interest in traditions and local folklore. Many intellectuals regained their former status and there was recognition of their achievements as being in line with the national interests. The restoration of cultural life during the PRK, however, was marred by socialist-minded, pro-Soviet and pro-Vietnamese restrictions hampering creativity that would only be lifted towards the end of the 1980s under the SOC. A weight, nevertheless, had been lifted and following the Khmer Rouge years some writers like Vatey Seng (The Price We Paid) or Navy Phim (Reflections of A Khmer Soul) wrote frank accounts of their ordeals under Pol Pot's brutal dictatorship as part of a healing process that needed expression.
Somaly Mam (The Road To Lost Innocence) made a bold denunciation of human sex-trafficking through her experiences. She, and other Cambodian authors that gained international attention were able to make some income through their works or translations in foreign languages. Cambodian writers in Khmer, however, still find it difficult to make ends meet. The Khmer Writers' Association was reestablished again in 1993 by two of its former members in order to help struggling Khmer writers.
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