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Tai Manuscripts in the Southeast Asia Rare Book Collection at the Library of Congress

The Asian Division has a rich collection of Tai manuscripts and early printed books in a variety of languages: Thai, Lao, Kham Mư̄ang, Shan, and Tai Khoēn.

Introduction

Illustration of two gods, likely Brahma (left) and Indra (right), from a nineteenth-century Siamese manuscript edition of “Phra Mālai.” “Phra Mālai” (Illuminated Story of Phra Mālai). 19th century. Southeast Asian rare book collection. Library of Congress Asian Division.

There are over one hundred manuscripts in the Tai collection held at the Library of Congress Asia Division including many fine examples of illuminated or “painted” manuscripts. There are also rare early printed books from the nineteenth century documenting the emergence of printing. The oldest dated manuscript in the collection is an Old Lao text dated 1194 of the lesser era, which corresponds roughly to 1832 in the Gregorian calendar. This collection documents a literate culture which has existed for centuries but which still remains poorly known in the West. To the degree that this is due to a lack of original sources this collection contributes to making the Tai peoples of mainland Southeast Asia better known, and in their own unmediated words.

The Tai manuscripts of this collection are written in a variety of languages: Thai, Lao, Kham Mư̄ang (Northern Thai), Shan, Tai Khoēn and Pāli. Besides Thai and Lao, the texts are written in a number of esoteric scripts including Thai Khǭm and various forms of Tham. As a result the range of the collection affords the opportunity for comparative philological studies. This linguistic diversity should not obscure the fact that all of these languages are closely related. Every language except Pāli is considered part of the Southwestern Tai branch of the Tai Kadai language family. For that reason this collection is called “Tai” to denote all the related peoples rather than any one people.

Texts exemplify the power of the written word. They have the unique power to preserve the distinctive mental world of a person or people. Texts are often the only record of a particular worldview which has receded in the passage of time. Texts that can be dated hold the potential to capture pivotal moments in history that have shaped the present. The texts making up this collection do that for the Tai peoples of mainland Southeast Asia.

Illustration of the monk Phra Malai’s visit to the suffering in a Buddhist hell, where tortured souls beseech the famous monk. From an anonymous nineteenth-century Siamese manuscript. “Phra Mālai” (Illuminated Story of Phra Mālai). 19th century. Southeast Asian rare book collection. Library of Congress Asian Division.

This finding aid is divided into three broad categories: Siamese (or central Thai), Lao and Northern Thai (including Shan and Tai Khoēn), and finally Isan, the northeast region of modern Thailand. Each grouping is further broken down into subcategories such as Buddhism, literature, or astrology. More will be said about each category of text below.

In this finding aid texts are listed chronologically where possible. In cases where there is no date found in the text this will be indicated as “n.d.” Dates of publication are given in either the Buddhist era or the lesser era with the Western equivalent. In cases where there is no author or copyist associated with a text the text will be listed as “anonymous.” Tai manuscripts are by their nature very idiosyncratic. They were written for a particular community in which the creator of the text would have been obvious. As for transcription, this finding aid (and corresponding catalog entries) adheres to the Library of Congress Romanization tables for Lao, Thai and Shan.

Provenance for every manuscript in the collection is not known. Some manuscripts were gifts of individuals while others were acquired by the Library of Congress overseas acquisition offices. Several manuscripts were donated by Laurence Mus Rimer and J. Thomas Rimer. These donations came from the personal libraries of the famous Vietnam and Cham scholar Paul Mus and pioneering Khmer scholar Suzanne Karpelès.

A Brief Note on the Author

This research guide on Tai manuscripts and early printed books was the work of Dr. Ryan Wolfson-Ford, a Junior Fellow at the Asian Division in the summer of 2019. The research guide has been published in Journal of the Siam Society, Vol. 107, Pt. 2, 2019, pp. 135-152, under the title "Tai Manuscripts and Early Printed Books at the Library of Congress."