TOWARDS AN APPROACH OF “INTEGRATED TAI STUDIES”


By Oliver Raendchen

The following essay was first published in TAI CULTURE Vol 17. It resumes the contributions of TAI CULTURE to Tai Studies for the last decade from 1996 to 2005. It gives also an outlook for possible future research trends and necessary research activities.

Tai culture covers many ethnic Tai groups in the whole of greater mainland Southeast Asia, including nation-building groups as Tai Sajaam (forming müang sajaam), Tai Lao (forming müang lao laan saang), Tai Yuan (forming müang laan naa), Tai Luang (müang maao luang, now Shan state in Burma), and many large and smaller minority Tai groups in Vietnam, China, India, Cambodia. The comparison of core culture elements in these Tai groups is a great chance to explain ethnic processes. A side-effect could be to get a deeper understanding of one’s own roots (which to a certain extent determine subjective perspectives and opinions). Until now, this method of comparison has been used to a very small extent only. A further step would be the comparison with surrounding cultures. The following notes are a rather personal account of my searching for the development of an “Integrated Tai Culture Studies”, also called by me formerly as “baan-müang complex studies” and a kind of summary or conclusion of my prior writings on the theme, hoping to make this needed complex way of thinking and method more easily accessible to researchers.

This essay has the following parts:
a) History of the thoughts
b) Recent Stage of “baan-müang Complex Studies”
c) Core elements of the “baan-müang system” = “Tai culture”
d) History and main contents of 3 strategic TC special issues on “baan-müang
e) Outlook on future development of “Integrated Tai studies”
f) Developing appropriate research tools
g) Aspect of a subjective point of view of the researcher
h) Proposing the establishment of a new “International Interdisciplinary Multi-Tai Research Unit”

History of the thoughts
Starting with Assoc. Prof. Cam Trong (a Tai Dam researcher from Hanoi), and later intensified with the publication of some related TAI CULTURE issues and research articles (Raendchen) as well as more recent researches done by Hartmann, etc., there has been emerging a kind of initial “müang studies” in the international academic arena. What is needed, as a next step, would in my view be a “baan-müang complexity studies”, or call it “Integrated Tai studies”, “Complex Tai Culture studies”, or similar, for which I have called since several years.
This process was initiated on its latest in 1994 by me together with Jana Raendchen, when we founded SEACOM Southeast Asia communication center Berlin, a research unit concentrating on, among other topics, the study of Tai societies.
In the beginning of 1996, we launched TAI CULTURE International Journal on Tai Studies.
From the beginning it was clear for us that every theme of Tai culture or even broader Tai studies (including Thai-Lao, of course) was welcome to help in developing a more comprehensive or holistic picture.
The 6th issue (Vol. III-2) in December 1998, saw the crystallization of ideas that have for a long time been developing in me. That was the giant and complex theme of baan-müang (but not in its separated form, as still understood by some).

To understand better the cause why this kind of systemic thinking developed in me, one could go back a bit more in time:

Since I was a child, I ever had an inclination towards other languages and cultures, and I knew for sure “that I will be professionally working around this later in my life”. I had some few contacts to people from Laos and Vietnam when I was a youth. When I later (more than 20 year back from now) was an apprentice of a logical systemic profession, there were some young people from Laos receiving their training at our unit, and I was living with them under the same roof. With my openness and keen interest towards their culture, above it being able to talk to them on simple matters in their mother tongue after a few weeks, I received more and more sympathy and trust by them and I myself became more and more interested in their habits, behaviour, and their stories they narrated about their native country and culture. With a logically trained mind it was not hard for me to identify two terms, categories or concepts, which so many of their stories and emotions centred around. That were “baan-müang” and “hiit-khoong”. I knew inwardly from those days, that “I would write my PhD thesis about this theme”, because at that time seemingly nobody else recognized something theoretical and structural in such expressions, nor realized they were complex concepts.

During my university studies on Lao and Viet languages and culture (Southeast Asia studies at Humboldt-University, Berlin), it became more and more obvious for me that the cultures of the Lao people and those of the Tai peoples in surrounding countries resembled each other in a structural way, and it was easy for me to make use of my knowledge set on Lao language and score culture in understanding other Tai. My theoretical assumptions from those days proved to be true during my many field researches among Tai peoples in various countries that I carried out later.


I found two compatriots of these theoretical thoughts, one in Jana Raendchen, who fully agreed with my assumptions, as she had made similar experiences and supported this theoretical approach.
The other researcher is Cam Trong, a Tai Dam scholar in Vietnam, who I became acquainted to as early as in 1988 through reading his many books on Tai culture in Vietnam which are solely written in the Vietnamese language. His strikingly logical and theoretic book “The Tai people of NW Vietnam” [in Vietnamese] was published in Vietnam in 1978. I found, I was in the same direction as this thinker, and he had developed quite some initial thoughts on baan-müang studies prior to me. Later, I discussed with him many times in Vietnam, and SEACOM had also invited him to Berlin to be its guest for a weeklong workshop, in 1998.
In my system of thinking (“integrated studies” or “complex studies”), many of his thoughts also have been included, and the first issue on baan-müang studies of TAI CULTURE in the year 1998 (Vol. III-2) was dedicated to Cam Trong and also to Gehan Wijeyewardene, because in his writings I saw also a strong tendency towards systematization. Even more, Gehan did unconditionally and broad-mindedly support the undertaking of our academic journal from the beginning, without personal fears to be overtaken or else. Certainly, he also was convinced that something more - new promising approaches - were visible in the new TAI CULTURE project. Though he had his own research projects and publication series on Tai culture (the famous “Thai-Yunnan Project Newsletter”, etc.) he served as an advisor of TAI CULTURE from the beginning, and his very relevant scholarly article was included in TC as early as in Vol. I-2, in December 1996.

Recent Stage of “baan-müang Complex Studies”
To say it right-out: ”baan-müang Complex Studies” or “Integrated Tai Culture Studies”, or even the basic understanding of it, has developed very slowly until now, due to various reasons.
- Many researchers still concentrate solely on their specific field of study, on one specific ethnic group, without having a background holistic approach mindset, which would imply that single culture elements enforce each other in a whole and complex system
- It is apparent that even after many years of publication of some core thoughts on “baan-müang Complex Studies” and its elements, some researchers in this field of study have possibly not had sufficient access to the prior existing literature, e.g. articles or special issues on the very theme, or they have not understood them due to difficult expressions and assumptions, etc.
- Until now, no easy-to-understand description of Tai “baan-müang” research theory exists (Complex Tai Culture Studies).
- Same old separatist approaches as before are still applied widely, and often the same mistakes as before are made; many details and concepts are still misunderstood and mixed up, causing more and more confusion.
- Much of a kind of “müang” studies is still separated, not in a holistic way that would be helpful to encompass (theoretically) all aspects of a Tai culture.
- Doubts if the proposed theory/methods of “Complex Study” are suitable, partly due to certain public reactions of some long-established scholars who traditionally preferred a different approach.

Even 6 years after TAI CULTURE has published its first introductory special issue on the theme baan-müang, and several following issues highlighting specific aspects of the baan-müang system (e.g., indigenous subsystems of economics, religion, traditional law), only some researchers in this field of study took up the proposed means to avoid misunderstandings and confusion. Also another trend is unfortunately visible, namely that some researchers take up the terms or findings of others (sometimes without citing the published source), but nevertheless in some of these cases some main and basic assumptions are still not yet caught.

Core elements of the “baan-müang system” (level: müang studies)
I would like to summarize some of the findings again:
The baan-müang (baan-müang-system) as a state form is an indigenous state form of the Tai peoples.
I would go as far as to maintain that the Tai müang are the only early indigenous state systems of broader Southeast Asia, as the other ones were imported from India or from the Chinese court. I think, further studies in this direction are needed!

baan and müang and their VARIANTS IN TAI DIALECTS (maan-büang, mööng, meng, etc.) are a plainly Tai term and concept.

baan - village
müang - territory of a polity or state
Müang - the capital “town”, consisting of several small villages


To understand the whole complex system, it is favourable to use Tai terms.




The not proved hypothesis, that there were big Tai cities, prevails until today among many researchers (even in baan-müang studies).
Please try to imagine all the following examples of small ancient Tai capitals (which I have all visited during my field studies, and I would like to ensure you that their former rural character [as villages] is still obvious):

Müang Luang Prabang
Müang Wiangtjan
(Vientiane); imagine the old place in the moat of the wiang
Müang Muai (capital of the Tai Dam [Black Tai] kingdom), today Thuân Châu.
Müang Wiang Siipo (former capital of the Shan states)
Müang Lai (white Tai) (this small Müang is now to be swamped for a basin)
Müang Jaa and Müang Saai (centers of Tai on the upper Red River)

Concerning Ayutthaya, Chiang Mai, and not to speak of Krung Thep, they were all more or less indianized capital cities of Mandalas, but some still in a mixed Indo-Tai form. In some cities, a certain extent of Chinese influence is additionally visible. Hence, as they built simply another layer of history, these communities can not be so much the study objects of a “core Tai culture studies”, but of course of general Tai-Thai studies.
In order to overcome misunderstandings, the English term “cities” should strictly be avoided in connection with traditional Tai communities (“town” would be better, though even this is actually too large in some cases). The striking thing behind this is how did the Tai states function, without big cities? The answer lies in their social organizational system.

Generally, Müang (“towns”) are the capitals of müang (territories), where the tjau and other necessary persons and institutions, like moo müang, reside. (cf. in my article on “The hiit-khoong codes of the Lao”. TC vol. VI-1+2, p. 193). Mostly, Tai Müang are a conglomerate of 4 or 8 central villages, often located in a fertile valley surrounded by mountains, and situated along a stream. These are small villages. According to the status and stage of development, Müang can be chiang or/and wiang. The main village, where the tjau / phanjaa lives, is called as chiang. Wiang is the designation when the Müang it is surrounded by a wall or moat or both. (cf. Cam Trong)

Other ethnic groups in a Tai müang territory
Tai müang, additional to the Müang (capital) villages, for example baan chiang, baan lak, etc., have more Tai villages at more remote areas, and include a lot of other ethnic groups’ villages. Often those are called as khaa, an appellation of ethnic groups other than Tai, with the impetus of a certain inferior social status. Nevertheless, those villages of various other ethnic groups in a Tai müang are incorporated in the functioning “state” system. In Tai müang, there prevails more or less a peaceful atmosphere between Tai and other ethnic groups. I dare to say that this is certainly in connection with one central subsystem of Tai culture, the hiit-khoong code (code of understanding the world, code of conduct), or traditional law. (cf. special volume of TAI CULTURE, Vol. VI, 1+2; 2001) There are even many cases where the members of other ethnic groups by far outnumber the Tai in a müang. Nevertheless, due to their administratively well functioning socio-cultural system, the Tai are definitely the organizing power in the müang territory.
Only in some cases, these functioning Tai Müang/müang received a certain Indian influence, they changed their character from plainly Tai müang to Indian mandalas. After this point, this is also reflected in calling the Müang (centers) as cities or “krung”, “nakhoon”, etc.

Theoretical scheme of core elements of the “Tai cultural system”, or the “baan-müang system”
The COMPLEX CULTURAL SYSTEM of the Tai has been introduced successively in several special issues of TAI CULTURE publication.
I have called it “baan-müang system” (because this is an imaginary term among many Tai groups themselves), and it is an “Integrated Complex Tai studies” approach.
Certain parts of this model of Tai societies might possibly also be applicable for other societies, but I have not yet done such analyses. A core element in this suggested approach is to take into account the complex and systematic character of the whole culture. With this in mind, a researcher should not see or be interested only in his/her direct subject of research but understand his/her own research as being embedded in the whole system.
There are objectively plenty of interlinkages among any given sub-systems of the whole, and one should consider this in subjective research as well, in order to move closer to an objective description or analysis.

History of the publication (1998-2001) and core contents of 3 strategic TAI CULTURE special issues on “baan-müang” complex studies
For me, 3 issues are of most relevance to Complex or Integrated Tai studies, and they are solely "my children": I am proud to have introduced 3 themes that have been on my mind ever since I began to have intensive contact with Tai peoples.
You will notice that the 3 special issues represent the 3 central vertical pillars (for me the main subsystems) of the Tai culture system:
Vol. III-2: baan-müang. Administration and Ritual.
Vol. IV-2: baan-müang. Religion and Belief.
Vol. VI (1&2): baan-müang. hiit-khoong. Traditional Law and Values in Tai Societies


I would like to explain that all the provided categories for analysis and represented in the proposed diagram are not imagined, but they represent the core of a reality in a theoretical way. That is a big difference. This means, my understanding is that the müang as well as the “baan-müang system” are nothing imagined but they are real. Nevertheless, as they consist of a very complex nature, it is indeed not easy to recognize and understand them.
In this regard, even inhabitants or members of the Tai müang do often not have any theoretical reflections about it and can not explain anything about its structure. What they do have, however, is their practical everyday way of life and behaviour that is in fact organized in a typically structured way (“Tai way”), and trying to analyze this would, I think, be a most relevant academic strategy.

Outlook on Future Development of “Integrated Tai Studies”
I am very pleased to notice, since a few years, an obvious tendency among researchers in the field of Tai studies (Tai-Thai-Lao studies) to pay attention to the reality of a complex core Tai culture.
I am convinced that resulting from the application of this “background knowledge” on a complex cultural system, many more very valuable researches will be done in the many fields of Tai studies, leading to numerous new findings on a higher level. Many future studies are expected to combine two or more single fields of study as it makes sense to combine them and the outcome will be likewise valuable. I expect also that in the future, more research alliances (personal researchers’ alliances as well as institutions’) will built up as a necessary step to facilitate and integrate different kinds of specific knowledge.

a) Research alliance
Single researcher → several researchers → research group → research alliance

Research alliances can be facilitated through institutes, conferences, and publications (best regular journals, and also websites, etc.)

b) Combined research topic
a complex of linguistics-history-literature-religion-müang, etc.
= “baan-müang studies” or combined approach
= “Integrated Tai studies” (interlinked, systemic character)

c) Focus on ethnic group
one Tai group
Tai group ← → Tai group ← → Tai group (comparison)
Tai groups ← → other ethnic groups (comparison)

Developing appropriate research tools for overall Tai studies
For this kind of a proposed “integrated and comparative Tai studies” study method, it would be most welcome to develop several needed research tools. For this, I encourage the researchers to develop, test, and propose appropriate research tools.
One example for such a tool could be the proposed and largely applied “Transcription system for Tai languages”, that enables researchers to encode (understand and write) and decode (read and understand) general Tai terms in a most convenient way (without the intention to serve plainly linguistic standards). Steps of introducing this code of transcription as a tool in integrated Tai studies were:

- Theoretical description in TAI CULTURE, II-1 (1997), pp. 6-15
- List of vowels and consonants in TC V-1, pp. 5-7
- Glossary of Tai terms in TC’s standardized system, TC III-2, TC IV-2, etc.

It is clear, that research tools make only sense if they are applied on a regular basis. Luckily, this is the case for the Tai transcription mode, as it is an integral part of successive publications of TAI CULTURE journal and series. In the case that TAI CULTURE’s transcription mode is not applied in one of its publications, this will be indicated, and the reader will certainly also remark a difference. In these cases, Tai terms are encoded differently from the accustomed mode, making reading and understanding harder.

ARE THE VARIOUS TAI CULTURES SIMILAR OR DIFFERENT?
Every researcher has the right to apply a subjective viewpoint. As we are humans, this is understandable and inevitable. My subjective view (and what I find from my analyses) is that I see many systemic similarities in the core culture of all the Tai peoples.
Until NOW, in Tai-Thai-Lao studies, many researchers are taking their subjective viewpoint and strategy of searching for and proofing the differences among the Tai peoples.

Making their statements about the same object of reality, one view is highlighting the differences, the other view is highlighting the similarities, abstracting from the other pole that obviously is also present. Theoretically, there would be the middle way, an absolute objectivity, but this is hardly to achieve in practice.
Certainly, the statements of researchers represent a certain point of view. A reader will ask why the researcher in a certain case chooses this polarisation, not the opposite one. Nevertheless, the theoretical findings or statements will not change the reality. However, I think that sometimes certain viewpoints are applied by researchers just because of being accustomed to them, without asking oneself what is behind the approach (political thinking, historical/educational background of the researcher himself, etc.).

In my opinion, a possible solution would be to indicate one’s viewpoint in the beginning of an article.
A researcher should according to this have in mind: What approach do I take? Why?
And a reader could have in mind: What I read there, is not necessarily the ultimate truth.

My subjective position in the view on Tai cultures:
I cannot deny agreeing (because most other articles point on differences) that certain smaller or larger differences concerning specific natural environments, cultural influences from differing surrounding ethnic groups, have occurred in this respect among the Tai peoples.
For me, there are but so many striking similarities in all these Tai peoples’ cultures, so many same or similar concepts, ideas, words, terms, sentences, sayings, legends, melodies, modes of behaviour, that I see that there is a structural similarity. For this reason, I mostly take the viewpoint of looking for and showing the similarities. Because until now, many of these similarities still are unknown.
For me, this aspect is the really fascinating one, and a researcher in Tai studies could also choose the other valid strategy to analyse similarities, instead of differences.
Who could potentially be expected to choose a negative pole approach concerning similarities of the Tai peoples’ cultures?
One logic answer could be, that there was possibly a theoretical influence of European colonialists (with certain political aims) or the majority ethnic groups with their grip of power over Tai minorities in their territory, (again with political aims).
If one looks at older researches and publications of such majority ethnic groups it turns out to be true (and one can assume political interests behind), but in the present time it is very rare to find such negative pole approaches. This is certainly also due to an integrated development (industrialization), globalization (here in the sphere of social sciences which will bring about a most tremendous change in traditional thoughts and values), internet, an initial paradigm shift from “loyal to my boss” to “loyal to the truth”, including in Asian countries.
Another example: What is the whole century-long discussion about, or actually invention, of the “Northeast” people to the stage that the Lao ethnic people of Thailand believe their own ethnonym was “Northeast” [iisaan], and they would have almost nothing in common with their Lao neighbors, just at the other side of the Mekong?
One example where the Tai ethnic groups [Tai Luang or Shan] still feel or know they belong together is the DEHONG Autonomous Region, Yunnan Province, which borders on Shan state, Burma.
Everyone will clearly recognize that in general, portions of ethnography were bent to the will and purpose of politics, or majority ethnic groups.
Shall we try to become more independent of the policies of the day, and instead make independent research, freed from “chains in the brain” and in a tendency towards objectivism.

Proposing a new “International Interdisciplinary Multi-Tai Research Unit”
I would like to use this opportunity to propose to the researchers in Tai studies as well as to the research administrators of concerned states the necessity of forming “a standing international research unit on comparative Tai studies”.
I had this thought for quite a time, but I did not see that the time was ripe for this at a former stage.
It started with my early 1990 research stay in rural Laos, where there were so many cultural artefacts that should have been collected by cultural powers rather than sold off at low price to mass tourists who put artefacts in their cottage in their home agrarian village or town/city in Europe or America, in the worst scenario they throw them away later.
I had such a strong feeling to cry out to local and international authorities they are obliged to help collecting such rare artefacts. They had to build up local and national museums for such collections and use them in an appropriate way. At that time, I had opportunity to talk to few people only, “no money” (no interest) was their answer.
Another field of activities necessarily to become further accelerated is the international scholarly exchange, which is possible on conferences and in periodical publications. On discussions and informal meetings on international conferences as well as at the many field studies I remarked that a steady exchange among scholars from various Tai groups at the same time is crucial to make new relevant and valuable findings, concerning the quantity as well as the quality of the findings.

I hope very much that in the near future such a proposed “International Interdisciplinary Multi-Tai Research Unit” will be established in Thailand or elsewhere, and it would be a dream for me to work with such a group of researchers (consisting of permanent and visiting cultural specialists/researchers of as many as possible Tai groups from Broader Southeast Asia and of experienced foreign scholars) and to help coordinate research and activities there.

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