Life proved colourful in forgotten kingdoms

Silken Threads Lacquer Thrones
August 8, 2003

This book deals with the neglected subject of the textile traditions of Lan Na, a region roughly equivalent to northern Thailand and western Laos, but that also includes small parts of the regions now divided between the Shan state of Burma and the Xishuangbanna area of Yunnan.

Susan Conway begins by delineating the distinctive qualities of the peoples of the region and of the historic court cultures. She goes on to describe how these small states were eventually absorbed into the kingdom of Siam, which during the late 18th century developed to the south, with the result - Thailand - that we know today. She makes much of the specific quality of Lan Na culture, emphasising the importance of local spirit worship running in tandem with Buddhism, and pointing up the contrast between imported brahmanical elements in the court ritual of the Thai state, and the lack of them at the northern courts. The presence of Buddhism in Lan Na brought with it Indic lore, but the point is well made that the excessively Indian perspective so often adopted by scholars of Southeast Asia in the past needs re-examination.

The volume is lavishly illustrated, a necessity for the subject. The illustrations are made up of important archival photographs (in black and white) and modern photographs of exquisite textile lengths, many of which formed the lower-body dress of both men and women at the Lan Na courts (in colour). Regrettably, however, there is rarely any cross-reference in the text to the illustrations, which is problematic when text and image do not appear on the same spread.

Chapters four and five form the core of the study. They examine the court dress of the Lan Na principalities during two consecutive periods - 1781-1871 and 1871-1919. This is the period when Lan Na changed from being a group of states newly independent from the colonising power of Burma to the west, to being an appanage of the rising power of the Siamese state to the south. There was a short period during which the Lan Na principalities flourished, fettered neither to the Burmese of Ava nor to the Thais of Bangkok. From this period, information is presented on the diplomatic uses made of dynastic marriages and the effect they had on dress at the court in which new brides found themselves. For a prince of Lan Na, the display at court of wives in their distinctive homeland costumes was a potent way of illustrating to fellow rulers, as well as to his subjects, the far-reaching extent of his power.

Conway has an intriguing discussion of the historically paradoxical situation whereby the rulers of the Thai dynasty at Bangkok used costume modelled on European military and consular dress as a means of keeping at bay the attempts at colonial advance made by both the French and the British in Lan Na (the British were already in Burma to the northwest, while the French were in Laos to the east). She shows that one of the tools used by the emerging Thai power for establishing an hegemony in the Lan Na states was the insistence on court dress that was foreign in the north but that had by then become fixed at the Bangkok court. This commonality of formal dress at the small northern courts was part of the policy of binding to Bangkok the separate northern courts with their own distinctive traditions. In its turn these Bangkok regulations for court dress were based on European uniforms.

Further, Conway contrasts this position - using European styles to outflank the European colonialists - with that which pertained in another Asian conflict with European colonialism, in India, in which Gandhi rejected European styles and made an important political point out of using only local (termed swadeshi) cloth and local styles. These two encounters with European power had opposite effects on dress culture.

This is an interesting and well-priced book, although it is flawed. It is full of typographical and spelling mistakes, photographs are incorrectly captioned and there is a tendency for the text to be conversational. When comparing footnotes with the bibliography, I recorded more than 50 incorrect references, including several of the author's own publications.

All of this could have been avoided through the use of a decent copy-editor. This is a great shame, as the subject is fascinating, the author is knowledgeable (particularly on matters of technique and design), the research into local collections and sources is admirable and the visual material is thrilling.

T. Richard Blurton is assistant keeper in the department of Asia, British Museum.

Silken Threads Lacquer Thrones: Lan Na Court Textiles

Author - Susan Conway
ISBN - 974 8225 65 8
Publisher - River Books, Bangkok
Distributed in UK by Thames and Hudson
Price - £30.00
Pages - 281

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