Lao literature during the French colonial period

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Printing arrived late in Laos; the first Lao publications appeared in the 1920s, but print quality remained relatively poor for decades after this, and during the latter years of the colonial period most French-language government publications were still printed in Vietnam, while Lao-language material was sent to neighbouring Siam.

Throughout the French colonial period illiteracy in Laos remained widespread - traditional literature was intended to be performed before an audience by either a monk or a moh lam, rather than being read silently by an individual, so there was little incentive for the development of reading skills amongst the general population. When publishing houses in neighbouring Siam began to produce cheap copies of traditional Lao stories in the 1930s, it was common for monks from Vientiane to buy and then recopy them onto palm leaves for use during sermons in the Lao temples.

While traditional Lao literature increasingly became viewed as a relic of the past, children of the Lao elite attended colonial schools where they were taught French language, history and culture, and by the 1930s the works of French novelists such as Balzac and Voltaire had become popular amongst the upper classes of Lao society.

Modern Lao literature only began to develop on the eve of independence. The immediate catalyst for its development was the bi-weekly Lao Nhay ('Great Lao') newspaper, launched in 1940 by the French colonial government in order to enhance Lao national identity with the purely political aim of countering the idea of a 'Greater Siam', which was then being expounded by Siamese leader Field Marshal Phibunsongkhram. During its five years of existence Lao Nhay ran poetry and short story competitions celebrating Lao culture and history and features recalling the 'glorious lineage of the modern Lao' dating back to the kingdom of Lane Xang, stimulating the development of poetry, prose and spoken drama. The earliest Lao prose writing dating from this so-called Samay Funfou Xat (National Renovation) era was composed in the French language and translated into Lao, but this subsequently gave way to works composed in Lao. The first modern Lao novel was Phra Phoutthahoup Saksit ('The Sacred Buddha Image', 1944), 'written in easy-to-understand Lao language' by Pierre Somchine Nginn (1892-1971), a noted composer of French verse and the son of François Nginn, who had participated in the 1892 Pavie mission.

This short-lived period of national renovation also sparked a new academic interest in traditional Lao literature. At this time leading scholars Maha Sila Viravongs (1905-1987, author of the 1935 Grammaire Laotien) and Nhouy Abhay (1909-1963) began to transcribe the ancient texts and Maha Sila Viravongs published Methods of Composition of the Poetry of the Vientiane People and Kap San Vilasimi (1942), which attempted for the first time to set out the rules of Lao versification.