Remembering Jit Phumisak

Note: Jit Phumisak (25 September 1930 – 5 May 1966) was one of the foremost Thai Marxism thinkers of the twentieth century. His most well-known work, The Real Face of Thai Feudalism, was published while he was still a student in the Faculty of Arts at Chulalongkorn University in 1957. The Real Face, which was later translated into English by Craig Reynolds, offered an analysis of feudalism and its remnants in Thai society, politics, and law. The volume was swiftly banned and he was arrested later that year and accused of being a communist. He spent six years in prison with many others accused of being socialists, communists and other kinds of dissidents. Jit later joined the Communist Party of Thailand and was assassinated in northeastern Thailand. After the 14 October 1973 movement, Jit’s copious work, which included history, literary analysis, linguistics, and poetry, was rediscovered by the student movement and widely reprinted. Much of it was again banned after the 6 October 1976 massacre. In this essay, written on the anniversary of Jit’s assassination, Yukti Mukdawijitra reflects on his own introduction to Jit’s writing and locates it within Thai intellectual life.—trans.

*

I read Jit Phumisak’s work for the first time when I was an undergraduate at Thammasat University.  The world of books I encountered upon entering the Thammasat Library just after leaving the world of high school felt very wide, and more expansive even than the National Library, one of my favorite haunts in high school. This was particularly the case with respect to books about society, culture, philosophy and religion. My first year at Thammasat was the first year in which all first-year students had to spend their first year at the Rangsit campus. The library shelves on the Rangsit campus were fairly bare and there were hardly any books. But the library at Tha Prajan was infinitely wonderful – a warehouse full of knowledge. I spent my time holed up in the library on the Tha Prajan campus (along with concentrating on drawing because I wanted to transfer to Silpakorn to study art) and barely went to class on the Rangsit campus.

The first book of Jit’s that I read in the Thammasat library was not The Face of Thai Feudalism. It was still banned then and could not be read. But when I later read it, I neither liked it that much nor was I that impressed. I preferred Thai Society and the Chao Phraya River Basin Before the Ayutthaya Period. Reading this book opened my eyes a great deal and shattered nearly everything that I had learned up to that point in high school.

One of my friends that year, a friend who was very smart, was crazy about Jit’s work. We knew each other because we studied Army Reserve Student Training together. There was only a small group of us, comprised of those who had left high school a year early and so had to complete the final year in university. This meant that I made friends with students from many different faculties, including this friend. His friends called him “Ai Long.” He brought along 4-5 books to every Army Reserve Student Training class

We often talked about Jit’s writing. In truth, Ai Long usually carried the conversation, because he liked to talk and I liked to listen to him. His tone was melodious and he spoke Thai well. He liked languages and literature and it was enjoyable to listen to his description of the lyricism of Jit’s poems He compared Jit’s work to that of Mom Chao Chanchirayuwat and many other people with whom I was unfamiliar. His explanation of the beauty of the song, “Starlight of Faith” inspired me and I went in search of more of Jit’s writing. But I did not reach the same deep meaning as Ai Long.

In addition to Thai Society and the Chao Phraya River Basin, I liked The Angkor Chronicle a great deal and read it in one sitting. In addition to being chock-full of knowledge, the book is written in the style of a travelogue and so is fun to read. Jit takes on the role of a narrator who seems to lack knowledge, and then tells the story of Angkor with great hilarity. That was the first time that I became interested in Cambodian and Southeast Asian history.  I subsequently read many more books about Angkor, but none captivated me as much as Jit’s account.

At first, I thought that Jit only wrote history and overlooked The Origins of Siamese Thai, Lao and Khon Words and the Characteristics of Naming. One reason may have been that it is a very thick book and I thought it would be very difficult to read. But I later decided that among all of Jit’s writing, I liked his writing about ethnicity the most.

I have to confess that I was working on my PhD when I first read The Origins of Siamese Thai, Lao and Khon Words and the Characteristics of Naming. I went to visit my father’s family in southern Thailand and spent many days with nothing to do in the family’s house on the ocean. I laid in a hammock on the beach and happily read the book in earnest without stopping. I read it carefully once again when Thanapol Eawsakul, editor of Fa Diew Kan, invited me to speak at the launch of the Jit Phumisak book publishing project at Thammasat University. That essay was ultimately published in Arts and Culture journal – the first and only time that I have been honored by publication in that journal (today, neither universities nor the Office of the Higher Education Commission provide any recognition for articles published in this journal).

I once picked up Jit’s Lahu and Muser Language to read, but did not really understand it. I know that Jit did not write it systematically and that it was more a collection of vocabulary and stories. But it was one of the pieces of work he completed in the prison based on interviewing Lahu people imprisoned at the same time.

Another book that I read with great interest was The Curse of the Sacred Water. This one I read after finishing my PhD and read it in one sitting like the others.  There was a large anniversary celebration of Jit at Chulalongkorn University and many academics from my generation read and offered new perspectives on his work. We were also joined by senior scholars, like Ajarn Yim [Suthachai Yimprasert], who was the primary organizer of the event. My paper was later included in a book about Jit that Ajarn Yim edited.

Another book that I read with a fair amount of interest was Art for Life, Art for the People. I read it in preparation for a talk about art for life at Candide Books, when it was still located on Tanao Road. As I read, I grew irritated with Jit’s way of thinking about art and carried on a running argument with him in my head bolstered by Raymond Williams’ Marxian ideas about art. Jit’s proposal was too rigid. I regret that I did not have a chance to turn my speaking notes into an essay then; the notes remain in draft form, and a draft that I can no longer locate at that!

The majority of Jit’s writing that I have read has been enjoyable and invites further thinking and debate. His use of logic and evidence is solid. But his books are also daring and he uses the language of a storyteller. Since I have finished my PhD and begun to teach, I always assign Jit’s work to my students, especially The Origins of Siamese Thai, Lao and Khon Words and the Characteristics of Naming. I assign this book to students every year, whether they are undergraduate, master’s or doctoral students.  Even if later generations of students are unfamiliar with the significant works of many Thai scholars, they must at least read and be familiar with the work of Jit Phumisak.

 

Translated by Tyrell Haberkorn.