Thailand's Seven Oecumenes

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This week I started reading a new book, called "Thailand: The Worldly Kingdom" written by a professor at National University Singapore named Maurizio Peleggi. I have only gotten through the lengthy introduction, and embarrasingly enough he had me scrambling to the dictionary to look up English words more than once.

One word that he used quite frequently, but I don't think I have ever known is "oecumene" (or, as I found out tonight, it is also commonly spelled "ecumene"). To the Ancient Greeks, the word meant the inhabited or known world. Alexander the Great conqured most of the Oecumene during his reign.

The author of this book, however, defined the word as "a geo-cultural space". His thesis for the book (as far as I can tell) is that modern Thailand is the product of many "geo-cultural spaces" over the last 1000 years. Here are the seven oecumene that Peleggi outlines in the introduction of his book:

  1. We start with the influence of India, or what the scholar Coedes called the Hinduisation (commonly translated as Indianization) of Southeast Asia. Modern Thailand still has many aspects of this Hindu culture, including Sanskrit vocabulary, Brahmanic rituals, Hindu myths (the Garuda, for example), urban design and religious archetecture. So this is referred to as the "Indic Oecumene".

  2. Theravada Buddhism arrived from Sri Lanka around 1000 years ago, bringing Buddhist icons and patronage of the monastic order known as the Sangha. Obviously, Thailand still has strong ties to this "Theravada Oecumene".

  3. Around the same time, Persian and Arab traders brought what is now Southern Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia into the "Islamic Oecumene".

  4. During the Sukothai and Ayuthaya periods (1400s - 1700s), Siam became a regional power where trade was conducted with countries all over the world. Perhaps the most important trading country at the time was China. Not only did Siam pay tribute to Beijing, but there were also a large number of immigrants from the country (even up to recent times). This is known as the "Sinic Oecumene"

  5. The great capital city of Ayutthaya fell in the 1770s to invading armies from what is now Burma. A few decades later, the Chakri Dynasty was started in Bangkok and rules to this day. As the author states in this book, "The Bangkok kingdom stood in the cosmological, cultural and trading space at the overlap of the Indic and Sinic Oecumene"

  6. During the reigns of Rama IV and V (1800s), a new "Victorian Oecumene" was brought to Thailand. England had a lot of influence in the region during this time, as they controlled the countries to the west of Thailand such as India and Burma. Rama IV and V helped to "westernize" Thailand based on European civilization. The Chakri Reformation under Rama V made many changes in the governement, religion, and society, with the help of western advisors.

  7. Finally, Thailand came under the "American Oecumene" after World War II. The American Oecumene is also known popularly as "the free world". Thailand was the United States' most important ally in Southeast Asia in the cold war fight against communism and played a major role in the Vietnam War. Billions of dollars flowed into the country in the 1960s and 1970s and helped moderize it futher with strategic roads and railways.

So, even though I have never heard of the word "oecumene", it's a nice concept to help explain the crazy mix of influences that can be seen in today's Thailand. Hopefully the rest of the book will be as interesting as the Introduction!

13 Comments

Do you still remember Mr. Ives' mnemonic for the capital of Burma? For some reason, I will always remember that.

I'm not sure I ever knew that one. What was it?

I'm sure you have heard a derivative of ecumene:

Ecumenical as in the ecumenical council. The spelling above is just archaic.

Ecumenical means general or universal but usually pertains to a mixture of religions/beliefs/churches.
Which I guess would make geoculural space makes sense.. the combining of many cultures/religions in a defined region of the globe.

1. general; universal.
2. pertaining to the whole Christian church.
3. promoting or fostering Christian unity throughout the world.
4. of or pertaining to a movement (ecumenical movement), esp. among Protestant groups since the 1800s, aimed at achieving universal Christian unity and church union through international interdenominational organizations that cooperate on matters of mutual concern.
5. interreligious or interdenominational: an ecumenical marriage.
6. including or containing a mixture of diverse elements or styles; mixed: an ecumenical meal of German, Italian, and Chinese dishes.

There was a whore from Rangoon? Ring any bells?

Mr. Ives: "Here's a little thing I remember to recall the capital of Burma: There was a whore from Rangoon..."

Me: "And...what's the rest?"

Mr. Ives: "That's it. There was a whore from Rangoon."

I guess it worked. I can't forget it, in sort of a vulcan mind-meld kind of way.

Bryan: Hmm... definitely don't remember that one. But I wonder what Mr. Ives would say now that the capital has been moved from Rangoon to Naypyidaw...

"Nerd Boy": Yes, I have heard of ecumenical, as it relates to Christianity. But, as you said, it is more about bringing many different views / cultures / beliefs under one umbrella. In the case of the book, the author doesn't use it that way, he uses it to define ONE group -- for example where he says that the Bankok kingdom is at the "overlap" of the Indic and Sinic Oecumene.

It would make a lot more sense, according to your definitions, if he said something like "the Bangkok kingdom has created an ecumenical culture from the Indic and Sinic oecumenes."

Now I'm kind of confused. Why did he use this word?

Don't complicate things. "The Bangkok kingdom stood in the cosmological, cultural and trading space at the overlap of the Indic and Sinic Oecumene" simply replace Oecumene with "multi-religious/cultural viewpoint" ie. all the author is saying is that the Bangkok kingdom stood in the middle and was a land bridge between two different giant cultures (the indic and sinic). He uses the word to mean more than religion, more than culture, more than nationality.. a regional attitude.

Nerd: OK, so in that one example, he is talking about two cultures overlaping. But every other time he uses the word, he is just talking about one distinct culture. The more I think about it, the stranger it seems to me. Oh well.

Ok stop being obtuse.. you are trying so hard to obfuscate the perspicuousness of the definition that in the end you are flummoxing both of us.

The auther was talking about TWO cultures (the indic and sinic) in the above sentence. (Bangkok was not the oecumene.. Bangkok was in the middle of the two) Elsewhere he talk about ONE culture:
The American Oecumene is also known popularly as "the free world". The author has simply divided the world into mulitple Oecumenes (think of them as distinct regions if that helps) much like someone would divide the world into distinct cultures. (Obviously along cultural dividing lines.. they will "overlap".)

Right, so the question remains, does oecumene/ecumene mean one distinct culture or one culture that is a mix of multiple influences?

I give up. Still looking forward to reading the rest of the book, though. :P

THE VOLUPTULATION OF THE ISSUNOMIC PERPLEXITY OF THE DERIVATORY OECUMENE STANDS A FERFUNCULAR APPOSITE TO THE DISPROVITY OF THE TERMINOLOGY, VIS-A-VIS THE BRISKOTILITY OF THE FERNAPOLLIONIC TERROTEROSITY OF THE ENTIRE CONCEPTUALISED ENCAPSULATORY BINDFRUSTREPTUL, FISSONERITTY. PLEASE CAN I BE A PROFESSOR TOO...?

Word!

I remember visiting all over Sri Lanka/Ceylon (for the 2000 New Years parties there) and noticed how strongly the Theravada Buddhism culture there is connected to Thailand...the religion and styles seem so similar....my Thai friends were very familiar with the costumes, relics, rituals and even the ancient Pali/Sanskrit chantings, etc. (it was so different from our hops to Mumbai and New Delhi where Buddha seemed to be revered only as one of many re-incarnations of another god)....

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This page contains a single entry by Stuart published on May 6, 2007 9:37 PM.

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