Almost all countries in Southeast Asia were ruled by foreigners at some point in their history, which had a great impact on their cultural heritage.  The exception to this was Thailand, although it was still touched by external influences.  Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam were all ruled by the French at one time, and the Malay states were ruled by the Portuguese and British.  Burma was the only country ruled by the British that retained its own language as the administrative language under foreign rule.

Literature in Southeast Asia is almost a mixture of traditional culture, religion, and other beliefs, all combined.  As most people couldn’t read, legends and folklore were passed on by word of mouth, by dance and writing.

Chinese Influences

Within each of the countries of Southeast Asia, there are often different ethnic groupings. For example, in Vietnam, there are 54 different ethnic groups. All of these groups may speak different dialects.  Vietnam was governed by China for much of its history, so a lot of the literature is written in Classical Chinese.  However, these Chinese symbols were modified into what is known as Chu Nom in the 10th century. Essentially, doing so made them easier to read.  Modern script is written in Chu Quoc Ngu, into which many ancient texts have been translated.  This is a Romanised script developed in the 16th century by French missionaries.

Indian Influences

Much of Cambodian folklore was not put into writing until the 19th century. Until then, it had been passed down by word of mouth or as songs.  Many of these tales have been influenced by, or borrow features from, Indian and Buddhist stories.  They were frequently long, rhyming verses, telling stories of princes or some sort of god. They were tales of good triumphing over evil, even though the “evil” might just have been a dispute between different tribes.


Laos may be the only Southeast Asian country not strongly influenced by India or China, perhaps because it is a landlocked country. Nevertheless, Buddhism has had a strong influence on the culture.  Palm leaves, referred to as bai lan, were used to record Buddhist writings.  In places of worship, they are kept within wooden caskets.  It is also possible to see folded books, illustrated with water colour pictures.


The traditional language of Hinduism, Buddhism, and, sometimes, Jainism, many ancient texts were written in Sanskrit.  In Southeast Asia, it might now be considered as roughly analogous to Latin or Ancient Greek in the West.  Sanskrit literature encompasses poetry and drama, as well as scientific and religious texts.  Nowadays, Sanskrit is used mainly as a ceremonial language in Hindu ceremonies, although there are, in some quarters, attempts to revive the language. Classical Sanskrit dates back to the 5th century BC, but it has been found in the same Indian epics found in Cambodian folklore.  The links are fascinating.

Try to take in some of the literary culture during your visit to Southeast Asia, as it’s beautiful, fascinating, captivating, and well worth the visit just for this.

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