Untrodden Fields etc.

Screen Shot 2014-08-05 at 12.17.30 PMLasciviousness, gambling, pederasty, and sodomy, are innate in the race; having definitely stated this fact, let us pass on to another subject.

 My word yes indeed.

The above concerns the citizens of Vietnam, esp. Saigon, and we now pass on to Cambodia.

Our guide stayed, he tells us, several months in Cambodia in the year 1866. At the time the king, Norodom, was busy trying to chase down and kill his brother, who felt he’d make a better king. The resulting mayhem restricted our author’s ability to get around the country, but nevertheless he fitted an awful lot of observations into a brief period. So many, in fact, that he has to limit his scope: “I shall deal very briefly with all those manners, customs and habits which do not directly concern sexual intercourse.” One chapter on manners, customs and habits, then one on sex.

First up is a description of Cambodian genitalia, of both sexes and all ages. It may be very brief but it tells me more than I ever wanted to know. But the po-faced seriousness is compelling: “The clitoris I found, in some cases, fairly well developed, and also the lesser lips, but generally speaking the dimensions of these two parts are normal.” Normal?

Then on to other matters. “The mandarins are much more numerous than is needed… They are insatiable, and ruin, or impoverish by their exactions, the people…” Free men “have liberty and nothing else.” They have hardly any property, and no redress against the mandarins. “Men of the lower class are thus obliged to chose a patron amongst the mandarins of Phnom Penh.” There is also a class of hereditary slaves, some of them tribal people hunted or purchased for this purpose, or debtors who have failed to repay their debts.

"Cambodian man" - John Thompson, 1868. Thompson was a remarkable man, a pioneer  who travelled extremely widely and was at one stage official photographer to Queen Victoria.

“Cambodian man” – John Thompson, 1868. Thompson was a remarkable man, a pioneer who travelled extremely widely and was at one stage official photographer to Queen Victoria.

Unmarried girls wear their hair long, but cut it short on marriage, giving them “a harsh, unfeminine appearance.” The men are “mild-tempered, indolent, and very fond of amusement”; they fly kites, play ball games, and bet on cricket-fights. They are brave and fearless of death, but fight modern rifles with spears and lack leadership. They hunt elephant, rhinoceros and wild bull, all of which are very numerous.

The religion is Buddhism, but “disfigured by numerous superstitions,” notably a belief in ancestral spirits. Buddhism is by nature a noble and philosophical religion, but has been much debased, and the paintings in Cambodian temples “are often of a licentious and libidinous character.”

The king has a white elephant. When the country was under Siamese vassalage he was obliged to send all such animals found in his kingdom to the King of Siam, but since becoming a French vassal he’s allowed to keep them. (This is one of the last white elephants recorded in Cambodia, although there’s a story that Sihanouk sent one to the President of the United States – this would have been in the 1950s, if true).

Human sacrifice was widely practiced until recently, but is now restricted to condemned criminals, who are executed “under the protecting tree of the province” as a sacrifice “to the tutelary genii” (the local neak ta?) There are 21 prescribed methods of execution, such as burning alive, being thrown to wild animals, etc.

To leave a young girl alone with a young man is like entrusting an elephant with the care of a plantation of sugar-cane

Royal dancer, Phnom Penh (undated), by P. Dieulefils. Given that Cambodian women customarily cut their hair short on marriage, this could be, and probably is, a female dancer.

Royal dancer, Phnom Penh (undated), by P. Dieulefils. Given that Cambodian women customarily cut their hair short on marriage, this could be, and probably is, a female dancer.

King Norodom has eleven wives and unlimited concubines. “In appearance he is dried-up…” Khmer girls are chaste and modest and do not allow themselves to be seen in public by strangers; illegitimacy and prostitution are almost unknown. Copulation is undertaken in the missionary position. “Pederasty has not, in Cambodia, the place of honour it finds in Cochin-China,” and the Frenchman visiting Cambodia must therefore take a native mistress. (Ok, so I’ve twisted that a little for the sake of humour, but see page 198).

And it’s all free on-line. Untrodden Fields of Anthropology, by a French Army Surgeon (2 Volumes, of which this is Volume 1), privately re-issued by the American Anthropological Society. The original limited edition of 500 copies (i.e., the AAS’s translation) was an unexpected best-seller. It was then re-issued with a rather defensive Introduction in which the anonymous author is defended against the charge of indecency on the grounds that he was a student of the Sixth Sense:

I believe in the existence of a Sixth Sense, the genital sense, the existence of which he (Dr. Moreau of Tours) has psychologically proved … It is the psychological and medical study of this sense that I had in view in compiling this work…

Yes indeed again – today we’d call it the sex drive, and it drives 90% of our waking hours. Although as I get older I find that eating comes to compete quite strongly.

A final word of acknowledgement to Shizzle, whoever he or she may be, who made a post on Khmer440 that alerted me to the existence of this book. As one of the comments on K440 says, it’s pure gold.






Shrines of Cambodia: the mrieng kong veal

_DSF2018I’ve always been fascinated by these. They’re called mrieng kong veal shrines. You see them all over the city, usually hanging from a tree or bush, sometimes from a nail in the wall, but never directly in contact with the earth.

The mrieng (name of the spirits that live in the mrieng kong veal shrine) are  are child spirits – the word mrieng means small children, and kong veal means cowboys. (I suspect it might mean something related but slightly different, but this is as much I have so far).

There’s some disagreement about just how these mrieng originate – some say they were always spirits, but others say that they’re the spirits of dead children. The red cloth or paper objects hanging from the tray are clothes for them to wear, since the  mrieng are naked. The bamboo tubes hanging from it are called glasses, and are for water. Apart from the clothes and water, the mrieng should be offered sweets and toys – boy’s toys, like toy cars, because the mrieng are always male. (Possibly because looking after livestock was always the job of the boys in the village, but that’s my own guess).

If a house has no mrieng kong veal shrine the mrieng will appear in a dream asking if they can come and stay. The shrine can then be purchased from the market and hung in an appropriate place, and the mrieng can be attracted to their new home with incense and sweets and toys. Their new host can then ask them for things such a new car, or a new laptop, or promotion at work, or prosperity for his business.

The shrine in the photo is standard-average, and probably cost about five to ten dollars. More elaborate ones have up to three floors and festooned with balconies and little latticed windows, and a custom-made shrine can be as much as a thousand dollars.