Khun Chang Khun Phen is an old story in the Thai language. It originated as a folktale some time before the eighteenth century, developed by storytellers who recited episodes for local audiences, and passed on the story by word-of-mouth. By the eighteenth century, such performances had become the most popular form of entertainment in Siam. The storytellers recounted the story in stylized recitation, using two small sticks of wood (krap) to give rhythm and emphasis. The performances typically lasted a full night.
The performance of Khun Chang Khun Phen created a new genre known as sepha. For at least a century, only episodes from this work were known by this term. In the Fourth Reign (1851–1868), parts of the royal chronicles and a few other works were also rendered in this form on royal commission, but all but a few fragments have since disappeared. The origin of this word sepha is disputed. There is a musical form of the same name, but this seems unconnected. Kukrit Pramoj thought that sepha meant a jail and that the genre was developed by convicts in jail. The Khun Chang Khun Phen is an epic Thai poem which originated from a folktale and is one of the most notable works in Thai literature.
Chang and Phaen are the leading male characters, and "Khun" was a junior feudal title given for male commoners. The story is a classic love triangle, ending in high tragedy. Khun Phaen (dashing but poor) and Khun Chang Khun Phen compete for the lovely Wanthong from childhood for over fifty years. Their contest involves two wars, several abductions, a suspected revolt, an idyllic sojourn in the forest, two court cases, trial by ordeal, jail, and treachery. Ultimately the king condemns Wanthong to death for failing to choose between the two men. The poem was written down in the early nineteenth century, and a standard printed edition first published in 1917–1918. Like many works with origins in popular entertainment, it is fast-moving and stuffed full with heroism, romance, sex, violence, rude-mechanical comedy, magic, horror, and passages of lyrical beauty.
|Khun Chang Khun Phen|
The opening chapter of Khun Chang Khun Phen mentions a gift from the Emperor of China which might be dated shortly before 1600. The third chapter has a date based on a 120-year calendar which can be resolved as 1549/50, 1669/70, or 1789/90.
Most likely Khun Chang Khun Phaen developed over decades or centuries by storytellers absorbing and embellishing several local tales and true stories. Prince Damrong surmised that the original version was much shorter and simpler: Khun Phaen woos and marries Wanthong but then goes to war; Khun Chang seizes her; Khun Phaen returns and in the ensuing squabble, Wanthong is condemned to death. The story then expanded as other episodes were assembled around these leading characters.