BOOK REVIEW Penny Edwards’ Cambodge: The Cultivation of a Nation 1860-1945 (2007)


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Edwards, Penny. Cambodge: The Cultivation of a Nation 1860-1945. University of Hawaii Press, 2007.

In the seminal work Cambodge, Penelope Edwards offers a complex genealogy of the modern nation, Khmer-ness, and the ‘Original Khmer’ (Kmae daem). Edwards demonstrates how cultural and national identity were interwoven with the construction of Angkorean antiquity throughout the French colonial period in Cambodia (1863-1954). Pushing against arguments of colonial hegemony as well as the elision of the colonial period from contemporary nationalism, Edwards argues that the development of an Angkor narrative was never monolithic. Instead, diverse groups of colonial administrators, European savants, Khmer elite intellectuals, and Buddhist reformers and leaders contributed various visions of Khmer-ness, culture, history, and modernity.

Edwards highlights the influence of French concepts of museums, Orientalism, and culture and the production of ‘Cambodge’ as a ‘museological state’ founded on colonial imaginations, classification, and a hierarchical tendency towards benevolent imperialism and civilizing. At the same time, Edwards reveals how this Cambodge project of “identification, conflation, and confusion” was driven by a plurality of indigenous discourse, contentions, and visions of modernity. Thus, actors such as indigenous bureaucrats Thiounn Sambath and Son Diep, Buddhist reformers Tath and Nath, and nationalist Son Ngoc Thanh feature prominently alongside French colonial actors like Orientalists/Indologists Louis Finot, director of Royal Library and Buddhist Institute Suzanne Karpelès and the infamous Saloth Sar (Pol Pot, dictator of the Democratic Kampuchea DK 1975-1978).

Edwards contributes the following to historiography of colonial Cambodia and national identity: 1) Edwards highlights the role of culture and creating cultural identity within histories of nationalism and nation. For example, Edwards reverts the historiographical determinism of nationalism with the statement, “the elaboration of national culture by French and Cambodian literati eventually produced nationalists.” (p. 7) 2) Edwards draws attention to both colonial and indigenous figures as active agents of history and contributors to national modernity. 3) Edwards disentangles the monolithic and hegemonic understandings of French colonialism. Rather Edwards argues that the French protectorate brought a parallel realm of authority and power relations. The interface and co-existence between these realms through the work of new secular literati, Buddhist reformers, and savants, are essential to understanding the construction of Cambodge and Khmer-ness throughout the French colonial period. 4) Furthermore, Edwards historicizes post-colonial projects of myth and history –making and Angkoran antiquity from Pol Pot’s regime of producing a revolutionary utopia in the colonial period.

Chapter by Chapter Quick Notes (apologies for typos)


  • attempt to build a genealogy of split personality of modern ‘Original Khmer’ (Kmae daem) Khmerness and before-ness, a blend of revolutionary modernity and Angkorean antiquity.
  • theme: through French initiatives to preserve Angkor, luxury arts and crafts…a vision of immutable culture decaying (reassert role of the civilized  and enlightened colonizer to preserve)
  • argues that the attempt of building a n Angkor narrative was cross-woven and complex (never monolithic) and was appropriated by various groups


  • worked in United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia
  • supervisor of dissertation David Chandler at Monash University; feedback from Benedict Anderson, Ian Mabbett, Thongchai Winichakul, Anthony Reid
  • organized as a circulation and translation of abstractions
  • archival, newspaper, library sources with recognition of Stoler’s colonial utopias, desires, anxieties…and reading along the grain and disentangling the homogenous structures of colonialism
  • ‘cambodge’ as a product of identification, conflation, confusion of French imaginings with the political and geographic structure of the protectorate p. 18
  • rely on post colonial theory: Homi Bhabha (mimicry), James Clifford (travel, translation)
  • sidelined impact of political movements of communism and millenarian movements

Historiographic contribution

  • movement away from just political manifestations of nationalism and rebellion/political uprooting, but a hybrid understanding with cultural nationalism, colonial encounter and notion of the nation, and cultural signification (nationalism not purely political but bound with notions of cultural identity)
  • 1863-1954: colonial history had been framed by DK as a non-history, not worth studying, as a rupture from thread of Funan to Angkor to Ang Duong to independence (2000 years of history prior to revolution)
  • comparative colonialism: while British India emerged as a ethnographic state by 1850s, Cambodge was a ‘museological state’ by 1910s with research dedicated to history, archaeology, museology through EFEO p. 149
  • understanding both colonial and cambodian figures (who held agency and power) (Son Diep, Thiounn Sambath, Tath, Nath, Son Ngoc Thanh)..”Poised at the interstices of the colonial encounter, on the seam liens of political and cultural change, these figures evinced an enthusiasm for their new “protectors” that ran deeper than propaganda.” p. 244
  • away from monolith homogenization of colonialism: French protectorate bringing a parallel realm of own sense of time, authority, power relations and administrative districts…interface between co-existing realms were the new secular literati and schools


  • open with description of Saloth Sar (Pol Pot), Democratic Kampuchea DK 1975-1978 and reign of ethnic revolutionary utopia, a blend of Ankorean antiquity and revolutionary modernity (performing according to an ideal “original Khmer”- Khmerness and ‘before/ness, antiquity’)
    •    movement formative to his thinking of ‘national’ and relationship to construct of ‘purity’ of past
    • importance of flattening time and myth making of history/historiography in totalizing regime…role of texts in construcing modern regime narratives of ‘truth’ and national identity (s-21 tuol sleng extracted ‘confessions’)..these confessions as testaments to omniscience of CPK (communist partk of Kampuchea) and to control history
    • idealized imagery of Angkor Vat- emblem of antiquity signify cambodian sovereignty…ideas forged in French protectorate
  • cambodge and the ‘national space’ and boundary, binding culture and region into an imagined community “the elaboration of a national culture by French and Cambodian literati eventually produced nationalists.” p. 7
  • nationalist vision and idea structured around theme of Cambodia’s antiquity and potential decline
  • remnant of colonial construct of Khmers vanished in nationalist fears regarding a lost civilization
  • importance of Cambodians articulating concepts of national community- Khmerness, territory, nationalism, changing vocabulary of ‘nation’, translations, education/newspapers and print culture

1. The Temple Complex: Angkor and the Archaeology
of Colonial Fantasy, 1860–1906- Angkor as site for generation of European imaginings about Cambodge (interwoven Cambodge and metropole, museums and exhibitions)…influence of European heritage movements and historicist paradigms in shaping Angkor’s transition from sacred site to embleme of modern nation state

  • Henri Mouhout’s ‘discovery’ of ancient ruins of Angkor in 1860- picturesque burial ground of a ‘dead civilization’
  • 1863- Treaty of Protectorate signed by King Norodom I where France pledged to protect Norodom’s throne from rival claims and neighbors Vietnam and Siam
  • France monopoly over production of knowledge about Angkor (erasing, dramatizing the inhabitants and monks of the temples)
  • discussion of Khmer and Javanese belief systems were erection of temples and monuments were the material and concrete accumulation of power- perpetuating divine powers of their builders during life and after death- signs and stores of power…but did not function as symbol of one nation- angkor as a place ‘sans memoire’ in a linear historical perspective
  • discussion of French 1789 revolution and attempts to institutionalize and nationalize history and heritage- catalogs, museums, monuments, national antiquities…pursuit of community of shared heritage: importance of history + nation + identity + territory (and monuments and exhibitions)
  • France’s loss of India and Egypt to British in 18th and 19th…and a race for display of cultural capital- Angkor and antiquiarianizing – Angkor as sing of empire, culture, , fantasies, exhibitions  (colonial archaeology as a trophy of French colonial success and acquired patrimoine with French national cultural eloquence)
  • EFEO, Louis Finot (France’s premier Indologist) and mission to study antiquity of Indochina, conservation of Angkor, excavations of 15th c Cham sculptures,  p. 37
  • different stylized form of performing ‘angkor’ through dance to represent Cambodge to outside world…touring dancing troue around Indochina and France

2. Urban Legend: Capitalizing on Angkor- authentication of Khmer national style, integration of symbols into Cambodian capital Phnom Penh

  • attempts to create a ‘national style’ for Cambodian architecture through exhibitions in France–> results in monument and architecture neither Khmer not French, but ‘cambodge’ – through tourist sites and replicas of Angkor
  • Phnom Penh as a transient shadowy no place…orderliness, enclave of rural cambodians, recreated “Angkor” motifs, mirroring architectural phenomenon of Haussman in france and sense of order (creation of something  hybrid and new)
  • Phnom Penh’s declasses- Cambodian women cohabitating, Cambodian students studying Frnace…legal attmepts to separate out traffic between ruoepans and cmabodians mirrored in material urban changesand social hierarchies…history of urban zoning in Phnom Penh under Norodom based on ethnic divisions…but with expansion of European population, colonial trade and capitalism–> capital emerging as a totem of French powers of resuscitation of something that was Angkor, but also urban/modern
  • role of Thiounn Sambathand other Khmer in building and coming up with ideas of ‘pure cambodian style’
  • Saloth Sar living in era of vascillation of eras= Angkor, European physically and ideologically

3. Les fidèles Cambodgiens and les Khmèrophiles:
Scripting a Khmer Nation, 1870–1935 – secular literati who contributed to scripting of Khmer nation for Euroepan and cambodian audiences (texts)

  • expands on role of certain Khmer elites, such as Thiounn Sambath (writings on Khmer ceremonies in French journals, folktales, literary work, and ascent over three reigns in bureaucracy) and Son Diep(French honors) – bureaucrats, embroyonic nationalists (represent Cambodge’s colonial transtition to modern statecraft)…also bridges between eras of governance and print culture/nationaal consciousness
    • diverse traverls and education
    • a shift in thinking about power from charismatic aura over a personal following in  a specific place to an ungrounded, institutionlalized power manfiest in formal diplomas and delineated offices, exercising power over national population (the people)
  • small literatre elite, system of secular education, French proficient in modren govt and general knowledge, lack of spiritual/cultural knowledge…translators, cultural advisers, but also Europeans as cultural brokers, scholars and discussion of “Khmer soul”
  • drawing boundaries and demarcating territorial- role of print, (boundary making like Thonchai’s argument)–cataloging impulse t odefine Khmer culture and territory but also mediate between Cambodge and France through explication of Khmer culture, geography, religion (p. 79)
    • “Their cultural introspection partly
      ensued from the climate of violent confrontation and rapid political fl ux, which may
      well have whet their appetites not only for power but for the power of change. In this
      atmosphere, they played with ideas, words, and language, creating something that, in
      their new roles, they might more meaningfully pay homage to than a defunct sovereign
      or a foreign power—namely, the very concept of “the Khmer soul” and its twin,
      the “national character.”103”

4. Colonialism and Its Demerits: Bringing Buddhism (
to Book, 1863–1922- sangha (monkhood) and cultivation of Buddhism as national religion by French scholars and reformist Sangha from est. of protectorate from 1920s; 1900-1930s and transition of Khmer nation through transformation of the sangha)

  • secular and social ineraction and role of religion, where Buddhism bound to national culture with aplurality of purpose as ideology and modernization…argues that through engagement with EFEO and royal library in 1920s, monks more socailly engaged sense of Buddhism, but demonstrates multiple responses to modernity (intermediaries, brokers, resisters, etc)
  • Tath and Nath reformists within Mahanikay
  • role of publicatio nof religius, pali canon texts in modern print form and national language Khmer
  • conflict between ‘modern’ religion (print culture and dissemination), Western search for pure, canonical Buddhism ‘buddhology’ as a scienctific quest, and millenarianism in Buddhist reform movement in 1910’s and 1920s
  • writing and modernity: p. 99-109
    • literary khmer in 19th c was mix of sanskirt, pali, high language, royal vocabulary..elaborate khmer scripts where writing and reading associated with proper arrangement and divine essence of sacred manuscripts bound with material and corporal, sound and touch
    • casting of first Khmer typographic character in paris 1877, beginning of print and spread of printed works; print as a new way of communicating text rather than oral
    • idea of ‘copy’ not really existent in Theravadan Buddhism because manuscripts were product of specific craftsmanship and marked by ritual and merti…a ‘true’ mansucript
    • French attempts to collect ‘authentic’ written works, valorization of texts by colonial different from indigenous relationships to religious manuscripts wheree texts meant to be read aloud, ritual, social
  • establishment of Pali school at Angkor in 19009
  • 1916 peasants, traditionalists in sangha persuaded king and protectorate to crack down on breaches of tradition within the Sangha–prohibiting monks from teaching reforms or spreading nonauthoriszed religious theories
    • Nath and Tath requesting permission to publish–> clandestine copying and publishing (?)

5. Violent Lives: Disengaging Angkor, 1907–1916–Hinduiztion and desacralizatio nof Ankor in schemes to conserve temples; role of Cambodian donors, laborers

  • shifting from architectural monument to art, disengaging indigenous belief systems into European romantic imagination
  • technologies of re=creation of the ‘real’ – photography carography, surveying, draftsman, museologists…creating ‘authentic relic’ and tours – Norodom’s resistance to removal of temple parts or destruction
  • note that many EFEO savants came to Angkor via India, trained Indologists, Hindu studies and project ot create France’s “india”–> Angkor’s Hinduization in late 19th c and attmempt to make Angkor as integrity of ancient
  • project of conservation and restoration from diverse group of actors- Europeans, savants, laborers from indigenous population/ coolie labor
  • conservation of Angkor and conteporary arts

6. Copy Rites: Angkor and the Art of Authenticity- School of Fine Arts est. by protectorate, colonial prescirptions for Khmerness, artistic products as embodiments of Khmer ‘national style’

  • idea of contemporary national arts: crafts, weavers, jewelers, (luxury arts) and dance (and fear of decline and ‘Europeanization of Khmer art and architecture)
  • creation of arts and crafts school– not just teaching students to be copyists of the past.but copyists of colonial concept of Khmerness (Groslier)…but Angklor off lmits for total reproduction by natives, in contrast the ecole des beaux arts teaching European art of monumental landscapes
  • projects to reproduce Angkor in sime reap, marseille, and paris in exhibitions
  • Angkor can become a sign of modern Khmer nation- first  or European scholars, administrators, and tourists who perceived Angkor as national monument in beginning of 20th,
  • Edwards argues that by 1930s process in motion and symbol for potnetial of Khmer racial supremacy : a Khmer copyist copying ‘real khmer’ “the authentic model msut be fund on which these innately skilled copyists can model themselves.” p. 165

7. Secularizing the Sangha, 1900–1935 – admin suspicions of sangha led to tax, school, card and attempts to segregate church and state  (thes earch for authenticity through reform of Buddhism in cambodge…which previously had not been practiced as nationally bounded religion that had spread west into Siam and east into Cochinchina)

  • colonial suspicious of monkhood sangha- taxfree, connection with Sai monks, influence on large population –anxiety of the sangha on margins of secular world/elude state control
  • symbiotic relationship between king, district, and sangha- such as land ownership of temple and monastery belonged to village nad king who wend all land in Cambodia; king as protector o the sangha and linkage of sovereignty to Buddhist patronage; sangha offered path to power in secular world, open to males from all social strata
  • colonial attempts of putting sangha under direct state control (identity cards, taxing the sangha), attempting to erode aura of religious spiritual control–> attempts to also orient ethnolinguistic community away from Saim and towards Khmer cosmos
    • such as primary and temple school programs with state’s training of monk and lay khmer language teachers (professional teacher-monks); renovating vat schools and Khmerlanguage education

8. Holy Trinity: Chuon Nath, Huot Tath, and Suzanne Karpelès- role of educational institutions such as Royal Library and Buddhist Institute as ways of insulating Cambodian sangha from Siamese influence and by conserving Khmer branch of Buddhism *chaptero n print culture, library, Khmer language newspaper (1931)

  • Suzanne Karpeles (1890-1968)- augment protectorate moral authority as custodian of “national” monuments of Angkor and national Buddhist heritage (attempting to rule in ways traditionally associated with Khmer kingship)-transforming Khmer buddhist nation from belief and practice into ethnolinguistic domain
    • background in SEA languages, work at EFEO (challenge as a woman to earn a position), did not marry/have children and defined French colonial feminity- dedicated to several key cultural institutions and journals
    • director of Royal Library (created in 1925 to research, collect, conserve, reproduce ancient mansucripts scattered in temples and homes) 1925-1941, founder of Buddhist INstitute 1930-1941, codification of Khmer buddhist tradition
      • through librarycenralized Khmer buddhit material and literary culture as a “museum of books and manuscirpts”–monks donated Buddhist works and ritual objects to library for safkeeping
      • contributed to developing Khmer seculr texts – folktales, history books
      • developed mobile book distribtuion to expand rural access to publications, browsn library collection
    • promoted ethnically discrete rubric of nation (Khmer Kraom and Kampuchea Kraom)
    • Cambodian monks reverence and trust to her…Karpeles as broker of Buddhist knowledge ettwen cambodge and France
  • discussion of Cao Dai momvement outside Tayninh/close to Cambodian border and potential threat to religioius and national boundaries
    • Mahanikay and Thommayuth reformist/rationalists movements resistted Caodai as heretical blend of nontraditional linfluences

9. Traffic: Setting Khmerism in Motion, 1935–1945–convergence of these trends in realms of intellectuals, print media, clubhouse and transformation into modern nationalist movements (scouts, schools, royal library, alumnit group,,newspaper)

  • by 1930s- cultivation of national architecture, dress, national character of the ‘original khmer’ general consensus in elite circles (but still debates over relation to modern nation state) and relationship to royal and French colonial..question of who owned Angkor’s past
  • shift from idea of Cambodians as copyists to builders and promoting developing of modern cultural forms and competing with neighboring coutnries
  • Khmer Issarak historiography points to 1935 as starting date for nationalist struggle: Son Ngoc Thanh (half Khmer, half sino-viet, born in VN) and Cambodian elite seek independence by fighting openly against the French through Association of Sisowath Alumni and Ngaravatta newspaper (questioned French policies)
  • debating Khmer-ness through theater, dance, thinking through performance…where Royal Library and Buddhist Institute key to conserve Khmer culture and align Khmer buddhism with modernity; modernity project: “In a similar vein, Nagaravatta saw an indispensable place for both the Buddhist
    Institute and the Royal Library in conserving Khmer culture and aligning Khmer
    Buddhism with modernity, describing the library as “the heart of Srok Khmer,” a
    place rich in Khmer customs and social mores and a “meeting place for Khmer scholars
    who disseminate these precepts to the Khmer nation.” 4 6 The paper welcomed
    Karpelès’ projects—the mobile book bus, a new globe she installed in the institute,
    her broadcasting of music from Buddhist countries, and the launch of a Buddhist Institute
    radio program—as her ways of bringing “modernity to Cambodge.” 47 p. 221
  • Vichy indochina; 1942 monastic protests ??
  • diverse, plural Cambodian nationalist movements
  • “but in many respects the bifurcation of modern Cambodian history into colonial and
    postcolonial is an optical illusion. Long after the dismantlement of the protectorate
    of Cambodge, the conceptual rubric of Cambodge established during ninety years of
    colonial rule continued to haunt and shape the country’s political landscape.” p. 241 granted independence 1953-1954

10. Past Colonial? – ramifications of colonialism’s ‘temple complex’ for postcolonila politics and the longevity of ‘cambodge’ in discourses after independence

  • with independence–diverse options of how to understan ‘national culture’ and Angkor as ancestral achievement, contemporary artform
  • importance of understanding both colonial and Cambodian figures: “These European
    narrators were neither selfless beacons of light, as cast in colonial propaganda, nor the
    narcissistic couturiers of national culture sketched by Said, Cohn, and others. They
    were vectors of change whose passage to and through Cambodge left traces on that
    country’s cultural topography while delineating the contours of a new, national cosmology.
    But theirs is less than half the story. It was Son Diep, Thiounn Sambath,
    Suttantaprija In, Chuon Nath, Huot Tath, Son Ngoc Thanh, Pach Cheoun, Nou
    Hach, and others whose energies and intellects created a traction with such European
    personalities, igniting subtle shifts in indigenous philosophies. Without these Cambodian
    figures, the projects and trajectories of Karpelès et al. would have left different

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