Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Lao Folklore: Xieng Mieng / Tricksters

Every culture has its trickster figures in their folklore and legends. In Southeast Asia, and particularly Laos, one of the oldest and most popular stories are connected to the Xieng Mieng (or Xiang Miang, among various spellings.)

Written versions of the Xieng Mieng story are dated as far back as the 16th century on palm leaf manuscripts, and quite possibly earlier. Copies of these manuscripts are found at the Lao National Library. The stories have been told in both prose and poetry form.

In the mid 1990s, a Xieng Mieng storytelling contest was regularly held in Laos. Appropriately, in some years, the contest was held on April 1st.

Xieng Mieng's name is usually connected to a story of a boy named Kham who became a former novice monk (Xieng) eventually placed in charge of the royal storehouse of Mieng leaves by the king, at least for a time. In other stories he becomes a jester or takes on other roles.

There are several commonly told stories connected to Xieng Mieng, including his origin story. In no particular order, these include:

  • Xieng Mieng tricks the merchants
  • Xieng Mieng outwits the king at the river
    (similar to Xieng Mieng tricks the king who wanted to be tricked.)
  • Xieng Mieng and the snail
  • Xieng Mieng sees the king's face
  • Xieng Mieng follows the king precisely
  • Xieng Mieng and the king who loved stories.
  • Xieng Mieng and the king's cat.
  • Xieng Mieng gets too fat
  • Xieng Mieng and the bamboo tube
  • Xieng Mieng outwits the cloth merchant
  • Xieng Mieng and the amazing bird
  • Xieng Mieng and the king who lost his appetite
  • Xieng Mieng and the drawing competition
  • Xieng Mieng's last trick
  • The novice, the abbot and the chicken.
  • The abbot and the novice carry salt.
In these last two stories, the novice isn't necessarily named but storytellers have often found it easy to attribute it to Xieng Mieng. Sometimes he has been a relative of the king or an adopted brother of the king, but in most stories, a family relationship isn't really a key element to the story. 

There may be other traditional stories, and as Lao engage with other tricksters in different storytelling traditions around the world, we may see many new variations added to Xieng Mieng's repertoire over time. 

By the time of Xieng Mieng's death, he has a wife, servants, at least one favorite dog, and for a time, the king's favorite cat.

Most Lao publishers have at least one book of Xieng Mieng stories or a folklore collection that features a version of a Xieng Mieng story.

Vientiane Times Publications, for example, has a specific collection from 1995 that was dedicated solely to Xieng Mieng stories in English retold by Steven Jay Epstein. Epstein was the Education and Language Training Advisor at the Vientiane School of Law. That edition was illustrated by Anoulom Souvandouane, who also illustrated the Lao currency. It's worth taking a look at in addition to the work of Wajuppa Tossa and Kongdeuane Nettavong's and their Lao Folktales

A number of youtube videos are online retelling particular stories. At the moment, the most professional is Arnushawn Production's high definition videos of storyteller Mr. Akkasith.  He even has a twitter account: @xieng_mieng.

There is at least one effort to make a children's story book and interactive learning project based on the Xieng Mieng story at by NawDsign that I pointed out back in 2009. Hopefully it won't be too much longer before the project is completed. 

But what are some of your favorite Xieng Mieng stories or memories?

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