Societal Organization in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Cambodia

by May Ebihara

Monk communities (sangha), slaves, non-Khmer people and the social order in pre-modern Cambodia, by an eminent anthropologist.

May Ebihara Svay

Publication: Journal of Southeast Asian Studies Vol. 15, No. 2, pp. 280-295 | Cambridge University Press on behalf of Department of History, National University of Singapore

Published: September 1984

Author: May Ebihara

Pages: 16

Language : English

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We are often reminded that the word for 'I' in Khmer, knyum, comes from the word 'knum', slave. Does it denote a profundly segregated society? Can we say that, due to the Brahmanic influences, the pre-modern Cambodia was a society of castes? With her vast knowledge of Cambodian mores and customs, the author is more inclined to describe the social organization 'in terms of strata (or segments) and hierarchy but [...] not castes.'

The well-documented study deals with the importance of the Sangha (monastic communities) in the 16th and 17th centuries, the organization of state power and nobility, or the status of foreigners residing at that time in Cambodia, who 'included Chinese, Malays, Laotians, Vietnamese, Cham, Javanese, Japanese, and some Europeans: Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and British.'

Photo: May Ebihara (seated) and young women from Svay village in 1989 (from Khmer Story Lovers website)

Tags: social history, ethnology, 16th century, 17th century, anthropology, ethnography

About the Author

May Ebihara1

May Ebihara

May Mayko Ebihara (12 May 1934, Portland OR. - 23 Apr 2005) was an eminent anthropologist with a passion for Cambodia.

During World War II, she and her family were sent with other Japanese Americans to an internment camp in Idaho. She received her bachelor’s degree from Reed College in 1955 and a PhD in 1968 from Columbia University, where she studied with Conrad Arensberg, Margaret Mead, and Morton Fried. She taught at Bard College from 1961 to 1964, briefly at Mt. Holyoke, and thereafter at Lehman College.

In 1959–60, May was the first American anthropologist to conduct ethnographic research in Cambodia—and she would be the last to do so for nearly three decades. Her two-volume dissertation, “Svay, a Khmer Village in Cambodia,” provided a remarkably detailed picture of village life, with analysis of social structure and kinship, agriculture, religion, and political organization.

After the civil war, May Ebihara pursued her field study of the Svay village, in Kandal Province. She also contributed to the reemergence of Cambodian studies through her service on the Social Science Research Council’s Indochina Studies Committee. She was an active member of the Thailand/Laos/Cambodia Committee of the Association for Asian Studies.

Read more about May Ebihara and the Svay villagers (in English and Khmer)

(Photo: Phnom Penh Post)