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The Struggle Over Muay Thai History Under Pressure from the West

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There is an absolutely fantastic academic article written by Peter Vail just this year which details the ways in which Thailand institutionally is struggling to deal with the internationalization of its heritage sport. You can find a copy here: Muay Thai - Inventing Tradition for National Symbol. Not only does it have one of the best summations of the history of Muay Thai, it also goes into contemporary attempts to secure an official history or histories in the face of foreign appropriation and interests. Because its such a long article I wrote an outline of the descriptions of how the western preoccupation with the Eastern arts and the rise of MMA has put Thailand in a place of codifying, and in some cases inventing a history to maintain the very Thainess of Muay Thai. Some of the author's opinions do seemingly come from political perspective, but the things discussed are seldom thought about the west. Perhaps most interestingly it explains the recent promotion of the Tiger King as a new father of Muay Thai, in an attempt to move away from Nai Khanomtom.

The Struggle Over Muay Thai Culture and History

  • An explosion of western interest in "Asian" Martial Art in the 1960s, 70s, 80s due to cinema
    • Bruce Lee, Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Karate Kid
      • exercise, self-defense, discipline
      • aesthetic, mystical, cultural connections to exotic Asian philosophies.
  • 1990s the west experienced a disenchantment of Asian fighting arts
    • they were rationalized and routinized into sports like Judo and Taekwandoe
    • generations of instruction had devolved into McDojos
    • Muay Thai was a late comer and so did not experience this disenchantment.
  • MMA arrives - UFC founded in 1993 - it repositioned Asian martial arts.
    • Feed on a zeitgeist of western hypermasculinization
    • Originally individual arts were pitted against each other, and thus were emphasized
      • the rise of the BJJ Gracie family
    • Hypermasculinity, efficacy and violence in the arts celebrated over past values such as character building & introspection
    • a reaction against McDojos
    • BJJ and Muay Thai stood out as two iconic martial art-styles (ground, standup)
  • MMA subsumes the arts it celebrates, demystifying them and effacing cultural identifies
    • elements of Muay Thai become only part of a "fighting strategy"
    • it's about the individual in the ring, not the art.
    • This MMA strip of national identity meets with Thai ambitions to internationalize the sport
      • the risk is of losing the "Thainess" of Muay Thai
  • There is Thai anxiety that the Thai identity in Muay Thai will be lost - their art will be stolen
    • Thailand already experienced the loss of Muay Thai identity in the 1960s when the Japanese stole it as "kickboxing" and then later in K1 (1993)
      • This injured national pride and is still remembered.
    • Within Thailand there are movements to shore up and institutionalize the national character of Muay Thai.
      • Three Institutions
        • Institute for Muay Thai Preservation (under the Ministry of Sports and Tourism)
        • Muban Chombueng Ratchaphat University
        • The Department of Cultural Promotion (under the Ministry of Culture)
    • Institute for Muay Thai Preservation
      • Maintains a Muay Thai/Boran museum
      • Houses the Muay Boran Academy
      • since 2003 a Kru Muay association formalizes muay instruction and instructor certification
      • Headquarters of the World Muay Thai Federation (WMF) - formerly International Amateur Federation
      • since the early 1990s has helped the Ministry of Sports and Tourism put on international amateur bouts organized around Nai Khanomtom day - March 17
        • a vast Muay Boran ceremony attended mostly by westerners celebrates the national and historical roots of Muay Thai in Ayutthaya
    • Muban Chombueng Ratchaphat University
      • has established a degree program in Muay Thai studies with even doctorates offered
      • Muay Boran masters enter a thesis program to record history and canonize each school in a nationalist narrative.
        • There is much overlap in this history as sources are scant, and all stem from the 1909 categorization of schools.
      • strongly affiliated with the Nai Khanomtom Day celebrations
    • The Department of Cultural Promotion (under the Ministry of Culture)
      • Muay Thai has been rolled under Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH)
      • The DCP seeks to establish "copyright" over Muay Thai performance, maintaining control over their dissemination, insuring its cultural roots.
      • Rejects Nai Khanomtom as the father of Muay Thai (due to being a common soldier)
        • Seeks to establish Somdet Phra Sanphet VIII "The Tiger King" (reign 1703-1709) as the new father of Muay Thai
          • on May 7, 2011 designated February 6th (his coronation date) as "Muay Thai Day"
      • In 2013 the DCP began sponsoring "Thai Fight"
        • February 6, 2013 the Tiger King becomes central in the Thai Fight broadcast
  • Both camps (DCP and the MCRU/Institute for Muay Thai Preservation) are seeking to fight the corrosive effects of Internationalization, and secure the cultural roots of the art and sport.


While the author at times takes a cynical view of Thai attempts to re-create and even invent a history for Muay Thai, I can sympathize with the fear that Muay Thai itself is at risk, and at a certain level the ceremonial and institutional codifications of the past are indeed something all nations and arts do. It is ironic that in many ways Thailand depends on the exoticizing passions of the west to preserve the boran of Muay Thai culture (and knowledge), just as the west is also threatening to remove the Thai of Muay Thai through a dilution of techniques. As a point of interest I also find the implication that Thai Fight is something of an ideological show really fascinating. It could very well be that while we as westerners may cringe at some of the fights between aged, great Thai fighters and aggressive, often off-balanced westerners, we don't see how Thai Fight is essentially demonstrating, performing the incomparability of Thai Muay Thai and the Muay Thai of the rest of the world, for Thais themselves.

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