THE MAKING OF A MANDARIN
Thamnon was a mandarin. He came to Ayutthaya from China as an envoy from the Emperor of the Middle Kingdom. Like all mandarins, he was a scholar, one of the educated elite, a man held in high esteem in Asian society. The practice of sending mandarins to serve as advisors in foreign courts began back in the reign of Kublai Khan during the Mongol dynasty. Kublai Khan was an uneducated nomad who couldn’t read or write, but he realized the importance of being educated. Any male in China who wanted to advance his career through education could do so. A peasant could become a scholar, and a goat herder a gentleman. But the road to becoming a mandarin was not easy. There were no short cuts. It required many years hard work, from sun up to sun down, and discipline. The writings of the great teacher Confucius had to be mastered and the poems of Du Fu and Su Shu memorized. He had to know astronomy as well as calligraphy. It was imperative that he study history, know his politics and be well informed on moral issues. Students were required to pass tough examinations which were held periodically in districts around the kingdom. If a scholar failed the exam he took it again. If he got caught cheating in an exam, it could mean his execution.
Thamnon was one of these elite scholars. He was awarded, by the emperor, the second highest rank of the Seven Ranks of the Mandarin, the rank of Golden Pheasant. He was entitled to wear the Mandarin Patch, a large embroidered badge of a Golden Pheasant, sewn onto his outer garments. He was sent to Siam to serve as an advisor in the Royal Court of King Prasat Thong; but he had not been long at his post when back home in China Emperor Shunzhi’s favorite concubine, Dong, suddenly died-as a result of her grief over the loss of her own child. Overwhelmed with grief, Shunzhi contracted a terrible disease, the report said, and died shortly thereafter. That was one side of the story. The other was the young emperor did not pass away but left the palace to become a monk. Whatever the reason, his title was up for grabs.
Thamnon’s fate was in abeyance. While a new emperor was being chosen and the court of the Middle Kingdom was being shuffled about, he had to wait it out in Ayutthaya. He had been useful to the court of Siam and served King Prasat Thong well, but when King Prasat died, Thamnon’s tenure in Siam was held in suspense. No one was certain what China’s next move might be but, fortunately, mandarins were welcome in Siam for they were the doors through which all thoughts and deeds from China came.
Aside from serving as advisors to courts aboard, mandarins made excellent teachers, especially in the field of science. But King Narai had no sons and in the royal court there were few young students. King Narai had but one wife, the daughter of the ruler of Chiang Mai who he had defeated in battle. She gave birth to a daughter but died had soon after. He loved his daughter very much and became extremely protective of her. King Narai never remarried and he had no consorts or concubines.
When he first sat on the throne, King Narai called upon Thamnon for counsel in matters involving trade with China but the king’s trusted advisor, General Phetracha was opposed to foreign interference, any foreigners, not only Europeans. Thamnon was aware of General Phetracha’s dislike for him, or for any foreigner. In consequence, he spent much of his time in his garden. It was here in the garden that he awaited the arrival of his new student, Constantine Phaulkon.
When his servant announced that Phaulkon had arrived and was waiting in the study, Thamnon went to greet him there. The garden was his private domain and only rarely did he meet guests there. The study was where he kept his books, shelves of them, and on the walls hung astronomy charts and maps. It was here that he practiced calligraphy, and here he enjoyed the company of his friends over a cup of tea or a glass of wine.
Thamnon entered the study. His servants, on hands and knees, made the introduction and quietly vanished from the room. Phaulkon had been seated but now rose and stood at attention. He was dressed in his EiC uniform, his hat tucked under his arm. He looked smart, and much younger than his thirty-one years of age. Thamnon studied him from head to toe, as one might study a bas-relief that one doesn’t understand. Phaulkon on the other hand felt that he was being censured, standing there as he was in his quasinaval uniform. This wasn’t the image he wanted to present.
Whatever Thamnon’s feelings, Phaulkon too was a bit dismayed when he first saw his teacher. When George White told him that a Chinese mandarin had been arranged to tutor him in the Siamese court language, he expected someone quite different, someone perhaps more dynamic.
Phaulkon supposed that Thamnon had to be in his late sixties to have served the previous king of Siam. He was frail and frightfully thin. His fingers were long and delicate. He wore a long dark robe down to his ankles, split along the sides. The sleeves were extraordinarily wide. His Mandarin Patch with the Golden Pheasant was so badly faded Phaulkon would not have recognized it had not White told him about it beforehand.
Thamnon spoke in whispers, making it necessary for Phaulkon to concentrate on his every word. But Thamnon quickly put his student at ease by asking him questions about the sea, knowing that Phaulkon had been a sailor. For the first session, that lasted the entire afternoon, with pot after pot of tea, it was Phaulkon who was the teacher and Thamnon the student. Thamnon was keenly interested in the far ports of the world and he wanted to hear what Phaulkon knew about the sea trade that was rapidly building up between East and West. The second session, however, began in earnest. Thamnon led Phaulkon out into the garden which he rarely ever did with guests.
“We all need time.” Thamnon began, speaking slowly, as they strolled side by side along narrow pathways. “No, we must take the time to contemplate nature, and we do this in the East by creating gardens. We design them as secret enclosures with high walls, where we can be alone with our thoughts. This is a way of escaping from the outer world and returning to nature within.”
Phaulkon had to admit the garden was beautiful, and peaceful. No wonder the Chinese were great poets, he thought. He had never given much thought to gardens, until now. Thamnon’s garden was made up of rocks and bodies of water following the concept of Shan Shui. Thamnon explained that Shan Shui literally means “mountains and water.” Jagged rocks were carefully piled in groups, leaving hollows and crevices everywhere. Connecting pools of water ran among the rocks which were lined with bamboo. They came to a pavilion with a red tiled roof and windows of several shapes placed at different levels. They sat upon a wooden bench. “The windows are at different levels for a reason,” Thamnon explained. “Each one offers views of the garden that differ at various times of the day. In China the seasons are considered but here m Siam we need not consider that.”
Phaulkon was expecting a lengthy lecture on Shan Shui and Yin and Yang when Thamnon said, “When one speaks in a language, they think in that language. What language do you think in?”
A Chinese thinker using Greek sophist reasoning to find an answer, Phaulkon thought. How his father had used that on him. “It depends upon the depth of my thought,” he answered after some thought.
“Then you think because of words, “Thamnon said, and Phaulkon knew then that he had fallen into his trap. His teacher was clever. It was best that he just listen.
“We need words to play with,” Thamnon began again. “For without words there would be no thought. One’s mode of thought, the concepts of images, the very thought pattern, even the sounds of a language are so different that we reach different conclusions with different languages.”
“I will accept that,” Phaulkon said. .
“Then with that in mind, you will understand the concept of Tai royal language. In your travels you have learned the Tai language of the common people. But the language of the common people will not get you very far.” Phaulkon nodded. Thamnon continued “Originally, “khun,” for example, was a Khmer tide and referred to the king. Now it’s being applied to officials and the king’s language has acquired more elaborate tides. And that’s where the difficulty of learning the royal language begins. Royal tides include those for children by the royal queen, for the children by a non-royal queen and for the grandchildren.”
“Then I must learn these tides?”
“I wish that was all. There is more to it than that. Are you still determined?” Thamnon asked.
“Even more than when I arrived here,” Phaulkon answered.
“But you are interested in the royal language. It is the most unusual of all Tai languages. It is called rappratan. You must remember, royalty uses special words for common actions and for parts of the body. This special, formal language is a mixture of words of Khmer, Pali and Sanskrit.”
“But it can be learned, can’t it? Or am I not right?” Phaulkon asked.
“Yes, you can, but you must see and understand what you are attempting to do; even the educated Siamese find it most difficult. There is more than the languages of the common people and that of royalty; there are three distinct languages, and different, say, are the nouns and the verbs that are used by the different classes-royalty, ecclesiastics and common people. The problem rises with the social structure of the Tai people. It’s one of rank and intimacy, and that means a royal language, an ecclesiastic language, and a polite everyday vernacular language. And you might even say there is a fourth, an earthy, pungent slang.”
“When do we begin?” Phaulkon asked.
“We have already begun,” Thamnon replied. “Now would you like something to eat?” Before Phaulkon could answer, Thamnon said, “Tell me that in Tai.”
“Yes,” Phaulkon answered, “I would like to kin.”
“No, we shall begin now by speaking only in royal court Tai, and to eat in rappratan is sawuy. Kin is a common form used between friends. But to use it with a new acquaintance would be viewed as presumptuous and perhaps rude.”
“I do not wish to be rude,” Phaulkon said and for the first time since they had met, Thamnon laughed. It was not a big hearty laugh, but a gentle one, and one that accepted the Greek sailor into his private coterie. For the months that followed, Phaulkon’s life was not his own. But he did learn fast.