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Tum Teav is a classic tragic love story of the Literature of Cambodia that has been told throughout the country since at least the middle of the 19th century.

It is originally based on a poem and is considered the "Cambodian Romeo and Juliet" and has been a compulsory part of the Cambodian secondary national curriculum since the 1950s.

Although its first translation in French had been made by Étienne Aymonier already in 1880, Tum Teav was popularized abroad when writer George Chigas translated the 1915 literary version by the venerable Buddhist monk Preah Botumthera Som or Padumatthera Som, known also as Som, one of the best writers in the Khmer language.


2005 book cover

The tale relates the encounters of a talented novice Buddhist monk named Tum and a beautiful adolescent girl named Teav. From the first sight, Tum, the monk, was in love with Teav, a very beautiful young lady. It is reciprocated and Teav offered Tum some betel and a blanket as evidence of the feelings she had for Tum and prays to Buddha that the young monk will be with her for eternity. Tum was very pleased to accept the offers, to see she felt the same way he did. He initially spends some time in Teav's home despite her being 'in the shade' (a period of a few weeks when the daughter is supposedly secluded from males and taught how to behave virtuously), and wastes no time in abusing the mother's hospitality by sleeping with her daughter.

Teav's mother is unaware of this event and has alternative plans, intending to marry her daughter off to the governor's son (she dropped the idea when her daughter was chosen to be with the king, but resurrected it as soon as she learned that her employment at the court wasn't leading anywhere). She feigns illness as a ruse to lure Teav to her village whereupon she tries to coerce her into taking part in the wedding ceremony. Tum turns up with an edict from the king to stop the ceremony, but on arrival instead of presenting the order, he gets drunk, announces he is Teav's husband and kisses her in public; his behaviour gets him killed, and only after that does the governor discover the king's letter. Teav commits suicide.


As with any oral tradition, pinning down the origins of the story is an elusive task. The story is believed to have originated in the 17th or 18th century and is set in Kampong Cham around a century earlier. However in some versions the king in question is purported to be Rea mea who reigned in the mid-1600s, coming to the throne through an act of regicide and subsequently converting to Islam.

Comparison with Romeo and Juliet

The tale has been compared to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet but unlike the 'silver lining' conclusion of Romeo and Juliet, this story finishes with the king exacting rather extreme punishment – slaughtering every family member (including infants) remotely connected to the deception and the murder of Tum, making hereditary slaves of the entire village and exacting crippling extra taxes from a wider area in perpetuity.

Analysis and various adaptions

Tum and Teav with the domineering mother
The story has been portrayed in many forms including oral, historical, literary, theatre, and film adaptions.

Given that it plays such a central role in Cambodian culture, a wealth of different versions and including school plays have created distinctive interpretations of the tale. One of the most influential (and the one which serves as the basis for the version used in schools) sees the events through a rather crude interpretation of the Law of Karma, whereby Tum's death due to his impulsive decision to disrobe against the wishes of his abbot (who'd asked Tum to wait just a few weeks), and Teav's demise is attributed to her disobeying her mother's wishes.

A later, more sophisticated, Buddhist interpretation focussed on the way in which the protagonists' uncontrolled desires (principally Tum's lust and Teav's mother's desire for wealth and status) led to inevitable consequences. Another interpretation produced during King Norodom's reign linked the story's finale to Cambodia's history of excessive violence and subjugation of the poor. Norodom abolished slavery in the kingdom.

Whilst the lovers are unquestionably faithful and devoted to each other until the end, and Teav is a victim of her mother's abuse of parental power. Her mother was in making pre-arranged marriage arrangements strongly motivated by greed, or fear of defying the governor. Tum's behaviour on the contrary is powerfully ambivalent and there is significant dexterity to his character.
Many scholars interpret Tum Teav as a classic tale of the clash between social duty and romantic love. Every culture has its version of such a tension, yet modern Western society has all but forgotten the concept of obligation.

A comic-strip version produced in Phnom Penhmarker in 1988 explained to children that the young protagonists were tragic heroes who were destined to fail because their class struggle against feudalism was based on individual aspiration and not part of an ideologically-driven government-organised movement.

In 1998 an American scholar was using the text as a prime source for making sense of the Khmer Rouge atrocities. Possibly the most interesting critical study was written in 1973 during the chaos of Lon Nol's rule, which had contemporary events very much in mind. More recently in 2000 a Rasmey Hang Meas CD (vol. 73) with some very thoughtful lyrical interpretations of the tale championed romantic love over pre-arranged marriage.

In 2003 the story was again adapted into a two hour film directed by Fay Sam Ang.

A 2005 book of Tum Teav, was released, a monograph containing the author's translation of the Venerable Botumthera Som's version. It also examines the controversy over the poem's authorship and its interpretation by literary scholars and performers in terms of Buddhism and traditional codes of conduct, abuse of power, and notions of justice.

See also


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