Popular Science Monthly/Volume 44/April 1894/Incidents of Cambodian Life



THE Cambodian woman carries her child a-straddle of her left hip, with her arm passed round its little body. She rarely leaves it, except to attend to something in the house or the yard; and this custom of carrying the child thus is followed up so constantly that one shoulder of the woman finally becomes higher than the other. When the mother goes to the rice fields, or to the village, or so far that this method of carrying it becomes fatiguing, she puts the child into a shawl and carries it on her back. In the house, the baby sleeps on a mat, on which the mother has thrown an old sampot (cloth), so as to raise its head a little higher than the body, or in a shawl hung as a hammock, or in a hammock made of a quartered bamboo, the ends of which are whole. The child is naked, but when it is cold in the morning it is given a shawl or a piece of sampot for a covering, and is carefully covered at night. Boys go naked till they are six, seven, or eight years old, but after that age they put on a sampot; girls are dressed when they are four years old. In some parts of the country the children, otherwise nude, wear a small plate of ornamented silver in front. It is also a general custom to hang pieces of money, ancient or modern, from the neck, and rings of silver or gold on their arms and ankles. Mothers too poor to give them jewels tie a piece of cord that has been blessed by a wizard around their necks. The ears of girls are bored very early, sometimes even before they can walk, and cotton threads are inserted, to be replaced in time by gold or silver earrings. The heads of children are shaved often—to harden them, the Cambodians say—but at the age of three or four years a circular tuft is permitted to grow on the top of the head, and when the hair in this spot has reached a certain length it is bound and fastened with a pin of gold, silver, copper, or wood.

Cambodian children, it seems to me, are not as precocious as European children, favorable as the climate is to them. Thus we do not find in Cambodia (or in Annam, Tonquin, or Cochin China) babies beginning to walk in their tenth or ninth month, and I have never seen any who could speak correctly in their third year, although in France we have little gentlemen and young dames who are in their second year already very talkative and very important personages. The children of the Cambodians are generally pretty till they are about twelve years old, with more regular features than they will have afterward; and it is pleasant to find in them some of the resemblance to their Indian ancestors, which has been absorbed with the features of a more numerous and less gifted race. The children have prodigious memories, and I have often been surprised at the facility with which, without giving themselves much trouble, they learn in a few months the Roman characters and French writing and language. The faculty of learning foreign languages persists in the adult; the grown men, our servants, persons living near us, learn enough of our language to make themselves understood, while we have to take nearly two years to learn, without study, as much as they. The children are very intelligent, but I have been assured, and am disposed to believe it, that their intelligence, if it does not remain stationary, becomes less active after their fifteenth year. It seems as if a little darkness came over their minds when their primitively pure features are deformed and they lose their atavistic resemblance to their ancestors.

They are docile, obedient, quiet in their sports, and very respectful to their parents. They are never seen presenting anything to their father with one hand, negligently or hurriedly, but well-brought-up children, observing well the old customs, offer the object requested with both hands, gracefully bowing. They do not eat with their father unless he invites them, but with their mother and her women, in whose charge they are. They do not sit with their father or on the same level, because it is proper for children to be always placed below their father. They have likewise a great respect for their mother, but it is more intimate than that for their father, who is also master of the house, and is designated by a word that means master and prince. Respect for the mother, while less demonstrative, is more durable; it continues in sons and daughters long after their marriage, and with grand mandarins and in the palace assumes a really touching appearance of deep veneration. I was told that the king never came into the presence of his mother without saluting her on his knees, and without offering her the homage which his mandarins offered to him.

At eleven years for the girls and thirteen years for the boys—or sometimes thirteen years for the girls and fifteen years for the boys, but never twelve or fourteen years, for years of even numbers are considered unlucky—the ceremony of cutting the hair is performed; that is, the shearing of the tuft which we have seen is tied and fastened with a pin. This ceremony of Brahmanic origin, a kind of sacrament instituted by Siva, which the Hindus call kesenta, takes place usually in the anniversary month of the child's birth, on the first day of the decrease of the moon, in the presence of all the relatives and the friends and clients of the family. The festivals already mentioned in connection with the cutting of the hair are repeated in full, but this time it is the turn of persons of higher importance to perform the ceremony. This festival is the festival of puberty. From its celebration the child lets his hair grow as he desires to wear it. The girls cease to play and laugh with the boys, observe a more strict and graver walk, and more usually keep to the house.

Betrothals take place, in the presence of both families, one or two years before the marriage. They consist of a repast participated in in common by all the connection, and in the proclamation of the engagement which the two families have made to unite their children. As the diviners have named the most favorable day for the betrothal, they also designate the most suitable one for the celebration of the marriage. This ceremony takes place, like the former one, in the presence of both the contracting families, the kindred, and the neighbors. It includes presents made by the groom to the parents of the bride, the offer of betel and areca nuts, the invocation of ancestors, and the chang day or binding of the wrists, a curious ceremony which all the parents perform by attaching cotton threads around the left wrist, in token, I suppose, of the bonds which will hereafter exist between the members of the two families. Besides this a present of sampots, silver bars, or money is made by the friends of the groom to the mother of the bride, in consideration of the care she bestowed on her daughter in her infancy. This has been improperly, perhaps, styled the price of the girl; if not a proof of her purchase by the groom, it is certainly a relic of the customs of a period when the woman was bought by the one who married her, and the price paid to the mother. I say to the mother, not to the father, because the present is in reality made to her, and not to the head of the family; a very important fact, which with others that I shall adduce attests to the existence in the past of the matriarchate among the Khmers.

I find traces of this state of society in this fact, that the price of the "nursing milk," as it is called, is paid to the mother; and also in the much more lasting and profound respect had by the son for his mother, and in the general and uncontested principle that the woman put away by her husband has the right to take her children with her. I might add, too, in support of this view that it is the custom, always observed, for the father not to consent to a marriage which the mother opposes, and not to pledge a child without the consent of its mother; then there is the instinctive horror, much more marked than when the father is the victim, which Cambodians feel at the thought of a child beating its mother. One of the most conclusive proofs appears in the word for cousin-german, which when analyzed means brother-grandmother, or brother by the same grandmother, but never brother by the same grandfather. This affords an almost incontestable trace of an ancient social régime when relationship followed the female line.

The Cambodian woman occupies a dignified position in the house of her husband. He owes her respect and gives it, and is not rude or violent in her presence. He can put her away, but she can also claim a divorce at law. She can go to law without the consent of her husband, when she must be supported by a relative, or, if she has none, by a respectable neighbor. If she is summoned to court, she can oblige her husband to go with her, under penalty, if he fails to go, of his losing his rights over her; and she can leave him without his having any right to complain or to claim reparation. He can pawn her or sell her as a slave if she consents, but he can not dispose of himself in such way without her approval. The woman can have but one husband, and he can not take a second wife or any additional one without the consent of his first wife. The first wife is called the first wife, the second the middle wife, and the third the end wife; those that follow are concubines. They are all hierarchically subordinated one to the other, but the great wife, the true wife, is mistress of the house, and the others are only her followers and servants. If one of these encroaches upon her prerogatives, she can punish her; if she seeks to seduce the husband and supplant the first wife in his heart, she can call her guilty rival before the court and get judgment against her. The first wives sometimes select the other wives for their husbands, often choosing such as will be agreeable companions to themselves; and women are numerous who have been able to exert such influence over their husbands or exercise such power in the house as to prevent the introduction of any other wives.

Cambodian maidens rarely go astray, and infanticide is absolutely unknown in the country. Mothers are anxious to have children, and are not afraid of any number of them. A woman who has no children after several years of marriage is unhappy over the fact, and her fellow-women sympathize with her for it.

The people are brave, willing to run considerable dangers for a small reward, and are valiant in action; but they are superstitious, and believe in ghosts, evil spirits, witches, and witchcraft. They offer worship to genii and invoke them, good and bad alike, when they are afraid or in need. It is not rare to find in the corner of a rice field a little straw mat inclosing a fragment of a sculptured prayer from some ancient Khmer monument, or simply an ordinary stone. They believe that the arac dwells in this stone, give it homage, and burn fragrant sticks before it, which they plant in a piece of banana stem, or a small basin, or in half a cocoanut filled with sand. They also render a secret worship to lingams derived from the Brahmanic epoch which have been concealed for centuries in the depths of natural grottoes, without knowing what these stones represent.

The Khmers believe in unlucky places, which one can not inhabit or cultivate without exposure to death; in places haunted by evil spirits, which one can not visit without perishing; in stones or statues which one can not touch without falling sick; and places which one can not pass without making an offering. There are in the province of Kampot a mountain at the foot of which the Chinese dies who attempts to pass it, and a defile where it is necessary to alight from one's horse or carriage and cast an offering of branches upon a cup placed at the fork of two roads, saying, "I offer thee a parasol." A statue of a woman of the Brahmanic period stands on a river island in the province of Sambaur, before which women can not present themselves, but which men are permitted to caress in order to insure the fidelity of their wives.

Many women and children wear cords which they buy of the witches, in order to preserve them from certain maladies; and from these sometimes hang little leather cylinders which are believed to be very effective. In certain provinces of Upper Cambodia characters are tattooed on the breast as preservatives against attacks by the tiger and panther, and against snake bites.

The Cambodians are usually pleasantly disposed, but very revengeful for injuries. Theft is common, but less so than in Cochin China. Assassination does not excite any great degree of attention or cause any deep remorse in the murderer. They bear pain with much courage; but illness reduces their energy to a very low degree. Prisoners condemned to death by decapitation march courageously to punishment, smoking their last cigarette, without bravado and without weakness.

The paddy gathered and deposited in the granary is protected by a stone for which they have a superstitious regard; and they employ the achars, the religious literati of the village, to read prayers and invocations over the store. Translated for The Popular Science Monthly from the Revue Scientifique.

The latest report of the directors of convict prisons in England gives satisfactory evidence that serious crime is perceptibly diminishing throughout the country. Thus, during the five years ending in 1859, when the population of England and "Wales was 19,257,000, the sentences to penal servitude numbered 2,589. The years 1885 to 1889 showed the much lower total of 945; the population then being 27,830,179. Since that period a further decrease has been registered. A reduction in the number of young convicts has been remarked. Even as late as 1887 it stood at 3-2 per cent of the whole prison population. In 1892 it was 1-2 per cent. These observations agree with the statement that the diminution in the whole amount of criminality is mainly attributable to a decrease in the number of young offenders, while the proportion of older delinquents has increased.