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Chuon Nath: Guardian of Cambodian culture

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Cambodia’s famous monk, Samdech Chuon Nath.

In a search for Khmer identity, given the arrival of traders from India and China over the last few centuries and more recently the French Protectorate and the arrival of the Vietnamese Army during the liberation from the Pol Pot regime – one Buddhist monk stands out as someone extraordinary – a visionary Khmer lexicographer and leader of Cambodian Buddhism Samdech Chuon Nath.

Chuon Nath (1883-1969) lived during a time when Cambodian cultural traditions were being threatened by foreign influences. He headed a reformist movement in the Khmer Buddhist Sangha (community or association)  which developed a rationalist-scholastic model of Buddhism, rooted in linguistic studies of what is known as the Pali Cannon. Chuon Nath’s movement influenced a great many young Khmer monks during the early 20th century. Cambodian nationalism was enhanced by the movement which helped identify a unique Khmer identity and culture through the language.

The translation of the entire Buddhist (Pali cannon) texts into the Khmer language and the writing of the Khmer language dictionary were important accomplishments.

With French cultural influence moving in through the vehicle of the protectorate, Khmer scholars joined with Choun Nath to work on preserving the Khmer language and identity.

The son of a farming family, Chuon Nath’s life can be seen as dedicated to Buddhism and Khmer identity during the period of strongest French influence. He used his great knowledge of the Khmer language to encourage “Khmerization” in religion and education.  He thus invented Khmer words from their roots in the Pali and Sanskrit to describe modern inventions such as the railroad train.  Choun Nath took the word Ayomoyo which means something made of metal and combined it with the word Yana which means vehicle and created the Khmer word in use today Ayaksmeyana.

There was opposition to his Khmerization program including Franch-oriented scholars Keng Vannsak, who took another route for language in which they transformed French words into the Khmer vocabulary using the same pronunciation as much as possible with the Khmer alphabet.

In spite of the linguist tug-of-war, Chuon Nath’s work prevailed when he became a member of the original committee granted a royal order to prepare a Khmer dictionary in 1915.
His first edition of the dictionary was finally printed in 1967.

Cambodia’s national anthem Nokoreach has been mostly credited to Chuon Nath. It was written to correspond to the motto of Cambodia:  Nation, Religion, King.

The Cambodian National Anthem translates into English thus:
All Khmers, please remember the root and history of our great country
Our boundary was wide and well known
Others always thought highly of our race
And always placed our race as the elders.
We have great heritage and culture
Which has spread far and wide in the Far East.
Religion, arts and education,
Music, philosophy and strategies are all that we have spread.
All Khmers, please remember our roots and history
Which speaks of the grandeur of our great race
Make up your mind and body and try hard to rebuild
In order to lift the value of our nation
To once again rise to the greatness that we once had.

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