Thai Tradition Manual Arts

In ancient times up to the early modern period in Thailand, Thai craftsmen were considered the "true artists". They were thought to possess superior intellect, a full understanding of culture and a wide ranging wisdom. They had the capacity to create and produce great works of art that can but rarely find their equal in execution today. These arts not only reflected the artists creative force but also cultural reflections of the art and its use in Thai society and culture.

"Chang feemeu", roughly equivalent to the English word "craftsman", has until only recently been considered by most Thais to be a much lower designation than "silapin", or artist. This is unfortunate and does not fully reflect the skill of some these artisans or the creative treasures they produced. We would like to emphasize that the works of these craftsman, works that are attributed with intelligence and creativity, are such as to demand appreciation by all true art lovers. Any study of the crafts as being somehow a study of a lesser form of art does not fully appreciate the true artistic force of these crafts or their importance to Thai life and culture. Many of these "craftsmen and women" were and are national treasures. The best of their works have a living force that calls for worship of the artisans creative force and artistic merit.

The old Thai phrase, "chang sip mu", or "ten divisions of craftsmen", is a phase whose original usage was the name of a government department comprising craftsmen assigned to ten departmental divisions. Let's take a look at this list of divisions as it gives us a general idea of the range of the craftsmen's trades in Thailand at the time of the reign of The Great King Rama V (1853-1910).

The Ten Divisions of Craftsmen

1. Drawing
thai-mural-drawingDrawing were done by craftsmen, drawers, illustrators, pictorial gilders, lacquer craftsmen, painters, muralists and manuscript illustrators.

2. Engraving
thai8This work includes the woodcarver, the engraver and the woodblock cutter, silversmith, goldsmiths and jewelers, enameling, inlay and embossing and architectural woodcarvers.

3. Sculpting
thai3paper and plaster sculps, decorative fruit and vegetable carvers

4. Modeling
thai6bronze casters, figure modeler, mask and puppet makers, stucco sculptural and architectural modelers

5. Figuring
animal and bestiary figures, figure assemblers and lantern-maker

6. Turning

lathe workers, carpenters and joiners, ivory carvers

7. Plastering
thai5plaster craftsmen, stucco workers and sculptors

8. Molding
thai11making Buddha images, bronze and metal casting, clay and bee's wax modelers

9. Lacquering
thai9lacquer work, gilding, glass mosaic, mother-or-peal inlay work, Buddha images, carvers of wooden panels and pictorial gilding

10. Beating
thai10metal beaters, monk's bowl maker, jewelers, silversmith

Thai Artisan's over the centuries have excelled in each of these arts. Although less has been written about these arts than Thai mastery of ceramics, painting and some of the better known fine arts, each of these fields provided a major opportunity for artistic accomplishment. A deep understanding of Thai art therefore demands a full study of each of the ten divisions reflected above.