Roots Rock Rama

The story of two kings represents the close ties that the people of China have to the Thai nation and explains the nation’s rise from the turmoil of the 18th century

Every year on December 28 the King of Thailand pays special homage to King Taksin the Great’s statue at the central traffic circle in Bangkok’s Thonburi district. The reason for this homage is that close to 250 years ago, on the same date in 1767, King Taksin crowned himself the King of Ayutthaya and commenced his tumultuous 15-year reign to rebuild the ailing Siamese empire.

The King of Thailand has other reasons to visit the Taksin statue on the outskirts of Bangkok. King Taksin was a childhood friend and mentor of King Rama I, founder and first king of the Chakri Dynasty, which extends up to the present King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX). Born as Thong Duang in 1737, King Rama I ruled from 1782 to 1809. Prior to assuming the throne, Thong Duang was one of King Taksin’s foremost generals, responsible to quell the unrest in Laos, Cambodia and the Malay states.

Most interesting when looking at these two kings in the early history of the Chakri Dynasty reign is their blood lines to China. The renowned King Rama I was son of a high court official and his part-Chinese wife in the royal court, while King Taksin was born to a Chinese immigrant father and a Thai wife. The roots of these two warrior kings shows the historical ties between Thailand and the Chinese empire to the north.

Thai kings have always welcomed business from Chinese merchants. King Rama I set the tone when he encouraged Chinese immigration to sustain economic flows, maintaining a policy established by King Taksin. During the war years with Burma, Chinese merchants imported goods to offset famine and provide cash flow to aid King Taksin’s revival of Thailand. King Taksin’s paternal “guanxi” to the Chaoshan clans of Guangdong was a force in this all important relationship.

The China trade relationship extends back even further. In the chronicles of Ramathibodi II (1491-1529) of Ayutthaya there is mention of the system of duty requiring every freeman to register as a servant with a local lord. Chinese were exempt from this obligation and free to move about the kingdom at will.

If anything points to the special relationship between Thailand and China, the story of two kings is at the front of the list. This saga shows how Chinese roots extend into the Thai culture, as inter-marriage has led to cultural assimilation. More important, the fortitude of these men was central in the unification of Thailand.

King Taksin came to power on the back of a 14-month siege that produced the brutal destruction of the 400-year Siam kingdom that ruled Southeast Asia from Ayutthaya. After taking Thonburi, King Taksin chose the title of King of Ayutthaya to maintain an association with the ancient kingdom.

It is the early cultural roots of King Taksin that ties him to King Rama I. A royal court Prime Minister adopted young King Taksin, who grew up as a noble educated by monks before serving as royal page. He met Thong-Duang when both were novices at a Buddhist monastery and they remained life long friends. As young students they met a Chinese fortune teller who predicted both would become kings. They remained on good terms throughout their life, before political forces came between them.

Phraya Tak (King Taksin’s name at the time) showed courage and skill as a general beating Burmese armies and was called to defend the capital when the Burmese attacked again. Before the fall of Ayutthaya, he escaped through the Burmese lines. He soon sailed 5,000 troops up Chaopraya River and took Thonburi as his capital.

With departure of Burmese at Ayutthaya, central authority disappeared. Generals, rogue monks, warlords and royal family members declared independence. King Taksin acted by instinct to bring the nation together with his trusted general.

After initial success political and economic problems set in. King Taksin, affected by the stress of constant warfare and crisis, retreated to a monastery to become a religious fanatic, meditating long hours and lecturing monks. Eventually, rebels gained control of Thonburi and removed Taksin from the throne.

In 1782, Thong Duang, now General Chao Phraya Chakri, rushed to quell the rebellion. After bringing peace to Thonburi again, General Chakri was crowned to establish the House of Chakri, founded Bangkok and constructed the Grand Palace.

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