Thanai Charoenkul — The Imposition of Thai Surnames : Establishment of Patriarchy within the Thai Family                                                                                                                                                                            

This article aims to present the origin of Thai surnames during the reign of King Vajiravudh (1910–1925), which were invented to institute a subjective citizenship. This invention was based on the desire to inaugurate the living together of a group through the establishment of a lineage or bloodline from the family. But it extended its implications to the creation of a modern state. Thai surnames initiated a system of masculine genealogy which had to be the only official lineage and made women legally dependent on the surnames of men. Because of the disappearance of a feminine genealogy, this amounted to the establishment of patriarchy within Thai family, but it also corresponded with the birth of a modern Thai state.

In 1913, the absolute monarchy era, Siamese government promulgated the Surname Act. Then, Thai people started using surnames in the Western style. The monarch expected that the surnames will act as a part of the governance of the nation-state, organizing family and the lineage of Thai people in a way that elites had never yet considered. Traditionally, family, in the Thai customary sense, meant people who lived together – no need to be a member of a bloodline or same descent. The concept of a group of people who were related by blood or marriage was a very new idea in Thai society, which gave rise to the modern nation-state era.

The monarch expressed his will that Thai people use surnames through his own writing. This imposition of surnames made family unite the smallest governing entity. Ruling a family led to therespect for the head of the family. Juniors had to respect their seniors as elder brothers. The senior person such as the father, or a  relative naturally senior, loved his family and did not desire to create conflict. This was the basis for the loyalty that members of a family had to have towards the head of the family. And it was also that which must inspire loyalty to the ruler of the nation at another level.

The Surname Act, which has created a subjective citizenship, consisted of  two main points.  First, the law required all Thai people to have a “personal name” and “surname”. The surname is inherited by the son from his father. The married woman had to use the surname of her husband and can still use her own personal name and surname. Second, the head of the household had to choose one surname and register it at the district office. This head of the family-unit must be a man and the oldest surviving of the family.

Such implications show that the Surname Act has legally established the authority of a man over thefamily as the head of family, and has created a  patrilineal order. It is worth noting that the law has stated that “the head of the family” is a man who is the oldest surviving of the family. However, it did not specify whether it must be a grandfather,  a father, or an oldest brother. Such condition reflects the background of Thai society that respects ​​hierarchy, especially seniority. Through the Surname Act, the law integrates the concept of gender, which is significant in the West, into the idea of ​​seniority or hierarchy in Thai society. 

Interestingly, the Surname Act was enacted on the same day as the Siam’s first Nationality Act. Thus, the Surname Act extended its effect beyond the family  and  also enhanced the NationalityAct – imposition of surnames has coincided with the emergence of Thainess. According to Luce Irigaray, it could  be said that Thai surnames have formally instituted an official single subject in Siam, a senior-masculine subject.

Consequently, the Surname Act has subjugated women, especially single woman without any status in the family. The surname chosen by the head of the family had to be used as well by the daughter as by the son, but it will be passed on only by male descendants. If the woman had no adult relatives on the male side who were still alive, she had to use the surname of a man who is a close relative who sheinherited her blood.

Women, in that time, had a problem with the Surname Act if they had no masculine relatives, as the Surname Act did not allow a woman to register her own surname. The National Archives give evidence of that about Nang In as the first woman who register her own surname. “I am a woman without brothers, and my father … died before I acquired a surname. Hence, it is my duty to compose my own surname to abide by the law of your land.” Ning In declared that “I am requesting the registration of the surname Thatsalima on behalf of my father, Nai Lo, who died before I  acquired a surname. But I request to be the keeper of this surname. …” However, the story just ended here.

Nang In expressed her own situation “I am a woman” as a subject but she also had to refer to her relationship with other men of her bloodline. But no man existed or he was dead, and to refer to feminine relatives, including her mother, was useless. Her relationship with masculine relatives corresponded to a relationship between subjects and was not a kind of subject-object relationship which expressed patriarchal dominance. Although Nang In represented a feminine subjectivity, she was asked to establish a relationship with her father, that is, with the world of the between-men in order to comply with “the law of your land.”

The Surname Act has instituted a genealogy in the masculine, feminine subjects depending on the submission to a genealogy of men. At that point, according to Irigaray, “patriarchy is established, and the daughter is separated from her mother and, more generally, from her family”. The Surname Act has instituted the patriarchal power by legally promoting the masculine genealogy as the only valid genealogy, emphasizing the bond between father and son, whereas deleting the bond between mother and daughter.

Consequently, Surname Act was primarily a tool to construct a group of people who were loyal to the head of the family. But loyalty was applied to the head of the nation too, and it must be also a man. All that ended in establishing patriarchy and nationalism, which are two parallel ideologies.