Prolung Khmer (ព្រលឹងខ្មែរ) and Khmer Identity – A Historical Perspective

Author: Susan Needham (California State University Dominguez Hills)
Karen Quintiliani (California State University Long Beach)
Speaker: Susan Needham, Karen Quintiliani
Topic: Language, community, ethnicity
The (SCOPUS / ISI) SOAS GLOCAL CALA 2019 General Session


This poster presents an overview and historical analysis of the construction and meanings of Prolung Khmer (ព្រលឹងខ្មែរ, meaning “Khmer Spirit” or “Khmer Soul”), an ideological discourse implicitly and explicitly indexing Khmer identity. Ideological discourses are an individual’s rationalization or justification of perceived social structure and social behaviors, which can serve as mediating links to represent to themselves and to others their understanding of what it means to be a member of a group – in this case what it means to be Khmer[i] . Prolung Khmer is a complex, multivalent cultural metaphor, linking aspects of Khmer history and social practices, such as Angkor, Buddhism, Khmer language (written and spoken), and classical dance, in an essentialized Khmer identity. It is invoked in personal conversation, at the national level, across media formats, and among members of the diaspora. As in any culture, not everyone is equally aware of, or dedicated to, all aspects of Prolung Khmer. However, most Cambodians participate in its key symbols, embracing some portion, however small. In the U.S., images of Angkor Wat, Bayon, and apsara are seen everywhere there are Cambodians. In Cambodia, these symbols are part of the national/political discourse representing Khmer uniqueness to Cambodians and the world.

In this poster we trace the historical development of Prolung Khmer from earliest times to the present. The core symbols and practices have remained remarkably stable over the centuries[ii], but their meanings have shifted over time. One of the most dramatic changes occurred during the French Protectorate (1860-1954) when Khmer language, architecture, and expressive arts, previously associated with royalty and used for sacred purposes, were reinterpreted by Khmer and French scholars to become emblems of the emerging modern Khmer nation[iii]. Further change has occurred as a new generation of Cambodians have re-imagined and re-created what it means to be Khmer at home and in the diaspora.


Michael Silverstein, “Language Structure and Linguistic Ideology,” in The Elements: A Parasession on Linguistic Units and Levels, ed. Paul R. Clyne, William F. Hanks, and Carol L. Hofbauer (Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society, 1979), 193–247; Michael Silverstein, “The Uses and Utility of Ideology: Some Reflections,” Pragmatics 2, no. 3 (1992): 311–23.

Ian Mabbett and David Chandler, The Khmers (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 1996), 219.
cf. Penny Edwards, Cambodge: The Cultivation of a Nation, 1860–1945 (University of Hawaii Press, 2007).
Keywords: Prolung Khmer, Khmer Identity, Ideological Discourses