Malay Literature

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Malay Literature


the literature of the Malays and related peoples living in Indonesia, Malaysia, and southern Thailand. With the formation of new ethnic and political communities in Southeast Asia in the 20th century, the term “Malay literature,” as distinct from Indonesian literature, is applied primarily to the Malay-language literature in Malaysia, which is also called Malaysian literature. Most works of classical Malay literature are anonymous and difficult to date. Malay literature was greatly influenced by the Ramayana and Mahabharata, Indian frame tales, and Persian and Arabic literature. Throughout the Middle Ages it was influenced by Javanese literature, particularly scenarios (lakons) of the Javanese puppet theater.

The earliest works, written in Old Malay, date from the seventh century. It is possible that Old Malay, along with Sanskrit, was the literary language of the Indianized Śrivijaya empire that existed from the seventh to the 12th century. Although all the extant copies of Malay literary works are written in the Arabic script introduced after the triumph of Islam in the Malay world, many of them are imbued with Hindu ideas adapted to Malay or Javanese beliefs and popular legends. Among the best-known of these works are the Tale of Sri Rama (Russian translation, 1961), Tale of the War of the Victorious Pandavas, Tale of Sang Boma (Russian translation 1973), and Tale of Marakarma.

Malay literature performed an important regional function in the 15th to 19th centuries, when the Malay language was used in the propagation of Islam and, from the 18th century, Christianity in the Malay Archipelago. In the 13th and 14th centuries medieval Malay literature flourished in the kingdom of Pasai on Sumatra, and in the 15th century the literary center shifted to the Malacca Sultanate. After the capture of Malacca by the Portuguese in 1511, literature continued to develop in the Johore Sultanate in the southern Malay Peninsula and in the Acheh Sultanate in northern Sumatra; in the 19th century the literary center was the Penyengat Sultanate on the Riau Islands in the Strait of Malacca.

The oldest examples of Malay folklore include incantations and exorcisms (mantra), rhymed riddles (teka-teki) songs, and lyrical and didactic pantuns. The main character of the animal epics is the mouse deer Pelandok (Kantchil), and the stock characters of the farcical tales include Pa Kadok (Papa Pea Pod), Pa Pandir (Uncle Folly), and Lebai Malang (The Luckless Parson). In the late 19th and early 20th centuries several “comforting” stories (cherita penglipur lara) were written down in Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula. Among the most notable of these folk tales in rhythmic prose are Malim Deman, Si Umbut Muda, and Trong Pipit.

The major prose genres of written literature were hikayat romances and genealogical chronicles (sejarah), in which until the 19th century folklore took the place of history, for example, The Tale of the Pasai Rajahs (14th century) and Kedah Chronicle (18th century). The hikayats are similar to European romances and are usually based on Indian and Javanese subjects: Chekel Waneng Pati (15th century), Tale of Panji Semirang (Russian translation, 1965), Tale of Damar Wulan, Tale of Inderaputera, and Tale of Maharajah Puspa Wiraja. The hikayats dealing with subjects from Persian and Arabic dastans resemble saints’ lives, for example, the 14th-century Tale of the Two-horned Iskandar (about Alexander the Great), the 14th-century Tale of the Light of the Prophet, the 14th-century Tale of Amir Hamzah, and the 15th-century Tale of Muhammad Hanafiah.

The late 16th century and the first half of the 17th saw the appearance of the final versions of the most important work of classical Malay literature, Malay Genealogies, and the Tale of Hang Tuah, an epic of the high Middle Ages. Also dating from this period are the works of the unorthodox Sufi poet Hamzah Fansuri and his follower, the pantheist philosopher Samsuddin of Pasai (died 1630). Orthodox Sufi works include The Crown of Kings (1603) by Jauhari al-Buhari and The Garden of Kings (1638) by Nuruddin al-Raniri (died 1658).

The shaer verse form, a quatrain with a single rhyme, which was introduced into Malay literature by Hamzah Fansuri, became the basis of a lyrical-epic genre of the same name on folklore themes or subjects borrowed from the hikayats: Poem of Ken Tambuhan, Poem of Bidasari, Poem of Si Lindong Dalima, and Poem of Abdu al-Muluk. Historical shaers, such as Amin’s Poem of the Makasar War (17th century), became popular from the late 17th century and particularly in the 19th century. In their wealth of factual detail these shaers resemble the later historical chronicles, such as Misa Melayu by Rajah Chulan (18th century) and Tale of the Land of Johore (late 18th century). A rational outlook characterizes the work of Abdullah bin Abdulkadir Munshi (1796-1854), an early propagator of enlightened ideas who lived at the time of the consolidation of British colonial rule, as well as the work of the last Malay historiographer, Rajah Ali Haji (1909-70) of Penyengat on the Riau Archipelago.

For modern and contemporary Malay literature, see; Literature.


Winstedt, R. Puteshestvie cherez polmilliona stranits: Istoriia malaiskoi klassicheskoi literatury. Introduction by B. B. Parnikel’. Moscow, 1966. (Translated From English.)
Newermann, G. Golos buivola: Malaiskie (indoneziiskie) narodnye pesni. Introduction by L. A. Mervart. Moscow, 1959. (Translated from German.)
Hooykaas, C. Over Maleise literatuur. Leiden, 1947.
Teeuw, A., and H. W. Emanuels. A Critical Survey of Studies on Malay and Bahasa Indonesia. The Hague, 1961.
Usman, Z. Kesusasteraan lama Indonesia, 3rd ed. Jakarta, 1963.
Darus Ahmad, Kesusasteraen Kelasik Melayu. Kota Bharu, 1965.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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