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Cultural Life

Before 1970, Cambodian culture and artistic expression were overshadowed by the greatness of the past. Although the Khmer empire owed much to Indian influence, its achievements represented original contributions to Asian civilization. The magnificent architecture and sculpture of the Angkor period (802-1432), as seen in the temple complexes at Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom (see photograph), marked the apex of Khmer creativity. Following the capture of Angkor by the Thai (15th century) and the crumbling of the empire, the region underwent four centuries of foreign invasions, civil war, and widespread depopulation. It was not until the establishment of the French protectorate in 1863 that internal security was restored, the country's borders were stabilized, and efforts were undertaken to revive traditional Khmer art forms. After Cambodia gained independence from France in 1953, the government placed particular emphasis on accelerating that revival by establishing a national school of music, a national school of ballet and theatre, and a fine arts university. This coincided with the rapid expansion of elementary and secondary school facilities and the emergence of education as the most important factor of social mobility.

While Democratic Kampuchea's leadership, inspired by the People's Republic of China, made culture subservient to Marxist-Leninist doctrines, the government in Phnom Penh after 1979 made serious efforts to restore such traditional activities as classical music, ballet, and popular theatre. Foreign aid from India and Poland was used to clean and maintain some of the temples at Angkor, which had suffered from years of vandalism and neglect. These aspects of high culture have had to compete for people's attention with videotapes imported from Hong Kong, Thailand, and elsewhere, and with Western popular music.

Music and dance forms

Music occupied a dominant place in traditional Cambodian culture. It was sung and played everywhere--by children at play, by adults at work, by young men and women while courting--and invariably was part of the many celebrations and festivals that took place throughout the year at Buddhist temples in the rural countryside. Instruments used in full orchestras included xylophones with wooden or metal bars, one- and two-stringed violins, wooden flutes, oboes, and drums of different sizes. The players followed the lead of one instrument, usually the xylophone, and improvised as they wished.

Dancing and drama were also popular forms of artistic expression. The Royal Ballet in Phnom Penh exemplified the classic, highly stylized dance form adapted by the Khmer and Thai from the ancient dances of Angkor. In the countryside, folk drama and folk dances were performed at festivals and weddings by wandering troupes.

Visual arts

The traditional visual arts of Cambodia revealed the essential conservatism of the Khmer. Ancient themes were preferred and rarely was there an effort to improve or adapt. The principal crafts were weaving, working silver and gold, making jewelry, and the sculpture of wood and stone.


In the 1960s and early 1970s, Cambodia's traditionally conservative literature--which was based to a large extent on Thai literary forms--came under Western influence, as did its audience of young, urbanized Cambodian elite. Novels, poetry, visual arts, and films came to reflect international taste. All these forms of expression, however, were banned by the officials of Democratic Kampuchea, and freedom of expression was limited by the government after 1979 through paper shortages and by the regime's use of literature for propaganda.


Most ethnic Khmer are Theravada (Hinayana) Buddhists (i.e., belonging to the older and more traditional of the two great schools of Buddhism, the later school being called Mahayana). Until 1975 Buddhism was officially recognized as the state religion of Cambodia. Although the social and psychological characteristics often ascribed to the Khmer--individualism, conservatism, patience, gentleness, and lack of concern for material wealth--were often in the eyes of the beholder, they represented Buddhist ideals toward which a large number of Cambodians, especially in rural areas, have continued to aspire. Buddhist precepts, however, do not permeate Cambodian education and ideology as strongly as they did before 1975.

Minority populations were not Theravada Buddhists. Tribal people were animists, and the ethnic Vietnamese and Chinese were eclectic, following Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism, and such syncretic Vietnamese religious movements as the Cao Dai. The Cham were strict Muslims, and a sizable number of Vietnamese were members of the Roman Catholic church.

Demographic Trends

In common with many developing countries, Cambodia has a large proportion of children in its population. It should be noted, however, that population trends have been difficult to trace because of the destruction and dislocation since the early 1970s, because of the lack of statistical information available, and because an enormous number of people of childbearing age have died. The war and social revolution in the 1970s and the political and economic disruption in the country since then have seriously affected the distribution of Cambodia's population. Between 1975 and 1978, hundreds of thousands of urban people were forcibly moved into rural areas to cultivate rice and to dig and maintain extensive irrigation works. With the exception of Phnom Penh and Batdāmbāng (Battambang), few towns and cities subsequently have regained their pre-1970 population levels. In addition, more than 600,000 people have sought permanent or temporary residence outside Cambodia since 1979. About a third of these have emigrated overseas, while most of the remainder have settled in refugee camps in Thailand along the Cambodian border; the repatriation of these refugees under United Nations auspices was one of the provisions of a peace agreement signed in Paris in 1991.