Woman Subordination, Language and Culture Influence of Classic Novel

Siti Nurbaya and Oey Se novel

Siti Nurbaya is a well-known novel in Balai Pustaka era that was written by Marah Rusli.  It has been talking about it, and learnt by all students in Indonesia. Not only Indonesia, Siti Nurbaya novel ever compared with Shakespeare’s work, Romeo and Juliet. Siti Nurbaya novel has translated into Russia Language. Even, people often calls “Siti Nurbaya era”, because the popularity of the novel. Besides that, there is Oey Se novel that was written by   Thio Tjin Boen. It was published in Malay Tionghoa era where it is not considered by people. There is similarity in both novels, they critic about the existence of subordination woman in traditional tradition. However, both of novels has own characteristic. In addition they reveal a history of Indonesia. There is literary work in each history, because history is part of literature.


Siti Nurbaya

Siti Nurbaya (Unrealized Love) is a story that happens in Padang, West Sumatra. The story tells about two teenagers whose name Syamsubahri and Siti Nurbaya. They were neighborhood; they were used to play together since they are since child. Then, when they grew up become young beautiful lady and young handsome man, they felt in love each other.

Someday, Syamsubahri had to go to Jakarta to have a study in a medical school. It was so hard for them to desperate, even he got nightmare that there would be big dangerous on them later. He was so worried about the dream.  But, he had to leave Siti Nurbaya. Even, Siti Nurbaya was in Padang, and Syamsubahri was in Jakarta, they kept in touch by sending letter.

One day, syamsubahri dreamt comes true. There was something dangerous threaten him and Siti Nurbaya. Datuk Maringgih who was jealous with Baginda Sulaiman’s success. Datuk Maringgih was rich and abusive people. He arranged to destroy Baginda Sulaiman, and then he succeeded. Baginda Sulaiman was bankrupt, he had debted Datuk Maringgih a great number of money for remaking business after the bankruptcy. it was the turning point of the real problem. But, finally, Baginda Sulaiman couldnot pay his debt. Datuk Maringgih asked Siti Nurbaya as substitute the debt. Siti Nurbaya was forced marry to Datuk Maringgih, because she wanted to save her father.  Datuk Maringgih was very happy because his planning succeeds.

Syamsubahri heard the news, he was very angry with the abusive Datuk Maringgih. However, Siti Nurbaya ran away from Padang to Jakarta to be with Syamsubahri. Unfortunately, Datuk Maringgih’s servants got Siti Nurbaya and bring her to Padang. Afterward, Datuk Maringgih killed Siti Nurbaya by giving her a poisoned cake. Syamsubahri was very furious to hear that. He promised to revenge.

Ten years later.    Syamsubahri joined to Dutch soldier. Datuk Maringgih led an uprising against Dutch Government to protest tax increasing.  During the uprising Syamsubahri met Datuk Maringgih, and finally, he killed Datuk Maringgih. Afterward, Syamsubahri died because of some wound.

Oey Se,

Oey Se was a rich Chinese merchant in Pekalongan. Before Oey Se became rich man, he was a poor people. Someday, he met a poor people whose name Metro. Oey Se saw that Metro had many papers which the paper was material for making money, but the owner, Metro didn’t know that. Then, Oey Se bought all papers from Metro. In short, he becomes rich merchant because of the paper.

One day, there was a noble Dutch drops by to Oey Se’s house. He said that he bring precious thing. He brings two cases which is full of gold coins. The Dutch trusted Oey Se to keep his case. Then, Oey Se put the cases in his private room. During the cases is in his room, Oey Se is very curious with the cases. He wants to see inside the cases, and then with his authority he can open the cases. Between surprise and happy he sees the cases. Both of cases are full of gold coins. His greed makes him want the gold. He replaces some of gold coins with silver coins. He feels that he will be richer with the gold. He does not care with the other.

Afterward, the Dutch wants to go. But when he checked inside the cases, the gold coins had changed into silver. The Dutch suspected that Oey Se had replaced the gold, but he could not prove his suspicious. He went without say good bye or thank to Oey Se. He cursed Oey Se; he went with anger. Arriving to his hometown, the Dutch did suicide because he felt very guilty with the owner of the cases. God does not sleep. He knows everything.

Oey Se had a daughter. She was very beautiful, so no wonder that there were so many men who wished to make her their wife. One of her admirer was a regent. He was a Javanese people. At the time, Chinese people had to marry with Chinese people. They could not marry with different ethnic, it would be shameful. Because the regent was mad of her. He used witchcraft to make the girl felt in love with him. His plan was success. The girl leave her home and lived with the regent, became his wife; even he was a recent convert to Islam. The act of her daughter made Oey Se was furious. He decided to leave Pekalongan and considered his daughter was died. Oey Se and family moved to Batavia (Jakarta). Oey Se was very shameful because of that. He realized that might be it was the punishment from the God. Then, oey Se lived happily in Batavia, but his daughter finally died because she was sick, and many people said that she did not die in piece. Because Chinese people believed that Chinese who had mixed Java will not be accepted by the earth.


Siti Nurbaya novel was published in Balai Pustaka period. The author, Marah Rusli, was an animal doctor but also he was a writer. He was born in West Sumatra, Padang. He was the first romance writer that given title by H.B. Jasin as Bapak Roman Modern Indonesia (Father of Modern Romance of Indonesia). He had marriage with Sudanese woman. But then, went he came back to Padang, he was forced to marry Minang girl. His bad experience with the traditional manners of Padang was revealed in his novel, Siti Nurbaya. In his novel, he wanted to tell that woman actually has equality gender. Woman must have well education, and also have a right to choose.

Whereas, Oey Se is novel by Thio Tjin Boen. He was born in Pekalongan in 1885 and he died in 1940 in bandung. Besides, as a novelist, He was a journalist and interpreter.  He wanted to tell to reader in his novel Oey Se that there will be always judgment for everything that we do.

Feminism in Siti Nurbaya Novel

Siti Nurbaya was one of feminist novel. The author Marah Rusli struggled feminism in his novel. Siti Nurbaya family and Syamsubahri family are described as family that became example of family that did not really do Padang tradition. The author also revealed feminism by Character Siti Nurbaya. I think there are two points here.

  1. Young Marriage and education

High education is not for Padang people at the time, even, it is not for woman. Woman does not need to study, because they will be wife at last. They just need to be home and wait for a man. Character Siti Nurbaya against the tradition. She gets education. She thinks that it is bad for getting marriage in the very young age. Young marriage is bad for her body and her child later. Moreover, the quality of a nation will decrease because the youth get marry to early. Siti Nurbaya thinks that way, because she knows that the traditional people thinks when a young girl does not get marry, they are considered as unsold girl. So, traditional people will marry her daughter in age about eleven.

  1. Right to Choose

Siti Nurbaya is well-known as a story about forced marriage. But, actually, It is not forced marriage, but forced to have marriage. In this story, Baginda Sulaiman as the father of Siti Nurbaya does not force her to marry Datuk Marringgih. She does not want to see her father in jail. She finally decides to have marriage with Datuk Maringgih. I can see here that actually Siti Nurbaya has a right to choose her future husband because her father never forces him to get marriage. But, the condition forced Siti Nurbaya. I want to emphasize that actually Siti Nurbaya comes as a Padang people who does not bound with the old tradition, to have young marriage with planed marriage by the parent. The old tradition at time is planed marriage, so that is why, it is known as Siti Nurbaya period as period when our husband or wife is chosen by the parent.

Woman Subordination in Oey Se

Same with Siti Nurbaya, the both novel emphasize about the old tradition. In this novel, the author Thio Tjin Boen also reveals the old tradition in Chinese. It is still about gender equality. This novel describes that the position is subordinate. There are two old Chinese traditional that seems put woman as subordinate subject. First, Chinese woman cannot have marriage with other nation or native people. Kim Nio, a daughter of Oey Se ran away to have marriage with native people. Kim Nio converts to Islam after she gets marriage with native people. At time, Chinese considered that native people must be Islam. So, the author Thio Tjin Boen also shows that in his story. It is shameful for Oey Se knowing that his daughter ran away and got marriage with native people. In addition in the end of story also stated that Chinese who has mixed with Java will not be accepted by the earth. It shows that actually Chinese woman does not have a right to choose a man freely.

Second, there was no right for woman to forbid her husband to have second marriage. Oey Se took a mistress from Singapore then he married her as second wife. The first wife could not protest that. Even, Oey Se did not need permission to get marriage although with many women. So, I see that Chinese woman is like has no power and helpless.

Language and Culture

The language of both novels was influenced by Malay language. In Siti Nurbaya that published in Balai Pustaka used High Malay or Formal Malay. Even, in Balai Pustaka era, Rhyme (syair) or traditional poetry (pantun) starts to be replaced by poem (puisi), but Marah Rusli still uses many rhymes in this work. It shows Malay culture that use pantun in their daily conversation. The novel also little influenced a European culture or West like Marah Rusli shows in one of event when Syamsubahri kissed Siti Nurbaya. I think at the time, it still taboo for doing such kind of thing. One of source said that, the influence happened because Marah Rusli was an intellectual person who had high education; he read many books, then his lifestyle is as if like European. (http://id.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siti_Nurbaya ). However, Minangkabau culture dominated this story, because this novel revealed the traditional culture in Padang.

Different with Siti Nurbaya, Oey Se uses low Malay, Malay language that used by daily life. Oey Se was published in Malay Tionghoa period. Even, Balai Pustaka period and Malay Tionghoa period happened in the same time, nevertheless Malay Tionghoa literature were marginalized due to using of law Malay. Malay Tionghoa literature like Oey Se does not use standard language. Oey Se novel transfers spoken language as society language or lingua franca into written text. Oey Se was made in 1903. At the time, relationship between Chinese ethnic and Dutch colonialism government was good. Taking a look before the time, there was slaughter for Chinese Ethnic. Then at 1900, schools for Chinese ethnic were built. The born of Budi Utomo strengthen the existence of Chinese ethnic. From economic point of view, in 1900, government colonialism prevented interaction between native and Chinese, the condition made trade concentration for Chinese just was centered in city, therefore; it made Chinese economical was good. (http://id.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tionghoa-Indonesia) The situation influences Oey Se novel. The role of Chinese people in trade is described by Oey Se. Oey Se is described as a rich merchant. We could see that at the time, Chinese ethnic was developed in Indonesia. Therefore, opinion which say that Chinese people is identically with rich people has showed in this novel. Nevertheless, Thio Tjin Boen also wants to reveal that there are poor Chinese people. It is shown by character Kacung in Oey Se novel.  But it is not too emphasized in this novel. Javanese culture influenced is showed by the existence of gamelan. Oey Se used gamelan to greet Mr Vigni.


Siti Nurbaya and Oey Se reflect history of Indonesia traditional culture. Both novels give critique for traditional tradition which seems subordinate women. So, then I conclude that most of traditional manner even in Chinese or in Indonesia seems not fair for women. Especially, woman position in their family, women have no power to take decision and choose. Chinese Ethnic However, we can take learn from the both novel. First, from Siti Nurbaya, the message of Marah Rusli are: 1) young people has a right to argue and to choose, 2) every people has a right to have education 3) however, it is not good lending money from an usurer. Second, from Oey Se novel, Thi Tjin Boen wants to tell that it is not good having something by hurting other people. There will be punishment then.

The both novel is influenced by Malay language. But, there is a different; Siti Nurbaya uses formal Malay language or people call it High Malay, whereas Oey Se uses very informal language that transfer lingua franca (spoken language) into written text. People call it low Malay, so Malay Tionghoa literature was marginalized because the language in daily activity, moreover there was discrimination for Chinese ethnic; therefore, people didn’t considere Malay Tionghoa literature. Nevertheless, Malay Tionghoa is admitted as one of Indonesian literature.

Moreover, culture of both novels is dominated by local culture. In Siti Nurbaya, Padang or Minangkabau culture is dominant; however it is also influenced by Dutch culture or European culture. In Oey Se novel is dominated by Chinese culture. Although, there is influence from Javanese and Dutch culture.

 List of References

Rusli, Marah. 2008. Siti Nurbaya. Jakarta : Balai Pustaka.

~. 2000.Kasastraan Melayu Tionghoa dan Kebangsaan Indonesia (Jilid I). Jakarta : KPG (Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia)

Sneddon, J. 2003. The Indonesian Language Its History and Role in Modern Society. Australia : A UNSW Press Book.

Chusniatun, and Thoyyib, M. 2005. ’The Image of Female Chinese Descendants In Chinese Malay Literature: Gender-Perspective Sociological Study’. Jurnal Penelitian Humaniora. Vol.6.1. 69-84.

http://id.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tionghoa-Indonesia accessed in January 2nd, 2013 at 1.00 PM.

http://id.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siti_Nurbaya accessed in January 2nd, 2013 at 3.00 PM.

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/budaya_tionghua/message/11585 accessed in January 2nd, 2013 at 3.00 PM.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indonesian_literature accessed in January 2nd, 2013 at 3.00 PM

written by Ayufi

Semarang, Indonesia


3 thoughts on “Woman Subordination, Language and Culture Influence of Classic Novel

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