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Malay Culture

Hikayat Hang Tuah

Hikayat Hang Tuah Manuscript. Source: BKPBM collection.

A. Introduction

Many observers, among them are Kassim Ahmad (1997) and Liaw Yock Fang (1975), consider Hikayat Hang Tuah (The Story of Hang Tuah) as an epic of the purest Malay with a very conspicuous anti-Java nature. Therefore, it is not surprising that when it was published in Jawi script in 1960 by Djambatan-Gunung Agung, Jakarta, edited by Abas Datuk Pamuncak nan Sati, the book was banned by the Indonesian government, being judged to contain scenes that despised other ethnic group, namely the Javanese (Fang, 1975: 264).

Hikayat Hang Tuah is a relatively new text as it was created after various foreign influences had long been present in Malay world (A. Teeuw, 1983: 98, Sulastin Sutrisno, 2008: 16). According to B.B. Parnickel, the work was given its last form by Johor Sultanate during its glorious thirty years in between 40-70s of the 17th century. The intention of the writing of the brave Admiral Hang Tuah story was to honor the most powerful figure in Johor, namely Admiral Abdul Jamil (B.B. Parnickel in V.I. Braginsky, 1998:352). However, both the main character, Admiral Hang Tuah, and the whole narration in general, are very popular among Malay people, in a way Gadjah Mada is among the Javanese.

There are some evidences of the main character and narration’s popularity. One, a chapter of the story was transformed into a radio play by Ali Aziz with the title Hang Jebat Manderhaka. Further, a Sumatran local arts television show (16 February 1977) featured a drama-dance performance with the work as theme. Two, in about the year of 1956, Shaw Brothers film studio launched a colored movie about “Hang Tuah”. And three, the first warship of the Republic of Indonesia was given the name “Hang Tuah”, in a hope that the ship would always grab a victory at sea like Hang Tuah did as an admiral.

The names of Hang Tuah and his companions have also been used as street names in countries where Malay ethnic group live. The kris heirloom of the Istana Perak is called “keris Hang Tuah”. In his poem anthology, Amir Hamzah composed a poem entitled “Hang Tuah” that was included in the book Poeisi Baroe, edited by Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana (1946) and taken from Timboel (Sutrisno, 2008: 29).

The world literature community have also recognized Hikayat Hang Tuah as important to global culture. This is evident as the work has been translated in a number of languages, for example, German and English, either partially or entirely. Moreover, together with Sulalat-us-Salatin (Sejarah Melayu [Malay Annals]), Hikayat Hang Tuah has been acknowledged as a world’s masterpiece by the UNESCO (Haron Daud in Abdul Rahman Haji Ismail and Harun Daod [eds.], 2008: 57).

Hikayat Hang Tuah Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka Malaysia Edition. Source: BKPBM dpcumentation taken from Kassim Ahmad, 1997. Hikayat Hang Tuah. Kuala Lumpur: Yayasan Karyawan dan Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.

B. Manuscripts and Publications
  • Cod. Or. 1762, Leiden University, the Netherlands.
  • Hikayat Hang Tuah, W.G. Shellabear edition, in Jawi letters, Singapore, 1908.
  • Hikayat Hang Tuah, Balai Pustaka edition, Jakarta 1956.
  • Hikayat Hang Tuah, Djambatan-Gunung Agung edition, Jakarta, 1960.
  • Hikayat Hang Tuah, Karya Agung Melayu edition, Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1964.
  • Hikayat Hang Tuah, Karya Agung edition, Yayasan Karyawan dan Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1997.

C. Some Studies on Hikayat Hang Tuah

1. Confusion with Sejarah Melayu

Malay literature experts from the West used to confuse Hikayat Hang Tuah with Sejarah Melayu. The first to mention Hikayat Hang Tuah is Francois Valentijn, a Dutch priest. In 1726, Valentijn published a compact book, consisting of seven volumes, about “Oud en Nieuw Oost – Indien” (Sutrisno, 2008: 18-19).

In the fifth volume, in the chapter about Malaka, Valentijn mentions three Malay literary books he owned, namely “Tajus Salatin or Mahkota Segala Raja-Raja (the Crown of All Kings), Misa Gomitar, and Kitab Hantoewa or Hang Tuah, which is usually known by Malay scholars as Sulalat as-Salatin, or the Sultans of Malaka.” Valentijn describes these books as “rarely found diamonds, yet could be considered as the greatest Malay works” and he further says that the Kitab Hang Tuah is a very readable Malay book (Teeuw, 1983: 92-93).

Another Western observer who confused the two works was G.H. Werndly, a Swiss priest who worked for VOC. He wrote a book of Malay grammar (nahu) in 1736. In the book, Werndly encloses a list of Malay books he knew. On the number 43, he states:

“Hikajat Hang Tuwah, ‘is a history of Hang Tuewah, the name of the writer who also calls the book Sulalatu’l-Salathin, which is a record of Kings for generations. This is a story of the kings and sultans who were all descended from Alexander the Great’” (Teeuw, 1983:93-94).

Werndly, thus, has added the confusion. First, he assumes that Hang Tuah is the author of Hikayat Hang Tuah (Sutrisno, 2008-19). Second, in relation to the story of Hang Tuah, he talks about the kings being descendants of Alexander the Great. This shows that the book Werndly actually refers to is Sejarah Melayu, not Hikayat Hang Tuah (Teeuw, 1983: 94).

There is one more observer who confused Hikayat Hang Tuah with Sejarah Melayu, namely John Crawfurd. Teeuw (1983: 94) and Sutrisno (2008: 19) presumes that the cause of the confusion is statements in the introduction part of a Hikayat Hang Tuah manuscript kept in the library of Leiden University, i.e. Manuscript Or. 1762. The introduction reads:

Ini hikayat Hang Tuah yang amat masyhur terlalu gagah berani dan bijaksana lagi telah setia dan setiawati pada tuannya dan elok rupanya dan sikapnya, amat pahlawan lagi sangat berbuat kebaktian kepada tuannya. Pada masa itu tiada berlawan di negeri Melayu dan Jawa dan ialah yang termasyhur pada segala negeri di bawah angin ini, disebut orang namanya hidup datang pada akhir jaman, asalnya turun-temurun daripada anak-cucu sultan Iskandar Dzulkarnain raja ... (some words in this lines cannot be read) dan ialah raja-raja pada segala raja-raja yang menjalani matahari hidup dan mati, maka daripada asal baginda itulah menjadi raja besar kepada akhir zaman (Teeuw, 1983:94). [1]

The quotation above does not exist in other published texts nor in other manuscripts in Leiden. However, this introduction may be the cause of the confusion about Sejarah Melayu, which tells about Malay kings’ lineage from Alexander the Great, and Hikayat Hang Tuah, which tells about Hang Tuah, the man who is very loyal to his King (Teeuw, 1983: 94).

2. Association to Sejarah Melayu

Valentijn, Werndly, and Crawfurd have clearly confused Hikayat Hang Tuah with Sejarah Melayu. Aside from the possible causes suggested by Teeuw and Sutrisno, the confusions are very likely to result from the fact that some narrations of the two works are seemingly alike, yet different in details.

Despite lacking strong evidence to say that the writer of Hikayat Hang Tuah based the story on Sejarah Melayu, Kassim Ahmad (1997) shows that indeed there are not less than 15 events in Sejarah Melayu are told in Hikayat Hang Tuah.

In Sejarah Melayu, it is Hang Kasturi whom Hang Tuah fights, while in Hikayat Hang Tuah, Hang Tuah’s opponent is Hang Jebat. Sejarah Melayu tells that Hang Nadim (Hang Tuah’s son in law) abducts Tun Teja, while in Hikayat Hang Tuah it is Hang Tuah himself who does so. In Sejarah Melayu, Tun Teja’s fiancé is said to be Sultan Abdul Jamil Pahang, while in Hikayat Hang Tuah, her fiancé is Megat Trengganu (Ahmad, 1997:xiii).

Not only do the differences exist in the characters involved in an occasion, they are also found in language-related aspects. Sejarah Melayu was written by a person who was fluent in Arabic and influenced a lot by Islam religion. Hikayat Hang Tuah, on the other hand, portrays Malay way of thinking before the arrival of the religion. The style, however, is not less modest, soft and compact compared to that of Sejarah Melayu, yet, influence of Arabic words and style is found minimum except in some parts that were probably just added later. Nevertheless, it is not possible that the history (of Hang Tuah) were written by the same author as Sejarah Melayu (Ahmad. 1997: xiv).

3. Dominant Historic Interpretations on Hikayat Hang Tuah

Many early Western observers viewed Hikayat Hang Tuah from historic standpoint. Werndly, who has falsely considered Hang Tuah as the author of the story, further asserts that Hikayat Hang Tuah is a historic narrative about the kings and sultans who were believed to be descended from Alexander the Great (Sutrisno, 2008: 19).

John Crawfurd, who has made a mistake for confusing Hikayat Hang Tuah with Sejarah Melayu, derides Hikayat Hang Tuah as unreasonable and childish. It is only the parts in which Malay morals and way of life are pictured that he regards as having little value. Not even a bit of the events in the book should be believed as real. There is also not found any year mark. From Crawfurd’s point of view, the work is not valuable (Sutrisno, 2008: 20).

C.A. Hooykaas sees the work from two angles i.e. structure and content. Structurally, the work is a fiction. However, the content of the work is more legendary in nature, yet historic. But then after a long time its historic aspects have been hushed up by local folktales and now become vague. It developed to become stories of life and adventure of the main character, Hang Tuah, mixed with various legends that can be associated with the hero’s life (Sutrisno, 2008: 20).

R.O. Winstedt views the work especially from historic point of view, albeit not including it in Malay history section in his work about Malay literature. Winstedt says that the author did not really take history and annals into consideration. Thus, the work, he says, is a non-critical mixture of historic fairytales. Many things in it are false, confusing and so on (Sutrisno, 2008: 17).

4. A Work of Literature, Not of History

In the 19th century, Western observers began to draw clear distinctions between Sejarah Melayu and Hikayat Hang Tuah. In 1854, E. Netscher has given an explanation as to Hikayat Hang Tuah being a modern work, saying, “Hikayat Hang Tuah is not a historic text. It is a ‘fiction’ that is very important in understanding Malay way of life some centuries ago” (Teeuw, 1983: 95; Sutrisno, 2008: 19). By this Netscher has categorized Hikayat Hang Tuah as a literary work in the form of a fiction.

Despite considering Sejarah Melayu, Hikayat Hang Tuah and other texts as materials of reference in investigating classic Malay history and society, John Leyden, the first translator of Sejarah Melayu, never distinguishes clearly between history books and fictions (Teeuw, 1983:95). The confusion is furthered by Crawfurd, who strongly confronts Valentijn and Leyden’s opinion that the Malay books are useful, either as sources of knowledge of history or as literary works.

In 1839, Newbold praised Malay storyteller’s great aptitude as what is seen in Hikayat Hang Tuah. However, he sees no distinction between Sejarah Melayu and Hikayat Hang Tuah (Teeuw, 1983: 95).

During the World War I, Hans Overbeck, a German who was in Singapore, was detained by an English dignitary. Overbeck brought an edition of Hikayat Hang Tuah with him inside the prison and translated the work into German. His translation was published in Munich in 1922 and until 1980, it was the only complete translation of the work in an European language. In his foreword, Overbeck plainly calls the work “the most beautiful of all Malay literary works” (Teeuw, 1983: 96).

Overbeck thinks that the work is a biography of Hang Tuah, whose story gradually developed as more tales and other stories were linked with the Malay hero figure. He doubts if there had really been a writer who wrote Hikayat Hang Tuah on purpose. Basically, the story has been enhanced naturally from a plain story to become a very long story with abundant references. It is actually a collective work of Malay people. Hang Tuah has turned himself from a historic hero into a legend (historic tale) (Teeuw, 1983, 1983: 96).

Hooykaas opposes the labeling of Hikayat Hang Tuah as a historic literary work. He insists that a historic literary work needs investigations on the past, something not present in the story. Instead, he calls the work as a legendary fiction (legendarische roman) (Fang, 1975: 264; Teeuw, 1983: 97).

R.O. Winstedt, whereas, seems to have difficulties in putting the work in the frame of Malay literary work in general. He found the work takes inspirations from the stories of Panji and Ramayana (Fang, 1975: 264). With his finding, and especially because it was created after all the foreign influences had long been in the region, Winstedt does not categorize the work with those of indigenous Malay (Teeuw, 1983: 98; Sutrisno, 2008: 16). Yet, Winstedt does not put it into India or Islam category as well because he regarded the work as of pure Malay or authentic Malay (Fang, 1975: 264; Sutrisno, 2008: 16). He then puts Hikayat Hang Tuah in a part about “A Javanese Element”, albeit there is perhaps no other Malay text that is more anti-Java than Hikayat Hang Tuah (Teeuw, 1983: 99).

Various next observers classify Hikayat Hang Tuah as a literary work, not a historic text. Among them are B.B. Parnickel (in Sutrisno, 2008: 22; in Teeuw, 1983: 100), A. Teeuw (1983), Kassim Ahmad (1960 & 1997), Sulastin Sutrisno (2008), B.I. Braginsky (1998) and Harun Mat Piah et al. (2002). Kassim Ahmad (in Teeuw, 1983: 102), for instance, states firmly that Hikayat Hang Tuah is “an artistic work, essentially possessing a unity”.

Meanwhile, Sulastin Sutrisno (2008: 18) writes that Hikayat Hang Tuah is a literary work in a form and style that shows unity and holistic consistency, even if briefly read. Furthermore, according to Teeuw (1983 and in Sutrisno, 2008: 21), the text has the characters of a fiction because (1) it is a long story in prose form with human experience as the core element inside, (2) it clearly narrates the plot through various events happen to a person, (3) it has a lucid theme and chronology that is told from a certain perspective.

5. An Allegory of History

The view of Hikayat Hang Tuah as a historic piece that has triggered negative response, and that that is insisting on the work having literary quality are bridged by Braginsky (1998). In his opinion, Hikayat Hang Tuah can indeed be a historic literary work, yet as a whole it is actually a historic allegory.

The work’s narration implies association with the history of Johor circa 50-80s of the 17th century, primarily related to the rivalries between the sultanates of Johor and Jambi. In portraying the feud between Malaka and Majapahit, which takes big parts in the story (Ahmad, 1968: 1-339), it appears that Malaka actually stands for Johor, while Majapahit for Jambi. Symbolic relations between Majapahit and Jambi seems to be true, since the kings and noblemen of Jambi adopted names and titles of Javanese variety and the kingdom itself was a vassal of Mataram Kingdom from Java (Andaya in Braginsky, 1998: 352).

The Malaka-Jambi dispute began with King Muda, the heir to the throne of Johor, marrying the daughter of the Sultan of Jambi. This became a serious concern to Sultan Abdul Jalil, the incumbent Sultan of Johor, who later commanded Admiral Abd al-Jamil to provide security to prevent Johor’s throne from being “tarnished” by Jambi. This coincided with the marriage of Sultan Malaka and the Princess of Batara Majapahit. The situation led to the outbreak of war between Johor and Jambi in 1666 to the former’s victory (Braginsky, 1998: 354).

The victory in the Jambi War strengthened Admiral Abd al-Jamil’s position. He obtained the title Paduka Raja (His Majesty) and later built his domestic power by giving his children important positions in the government. However the Bendahara (a high Malay state official) opposed the action. Finally, a war broke out between the two sides, causing the death of Admiral Abd al-Jamil (Braginsky, 1998: 354).

In Braginsky’s opinion, Hikayat Hang Tuah is a historic allegory that portrays the dispute between the kingdoms of Johor and Jambi under the guise of rivalry between Malaka and Majapahit. It is in the same situation that the circumstances around Hang Tuah form. The power grab between the admiral and bendahara of Johor becomes an allusion. Hang Tuah, which is believed to meet die after victory over Marga Paksi, is very likely to be an allusion to Abd al-Jamil before the power grab; while Hang Jebat can also be an allusion to him, after the event (Braginsky, 1998: 355).

6. A National Epic

In books published in the last decades of the 20th century that are widely used in Malaysia, the label “epic” often comes along with the Hikayat Hang Tuah. For instance, in Warisan Prosa Klasik compiled by Taib Osman and Abu Hasan Sham, it is said that “Hikayat Hang Tuah is the greatest and most important authentic Malay epic” and that “this work can be categorized as an epic, particularly folk epic” (in Jan Jansen & Hendrik J. Maier [ed.], 2004: 111). This view is reiterated by some other observers.

Harun Mat Piah et al. (2002) relates Hikayat Hang Tuah directly to the English’s term epic. Piah et al. quoted a definition by J.A. Cuddon stating that “epic” is “a long narrative poem on a grand scale about the deeds of warrior and heroes. Epics are often of notional significance in the sense that they embodied the history and aspirations of a nation in a lofty grandiose manner.”

Either Osman & Sham or Piah et al. provides relatively similar reasons to call Hikayat Hang Tuah an epic. One, the story covers a long period of time, a wide realm and involves a lot of persons. Two, it contains events and supernatural creatures. Three, the writer is objective in portraying characters of the heroes. Piah et al. clearly says that Hikayat Hang Tuah is a national epic (2002:232). Noriah Taslim (in Ahmad, 1997:xxix) reiterates the statement. While Kassim Ahmad more carefully says that the work is a Malay epic (Ahmad, 1997:xii).

However, Hendrik J. Maier (in Jansen & Maier, 2004:111-127) attacks the view of Hikayat Hang Tuah being an epic. Maier shows that Hikayat Hang Tuah is a prose, not a poem, thus, it does not agree with Cuddon’s definition. The attribute of it being a national epic is also problematic because it implies as if the work belongs to Malaysians only. In fact, the work is also a literary heritage of Malay people outside Malaysia, such as those in Sumatra and Kalimantan. The attribute “national” is considered to be inaccurate since the work actually belongs to all Malay community and not only Malaysians.

7. Change in the Hero Figure

Popularity of Hang Tuah figure as well as other characters in the work can only be achieved through strong characterizations. Parnickel analyzed characterizations of the main character through a more general perspective and based on the view of Marxist-historicism.

According to Parnickel, the story of Hang Tuah was originally a folklore whose audiences were the common people. By then the hero was the real Hang Tuah. The story, however, was then held in control by the feudalists and later altered to fit the prevailing feudal situation by the king’s literary man. Hang Tuah, who was actually a hero of democracy that revolted against feudal system, by the King’s literary man was made a hero who was so devoted to his master and the one who kept the old system from those who wanted a revolution (Parnickel in Teeuw, 1983: 100).

Kassim Ahmad performs an investigation in a book called Characterisation in Hikayat Hang Tuah (1959). In his opinion, during the colonial era in Malaysia, the hero in the story was indeed Hang Tuah. Yet, after Malaysia became independent, it turns out that Malay youth have preferred Hang Jebat as the real Malay hero. It is evident in the movie of Hang Tuah, the radio play by Aziz Ali, and in a short story written by Tongkat Warrant.

Ahmad (in Teeuw, 1983: 100-101) concludes that “Jebat is more honored: This, consequently, underestimates Hang Tuah’s merits that are actually enormous and various. From the standpoint, it is Hang Jebat who deserves higher position in our investigation on finding Malaysian epic hero”. Teeuw somehow has objections about Ahmad’s conclusion. He explaines that the hero figure—if analyzed solely through literary point of view—is still Hang Tuah because it is him who really is the center of the story (Teeuw, 1983: 101).

D. Epilogue

Hikayat Hang Tuah is a historic literary work of traditional Malay that has become a classic. As a result, analyses and discussions on the work have never subsided. Aside from that, and since it is a classic work of Malay community across territorial borders of modern nations, revitalizations have continually been performed in various forms, from academic study, retelling, to transforming the story using electronic media, becoming such as radio play and movie.

The vast scope of region where it gains popularity makes it a supranational phenomenon in culture and literature. One of the roles that the work can take in the future is to be a cultural bridge that connects various Malay communities that are parted by national borders. The work could become the first step to understand general Malay identity.



  • A. Teeuw, 1983. Membaca dan Menilai Sastra. Jakarta: PT. Gramedia.
  • Harun Mat Piah et al., 1993. Traditional Malay Literature. Translated from Malay by Harry Aveling, 2002. Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.
  • Kassim Ahmad, 1997. Hikayat Hang Tuah. Kuala Lumpur: Yayasan Karyawan dan Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.
  • Liaw Yock Fang, 1975. Sejarah Kesusastraan Melayu Klasik. Singapura: Perpustakaan Nasional Singapura.
  • Sulastin Sutrisno, 2008. Hikayat Hang Tuah: Analisis Struktur dan Fungsi. Yogyakarta: Balai Kajian dan Pengembangan Budaya Melayu in cooperation with Adicita Karya Nusa.
  • V.I. Braginsky, 1998. Yang Indah, Berfaedah dan Kamal Sejarah Sastra Melayu dalam Abad 7-19. Jakarta: INIS.


  • Abdul Rahman Haji Ismail, 2008. Sulalat-us-Salatin atau Sejarah Melayu: Penelitian Mukadimah, Judul, dan Pengertian. In: Abdul Rahman Haji Ismail & Haron Daud, eds.. 2008. Sulalat-us-Salatin (Sejarah Melayu) Cerakinan Sejarah, Budaya, dan Bahasa. Kuala Lumpur: Penerbit Universiti Sains Malaysia.
  • Hendrik J. Maier, 2005. An Epic that Never was an Epic – the Malay Hikayat Hang Tuah. In: Jan Jansen & Hendrik J. Maier, 2004. Epic Adventures: Heroic Narrative in the Oral Performance Traditions of Four Continents. Berlin: LIT Verlag.
  • Noriah Mohamed, 1997. Pengenalan Tambahan. In: Kassim Ahmad, Hikayat Hang Tuah. Kuala Lumpur: Yayasan Karyawan dan Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka.

(An. Ismanto/sas/18/12-09)

Translation by Reza Daffi (terj/13/01-10)

[1] This is the story of Hang Tuah who was famous for his courage and wisdom and was always loyal to his master, and decent was his look and attitude, so valiant and dedicated to his master. He was undisputed in Malay and Java and was the greatest in all these lands below the wind, whom they say would live until the end of time, who was the child of the children of Sultan Alexander the king … (Some words in this part cannot be read) was the king of all kings who have seen the sun of life and death, and from him will come the greatest king in the end of time.
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