Friday, February 24, 2006

Segmentary States along the Tai-Yunnan Frontier (Ming Tai-Yunnan frontier history) III

The existence of a unified Tai state along the Tai-Yunnan frontier prior to the Ming conquest of Yunnan in 1382 has been proposed by Ming scholars. The Ming invasion of Yunnan is seen as destroying this unified state and dispersing or “atomizing” its power:

"...the Ming push into the Tai polities of 'Yunnan'...obviously played a major role in the atomisation of Tai power" (Wade, 2004, 31, my italics).

The invasion is also seen as stopping a process of state formation and expansion and thus "changing the course of history":

"The breaking down of the Mong Mao polity in the late 14th century and again in the middle of the 15th century interrupted the rise of a polity which may have played a role similar to Sukhothai or Lan-Xang for the upland Tai polities."

"This gradual reduction and dismantling of huge Tai polities such as the Mong Mao polity undoubtedly greatly changed the course of mainland Southeast Asian history" (Wade, 2004, 31, my italics)

In fact, there is evidence that Tai power was already atomized along the frontier prior to the Ming invasion. The Ming primary source translations of Wade (1996, 2005) provide evidence of disunity along the Tai-Yunnan frontier before and after the founding of the Ming dynasty.

The so-called state of Mong Mao in fact did play a significant, albeit short, role in the mainland Southeast Asian history later on during the sixteenth century. Fernquest (2005b) documents the invasion of Ava in central Burma by a Tai coalition of states with origins in the Mong Mao area and its rule from 1527 to 1555. The 1555 Burmese conquest and depopulation of the Tai-Yunnan frontier was really the beginning of a significant "reduction and dismantling”" of Tai polities along the Tai-Yunnan frontier (Fernquest, 2005c, addendum).

The historical evidence in the translations of Wade describe the Tai-Yunnan frontier as a politically fragmented region with endemic warfare. The major political center of "Mong Mao" being closer to a segmentary than unified state. In a segmentary state:

1. "...a primary ruler has administrative power in the central area which fades into a ritual hegemony that diminishes with increasing distance..."

2. "The influence exerted by the central ruler over secondary rulers is based on his/her ritual authority which can be used to legitimize these lesser elite."

3. "Rulers of secondary centers have the same administrative functions and right to use force among their own subjects as the primary ruler, but at a smaller scale."

4. "This lack of functional interdependency means that secondary centers are not structurally prohibited from switching allegiance to another primary center, or even going independent if the secondary ruler is sufficiently powerful."

5. "This leads to a lack of fixed or stable boundaries."

Different segmentary or hegemonic strategies were used including several "different forms of patron-client arrangements":

1. kinship ties,
2. personal qualities of rulers,
3. ritual authority,
4. inter-elite negotiated arrangements, often in concert with military threat - with different goals - tribute, prestige, power.

“…primary rulers may have directly administered their own center or territorial core, but held only a shifting authority over secondary rulers, who in turn controlled their centers, and dictated to lesser rulers. The resultant nesting of polities within polities is a nightmare for archaeological interpretation, should we continue to use political types based on autonomous units and normative depictions of power relations."

"...there is also a tendency to use these strategies when a polity extends its authority over different ethnic groups, where cultural differences may inhibit absorption and direct control."

"While the primary ruler of such a system may well have the ability to mobilize labor and delimit its core territory, he/she had little reason or authority to incorporate subsidiary centers within a controlled boundary when the affiliation of those centers is very unstable and likely to shift."

(From: Beekman, Christopher S. (1997) "The Link Between Political Boundaries and Political Models: a Case Study from Classic Period Jalisco, Mexico," pp. 3-5)

The historical narratives of the Ming Shi-lu and the Bai-yi Zhuan support an interpretation of extreme uncertainty and lack of information:

1. The Ming assumed a unified Tai state and assumed that Si Lun-fa ruled over this unified state when he actually ruled over a non-unified segmentary state with many secondary states ruled over by other chieftains.

2. Because he was the first to submit to the Ming, the Ming gave Si Lun-fa authority over Luchuan which he had not previously had in addition to Pingmian.

3. When they delegated authority over the Tai-Yunnan frontier to Si Lun-fa the Ming also vested responsibility and accountability for events along the Tai-Yunnan frontier.

4. When lords of secondary states attacked the Ming a few years later they held Si Lun-fa accountable.

5. Si Lun-fa is continually blamed for being deceitful by the Ming emperor and officials.

6. A large part of this blame was probably for things that Si Lun-fa had no control over. The court simply lacked information and wrongly blamed him.

7. The tally system instituted under the Yong-le emperor after 1402 was a measure to deal with this information asymmetry. The tally verified the source of information reducing possibilities for the dissemination of misinformation.

8. Because there was a lack of information along the frontier there probably was a “moral hazard problem”, i.e. some Tai rulers took advantage of the confusion and lack of information to seize the initiative and increase manpower and territory.

9. In the 1390’s power is seized by another faction of Tai leaders and Ming officials help to restore Si Lun-fa to power.

10. During the inter-regnum before the Yong-le empire comes to power in 1402 Si Lun-fa disappears. Without the backing of the first Ming emperor, he is not able to maintain power.

The Di Cosmo-Andreski model of state formation (Di Cosmo, ) used in (Fernquest, 2005b) describes the medium-term dynamics of how these Tai segmentary states changed into an expanding unified state.


Fernquist, Jon (2005b) “Min-gyi-nyo, the Shan Invasions of Ava (1524-27), and the Beginnings of Expansionary Warfare in Toungoo Burma: 1486-1539,” SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research, Vol. 3, No. 2, Autumn 2005

Fernquist, Jon (2005c) “Addendum to Min-gyi-nyo, the Shan Invasions of Ava (1524-27), and the Beginnings of Expansionary Warfare in Toungoo Burma: 1486-1539,” SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research, Vol. 3, No. 2, Autumn 2005

Wade, Geoff (1996) The Bai-Yi Zhuan: A Chinese Account of a
Tai Society in the 14th century, translation in appendix.

Wade, Geoff (1996) "The Bai Yi Zhuan: A Chinese Account of Tai Society in the 14th Century," 14th Conference of the International Association of Historians of Asia (IAHA), Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand [Includes an introduction to the "Bai-yi Zhuan" and a complete translation in an appendix]

Wade, Geoff. tr. (2005b) Southeast Asia in the Ming Shi-lu: an open access resource, Singapore: Asia Research Institute and the Singapore E-Press, National University of Singapore,