Sunday, May 07, 2006

To escape from colonial era historiography, go back to the original sources

In the weblog Infernal Mon Paradigm Machine I continue to document the flawed logic of the Mon paradigm.

I'm currently looking at how colonial era historiography distorts the way the Mon Paradigm interprets historical sources from the Pagan and Ava eras (c. 1364-1555).

The Mon Paradigm is perhaps best viewed as a monster who has escaped from its creator and master: Aung-thwin. A sort of Pygmalion running berserk in Southeast Asian historiographical space, biting other historians. Perhaps people feel that being critical of the Mon Paradigm is just giving free PR to Aung-thwin and helping him sell books? Or that by doing so, they are stooping to his own low level? Maybe this is it.

The red herring Mon Paradigm is synonymous with a flawed logic of historiography.

Honestly trying hard to find some hint of beauty in the truly hideous, I realized today that some of the debates in the classics like the so-called hoplite revolution in Greece have the same flavor as some of the sub-issues of the Mon paradigm taken separately, but classics scholars focus on one point and they do not use smear tactics like associating the names of contemporary scholars with discredited colonial era ideas (See Harry Sidebottom, Ancient Warfare: A very short introduction, Oxford University Press).

Sidebottom's book shows how evidence for the hoplite revolution relies on interpretations of images from wine jugs and vases, art historical evidence. Kurt Raaflaub argues for a "more nuanced version of polis development...a long evolution rather than a hoplite revolution" (Source).

A detailed reading of the Burmese chronicle itself can lead to a more nuanced version of polity development during the early-modern era in central and western mainland Southeast Asia. For instance, Harvey when faced with the chaos and complexity of the Razadarit era chose to summarize it in a popularizing sort of way rather than seriously try to understand what was going on. There is a lot of raw data in the Burmese chronicle for the Razadarit era that needs to be carefully analyzed. We have to unravel textual genealogies. Parts of the Burmese chronicle come from the Razadarit Ayeidawpon, but where does the Razadarit Ayeidawpon itself come from? Enough manuscripts probably exist to do this in the Myanmar National Library, the Thai National Library, and the British National library, but it is doubtful whether any scholar can currently gain access to them.

That texts also serve ideological and religious purposes always makes their status as history problematic. The line between religion and ideology is not always clear. For instance, I have met Burmese people who believe in the literal truth of the Burmese chronicle as if it were entirely a sacred text. Acting as a line-item bookkeeper trying to separate truth from fiction in texts that are consumed in this fashion and probably also written in this fashion promises to be a dead-end project. That is why I say: before you interpret texts, do the best that you can to provide the public with literal translations of the texts. These translations should provide many handles into the text. For instance, in Grabowsky's recent BEFEO translations of Lao historical chronicles he provides the text in the original script, central Thai transliteration, English, and French. Grabowsky is an exacting scholar who doesn't take short-cuts, not a circus master juggling dozens of issues under one strawman like the Mon Paradigm.

States will always retrospectively idealize and aggrandize their past for present political purposes. This is the first and most obvious critical Rankean filter to apply to these historical sources, particular when they boast far reaching territorial political control with long and improbable lists and claim long-standing intimate relations with the founders of religions or saints.

For instance, Kengtung across the border in Burma from my home in Chiang Rai, Thailand, has a chronicle that claims that the Buddha visited this remote place and left his footprint. Like your Mon sources, many local inhabitants know of and believe in the veracity of this footprint. If you translated the Mon sources you continually hold up to criticism for us, we might be able to appreciate these sources from the viewpoint of the historical actors themselves (emically rather than etically), rather than pretend that the only relevance of these sources is to prove some Rankean what-actually-happened.

The work of scholars such as Pat Pranke and Geoff Wade who pain-stakingly spent hours translating from older Burmese and Chinese to modern English so they are accessible to a wider audience of scholars should be praised and supported. This would encourage more people to follow in their foot steps and provide the evidence we need to write positive history.