Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Mists of Ramanna Book Review
(Pre-Modern Mon History)

Any work that claims to bring with it a new "paradigm" in historiography like the "Mon Paradigm" should be subjected to critical scrutiny and that's exactly what the book review below by Dr. Michael Charney of SOAS, University of London does in a very thorough way:

H-Asia@h-net.msu.edu (February 2006)

Michael Aung-Thwin. The Mists of Ramanna: The Legend that was Lower Burma_. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press. 2005. xi + 433 pp. Maps, photographs, notes, bibliography, index. $59.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-8248-2886-0.
Reviewed for H-ASIA by Michael W. Charney, Department of History, School of Oriental and African Studies

The Study of Myths in Burmese History

Michael Aung-Thwin is Professor of Asian Studies at the University of Hawai'i (Manoa) and has published extensively on Burmese history. The present work is divided into thirteen chapters, including the introduction and the conclusion ("Without the Mon Paradigm"). The main goal of the book is to debunk what Aung-Thwin calls the "Mon paradigm," which, he argues, was the result of the work of colonial historians who combined two indigenous myths into one interpretation of Burmese history. As the author explains:

"In the nineteenth century ... Dhammazedi's fifteenth-century claim that the ancient Suvannabhumi was Ramannadesa and U Kala's eighteenth-century account of the conquest of Thaton--two temporally, causally, and textually unrelated narratives--were combined for the first time by colonial scholarship and synthesized into a new theory that the Mon Theravada Buddhist culture of Lower Burma 'civilized' Burman Upper Burma. This is the thesis that I call the Mon Paradigm.... Because Pagan is considered to have been the 'Golden age' of Burma's culture and therefore also the foundations upon which the country's subsequent culture was built, the Mon Paradigm implies that the Mon people and the culture of Lower Burma were the ultimate origins not only of Pagan civilization, but also of Burma's culture in general" (p. 2).

This paradigm was maintained, Aung-Thwin argues, because specialists on the country did not heed the reservations of non-specialists on Burma, especially of those external specialists not trained in indigenous languages, such as Pierre Dupont. In other words, had scholars on the country not been trapped by their own historiography and been able to view Burmese history without knowledge of it, they might have seen the inconsistencies of the paradigm (pp. 4, 6). This sets up a demanding case for Aung-Thwin to demonstrate, but unfortunately, the present study fails to convince the present reviewer, as discussed below.

The present reviewer has examined Burmese myths, also using a textual approach as well as the same indigenous chronicles used here regarding the Abhiraja myth.[1] Thus, he is in a position to comment on the merits of Michael Aung-Thwin's analysis of the emergence of one of the "myths"--the Thaton conquest story in Burmese history--which was integrated into Aung-Thwin's Mon paradigm. This story or "myth" holds that upon the advice of his teacher, Shin Arahan, the eleventh-century Burmese king, Anawrahta, marched against and took the town of Thaton in Lower Burma. From Thaton, Anawrahta took back to Pagan thirty sets of the Pali Canon (the Pitakas) and they were used to instruct Burmese monks in the correct religious teachings. Aung-Thwin argues that this myth does not appear in its full form until the twentieth century in Mon texts and only in the 1730s in Burmese texts. Thus, he argues, the story's acceptance represents a Mon paradigm used by colonial historians and others later to understand Burmese history in a particular way that allowed them (and the Mons) to view the Burmese as the recipients of culture from the Mons. Aung-Thwin draws attention to the lineage of the story and to the fact that inscriptions do not support it and thus draws the Mon paradigm into question. He makes use of a limited number of indigenous texts, some translated into English and some into Burmese. It is unclear if Aung-Thwin understands Mon, but other than Burmese chronicles, he relies on translated versions of a small sampling of Mon texts and a translated version of a Pali chronicle.

An important problem with this work is that Aung-Thwin, likely unwittingly, selectively presents part of the historical context that would support his claims, but remains silent on changing aspects of this context that would work against them. A good example, one that would call the entire argument of this book into question, was the alternating mood of Bodawhpaya (r. 1782-1819). Certainly, Bodawhpaya did favour the Thaton story--initially. However, when he and the monastic order were at odds concerning his claims regarding the religion, he attempted to undercut their position by making a similar claim as that made by Aung-Thwin in the present book, that Ramannadesa was not an ancient country, in order to challenge the authenticity of the religious texts taken from from Thaton.[2] Bodawhpaya thus had his own special reasons to obstruct the historical record regarding Thaton. This is important, as Bodawhpaya--who spent much of his reign collecting extant copies of chronicles, religious texts, and other works, as well as inscriptions, and then culled them to support his views on the religion and society--presents a serious obstacle to our understanding of what was written (or inscribed) before his time. While Bodawhpaya could not collect and correct everything, it makes it extremely difficult to say--concerning views not shared by Bodawhpaya--what did not exist prior to his time, as asserted in the present study. Thus, while one might be able to confidently trace the Abhiraja myth, a myth supported by the court at this time, one wonders whether the argument can really be made that the Thaton story definitely did not exist. Certainly, this problem should have been discussed. The Twinthin taik-wun is clearly an exception and an understandable one. As one of the men put in charge of collecting and revising, the Twinthin taik-wun wrote his chronicle, which was not officially sanctioned by the court, prior to Bodawhpaya's shift regarding the Thaton story and after much of the text collecting had been completed. This cannot be said of earlier manuscripts.

The discussion of Bimala Churn Law's translation of Shin Pannasammi's _Sasanavamsa_ is also problematic for several reasons.[3] First, the translation is frequently poor. Grammatical errors, contradictions, and the like, pepper the book. For those of us unable to read Pali, understanding what the translation is supposed to say, requires examining Shin Nyanabhivamsa's _Thathanalinkaya-sadan_ (from which the _Sasasanavamsa_ borrows extensively verbatim) for sections on which they share coverage. A re-translation is necessary from the original Pali (which the present reviewer is not able to read). Pending that re-translation, the passage cited does not clearly show a contradiction with a later passage, as argued by Aung-Thwin, regarding the Thaton 'myth.' Admittedly, it is under the heading of Ramanya, but the paragraph in which is included is less geographically circumspect than this heading would suggest:

"the king named Anuruddha of the town of Arimaddana brought an Order of monks from there together with the Pitakas. After that ... the great king Sirisamghabodhi Parakkamabahu purified the religion in the island of [Sri] Lanka. Six years after that ... the Elder named Uttarajiva became famous in the religion" (Pannasammi, p. 44).

No mention is made of the place to which Anuruddha (Anawrahta) brought the pitakas-although Aung-Thwin inserts "Pagan" within brackets to make it so--"from there" could refer to either Pagan or to Thaton (the subject of the previous paragraph), or, given the problematic translation (or of the Pali original, if a new translation demonstrates this), it could refer to any range of places (Aung-Thwin, p. 146).

Pannasammi actually includes two accounts of the "Thaton Conquest" episode. The second is a full elaboration of the story, as rejected by Aung-Thwin. The first, quoted by Aung-Thwin, is a nearly verbatim repetition of the version of the episode found in the Pali section of the Kalyani Inscriptions, probably preserved in an intermediary text. The three versions relevant here can be arranged as follows:

[Kalyani] "King Anuruddha, the Lord of Arimaddanapura, brought a community of priests together with the Tipitika (from Ramannadesa), and established the Religion of Arimaddanapura, otherwise called Pugama" (Kalyani, p. 49).[4]

[Pannasammi A]: "the king named Aniruddha of the town of Arimaddana brought an Order of monks from there together with the Pitakas" (Pannsammi, p. 44).

[Aung-Thwin quotation of Pannasammi A]: "the king named Aniruddha of the town of Arimaddana [Pagan] brought an Order of monks from there [Pagan] together with the Pitakas" (p. 146).

Clearly, Aung-Thwin's adjustment of the sentence has the effect of single-handedly replacing Ramannadesa with Pagan, not presenting new evidence that contradicts the Kalyani Inscription. As demonstrated above, the Pannasammi story [version A] is not an entirely different version of the episode, but the same Mon version of the story datable at least to 1476, and, certainly, it can be read any way that one wishes to, depending on which name they insert into the brackets, even as evidence supporting the Thaton conquest account. What makes this problem important is that Aung-Thwin then makes a jump, by ignoring the more reliable account [Pannasammi B] and then telling his readers that Pannasammi (A) provides a unique third version of events, that Anawrahta "took the scriptures to Thaton" (p. 147), which is only conjecture on the part of Aung-Thwin. In fact, the only precolonial tradition (Aung-Thwin cites three competing traditions) that offers an alternative story is derived from a text that can be reliably dated only to the nineteenth century.

The overall argument of the book is sometimes not supported by the evidence cited. Oddly, Aung-Thwin expends a considerable amount of effort discussing chronicles and other texts that would not logically mention the Thaton story in an effort to demonstrate that their failure to include the Thaton story constitutes some sort of proof that the story did not exist at the time they were written. _Zatatawpon Yazawin_ and _Yazawinkyaw_ are not histories per se, but deal almost exclusively with royal lineage (and the latter, especially with horoscopes), with little discussion of anything but regnal titles, dates, and filial relations. _Razadhirat Ayeidawhpon_ as well was not intended to cover the Pagan era (pp. 133-135). Further, one, the _Zambu Kungya_, cannot be dated to the pre-nineteenth century period, although its contents can be traced in part to U Kala in the early eighteenth century and to the _Maniyadanabon_ in the late eighteenth century, but is nonetheless presented as evidence that the earliest Burmese chronicles had a different version of the Thaton story than that provided in U Kala (p.123).

The author also fails to put his work into the broader range of literature on myths and their emergence in Burmese history. In neglecting related work in the field, _Mists of Ramanna_ remains only important to those concerned with the relevance of the Mons to Burmese history per se, rather than realizing its potential value within the broader context of the study of history writing. Further, in directing readers to other work on specialized topics and regions, Aung-Thwin's suggestions are sometimes unrepresentative of the state of the field (at least for the past decade). Closer attention to more recent decades of Burmese historiography would have helped to prevent this problem.

As Aung-Thwin explains, his study is "not an indictment of evidence but of methodology; of the way data have been assessed and used to conform to a preconceived notion" (p. 3). This criticism was directed at colonial scholars, but might be appropriately redirected at the present study. The case against the Mon paradigm remains unproven. The data is sometimes poorly handled in the present volume; vague references and observations by the author based on equivocal evidence he mobilizes in defense of his thesis represent questionable methodology.

In sum, _Mists of Ramanna_ presents an interesting journey through a particular set of indigenous source materials and is easy reading. An unconvincing analysis of the chronicles and a failure to place the current study into the broader context of research on myths in Burmese history, however, hinder the book's value. Perhaps a revised edition will help the author make _Mists of Ramanna_ a stronger contribution to the body of research on premodern Burmese history.


[1]. Michael Walter Charney, "Centralizing Historical Tradition in Precolonial Burma: the Abhiraja/Dhajaraja Myth in Early Kon-baung Historical Texts," _South East Asia Research_ 10, no. 2 (2002): pp.185-215.

[2]. Royal Edict, 7 August 1817, in Than Tun, ed., _The Royal Orders of Burma, A.D. 1598-1885_ (Tokyo: Centre for Southeast Asian Studies, Kyoto University, 1988), 7: p. 390.

[3]. Shin Pannasammi. _The History of Buddha's Religion (Sasanavamsa)_, trans. Bimala Churn Law (Delhi: Sri Satguru Publications, 1952).

[4]. The full citation is _The Kalyani Inscriptions Erected by King Dhammaceti at Pegu in 1476 A.D. Text and Translation_ (Rangoon: Superintendent, Government Printing, Burma, 1892).

Monday, February 27, 2006

The Tai invasion of Ming Yunnan (1386-1399) IV

After the Ming conquest of Yunnan, Tai leaders launched a series of counter-attacks against the Ming at Jin-chi, Jong-dong, and then Ding-bian (MSL 11 Mar 1396). An explicit chronology helps to untangle the complicated series of events that followed the conquest:

1382 - Conquest of Yunnan. Kunming taken.
1382 - Dali taken.
1382 - Tai chieftain Si Lun-fa submits at Jin-chi.
1383 - Jin-chi [Baoshan] attacked by Si Wa-fa.
1384 - Si Lun-fa’s tribute mission to the Ming court. Si Lun-fa is given extensive authority by the Ming over the Tai-Yunnan frontier.
1386/87 - Jing-dong attacked by Dao Si-lang
1386/87 - Ming counterattack defeated by Tai forces
1388 – Tai forces attack Moshale stockade
1388 – Ming counterattack. Tai leader Dao Si-lang defeated
1388 – Tai raids on Ding-bian
1388 – Ming defeat Tai coalition in battle. Tai side flees towards Dingbian and Jingdong.
1388 – Si Lun-fa is captured and is forced to pay indemnity and join Ming forces in internal police actions against other defiant rulers in Yunnan.

Traditional historiography attributes these post-conquest conflicts to the actions of the most prominent Tai leader Si Lun-fa, despite clear indications in some sources that subordinate Tai leaders may have acted independently. This interpretation of independent action by secondary Tai states is consistent with the endemic warfare found in the Tai-Yunnan frontier later on during the fifteenth century (and possibly before during the Yuan period as well).

In January 1386 Tai forces attacked Ming controlled Jingdong and the newly appointed Jingdong governor E-tao fled to a place named Baiyai Chuan in Dali. After the Tais attacked Jingdong, the governor of Yunnan Mu Ying, sent the official Feng Cheng to attack the Tai forces, but he was defeated, fog and bad weather playing a role in the defeat (MSL 2 Jan 1391; Liew Foon Ming, 1996, 165). Many of the Tai elite were still not under Si Lun-fa's control: "Zi-qing and other persons in Meng-hua Subprefecture still obstructed culture and would not submit. He thus proposed that these guards be established" (MSL 2 Jan 1391).

Following the humiliating defeat at Jingdong, the Chinese censor Li Yuanming was sent from the capital to Pingmian on the frontier to investigate the situation. Li Yuanming’s report displeased the emperor and in May 1387 claiming that he had been deceived by Si Lun-fa and the Tais and ordered military defences to be prepared and all communications to cease:

"Recently, the Censor Li Yuan-ming returned from Ping-mian. I have listened to his words and know of the deception and deceitfulness of the Bai-yi. Even in tens of thousands of their words, not one can be believed. I have observed that the man and the yi have rebelled and are watching, ready to make use of opportunities. They present a danger to our borders.”

“It is appropriate to build defences in the Jin-chi, Chu-xiong, Pin Dian, Lan-cang and Jiang-zhong circuits. They must have high walls and deep moats, firm palisades and many cannons for defence. When the yi come, they must not be fought with lightly, and deployment must be made as the situations dictate.”

“Last year, the central Yun-nan military commander sent people to the Bai-yi and these people demanded much property and goods. They did not consider the seriousness of the situation and, displaying their power, acted in a martial manner and ridiculed the various man. Also, because the Jing-jiang Prince was without abilities, the Da-li seal was used to issue orders. All of these acts were wrong and even insulting to the Emperor and embarrassing to the Court” (MSL 28 May 1387).

This imperial proclamation makes two assumptions which may not have have held in practice. First, that there was centralized and coordinated control and action among the leaders of secondary states in the frontier network of the Tai segmentary states. Second, it assumes that Ming intentions and expectations about the behavior of Tai states and leaders had been completely communicated from the Ming center to Tai leaders on the periphery. The emperor decides on diplomatic isolation as a solution:

“From now on, no-one is permitted to go to Ping-mian. It should be treated with coolness. If it sends a despatch, a brief response is to be made, but if it does not send any despatches, no actions are to be initiated. If they send tribute products, they are not to be received. Then in a few years, the territory of Lu-chuan will be included on the maps as part of the Empire. Ministers, you must firmly observe my words and must not be remiss in this!" (MSL 28 May 1387).

In the wake of this diplomatic isolation, the Tais or rather some faction or subset of the Tais in the frontier region, decided to attack. In February 1388 Tai forces attacked and took Mo-sha-le stockade in Malang-talang dian chieftainship, a position of strategic importance along the frontier (in modern-day Xinping, Eshan Yizu or Xinhua). Mu Ying sent Ning Zheng to uproot the Tais. Under the leadership of Dao Si-lang, the Tais gathered over 100,000 soldiers and 100 elephants, but were overwhelmed by the Chinese who killed over 1,500 including two generals and seized the Tai elephants and horses. The remaining troops fled (MSL 3 Jun 1396, MSL 13 Feb 1388, Cambridge; Liew Foon Ming, 1996, 165). After the defeat at Mo-sha-le stockade repeated raids were made on Ding-bian in Chu-xiong prefecture:

"The Xi-ping Marquis Mu Ying punished Si Lun-fa of the Bai-yi and pacified him. At this time, Si Lun-fa had raised a force of 300,000 men and over 100 elephants and had repeatedly attacked Ding-bian. He wanted to gain revenge for the Mo-sha-le campaign and his force was extremely violent. The newly-attached man and yi secretly formed alliances and they all had rebellious inclinations” (MSL 6 May 1388)."

There is evidence that the Tai leader Diao Si-lang acted independently from Si Lun-fa in waging this attack against Dingbian. Two passages from the Bai-yi Zhuan, a late-fourteenth century travel diary of a Ming diplomatic mission travelling through the Tai-Yunnan frontier, support this interpretation:

"In the bing-yin year [1386/87], they again [Tai forces] attacked Jing-dong. The following year, a subordinate named Diao Si-lang attacked Ding-bian. The Son of Heaven ordered the Xi-ping Marquis Mu Ying to take on command of the troops and destroy him. Diao Si-lang was captured and the Yi people submitted through fear…” (Wade, Bai-yi Zhuan, p. 2)."

"…Dao Si-lang did not obey your commands [the emperor] and plundered Ding-bian. While you were unable to bring an end to those hostilities, Heaven provided majesty to our border commanders and thereby Dao Silang and the others were immediately exterminated” (Wade, Bai-yi Zhuan, p. 11)"

Which Tai leaders were individually or collectively responsible for Tai military actions in the period following the Ming conquest (1382-1388) is not entirely clear, but by 1388 different Tai chieftains who may have been acting independently in the past are joining together into a centralized and more coordinated confederation. Along the lines of the Di Cosmo-Andreski model of state formation (see Fernquest, 2005b, 373-377) in the face of a rising crisis, the Tai-frontier is moving from a segmentary decentralized state to a more unified state.

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, http://epress.nus.edu.sg/msl/

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Braudel's event-based history and Taleb's "Fooled by Randomness"

There is strong parallel between Taleb's principle that "news is noise" in his book Fooled by Randomness and Braudel's "histoire événementielle" (event-based history).

According to Braudel, the history of events is a history of "surface disturbances, crests of foam that the tides of history carry on their strong backs...resounding events are often only momentary outbursts, surface manifestations of...larger movements and explicable only in terms of them.'

Braudel's history of events resembles the market volatility of economist Robert Shiller (invoked by Taleb) in which "prices swing more than the fundamentals they are supposed to reflect, they visibly overreact by being too high at times (when their price overshoots the good news or when they go up without any marked reason) or too low at others."

Shiller argues that "if a stock price is the estimated value of 'something' (say the discounted cash flows from a corporation), then market prices are way too volatile in relation to tangible manifestations of that 'something' (he used dividends as proxy)." (Taleb (2005) "Fooled by Randomness," 2nd edition, p. 61)

[Note: Other ways to express this mathematical idea include: "prices did not rationally reflect the long-term value of securities and were overshooting in either direction," that there was a "volatility differential between prices and information," meaning that markets were not as efficient as theorized by financial theory (see efficient markets hypothesis).]

The similar argument that Braudel made was that 'events', the subject matter of traditional history, were relatively insignificant in history, and individuals, even those as apparently powerful as Phillip II of Spain, were severely limited and constrained in what they could do by broader, and deeper structures beyond their control. In the Preface to the 1st edn of The Mediterranean, Braudel wrote that statesmen such as Phillip II, `despite their illusions [were] more acted on than actors' (David Moon, "Fernand Braudel and the Annales School")

"Braudel devoted the 3rd and final part of the book to an analysis of the war in the second half of the C16th between the Spanish Empire of Philip II that dominated the western end of `The Mediterranean World' and the Ottoman or Turkish Empire that dominated the eastern end. This part includes sketches of the individuals involved as well as descriptions of the battles, diplomacy, treaties etc. The key battle was that of Lepanto, between the Spanish and Turkish fleets, in 1571. The Spanish fleet emerged victorious but, Braudel argues, Phillip II of Spain was not able to follow up the victory and establish dominance over the whole Mediterranean World. Indeed, by the end of the C16, the Spanish Empire had turned its attention to the West, to the Atlantic World, and to its growing empire in the New World."

"In order to explain why Phillip II was not able to turn the Spanish victory at Lepanto into dominance of the Mediterranean World, Braudel referred back to the previous two parts of the book."

"He drew attention to the financial exhaustion of the Spanish economy, which greatly limited Phillip II's options, even after the victory at Lepanto. This part of his explanation referred back to part 2 on the economic, social and political structures of the Mediterranean World."

"He also drew attention to the difficulties of communications across the vast Spanish Empire in limiting the options open to Phillip II even after the Turkish fleet had been defeated. Thus, he referred back to part 1 of the book on the geography of the Mediterranean World."

Quoting from Olivia Harris(2004) "Braudel: Historical Time and the Horror of Discontinuity," History Workshop Journal 57 (2004) 161-174 :

"The vision of long-term continuities is the cornerstone of his philosophy of history, and his own craft as a historian. The longue durée has for him an 'exceptional value'. It is usually contrasted with event-based history, or political history (histoire événementielle), that privileges 'a short time span, proportionate to individuals, to daily life, to our illusions, to our hasty awareness - above all the time of the chronicle and the journalist'. However the longue durée can also be understood as an alternative to a history that privileges crisis and sudden breaks. It is grounded in 'inertia' ('one of the great artisans of history').

With his attention to the long-term fundamentals of a company, Warren Buffet seems to use the long-term deterministic structure of Braudel in his investment strategy.

Finally, in the era that this weblog addresses, during the period (c. 1350-1600) warfare and politics took place in a world even more subject to probability and chance, with a differential between information and reality even greater to what Shiller found in modern financial markets.

Along the Tai-Yunnan frontier there were both long-term deterministic factors (geography, environment) as well as short-term chance factors at work. Chance factors were rooted in the communication difficulties between the frontier and the political centers of the two large neighboring polities, Ming China and Burmese Ava. This created an information gap along the frontier where chance played a greater role in history.

The Ming invasion and conquest of Yunnan (1380-1383) II

In 1380 the Ming emperor changed his policy towards Yunnan. In the founding of the previous Yuan dynasty, Yunnan’s location had been of strategic importance and now figured into Ming geopolitical strategy. The Yuan had conquered the Dali region in Yunnan in order to surround the Southern Song, the last remnants of the Song dynasty. Remnants of the Mongol Yuan dynasty now remained as a threat for the Ming:

"...the Mongols were still occupying the Mongolian Grassland, and could launch southern expeditions at any time they wished. More importantly, the Mongols still occupied Yunnan. If the Mongols attacked Ming China both from the north and from the southwest, the Ming court would have battles on two fronts. Therefore, in the 1370s, the Ming dynasty was facing a situation that was similar to what the Southern Song failed to cope with when Kublai Khan took over the Dali Kingdom. Such an international pattern pushed the Ming ruler to launch a campaign against Yunnan in order to avoid the fate of the Southern Song" (Bin Yang, 2004, Military Campaigns against Yunnan: A Global Analysis, National University of Singapore working paper, 51-52, 54).

Citing a precedent in the Han dynasty for tighter control, a military expedition was organized to conquer Yunnan:

"The Emperor thus ordered the various generals to select and deploy troops and gave them, in advance, cloth and paper money for their clothing needs. A total of 249,100 people were involved and they were provided with 344,390 bolts of cloth and over 408,980 ding of paper money" (MSL 20 Aug 1380).

In September 1381 Fu You-de was appointed commander of Yunnan expeditionary forces with Lan Yu and Mu Ying, well-hardened veterans of early Ming campaigns in the Mongol north, as his assistants. The expeditionary forces were split into a larger force and a smaller diversionary force :

"The campaign army comprised 300,000 troops. The emperor ordered the main force to approach the region through Ch’e-chou and Yuan-chou prefectures (respectively, modern Yuan-ling and Chi-chiang, Hunan) in Hu-kuang province and to advance to P'u ting (near An-shun in Kweichow province). From P’u-ting they were to proceed down the 'throat of Yunnan' to Chu-ching, about 125 kilometers northeast of Kun-ming in Yunnan province. A smaller force was to march from Yung-ning (near modern Hsu-yung hsien in Szechuan) to Wu-sa (modern Wei-ning, western Kweichow). The emperor calculated that the main army would take K’un-ming easily while the smaller force to the north would draw off defending forces. After the fall of K’un-ming, the main army was to send relief immediately to the smaller army at Wu-sa, while the bulk of the main army marched directly to Ta-li" (Cambridge Ming History, 144, also see MSL 18 Sep 1381, Comment: This would be wonderful to see in Google Earth).

Yunnan was quickly taken:

"Fu Yu-te’s army reached Hu-kuang in October. In December he sent the smaller force to Yung-ning and Wu-sa, while he led the larger forces as planned into Yunnan. Balaswarmi sent 100,000 troops to guard Chu-ching, but Fu Yu-te and Mu Ying captured the enemy general and 20,000 of his troops. Fu Yu-te then quickly led a smaller force to aid the army at Wu-sa, while Lan Yu and Mu Ying hastened toward K’un-ming. On 6 January 1382, Balaswarmi, who had fled his city, burned his princely robes, drove his wife to her death in a lake and then committed suicide together with his chief ministers" (Cambridge Ming History, 144-46; Liew Foon Ming, 1986, 162-63).

By February 1382 the Ming had extended its control over the area surrounding the capital of Yunnan at modern day Kunming and a further expedition was sent to Dali. The Duan family had ruled over the Dali region with a high degree of autonomy during the Yuan dynasty and tried to hold the Ming off and maintain this autonomy. They were finally defeated in battle and sent into exile at the Ming capital in Nanjing (Bin Yang, 2004, 52-3, citing as source: Fang, Guoyu (1998) Yunnan Shiliao Congkan (Series of Historical Documents on Yunnan), Kunming: Yunnandaxue Chubanshe, 13 Vols).

A powerful Tai ruler Si Lun-fa submits (1382)

A powerful Tai chieftain named Si Lun-fa ruled over an area along the Tai-Yunnan frontier which the Chinese called Pingmian:

"From Da-li in Yun-nan, one passes through Jin-chi and then arrives there…During the Yuan dynasty, it was regularly subordinate to Ava-Burma. They have walled towns with outlying suburbs, both containing buildings and houses. The people all live in multi-storied houses. Their products are elephants and horses. Both officials and the people shave their heads like monks. When coming or going, they ride on elephants. In the earlier dynasties, they did not have contact with China. It was only in the Yuan dynasty that an envoy was sent to pacify and instruct them and they came to offer tribute" (MSL 21 Aug 1384).

The political situation along the Tai-Yunnan frontier was chaotic and fragmented. Leadership passed hands frequently and often violently among members of the Tai ruling clans. In 1348-49 the Yuan general Da-shi-ba-du-lu was sent to subdue the Tai ruler Si Ke-fa who was aggressively raiding the domains of neighboring Tai chieftains. The Yuan general was not successful and Si Ke-fa continued his raids, sending his son Man-sa to the Yuan court to pay allegiance, but the court reported that "while he accepted the court’s calendar and offered tribute, his clothing, paraphernalia and systems remained like those of a king" (Wade, 1996, Bai-yi Zhuan, p. 1).

After Si Ke-fa’s death several members of the ruling clan held power for relatively short periods of time. First, leadership passed to Si Ke-fa’s son Zhao Bing-fa. After a relatively long eight year reign, Si Ke-fa’s other son Tai-bian assumed power. Tai-bian was murdered by his paternal uncle after only a year. The uncle, Zhao Xiao-fa, became ruler, but was in turn murdered by bandits just one year later. Si Wa-fa, the younger brother of Zhao Xiao-fa, assumed power. In the year following the pacification of Yunnan in 1382:

"Si Wa-fa attacked Jin-chi [modern-day Bao Shan]. During that winter Si Wa-fa hunted in Zhelan and Nan-dian. His subordinate Da-lu-fang and others abruptly established Si Lun-fa, the son of Man-sa, as ruler, and killed Si Wa-fa while he was away" (Wade’s Bai-yi Zhuan, p. 1, 11; compare MSL 11 Mar 1396 which has Si Lun-fa attack Jin-chi, Jing-dong, and Ding-bian).

Jin-chi has been established as a garrison to control the Tai-Yunnan frontier during the early Yuan dynasty (Wade, 1996, Bai-yi Zhuan, p. 1). Now it played a pivotal role as a staging point for expeditions into the frontier region.

In 1382 when Si Lun-fa heard that Dali had been taken, he marched to Jinchi and quickly submitted to the Ming (Liew Foon Ming, 1996, 163). In April 1382 Pingmian was made into an indigenous autonomous region and Si Lun-fa was appointed governor. In August 1384 Si Lun-fa sent a tribute mission to the Ming court in Nanjing under the leadership of Dao Ling-meng. The seal of authority issued to Pingmian by the previous Yuan court was surrendered and Pingmian was promoted to a higher level of indigenous autonomous region. In September the adjacent Tai state of Luchuan was merged with Pingmian and given to Si Lun-fa. During the Yuan dynasty, Luchuan and Pingmian had been separate: "two route commands were separately established, one to control each part" (MSL 14 Sep 1384, MSL 21 Aug 1384).

In 1383 the initial conquest of Yunnan was brought to an end and the military commanders Fu You-de and Lan Yu were called back to the capital. Mu Ying was left as the hereditary military governor of Yunnan (Cambridge, 146) and Gao Zheng was stationed with troops at Chu-xiong (MSL 5 Feb 1384). Altogether 160 people were escorted back to the capital including two former officials of the Yuan court in Yunnan, Guan-yin-bao and Liu Che-che-bu-hua together with chieftains from Yunnan including one named Duan Shi. Those escorted back presented 170 horses to the Ming emperor and received paper money and clothing in return. Guan-yin-bao was appointed as commandant of Jin-chi and was given the name Li Guan (MSL 30 Mar 1383).

Steps were also taken to ensure a food supply for the large Chinese garrisons that remained in Yunnan after the campaigns. An envoy was sent from the Ming capital to Annam, in modern-day northern Vietnam, with a request for grain. Grain (5,000 shi) was sent to Shui-wei on the Lin-an border of Yunnan. The Annam ruler Pan, in a display of magnanimity, refused to accept the gifts of gold and silks sent by the Chinese court (MSL 5 Aug 1384). The provincial government of Yunnan used their salt monopoly to ensure that the supply of rice in Yunnan was adequate:

"Under the old precedents, merchants brought rice to Jin-chi [Baoshan] and for every dou, they were given one yin of salt. This was allowed to ensure grain supplies. Thus the merchants collected there and the supplies were more than sufficient. Later, officials did not allow the transport of grain and the merchants rarely went there. Thus, the troops now have no means of ration supply. It is requested that the old system be followed" (MSL 4 Feb 1386, my italics).

The "old precedent" of using salt for military rice procurement must have been effective in the early 1380’s when Ming forces had just newly arrived in Yunnan. The food supply in Yunnan was not sufficient to support the population increase that followed the establishment of Ming garrisons. Yunnan was endowed with a more than adequate salt supply though.

The Chinese court took measures to curb corruption. Chinese administrators who were appointed from outside Yunnan were provided with adequate means of support, so they didn’t have to resort to bribery which could have been a cause of resentment and rebellion among the local inhabitants:

"Those who have inherited posts have long lived in their territories and they have their own stores and means of livelihood. It is thus not necessary to provide them with salaries and allowances. Those who are appointed have generally come to sojourn (流寓) in these areas and because they have won the support of the local people we are employing them for a time. If we do not give them salaries, they will have no means of sustaining a livelihood. The law officials are more likely to accept bribes (MSL 2 Dec 1384).

By 1384 the Ming had established a modicum of control over Yunnan, a control that would soon be challenged by the Tai chieftain Si Lun-fa.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Segmentary States and Burmese Historiography

Do historians sometimes back project contemporary political organizations such as the nation-state onto earlier periods of history?

Do historians sometimes make false analogies with highly successful states or "empires", like the Roman or Chinese empires, to bolster the prestige and importance of present-day nation states that they owe some political allegiance to?

Are there systematic analytical practices or models that can help overcome this mode of thinking? The idea "segmentary state" is one model that may help. Scholars from Weber to M.I Finley to Paul Wheatley have criticized scholarship that attempted to attribute advanced poltical development to societies where there was not evidence to support the conjecture. The general concept of "segmentary state" may be a good way to approach these criticisms of scholars that are similar in nature but scattered widely over time and disciplines.

I was reading a book over the weekend on chieftainships in Mozambique on the east coast of Africa during the 16th century where the Portuguese played an important role in state formation (Malyn Newitt (1995) A History of Mozambique). The author referred to the Maravi 'empire' with single quotes that meant, it seems, that the reach of political authority was larger than it had previously been, but of course never reached the size or strength of control of what we would normally call an "empire"..

Anyway, if we are going to compare different social or political organizations we must be precise in the terminology we use or we won't even be able to communicate much less compare.

There's an online paper with good definitions for Burton Stein's concept of the early south Indian "segmentary state" that originated with the work of Southall:

"...Southall's (1956,1988) Segmentary state model, constructed in deliberate opposition to the Unitary state (Fortes and Evans-Pritchard 1940) to characterize political relations among the Alur, is an example. Fundamental features of the model are that a primary ruler has administrative power in the central area which fades into a ritual hegemony that diminishes with increasing distance...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. 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. 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. These structural features lead to a lack of fixed or stable boundaries."

[All of this is found during the period 1350-1600 in Burma. Many examples in my paper]

"...As for Segmentary or Hegemonic strategies, different scholars have tended to focus on distinct aspects - kinship ties, personal qualities of rulers, ritual authority, inter-elite negotiated arrangements, often in concert with military threat - with different goals - tribute, prestige, power. Realistically, an elite probably drew upon several, and most of these tactics can be considered different forms of patron-client arrangements between elites of different levels of power and influence to allocate human and natural resources. The result, however, was similar - 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."

"With political relationships of this type, it is not surprising that Segmentary or Hegemonic strategies tend to be practiced in regions with prior complex political organization, as it would be far less efficient to attempt to restructure and integrate existing polities into a Unitary bureaucracy. 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" (Beekman, Christopher S. (1997) "The Link Between Political Boundaries and Political Models: a Case Study from Classic Period Jalisco, Mexico," pp. 3-5)

The concept of the "segmentary state seems to be built upon the concept of the "segmentary lineage". A segmentary lineage society is characterized by the organization of the society into segments [source, Wikipedia].

"A simple, non-anthropologist's explanation is that the close family is the smallest and closest segment, and will generally stand with each other. That family is also a part of a larger segment of more distant cousins, who will stand with each other when attacked by outsiders. They are then part of larger segments with the same characteristics. Basically, brothers will fight against cousins, unless outsiders come, and then they will join together. An old Arab saying expresses this idea: 'Me against my brothers, me and my brothers against my cousins, me and my cousins against the world.'"

"The ancient Hebrew nation (the Israelites) is one of the more well-known examples, with 12 tribes originating from one common ancestor (Abraham)."

"Segmentary societies...may be defined as societies that are divided into a number of units, such as lineage...or clan...groups, which are structurally similar and functionally equivalent [source].

The concept of segmentary state may help facilitate comparison between Burmese state formation and similar processes in other, perhaps distant, societies such as Mozambique Africa, and make Burmese history more relevant for the study of World History.

Friday, February 17, 2006

The initial Ming attempts to win Yunnan over (1369-1380)

The first communications between the Ming dynasty and Yunnan were prescient of Yunnan’s future. Ritualistic language in formal letters of "instruction" signaled the beginning of Ming rule along the Tai-Yunnan-Burma frontier. Submission to the Ming was the next inevitable step in the cosmological order:

"From ancient times, those who have been lords of all under Heaven have looked on that which is covered by Heaven, that which is contained by the Earth and that on which the sun and moon shine, and regardless of whether the place was near or far, or what manner of people they are, there was no place for which they did not wish a peaceful land and a prosperous existence. It is natural that when China is governed peacefully, foreign countries would come and submit (來附)”…I am anxious that, as you are secluded in your distant places, you have not yet heard of my will. Thus, I am sending envoys to go and instruct you, so that you will all know of this" (14 Jul 1370, my italics).

The Mongol prince Balaswarmi, a remnant of the Yuan dynasty, ruled over Yunnan from the capital in Kunming. He ruled indirectly over an ethnically diverse collection of small polities and chieftainships in Yunnan. The most powerful of these states was controlled by the Tuan family who ruled over the area surrounding Dali (Cambridge History of China, vol. 7, p.143-44).

The Ming Shi-lu reports that envoys were sent to instruct the inhabitants of Yunnan in 1371 (MSL 8 Oct 1371). In 1372 the famous scholar Wang Wei offered terms of surrender to Yunnan as an envoy. The envoy Wang Wei was murdered in 1374 and another mission was sent in 1375. Once again the mission failed. A diplomatic mission was sent to Burma in 1374, but because Annam was at war with Champa the roads were blocked and the mission was recalled (MSL 1 Jan 1374). By 1380 the Ming were no longer wording their communications as if Yunnan was a separate country (Wade, 2004, 4). Initial gentle promptings were soon to be followed by military force.

The fallacy of negative proof

This logical fallacy is especially dangerous for pre-modern Burmese history, at least for the pre-Konbaung period, not well-endowed with primary sources. Finding shortcomings in these sources and in the ways they've been used by previous generations of historians, even colonial historians, is easy; finding positive evidence that supports indigenous sources is much more difficult. A devotion to fault-finding instead of attempting to write accurate history, no matter how hard this might be to do, is likely to bring the field of pre-modern Burmese history to a grinding halt as everyone lays waste to each other's research projects. The purely negative can easily degenerate into a McCarthy era-like witch-hunt.

Indigenous primary sources have a literary quality that make them difficult to use in traditional factual narrative history. Professor Lieberman has partially vindicated indigenous sources by demonstrating that parts of the Burmese chronicle (U Kala's Mahayazawingyi) for which there are independent European sources are accurate (Lieberman, Victor B. "How Reliable is U Kala’s Burmese Chronicle? Some New Comparisons." Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 17.2 (September, 1986): 236-255).

Independent European or Chinese sources to support indigenous sources are not available for all historical periods. The narrative thread of the Burmese Chronicle begins with the creation of the universe and ends in the early eighteenth century which makes for a historiographical tradition radically different from the western Rankean tradition. Historical interpretations that must be based on this single source are likely to be uncertain and tentative. This is a problem also faced in many non-western historiographies, from American Indian "ethnohistory" to the interpretations of ancient Greece history found in the works of M.I. Finley like "The World of Odysseus" (which I am currently reading).

The problem lies in historical method. Showing that historical facts from the chronicle tradition are only weakly supported by sources does not provide evidence of the exact opposite facts. According to the pulitzer prize winning historian David Hackett Fischer:

"The fallacy of negative proof is an attempt to sustain a factual proposition merely by negative evidence. It occurs whenever a historian declares that "there is no evidence that X is the case," and then proceeds to affirm or assume that not-X is the case. He may have spent all his youth in the Antiquarian Society, feverishly seeking the holy X and never finding it. He may have examined every relevant scrap of evidence in every remote repository, without reward. He and every other reasoning being on this planet may know in their bones that not-X is the case. But a simple statement that "there is no evidence of X" means precisely what it says -- no evidence. The only correct empirical procedure is to find affirmative evidence of not-X -- which is often difficult, but never in my experience impossible...A good many scholars would prefer not to know that some things exist. But not knowing that a thing exists is different from knowing that it does not exist. The former is never sound proof of the latter. Not knowing that something exists is simply not knowing. One thinks of Alice and the White Knight:

"I see nobody on the road," said Alice.
"I only wish I had such eyes,"
the king remarked in a fretful tone.
"To able [sic] to see Nobody! And at that distance too!"

Spending a lot of time looking for negative evidence to disprove interpretation X can distract one from find the positive evidence that is necessary to prove what one really wants to prove, i.e. not-X. The "Fallacist's Fallacy" or "Argumentum ad Logicam" is pertinent here:

"Like anything else, the concept of logical fallacy can be misunderstood and misused, and can even become a source of fallacious reasoning. To say that an argument is fallacious is to claim that there is no sufficiently strong logical connection between the premises and the conclusion. This says nothing about the truth-value of the conclusion, so it is unwarranted to conclude that a proposition is false simply because some argument for it is fallacious" (Source: The Fallacy Files).

In conclusion, I would argue for a more positive and constructive search for better evidence. This evidence can be used to construct both: 1. fact-based Rankean histories, politico-military and socio-cultural, as well as 2. intellectual history into the historical discourses used in indigenous historical texts. Pre-modern indigenous historical texts are better viewed as speech acts in the sense of Searle, intimately involved in the making of history, often going through radical revisions with this use in mind.

[Note: Recently found an extensive review of Fischer's "Historian's Fallacies".

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Fooled by Randomness

What is the role of randomness and probability in history?

The above link is to the author's page for the best-selling "Fooled By Randomness" by Wall Street trader and intellectual dissident Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Taleb with his PhD in statistics and probability picks apart the thoughts and life histories of traders working on modern financial markets and exposes the very bounded rationality that conditions history in these markets.

According to Clausewitz [Wikipedia] probability and randomness condition all action and decisions in warfare. The career of Napoleon immediately comes to mind as Taleb discusses trader "blow ups" from over-exposed positions.

The discussion also provides insights into contingent human agency and choice vs. deterministic structure as causal factors in history. A distinction that is central to the work of historians like Braudel and pulitzer prize winning David Hackett Fischer and philosophers of history like Isaiah Berlin.

The author's page has a glossary of fallacies, course materials, and more recent writings. There are several good reviews of the book online [1,2]. Wikipedia has a stub for the book that needs to be expanded.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Federici's most quoted passage is on monetization

The following passage from Federici on money and monetization in lower Burma (c. 1569) has to be the most quoted passage in his work:

"The currant money that is in this Citle, and throughout all this Kingdome is called Gansa or Ganza, which is made of Copper and Lead: It is not the money of the King, but everie man may stampe it that will, because it hath his just partition or value: but they make many of them false, by putting overmuch lead into them, and those will not passe, neither will any take them. With this money Ganza, you may buy Gold or Silver, Rubies and Muske, and other things. For there is no other money currant amongst them. And Gold, Silver and other Merchandize are at one time dearer then another, as all other things bee. This Ganza goeth by weight of Byze [viss], and this name of Byza goeth for the account of the weight, and commonly a Byza of a Ganza is worth (after our account) halfe a Ducket, litle more or lesse: and albeit that Gold and Silver is more or lesse in price, yet the Byza never changeth: everie Byza maketh a hundreth Ganza of weight, and so the number of the money is Byza" (Duties and Currency in Pegu, p. 140).

Lieberman quotes it:

"As late as 1569, Cesar Federici had observed that nonbarter trade throughout the Lower Burma was conducted in privately produced lumps of copper-lead alloy called ganza: 'With this money Ganza, you may buy Gold or Silver, Rubies and Muske, and other things. For there is no other money currant among them.' Ganza was an inordinately bulky medium--that money is very weightie, for fortie [units] is a strong Porters burthen" -- and seems to be associated with a high-level of barter and in-kind payments" (p. 121, Burmese Administrative Cycles, 1984).

The claim is that silver was used but that copper was the basic medium of exchange during Bayinnaung's reign (1551-1581). This is supported by a string of citations on the same page. Among the citations supporting copper usage are Tomes Pires, U Kala's Burmese Chronicle, and the 1586-87 description of Ralph Fitch also published in the SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research (SBBR):

"Their current money in these parts is a kind of brasse which they call Gansa, wherewith you may buy Gold, Silver, Rubies, Muske, and all other things. The Gold and Silver is Merchandise, and is worth sometimes more, and sometimes lesse, as other wares bee. This brasen money doth goe by a weight which they call a Biza; and commonly this Biza after our account is worth about haife a Crowne or somewhat lesse" (Fitch, p. 8).

Reid also quotes Federici:

"In most of Burma and Arakan the common coin was gansa, an amalgam of base metals, preferably copper and tin but often lead, which was measured by weight. ‘It is not the money of the king, but every man may stamp it that will, because it has his just partition or value’ (Frederici [sic] 1581: 254; Pires 1515: 99, 96-97)" (Reid, Anthony (1995) Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce: 1450-1680, Volume Two: Expansion and Crisis, p. 97)

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The "Mon Paradigm" in Burmese History

The archaeologist Dr. Bob Hudson defines the Mon Paradigm as "the widely accepted notion among both indigenous and western scholars that the traditional story of King Anawratha invading and capturing Thaton in the 11th century and a subsequent inflow of Mon culture into Bagan...was a historical fact." (PhD Dissertation, p. 39, rather slow online link, summary of story on page 26 paragraph 4 of the dissertation).

The Mon Paradigm has been gathering momentum for several years as a subject of debate: "The reaction at the 2001 Texts and Contexts conference in Yangon, which saw two highly detailed, prepared rebuttals presented from the floor at the conclusion of Aung-Thwin’s paper, which had been circulated in advance, was a fair indication that the academic community in Myanmar is attracted to the debate." (p. 40)

The Mon Paradigm seems to have several dimensions beyond the Pagan era events in the definition given above. It also includes a criticism of western "Orientalist" historical scholarship: "Western scholars of the 20th century accepted the story of the early Mon kingdom as fact, and attributed many finds in southern Burma of coins, art works and archaeological materials, 'even those with no dates or Mon writing on them' to the Mon ethnic group. The Mon were portrayed as the historical victims of aggressive Thais and Burmans, whose consolation for this injustice was to be credited with civilising their conquerors, a situation with parallels to the Roman adoption of the culture of the conquered Greeks." (p. 40) There are also writing orthography dimensions to the debate.

The Mon Paradigm probably needs a broader formal definition than the series of Pagan era events as well as a more precise statement of sub-claims and support. Toulmin's model of logical argumentation might help some people organize and understand the complex web of arguments in the Mon Paradigm. Some of the criticism might have bearing on post-Pagan historical periods such as the Ava (1365-1527) or the First Toungoo (1486-1599) periods.

The myth supposedly originates during the reign of king Dhammaceti just before the time period (1486-1539) that my paperon the late Ava and early First Toungoo period addresses: "The notion of a first millennium Mon kingdom in southern Burma originated with the 15th century King Dhammaceti of Bago (Pegu) as part of a retrospective claim of Theravada Buddhist orthodoxy for his regime." (p. 40) The discussion of the ethnonym "Talaing" in Dr. Aung-thwin's book is of especial interest to me since this is the term used to refer to the inhabitants of the south in U Kala's Mahayazawingyi which I have used as the foundation of my narrative history.

(Dr. Bob Hudson's dissertation is large, so beware, it took me a long time to download. There is also a separate download page for the dissertation.)

Friday, February 10, 2006

Emuntaya and the death of Minyekyawswa (1416)

1. Overconfidence of Prince Minyekyawsa

[Click text for larger version, Read condensed version of Rajadhirat, view all episodes]

2. King Mingaung admonishes his son

[Click text for larger version, Read condensed version of Rajadhirat]

3. The Lord of Salin warns Prince Minyekyawswa

[Click text for larger version, Read condensed version of Rajadhirat]

4. An auspicous day is chosen for battle with Minyekyawswa

[Click text for larger version, Read condensed version of Rajadhirat]

5. Emuntaya’s deception to lure Minyekyawswa into battle

"Rajadhirat then wondered how Minyekyawswa might be advised that he would be in Dala. Emuntaya volunteered to have this accomplished by going over to Minyekyawswa as if he had defected from his side. Asked to furnish further details, he said he would say that he was disenchanted with his monarch for failing to pursue a more aggressive policy and for not taking action to dislodge the besiegers of Dala and with Deinmaniyut for not acting like a general as he was supposed to be; that for speaking out his mind he was threatened with the death penalty and to have his whole family clapped in irons by Deinmaniyut; that the king backed Deinmaniyut so that he had decided to defect and serve under Minyekyaswa; that he would then participate with the prince’s nobles in one or two actions to further gain Minyekyaswa’s confidence after which he would return to Dala. The king agreed with this plan and gave him five viss (18 pounds / 8 kg) of gold to be distributed among nobles and citizens of Dala.” (edited version of San Lwin’s English translation, 141; Binnyadala in Burmese, 315, Note: San Lwin’s translation seems to paraphrase and condense a lot here) [Click text for larger version, Read condensed version of Rajadhirat]

6. Emuntaya deserts from the Mon to the Burmese

[Click text for larger version, Read condensed version of Rajadhirat, view all episodes]

Dala was heavily surrounded by Myanma troops on both the river side and the land side. When Emuntaya arrived, at Dala's port Chinthe (lion) they were stopped by the garrison commander of the Panpe garrison (htaung-hmu) and the lord of Myo-taung who were blocking the route through at this point.

When the lord of Myo-taung saw them, he asked them who they were. "I am Emuntaya, and after suffering disappointment at the hands of my lord, I request to be received by the lord of the Golden Palace as a servant," he asked the lord of Myo-taung. Emuntaya spoke in the manner that he had proposed to the king. When they heard this, they gave him find Basoes, fine shirts, wrapped up in a bundle and brought Emuntaya from Myo-taung and presented him to Minyekyawswa. Minyekyawswa questioned him. Emuntaya responded in the same way as he had answered the lord of Myo-taung. After that, when Yazathinkyan had listened to him, he addressed the king.

"Such is the lord Minyekyawswa's great royal glory and power (hpon-daw-gyi) that the royal uncle's minister, the noble (thu-yei-kaung) Emuntaya, has arrived here to be received as a royal servant. If what Emuntaya says is true, when the royal desire for Pegu has been fulfilled (i.e. Pegu has been conquered) he should be given any domain to rule over than he desires (myo-sa)." And when Yazathinkyan had spoken, Emuntaya in turn spoke, "This servant has suffered disappointment at the hands of his lord, and have arrived at the royal feet of the son of the lord of the golden palace. Henceforth, I will bear the burden or royal affairs (enter royal service), and from the time I cut down my own people, the Mons, you will place your royal trust in me," Emuntaya spoke thus. Emuntaya was presented with gifts. ." (edited version of San Lwin’s English translation, 141; Binnyadala in Burmese, 315-316)

7. Emuntaya deserts from the Burmese back to the Mon

[Click text for larger version, Read condensed version of Rajadhirat, view all episodes]

At dawn, some Mons were seen outside the city gate near the palisade erected to prevent elephants from rushing the gate.

Emuntaya accompanied a party of Burmese troops who attacked them with swords, killed a couple of Mons from Dala himself and dragged their bodies back into the stockade. When the Myanma troops saw this they reported it to Minyekyawswa. Minyekyawswa awarded Emuntaya.

On another day Emuntaya was ordered to ride in the front of an elephant, while the lord of Salin rode in the middle. As they rode out of the stockade and drew near to the moat, a contingent of Mons emerged from the town and attacked them. The Myanmar troops accompanying them fled.

Grasping his sword, Emuntaya told the lord of Salin that he was going to attack and, climbing down from the elephant, made as if he was going to attack the Mons and followed in pursuit. He didn't attack them and instead threw away his sword, running into the town to take cover.

When the lord of Salin reported this to Minyekyawswa, he clapped his hands in anger and shouted out across the moat to Banya Dala, son of the Mon king Rajadhirat:

"Emuntaya has tricked us and told us lies. When Emuntaya leaves the city and returns to his king I will see that he is rewarded for this.”

Banya Dala passed the message on to Emuntaya, whose reply in turn was shouted back across the moat to the son of the mighty and powerful king, Minyekyawswa, that tomorrow Emuntaya would, in fact, return to Pegu.

To this the Myanma side shouted back once again a reply, "Emuntaya, do you have wings? Can you fly? Will you dig a tunnel under the earth? You were only able to return because you played a trick on us."

"I will leave the town. Just wait," Emuntaya replied.

The Myanma forces waited for him surrounding the town many levels deep on both the land and water approaches to the town. Minyekyawswa shouted out to his officers to keep guard, "Tommorrow, Emuntaya will try to leave the town. We will wait for him and catch him."

(edited version of San Lwin’s English translation, 141; Binnyadala in Burmese, 316)

Early modern historical Placenames in Burma-Yunnan

Started placing historical place names on Google earth after I finished my work today. Got digital longitude and latitudes that I converted to DMS (degrees, minutes, and seconds) using an online conversion utility. Then I manually found the places. It would be better to just load a Google Earth KML file. I took a photo:

[Click for larger photo]

Next step, paths between placenames to show military expeditions from my recently published paper.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Cesar Federici's
"Account of Pegu" (1563): IV

Commerce in Pegu

Previous Posts:
1. Cesar Federici's "Account of Pegu" (1563) I
2. Cesar Federici's "Account of Pegu" (1563) II
3. Cesar Federici's "Account of Pegu" (1563) III

Federici assesses the prospects of trade in Pegu c. 1563 rather negatively: "In the Indies there is not any merchandise that is good to bring to Pegu, unlesse it be at some times by chance to bring Opium of Cambaia, and if hee bring money hee shall lose by it." By "money" he must mean silver. (This should be verified in the original manuscript though, the limitations of translations becoming apparent here.)

Silver could not be used as money in Pegu in the early sixteenth century according to work of the Japanese scholar Shigeru. As I observed in an earlier blog posting:

"According to Polanyi the so-called triad of trade, money and markets must be pulled apart. This is the major theme of Shigeru Ikuta's 'Portuguese Trade Between Malacca and Pegu in the Early Sixteenth Century' (Shiroku 10 (1977): 55-62), namely that in the early sixteenth century there was no money that all the trading nodes along the Bay of Bengal held in common." (On Karl Polyani, Dec 13 2005)

Did this situation of an unmonetized maritime foreign trade economy still exist in Bayinnaung's Pegu of the 1560's as well? Federici goes on to enumerate which kinds of goods are traded from various locations on the Bay of Bengal:

"Now the commodities that come from S. Tome are the onely merchandise for that place, which is the great quantitie of cloth made there, which they use in Pegu; which cloth is made of Bombast woven and painted, so that the more that kinde of cloth is washed, the more lively they shew their colours, which is a rare thing, and there is made such account of this kinde of cloth which is of so great importance, that a small bale of it will cost a thousand or two thousand duckets. Also from S. Tome they layde great store of red yarne, of Bombast died with a root which they call Saia, as aforesaid, which colour will never out."

Federici then launches into a long description of how a trade voyage has to be planned perfectly to coincide with seasonal weather changes. A description of the trade from different places on the Bay of Bengal follows:

"Also there goeth another great ship from Bengala every yeere, laden with fine cloth of Bombast of all sorts, which arriveth in the Harbour of Pegu, when the ship that commeth from S. Tome departeth. The Harbour where these two ships arrive is called Cosmin.

"From Malaca to Martavan, which is a Port in Pagu, there commeth many small ships, and great, laden with Pepper, Sandolo, Porcellan of China, Camfora, Bruneo, & other merchandice.

"The ships that come from Meca enter into the port of Pagu & Cirion, and those ships bring cloth of Wooll, Scarlets, Velvets, Opium, and Chickens, by the which they lose, and they bring them because they have no other thing that is good for Pegu: but they esteem not the losse of them, for that they make such great gaine of their commodities, that they carrie from thence out of that Kingdome.

"Also the King of Assi [Achen] his Shippes come thether into the same port laden with Peper;

[This must be Acheh in northern Sumatra]

"...from the coast of Saint Tome of Bengala out of the Sea of Bara to Pegu are three hundreth miles, and they goe it up the River in foure dayes, with the encreasing water, or with the floud, to a Citie called Cosmin, and there they discharge their ships,..."

"Saint Tome of Bengala" can't be found on the maps of the Bay of Bengal that I found online previously, but another online source has a gazetteer entry:

"Sao Tomé de Meliapor: (13°00'N - 80°15'E)
1530: 40 "casados", 1545: 100 "familias", 1600: 600 "casados", from 1610s. in decline.Subrahmanyam "Improvising Empire - Portuguese trade and settlements in the Bay of Bengal 1500 - 1700" or ""Comercio e conflito - A presença Portuguesa no Golfo de Bengala 1500 - 1700" 1537: 50 "casados", Diffie-Winius "Foundation of the Portuguese Empire 1415-1580"

(from: http://www.colonialvoyage.com/population.html)

Given the longitudes and latitudes and Google Earth, a comprehensive trade map for the Bay of Bengal for the sixteenth century becomes a reasonable project.

Wikipedia and peer review

Wikipedia has probably gone a long way towards popularizing the notion of "peer review" in Wikipedia's own practice and making it a normal expected practice for the large numbers of people partcipating in Wikipedia's project, particularly after Wikipedia's reliability vis-a-vis Encyclopedia Britannica became an issue that was resolved in favor of Wikipedia in Nature magazine.

Peer review results in frequent revision. Wikipedia is continually improving because continual peer review is built into Wikipedia's system of online publication: "Wikipedia articles are getting constantly better as people go back again and again to old articles to add to them, reword misleading statements, correct factual errors, etc. This means that the quality of Wikipedia articles is ever-improving." (source). Some even advocate the Wikipedia peer review process for other more formal areas like medical research pointing out its benefits:

"For readers, Wikipedia is a win. In traditional publishing, readers must wade through many articles on a subject, each written by a few experts, published at 1 moment in time. In Wikipedia you read 1 living article written by many, continually updated by many. Who needs 50 articles on avian flu when 1 will do? And Wikipedia content is often the best on the Web, which means the best anywhere.

"For writers, Wikipedia offers neither authorship, recognition, reward, nor punishment. Articles aren't indexed, but with Google and Yahoo!, who needs it? The motivation for writing is love of information and a desire to share it. I say a variant of Wikipedia for medicine is the future -- and it's good."

Alternatives to Wikipedia with stronger authorial and editorial control by experts in different topics are appearing. Nupedia, the predecessor failed because of a peer review and citation process that was too rigorous. Only time will tell whether authorship and citation can be added to online encyclopedias like Wikipedia without losing the spririt of volunteerism that drives content creation.

The Fallacy of Presentism

Of what use is early modern Burmese history (c. 1350-1600) to contemporary problems in Burma?

Can early modern history help us understand the current military regime? Can generalizations be made that hold over hundreds of years about the inherent nature of Burmese culture and people?

Clifford Geertz points out the fallacious nature of Lucien Pye's supposedly timeless generalizations regarding Burmese personality published in 1962:

"Professor Pye's incisive, exciting, yet ultimately disappointing book is directed toward discovering why Burma, seemingly "objectively" so well endowed, has advanced so little politically and economically. But the question it raises even more insistently is why studies of national character, on the surface similarly well endowed, have advanced so little scientifically."

A great danger is also posed when the currently important issue of military rule in Burma comes to dominate all historical scholarship related to Burma. There are other dimensions of Burmese history than the military dimension. Because the kingdom of Myanmar engaged in large-scale expansionary warfare that engulfed much of mainland Southeast Asia in the sixteenth century and once again in the eighteenth century, does this mean that Burmese culture is someone inherently bellicose? Or as Geertz aptly summarizes Pye's judgements, "hyper-individualistic, distrustful, liable to violence, fond of empty social form, and prefer uncertainty to determinism" ? More primary source publishing and direct comparison, less judgement and generalization.

What about the long periods of history during which the Burmese state effectively retreated from the world, moving the capital north under Thalun in the 1630's, choosing not to align themselves with NAM, the non-aligned movement in the Post-WWII era, and recently moving their capital to Pyinmana, reorienting the center of the country northwards towards China. Geographical isolation and diverse ethnicities might equally be the cause here.

Wikipedia on Presentism:

The fallacy of presentism is also known as "Whig history" or the logical fallacy of "nunc pro tunc". It is often "teleological" or "triumphalist".

"Presentism is a mode of historical analysis in which present-day ideas and perspectives are anachronistically introduced into depictions or interpretations of the past. Most modern historians seek to avoid presentism in their work because they believe it creates a distorted understanding of their subject matter.

"...'Whig history', in which certain eighteenth and nineteenth century British historians wrote history in a way that used the past to validate their own political beliefs."

A greater emphasis on primary sources is a partial antidote because presentism often exhibits itself as the selective use of sources:

"...this kind of approach, which emphasizes the relevance of history to the present, things which do not seem relevant receive little attention, resulting in a misleading portrayal of the past."

Serial Academic Articles (Blog Rhetoric)

Could a serious academic article be published in pieces or installments over time?

Balzac provides some precedent for this in the nineteenth century when he published the first serialized novels [my Balzac site, Robb's biography] . It's easy to see how narrative can be created in installments, but could an academic paper be written in this fashion?

There is another Balzac publishing innovation that is common in blogs and Wikipedia that might help keep blogs from degenerating in quality: frequent revision. Balzac used to scribble changes on the final publishing proofs even after his novels were typeset. As his novels ran through successive editions and printings he would change and improve the novel. Despite the succesive improvements in quality, this must have driven his publishers crazy.

How might various genres of academic publishing be transformed under serialization and frequent revision? If under peer review an author found themselves raising the wrong question, the thesis to be proved as well as the support (reasons and evidence) might change. Collaboration and joint authorship might become more common. Toulmin's model could help to explicitly keep track of changes in the logical argument and support from installment to installment [another Toulmin link, Wikipedia].

Just because blogging software is used to publish academic papers does not mean that the content of the academic article has to generate to the level of the opinionated and highly personal blogs that flood the internet. A distinction also has to made between blogs, which are basically serialized diaries full of personal opinions, and blogging software, which allows serialized web publishing, a potential powerful tool for academic publishing.

Monday, February 06, 2006

The Shift Away From Print
(To online journals and blogs)

This recent article from insidehighered.com is about the transition of academic journals from print to electronic versions. The problem is especially acute in humanities disciplines such as history. Blogs are recommended as one solution. There is some discussion of how blogs can be supplemented with peer review:

"A disconcerting number of nonprofit publishers, especially scholarly societies and university presses that have the greatest presence in the humanities and social sciences fields, have a particularly complicated transition to make. The university presses and scholarly societies have been traditionally strong allies of academic libraries...this same set of publishers is particularly vulnerable, because their strategic planning must take place in the absence of the working capital and the economies of scale on which larger publishers have relied. As a result, some humanities journals published by small societies are not yet even available electronically. The community has a need for collaborative solutions like Project Muse or HighWire, (initiatives that provide the infrastructure to create and distribute electronic journals) for the scholarly societies that publish the smaller journals in the humanities and social sciences. But if such solutions are not developed or cannot succeed in relatively short order on a broader scale, the alternative may be the replacement of many of these journals with blogs, repositories, or other less formal distribution models.

In the comments section someone calls blog publishing "unsubstantiated drivel". Perhaps he is not aware of blogging in the science community. Citation checking and peer review could be even more intensive and thorough under a blogging regime of academic publishing. Blogging would also seem to be ideal for collaborative writing. Another poster counters the claim that blogs are necessarily drivel:

"Unsubstantiated drivel is not limited to blog formats. It can also be found on copier paper, on newsprint, and even on acid-free paper in university library archives.

"If I had no budget but had a burning desire to launch a new journal with a cadre of colleagues working in very narrow new subfield that did not require complex visual layout (thus probably in the humanities), I wouldn’t hesitate to launch a peer-reviewed blog. Blog software is relatively cheap (even free) and is designed to organize mostly textual databases that are augmented chronologically, in short, databases of periodicals.

"Peer review could take place on-line, using anonymous aliases, in the form of comments to unpublished articles, with access limited by logins and passwords controlled by the editorial board. When ready, the article could then be published (with real names) for search engines to index for free, and for anyone to read for free. Comments could either be disabled, or enabled for a restricted, registered membership, whose contributions can be moderated by editorial board members (just like these comments).

"Blogs might be a poor scholar’s solution, but they do offer several advantages: low cost; control over input (peer review, drivel reduction, flame prevention); and an organized, online, open-access, searchable database archive."

[Note: I have an article I am working on for publication that I should attempt to use the blogging format for. The main Chinese primary source, the Ming Shi-lu, is online. The main Burmese primary source "The Burmese Chronicle" I have in my own manuscript translation that can be put online in increments.]