Friday, March 30, 2007

Bertil Lintner takes Susan Conway's new to task on "Shan" history

Conway, Susan (2006) The Shan: Culture, Arts, and Crafts, River Books, Bangkok. [Lintner's Review]

The book excels when it covers the author's areas of expertise:

"Conway’s chapters about Shan weaving and dyeing, embroidery, lacquer ware, Shan genealogy and Buddha images, as well as her detailed notes about Shan script and palm leaf manuscripts are extremely informative. Conway also describes in great detail the patterns and meanings of Shan tattoos. So don’t be discouraged by the book’s shortcomings. If you ignore the historical and ethnological parts it’s well worth reading."

But falls short in the areas of history:

"...the Shan do not refer to themselves as Tai Yai—they call themselves Tai, which in China is romanized as Dai. Thaiyai, not Tai Yai, is the name given to them by their ethnic Thai cousins in Thailand who traditionally have believed that the Shan were their ancestors (yai means big or great.)

"Kachin chiefs did nor rule Hkamti Long, which was a Shan state in the Kachin-dominated area of the far north of Burma. The Shan state of Yawnghwe is not “called Nyaungshwe by the Shan and Yawnghwe by the Burmese.” It is the other way round. Yawnghwe is Shan for the valley, or gorge of rice storages. Nyaungshwe is simply a Burmese corruption of the Shan name.

Bertil Linter also whets the readers appetite with tidbits of a topic that has yet to be delved into by historians yet (that I'm aware of) the Kachin expansion into region north of Upper Burma, the modern day Kachin State. The Kachins "migrated less than 300 years ago into the northern parts of what today is Burma, and, according to Ola Hansson, the Swedish-American missionary who managed to convert many Kachins to Christianity and gave them a written language:

“Having obtained a foothold, the conquest of the whole region between the Khamti (Hkamti) and Hukong (Hukawng) valleys, as far south as to the Mogaung river, followed in due time. The Shans and Burmans were driven out, and only the ruins of their pagodas, the trees planted around their monasteries, and the names of their villages remained to tell the story of fierce fighting and wholesale slaughter.”

"The southward movement of the Kachin was halted only when the British colonial power began to subdue the area in the late 19th century. Thus, the question of ethnicity in Burma is not merely, or simply, about the majority Burmans versus the country’s plethora of minorities. Age-old divisions and conflicts also exist between the various non-Burman nationalities, which makes the ethnic issue in Burma far more complex than most foreign analysts assume, and a solution much harder to find than just referring to “the struggle against greater-Burman hegemonism,” as many of the leaders of the minorities often do.