AAS Annual Meeting

Southeast Asia Session 646

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Session 646: Questioning Historical Actors in Burmese Histories

Organizer: Alexey Kirichenko, Moscow State University, Russia

Chair: Jacques P. Leider, Ecole Francaise d Extreme-Orient, Thailand

Historical sources, narratives, and research are structured around certain actors. Scholars continue revisiting, challenging, and expanding their conceptualizations of such actors as historiography evolves. The pace of these reassessments, however, is uneven in different fields. In Burma studies, there has been little such reassessment and as a result, some of the earliest-identified actors or their perceptions have continued to dominate the field. This panel addresses the need to continue reassessing sources, paradigms, and conceptions, and brings together various methodologies and techniques to allow the participants to review some of the accepted historical actors–defined in the broadest sense of persons or groups, institutions, social phenomena, or practices–in Burmese history and history-writing, and create space for new, and new kinds of, actors. Papers examine how a number of actors—such as Burmese overlords and dynastic founders, monastic communities, ethnic groups, their identities and historical legacies—have been identified or created and defined, based on convention, or as they reflect the conventions of source materials. The contributors consider the impact of actors in histories of pre-colonial Burma and explore the kinds of histories Burma scholars can and do write, whether national, ethnic or local. Though focused on Burmese history, this panel provides a basis for comparison across borders into the broader Southeast Asian context.

Alaungmintaya (1752-60): Exploring the Representation of a Burmese Dynasty Founder in Burmese and Western Historiography
Jacques P. Leider, Ecole Francaise d Extreme-Orient, Thailand

In 1752, a Burmese local chief took the lead of a revolt against Mon rulership in Central Burma. Bearing the title “Alaungmintaya” (future dhammaraja), he became five years later the lord of a reunified kingdom. Undoubtedly a great king, Alaungmintaya took very soon his place among the heroic figures of the country. This paper will explore the narrativization of his reign by chroniclers who legitimized and localized the king’s political metamorphosis from an ordinary human condition to a cosmologically significant status. It will then turn to the king’s radically changing image in Western historiography. Early English contacts with the new dynasty lay the groundwork of Western curiosity in Burmese kingship and contributed to positive representation while later colonial and post-colonial writers took a negative view of the king’s reign.

Change, Fluidity and Unidentified Actors: Understanding the Organization and History of Upper Burmese Samgha from the Seventeenth to Nineteenth Centuries
Alexey Kirichenko, Moscow State University, Russia

One of the principal difficulties in studying history of monastic Buddhism in precolonial Burma is the limited source base. Despite a notable increase in research on Burmese Buddhism during the last twenty years, academic community still works basically with the same selection of sources that was printed in the late nineteenth and in the early twentieth centuries. The majority of these sources was compiled in the nineteenth century and reflects agendas and beliefs specific to that period. When used to understand monastic activities of the earlier periods, the data of these sources may sometimes be more misleading than helpful. The paper illustrates this situation by analyzing the organization of Burmese monastic communities of the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. The existing scholarship identifies individual monasteries, sects and lineages as the key forms of monastic association and the loci of monastic activities. The paper challenges this view by drawing attention to a broader sample of evidence available in manuscripts and revealing a number of anomalies that the present knowledge can’t explain. It argues against the centrality of sects and lineages for the pre-nineteenth century Burmese samgha and discusses alternative ways of describing the structures of monasticism.

Contextualizing Mon History Writing
Patrick A. McCormick, Ecole Francaise d Extreme-Orient, USA

Based on a close reading of a set of Mon historical narratives and discussions with members of Mon intellectual and interpretive communities, I attempt to contextualize the practice of Mon history writing. While Mon scholars, like many other so-called ethnic historians of Burma, are eager to tell Mon histories, their narratives tend to be shaped by, and ultimately participate in, the project of writing a single narrative of the Burmese nation-state. Given this tendency, I turn to consider more closely the stance of Mon scholars: who they write for, the features and constraints of the intellectual environment in which they write, and how they evaluate their own history for transmission and retelling. In delving into Mon evaluations of their own history, I survey some of the sources Mon scholars have used, while trying to gauge how the choice of source materials reflects Mon conceptions of what is crucial in constructing and retelling history from a Mon perspective. I then step back and attempt to place Mon history-writing from a Mon perspective within a wider project of writing autonomous Southeast Asian histories. A paradox is that while Mon histories may be “autonomous” in the sense of being written by local scholars, from local perspectives, for local audiences, they may not be “local,” in that they tend not to take Mon actors and perspectives as the basis for writing narratives away from an idea of a modern nation state.

The Retelling of a Burmese Foundation Legend: Mahapon and Thissabanda and the Construction of Burmese Buddhist Identity
Patrick Pranke, University of Louisville, USA

It is a truism of literary theory that an author loses control of the meaning of the text he creates as soon as it leaves his writing desk. This is especially true when the text in question is an important and well-known foundation legend of a people's religion that is told and retold, written and rewritten, over the course of centuries. In this paper I will look at one such legend from Burma, that of the saints Mahapon and Thissabanda, a monk and a hermit, which recounts their role in the founding of Buddhism in the Myamma homeland of Upper Burma. Specifically, I will examine how the story is presented in three of its recensions: first in the Yazawin-kyaw, a Burmese royal chronicle composed c. 1520 at Ava; second as it appears in a late eighteenth-century monastic chronicle named Vamsadipani where the legend is imbedded within a much larger narrative; and third as it is retold in the early nineteenth century by the Burmese king, Bodawpaya (r. 1782-1819) who revalorizes the earlier reading of the legend. My purpose is to explore how the meaning of the legend changed through its various recensions, while at the same time served the interests of the parties retelling it. Of particular interest will be the role the legend played in the construction of identity of the historical actors who preserved and passed it on.

Delving into Eight Centuries of Burmese Palatial Architecture: King Mindon and an Illustrated Manuscript Dated 1855
Francois Tainturier, SOAS, University of London, Thailand

Historical narratives are in most cases written ones. The one presented here is peculiar in that it is a narrative illustrated with plans of royal palaces built by successive rulers over a span of eight centuries within the Burmese realm. Featured in a manuscript drawn in 1855 in anticipation of the foundation of Mandalay by King Mindon, this illustrated narrative presented the king with a compendium of palatial architecture tracing back its development back to the Pagan period. Beyond this immediate purpose, the manuscript also intended to record these plans so that they be “noted for posterity.” Unfortunately this commendable objective was practically met with very difficult issues, not the least being that, with few exceptions, wooden palaces built by former rulers had completely disappeared. From their mid nineteenth century vantage point, the authors of the manuscript nonetheless created an illustrated historical narrative that came to reflect more concerns about their own agenda and that of the king than genuine search for historical accuracy. Moreover the manuscript’s objective of being a record “noted for posterity” is now fulfilled as the sequence of royal palaces featured in it finds its place in official publications by the Myanmar Ministry of Culture. The presentation will contextualize the production of this illustrated manuscript, attempt to disentangle the maze of its narrative, expose the actors behind its production, and explain their agenda. It will finally explain how this illustrated manuscript provides a good example of history-writing typical of nineteenth century Burma.