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A Shan Kaleidoscope

By Bertil Lintner

Factual errors fail to mar a beautiful book about a Burmese ethnic minority culture

The Shan: Culture, Art and Crafts, by Susan Conway. River Books, Bangkok, 2006. 212 pages

This is the ideal book for anyone interested in Shan textiles, paintings and architecture. It also contains a wealth of unique historical photographs, many taken at the turn of the last century. Susan Conway, a research associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, has done a wonderful job presenting traditional Shan art and culture, and the outcome is a beautiful, coffee-table-style book, which in many ways is the first of its kind about the Shan peoples of upper and northeastern Burma. The book covers Shan history, princes and palaces, arts, crafts and even trade, and it contains detailed descriptions of Shan male and female dress and textile patterns.

Conway has previously written a book about Lan Na court textiles in northern Thailand titled Silken Threads, Lacquer Thrones: Lan Na Textiles, and textiles and textile patterns are no doubt her specialty. But, unfortunately for such an attractive volume as The Shan, the text contains a number of serious omissions and unfortunate factual errors. First of all, nowhere does she explain that the word Shan actually is a Burmese corruption of Siam—the final 'm' in a word becomes a nasal n-sound in Burmese. And 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.)

The naming and definition of ethnic minorities in the Shan area is also misleading. The Wa are not called Lawa by the Burmese; the Lawa are a Mon-Khmer tribe in northwestern Thailand that is related to the Wa tribes of the rugged borderlands between eastern Shan State and southwestern China. And the Karen are not "also called Karenni, Tongsu, Nyang Daeng, Sgaw, Pwo, Pa-O, Thaungthu or Kayah." Sgaw and Pwo are the most important of several Karen tribes, the Karenni—who are also called Kayah—are a tribe related to the Karen, and so are Pa-O, who are also called Tongsu (in Shan) or Thaungthu (in Burmese).

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.

The author also misleadingly writes that "some groups of Karen, Kachin and Wa had inhabited the land long before the Tai arrived." Karen and Wa, yes, but the Kachin are relatively recent arrivals in Kachin State as well as northern Shan State. They 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.

By contrast, 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. And it is a refreshing and colorful addition to the literature about the Shan, a people no one has written anything substantial about for decades.

This review first appeared in The Irrawaddy, March, 2007

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