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Vol. 1, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, Janet HOSKINS

Contents>> Vol. 1, No. 3

Performing the Divine: Mediums, Markets and Modernity in Urban Vietnam
Copenhagen: NIAS Press, 2011, 244 p.

The resurgence of popular religion in Vietnam has attracted the attention of a large number of scholars, who have recently published works on the music (Norton 2009), hero worship (Phạm Quỳnh Phương 2009), transnational spread (Fjelstad and Nguyễn Thị Hiền 2011) and modernity (Taylor 2007) of the colorful rituals. Kirsten Endres’ Performing the Divine: Mediums, Markets and Modernity in Urban Vietnam takes its place among these other valuable studies, and advances a number of complex re-evaluations of contemporary theory in relation to new empirical studies.

Endres tells the story of how she discovered lên đồngg rituals in 1998 while doing research on village festivals, observing a ceremony in a village that informants had told her was prohibited by the authorities and never performed. Eight years later, the capital city of Hanoi was full of private shrines dedicated to the Mother Goddess and the music from Four Palace ceremonies wafted down from the top floors of the narrow town houses in trendy, affluent neighborhoods as well as more popular ones. Her research took place in the increasingly public sphere of competing master mediums, folkloric performances and new ideas of spirit mediumship rituals as part of an “intangible cultural heritage” which defines Vietnamese identity.

The Four Palace rituals are sometimes described as a “religion of prosperity” in the “alternative modernity” of Vietnam’s new market economy. Recently, they have gained legitimacy and a measure of official recognition through their description as the “Religion of the Mother Goddess”(Đạo Mẫu), seen as the indigenous religion of the Red River Delta, the homeland of Vietnamese tradition. Studies by folklorists like Ngô Đức Thịnh, Nguyễn Thị Hiền and Phạm Quỳnh Phương played an important part in both documenting these practices and arguing that they should be recognized as authentic local culture.

But, as Endres argues, this process of documentation is also a complex one, since it selectively emphasizes certain elements (performance and connections to business success) at the expense of others (healing and divination). It may also lead to a certain standardization of a pantheon once characterized by its fluidity, flexibility and openness to individual innovation.

The vital multiplicity of Vietnamese forms of spirit worship has been subject to some form of administrative control since imperial times, when particular deities were issued imperial certificates of investiture ( sặc phong) and assigned ranks in official hierarchies. This rank did not necessarily correspond to the popularity or influence of the deity, however, since people thronged to the temples of deities perceived to be spiritually efficacious, whether or not they were sanctioned as historical heroes or heroines. Many of the most responsive deities were, in fact, women who had been wronged: who had been wrongly suspected of infidelity or immorality, who had died young and tragically, and whose cult had been neglected in official centers, only to resurface by possessing new spirit mediums and gaining attention through healings.

Spirit possession was for a long time a peripheral cult of “troubled women,” condemned by communist authorities as a form of superstition and fraud. This profile is now changing, and while women still predominate as ordinary mediums, many if not most of the best-known urban mediums are now male. This transformation has effected what Endres calls the “various political and cultural agendas” that have been played out in the creation of Đạo Mẫu. Among those that she explores are the connections between Đạo Mẫu and commerce, the aesthetic values of performance, gender fluidity and what she calls the “heritagisation” of Four Palace mediumship in today’s Vietnam.

Drawing on Victor Turner’s theories of the ritual process and Bruce Kapferer’s ideas of the dynamics of ritual performance, Endres analyzes a number of specific ceremonies to discern how“the symbolic system of the Four Palace religion is inscribed into the novice medium’s body as lived experience” (p. 24). This process begins with ideas that certain persons have a “spirit root”( căn đồng) or a “destined aptitude for mediumship” based the idea of a karmic debt that can only be repaid by serving the spirits in this life. A personal crisis, a string of bad luck, disturbing dreams or a serious illness can all be symptoms of this “spirit root.” Endres argues that to understand how a medium can benefit from becoming a medium we must pay attention both to the narratives they present about their pathway into mediumship and to the ritual process through which they come to feel newly empowered by the spirits.

Ritual performances themselves can be highly contested. They have changed significantly from the French colonial era through the period of suppression by the secular state to the present moment of efflorescence. The rise of a new consumer culture has transformed deities once seen as vengeful supernatural beings who punish even the slightest mistakes into more tolerant“exchange partners” willing to work with their mediums to conjure wealth and prosperity in this world. A female dominated cult has also become increasingly male led, with transgendered “celebrity mediums” emerging in recent years as Vietnamese society in general has become more open to gender fluidity.

In the past two decades, Four Palace spirit mediumship has been reborn as “Đạo Mẫu,” at the impetus of a number of Vietnamese folklore scholars and anthropologists. Instead of seeing these rituals as a way of serving the gods and deities (in effect, an intense and more dramatic form of ancestor worship), these intellectuals have helped to re-define it as a religion, a pathway with its own implicit ideas and doctrines. Đạo Mẫu makes claims to embody a more authentic and ancient heritage in which the painful events of the twentieth century are completely absent—a telling sort of “historical amnesia” that elides an age of ideological conflict to take refuge in an imperial pantheon of heroes, highland ladies, princes, and princesses.

In this respect, the impetus to standardize and get recognition as “Vietnamese indigenous religion” is similar to the impetus that the leaders of the colonial era “new religion” Caodaism felt, when they moved to define a nation that did not yet exist in terms of a spiritual heritage that emerged from Vietnam’s history and colonial experience. But while Caodaists embraced syncretism, and boldly encompassed Jesus Christ and many Christian themes into the overarching East Asian pantheon headed by the Jade Emperor, Đạo Mẫu advocates are moving in a different direction, asserting the modernity of cultural elements once relegated to the domain of rural folklore, tying the destiny of urban businessmen to remote temples scattered across the countryside.

The new Đạo Mẫu has been cleansed of its “superstitious” connections to fortune telling and other “unscientific” functions and recuperated as “an aestheticized performance of spiritual music and dance, worthy of being preserved as part of Vietnam’s cultural heritage” (p. 184). In her final chapter, Endres indicates some more recent aspects of these transformations—the ways in which ethnic minorities have been “hybridized” by their depictions in the performances, and the influence of overseas Vietnamese returning to their homeland to sponsor new rituals and introduce a more sudden, spontaneous form of possession. The old imperial deities have become “cosmopolitan travelers in the transethnic and transnational spiritscapes” (p. 199) inhabited by the newly mobile populations of those who worship them. Endres herself has proved an insightful and perceptive guide along these journeys.

This is an important book as much for the conceptual challenges it presents as the new ethnographic details. It is a theoretically sophisticated study that asks questions about the role of particular agents and power relations in resurrecting and reconstituting a once suppressed set of ritual practices. The answers that it provides will appeal to scholars of religion, ritual and Vietnamese studies.

Janet Hoskins
Anthropology Department, University of Southern California



Fjelstad, Karen; and Nguyễn Thị Hiền. 2011. Spirits without Borders: Vietnamese Spirit Mediums in a Transnational Age. Contemporary Anthropology of Religion series. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Norton, Barley. 2009. Songs for the Spirits: Music and Mediums in Modern Vietnam. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Phạm Quỳnh Phương. 2009. Hero and Deity: Trần Hưng Đạo and the Resurgence of Popular Religion in Vietnam. Chiang Mai: Mekong Press.

Taylor, Philip, ed. 2007. Modernity and Re-enchantment: Religion in Post-Revolutionary Vietnam. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.


Vol. 1, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, Man-houng LIN

Contents>> Vol. 1, No. 3

Linking an Asian Transregional Commerce in Tea:
Overseas Chinese Merchants in the Fujian-Singapore Trade, 1920–1960
Leiden: Brill NV, 2010, 252 p.

This book is a product of Jason Lim’s research into Chinese newspapers in Singapore from 1880 to 1930, where he first learned of Anxi migrants’ involvement in the tea trade between Fujian and Singapore. Anxi had been a crucial tea-growing region in southern Fujian, a province in southeast China, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the 1920s, social unrest led to an exodus of people from Anxi county into Singapore. In the early twentieth century, Fujian’s tea market shrank as a result of the trade competition in tea from Ceylon, India, Japan, and Taiwan. The market in Singapore between 1920 to 1960 played a compensatory role. Lim focuses his research on the relation between politics and the tea trade between Fujian and Singapore by devoting two chapters respectively to the periods 1932–47 and 1945–60, and three background chapters to either Fijian’s tea production or the links between Singapore and Fujian.

Between 1920 and 1960, changes in the political regimes in both Fujian and Singapore had a subsequent effect on the location and types of archives Lim used. On the Fujian side, the ruling government was that of the Republic of China (ROC) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) respectively before and after 1949. The ROC moved archives from mainland China to Taiwan in 1949 while the PRC stored their archives in Fujian after 1949. Singapore, a British colony since 1819, was occupied by Japan in 1942–45, and turned from a British colony to a part of Malaya from 1945 before becoming independent in 1959 and breaking away from Malaysia in 1965. Through the use of archival and other related materials obtained from Singapore, Fujian, and Taiwan, as well as those collected in United Kingdom and Australia, Lim describes the Singapore-Fujian tea trade history in this book (which is a revised version of his doctoral dissertation). His clear and detailed account vividly reveals the interactions between the overseas Chinese cultural network and international politics.

The large influx of Anxi people into Singapore in the 1920s enabled these migrants to replace the Chaozhou group which had previously dominated Singapore’s tea trade (pp. 28, 75). From 1920 to 1960, the tea merchants’ association was formed and controlled by the Anxi group with some particular dialect (p. 95). Even though these migrants had left Anxi, they maintained connections to affiliates or lands in their native province thereby establishing a system to bring Anxi tea or other Fujian tea into Singapore. They represented the tea merchants in Singapore and sometimes coordinated with other tea merchants association in Southeast Asia to strengthen contacts with the Fujian provincial government for the purpose of improving the tea trade relating to quality control, exchange rate, and taxes (p. 97).

As the ROC’s nationality law was based on blood (( jus sanguinis), these Singapore-based Chinese still claimed themselves as Chinese before the 1960s. They kept asserting that Taiwan’s tea was inferior to Fujianese tea because customers were used to the taste of the tea from their own native province. Tea from Taiwan, then a colony of Japan, was deemed an “enemy product”(p. 121). When Japan controlled Singapore and the coastal area of China, Anxi tea was still brought into Singapore, sometimes through Hong Kong (p. 139). Even though the Anxi people were in Singapore, they strongly continued to identify themselves with the motherland. They contributed money and directly participated in the war to help the ROC government resist Japan. They often donated money for social welfare other than remittances to their own respective families. Thus, selling tea from Fujian became a form of patriotism aimed at promoting “national products” (p. 122). However, the Anxi migrants increasingly purchased tea from Taiwan by deeming it to be “essen-tially Chinese” (p. 172) after their estates on the Chinese mainland were nationalized by the PRC government and the ROC government moved to Taiwan maintained a private ownership system which was supported more by overseas Chinese.

In 1928, China was unified by the Nationalist Army and further attempts to improve tea quality were introduced. China was unsuccessful in adopting those plantation systems that were introduced in Ceylon and India. Instead, China set up experiment stations to test new tea plants within small land plots. As China was continually under threat of war between 1920 and 1949, revenues did not suffice for large-scale improvement. In particular, when the Sino-Japanese War and the Civil War between the communists and nationalists broke out, unfavorable exchange rates were levied against patriotic Anxi Singaporeans. While Singapore was occupied by Japan, some tea merchants purchased more tea from Taiwan (p. 98). Nevertheless, when the Communist government took over their home properties, these Chinese emigrants based in Singapore still tried to import tea from the homeland. However, Communist China more and more sold tea through a national company to countries within the Soviet bloc (p. 162). In the Republican period before 1949, Fujian tea was categorized and differentiated into tea for the domestic market, tea for the foreign market, and tea for “the overseas Chinese” market (pp. 131–133). In the 1960s, Anxi Singaporeans took citizenship in the newly independent Singapore and no longer laid claim to their former nationality (pp. 183–186).

There are a number of problems with this book. For example, the distinction between baozhong tea and wulong tea has been blurred (p. 75). Wulong tea is actually fermented more than baozhong tea. Furthermore, the book does not elaborate on some other aspects relating to overseas Chinese cultural networks and international politics.

Firstly, with regard to cultural networks, Lim points out that Anxi people only constituted 3 percent of Singapore’s population, of which 75 percent was Chinese. Of these Chinese, Fujianese emigrants accounted for more than half (pp. 26, 189). Lim mentioned that in the 1930s, tea from Ceylon, India, Japan, and Taiwan competed with tea from Anxi in Singaporean shops (p. 114). Western firms were also importing other teas (p. 116). Lim did not describe the competition between Anxi tea and other teas for non-Anxi or non-Fujian consumers in Singapore. Lim mentions that Taiwan also had Anxi migrants (p. 27). In fact, these Anxi migrants were crucial for Taiwan’s tea business, but Lim does not delve into the question of whether this group helped facilitate the tea trade between Taiwan and Singapore.

Secondly, in regards to international politics, Lim does not discuss in detail the interaction between the ruling Singaporean government and the Chinese government, nor does he compare it with other Southeast Asian governments in connection with the tea trade. The Japanese government was active in soliciting the cooperation of the overseas Chinese in Java in the 1910s to persuade the Dutch government to continue purchasing tea from Taiwan, tea that was, in effect, a kind of Japanese tea (Lin 2001). Lim mentions that the Singaporean government kept surveillance over the overseas Chinese anti-Japanese boycott movement in the 1930s and the share of Taiwan tea in Singapore increased from 1925 to 1933 (pp. 114, 118). The governmental policy on the Singapore side needs more elaboration.

Notwithstanding the above issues, on the whole, this book helps us understand more about migration and identity, war and trade, the overseas Chinese, and intra-Asian trade.

Man-houng Lin 林滿紅
The Institute of Modern History, Academia Sinica


Lin, Man-houng. 2001. Overseas Chinese Merchants and Multiple Nationality: A Means for Reducing Commercial Risk (1895–1935). Modern Asian Studies 35(4): 985–1009.


Vol. 1, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, Joel DAVID

Contents>> Vol. 1, No. 3

Glimpses of Freedom: Independent Cinema in Southeast Asia
Ithaca: Cornell Southeast Asia Program Publications, 2012, viii+246 p.

The thrill of going over a volume on contemporary popular culture is compounded when the activity betokens a celebrity system whose members may be already enjoying a measure of popularity, and whose fame has the potential of reaching a wider public. The reader could casually drop a statement like “Oh, I knew that artist before she became a global household name” to admiring colleagues, and in effect replicate the outward spread of stardom whose processes new media have enabled and fast-tracked.

The original proponents of film auteurism, however, had more urgent concerns in mind, notably the dismantling of Classical Hollywood influence in the prestige productions of post-WWII pre-New Wave France (Truffaut 1976 [1954], 233–235).1) No one begrudges these critics for achieving fame and fortune as filmmakers (and occasional performers), in light of the fact that the larger film movement that their aesthetic activism occasioned resulted in the demise of the Classical Hollywood system as well as the emergence of cinemas not just from Europe, but also from non-Western countries.

Glimpses of Freedom, a recent volume from Cornell University’s Southeast Asia Program, attempts to provide an impression—a snapshot, as it were—of how a New Wave-inspired mode of practice has been reshaping film activity in the region. Fifteen articles from a mix of scholars and practitioners demonstrate a wide array of stylistic presentations—from autobiographical accounts to interviews to close textual analyses to empirical studies of such current hot-button topics as piracy, queer politics, and non-mainstream (independent, per the book’s subtitle) production, with only a necessarily open-ended introduction providing an overview of the book’s contents.

Certain problems can be predicted from this type of catch-as-catch-can approach. The most significant one would be the absence of contextualization—a more serious problem for this material, considering that any discussion of independent cinema would be twice removed, at the very least: from any country’s mainstream film production, as well as from its audience’s preferences (noting here, as Andrew Higson had reasonably prescribed, that any national cinema behooves its evaluators to take into account the presence of global film distribution [1989, 36–46]). The effect in this instance of isolating a phenomenon, no matter how laudatory its political intentions are, is to restore a great-man humanist system where the players may be less insidiously patriarchal, or even openly anti-patriarchal, but still hopeful of attaining a status of “greatness” nevertheless.

One’s response to this self-congratulatory package will depend on one’s tolerance for displays of performances calculated to maximize potential readers’ admiration for individual cleverness and proximity to mainstream stardom (hidden from view, as already noted). Since my persuasion admittedly falls far outside the net of uncritical acceptance that would allow followers to be swept up in what we may term the indie-film crusade, the anthology’s articles that have engaged me might be precisely the ones that indie-film fans might find lacking in terms of the auteurist “signatures”that the New Wave’s proponents and followers upheld (Monaco 1976, 5–8). Benedict R. O’G. Anderson’s “The Strange Story of a Strange Beast,” as an example, makes no pretense of laying claim to possessing an analysis of and prescription for Thai cinema, but instead narrates its author’s journey toward understanding local reception to an internationally celebrated release, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Sud pralad [Tropical Malady] (2004).

More productive for a community of practitioners (although not necessarily for any specific filmmaker), the article by one of the editors, May Adadol Ingawanij, problematizes a nonmainstream showcase, the Thai Short Film and Video Festival, in relation to the issues of autonomy and containment. With a modicum of historical cues—the coup d’etat and the censorship of another Weerasethakul film, both occurring in the same year (2006)—the author succeeds in assessing the challenge posed by the festival to a mainstream presumably being endorsed and maintained by conservative social forces. Another article (“Independence and Indigenous Film”), by Angie Bexley, is even more impressive in articulating and explaining the urgency that film as modernizing force plays in a nation, Timor-Leste, recently making the painful transition to postcolonial independence while still reeling from the tragic upheavals wrought by European colonization and, even worse, by neighboring Indonesia’s occupation.

What distinguishes these few essays is their avoidance of a disturbing trope that marks the rest (from my admittedly single reading of the entire volume). That trope, or more accurately tendency, is manifested in the form of a championing of a player, whether an individual or an institution, subtly or openly, in the purported interest of upholding independent practice vis-à-vis mainstream lack or excess.2) Although the larger dualities (of indie being preferable to mainstream as well as Euro-art films and events being superior to anything American) characterize the volume as a whole, and are probably inevitable given the scope of the project, the personality-based thinking that grips the region’s critics and practitioners weakens, and sometimes completely hinders, the possibility of turning toward creative subversions from, say, the appropriation of mainstream prerogatives to the consideration of the potentials of regional cooperation.

In fact, the latter issue, which would require an actionable formulation of the qualities that constitute “Southeast Asian cinema,” recalls an earlier historical project: that of the politicization of Latin American cinema, which had productive consequences for then-emergent Third Cinema theorizing. Whatever else one might think of the star potentials of the practitioners brought together by Glimpses of Freedom, a contribution on the order of Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino’s “Towards a Third Cinema” (1983 [1969], 17–27), much less the New Latin American Cinema’s conceptualizations of hunger aesthetics and cannibalist production,3) might as well belong on a different continent—which in fact is literally the case.

It may be argued that the moment for ground-breaking political activism has been superseded by technological transformation and convergence, with Asia now poised to wrest the lead from the West. Yet the Asian centers involved in technological innovation all lie (so far) not far from, but definitely outside, the Southeast region. And more unnervingly, some of the most articulate contributors—partly owing to the official stature of English as one of their country’s national languages—come from the Philippines, which, if Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman is to be believed, shares more in common with Latin America’s banana-republic economies than with the rest of Asia (Krugman et al. 1992, 1–78). Yet an earlier generation of local indie practitioners, names such as Lino Brocka and Ishmael Bernal (both deceased) now being constantly acknowledged by current film artists, behaved then as if they were aware of these contradictions, and took pains to ensure that they were consistently resolved in favor of the mass audience: foreign festivals provided them a means not of self-sufficiency but toward a way of legitimizing their film output prior to their final confrontations with censors, critics, and distributors.

While the argument that the current terms of film production and consumption have changed too radically to necessitate this requisite is inarguably valid, the assumption that mass responses are secondary at best is problematic and, in blunt terms, hypocritical for people who ride on the qualified stardom proffered by auteurist status. Glimpses of Freedom unwittingly illustrates this predicament in the prominence it gives to the late Filipino critic Alexis Tioseco (the entire volume is dedicated to him as well as to its co-editor, Benjamin McKay; another book, by renowned American critic Jonathan Rosenbaum [2010, v], had preceded the present tribute in being dedicated to Tioseco and his Slovenian girlfriend, Nika Bohinc). Administrator of a website popular among local indie practitioners and followers, Tioseco (having grown up in Canada) was a relatively recent returnee to the Philippines, and attained a higher level of recognition after he and his foreigner girlfriend were brutally murdered by people directly in his employ (“Fil-Canadian Film Critic” 2009, n.p.).

Tioseco’s written output was largely in foreign outlets, and non-Filipino critics (as well as a small circle of Filipino netizens) hail him mostly for his championing of a select group of nonmainstream film personalities. Lost in the entire romanticization are certain realities that qualify his victimhood, of which two would be instructive: he had returned to handle the family business but was more distracted by his support for indie-film activities, including trips to foreign events (taken by his admirers as evidence of his dedication to their cause); and he had operated in serious negligence of personal security, despite the fact that the Philippines, like many developing countries, is rife with stories of violent class conflicts. The dialogical implication of his death—that the type of people who killed him were the ones that his type of people had been overlooking—could serve as an unnecessarily and excessively tragic illustration of what lies in store for popular-culture practitioners who prefer to defer the implications of what exactly “popular” means.

Joel David
Inha University, College of Social Science



Fil-Canadian Film Critic, Lover Shot Dead in QC [Quezon City] Home. 2009. September 2: n.pag. Last accessed August 25, 2012,

Higson, Andrew. 1989. The Concept of National Cinema. Screen 30(4): 36–46.

Krugman, Paul; Alm, James; Collins, Susan M.; and Remolona, Eli M. 1992. Transforming the Philippine Economy. Manila: United Nations Development Programme.

Monaco, James. 1976. The New Wave: Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pines, Jim; and Willemen, Paul, eds. 1989. Questions of Third Cinema. London: British Film Institute.

Rocha, Glauber. 1979. Hunger Aesthetics versus Profit Aesthetics. Translated by Jon Davis. Frame-work: The Journal of Cinema and Media 11(Autumn): 8–10.

Rosenbaum, Jonathan. 2010. Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sarris, Andrew. 1982 [1968]. The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929–1968. Reprint, New York: Octagon, 1982.

Solanas, Fernando; and Getino, Octavio. 1983 [1969]. Towards a Third Cinema: Notes and Experiments toward the Development of a Cinema of Liberation in the Third World. In Twenty-Five Years of the New Latin American Cinema, edited by Michael Chanan, pp. 17–27. Translated by Julianne Burton and Michael Chanan. London: Channel Four Television, BFI Books.

Stam, Robert; and Xavier, Ismail. 1990. Transformations of National Allegory: Brazilian Cinema from Dictatorship to Redemocratization. In Resisting Images: Essays on Cinema and History, edited by Robert Sklar and Charles Musser, pp. 279–307. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Truffaut, François. 1976 [1954]. A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema. In Movies and Methods: An Anthology, edited by Bill Nichols, pp. 224–237. Translated by Cahiers du Cinéma in English. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Weerasethakul, Apichatpong, director and scriptwriter. 2004. Sud pralad [Tropical Malady]. Prod. Backup Films, Anna Sanders Films, Downtown Pictures, Kick the Machine, TIFA, and Thoke Moebius Film Co. 118 minutes.

* The author would like to acknowledge the helpful exchange of ideas with Mauro Feria Tumbocon, Jr., also a close observer of Philippine independent cinema, notwithstanding his farther distance from the country.

1) Mistranslated as the “auteur theory” by the recently deceased American critic Andrew Sarris (1982 [1968]), the politique des auteurs (author policy) was the means by which a select circle of critics-turned-filmmakers, originally based at Cahiers du Cinéma, proposed to revaluate Classical Hollywood, by looking at movies in terms of directorial credit; the true auteurs, per their assertion, would exhibit certain stylistic markers that would serve as their “signatures.” See Monaco (1976).

2) The individuals and/or institutions can already be gleaned from portions of some of the articles’titles: “Fourth Generation of Malaysian-Indian Filmmakers”; “Martyn See”; “Yasmin Ahmad”;“James Lee”; etc. Some of the collection’s authors are themselves filmmakers, purportedly setting out to conduct well-meaning projects—John Torres using the film piracy “distribution” network to circulate his films, Chris Chong Chan Fui interviewing the organizer of a Muslim country’s queer film festival (titled Q!FF). The fact that such attempts are destined either to fail in the first case or to partially succeed in the second provides a noteworthy record of struggle, yet also results in self-lionization—a replication of the heroic-individualist trope that marks Western media history, and that might have been tempered if a higher ideal (akin to the Third Cinema discourse to be presently brought up) had been articulated.

3) Third Cinema (cf. Pines and Willemen 1989) was meant to be distinct from (though derivative of and overlapping with) Third World Cinema; it stemmed from the observation that certain modes of Third World film production actually sought to replicate Hollywood themes and standards, as well as from the acknowledgment that even in the First World, certain forms of Third World-like or -inspired production could be found. Hunger aesthetics and cannibal production were prescriptions in Brazilian Third-Cinema practice: in hunger aesthetics (Rocha 1979, 9), low-budget and low-end productions (resulting in an impoverished look that implicitly critiqued the “developed” origin of the technology) were to be embraced as a means of countering the audience’s tendency to be alienated from the medium’s biases; cannibal (or anthropophagic) cinema (Stam and Xavier 1990, 281) was a response to the inevitable commercial prevalence of Hollywood, which tended to contain foreign film trends that it could not suppress—and which thereby justified the appropriation by local practitioners of the same strategies that Hollywood releases deployed.


Vol. 1, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, Cherry Amor DUGTONG-YAP

Contents>> Vol. 1, No. 3

Illicit Flirtations: Labor, Migration, and Sex Trafficking in Tokyo
Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011, 325 p.

Much has already been written about the sexual migration of female entertainers in Japan.1) While the phenomenon has a fairly contemporary history, the multifarious layers of both the overall narrative and individual stories count for a plurality of interpretations, not least of which come from the entertainer themselves. On the other hand, getting the perspective of entertainers within their work context poses a dilemma for research methodologies as participant observation creates both strategic and organizational challenges. Thus we find earlier works employing alternative approaches. Ballescas (1992) offered the first pioneering study in the early 1990s. However, this study was flawed as female entertainers were interviewed prior to migrating to Japan, outside their clubs, and after their work contracts. Others such as Suzuki (2000; 2004) undertook to expand the analysis by examining the societal dimension of mainstream general consciousness with the presence of Filipina female entertainers as wives of Japanese males. Likewise, Suzuki examined how Japanese husbands imagined their wives, and in what ways the women negotiated their sense of self and identities.

These previous works have offered glimpses into the lives of migrant female entertainers in Japan as well as Japanese society’s reception and perception to them. However, the precise context in which they physically inhabit the realm of providing commercial and sexual entertainment remains an open yet seemingly forbidden enclave. To overcome these practical dilemmas, Rhacel Parreñas conducted fieldwork studies in the heart of her research environment. Parreñas worked, quite literally, side by side with her subjects, as a hostess. This approach, not unlike that of an investigative journalist allowed her to conduct participant observation inside Tokyo’s red light district.

The author embarked on this research largely to debunk the notion that all entertainers who came to Japan are victims of human trafficking as portrayed repeatedly by the US State Department.2) Focusing on the narratives of the women themselves, the book offers a firsthand glimpse of their lives. Unflinching in its stark descriptions of day-to-day activities that transpire inside an entertainment club, the author detailed all the mundane and gritty matters of working as an entertainer in Japan.

The book is composed of eight chapters with an introduction and a conclusion. Some chapters are reiterations of previous points. For instance, chapter two describes in detail the labor system in hostess clubs, how entertainers are expected to pander to customer whims as well as bring in profit to club owners. The third chapter explores the various skills and capital hostesses have to possess to ensure that the masculine egos of their customers are constantly massaged. Yet, both chapters expound on the same point: hostess work demands sexual labor at varying scales (from flirting to intercourse) and this is driven by commercial supply and demand. However, chapter four and sections of chapter six are more vivid in highlighting the author’s argument on how the women (and transgender Filipino hostesses) negotiate their lives regardless of their situation.

Chapter four “The Risky Business of Love” succinctly describes the uniqueness of labor entailed in working as an entertainer. Using both their minds and bodies as capital to make a living, entertainers negotiate with their customers the amount of money or goods in return for the attention and services they can provide. In so doing, these women must likewise manage their feelings toward customers, ensuring that at the end, they acquire material gains and not emotional pain. In simple terms, the hostesses follow a general rule that money and gifts are welcome but they must avoid any emotional attachments. In this respect, the author highlights that “in the moral world of hostesses, visceral pleasures that one grants men do not necessarily mean anything more”(p. 130). Indeed this awareness of their own limits, vulnerability, and particular situations, they are working women after all, provides the most compelling argument in support of the author’s claim that the majority of the female migrant entertainers in Japan are not trafficked or forced to work against their will. In fact, their judgment is at its most sound in gauging the extent of how much or how little they earn from “falling in love” with their customers (p. 144).

Chapter six “Making Love for a Visa,” expands on the implications introduced in chapter four where female entertainers enter into relationships with their male customers, the possibility of getting pregnant, and, at best, securing a marriage certificate. However, as the author pointed out, not a large percentage of entertainers end up marrying their Japanese customers (p. 179). The discussions put forward in this chapter on how clashes follow after marriage due to culture, differing expectations, societal pressures, and other external variables have already been discussed elsewhere.3) Moreover, not all Japanese-Filipina marriages languish, as illustrated by Faier (2009). Lieba Faier interviewed couples and families from successful unions attributed to “Japanese”virtues extolled in Filipina women as wives in rural Japan. The latter part of this chapter, “The Sexual Citizenship of Transgender Hostesses,” is most noteworthy as the case studies presented challenges to the limits set on intimacy as between opposite genders and that of citizenship as duties, rights and privileges of a natural born or naturalized person.

This section of the sixth chapter is unique particularly as it shows a side of Japan that is welcoming of a traditionally marginalized group, transgendered persons. For a country that is known to embrace many forms of gender, the stories of transgender entertainers and how they managed to carve their niche in a competitive and discriminating world of sexual labor and commerce paint an altogether more nuanced picture of how the Japanese choose to accept the unwanted.

Parreñas stated that this was a project meant to criticize US policies on addressing issues on human trafficking and yet the entire book contains far more informed and substantive criticism of Philippine migration policies. By contrast, there are only vague references to US transgressions on laws regarding human trafficking.

Ironically, in trying to underscore her idea of indentured mobility among the Filipina hostesses in Japan, the author relies on the same pool of evidence used by US policymakers, and risks falling into the trap of typecasting Filipinos in Japan as perennial entertainers. Despite her claims to the contrary, there is still the feeling that she herself sees the Filipinos in the same light.

Because Parreñas’ discussion of the settlement patterns of Filipina hostesses in Japan is narrowly focused on specific forms of vulnerability (p. 23), she fails to account for the dynamic changes that have taken place among the Filipino migrant population in Japan. No longer are Filipinos generally classified as entertainers. In their late-30s and mid-40s, they are clearly too old to be considered as hostesses. Despite their numbers, the Filipinos in Tokyo do not represent the Filipino population in Japan. The majority are now long-term and permanent residents.4) In fact, the Philippines is among the top five5) on the list of countries with registered foreign nationals in Japan. Their status and numbers have a potential impact that will, at the least, prove consequential to Japanese society.

The above observations notwithstanding, this book contributes on the literature on Filipinos in Japan as it enriches our knowledge of what particularly goes in the life of an entertainer.

Cherry Amor Dugtong-Yap
Independent Scholar


Ballescas, Ma. Rosario P. 1992. Filipino Entertainers in Japan: An Introduction. Quezon City: The Foundation for Nationalist Studies, Inc.

Constable, Nicole. 2005. Cross-Border Marriages: Gender and Mobility in Transnational Asia. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Faier, Lieba. 2009. Intimate Encounters: Filipina Women and the Remaking of Rural Japan. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Fuwa, Nobuhiko; and Anderson, James N. 2006. Filipina Encounters with Japan: Stories beyond the Stereotype from a Pangasinan Barangay. Philippine Studies 54(1): 111–141.

Hong-Zen, Wang; and Hsin-Huang, Michael Hsiao, eds. 2009. Cross Border Marriages with Asian Characteristics. Taipei: Center for Asia-Pacific Area Studies.

Japan, Ministry of Justice. 2011. Immigration Control Report, accessed June 7, 2012,

Osteria, Trinidad. 1994. Filipino Female Labor Migration to Japan: Economic Causes and Consequences. Manila: De La Salle University Press.

Satake, Masaaki. 2004. Filipina-Japanese Intermarriages: A Pathway to New Gender and Cross-Cultural Relations. Asian and Pacific Migration Journal 13(4): 445–473.

Suzuki, Nobue. 2004. Inside the Home: Power and Negotiation in Filipina-Japanese Marriages. Women’s Studies 33(4): 481–506.

―. 2000. Between Two Shores: Transnational Projects and Filipina Wives in/from Japan. Women’s Studies International Forum 23(4): 431–444.

U.S. Department of State (US-DOS). 2005. Trafficking in Persons Report. Washington, D.C.: US-DOS.

1) For some of the earlier works, see Ballescas (1992), Osteria (1994). See Suzuki (2000; 2004), Satake (2004), Fuwa and Anderson (2006), and Faier (2009) for the more contemporary ones.

2) The 2005 Trafficking in Persons Report particularly influenced how Japan reformed its policy on granting visas to entertainers.

3) See Constable (2005) or Hong-Zen and Hsin-Huang (2009).

4) See 2011 Immigration Control Report, Japan, Ministry of Justice,

5) ( ibid. )


Vol. 1, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, Nobuhiro AIZAWA

Contents>> Vol. 1, No. 3

China and the Shaping of Indonesia, 1949–1965
Singapore: NUS Press in association with Kyoto University Press, 2011, 310 p.

This is a long-awaited book on the interaction that took place between Indonesia and China in 1949–65. Based on his dissertation submitted to Ohio University, this book by Liu Hong, the leading academic in this field, maps out the perceptions of the People’s Republic of China among the major Indonesian leaders and intellectuals of the period. This was a tumultuous period when the two newly independent Asian giants struggled to undertake nation-building and search for the best modes of government following a period of independence and civil wars.

Works on the Cold War historiography of diplomatic historians have observed how relations obtained between Beijing and Jakarta. The communist ties between China and Indonesia were a research topic in the field, supported by the opening of English/American archives. Jakarta needed China for their fight in West Papua and against Malaysia (Konfrontasi). Conversely, Beijing also needed Indonesia for their fight against Taiwan and strategy vis-à-vis Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and United States of America. The two newly independent states shared a wide range of common diplomatic goals at this time, but these were destroyed by the changes that followed the 30 September Movement (G30S) in Indonesia in 1965. With the establishment of an anticommunist regime in Indonesia and the Cultural Revolution gaining momentum in China, the two countries severed diplomatic ties in 1967 and it was not until 1990 that they resumed their relationship.

Taking this diplomatic historiography into account, Liu suggests an alternative frame of anal-ysis in understanding the period between 1949 and 1965. He suggests that we should treat “China as something more than a communist state and an ethnic Chinese homeland and placing its changing and multifaceted constructions in postcolonial Southeast Asia,” and “go beyond the conventional approach framed by the primacy of the nation state, diplomacy, ethnicity and the East-West binary” (p. 11).

In so doing, he questions what China meant for those Indonesians at the time. Through his nuanced analysis of writings and speeches of Indonesian leaders and intellectuals, he argues that“China served as an important and viable alternative to western dominant notions of the modernity project in Indonesia” (p. 271). And this modernity, he argues, derived from Indonesian’s self-image and its frustration over the political turmoil in Indonesia. China thus presented an ideal image of what Indonesia wanted to achieve or should have accomplished. The author proposes a “China Metaphor” to articulate this point. “[T]he China metaphor reflected not only Indonesians’ disillusionment about what had gone wrong at home but, more importantly, their aspirations for what could have been achieved” (p. 270).

The main figures among the broad selection of leaders and intellectuals who are highlighted in this book are Soekarno (Chapter 7) and Pramoedya Ananta Toer (Chapter 8). For Soekarno, China was the place where he found his ideal form of governance, a form of “Guided Democracy.”He was convinced by his visit to China in 1957 that social harmony and national integration could be accomplished without a democracy. For the writer Pramoedya, a visit to China in 1957 and correspondence with Chen Xiaru enabled him to assume his role as a political activist. In China, he was shocked to see the high status of professional writers and its active participation in politics. This led him to join Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat (LEKRA), an organization of artists and writers initiated by Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI) leaders and mandated to create artistic forms of socialist realism, a fact that was instrumental in shaping the themes in his writings such as Hoakiau di Indonesia [The Overseas Chinese in Indonesia].

While the story of the above two figures are inarguably the most enjoyable chapters (7 and 8), I would like to stress another academic contribution of the book, namely, the author’s findings on Mohammad Hatta and Sukiman Wirjosandjojo. While Soekarno and Pramoedya perfectly fit the mold of Indonesians who saw “modernity” in China, vice-President Hatta and the sixth Prime Minister Sukiman, the leader of the political party Masyumi (Council of Indonesian Muslim Associations), represented different perspectives. The two were seen as hard-core anti-communist or anti-China (or both) figures at the time.

The author introduces an episode concerning Hatta on his visit to China in 1957. In the meeting, he questioned Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai not only on the paths of economic development, but also on “how to nurture good discipline among the Chinese people who had been undisciplined in the past (“some people in Indonesia are crazy for independence just for the sake of being independent, thus having poor efficiency” remarked Hatta)” (p. 91). This confirms and enriches Hatta’s view of China as cited in the US archives, in which Hatta observed that “Russians were first Communists and secondly Russians, Chinese were first Chinese and secondly Communists.”1)

Another surprising figure, Sukiman who became the Prime Minister of Indonesia and was responsible for the notorious raid against the Chinese embassy in August 1951, was quoted as saying: “I sincerely hope that trade unions in our country should not stage strikes so frequently at will. You see, are there any strikes in the new China? All the people there are busy building their nation; we should learn from the new China’s example” (p. 86).

The above remarks by the two figures who had hitherto been overlooked in studies that sought to understand the relationship between Indonesia and China perfectly strengthen the arguments of the book. “The core narrative of Indonesian intellectuals” was not just to differentiate China from Communists or from an overseas Chinese’ homeland, but rather a way to seek an ideal mode of politics.

While the book offers a rich account of how Indonesians saw China and how their vision affected their careers, a slight difficulty may arise in comprehending the key terminology of the book, the “China Metaphor.” What is most fascinating about the author’s work is that he has presented a wide range of perspectives on the way each person utilized China for his respective political agenda rather than subsume everything under a single/core idea about China as a metaphor of Modernity. Liu’s work broadens our horizon for understanding China from the viewpoint of Indonesia, yet at the same time, he limits its horizon through the use of the China Metaphor to understand the idea of “Modernity.”

Some readers who are familiar with the history in the book might be surprised at the absence of people like the Partai Komunis Indonesia leader DN Aidit, or the prominent ethnic Chinese journalist Liem Koen Hian. They are mentioned only in passing. Also missing are the military leaders. Moreover, the story abruptly ends on the eve of G30S, and leaves readers with the question of whether the idea of China as a source of Modernity rather than a communist icon was able to survive the anti-communist purge in Indonesia.

If these Communist leaders, ethnic Chinese intellectuals, and military leaders had been incorporated into the analysis, the argument of the China Metaphor could have been a more powerful one. It is not difficult to say that for all parties, China remained a central topic of discussion during the period concerned. If the above voices had been incorporated to the degree in which the analysis equally focuses on Sukarno and Aidit, it may well be possible to argue that China was much more a metaphor for all sides in Indonesia’s political landscape of the period.

In this way, a continuum can be seen to exist in the idea of the China Metaphor from the Suharto period up until the present. China was not only a powerful metaphor to legitimize military action in the early Suharto period, but also a metaphor and a model for efficient economic development led by the industrial sector from the 1990s to the present.

Having said that, I must say the choices that the author has made must have been a tough one: to broaden the scope of a metaphor or to focus on a critical aspect of history which no one has documented. There are good reasons behind Liu’s decision to limit the scope of the metaphor, since we can refer to other books to understand the other dimensions of Indonesia-China relationship.

This is a book by one of the first-generation Southeast Asianists from China in the post-Cultural Revolution era. It has its unique strengths compared to the work of Chinese Southeast Asianists from the pre-Cultural Revolution Period who tended to limit themselves to the study of overseas Chinese. Liu offers a perspective that is different from those who study Southeast Asia but originate from other areas of the world. Without an exceptional historian like him, who commands both Chinese and Indonesian and writes eloquently in English, it would not have been possible to illuminate this important part of history and derive lessons from it. This is a wonderful book that opens a window into a fascinating period.

Nobuhiro Aizawa 相沢伸広
Institute of Developing Economies, Japan External Trade Organization

1) The comments are dated August 1957. Department of State, Central Files, 756D.oo/8-3057. Secret.


Vol. 1, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, Hiroko KAWANAMI

Contents>> Vol. 1, No. 3

Refiguring Women, Colonialism, and Modernity in Burma
Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2011, 239 p.

Chie Ikeya’s excellent book offers deep insights into Burma’s social and cultural history under colonialism and modernity mainly through depictions of modern Burmese women. Based on archival research and a meticulous compilation of facts and figures taken from primary sources, the book makes a unique contribution to our understanding of the struggle and progress made by Burmese women in the early part of the twentieth century.

Chapter 1 offers a comprehensive overview of the social landscape of nineteenth-century colonial Burma, ranging from descriptions of the country’s ethnic composition and economic specialization to those of its political situation and legal system (in the form of cases that garnered public attention). Ikeya examines the demographic changes incurred by waves of immigration, mainly Indian and Chinese, which resulted in a high rate of mixed marriages and an ethnically plural society that required an enforcement of a plural legal system by the state. In addition, she describes how the country saw the first expansion of modern education and development of printing and the press, which helped increase the literacy rate and created a discursive forum for public debate.

In Chapter 2, Ikeya draws our attention to the fact that although Burmese women were represented by colonialists and early Western scholars as having high social status, this was a tactic to discredit the British colonial project and demand greater political power for the Burmese people within the modernization process (p. 51). Ikeya examines the various legal positions of Burmese women—marriage, divorce, property ownership, inheritance—and states that, contrary to the prevailing image of women’s relative high status, they in fact had to fight for political equality and improvement of their lives. Education became an essential issue in Burma’s modernization process of catching up with the rest of the world, and “. . . debates concerning the education and progress of women were also about the empowerment and advancement of the nation” (p. 71). As a result, Burma saw the expansion of a coeducational system in the early twentieth century and modern educated women started to play a more active role in public professions. The growth of popular print culture also played an important role in influencing the way young women understood their new affiliations and forged modern identities in the era depicted as khit kala (present era).

With the number of school and student enrolment continuing to grow throughout the early decades of the twentieth century, Chapter 3 offers an extensive discussion on modern public education. Modern education provided the necessary institutional structure, socio-economic channels, and enhanced greater opportunities for those who worked in the colonial administration. It also enabled the growth of Burmese women intellectuals and cultural intermediaries during this time (p. 38). Ikeya examines the influence of articles by and about women in newspapers and magazines, which emphasized the roles and duties of women as wives and mothers. However, women were increasingly mobilized for Burma’s anti-colonial struggle and they were depicted as both feminists and patriots to serve the nationalist discourse in the 1920s and 1930s. Burmese women were also mobilized by the international feminist movement, but Ikeya shows that they forged strong connections especially with women in India and developed distinct priorities and interests that were integral to the nationalist developments in Burma (p. 91).

Chapter 4 focuses on the theme of “how to be a modern!” It examines the rise of consumer culture in the 1920s and 1930s in fashion, cinema, and advertisements, and looks at how women functioned as modern consumers reflecting their strong self-transformative aspirations. Here Ikeya juxtaposes two female role models: the youthful and unattached “fashionista” (as Ikeya calls it) on the one hand, and the domesticated housewife-and-mother on the other. Both occupy opposite ends of the spectrum, and Ikeya carefully examines their respective levels and modes of consumption (pp. 96–97). Nonetheless, the ways in which modern Burmese women dressed themselves showed their ambivalence as they adjusted themselves to the infiltration of foreign (European) values in opposition to their traditional norms. This chapter articulates how modernity implied self-improvement, self-fulfilment, and liberation to a certain extent, and consumption was a way to achieve modern refinement and upward social mobility, which everyone could be part of depending on their means.

Chapter 5 reveals that despite British policies of racial segregation, the mixed population grew rapidly as a result of intermarriages and “miscegenation.” There was social stigma attached to Burmese women marrying foreigners: for these women, marrying a European signified upward marriage mobility whereas marrying an Indian meant downward marriage mobility. Intermarriages also reflected the nationalist climate at the time and a woman’s spousal choice “served as an index for measuring her patriotism” (p. 140). It also tested the people’s sense of national affiliation and contributed to the growing sense of what it meant to be a Burmese. “To colonialists and nationalists alike, sex and subversion were inextricably intertwined, and both sides of the colonial struggle deployed racialized senses of belonging and exclusion, which converged on the bodies of Burmese women” (p. 141). Although their bodies were appropriated at many different levels, Ikeya depicts Burmese women as flexible and forthcoming in the ways they negotiated the constraints of the era, while Burmese men are seen as inactive and disempowered in the context of colonial modernity.

Chapter 6 picks up again on the theme of emasculation by examining the social and political meanings represented in bodily practices under colonialism. Ikeya describes how wives and mistresses of foreigners as well as khit hsan thu (fashionable modern women) became targets of public criticism through derogatory depictions in books and cartoons. Fashion-conscious modern women were seen as “a willing culprit of imperialist, capitalist, and Western modernity” (p. 145), and the politics of female dress were discussed in the context of nationalist discourse at that time. Despite being ridiculed at times, however, Burmese women explored every possibility to become“modern” through grooming, fashion, or writing, and actively engaged with the new era. In contrast, Ikeya emphasizes the “emasculated” image of Burmese men, subject not only to colonial subjugation and lack of socio-economic opportunities, but also constrained by their inability to take on modern challenges and assert their manliness. It seems to me, however, that such depiction overly dichotomizes the ways in which Burmese women and men experienced modernity. Moreover, it is doubtful if the nationalist movement could simply be reduced to an attempt to “remasculinize” Burmese men (p. 162), and if it was, it still does not answer the question of how gender relations in Burma were affected, since Burmese women (many of them spinsters) were also“masculinized” in their nationalist struggle.

Another criticism I have is the inconsistent manner in which Burmese terms were transcribed in the book. As different systems were used to transcribe the Burmese language, it was often difficult to decipher which vernacular term was implied in the transcription (especially in the footnotes). It would have helped immensely if the book had included a more detailed explanation of the systems for transcribing vernacular terms.

Overall, the book provides a fascinating social history of late-colonial Burma, providing insights into the strength and resilience of middle-class Burmese women who rose to the challenges of modernity and led the way toward self-fulfilment and advancement. It is also a valuable contribution to Burmese studies and modern colonial history in general, and gender and cultural studies in particular, and helps show modern Burma in a different light—open, dynamic, and resourceful.

Hiroko Kawanami 川並宏子
Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion, Lancaster University


Vol. 1, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, Paul A. RODELL

Contents>> Vol. 1, No. 3

Islam and Politics in Southeast Asia
London: Routledge, 2009, 188 p, with index.

The present volume seeks to understand “political Islam” which the editor, Johan Saravanamuttu, describes as “aspirations to political power and the remolding of state and society in accordance with Islamic teachings” (p. ix) in Southeast Asia. The project originated in 2004 and later adopted the notion of “authoritarian democracy” to serve as the contributors’ common frame of analysis. This is a key concept and has been theorized by one of the book’s contributors, Chaiwat Satha-Anand, as especially relevant to the study of Islam and governance in Southeast Asia. As presented, authoritarian democracy posits a ruling style that adopts a façade of democracy masking an inherently undemocratic regime that disadvantages the country’s minorities. Thus, regime power wielders could be Muslim, Buddhist or Christian while Islam might be either privileged or oppressed. In using this rubric, the contributors aspire to address a number of questions relevant to Islam and the region’s current political life.

The volume’s nine chapters cover Islamic Southeast Asia geographically and its Muslim majority and minority states. In his introductory chapter, Saravanamuttu concisely summarizes each contributor’s topics and major points of interpretation with sufficient detail to be of real value to the reader. The editor’s hand is also apparent throughout much of the book as many of the contributors reference each other in their own chapters, thereby demonstrating a degree of coordination and intellectual cross-fertilization and making for a stronger and more useful text. Still, there are some contributions that are not as tightly integrated into the study as one might anticipate, which is unfortunate, but this does not seriously detract from this worthy contribution to the study of Islam in Southeast Asia.

In her masterful opening chapter, emeritus anthropology professor Judith Nagata considers the complexity of “democracy” and Islam both of which come in a variety of forms and the equally complex relationship of “engaged Muslims” to the state. While her introductory sections consider examples from the region’s Muslim majority and minority countries, her chapter’s emphasis is on political Islam in Malaysia and Indonesia. After a survey of the Malaysian state’s political-religious evolution under Mahathir and United Malays National Organization (UMNO), Nagata shifts her focus to alternative Islamic movements especially the revivalist dakwah movement Al Arqam which the government sharply curtailed in response to what appeared to be growing political aspirations. Indonesia’s Nahdlatul Ulama provides a contrast as a well-established mainstream religious movement that accepts the country’s religious pluralism ground rules and has done well on the post-Suharto Indonesian political landscape. The lesson Nagata draws is that political Islam is only possible if it adheres to the limits created by the democratic authoritarian nature of the state.

Jacques Bertrand’s chapter on Indonesia presents a refreshingly positive assessment of the democratic role that Islam plays in the world’s largest Muslim state. He notes, quite correctly, that politically engaged Muslims have remained democratic and reformist even after controls originally imposed by Sukarno and continued under Suharto were removed after 1998 and they have rejected the terrorism of fringe groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah. Bertrand further underscores his thesis by an insightful discussion of the secular Free Aceh Movement (GAM) where democratic authoritarianism focused on a secessionist rather than a religious threat. The principle problem was that for some time the country’s leaders did not recognize that GAM’s agenda was secular and that its strength only increased in response to horrific military atrocities. Once Jakarta addressed Acehnese secular demands peace returned and since then GAM has ruled Aceh democratically and extreme Islamic activities have been curtailed.

Another strong contribution is Maznah Mohamad’s chapter on the Malaysian authoritarian state. The author states her case quite clearly by modifying the book’s unifying notion of authoritarian democracy simply to that of the authoritarian state promoting an ethnic agenda in which Islam, race and entitlements provide the core. In support of her modified thesis, she reviews post-1969 Malaysian developments that have privileged the Malay “not-so-large” majority versus the country’s non-Muslim “not-so-small” minority beginning with 1972’s New Economic Policy that sought to adjust the country’s economic imbalance, and soon expanded to other areas such as opening spaces for Malays in universities. However, the author’s most important contribution is her discussion of the country’s legal system wherein Islamic courts have used Sharia law to become hegemonic and usurp the authority of civilian tribunals by claiming religious grounds for matters that come before it. As a result, Islamic courts have created an Islamic “ring-fence” that excludes minorities and serves the authoritarian state.

Saravanamuttu follows with his chapter showing how Malaysia’s statist political Islam works at the local level where local functionaries act as religious and moral police against the country’s large non-Muslim minority. The author’s review of highly discriminatory legal cases and his discussion of the aborted Inter-Faith Commission of 2005 provide further evidence to support Maznah Mohamad’s arguments as do the distinctions he draws between the statist policies of UMNO and the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and serve a welcome function for the volume.

Chaiwat Satha-Anand’s chapter on authoritarian democracy in Thailand is a highpoint in the volume. As a principle developer of the authoritarian democracy theoretical model, his contribution demonstrates its adaptability in a non-Muslim state where a Buddhist central authority suppresses Muslim minorities and protests. The author uses the story of the mysterious disappearance of Somchai Neelapaichit, a politically engaged Muslim defense lawyer, to demonstrate the pernicious nature of state power more effectively than within the framework of a purely theoretical discussion.

In contrast, the chapters on the Philippines and Singapore are not as strong. In the Philippine case, Carmen Abubakar incorrectly posits the real existence of a “Strong Republic” that President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo proclaimed in 2002, a statement that was roundly dismissed at the time and soon forgotten. This incorrect assumption leads Abubakar to overlook more systemic problems in the southern Philippines such as the role of locally prominent political leaders who have consistently undermined peace efforts. The article also loses focus by pursuing tangents such as controversies over Arroyo’s executive orders, government policies and cases of grotesque extrajudicial killings that the author does not relate to the chapter topic. When the author does return to the chapter topic her discussion is limited and rushed and includes occasional errors such as the assertion that Islam came to the Philippines in the ninth century, hundreds of years too early.

Hussin Mutalib’s thesis that the Singapore government is discriminatory against Muslims is not very strong. Of course, the government has been authoritarian since its founding, but its authoritarian nature is general and hardly more so for Muslims than others. In fact, the author acknowledges numerous instances where the government has gone out of its way to insure the effective integration of Muslims into Singaporean society and its political life. He even mentions the government instituted “team MPs” for elections to insure that outnumbered Muslim voters will get at least some of their candidates into office. This chapter which wanted to show the “plight”of Singapore’s Muslims and their “restiveness” (p. 147) simply falls short of its objectives.

And finally, it is not clear why the concluding chapter by Syed Farid Alatas was included in this volume. His comparative chapter on the discourse of civil society in Indonesia and Malaysia would be a welcome addition if he used authoritarian democracy in his analysis. Instead, he presents an exercise in the sociology of knowledge based on very unique definitions of “ideology” and“utopia” put forward by Karl Mannheim in the 1930s and long ago dismissed as “vague and unconvincing” (p. 170). This chapter is similarly vague, such that the author can only conclude that any Islamic orientation can be either ideological or utopian.

Overall, this book is a welcome addition to the growing literature on Islam in Southeast Asia. Interpretative notions such as authoritarian democracy and engaged Muslims are intriguing and should promote discussion and analysis, as will other terms such as “ring-fencing.” While some of the chapters might be assigned to undergraduate students in specialized upper division courses, the volume’s principle audience will be graduate students and specialized scholars.

Paul A. Rodell
Department of History, Georgia Southern University


Vol. 1, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, Keith BARNEY

Contents>> Vol. 1, No. 3

Natural Potency and Political Power:
Forests and State Authority in Contemporary Laos
Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2012, 192 p.

Muang Metaphysics

The question of how the Lao state maintains legitimacy and authority in the countryside is a key topic of interest for both Lao studies scholars and development practitioners. With the development of a resource frontier, based on the development of hydropower, mining and forest-land concessions, the Lao state is increasingly making its full regulatory and extractive presence felt in rural areas. How are local communities in Lao PDR (Laos) understanding and reacting to these sweeping changes of commodification and ecological modernization? While conservationists, Lao state officials, and local villagers each perceive forests and the extractive logging and hydropower development that are transforming these resources, are they truly “seeing” and understanding these processes in the same way?

With a new monograph, Natural Potency and Political Power, anthropologist Sarinda Singh makes a solid contribution to our understanding of tropical forests and wildlife as materialities, discourses, and most importantly, as potent socio-cultural objects and symbols. Singh has two key objectives in this book. She seeks to promote an understanding of forests and wildlife in Laos based upon a cultural studies approach to “symbolic meanings” (p. 4) (as opposed to, for example, political ecology’s primary focus on the actors, institutions, and discourses governing forest access and livelihood). Secondly, Singh focuses our attention to how differing ideas of the wild forest ( p ( a) and wildlife animals ( sat pa ), and ideas about clearing forests and consuming forest animals, are interwoven with issues of identity and the legitimacy of state rule in Laos. This represents an interesting avenue to proceed. Singh’s research is nuanced and well grounded in Laos as a place and a cultural-political context—the author’s dissertation fieldwork site in the Nakai Region of central Khammouane Province—and the themes engaged in the book make it of relevance to readers beyond the Lao studies/political ecology community.

The book proceeds in seven chapters. Chapter 1, “Peripheral Engagements,”presents a useful review of the nature of contemporary state authority and political culture in Lao PDR. Singh forwards three key features of governance in Laos (p. 7): (i) An enduring divide between policy development and practical policy application, and an associated logic of policy as negotiation. This draws in part upon Peter Jackson (2004) on the Thai “regime of images” (a citation missing from the book’s reference list); (ii) A logic of “state sanctioned, family based patronage” (p. 8); and (iii) The maintenance of secrecy, fear and uncertainty by the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP), and an associated system of authority through illegibility (p. 9). Singh discusses forests and wildlife as key realms of symbolic meaning, based in large part on a classical muang: pa dialectic (civilized human settlement versus wild forests), which Singh argues are historically embedded in Tai-Buddhist culture. In this first chapter Singh also forwards an interpretive framework based around the terms “potency” and “potential” (“a power that is yet to be realized” p. 14) as alternative ways of understanding political power and symbolic authority in Laos. This section on understanding the cultural topologies of political power draws upon Theravada Buddhist studies, particularly Reynolds (2005).

The second chapter, “Comprehending Conservation,” traces through foreign and Lao discourses and ideologies of forests as threatened natures. Singh argues that an internalized metaphysic of the muang and the pa is at work in relation to a generalized “antipathy to conservation”in Laos (p. 49); or, for example, when local Lao informants express desires for development as opposed to forest preservation.

In two of the strongest chapters in the book, Singh turns towards “Appetites and Aspirations”(Chapter 3) to locate the symbolic potency of wildlife, and wildlife as social objects of consumption and meaning. Singh continues this line of argument with a discussion of “Ecopolitical Elephants”(Chapter 4), where elephants are interpreted as symbols of royalty, targets for poachers, and perhaps, occasional objects for local culinary consumption in Nakai Region. Singh argues convincingly that pachyderms are intimately bound up with power, potential, and legitimate state authority in rural Laos: “Elephants are emblematic of the potential of the pa that elites attempt to monopolize to support their authority over the muang” (p. 98).

Chapter 5 “Debating the Forest,” examines the state of forest management in Laos. Here, Singh argues that it is not deforestation per se which destabilizes the notion of rightful state authority, but rather rampant deforestation without an appropriate sharing of benefits and prosperity. The case study is drawn from the powerful “Phonesack Group/Nancy” logging company, which has been engaged in extensive extractive logging in the Nam Theun 2 hydropower zone in Nakai Region, central Laos.

Chapter 6 “Concealing Forest Decline,” focuses upon the inclination of the Lao government to obscure institutional authority over forests (invoking a situation Le Billon [2002] has called the“instrumentalization of disorder”) and to blame swidden cultivators for forest decline. Singh argues that this strategy has the overall effect of destabilizing the legitimacy of state rule, for different people within Laos and international actors.

In the concluding chapter, Singh reflects upon a pervasive ambivalence amongst villagers, district residents and even local officials in Nakai Region regarding the overall “legitimacy” of state authority over forests. Singh writes: “Today, forest resources are declining in Laos, but prosperity for most is still to come” (p. 160). While legitimacy is difficult concept to pin down—not least in post-socialist authoritarian states—what seems more clear is that the cultural-politics of forests and development in Laos will continue to be unstable and contested well into the future.

This is an interesting book that advances our understanding of forest governance and political power in Laos. One might take issue with a small number of statements (on p. 37 Singh writes:“. . . the French colonial presence in Indochina did not lead to major conservations interventions or the imposition of scientific forestry.”) However, Mark Cleary (e.g. 2005) shows that the French developed a significant range of legislation and policies to manage the forest according to colonial scientific models, although admittedly the interventions were much more limited in Laos than in Cambodia or Vietnam. Overall the book is based on a solid empirical understanding of the multiscaled politics of forest governance in Laos.

Such a study on a complex research topic inevitably raises further questions. Singh is careful to note that culturally embedded ideas about the forest are not fixed (and here Hjorleifur Jonsson’s [2005, 10] argument that “The idea of the forested wilderness is no longer diacritical for the classification of mountain peoples relative to Thai society” brings into question just how deeply embedded are cultural ideas of the forest). For me, this raises questions such as how historically mediated, Theravada-Buddhist understandings of muang: pa spatial-cultural diacritics are being reworked or indeed replaced by a new territoriality and technology of the environment in Laos—the sampathan thi din, or the “land concession”? Indeed, how are ideas of muang and pa understood by non-Tai ethnic minority groups in Laos, who are experiencing the blunt extractive side to resource development projects? There is also room for further conceptual work in Singh’s tripartite logic of state governance in Laos, for instance on understanding the intersections between natural resources, patron-clientelism and family-based networks, and how this is changing with economic development. How does a paradoxical interpretation of state legitimacy through inscrutability and illegibility connect with the growing national and international media profile of certain members of the Lao leadership, or for instance, the emergence of a more engaged National Assembly?

As with any primary field site of ethnographic research there are advantages and limitations. One wonders if resource-dependent communities whose forest-lands and community forests are being enclosed and cleared for plantation agriculture without compensation would tend to agree with certain statements such as “exploitation of resources can be taken as a positive sign of develop ment and the state’s exertions of its due responsibilities to the nation” (p. 57), or, whether they would understand “forest clearance as a positive and civilizing action of righteous authority”(p. 157). Here one notes that Ian Baird (2008) has forwarded more critical interpretations of the extension of centralized state power into upland spaces and minority communities in Laos as a project of internal colonialism. Singh’s reflections on potency and potential as alternative, Buddhistinflected conceptions to state power could also have been discussed in relation to concepts such as Gramscian hegemony, or for example to geographer John Allen’s relational, networked approach to power.

Nevertheless, in this book Sarinda Singh develops a well-crafted set of arguments and ideas around the place of forests and forest wildlife in Laos. It ably accomplishes what any scholarly study should aim for—stimulating the reader to reconsider both historical and contemporary understandings. For those studying the anthropology of nature and development, as well as forest policy and governance in Southeast Asia, Natural Potency and Political Power comes with this reviewer’s positive recommendation.

Keith Barney
Resource Management in Asia-Pacific Program, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University



Allen, John. 2003. Lost Geographies of Power. Oxford: Blackwell.

Baird, Ian G. 2008. Various Forms of Colonialism: The Social and Spatial Reorganisation of the Brao in Southern Laos and Northeastern Cambodia. PhD Dissertation, Department of Geography, Faculty of Social Sciences, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver.

Cleary, Mark. 2005. Managing the Forest in Colonial Indochina, c. 1900–1940. Modern Asian Studies 39(2): 257–283.

Jackson, Peter. 2004. The Thai Regime of Images. Sojourn 19(2): 181–218.

Jonsson, Hjorleifur. 2005. Mien Relations: Mountain People and State Control in Thailand. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Le Billon, P. 2002. Logging in Muddy Waters: The Politics of Forest Exploitation in Cambodia. Critical Asian Studies 34(4): 563–586.

Reynolds, Craig. 2005. Power. In Critical Terms for the Study of Buddhism, edited by D. Lopez Jr., pp. 211–228. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Vol. 1, No. 3, BOOK REVIEWS, Patricio N. ABINALES

Contents>> Vol. 1, No. 3



Political Authority and Provincial Identity in Thailand:
The Making of Banharn-buri

Ithaca: Cornell Southeast Asia Program Publications, 2011, xvii+254p.

When Adhemar de Barros ran as candidate for the governor of São Paulo in the 1947, he anchored his campaign on the slogan “Rouba mas faz!” (roughly translated meant “He steals, but he gets things done!”) De Barros went on to win the elections. He was a single termer and lost in the next round, but a decade later he reclaimed the post and became one of the most fascinating characters in Brazilian politics. Adhemar was a populist who won because of a solid electoral machine behind him (the Social Progressive Party dominated São Paulo politics in his time) and advocacy of social legislation and infrastructure development aimed at helping the poor. He was also perennially accused of corruption, although even his critics would qualify that in his days in office he did“get things done.” The Thai politician Banharn Silpa-archa would have found a lot of things to talk about with Adhemar for the long-time boss of Suphanburi Province (slightly off the northwest side of Bangkok) would see in the Brazilian a kindred soul.

Why Suphanburians see Banharn differently from the way Bangkok and its “modern” elites and bevy of self-proclaimed democrats portray him is the subject of this excellent book by Yoshinori Nishizaki. Deploying a research methodology that combines social history, institutionalism and ethnography, Nishizaki proceeds to prove that, yes, Banharn is corrupt and the origins of his wealth are murky, but to his constituents he has singlehandedly brought modernity to their backwater communities. Yes, he colludes with dubious characters and keeps a firm control over state largesse for his benefit, yet his connections with powerful forces like the monarchy and with state bureaucrats also enabled him to bring development to his home province. And yes, he tends to amass power and sees no value in spreading “democracy” among his wards, but no matter, he has made“bad democracy” (“defective patrimonial democracy at the local level,” as Nishizaki calls it) work in Suphanburi’s favor.

This “false consciousness” can be traced back to a long history of neglect by “imperial” Bangkok. Nishizaki shows how Suphanburians have viewed the Thai state through time: an “unfeeling,”“crooked” and “ineffectual” state which had “belittled” the province for so long (“Suphanburi had been dumped [ thort thing] by the state in a deep jungle, while other provinces from the north to the south prospered [at Suphanburi’s expense],” complained on respondent). Banharn appeared on the scene just in time, the local hero awash in wealth from his construction company and then taking on the challenge of improving local welfare.

His personal donations (hospital wards, school buildings, welfare charities) started the development process, bringing not only prestige to Banharn but also laying the foundations for a political career that eventually propelled him to national prominence. Once in parliament, Banharn used state funds and maintained cozy relationships with critical agencies like the Department of Public Works to bring more bacon back to Suphanburi, to the delight of its citizens. Two of Nishizaki’s best chapters discuss the relationship between infrastructure and the way it built political capital for Banharn (Chapter 4), and how roads and schools then became the institutional foundations for a provincial “imagined community” revolving around the old man’s charisma (Chapter 6).

Suphanburians became Banharn’s avid defenders when he was attacked in the capital for corruption. And as Suphanburi’s landscape improved because of the spread of a modern road system and the expansion of schools and hospitals, Suphanburians also began to shed off their insecurities, taking pride in how their province had moved ahead of the others (and thumbing their noses at places like Chiangmai and Chiangrai). They then showed their gratitude to Banharn by littering Suphanburi with signboards paid for by communities, businessmen (and women?) and“ordinary” people, thanking the boss and asking him to attend one celebratory ceremony after another (Chapter 6).

How did Banharn ensure that state money was well spent? Nishizaki takes issue with the now popular view of local strongmen ( nakleng ) as violence-driven spoilsmen who act as Janus-faced mediators between state and community. Banharn, he argues, is less a Mafiosi and more like the ubiquitous provincial Chinese shop-owner, a longju (in Teochew) who is simultaneously meticulous and fuzzy about how things are done. This explains why Banharn was always visiting the province, checking on projects, demanding updates, nitpicking on reports, and berating local bureaucrats when their updates appear unreliable or incomplete.

And with Suphanburi’s “relatively simple” social structure, Banharn “can enforce and maintain his [Foucauldian] panopticon control over civil servants directly and effectively, even at the lowest village level” (pp. 124–125). And pace critics who see these as mere showcases, Nishizaki argues that the sheer number of visits Banharn made to Suphanburi and the rigorous schedule he followed suggest the work ethic of a longju. The boss indeed took his responsibilities very, very seriously.

But this is also where one encounters a loose end. Nishizaki talks about secretly joining a journalist friend to watch Banharn preside over a meeting of the top directors of the 11 provincial public hospitals. He “observed in person” how the boss “had each director report to him how all the budget items they had requested were justified and to what extent the funds allocated in the previous year were used in accordance with the original plan” (p. 122).

Yet, we do not get a sense of the tempo and temper of such a meeting and how these might explain Banharn’s longju ethics. This should have been the part in the book where Nishizaki describes, in greater ethnographic detail, the tone of the meeting, the rise and fall in voices (and tempers?), and the ways in which the directors showed deference to the boss. Instead, we have his friend’s vapid description of how things turned out: “This is like an oral examination at a university, and it’s a grueling exam. It’s not easy. But if you are a civil servant here, you must pass the exam” (p. 123).

This brings us to one of the book’s puzzles. Nishizaki’s portrait of the boss suggests someone who can be quite approachable, your typical small-town friendly politico as it were. The question then is why Nishizaki—who valued interviews (he listed down and described the sex, occupation, place of residence, dates of interviews and additional information about the 105 people he interviewed for his dissertation)—did not go straight to Banharn at that directors’ meeting when he appeared to be just a couple of handshakes away from the boss? Why did he hesitate to ask for a one-on-one interview with the object of his curiosity? Perhaps Nishizaki feared that once “revealed”to the boss, his contacts would shy away from him after getting a warning from a Banharn wary of outsiders probing into his locale? But then if Banharn’s panopticon was that good, then would he not know what people were telling Nishizaki and hence encourage them to tell him more good stories? This is one pathway where an elaborate Geertzian-like speculation was possible, but Nishizaki chose to keep his distance and just work the enamored crowd.

This gap inevitably raises another related point. Nishizaki argues that when it comes to Banharn’s patrimonialism, “political scientists might try to examine the extent to which their narratives are objectively true. Such an exercise would be pointless, however, [as] Suphanburians’narratives have overlapping elements of reality, imagination, misrepresentation, exaggeration and (unintentional) distortion mixed into them” (p. 178). Indeed, his respondents produced varied explanations when it came to Banharn’s corruption (from “we do not know” to accusing his critics of envy, to treating corruption as simply a “Thai custom”). But they remained unswerving in their support for him. Popular defense of the local despot is not unique here, as Nishizaki points out in his overview of comparative cases in East and Southeast Asia. Janus-faced politicians in Asia—and in still distant frontiers like the southern United States (oddly excluded by Nishizaki)—are known to shower their local constituents with development projects and promise provincial modernization, while reverting to their sleazy backroom and patronage deals to enrich themselves, their families and cronies once they are back in the capital.

Banharn’s constituents know this and as long as “development” is constantly pouring into Suphanburi, they do not care if he is corrupt. They are perfectly happy with their boss. This is a point that Nishizaki repeatedly states in varying degrees of emphasis throughout the book, and it stands on solid empirical and comparative grounds. But he fails to ask this crucial question to his respondents: have your lives improved considerably since the roads, schools and hospitals were built or improved? The book oddly says nothing about incomes and inequalities, content to rely on the vagueness of terms like development or improvement. We have no idea of how poor Suphanburi was before Banharn started pouring in infrastructure funds; neither are there any data on whether incomes had gone up after the modern highways were in use. Had this question been asked, it is possible that Nishizaki would have received more qualified responses. The admiration for Banharn may come mixed with apprehensions about the family’s fortunes while the applause for what the Boss brought from Bangkok could be tempered by worries of a growing class disparity as the rice economy continues to evolve with the spread of high-yielding varieties and their attendant costs.

There is, in fact, very little political economy in this book and this lacuna is where Nishizaki is vulnerable to those who still see Banharn as the quintessential corrupt local boss. There are hints all over, especially when it comes to ascertaining why a certain construction firm got the contract for a particular road (cousins and cronies), but the overall picture of Banharn’s corrupt enterprise remains sketchy (how much is Banharn worth? We do not know and his biographer does not tell us). Nishizaki may dither and say this is not what he was interested in, but at the end of the day, when you factor in the issue of whether Suphanburians’ lives had improved after the roads were built, he must confront this major issue head on.

These are quibbles that perhaps this smart young scholar may wish to explore in his next book. As for now, let us enjoy this wonderful work, and especially delight in its idiosyncratic take on the “voices from below,” where instead of opposition or quiet resistance against those in power, we hear approbations of what the strongman has done for them.

Somewhere in the netherworld Adhemar de Barros is smiling.

Patricio N. Abinales
School of Pacific and Asian Studies, University of Hawai‘i-Mānoa


Vol. 1, No. 3, Yasuko YOSHIMOTO

Contents>> Vol. 1, No. 3

A Study of the Hồi giáo Religion in Vietnam:
With a Reference to Islamic Religious Practices of Cham Bani

Yasuko Yoshimoto*

* 吉本康子, National Museum of Ethnology, 10-1 Senri-Expo Park, Suita-city, Osaka 565-8511, Japan

e-mail: yoshimotoysk[at]

This paper examines Hồi giáo, a state-recognized religion translated as “Islam” in Vietnam, and will focus on the Islamic religious practices of the Cham Bani, one of two groups of Muslims in Vietnam. While it is recognized that diverse Islamic religious practices have taken root in various areas, there is a tendency to view religious practices such as the Quran recital, Ramadan, Salat, and so on, with a sweeping uniformity. As such, regardless of how “unorthodox” they are, the people who engage in such practices within society are regarded, or classified, as Muslim. The Cham Bani have also been described as an unorthodox Muslim sect, on the basis of its syncretic religious practices. However, the Cham Bani practitioners see themselves as neither Muslim nor members of the Islam community, and consider that they have experienced a different evolution of Islamic religious elements.

Is it possible to equate Hồi giáo with Islam and its followers with Muslim? This paper examines these questions through observations of the self-recognition, as well as the actual conditions of Islamic practices among the Cham Bani, especially the rituals that are observed during Ramadan. It reveals the possibility that Vietnam’s state-recognized religious sect of “Islam” and its “Muslim” followers are polythetic in nature and differ from the conventional definitions of Islam and Muslim, based on a monothetic classification.

Keywords: Cham Bani, Hồi giáo, Islam, Vietnam, polythetic classes, religious practice

I Introduction

Since the Doi Moi policy, religion has been discussed actively in Vietnam so as to maintain national unification as well as to construct a national identity in the country’s new period. In 2007, the White Paper on Religion and Policies was released with a special reference to the six state-recognized religions: Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, Cao Dai, and Hoa Hao (Vietnam, Government Committee for Religious Affairs (GCRA) 2006).1) In this paper, I examine the state-recognized Islam, Hồi giáo, in order to contribute to an understanding of a peripheral aspect of Muslim.

Table 1 “Muslims” in Vietnam

Source: Vietnam, GCRA (2006)

According to the official statistics in 2009, the number of “Muslims” in Vietnam is approximately 75,000, many of whom are part of the Cham ethnic group, believed to be the descendants of Champa.2) They are divided into two main groups: one, the Muslims living in Ninh Thuan and Binh Thuan provinces in south-central Vietnam, known as “the Old Islamic Group,” “Cham Bani,” or “Bani”; two, the Muslims living in An Giang, Tay Ninh, and Dong Nai provinces around the Mekong Delta, as well as in Ho Chi Minh City, known as “the New Islamic Group,” “Cham Islam,” or “Islam” (see Table 1). There are considerable differences between the two groups in terms of religious practices: the Cham Bani are strongly influenced by local and traditional customs and beliefs and have incorporated elements of Brahmanism and ancestor worship. They also have no contact with the wider Islamic world, while Cham Islam is Sunni Muslim and has maintained contact with the Islamic community through pilgrimages to Mecca or studies abroad in such countries as Malaysia, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia.3)

Ever since the French colonial period, contemporary academia has researched the religious situation of Cham Bani. Records left by missionaries and colonial administrators indicate that the Cham Bani, or “les Chams musulmans du Sud-Annam,” recite the Quran and believe in Allah, yet do not strictly follow the Islamic faith. They do not recite prayers five times a day; they believe in gods other than Allah; and during Ramadan, only monks fast. For these reasons, the Cham Bani are described variously as “Shiites” (Catabon 1901, 4; Durand 1903, 54) or “. . . musulmans, d’ailleurs peu orthodox” (Ner 1942, 154). The descriptions of the Cham Bani, based on the Western Christian concept of religion, have not changed greatly till today (Phan et al. 1991; Phan 1993; Phú 2004).

Indeed, not all of the people who are officially classified as “Islam” or Hồi giáo in Vietnam identify themselves as Muslim; the Cham Bani people especially do not have such self-identification. They usually say that they are the followers of Hồi giáo but not Islam; more specifically they identify themselves as Hồi giáo or Bani, but not as Muslims. This raises the question whether Hồi giáo can be translated as Muslim. Some of the Cham Bani villagers and intellectuals whom I approached claim that it is a mistake to view them as Muslims. As I will explore further below, they view Cham Bani as one branch of the “Cham religion,” rather than of Islam. While Cham Islam and Cham Bani are both ethnic Cham, the former tends to regard the latter as non-Muslims, and many Cham Bani intellectuals think of themselves as non-Muslims as well.

How did such a gap between the official/scholarly discourse and the practitioners’ perception emerge? Is Hồi giáo, a state-recognized religion translated as “Islam” in Vietnam, axiomatically the same as Islam, and are its followers Muslim? It should be noted that because of this gap, I differentiate between the Vietnamese state-recognized category of “Muslim” in this paper and Muslim as generally defined.

Perhaps this difference is caused by the method of classification of Islam or Muslim. In general, Islam and Muslim are defined in an essentialist way; indeed, faced with “the diversity of Islam,” there is a tendency, as numerous previous ethnographic descriptions have made clear, to view such practices as the recitation of the Quran, the Islamic prayer (salat), or fasting of Ramadan as having uniform meanings for Muslims worldwide. In addition, there is a tendency to view the various religious practices of Muslims in local societies as “a variation of Islam,” or else to categorically divide the local religious elements into “Islamic” or “non-Islamic.”4) The Cham Bani have been classified as Islam because of the presence of Islamic elements such as prayers to Allah or recitations of the Quran.

Meanwhile, the practitioners themselves do not necessarily subscribe to such categorizations. Most of the villagers in Cham Bani society do not distinguish between the “Islamic” and “non-Islamic” elements of their religion. In other words, the villagers’ Islamic religious practices are more similar to those of practical religion.5) Moreover, in Cham Bani society, Islamic religious practices vary depending on gender or social stratum. In fact, most of the villagers do not recite the Quran, and they even eat pork outside the village. Despite these “ambiguous” practices, the religion has been described as “Muslim,” and the religious elements have been described separately as Islamic/non- Islamic, or orthodox/non-orthodox in ethnographic writing or religious documents.

The conventional definition of Islam, or Muslim, is usually made on the assumption that the followers share certain practices or belief systems. However, among the Cham Bani, the Vietnamese “Muslim,” it is unclear whether its followers have common Islamic practices or belief systems.

Wittgenstein has shown that such a definition based on the idea that a concept has one essential common feature is unrealistic and advocates instead the concept of “family resemblance” (Wittgenstein 1967). The anthropologist Rodney Needham has incorporated his concept into anthropology and insists that such anthropological concepts of “family” and “marriage” cannot apply to the whole society. Additionally, he borrowed two classifications from natural sciences: monothetic and polythetic. The monothetic classification is one in which an individual of a certain class possesses at least one common feature. In the polythetic classification, an individual of a class does not share even one feature as a whole (Needham 1975).

Shirakawa applied this polythetic classification to the study of religion. Mentioning the policy of separation of Shintoism and Buddhism implemented by the Meiji government, he focused on the historical regional expansion of Jisha and Kenmitsu as ambiguous classes and reconsidered the syncretic fusion of Shintoism and Buddhism in Japan from the perspective of polythetic class (Shirakawa 2007). Examining the religious discourse in modern Japan, he points out the importance of describing a religious situation that is “natural” for the people who live inside of it, not as a variation of religious syncretism.

Using Needham’s polythetic classification and referring to Shirakawa’s work, this paper focuses on the dynamic evolution of Islamic religious practices that differ depending on gender or social strata among the Cham Bani. The paper then considers the possibility of understanding Hồi giáo or “Muslim” in Vietnam as a polythetic class.

II The Religious Situation in a Cham Bani Village

The Cham Bani live mainly in Ninh Thuan and Binh Thuan provinces, in south-central Vietnam. These provinces are where Panduranga, part of the kingdom of Champa, was found. Another religious group of the Cham exists here, usually referred to by Vietnamese scholars and officials as Cham Balamon, the followers of Bà la môn giáo.6) These two religious groups inhabit separate villages; intermarriage, although not explicitly forbidden, is rare and is, in fact, said to have been formerly taboo. The people of both groups are matrilineal and conform to the practice of matrilocal residence, with houses of the same descent group usually neighboring one another. The sphere dominated by members of the same descent group is called laga, and its members constitute fluid units on occasions of rituals, such as ancestor worshipping, while a unit of expenditure or the production of daily life is basically one household, which is composed of a husband, wife, and their children. Members of the same descent group recognize each other through the cemetery or gravesite of the group, and also through a lineage deity called achiet atau, who is worshipped in a basket and maintained by a woman called po atau (landlord of atau), of the descent group.

In the past, the Cham people of the region belonged to one of the two religious groups mentioned above; however, since the emergence of converts to Sunni Islam in the 1960s, another religious group has developed: Cham Islam. Cham Islam is usually described as followers of Hồi giáo mới in Vietnamese, which means “new Islam,” or Cham biraw in Cham, which means “New Cham.” According to previous studies, “New Islam” began to emerge in the 1960s, when some of the Cham Bani were exposed to the practice of Sunni Muslims in places such as Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). Realizing that their own religious practices were not authentic, they began to aim for purer Islamic practices (Nguyễn 1974, 272; Nakamura 1999, 104). After their conversion, the converts abandoned ancestor worship and, with the aid of the Islam Community, built mosques in their villages (Dohamide 1965, 56; Yoshimoto 2010, 243).7)

Map 1“Muslim (Hồi giáo)” Residential Provinces and City in Vietnam

Today, there are approximately 100,000 Cham living in this region (see Table 2). As the table shows, the total population of the Bà la môn giáo is greater than that of the Hồi giáo (“Muslim”). The total “Muslim” population in both provinces is approximately 44,000. This number includes both the Cham Bani and Cham Islam; there are no statistics revealing the breakdown for each group. However, according to an official report in
2001, the population of the Cham Islam in Ninh Thuan province was 1,791, which counted four masjid. Thus the majority of the “Muslim” population in this region consists of the Cham Bani. The more than 40,000 Cham Bani of Ninh Thuan and Binh Thuan provinces are scattered over 20 villages. Each village of Cham Bani usually has one masjid called thang magik.

This paper focuses on the Cham Bani religious situation and practices in Y Village,
Bac Binh district, Binh Thuan province.8) The village has approximately 3,800 inhabitants and most are of Cham Bani origin. The majority of the villagers earn their living by growing paddy rice; however, since harvests are irregular because of the dry climate and poor soil, many villagers work on the side—making charcoal, collecting firewood, weaving, working as a housemaid in town, etc.—in order to supplement their income.

Table 2 “Muslim” and Bà la môn Population in Vietnam

Source: Vietnam, Central Population and Housing Census Steering Committee (CPHCSC) (2010)

Certain religious practices prevail in the village, such as worship of the village god called po yang or po palei at a place of worship called bimon; worship of po Auluah (Allah), which has roots in Islam, at the thang magik (masjid); worship of the dead such as ancestor worship, and worship of the lineage deity achiet atau as mentioned previously.

Until the middle of the twentieth century, villagers used to live on a hill at the foot of a mountain, but today they live on some flat land close to National Highway 1.9) Although the hill area is no longer the site of daily activities, there remain graves, fields, and a religious building for bimon worshipping, the mausoleum of a Champa king or his servant, Po Klong Sak. On the flat land can be found paddy fields and buildings, including the village office, a clinic, a post office, an elementary school, and a thang magik for worshipping po Auluah.

Structurally, the Cham society in this region is made up of two categories: hala Janan
(religious priests) and ghiheh (laity). I will set out the religious elements by focusing first on the types of religious priests. As shown in Table 3, there are different types of religious priests, who are, in turn, served by priests known as acar and po acar, and an elderly woman known as muk buh, who makes offerings in dishes for acar during the rituals. The main role of the aca is to oversee the worship of po Auluah and muk kei (ancestors), drawing on his knowledge of manuscripts, generically called kura’an (Quran), which are written in transformed Arabic letters called akhar bini 10) Rituals in thang magik are organized on set days according to the lunar calendar and seem to be the principal religious events for the villagers (see Table 4). The acar also leads rites of passage such as marriages, funerals, and so forth. In fact, the people do not consider the acar merely as the community’s priest but also as a representative of each descent group, as I describe in the next section. Bimon and achiet atau rituals are led by a priest called on muduon, guided by manuscripts written in akhar thrah, the traditional writing system of the Cham. These rituals, called rija, are meant to serve deities or po yang. They are not conducted in thang magik and are held according to the traditional sakawi calendar.11)

Table 3 Halau Janan (Religious Priests) in the Cham Bani Village

Source: Author’s research at Y Village in 2003.

Table 4 Main Annual Rituals Held in the Thang Magik

Source: Author’s research at Y Village in 2003.

In short, religious affairs are divided into two categories in the village. Rituals related to po Auluah thang magik, as well as the rites of passage, are served by aca who have knowledge of kura’an; rituals for po yang, the village god, and lineage deities are led by on muduon Po Auluah (Allah), thang magik (masjid), and kura’an are regarded as Islamic elements, having originated from Islam; however, they have been co-opted and practiced quite differently in the Cham Bani society such that describing them simply as examples of “the diversity among commodities of Islam” is limiting and possibly inaccurate. In the next section, I describe how these elements are practiced in the region.

III Islamic Religious Practices in the Village

In this section, I will focus on three Islamic elements of the Cham Bani village: the thang magik, the recitation of the kura’an, and rituals conducted during Ramadan, called Ramuwan.

In both official and scholarly literature, thang magik has been translated as “mosque” and is considered to be one element that demonstrates the “Islam-ness” of Cham Bani because it is where people offer their prayers to Allah. Observations in situ reveal the interesting process of local acceptance of Islam, which might not be entirely captured in the translation.12)

Photo 1 shows the exterior of a thang magik. Its front wall is encased in concrete, it lacks towers like minarets, and it is painted with a variety of decorations and words. In the middle, towards the top of the front pillars, the number “1993” is written in Cham traditional letters, flanked on both sides by yin-yang figures. On the front side of the roof is a honkan, a symbolic figure of dualism in Cham society (see details in Section IV). Inside, one finds a wooden box-like pulpit called minbar, from which the acar recites the kura’an during the Friday prayer ritual (Photo 2). For the villagers, this pulpit should be placed to the west—“the direction of the Maka (Makkah).” The frame of the pulpit is painted red, with pictures of dragons that resemble the holy snake, Naga, as well as a gai bhong, a red rod wrapped in a white cloth. The red rod is considered to be a symbol of po Mohamat, Muhammad.

The thang magik is unlike the Islamic mosque—it is closed most of the time and people do not enter for prayers five times a day—but like other Islamic religious centers, it is regarded as the main communal setting for rituals, which are administered on Fridays of certain months of the lunar calendar (Table 4).

As mentioned above, the Cham society in this region is composed of two categories—religious priests and the laity—so participants and practices at thang magik are
notably different. The villagers use different words for “pray”: for example, the prayer by the aca for po Auluah, with recitations from the kura’an and accompanied by special body movements, is called vat. On the other hand, the laity’s prayer, without any recitation, is described as lancan and tampah. These are dedicated to po Auluah, the village god and lineage deities. The laity can only connect to po Auluah or the deities through priests as their medium.13)

Photo 1 Exterior of a Thang Magik

Photo 2 A Minbar inside a Thang Magik

Photo 3 Textbook for Laypersons (Edited by Phuoc Nhon Village Doctrine Committee 1971)

The acar carry out Islamic religious practices on behalf of the villagers, such as recitation of the kura’an, but they do not follow Muslim duties strictly, not even the requisite prayers five times a day. In fact, they are not considered by the villagers as simply priests but also as representatives of each descent group because of the important role they play, particularly in funeral rituals and ancestor worship. Therefore the motivation to become an acar is usually explained by a desire to serve the descendant group.

In the Cham Bani society, studying the kura’an is the right—and obligation—of male
members, and is not reserved solely for the acar. Boys who reach the age of 12–13 years old must study Arabic text in the kura’an at the thang magik. When they are able to recite some phrases and pass an exam, they celebrate this rite of passage called talaik kalem,14) after which they are given the right to study the kura’an. Photo 3 shows a textbook for the laity that was edited by an acar living in Ninh Thuan province in 1971. Written in Vietnamese on the cover are the words: “the sacred phrases to serve your ancestors,” and in the preface the sentence: “akhar rah akhar mukey, akhar ta-a” (phrases of rah, phrases for ancestors, phrases for praying). These three phrases are effective in ancestor worship and must be studied by Bani males. The textbook also quotes four passages from the kura’an that the Cham Bani recite for ancestral service, when visiting a graveyard, and during a funeral. Thus it can be seen that in Cham Bani society, reciting from the kura’an serves as an offering to ancestral spirits and not as a Muslim duty.

Table 5 Main Events of Ramuwan in Y Village

Source: Author’s research in July and August 2011.

Next I will describe the ritual process in Ramadan. For the villagers, Ramadan, which they call Ramuwan, is the most important season in their religious life. It is a sacred month because it is the time when ancestors return home, and the acar stay at the thang magik for one month and adhere to a vegetarian diet. Although Ramuwan has been described as a distorted version of the Muslim fasting month, the people do not actually fast.

Table 5 shows the main ritual processes of Ramuwan. As we can see, many of the
rites are similar to a memorial service. Three days before the first day of the month of Ramuwan, people visit the graveyards of their matrilineal lineage and invite their ancestral spirits back to their houses. After the three-day graveyard visits, people make offerings to the ancestral spirits residing in their homes. First, they prepare a meal offering to every ancestral spirit, then they make individual offerings to descendant members who have passed away. These offerings are made by male members who recite the kura’an, and who are usually acar; however, the oldest woman of the household usually has the responsibility of remembering the names of the deceased over a span of approximately seven generations.15) After the offerings, a place for the ancestral spirits is set up in the house, and an individual is responsible for keeping this place clean at all times.

Table 6 Prayers during Ramuwan in Y Village

Source: Author’s research in July and August 2011.

On the first day of Ramadan, after sunset, the acar enter the thang magik. This marks the beginning of the holy month of Ramuwan. During this month, they stay in the thang magik, away from their families to serve Allah five times a day; however, as Table 6 shows, the names and times of prayers are different from Muslim prayers. Laywomen and elderly men, all dressed in white, watch and participate in these prayers, but they do not recite the kura’an. The main function of the females is to bring sets of betel nuts for the ancestral spirits and to pray for blessings.

Women’s participation in the religious ceremony is crucial and they play a significant role. The wife, or other female members of the descendant group, prepares special meals for the priests twice a day—before sunrise and after sunset. According to a woman of a house that I observed, the rice prepared by the women is eaten in the morning by the priests for ancestors, and in the evening, it is eaten for po Auluah.

While the priests fast for the first three days, laypeople do not observe the ritual of fasting at all; nevertheless, they are forbidden from eating meat for the first three days of the month, until the “red rod” is deposited.16) Women make special offerings for female spirits on the 15th, and for male spirits on the 20th. Offerings continue to be made for ancestral spirits at the mosque until the 27th, when they return to their world.


Photo 4 Offerings for Male Spirits in the Thang Magik

As I mentioned earlier, the acar and laypeople have different prayers. The prayers of the acar begin with a part called vat and finish with a section called mroi. Vat starts with ablutions, followed by a fixed sequence of movements: standing, prostrating, kneeling, and sitting, each conducted with a set reading from the kura’an, with the acar facing west all the time. After the vat, the acar sit up facing east and eat an offering for po Auluah or ancestors, then transition into the mroi, the closing ceremony that includes burning a piece of eagle wood.

The laity’s prayers, called lancan and tampah, do not include reading from the kura’an instead the people make individual wishes for health and prosperity—in short, worldly interests. They do not consume food offerings but bring some home as a food of grace.

As we have observed, people visit graveyards to bring ancestral spirits back home, make offerings to these spirits, and visit the thang magik with betel nuts offerings. They pray to po Auluah, but as we have seen, Ramuwan is mostly a month for memorial services and prayers for benefits.

IV The Cham Bani Discourse on Religion

As mentioned earlier, some argue that Cham Bani should not be considered as a form of Islam but as a branch or sect of a religious system. The ethnologist, Thanh Phan, who is of Cham Bani origin, explains Cham Bani as follows:

Chams used to have two religious sects Awal and Ahier. . . . In colloquial language Awal is called Bani. Chams see Awal as symbolizing women and Ahier as symbolizing men. These two are dia- metrically opposed to each other in a sense, yet also cannot exist one without the other. . . . People of the Bani sect adopted Islamic thoughts and culture but they did not accept them passively or mechanically; instead, by creatively and selectively adopting them, they assimilated the new religion into their own economic and cultural practices. This is why even today they do not worship only Allah but also other gods. (Thành 1996, 166)


Table 7 Examples of Awal-Ahier Attributions

Source: Nakamura (1999) and author’s research.

According to this explanation, Bani is one sect of a people divided into Awal and Ahier. These words can be traced to the Arabic words meaning “last” and “first” respectively, and supplemented with a religious connotation of “woman” and “man.”

Nakamura, based on her lengthy fieldwork, also traced the Cham religion from the perspective of Awal- Ahier (Nakamura 1999). According to Nakamura, all the phenomena of Cham society are constituted in the form of binary oppositions: for example, the relationship between Cham Balamon and Cham Bani achieves a harmony with the former belonging to Awal and the latter to Ahier sects. The religious elements in the Cham Bani village are drawn from a combination of Awal and Ahier elements (see Table 7).

Photo 5 is a honcan, a figure that illustrates the concept of Awal-Ahier dualism. As mentioned earlier, this figure, which resembles the Onkara of Balinese Hinduism, is painted on the roof of the thang magik in the village. Cham Bani is symbolized by the figure of the moon and the number 6 in traditional Cham letters, while Cham Balamon by the sun and the number 3. Together it demonstrates the fusion of the two.

Photo 5 A Honcan

This concept of Awal-Ahier is emphasized by Cham Bani intellectuals and ordained priests in discussions about Islam in Cham society, possibly as a means to validate the “authenticity” of the Cham Bani religion in the face of criticism by “orthodox” Islam and rejection of the indigenous elements within the Cham Bani religion. Awal-Ahier is understood as the syncretism that affirms the tolerance of Cham society. For these intellectuals, the Islamic religious practices of Cham Bani should be viewed through the Awal-Ahier perspective, rather than categorized as Islamic or non-Islamic. In my opinion, however, ordinary people are unfamiliar with these concepts and only understand that they are practicing their religion in the age-old, long-established manner.

V Conclusion

As mentioned in the first section, the Cham Bani have been considered as unorthodox Muslims because they recite the Quran and believe in Allah, yet do not strictly follow the Islamic faith. This perception is based on the idea that those who recite the Quran and fast during Ramadan are performing their Muslim duty and partake in the “commonality of Islam.” This is a perception based on essentialism.

Such classification is unrealistic. As we have seen, Islamic religious practices among the Cham Bani differ widely depending on gender or social strata. Members of the Cham Bani do not have a single feature in common across the board. In other words, it can be said that the Cham Bani is a polythetic class.

Hồi giáo in Vietnam, regardless of the criteria used in the classification, is indeed a polythetic class, as opposed to the conventional classification of Muslim. On the question of self-recognition, not all of those officially classified as “Muslim” or Hồi giáo identify themselves as Muslim. Cham Bani people actually identify themselves as followers of Hồi giáo, calling themselves tín đồ Hồi giáo or tín đồ đạo Hồi. This does not, however, mean that they accept to be identified with Islam. They describe themselves as not of the Islam sect but Bani. In other words, they subscribe to a Vietnamese religious category that includes Cham Islam and Cham Bani, but not one where Islam is connected with the wider Islam community. To put it another way, the word “Islam” has two meanings in Vietnam: the first is Islam in a broad sense as the English translation of Hồi giáo the second is Islam in a narrower sense as one of the groups of Hồi giáo—Cham Islam or Sunni Muslim.

This reality is not taken into account by the state and official classification is monothetic. Here I will discuss the state’s stance towards syncretic religions such as Cham Bani. Since the beginning of the Doi Moi period, there has been much debate on religions in Vietnam. The state has tended to consider cases such as Cham Bani, where foreign religion became “indigenized” (dân tộc hóa) as something positive.17) We can see this quite clearly in an excerpt from a government white paper of 2006:

Exogenous religions entering Vietnam have adapted to the cultural and religious complexions of the Vietnamese people. As a result, they have transformed from their original form; in other words, once these exogenous religions entered Vietnam, they were assimilated by Vietnamese culture. . . . Whether following exogenous or native religions, Vietnamese believers in general are influenced by polytheism, by a spirit of religious tolerance and of nationalism. (Vietnam, GCRA 2006, 9)

Incidentally, it has long used the term “religious syncretism” by anthropologists to explain the phenomenon in which a new or an exogenous religion, introduced to a specific society, either mixes or coexists with local religions as it is adopted. Within this framework, the debate was centered upon the question of whether the exogenous and local religions coexist without eliminating the border between them, or whether they blend together in a seamless form to create a new and coherent religious system. This idea, however, has been criticized from many directions (Leopold and Jensen 2004). For instance, some argued that all religions currently practiced are the products of syncretism, having incorporated elements from many different religious traditions. Others were concerned that because the idea of “authentic religion” is inherent in the idea of syncretism, it has imputed negative connotations such as “impure” and “inauthentic” to the real religious phenomena.

Anthropologists have focused on the discourses on syncretism or the processes through which different religions merge, examining how power is exercised in the process of legitimization or de-legitimization of certain religious practices (for example, Stewart and Shaw 1994). While some cultures embrace syncretism as evidence of their tolerance toward different cultures, others hold an “anti-syncretic” attitude, asserting their cultural “authenticity” by rejecting or erasing the “impure” cultural elements from their practices.

How then does religious assimilation occur in Vietnam? How does the foreign religion become “indigenized” (dân tộc hóa)? In the case of Cham Bani, this occurs by sustaining the worship of ancestors (muk kei) and deities (yang), including spirits of the members of each descendant group, village gods, and spirits of Champa kings or those who have served the kingdom. These are the local religious elements shared with the Cham Balamon, another religious group among the Cham. It is precisely in this way that Cham Bani differentiate themselves from Cham Islam by sustaining these elements.

From this perspective, it could be said that the Cham Bani might exist as Muslim only as recognized by the state. Perhaps, in a nation like Vietnam where a single religion does not constitute the glue of national unity, religious syncretism is linked to the idea of unique indigenous cultures that buttresses the image of a multi-ethnic Vietnam. It is precisely this religious syncretism that is held up as being “authentic.”


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1) The first statistics in 1999 identified six state-recognized religions; by 2011 there were 12 state- recognized religions, including Baha’i, Buu Son Ky Huong, etc.

2) Champa is one of the oldest kingdoms in Southeast Asia, having been established around the second century in what is today’s central Vietnam.

3) The presence of two groups of Muslims is regarded as a result of differences in the process of Islamization. The Islamization of Champa is believed to have occurred through contact with Islamic Arab merchants and the Persians, from the ninth to eleventh century, and through the Malays, from the sixteenth to seventeenth century. The Cham Bani could have been a group of people who stayed behind even after the country was deprived of maritime trade with Islam. The Cham Islam might be a group of people who moved to Cambodia and then the Mekong Delta whose practice of Islam was intensified through contact with the Malays (Nakamura 2000).

4) Other labels like “folk Islam” or “islam” in lowercase letters (Eickelman 1982; El-Zein 1977) have also emerged.

5) The meaning of practical religion here is that found in Dialectic in Practical Religion (1968) by Edmond Leach.

6) Bà la môn giáo has been described as indigenized Hinduism. For example, see Phan et al. (1991).

7) This caused clashes with other Cham Bani, who saw no contradictions with their traditional religious practices.

8) My fieldwork was carried out mainly among the Cham communities in Bac Binh district, Binh Thuan province in 2001, 2002, and 2011.

9) According to the elders in the village, the villagers were forced to move under the Strategic Hamlet Program in 1959.

10) There are several types of kura’an in Cham Bani: patar murat, janreng gar, etc. In any of these kura’an, phonetic transcriptions and explanations, written using the traditional writing system called akhar thrah, are inserted.

11) Villagers use the Western calendar and the Vietnamese lunisolar calendar on a daily basis while the traditional calendar, sakawi, is used for customary rituals. The sakawi plays no role in most people’s lives; only religious priests and intellectuals consult it for information and guidance in organizing rituals and annual events (Yoshimoto 2011).

12) According to Aymonier’s Cham-French dictionary, magik means “masjid” and thang means “house” (Aymonier 1906, 367).

13) There are no differences in the laity’s prayers no matter what rank. Laymen’s prayers for po Auluah are also no different from that for po yang; po Auluah is positioned as one of the deities. In this respect, po Auluah is manifestly not the same as the Islamic god Allah.

14) Talaik (open) kalem (a brush) means “begin writing.” This ritual consists mainly of boys reading aloud the Arabic alphabet called akhar Bini and bismillah (the phrase uttered before reciting each chapter of the Quran), following the acar’s direction.

15) In a house that I observed in 2010, in Ninh Thuan province, a woman around 52 years old said she invited about 50 spirits and members, both of matrilineal and patrilineal lineages. She said her deceased mother used to invite about 80 spirits and members, but she could not remember all of them so the number was reduced.

16) The length of abstention from meat depends on the area: for example, the Cham Bani in Ninh Thuan province are forbidden to eat meat for 15 days.

17) For example, Đặng (2004).


Vol. 1, No. 3, Tatsuki KATAOKA

Contents>> Vol. 1, No. 3

Tai Buddhist Practices in Dehong Prefecture, Yunnan, China

Religion as Non-religion: The Place of Chinese Temples in Phuket, Southern Thailand

Tatsuki Kataoka*

* 片岡 樹, Graduate School of Asian and African Area Studies, Kyoto University, 46 Shimoadachi- cho, Yoshida Sakyo-ku, Kyoto 606-8501, Japan

e-mail: kataoka[at]

This paper, based on a case study of Chinese temples in Phuket, aims to demonstrate the importance of religious activities lying outside “religion” in the so-called “Buddhist” societies in Thailand, as well as to question the category of “religion” itself.

In Thailand, most of the Chinese temples (called sanchao in Thai) are not recognized as “religious places” by the religious administration (namely the Department of Religious Affairs), since they come under the supervision of the Ministry of the Interior. In Phuket, Chinese temples as “non-religious” places (of worship?) outnumber officially recognized Buddhist temples and they offer occasions for the worship of Buddhist deities. One of the unique features of the “Buddhist” activities of the Chinese temples in Phuket is that they are conducted without monks. Because the Chinese temples are placed outside the state protection of “religion,” they are not institutionalized as belonging to any state-approved religion. This is beneficial to the Chinese temples as they do not have to compete with “state Buddhism”; in such temples indiscriminate syncretic worship is also latently sanctioned. In Phuket the functions of Chinese associations and charity foundations overlap with those of the Chinese temples, challenging the definition of religion in yet another way. Our discussion leads us to conclude that all these activities lying outside of “religion” actually occupy an important part of “Buddhism” in Thailand. Thus a reconsideration of the framework of “Buddhism” and “religion” in Thailand is necessary.

Keywords: Thailand, Chinese, Chinese temples, Buddhism, religion, Phuket

I Introduction

This paper aims to reconsider discussions on “Thai Buddhism” from its margins—from the perspective of Chinese temples. One of my motivations for presenting this paper is the existing debate on Thai Buddhism and Chinese societies in Thailand. There is a well-established model for approaching Thai Buddhism—one that stresses the importance of the Sangha and how Buddhist society maintains its equilibrium through the merit-oriented practices of laypeople, which supplement the nirvana-oriented orthodoxy by monks (Ishii 1986). This model is very clear and consistent.

Of course, Sangha-centered Buddhism officially supported by the government is only one part of real Buddhism in Thailand, and ritual practices related to spirit worship are well documented and repeatedly discussed.1) In my paper I extend this trend of academic attention to the margins of Buddhism, to question the very categories of Buddhism and religion. I refer to Chinese temples, which are supposed to form a large part of the religious activities of statistical Buddhists in Thailand, but which are not seriously argued.

Buddhism in Thailand is always presented as if it were a cultural tradition of the Thai, or even a synonym.2) In actual fact, the composition of “Buddhist society” is far more complex and the Theravada school is but one of the religious traditions that appear as Buddhism in statistics. The Chinese of Thailand form an inseparable part of this complexity, but unfortunately, with only a few exceptions, discussions on the Chinese and their culture in Thailand seem to have paid little attention to this issue—Buddhism as viewed from the Chinese perspective.3)

In this paper I will first review the development of the modern category of religion and government policies toward it, and show that Chinese temples have not been included in this system. Then I will turn my attention to the findings from my case study in Phuket, one of the regional cities that have been developed mainly by Chinese immigrants. An overview of the current situation of Chinese temples in Phuket will be presented before further discussions on the status of Chinese temples and related activities as “religion-as-non-religion.” I will proceed to connect arguments on the anonymous nature of “Chinese Religion” to the unique allocation of religious discourse in Thailand, and demonstrate that it is this combination that leaves Chinese temples in Thailand in the domain of “non-religion.” Finally I will show the possibilities for further comparative studies of religions in Thailand in order to rethink the conventional understanding of religion in Southeast Asia.

II “Religion,” Buddhism, and Chinese Temples

The Making of Religion
Prior to the administrative reform in the last half of the nineteenth century, the term satsana, which denotes religion in the present sense, was a synonym of Buddhism. Kings enjoyed the title of “the Supreme Defender of Satsana,” with satsana denoting Buddhism exclusively in this context. As in other Asian countries, “religion” as a neutral term of comparative religion is a relatively recent invention in Thailand. Furthermore, a feature of Buddhism in pre-modern Thailand was the absence of nationwide monastic institutions. The vast majority of the land was dominated by semi-independent local crowns, and the King’s direct rule was limited to royal temples around the capital. This situation changed dramatically after the Sangha Administration Act was introduced in 1902. This act brought about present-day Thai Buddhism as a uniform institution, which Ishii calls “State Buddhism” (1986, 59). It officialized and standardized a set of regulations on the doctrine taught in monasteries, as well as the status of ordained monks, and organized these monasteries and monks into a single bureaucratic pyramid officially sanctioned by the central government.

Extension of the coverage of the term satsana took place alongside the modernization of Theravada Buddhism. One of the first turning points was the “Edict of Religious Toleration” issued by King Chulalongkorn in 1878 (Wells 1958, 59–64). This royal edict was targeted at the evangelical works of Christian missionaries in Chiang Mai, the northern capital of present-day Thailand. This edict referred to Christianity as “Satsana Phra Yesu” or “Satsana of Jesus,” and manifestly stated that one’s satsana was a matter of freedom of faith (Prasit 1984, 169).

King Vajiravudh, the successor to Chulalongkorn who governed the kingdom in the early twentieth century, established and propagated the state ideology: “chat, satsana, phramahakasat” (nation, religion, monarchy). In this context satsana is Buddhism as the de facto state religion. According to Vella, this propagation of Buddhism was based on the king’s assumption that the Thai people have historically selected Buddhism among religions of essentially equal standing: “Time after time the King pointed out the basic similarities of all religions. All religions taught their adherents a similar moral code; they taught men to do good, not to harm others” (Vella 1978, 220–221). For this young monarch, educated in England, Western-style religious pluralism was already a self-evident truth.

After the constitutional revolution in 1932, the king’s title as “the Supreme Defender of Satsana” persisted with the introduction of the idea of “freedom of satsana” or “freedom of religion.” These contradict each other so far as satsana is defined as Buddhism. The usage of satsana to denote religion in general can be traced to this period. The phrase “protection of satsana” in the constitution was translated in English as “protection of all religions professed by the Siamese people,” and thus was established the system in which religions enjoyed equal status under royal patronage. “[I]n this light, the semantic expansion of satsana is probably best understood as an accommodation of the traditional values to the context of Western, European democracy” (Ishii 1986, 39).

In 1941, a Department of Religious Affairs (Krom Kansatsana) was created under the Ministry of Education to supervise all religions recognized by the state or all religions under royal patronage. It replaced the Krom Thammakan, which had formerly superintended violation of the Buddhist precepts by monks (Sutthiwong 2001).4) In 2002, it was transferred to the newly created Ministry of Culture, while some of its functions relating to the administration of Buddhism were carved off for the equally new National Office of Buddhism. Religious organizations officially registered with the Department include Islam, Christianity (Catholic and Protestant as separate categories), Brahmanism, Hindu, and Sikh, as well as Buddhism. As for Buddhism, the Thai Sangha (Theravada) and two Mahayana sects (“Chinese” Chin Nikai and “Vietnamese” Annam Nikai, though both are actually Chinese) are listed in the religious statistics of the government (Thailand, Krom Kansatsana 1998).

This brief summary of the development of religious administration in Thailand shows that the traditional model of state administration for Buddhism has been extended to cover other religions as satsana has been redefined as a general term for religions. The consequence of this development is the concentration of the state’s interests in the registration and control of ordained religious professionals and their facilities. Laypeople are left out of the scope of the religious administration, and the minimum requirement for laypeople is simply to select one religion on their ID cards. In addition, such self- declaration of one’s religion does not require details of one’s affiliation or allegiance to any sect or denomination. In other words, the exact number of Theravada and Mahayana lay followers among Buddhists is not known. It is also worth noting that Confucianism and Taoism are not listed among the officially recognized religions. The only choice offered by the state to the Chinese (with the exception of small numbers of Christians and Muslims) is Buddhism.

Chinese Temples and the Thai State
Where, then, is the place for Chinese temples within these officially recognized religious categories? The answer is that there is no place for them since Chinese temples register with the Ministry of the Interior, not the Department of Religious Affairs under the Ministry of Education (after 2002, the Ministry of Culture). The Chinese temple that I refer to in this paper is an English translation of sanchao Chin, which is strictly distinguished from ordinary Buddhist temples called wat. The Chinese temple must seek legitimacy on grounds other than the religious administration.

Legally speaking, government control of Chinese temples is based on an order issued by the Ministry of the Interior in 1920. This order was originally aimed at supplementing the shortcomings of the Local Administration Act (1913), especially Article 113 on the protection of property rights of public places for merit-making (kusonsathan). Article 2 of the ministry’s order defines sanchao (Chinese temples and other shrines) as “places to have objects of worship and used for rituals according to doctrines (latthi) of the Chinese and other people.” The Department of Local Administration has the duty of supervising Chinese temples listed in the Directory of Chinese Temples in the Kingdom published by the department (Thailand, Krom Kanpokkhrong 2000).

A comparative study of Chinese temples of Bangkok and Singapore by Pornpan and Mak (1994) presents unique data of the historical development of Chinese religions in Thailand. According to this study, the number of Chinese Buddhist temples in Bangkok is smaller than in Singapore. The authors suppose that this is because Buddhism is much better established and flourishing in Bangkok than it is in Singapore—Theravada monasteries were so scattered over the kingdom that the lack of Mahayana temples would cause no serious problem for Chinese immigrants.

Scholars have long agreed that the cultural distance between Chinese immigrants and host majorities is remarkably small in Thailand in the sense that both parties are more or less Buddhists in a broad sense. The case of Chinese immigrants who show no hesitation in claiming themselves to be Buddhists has been reported in many academic writings on Chinese in Thailand: “[O]bservers are impressed not so much by differences as religious similarities between the Thai and the Chinese minority,” and “unlike the situation with respect to the Chinese in other countries of Southeast Asia, in Thailand religion does offer one base on which cultural compromise is being achieved” (Coughlin 1960, 92). Some Chinese folk traditions even contributed to such cultural compromise. As Skinner (1957, 129) points out, San Pao Kong (Sanbaogong 三保公), one of the popular Chinese deities, has another name Cheng Ho (Zheng He 鄭和, a leader of Ming China’s maritime expedition), while his name also symbolizes the three essentials of Buddhist teaching, San Pao 三寶 (Three Treasures), since these two terms share the same pronunciation. That cultural compromise between Chinese immigrants and the host Thai Buddhists was easily achieved partly explains the delayed introduction of Chinese Mahayana monasteries to Thailand, since Chinese temples of folk religion and Theravada monasteries filled the religious needs of the Chinese Buddhists.

In Bangkok, the first Chinese temple established in 1786 was dedicated to Pun Thao Kong 本頭公, a deity of locality worshipped in Southeast Asia (Pornpan and Mak 1994, 28–29, 137). All the Chinese temples built in the first half of the nineteenth century were temples of Taoism or local folk beliefs, while Chinese Mahayana Buddhist temples were introduced much later. The first Chinese Mahayana temple of Thailand was established in 1887 (ibid., 29). Actually, only four Mahayana temples5) in Bangkok were built before 1915 (ibid., 140). All these facts indicate that Mahayana Buddhist temples were an absolute minority among the Chinese temples at the time of the legislation of the Sangha Act (1902) and the Interior Ministry’s order (1920).

Another factor behind the legal status of Chinese temples is the government’s policy towards Chinese immigrants. As Nipaporn (2012) argues, Chinese immigrants’ activities in the public sphere were almost neglected by the Bangkok government in the initial period of modernization (late nineteenth to early twentieth century). Most of the infrastructure of public welfare for the Chinese settlements was initiated and provided by associations of speech groups (or coalitions of them), not the royal government, on a self-supporting basis (ibid.). Such welfare organizations have a tendency to overlap with Chinese temples. For example, the Cantonese Temple and Cantonese Hospital of Bangkok are located in the same compound as the Cantonese Association. Tianhua Hospital 天華醫院, which was jointly founded by five speech groups (Swatou, Canton, Hokkian, Hakka, and Hailam) in 1905, has a large Kuan Im 觀音 temple in its center. Po Tek Tung or Baode Shantang 報徳善堂, founded in 1910, is the largest philanthropic association in the kingdom as well as a temple for the worship of Dafeng Zushi 大峰祖師, a former Mahayana monk in China famous for his devotion to public activities (issues on philanthropic associations will be discussed later). Also, this philanthropic association is the owner of Huachiao Hospital 華僑醫院. Such associations “provide the Chinese population with schools, community centers, hospitals, clinics, temples, cemeteries and recreational facilities” (Coughlin 1960, 33–34). Unlike Theravada monasteries, Chinese temples began in Thailand as a welfare center for this neglected community lying outside of government care.

Later, a series of government policies towards the Chinese was legislated during the reign of King Vajiravudh, for example, the Association Act (1914) and the Private School Act (1918). Although these legislations sound universal, they were actually targeted at gaining effective control of the Chinese immigrants (Vella 1978, 189–190). The Association Act was “aimed particularly at preventing the formation of Chinese associations reflecting the new political enthusiasms generated by events in China” (ibid., 189), and “[w]hat the private school law of 1918 was supposed to do was facilitate the assimi- lation of Chinese” (ibid., 190). Similarly, even though the Interior Ministry’s order on sanchao under Vajiravudh’s reign is a regulation measure on shrines in general (Chinese and non-Chinese alike), Article 2 (mentioned above) shows that its first target was actually Chinese temples. This ministry’s order also forms a link in the chain of contemporary policies to enforce a strict policing of the Chinese by legitimizing their activities and organizations. According to Koizumi (2007, 33–44), Chinese community leaders in Bangkok initially tried to resist the legislation on Chinese temples and petitioned the govern- ment for amendment of the acts. The petitions presented to the government were finally rejected on the grounds that strict state regulation was necessary because Chinese temples might harbor secret societies and other illegal activities.

Since the “Chinese problem” was a matter of policing rather than purification of “State Buddhism,” and since Mahayana monasteries were an absolute minority even among the Chinese temples, most of the Chinese religious facilities (temples and semi- religious associations) have been dropped from issues of religion and placed in the hands of the Ministry of the Interior. According to the government policy toward the Chinese immigrants, Chinese temples or related organizations might register as an association with no political intention or as a Chinese temple outside “religion” (unless it has no ordained monk). Chinese immigrants have been periodically victimized by the Bangkok government’s nationalistic policy. In the early twentieth century they were suspected to be troublemakers instigated by Sun Yat-sen’s republican ideology, and later they were viewed as potential communists in the Cold War period (Skinner 1957). Indeed, throughout the twentieth century, the Thai government did not offer a special category to Chinese religions to register as religions.

A good example is Dejiao 徳教, which was introduced to Thailand from China in the early 1950s. This is a syncretic religious movement that originated in post-World War II China and spread to Southeast Asia. In spite of its unique tradition and the religious connotation of its name jiao means religion), the official status of its branches in Thailand is “philanthropic foundations,” and it has never been recognized as a religion. Since the beginnings of this religious movement in the 1950s, the Thai Government “severely controlled registration of new Chinese associations, especially those whose stated purpose involved religious activities” (Formoso 2010, 59–60).

Table 1 shows the number of followers and religious places of each officially recognized religion. As mentioned above, the statistics are obtained from self-declaration. As for satsanasathan, or religious places, the official definition is “places that have ordained persons (nak buat) and used for religious rites” (Thailand, Samnak-ngan Khana Kammakan Kansuksa haeng Chat 2000, 5). Naturally, this definition does not include Chinese temples since, as I will argue later, rituals in Chinese temples tend to be carried out without ordained monks. That is why Chinese temples never appear in such lists of “religious places” in an official sense. The exceptions are Mahayana Buddhist temples with their own resident monks. The Mahayana School of Buddhism, together with the Mahanikai and Thammayut Theravada Schools, forms a part of official “State Buddhism.”

Table 1Religious Population and Religious Places Officially Recognized by the Government

Source: Thailand, Krom Kansatsana (1998, 94)

Table 2 shows the number of Buddhist temples according to each sect, recognized by the Department of Religious Affairs (in 1998). Official data on Buddhist sects contain only temples and monks, and the number of laypeople is not disclosed. This reflects a state interest in religious affairs that is almost exclusively concentrated on the control of temples and ordained monks. As already mentioned above, in official statistics, laypeople are never classified according to sects.

Table 2 Number of Buddhist Temples According to Sects

Source: Thailand, Krom Kansatsana (1998, 84)

Another remarkable feature of this data is the very small number of Mahayana temples (Chinese and Vietnamese). This is partly because similar facilities tend to register with the Ministry of the Interior as sanchao or Chinese temples (and are thus non- religious places). Indeed, Chinese temples (657 temples nationwide) outnumber Mahayana temples, even though their number and the number of their followers are never listed in government statistics on religion. From these statistics, we can suppose that the Chinese people attending Chinese temples declare themselves as Buddhists (who make up 93.3 percent of the total population, see Table 1) in population statistics.

Throughout Thailand’s modern history, the term “satsana” in the official sense has been transformed or extended from meaning “Buddhism” only to meaning “religions” in general. Nevertheless, large areas of religious activities (including public facilities for worship) are still left outside this extended concept of religion. Chinese temples are typical cases.6)

III Chinese Temples in Phuket

Phuket in Religious Statistics
Phuket has a unique history of the development of tin-mining through the introduction of Chinese immigrants from the British Straits Settlements during the modernization period.7) The majority of Phuket’s population—72.6 percent—is Buddhist (see Table 3). Since attendants of Chinese temples are not officially categorized under the government’s policy towards religion, they are included as Buddhists. Government statistics reveal an interesting characteristic of Buddhism in Phuket. Table 4, indicating the population per monk and Buddhist temple, shows us how low commitment to officially institutionalized Buddhism is in Phuket. In Phuket, one monk takes care of 1,541.37 people, while the average population per monk in Thailand is 326.08. The same tendency is found in the distribution of Buddhist temples. The population per temple in Phuket (7,458.26) is also much higher than the national equivalent of 2,003.13. Thus the density of Buddhist temples and ordained monks is surprisingly lower than that in other provinces, and leads us to suppose that Buddhists in Phuket maintain their commitment to Buddhism in ways
other than those expected by institutionalized Thai Buddhism. The percentage of the population of Phuket province in the national total is 0.4 percent and that of Buddhist temples is much lower (0.1 percent), whereas that of Chinese temples is 1.5 percent (10 out of 657 state temples). These figures indicate that Chinese temples are more concentrated than Buddhist temples in Phuket.

Table 3 Religious Population and Religious Places in Phuket Province

Source: Thailand, Krom Kansatsana (1998, 99)

Table 4 Population per Wat and per Monk

Source: Thailand, Krom Kansatsana (1998, 79, 83)

Since Phuket province has no Mahayana Buddhist temple, all the Chinese temples in Phuket are non-religious places in the official sense. Their legal status falls into three categories: state, private, and non-registered. The difference between state and private temples lies in land ownership. Temples located on state-owned land are categorized as state temples, and those on private land are private temples. Currently there are 10 state Chinese temples, 14 private temples, and at least 18 non-registered temples in Phuket. Apart from Chinese temples, there are six temples dedicated to Muslim guardians of locality. As I will discuss later, these temples and the deities in them are closely connected to Chinese temples. All the Muslim guardian temples are non-registered.

The situation of the Chinese temples of Phuket tells us that non-registered temples are by no means exceptional. Many Chinese temples are excluded from the registration system of Chinese temples by the Ministry of the Interior, which is itself beyond the religious administration of the state (the Department of Religious Affairs). In fact, state control of religion based on the official definitions of satsana and satsanasathan has only a very partial hold on religious facilities.

Deities Worshipped
Which deities are worshipped in these “non-religious” places? According to Tables 5, 6, and 7, showing data on deities worshipped in the Chinese temples in Phuket, the most popular deities as owners of temples are Pun Thao Kong (Bentougong 本頭公 or Hude Zhengshen 福徳正神, worshipped in six temples), Cho Su Kong (Qingshui Zushi 清水祖師, worshipped in four temples), and Kuan Wu (Guanyu 関羽, worshipped in four temples). These are followed by Lim Thai Su (Linfu Taishi 林府太師) and Kuan Im (Guanyin 觀音), each worshipped as an owner deity in three temples.

Taoism or Chinese popular religions outnumber Buddhism at the level of owner deities of temples. However, this does not mean that Buddhism is not important in Chinese temples. The vast majority of temples (26) have Mahayana Buddhist deities in their pantheon as lesser objects of worship. Of these 26 temples, all have Kuan Im, and some have an additional Mahayana Buddhist object of worship such as Mitreya 弥勒佛, Ti Chong Ong 地蔵王菩薩, and other Bodhisattvas. Some temples are more oriented to official Buddhist temples. A good example is Sam Se Chu Fut temple (No. 23 in Table 7). Although this temple is officially a non-registered sanchao, the structure of its pantheon is actually very Buddhist. Sam Se Chu Fut 三世諸佛 or the Three Buddhas of the Mahayana school are its owners, while the majority of its lesser deities are also Mahayana Buddhist deities. The difference between this kind of sanchao and Buddhist temples (wat) lies in the absence of ordained monks and daily chanting carried out by lay practitioners in the latter.

Worship of Buddha and Buddhist deities can be practiced in most of the Chinese temples, even though these temples are never recognized as Buddhist “religious places.” These sanchao, or Chinese temples as non-religious places, offer alternatives for the practice of Buddhism outside state sanction. One could also worship deities of several religious traditions other than Mahayana Buddhism at these temples. Former Theravada monks constitute the objects of worship in the pantheons of Chinese temples in Phuket. The most prominent of these monks is Luangpho Chaem, who was active in the late nineteenth century and is purported to have supernatural powers. His picture is still worshipped all over the province, including in two Chinese temples (No. 4 and No. 13 in Table 7). In Lo Rong temple (No. 9), one can worship various images of former Theravada monks as well as other deities, Buddhist and non-Buddhist.

The structure of the pantheons of some Chinese temples is almost ecumenical. Lo Rong is an example of such a “department store” of religious amalgam. Yok Ong Song Te (Yuhuang Dadi 玉皇上帝), Nine Emperor God or Kiu Ong Tai Te (Jiuhuang Dadi 九皇大帝), Lao-tze (Taishang Laojun 太上老君), Ma Cho (Mazu 媽祖), Sam Tong Ong (Sanzhongwang 三忠王), Pun Thao Kong, Sakya Muni, Kuan Im, Mitreya, Ti Chong Ong, ancestor gods of the Tan and Koi clans, Phra Phran (the Thai name for a god of Brahmanic or Hindu tradition), and other popular gods, in addition to the Theravada monks men- tioned above, are all found in one single temple. Another example is a very small temple Hiap Thian (No. 40), dedicated to Kuan Wu, Kuan Im, Siva, and Uma Devi. The composition of its pantheon reflects the founders’ intention to unite three Asian religions, namely Chinese popular religion, Buddhism, and Hinduism.

Islamic tradition is sometimes also invited into such mixed pantheons. Muslim guardian spirits of locality are worshipped as lesser deities in five Chinese temples. This custom stems from the belief that the founders (and, as such, guardians of locality) of the island of Phuket were Muslim. The Chinese, as newcomers, thus had to ask the founder spirits for permission to settle. Since then, these guardian spirits (called to) have been placed in Chinese temples in typical Muslim attire, including the Muslim costume and cap. Symbolized by a crescent and the color green, these spirits receive offerings (with prohibitions on pork and liquor) on Fridays, and are said to speak Arabic on occasions of possession. The Phuket Chinese see this custom as a way to pay respect to the local Muslim tradition, although the worship of images through the offering of joss sticks causes protests from some strict Muslim leaders.

Temples No. 43–48 in Table 7 are not regarded as Chinese temples, but temples of Muslim guardian spirits of locality. Nonetheless, they are closely related to the Chinese temples in the composition of their pantheons. They share the same deities as the Chinese temples; Chinese-style altars of Thi Kong 天公 (Heaven God, sometimes referred to as Yok Ong Song Te) are placed in front of the temples; images of Kuan Wu, Kuan Im, Mitreya, and Ho Ia (Huye 虎爺, a land spirit) appear in assistance of the Muslim guardians, which are themselves worshipped in some Chinese temples under the same names (To Sae, To Tami, To Saming, etc.).

According to Wee (1976, 171), who has studied religion in Singapore, Chinese Religion is “an empty bowl, which can variously be filled with the contents of institutionalized religions such as Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, the Chinese syncretic religions, or even Christianity (Catholic) and Hinduism.” As such, “Sakyamuni Buddha is just another shen (Chinese deity); the Theravada and Mahayana temples are his temples, and the Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists are his group of devotees” (ibid., 172–173). In Phuket, this “empty bowl” orientation of Chinese Religion is even extended to Muslim guardians.8)

Table 5 Main (Owner) Deities of the Chinese Temples in Phuket

Table 6 Lesser Deities of the Chinese Temples of Phuket Classified According to Religious Tradition

Indeed, in Chinese temples we find deities from Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Islam, Chinese popular religion, and local spirits worshipped together in one place. However, this description may be misleading, since the pantheon of the Chinese temples in Phuket seems to reject the very demarcation of institutionalized religions. For outside observers, it is almost impossible to identify each temple’s religious affiliation in institutionalized terms. This causes no problem, however, since these places are not officially recognized “religious places.” Chinese temples are simply “non-religion” and there is thus no need for the identification of religious affiliation.

Buddhism without Monks
Another unique aspect of “Thai Buddhism” practiced by the Chinese in Phuket is that most of the ritual practices in Chinese temples are conducted without ordained monks. Ritual specialists are laypeople with various titles like ajarn shifu, songjingyuan and so on.9) They chant Chinese sutras in the Hokkien dialect, known locally in Hokkien Chinese s songkeng 誦經. Since Phuket has no Mahayana temple, there is no alternative of inviting Mahayana monks for songkeng. This songkeng is clearly distinguished from suat mon, which denotes the chanting of Pali sutras by Theravada monks.

Table 7 Status of Chinese Temples in Phuket

Table 7–Continued

One of the occasions for songkeng to take place publicly is Pho To (Pudu 普度),10) a ritual widely practiced all over the island whereby offerings are made to the dead during the seventh lunar month. In Phuket City, Pho To is celebrated in eight places annually (Table 8)—four in Chinese temples, two in a former Chinese temple, and the remaining two on community streets. The Pho To ritual is based on the belief that dead persons come back to this world during the seventh lunar month. Those with descendants will go back to their homes while others with no place to go may eventually harm living people.

Table 8 Schedule of Pho To Rituals in Phuket City (in Seventh Month of Chinese Lunar Calendar)

Note: * The Thaihua School Campus was formerly a Chinese temple and the headquarters of the Kian Tek secret society.
** Propitiation ritual for deceased Kian Tek leaders.

For this reason the people of each community set aside a day for the collective feasting of these spirits by offering meals. Pho To Kong (Pudugong 普度公) is a leading figure of this ritual. Deemed the representative of hell, he is placed at the end of offering tables. A small image of Kuan Im is put on the head of Pho To Kong, after which songkeng is performed to start the ceremony. Then this bloodthirsty demon of hell is transferred to a subordinate or to another incarnation of Kuan Im, called Kuan Im Tai Su (Guanyin Dashi 觀音大士). Pho To Kong receives offerings on behalf of the dead and, in return, gives blessings to the living before he is finally burned and sent off from the coast at midnight.

Here is clearly manifested the main theme of universal salvation in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. Nevertheless this “Buddhist” annual ritual is conducted without ordained monks, with the exception of the Pho To ceremony held on the street in front of the municipal market, in which Theravada monks from nearby Buddhist temples are invited for chanting (suat mon). The presence of Theravada monks is not a necessary condition of the ritual; after all, there is no need to invite monks to “Buddhist” rituals as long as somebody can perform songkeng. Although knowledge of songkeng is passed down through apprenticeship, this network is formed on an informal basis without any institutionalized body. Officially speaking, in accordance with the state’s definition of satsana and satsanasathan, chanting by laymen in “non-religious places” has nothing to do with religion. The fact that there is no ordained religious specialist means that the government has no control over those who conduct Chinese religious rituals. The absence of ordained monks in Chinese temples contributes to their invisibility in the context of religious administration targeting officially recognized monks and religious places.11)

To question the relationship between religion and non-religion, finally we consider the concept of merit-making. Thambun is the Thai term for merit-making, and this has been argued to mean making contributions to the Sangha through conventional means in Thai Buddhism. However, the coverage of this term in daily usage in Phuket is much wider, referring to such activities as attending Chinese temples and making contributions to them, the songkeng ritual, the suat mon ritual of Theravada Buddhism, contributions to the Sangha, donations to philanthropic foundations, donations to the Red Cross, donations to native place associations (Hokkien, Hailam, etc.), and donations to Chinese schools. The names of donors are publicly listed during annual ritual occasions according to the amount contributed. The same arrangement is also employed in fund-raising initiatives by Chinese schools, native place associations, philanthropic associations as well as Chinese temples. Such donors lists also usually appear in the memorial publications of these organizations. Who contributes how much is widely publicized and remembered. The same local Chinese leaders always occupy the top spots on these lists and famous rich persons risk being gossiped about whenever their contributions are smaller than public expectations. These are the reasons why local Chinese leaders compete obsessively over donation or merit-making. Coughlin (1960, 57–58) writes of the Chinese society of Bangkok:

Public recognition, community goodwill, and some fame can be gained by donating money to this [Tianhua Hospital] and other organizations in the Chinese community. . . . These are the customary ways by which the Chinese community recognizes beneficence. The reports of the Poh Tek Associations, for example, list all contributions, large and small alike, pointing out for special mention those who have given large sums. All Chinese hospitals and charitable associations, and even some dialect associations, honour benefactors by hanging their framed pictures in conspicuous places on the premises. This form of recognition shows the part that charity plays in attaining social prominence in the community.

Recognition of beneficence in Coughlin’s term corresponds to thambun in Phuket. Both of them share the same coverage and function. In this regard, the Sangha (consisting of Buddhist temples and monks) is by no means the sole center of merit-making.

The wide range of occasions for thambun to take place may seem puzzling in its inclusion of apparently secular activities and facilities. However, when we recall that Chinese temples and related activities are placed outside of “religion,” we realize that the distinction between “religion” and “non-religion” is already obscure. It makes no sense then to claim that Chinese temples can be centers of merit-making while other “secular” organizations may not. It is this blurring of the categories of “religion” and “non-religion” that should be examined instead of questioning the status of the “field of merit” of the Red Cross and other associations.

IV Boundaries of Religion

“Secular” Organizations for Practicing Chinese Religious Traditions
Chinese temples do not have a monopoly on the domain of “non-religious places” for practicing Chinese religious tradition. Other related facilities, whose functions overlap those of Chinese temples, also offer occasions for worshipping Chinese deities.

One example of the complexity of the issue is the boundary between temples and associations. A good example is the Hainanese Association (No. 16 in Table 7). Its Chinese name (Hainan Huiguan 海南會館/Kengjiu Huiguan 瓊州會館) gives the impression that it is nothing other than an association by place of origin. Interestingly though, its Thai name is Sanchao Hailam, meaning “Hainanese temple,” and it is officially registered as a private temple. On the other hand, the Hokkien Association in Phuket is not a registered temple, but it contains a worship altar and claims Pun Thao Kong or Fude Zhengshen as owner of the association. Yet these two associations actually share the same functions as places of worship and care of descendants.

We can make the same observations of philanthropic foundations. Qing Pu Dong 清普洞 (No. 50) is a worship building of the Phuket branch of the Kuson Tham Foundation, one of the major Chinese philanthropic foundations in Thailand. This foundation has the character of a new religion worshipping He Ye Yun Fozu 何野雲佛祖, a former Mahayana monk in Mainland China, as its founding father, and the structure of the building is similar to that of other Chinese temples; yet Qing Pu Dong has never been registered as a religious place or a Chinese temple. Here we should note that some of the other Chinese temples in Phuket are also registered as philanthropic foundations. Temples No. 1, 5, 7, 8, 19, and 24 (Table 7) are such examples, and they run the gamut of Chinese temple categories, namely, state temple, private temple, and non-registered temple. In fact, there is no clear distinction between these non-registered Chinese temples and philanthropic foundations such as Kuson Tham.

The distinction between altars in private houses and Chinese temples is also obscure. Some private altars are open to outside visitors and may eventually become Chinese temples when the number of visitors increases. In fact, many Chinese temples evolved from shrines in private houses. This is the general tendency of development of Chinese temples. Tan (1990, 6) comments on Chinese temples of Malaysia that “[s]ometimes a community temple had its beginnings in a simple shrine, originally patronized only by a few families.”

Formoso (1996, 255) points out that Chinese philanthropic associations in Thailand are less likely to officially declare themselves as religious organizations.

Although the foundations keep alive in Thailand a Chinese religious tradition, this is not their official purpose. The objectives they present to the authorities include material assistance to the poor and emergency relief for victims of fires, flood, and other disasters, and they give maximum publicity to these activities.

This is why all their activities remain outside the official category of “religion” in Thailand. The most typical example of such a foundation-like religion officially registered as a secular body is Dejiao. As we have seen above, all the branches of this new religious movement are registered as philanthropic foundations. Hence their official names are shantang 善堂 (philanthropic association), not Dejiao, even though their activities are deeply motivated and guided by divine messages delivered from automatic writing.12)

Li Daoji (1999, 246), who based his research on 510 Chinese associations in Thailand that appeared in a local Chinese newspaper of 1988, highlights the fact that out of 78 associations engaged in religious activities, 73 are philanthropic associations. This figure demonstrates that such self-proclaimed “secular” philanthropic associations provide fields of religious activities to supplement Chinese temples as “non-religious places.” As I have mentioned earlier, even more “secular” organizations such as Chinese-owned hospitals have overlapping functions with Chinese temples and semi-religious (but officially secular) associations as centers of worship of Chinese deities and of merit-making for Chinese statistical Buddhists.

“Chinese Religion” and Southeast Asian States
The blurred distinction between “religion” and “non-religion,” and the obscure boundaries between each religion reflect the very nature of Chinese religious tradition. Tan (1995, 140) argues that:

Chinese Religion is a religion of the Chinese civilization, and it is a religion which historically has become part and parcel of that civilization. As such, the Chinese have not found it necessary to have a special name for this complex system of beliefs and practices which are, after all, part and parcel of their way of life. In this respect, they are like many other peoples, such as the Orang Asli (aborigines of Peninsular Malaysia) and the Iban in Sarawak, who do not have specific names for that indigenous complex we call “religion.”

Religious practices of the Chinese elude the modern categorization of religion and profanity, and the institutionalization of individual religions. In this respect, the term “Buddhism” for the Chinese has a different implication from the Thai state’s official understanding. According to Tan again (ibid , 139):

As part of the Chinese system, Chinese Buddhism is also closely associated with Chinese Religion, especially from the point of view of worshippers who do not draw an exclusive boundary between what is Buddhist and what is indigenous Chinese, or distinguish between what is Chinese Religion and “pure” Buddhism.

Chinese Buddhism, as a part of the anonymous Chinese Religion in a broader sense, forms a stark contrast to the Theravada Sangha protected by the state. This setting of Buddhism in Thailand, which detracts from the state Sangha as the sole organization representing Buddhism, further contributes to the in-between status of Chinese temples, resulting in a puzzling state in which Chinese temples are “non-religious” but their followers are Buddhists.

Yang’s classical model of traditional Chinese religion seems to be applicable to the situation of the Chinese temples in Thailand. He employs the term “diffused religion” to explain the special character of traditional Chinese religion as compared to “institutionalized religion.” Diffused religion in his sense is a religion scattered and embedded in various secular social institutions with no significant independent and separate existence (Yang 1991, 294–295).

People visited a particular temple, worshipped a particular spirit, called on a particular priest, all in accordance with the practical function of religion for the particular occasion. To what religion a temple or a god belonged might be a puzzle to many academicians, but such questions had no functional significance in the religious life of the common people. (ibid , 340)

“Chinese Religion” is likely to have operated outside state control since the imperial period of traditional China, where political authority paid little attention to theological issues of dissident sects. Actually, “some 84 percent of the temples in China in the seventeenth century were built without official permission, and this figure obviously did not include the numerous small shrines privately built” (ibid , 214–215).

Such a “diffused” nature of Chinese religion might be advantageous in some respects when it is transplanted in Southeast Asian socio-political environments. For example, in Malaysia, where government concern in religious affairs is almost solely concentrated on Islam as a state religion, Chinese Religion enjoys relative freedom and flexibility in a diffused and syncretic form (Tan 1995, 154; Ackerman and Lee 1988, 52). Yang (1991) describes Chinese Buddhism as an example of “institutionalized religion”—an opposite counterpart of “diffused religion,” since the former has a (relatively) more institutionalized monkhood and theology as compared to the latter. However, in some Southeast Asian countries, even such a religious tradition originally oriented to institutionalization has been incorporated into the syncretic amalgam of “diffused religion.” One of the causes is the indifference of the local governments toward non-state religions. Thailand is unique in its divide is between “State Buddhism” and others. The fact that Buddhism of the Theravada school is the de facto state religion has meant that most “Chinese Buddhism” is categorized as “Chinese Religion,” and hence “non-religion” in official state administration.

Lim’s recent case study of Yiguan Dao 一貫道 in Singapore demonstrates clearly that the status of non-religion is a possible alternative strategy for Chinese religious traditions to avoid state control and maintain a free hand: “[O]ne of the Yiguan Dao’s most important proselytising efforts is not conducted in the public ‘religious domain’ as defined by the Singaporean state, hence overcoming certain restrictions faced by the other public religions” (Lim 2012, 21). Religion itself has been a major field of negotiation for Asian religious traditions. Such traditions have used various strategies to cope with— or “circumvent” (ibid )—“religion” imposed by modernizing states.13) Chinese temples and related organizations in Thailand show that these are synthetic compounds in the intersection of “Chinese religion” and Thai-style (Theravada Buddhist-oriented) interpretation and operation of Western concepts of “religion.”

V Conclusions

In 1976, Wee (1976, 155) wrote of Buddhism in Singapore:

Buddhism is generally considered to be one of the major religions, if not the major religion of multiracial Singapore. But on closer examination, one discovers that the word “Buddhism” is actually used as a religious label by a variety of people in Singapore whose religious practices and beliefs do not necessarily correspond to those prescribed by the Buddhist scriptures. . . . About 50 percent of Singapore’s population declare themselves to be “Buddhists.” But despite their usage of a single religious label, the “Buddhists” of Singapore do not in fact share a unitary religion. As we shall see, “Buddhism” of Singapore shows such a range of beliefs, practices and institutions that it can be structured analytically into distinct and separate religious systems.

Our overview of the state of Chinese temples in Thailand tells us that Thailand is not as far off from the Singaporean case as we would expect—at least in terms of the hybrid variety of Buddhism and related traditions. “Thai Buddhism” appears as a unitary religion simply because unorthodox Buddhism-related traditions are, with the exception of a very small number of Mahayana temples, practiced outside “religion.” This ambiguous usage of “Buddhism” at the statistical level reflects a broader definition that encompasses the official structure of the government policy towards religion. Again, Wee’s following comment on Singaporean Buddhism can also be applied to Thailand.

The Chinese syncretic religions practiced in Singapore are often referred to as “Buddhism” . . . . [F]or a significant proportion, if not the majority of “Buddhism” in Singapore, “Buddhism” is all- inclusive, embracing both Canonical Buddhism and the Chinese syncretic religions, and extending sometimes even to Hinduism.14)

For the Phuket case, as we have seen, we might add that “such all-inclusive Buddhism is extended even to Hinduism and some Islamic deities.”

We commonly understand Thailand to be a Buddhist state (in this context, Buddhism denotes exclusively Theravada Buddhism), and through “common sense,” we equate the worship of deities in Chinese temples with religion. Yet this “logical” understanding is only partially true. In the first place, statistical Buddhists encompass a very wide section (over 90 percent) of Thai society, and many religious traditions other than Theravada Buddhism have been incorporated into this “Buddhist” state. The second assumption also becomes questionable when we examine official religious discourse in Thailand— followers of Chinese temples are regarded as Buddhists, while the temples themselves have no room in the officially defined domain of religion.

Chinese temples as “religion-as-non-religion” are by-products of the formation of the “Buddhist ecclesia” (Ishii 1986) and the institutionalization of religion, two processes that are closely associated. As such, religion was re-defined to denote officially recognized institutions with doctrine and ordained specialists. The result is that this narrow concept of religion has left a very large residual domain. The case of the Chinese temples in Phuket shows that differentiation between religion and non-religion, and differentiation among institutionalized religions, remains minimal on the practical level. We have also seen how previous arguments on “Thai Buddhism” seem to have relied on this unrealistic definition of religion.

At the same time, the state of Chinese temples lying outside religion is beneficial to both institutionalized religions and Chinese temples. The state and institutionalized Buddhism can absorb the attendants of Chinese temples into the statistical category of Buddhism to maintain the uniform image of “Thai Buddhism.” On the other hand, Chinese temples can enjoy freedom from state intervention without challenging the official claim of the purity of state Buddhism. Also, since they are not recognized as representing religion, they are not forced to select any one institutionalized religion through which to “purify” their pantheons. This contributes to the persistence of indiscriminative syncretism in the grassroots practices of Thai Buddhism.

This brief case study of Chinese temples implies that many facilities for religious activities still remain outside “religion” and “religious places.” Comparative studies on the worship facilities of self-claimed Buddhists in Thailand, such as the Chinese, the highlanders, and other ethnic minorities, as well as the Thai-speaking peoples, will disclose similar discrepancies between official categorization and actual religious practice. My hypothesis is that the vitality and energy of the religious landscape of Thailand originated from this very discrepancy, although a brief overview such as presented in this paper is only a first step toward proving it.


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1) Tambiah (1970) is representative of the pioneer works on this subject. In general, anthropologists working on Buddhism in Thailand tend more or less to stress the diversity of religious practices outside the Sangha.

2) “Thais believe themselves to be born Buddhists, that the words Thai and Buddhist are synonymous”(Ishii 1986, 39). For another example, see Keyes (1989).

3) Surprisingly enough, more attention has been paid to the role of the Chinese in Theravada Buddhism in Malaysia than in Thailand. It has been pointed out that in Kelantan, the Chinese and Thai maintain a symbiotic relationship in support of the Theravada Buddhist tradition there (Kershaw 1981; Mohamed Yusoff Ismail 1993). In Thailand, Boonsanong (1971) and Tobias (1977), for example, argued the Chinese acceptance of Thai Buddhism. However, the place of Chinese temples within “Thai Buddhism” as a system has not received sufficient attention from scholars in Thai studies.

4) Tambiah (1976, 370–379) analyzes the role of the Department of Religious Affairs in the Sangha administration, although he hardly mentions the Department’s control of non-Buddhist religions.

5) One such temple is a samnaksong, which has lesser status than an official monastery (wat).

6) For a more nuanced understanding, I have to point out that the religious nature of Chinese temples has not always been neglected by the authorities. Article 12 of the ministry’s order on sanchao states that managers of each sanchao shall include faith (khaorop napthu) in its teaching (latthi). As this statement shows, the government knows full well that the activities of Chinese temples are carried out according to religious belief. However, my point is that, even though the religious nature of Chinese temples is recognized by the government, they have no place in officially defined religion and are supervised in “secular channels” only.

7) For details of the modern history of Phuket and the role of the Chinese, see Phuwadon (1988) and Cushman (1989, 1991).

8) Wee (1976, 173) states categorically that such extension is not applied to Islam and Protestant Christianity, since these religions do not have images. Nevertheless, the very existence of the Datuk Kong worship in Malaysia, which corresponds to the worship of to in Phuket, proves that some kinds of Islamic beliefs can be re-interpreted by and incorporated into Chinese Religion. For details of Datuk Kong worship see Cheu (1992).

9) Currently, daoshi, the Taoist specialist is absent in Phuket (Cohen 2001, 186).

10) This ritual is also called the Hungry Ghost Festival (DeBernardi 1984).

11) The absence of resident monks in temples was not exceptional in traditional China. See Yang (1991, 309–310).

12) Automatic writing is a way of divination popular among the Chinese in Southeast Asia. See Heinze (1983) for details.

13) See “Introduction” to this special issue.

14) Actually some Hindu temples and shrines in Bangkok (for example, the so-called “Wat Khaek” at Silom) are full of Chinese worshippers who would claim to be Buddhists.


Vol. 1, No. 3, Kazuto IKEDA

Contents>> Vol. 1, No. 3

Two Versions of Buddhist Karen History of the Late British Colonial Period in Burma:
Kayin Chronicle (1929) and Kuyin Great Chronicle (1931)

Kazuto Ikeda*

* 池田一人, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, 3-11-1 Asahi-cho, Fuchu-shi, Tokyo 183-8534, Japan

e-mail: residue[at]

The majority of the Karen people in Burma are in fact Buddhist, in spite of their widespread image as Christian, pro-British, anti-Burman, and separatist. In the last decade of British rule, two Buddhist interpretations of Karen history—virtually the first ethnic self-assertion by the Buddhist Karens—were published along with the first Christian version. Writing in Burmese for Burmese readers, the authors of these Buddhist versions sought to prove that the Karen were a legitimate people (lumyo) comparable to the Burman and Mon in the Buddhist world, with dynastic lineages of their own kingship (min) reaching back into the remote past, and a group faithful to their religious order (thathana). This linkage of ethnicity=kingship=religion was presented in order to persuade skeptical readers who believed that the Karen, lacking the tradition of Buddhist min, were too primitive to constitute an authentic lumyo of the thathana world. Analysis of these texts will shed light on the social formation of Karen identity among the Buddhists from the 1920s to the 1930s. This will also lead us to consider the historical processes whereby the quasi-ethnic idioms and logic innate to the Burmese-speaking world were transformed in the face of modern and Western notions of race and nation, and consequently the mutation of Burma into an ethnically articulated society.

Keywords: Karen, Burma (Myanmar), chronicle, historiography, ethnicity, kingship, Buddhism

I Introduction

The Karen people in Burma have handed down several versions of their own ethnic history since the beginning of the twentieth century. After Burma became independent, these history books have been reprinted by different publishers, sometimes under false authors, and as abridged versions in small leaflets or mimeographs distributed at Karen New Year festivals and other occasions. They were also photocopied and widely circulated as underground editions both inside and outside Burma among the Karen people.

Attempts to trace these versions to their sources inevitably lead to one of the three following original editions, all of which were published in the last decade of the British colonial period: Kayin Chronicle (kayin yazawin) by U Pyinnya, published in 1929; Kuyin Great Chronicle (kùyin maha yazawin dojî) by U Saw in 1931; and A History of the Pgakanyaw (pgaMkaňô ali’M taLciFsoMtêsoM) by Saw Aung Hla in 1939. “Kayin (kayin)” and “Kuyin (kùyin)” mean Karen in the Burmese language, and “Pgakanyaw (pgaMkaňô)” refers to the Karen in the Sgaw Karen language. The first two works narrate the Buddhist history of the Karen and the third is a Christian version of Karen history.1)

The purpose of this paper is to examine the assertions and logic of the Buddhist versions of Karen history, in comparison with the Christian version, and the motives of these authors in composing the first Karen histories in the Burma of the 1920s.

As an ethnic minority, the Karen constituted the second largest population group after the Burman in the 1931 population census, and the third after the Shan in the 1983 census. The Karen are known for their large-scale conversion to Christianity by American Baptist missionaries in the nineteenth century. Along with the steady increase in the Christianized population and the development of religious networks, the Baptist Karen have also fostered a strong ethnic awareness. They formed the first ethnically oriented organization in Burma in 1881, probably in close association with the British colonial administrators. This organization preceded any of the other ethnic organizations in Burma by at least a quarter-century. Because of their intimate relationships with the Americans and the British, the Karen have been generally represented in Western writings as pro-colonialist during the British regime and anti-Burman after independence in 1948. The Karen National Union (KNU), a Christian-led Karen armed organization on the Burma-Thai border, has been singled out by observers outside Burma as a typical example of ethnic separatism.

Contrary to the widespread image of the Karen as Christian, anti-Burman, and separatist, it has been clear since the 1920s that the majority of the Karen was actually Buddhist. Yet, Buddhist Karen have received scant attention. Kayin Chronicle and Kuyin Great Chronicle are thus significant, as they constitute the first assertions by the Buddhist Karen as a unique ethnic group.

Map 1 Lower Burma

II Buddhism among the Karen

By the eighteenth century, a large part of the people later called Karen had already accepted Buddhism. Buddhism among the Karen came to the notice of the Baptist mission in the nineteenth century and the general impression of the Karen at that time was that they were in many ways already a Christianized people.

The Karen and Christianity
The rapid spread of Christianity among the Karen began with Ko Tha Byu, the first convert baptized in 1828, 15 years after Adoniram Judson arrived in Burma. In the beginning, the American missionaries intended to teach the Karen the Burmese language as a medium of proselytization, but the legend of the “the lost book”2) persuaded Jonathan Wade (1798–1872) to create the Sgaw Karen script in 1832, which was adapted from the Burmese script system. He also invented the Pwo Karen script soon after, though its orthography was delayed till as late as 1852.

Map 2 Southeastern Burma

The disputes over whether the Pwo3) language was linguistically related to the Sgaw, and whether these two languages should be categorized as a single language group were not settled until the 1840s (Womack 2005, 116). It was during this Tenasserim period from 1826 to 1852, when the British first colonized Burma, that the language was given its name “Karen” and in principle defined as centered in the vicinity of the Moulmein region and spoken by the people in the range of Lower Burma. The establishment of the two script systems by the missionaries generated the popular conception that Karen was a language or a people comprised of two major subgroups, Sgaw and Pwo.

Francis Mason (1799–1874) played a significant role in the formation of Karen ethnological knowledge. In 1833, only five years after missionary activity began among the Karen, he claimed to have discovered “a fragment of the descendants of the Hebrews” (Mason 1834, 382). In 1860, Mason published the second edition of his work on the natural history of British Burma, with one whole chapter dedicated to the Karen. It was, in fact, the first systematic attempt to describe the Karen as a race or nation, with a distinct language, history, and other elements (Mason 1860, 71–96).

Linguistic and ethnological understanding of the Karen was formed in the first half of the nineteenth century by the Baptists, and this provided a firm foundation upon which various aspects of knowledge and information were added and developed. The British colonialists, for example, came to have contact with the Karen as subjects of their rule only after the annexation of Lower Burma. In the earlier years, colonial officers such as McMahon (1876) and Smeaton (1887) were largely dependent on the knowledge produced by the American missionaries.

The British officers began to add some new knowledge to that formed by the American Baptists at the turn of the century, notably demographic data and an elaborately classified catalogue of the Karen language subgroups. This was one of the results of British colonization of the whole of Burma in 1886 and persistent attempts at an effective administration—of taxation in particular—over the people who came under their rule. After the linguistic survey of Burma in the 1910s, more “scientifically” categorized subgroups of the Karen, amounting to 16, with Sgaw and Pwo being the largest, appeared in the 1921 and 1931 censuses.

The 1921 census revealed for the first time with statistical precision that the majority (77.3 percent) of the Karen was actually Buddhist. The Buddhist population declined slightly to 76.74 percent in 1931. However, the ethnological details of this religious group have hardly been discussed as compared to the Christian (15.99 percent) and animist (7.23 percent) sections. Official and academic publications of the day, such as social surveys, gazetteers, and ethnographies, focused instead on the animist section of the Karen. This is presumably because the image of the animist Karen was more readily accepted as they were thought to be a more “original” and “purer” part of the tribe, a large portion of whom were mountain dwellers. Christian Karen were already prominent politically and socially in colonial Burma. On the other hand, the Buddhists, the apparent majority in number, remained largely and unnaturally ignored until the end of British rule.

Baptist Karen were one of the first peoples to represent themselves socially as a modern race or nation in colonial Burma. The formation of the Karen National Association (KNA) in 1881 predated the Young Men’s Buddhist Association (YMBA), the first ethnic Burman organization, by a quarter-century. In the early twentieth century, the Karen members of parliament and politicians from the Christian community supported the British rulers, which caused great antagonism among the Burman nationalists. Karen troops in the colonial army were largely composed of Christian soldiers and were often sent to suppress peasant uprisings from the end of the nineteenth century. As Burman newspapers such as Thuriya [The Sun] published articles critical of the Christian Karen in the 1920s and 1930s, the Karen as a whole became perceived and labeled as supporters of British rule and as enjoying preferential treatment under the British administration. This impression was deeply rooted in the minds of the Burman nationalists and common people.

By the end of British rule in the 1940s, a vast amount of knowledge on the Karen had been gathered, principally by the American missionaries and the British colonialists. The British left Burma in 1948 when it achieved independence, and the Americans in the 1960s when General Ne Win took power. Numerous American and British accounts on the Karen have since attained the status of historical records never to be updated, and have become a precious record of the history of the Karen. They constituted quality and abundant historical sources for the Karen people, and since they were written in English, were also easily accessible for Western scholars and observers. However, these records rarely dealt with the Buddhist section of the Karen, focusing instead on animists, from an ethnological perspective, and on Christians as subjects of administration and enlightenment. The Karen people themselves also lost contact with the outside world for some time, after Burma shut its doors to foreigners following Ne Win’s coup d’état. Political scientists and journalists in the West around this time started to publish theses and articles on nationalism, nation-building, and other popular topics of the time, using the Karen in Burma as examples. The Karen were inevitably represented as a Christian and pro-British element in the history of colonial and independent Burma, and in their taking up of arms for separation from the ruling Burman nation, made for a perfect prototype in these articles about ethno-nationalism and insurgency by the oppressed. These Christian, pro-British, insurgent, and separatist images of Karen remain dominant and need to be reexamined when studying the Buddhist Karen.

How, then, have the Buddhist Karen been referred to and how far can their tradition be traced back in Burmese history?

Karen History in Popular Ethnographies
After independence, many books on Karen Buddhism were published in the Burmese language, centering on the Paan area in southeastern Burma. Mahn Lin Myat Kyaw and Mahn Thin Naung are among the most famous eastern Pwo writers with works such as Records of Kayin Culture (Lin Myat Kyaw 1970), Collections of Kayin Custom and Culture (Lin Myat Kyaw 1980), The Eastern Pwo Kayin (Thin Naung 1978), The Beautiful Kayin State (Thin Naung 1981), and The Paan City (Thin Naung 1984). More recent publications include Saw Aung Chain’s A History of the Kayin Nation and Their State (2003). There is also a group of books on the history of pagodas. The histories of pagodas and monasteries on Zwekapin, the holy mountain of the Karen, are well described in The Pagoda History of Mt. Zwekapin (Loung Khin 1965) and A New History of Zwekapin Pagoda (Zagara 1966). Most of the references on Karen Buddhism were published after the 1960s and it is difficult to find literature from before that time.4)

Rare are the books dating from the early twentieth century that treat the history of the Karen. There are two—three if Christian versions are included—lineages of publication on Karen history (see Table 1). The first originates from U Pyinnya’s Kayin Chronicle published in 1929. The monk U Obatha published another Kayin Chronicle in 1961, claiming it as his own original work.5) In the same year, the monk U Pyinnya Thuta abridged the original Kayin Chronicle, and U Pyinnya’s original edition was reprinted in 1965. The second lineage of Karen history descends from U Saw’s Kuyin Great Chronicle of 1931. Based on this, Ashin Thuweizadara published an extracted version in 1963, and Mahn Tun Yin another in the 1960s. Both these seminal texts are written in Burmese for Burmese readers.6)

The third category of Karen history traces its origins from A History of the Pgakanyaw a Christian version of Karen history written by Saw Aung Hla in 1939. There may have been many editions of this work, including the one by Saw Paw shown in Table 1. Photocopied and typed reproductions of Saw Aung Hla’s work also circulated without legal authorization from the Burmese government both inside and outside Burma, especially in the Burma-Thai border area.

Table 1 Various Versions of Karen History Books

We may summarize that three versions of Karen history have been published in Burma and that all the first editions appeared between 1929 and 1939, virtually the last decade of British rule. Little scholarly reference or analysis has been made of these publications. Koenig merely mentioned the title of U Pyinnya’s work in a footnote (Koenig 1990, 267). Than Tun completely rejected U Saw’s history (Than Tun 2001, 76) and Renard thought little of Saw Aung Hla’s historical account (Renard 1980, 42). These Karen accounts may not be reliable if one seeks a Karen history based on “historical facts.” They are, however, significant because they were the first historical narratives and ethnic self-assertions made by the Karen themselves. Therefore one should question why all the first versions of these three lineages were published within such a short period of time, what historiographies they represented, and what conditions and motives made these publications possible. Before examining U Pyinnya’s and U Saw’s works, we need to look at the general state of affairs of Buddhism among the Karen in colonial times to situate the two books in the Buddhist context.

Two Kinds of Buddhism
Two theories exist regarding the origins of Buddhism among the Karen. One looks to the Buddhistic elements of the various cult movements that sprang up in the area stretching from the Yunsalin River valley to the Paan plain in southeastern Burma. The other turns to the Karen Buddhism based in the Paan area, which had a close relationship with the Buddhist orthodoxy centered in Ava and Mandalay, the royal capitals of the Burmese- speaking world, and their vicinities.

The earliest Baptist missionaries, such as Judson, Boardman, Wade, and Mason, encountered a number of religious movements during the course of their missionary work. Judson reported in his letter to the headquarters in America that the Karen in the Yunsalin valley had begged the missionaries for Christian preaching. They had a leader called “Areemady” with apparently Buddhistic features. In 1856, after the Second Anglo- Burmese War, the colonial army suppressed the “revolt” led by a minlaung, a pretender to the throne. These millenarian Buddhisitic aspects among the Karen were transformed and inherited by cults such as Leke (formed at Hnitkya village in Paan in 1860), Telakon (founded at almost the same time in Gyaing), Phu Paik San (1866), and others.7)

The other stream of Karen Buddhism can be grasped in its relationship with the orthodox Buddhism of the Burmese world. It is a common notion that the heart of Karen Buddhism is situated in the Paan area, and the origin of this ethnically defined Karen Buddhism is often ascribed to Phu Ta Maik, a legendary Pwo Karen monk of the eighteenth century said to have created the Pwo Karen monastic script.8) This script had spread by the second half of the nineteenth century, and the Yetagun monastery, which was established in 1850 on the summit of the Karen holy mountain of Zwekapin, became the center of its propagation. Hpoun Myint studied Pwo Karen parabaiks (folded palm leaf manuscripts) in the late 1960s and collected 75 parabaiks dating from 1851. Of these, 52 are categorized as translations of Buddhist scriptures and commentaries, and 25 as astrology, tales, and history; 36 were translated from the Mon language, 21 from Burmese, and 4 from Pali sources.

Although Phu Ta Maik legends are related in the language of (Pwo) Karen nationalism, actual Buddhist writings in the Pwo script barely convey Karen nationalistic aspirations. This could lead us to suppose that the Pwo Karen script was in fact created to connect Pwo Karen speakers of the day with the more universal sphere of Buddhism, the texts of which were written and expressed in the Burmese language.

U Pyinnya and U Saw’s Karen histories are situated in the context of the second stream of Karen Buddhism mentioned above. This is particularly true for U Pyinnya, who lived in the city of Thaton, one of the entrances to the Paan plain, and who made frequent visits there.

III Authors

The backgrounds of the two Buddhist Karen histories should first be examined. What was the relationship of the authors to Karen Buddhism? What kind of bibliographies and styles did they refer to in writing the history of their people?

U Pyinnya
Little is known about U Pyinnya except that he was a Buddhist, probably born in the 1860s,9) lived in Thaton and that he was relatively famous as a writer when he wrote Kayin Chronicle. He also published Thaton Chronicle Collected and Abridged (1926), based on Mon chronicles, and A History of Shwemawdaw Pagoda, a famous stupa in Thaton.10) U Pyinnya’s real name was U Myat Maung and he called himself Thaton U Myat Maung in a newspaper article (Thaton U Myat Maung 1929). It has always been common practice in Burma for minority people to adopt Burmese names and U Pyinnya seems to have belonged to one of the linguistic subgroups of the Karen—the Pwo, Sgaw, Pao, or others. “Pyinnya” means knowledge in Pali and is also quite a common name for a Buddhist monk. He was not, however, a monk when the book was published. The Pao people have a custom of keeping monkhood names even after they return to secular life. Therefore, U Pyinnya might have been a Pao.

The city of Thaton is located southeast of Yangon and was once a royal capital of the Mon kingdom. It is said that the region was the most prosperous Theravada land until the invasion by King Anawyatha of the Pagan dynasty in 1057. Mon Buddhism also occupies an important place in the history of Burmese Buddhism, one that precedes the Burman influence. Thaton is a city of Pao people, who can be found in the southern Shan States in the north, and in the Thaton area in the south. Most of the population (about 223,000 in the 1931 census) are Buddhist and have close relationships with the Mon, Pwo, and Sgaw Karen of the land. Based on linguistic similarity, the Pao have been grouped with the Sgaw and Pwo in social statistics. In the independence negotiation period, U Hla Pe, a famous Pao politician native to Thaton, was appointed vice-president of the newly born Karen National Union (KNU) in 1947 and he claimed that the Pao are one of the Karen groups.

U Pyinnya’s principal source was a legendary “document of Kayin Yazawin written in the Pao language.”11) In 1908, when U Pyinnya visited a childhood friend of Shan origin, who was then a priest in the village monastery at Myohaung, near Kawkareik, he came across the document in the form of a folded parabaik made of Maingkhaing paper.12) With the help of a Pao layman and others, including a friend who was proficient in Pali, Kayin, Shan, Mon, and Burmese, the document was translated into Burmese in three days. This episode shows that around the Thaton area in those days, the Pao were seen as a people so close to the Kayin that there was nothing strange about Kayin history being written in the Pao language. Other references for U Pyinnya’s book included Burmese written chronicles such as Hmannan Yazawin [Glass Palace Chronicle], Mon chronicles, and other scriptures translated from Mon.

As such, U Pyinnya’s Kayin Chronicle is set mainly in the Paan region. Paan is, in short, where the original “document of Kayin Yazawin in Pao” was discovered, where Phu Ta Maik invented the Pao script, where numerous Pwo Buddhist scriptures were produced, and the home of Karen Buddhism. More importantly, eastern Karen, who surely inspired U Pyinnya’s Karen history, interacted closely with other peoples like the Pao, Mon, Burman, Shan, and others, which provided U Pyinnya with abundant resources in writing his version of Kayin history.

U Saw
Biographical information on U Saw is similarly limited. On the cover of his book, it is stated that he was a Pali translator in the translation section of the Secretariat. However, his name is not in any of the volumes of the Civil List of Burma (Government of Burma 1930, etc.), so he might have been a non-gazetted officer. His dates of birth and death are unknown, but his middle-aged appearance in the photograph on the first page—if taken at the time of publication—gives us a hint that he may have been born between the late 1870s and early 1890s.

U Saw referred to the same major bibliographies as U Pyinnya, that is, the chronicles and pagoda histories in the Burman, Mon, and Shan scripts; scriptures; birth tales of Buddha; proverbs; and folklore. What is unusual is that U Saw also consulted a wide range of other sources such as “ancient manuscripts and scripts in India,” “Greek and Italian classics,”13) and contemporary publications of Indian history by Indian and Western authors. This shows that, as a native officer in the huge government organization of colonial Burma, he was exposed to a variety of data collected and brought to Burma by the British rulers. However, he seems not to have known about U Pyinnya’s publication in October 1929, writing in the preface that, “It is surprising that no [Karen] chronicles have ever been published” (U Saw 1931, 1).

In U Saw’s case, drawing on a multitude of sources for reconstructing Karen history imparted an unfocused and monotonous quality to his writing. This is especially striking when compared to U Pyinnya’s lively, diversified, and elaborate version of Karen history. This difference stems evidently from U Pyinnya’s use of the Pao-written Kayin chronicle. This begs the question why U Saw did not make use of this reference as well. This is because the Karen in the west, where U Saw came from, had fewer written resources containing historical memories than the eastern Karen. Even today, from the center of so-called Karen Buddhism in the Paan region, the western land is viewed as “a frontier where Karen Buddhist culture has rarely flourished” (Interview with Hsayadaw Pt, a Karen monk, in the Paan region in 2003).

If U Saw could not draw upon such unique sources as U Pyinnya, why did he not make use of the abundant materials of the Christian Karen, which were within easy reach of a civil servant like himself? He must have had access to the library of the Secretariat, the Government Book Depot on Judah Ezikiel Street, or the Bernard Free Library, which was reputed to have a Pali collection in its inventory. If he also had a good command of the English language, Lowis’ The Tribes of Burma (1919) and Scott and Hardiman’s Gazetteer of Upper Burma and the Shan States (1900), and piles of other gazetteers should have been accessible. In addition, there was also a large amount of Baptist materials dealing with the Karen. He could have sieved through the Christian touches and added Buddhist flavors to those materials, just as Saw Aung Hla did. Why did he, as well as U Pyinnya, neglect Christian sources and use only Buddhist writings?

Modes of Historiography
There are two major modes of historical narratives in early twentieth-century Burma. One is Thamaing (thàmâin), a type of account of Buddhist history that has actually become a general term meaning history. The other is Yazawin (yazawin), a mode of historical narrative with the king as its sovereign being. Both U Pyinnya and U Saw were familiar with these two types of historical narratives and made use of Buddhist scriptures, their commentaries, and various chronicles in Burmese and Mon. Moreover, the titles of their works contained the term “Yazawin.”

Yazawin” is a term originating from the Pali words “raja” (rāja, king) and “vamsa”(Vaṃsa, history), and is usually translated as “chronicle.” Among the chronicles written in Burmese, the oldest is Yazawin Gyaw, which appeared in 1502. Since then, more than 20 versions, including Toungoo Yazawin (sixteenth century), Maha Yazawin (1724), Maha Yazawin thi’ (1798), Hmannan Yazawin (1832), and Konbaung Set Maha Yazawin-doji (1905) have been compiled. Those chronicles are characterized by Buddhist ideas of time, space, and cosmology; frequent reference to commentaries of scriptures; and above all, descriptions of royal achievements of mins (mîn), or kings of the dynasty. The mins’ ancestors are always the Shakya tribe of Buddha and Maha Thamada, the first worldly king of human beings. “The kings were the only subject dealt with in the Yazawin and others simply play supporting roles” (Ohno 1987, 19–20). Mins are definitely the sovereign being in the authorized version of Yazawin Yazawin were therefore historical accounts recognizing the achievements of kings and dynasties and legitimizing their rules.

Both U Pyinnya and U Saw adopted the Yazawin style for their historical narratives of the Karen people. This leads us to question the meaning of history writing. When they published the two Karen Yazawin, kingship had already been extinguished with the conquest of the Kongbaung Dynasty by the British. Why did U Pyinnya and U Saw embrace the style of the royal narrative after the extinction of the dynasties? What did they intend to convey in composing a dynastical history of the Karen, who have ordinarily been considered a people without such a dynastic past? Moreover, why did they employ the Burmese language, not Karen, for their own history?

IV Histories

The texts by U Pyinnya and U Saw, as well as Saw Aung Hla, are full of stories never told to readers outside Burma; scholars have therefore not taken them seriously (for instance, Than Tun 2001, 76). It is generally considered that the history of the Karen people before the nineteenth century is fragmented because they lacked written sources of their own and the Burmese-speaking dynasty in upper Burma did not make much mention of the Karen. The “Kayin yazawin document in the Pao language” that forms the basis of U Pyinnya’s vivid and detailed text has never been found by local researchers, and events in Pgakanyaw dynasties were thought to have concerned the other ethnic peoples. It is therefore very easy to dismiss these texts as spurious.

However, U Pyinnya said he spent more than 20 years on his work and Saw Aung Hla at least 7 years. If you ask any old Karen informant about the history of his people, you will surely be offered one of these three texts. These Karen history books contain some sort of ethnic aspiration shared by the people who claim to be Karen, which the authors channeled in their books. Expressed, for example, is the ideal and idealized image of the Karen’s relationships with other peoples in the Burma region. Such images can be interpreted as the desires of the authors generated from negotiations in the society in which they lived. What is more, the authors were motivated enough to publicize their desires, and the first editions of the three books were all published between 1929 and 1939, which is, in a sense, a very short period of time. What were the social conditions that enabled and encouraged the authors to venture into the demanding labors of publication?

Let us begin with the authors’ desires, which are expressed in images of the Karen. I will attempt to outline the contents of the two Buddhist versions of Karen history, which were hitherto unknown to the world outside Burma. The authors’ desires are to be found in the details of their histories, which were described in close connection with Burman dynastic history. They are embarrassingly detailed, subtle, and almost meaningless to outsiders, but readers should by the end be able to discern the indispensable elements of ethnicity, religion, and kingship lying behind these versions of Karen history.

Kayin Chronicle (1929)
U Pyinnya’s Kayin Chronicle is composed of 3 parts and 77 sections.14) The first part deals with the creation of the world, the 101 lumyos (lumyôu) or people who lived there, an outline of Shan Kayin history, and the first royal lineage of the Mon Kayin (Zweya dynasty). The second part focuses on the second lineage of the Mon Kayin (Pa’awana dynasty), and the last part the history of Myanmar Kayin. U Pyinnya states that the Kayin people are divided into three subgroups, each prefixed with the name of other major peoples of Burma—the Shan, Mon, and Burman—and even claims that each Kayin originated from the people in question, and that in the beginning all the people of Burma had a single ancestry called the Byama (Brahman) lumyo 15)

Dovetailing with this explanation is U Pyinnya’s interesting etymology of the Kayin. He begins with the word “Kayin,” which is supposed to be a Burmese word indicating Karen, not with Pgakanyaw in Sgaw or Phlong in Pwo, and outlines three theories regarding its etymology. The most elaborate one is that it derived from Karannaka, an old name for Thuwannabumi, the ancient capital of the legendary Mon kingdom. Those who lived in the plain of Karannaka became Mon, and those who dwelt in the forest became Kayin.16)

Two lineages of the Mon Kayin dynasties, whose homeland is in the ancient Mon kingdom called Ramanya, are at the heart of U Pyinnya’s history. Thaton has existed since the beginning of the world and was called Karannaka until 50 years before the birth of Buddha. The Zweya dynasty has its origin in the guardian town established by Teithatheika, king of the Mon after he drove out the rival state of Yodaya17) in the east. A seven-month-long banquet was held at the military base set at the entrance of the only pass between the Mon kingdom and Yodaya. At the end of this feast, the king appointed a Kayin as general of the guard. This Kayin, named Einda, was well-known among the Lawa, Loe, Mon, and Kayin of the land, and was given five kinds of regalia, 100,000 soldiers, power of taxation, the fiefdom of Zweya Myo, and the title of Saw Banya Einda Thena Yaza. Zweya Myo became independent together with six of the subordinated myos,18) Myawaddy, Mekalaung, Kyaik, Taungbaw, Paung, and Doungmwe, after the death of King Teithatheika. Subsequently each of the six myos also obtained independence. Mekalaung and Doungmwe, the most easterly located, were later annexed by Yodaya. The author gives detailed descriptions of the origin and the rulers (myosa) of the other four myos and Zweya, including 2 rulers in Myawaddy, 9 in Paung, 11 in Kyaik and 28 in Zweya. At the end of Part I, there is a section titled “Lesson,” which briefly explains that the Zweya dynasty subsequently endured as part of the Myanmar dynasty and was incorporated into the British Empire through the 1825, 1852, and 1885 wars.

Table 2 Karen Subgroups by U Pyinnya

Source: Pyinnya (1929, 14–17)

The history of the Pa’awana dynasty of the Mon Kayin is told in Part II. Pa’awana is the name of a forest at the foot of Zwekapin, which has existed for a long time, predating even Buddha’s birth. In this forest there lived a hunter called Laswe, who presented game from the woods to the Mon king Teithatheika when he successfully defended the kingdom from the invasion of Yodaya. The king was so pleased that he offered the same rewards to Laswe as he did to Einda, and permitted him to clear the Pa’awana forest and found a myo, or capital city. U Pyinnya insists that the history of the Pa’awana Myo began 14 years prior to Buddha’s enlightenment and lasted until the reign of King Manuhari in the twelfth century. What is outstanding in the history of Pa’awana is the existence of Zwekapin, the Kayin holy mountain, and that the historical account of the pagoda on the top of Zwekapin includes Buddha’s visit during the reign of Laswe.

The Pa’wana Myo was also independent with five surrounding myos after the same Mon king passed away, and soon these myos—Kyaing, Takyaing, Hlaingbwe, Kazaing, and Takwebo—also gained independence. Lists of the rulers of each myo are attached. There were 13 in Takyaing, 13 in Kyaing, and 7 in Kazaing, but that of Hlaingbwe is missing because of “damage to the pages in the original Kayin Chronicles in the Pao language.”

Apart from these two lineages of the Mon Kayin, U Pyinnya also relates the history of the Shan Kayin and Myanmar Kayin based on the Hmannan Yazawin and other Burmese and Mon chronicles. Events related in the Myanmar Kayin section evidently correspond with Hanthawaddy history, including the famous story of Kwe Kayin, which U Pyinnya claims to have been Myanmar Kayin. When the Guardian General of the Hanthawaddy was assassinated, there emerged a minlaung among the Kwe Kayin. He was accepted by the people and succeeded the throne. He was called Hsinkyashin, or “Possessor of Tiger and Elephant.” The description of the Shan and Myanmar Kayin and that of the Mon Kayin occur at different times. Whereas the former two Kayin histories are as recent as the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries, the latter begins with the time of Buddha’s birth and its heyday is illustrated up to the fall of the Mon kingdom in the eleventh or twelfth century. This information is apparently drawn from the references U Pyinnya made use of.

Kuyin Great Chronicle (1931)
U Saw’s book contains 16 chapters with a short introduction and conclusion. The author presents his vision of history from the creation of the world, the rise and fall of the people in India, which is the homeland of all lumyos in Burma, to migration to Burmese soil. In contrast to U Pyinnya, U Saw’s historical construction does not follow a time line and is sometimes confusing. Moreover, he does not focus solely on Kuyin history but tends to dwell on pre-history before the migration to Burma.

Chapter 1 is entitled “On the foundation of the countries outside the Zabudeik Island (zanbudei’ cwûn)” and elaborates on the origin of the world and the beginning of the worldly nations, concentrating on Myanmar and Mon countries. Among these stories of the time before the departure to Burma (Saw 1931, Chapter 4-A), that of King Inkura is important. Inkura hailed from a kingdom on the Ganges River and is considered the ancestor of the Kuyin people. He arrived at the central plain of Myanmar and sailed down the Irrawaddy River to Dagon (dàgoun), where he established a myo called Athitinzana (àthìtinzànà). This myo later developed into the capital of the Ramanya country. This is usually considered to be an ancient name for the Mon kingdom, but U Saw insists that it was in fact a Kuyin name (ibid., 38–39).

In Chapter 5, U Saw argues that the Kuyin () name originated from King Inkura () , the first syllable () having been omitted. Thus it should be spelt as Kuyin with a tachaungngin () “u” sound, and not the usual Kayin ()f .19) Despite their noble origins, the Kuyin gradually came to be seen as a savage and uncivilized lumyo as they declined contact with peoples of bad habits and retired to the mountains (ibid., 46).

From Chapters 6–10, despite several references in the titles of some chapters, U Saw barely touches upon the Kuyin themselves, but provides ancient historical accounts of Shakya tribes and others.

In Chapter 11, U Saw turns his attention somewhat to the Kuyin. According to an explanation in a Mon chronicle, Mon living in the myos called the people living in the forests and mountains kari, which later transformed into Kuyin lumyo (ibid., 99). Later in the same chapter, U Saw locates the remote ancestor of Kuyin in the Shakya lineage, which in time developed into the three states of Dewadaha, Koliya, and Kapila. After the fall of these states, the people migrated to Burma and were divided into three peoples known as Pyu, Kan’yan, and Thet. And it is from the Kan’yan that the Kuyin descends. However, U Saw does not give a consistent explanation of how Kolia and Kan’yan relate to Inkura.

Again, from Chapters 12–15, in spite of mentioning the Kuyin in some of the titles, U Saw gives no further accounts but simply repeats similar descriptions. When the author finally reaches the history of the Kuyin in the last chapter, entitled “To show how Kuyin lumyos spread throughout the Myanmar country based on other prominent Hsayadaw’s opinions,” he reiterates the process of migration and promises to deliver the details in a second volume of the chronicle (ibid., 183), but this did not materialize. Listing the dynasties and kingdoms that flourished in Burmese history, U Saw emphasizes that “there is no denying that within any of these big countries, any of the states under the umbrella of the kings, any myos, any ywas [villages], Kuyin lumyos can be found as offspring of the Koliya king’s lineage. As Koliya-Shakya descendants, they have lived in the whole country, including islands, kain land [sandbank of rivers], and valleys” (ibid , 184). He concludes his book by claiming that the Kuyin is a lumyo faithful to Buddha’s teachings, and though they have been seen as a savage lumyo because they avoided contact with other lumyos, they are no less excellent Buddhists than others.

U Pyinnya and U Saw, in a sense, carved out what the Karen should be, rather than what they were, particularly in terms of their relationships with other Buddhist lumyos and their dynastic pasts.

The Kayin people in U Pyinnya’s Kayin Chronicle share the same ancestry as the Mon, Burman, and Shan, maintaining a firm belief in Buddhism and their own kingships since the very beginning. The three major subgroups of Karen—the Mon Kayin, Myanmar Kayin, and Shan Kayin—have their immediate origins in the people with whom their names have been associated, but the Mon are the most intimate with the Kayin as the word Kayin is etymologically ascribed to a Mon term, and historically they have close relations. Accounts of the Mon Kayin lineage are, consequently, the main concern of U Pyinnya.

U Saw’s Kuyin are, on the other hand, not necessarily familiar with the Mon, but do share a single origin with other peoples in Burma. The Koliya people of ancient India were their lineal ancestors, going back to the Shakya tribe of Buddha. Upon reaching Burmese soil, the Koliya split into the three legendary peoples of Phyu, Kan’yan, and Thet. The Kan’yan were Kuyin and their name was inherited from Inkura, an ancient Indian king. Most of the elements in U Saw’s Kuyin history derive from authoritative representations of India, the land of Buddha, and his version present the peoples in Burma as being ruled by faithful kings.

The Kayin and Kuyin as described by these two Buddhist authors are more distinctively characterized as compared to that of A History of the Pgakanyaw by Saw Aung Hla. This Christian author’s focus is the narration of the Pgakanyaw’s struggle against persistent Buddhist integration. He describes the Pgakanyaw as a lost tribe of Israelites and one of the earliest settlers of the uninhabited ancient Burma after having endured a long journey away from their biblical home. They possessed a unique language, script, culture, and kingship, and managed for many centuries to hold on to a monotheistic faith, which was to be later fulfilled as Christianity. They ran their own kingdoms, warded off severe oppression by the Mon and Burman, endured continuous pressures of forced conversion to Buddhism, and finally restored the glory of their people during the British colonial period.

These three Karen histories are similar in that they narrate the story of an ethnic and sovereign people called Kayin, Kuyin, or Pgakanyaw, maintaining unique kingships based on a religion that embodies the principles of their respective worlds. In short, they have the indispensable elements of people or ethnicity, kingship, and religion. Naturally, people, or lumyo, are central to their narration because these are texts on the history of the Karen people. But the term “Karen people” is relatively new in the historiography of Burma, so careful consideration is required in this regard.

Having laid out the motivations and assertions of the authors, the logical structure with which they attempted to persuade readers is to be examined next. In order to present a convincing case that the Kayin/Kuyin are a legitimate lumyo in Burma, the authors had to employ a reason and logic acceptable to Burmese-speaking Buddhist readers. Therefore we should turn our attention to how the Kayin/Kuyin are embedded in this world accorded to the understandings regarding people (lumyo), kingship, and religion.

V Logic

What we are interested in here is not the structure or appearance of the worlds in which the Kayin and Kuyin were situated, but the existing concepts of people (or ethnicity), kingship, and religion that sustained the Kayin or Kuyin within these worlds.

In U Pyinnya and U Saw’s histories, people (ethnicity) appeared as lumyo (lumyôu), meaning “human kind/seed,” king as min (mîn), and royal lineage as minzet (mînze’), minnwe (mînnwe), and nan-yo (nân yô). It is, however, very difficult to find words referring to religion or Buddhism in their books. This is clearly different from Saw Aung Hla’s Christian version of Karen history. Christianity is his preoccupation and is constantly evoked as kharit ata bhutabhaa (khari’L ataLbhuFtaLbhaa), whereas Buddhism is termed so kotama bhuda ata bhutabhaa (sô kôtama’Mbhu’Mda’M ataLbhuFtaLbhaa) or simply bhuda ata bhaa (taLbhuFtaLbhaa). Buddhism is described as a totally foreign religion to the Pgakanyaw people, forced on them by the Burman and the Mon. It is therefore elaborately and repeatedly examined and placed in the same category of tabhutabhaa (religion) as his own Christianity.

Thus far I have called somewhat carelessly U Pyinnya and U Saw’s representation of religion “Buddhism,” but in fact the word scarcely appears in either of the texts. Practically the only time the word appears is when the authors refer to Christianity. Not coincidentally these passages also contain the authors’ assertion of the Kayin/Kuyin as an indispensable lumyo with a past history of kingship. We could infer that it is this “otherness” of Christianity that brings out, by contrast, the norms and worldviews of the Kayin/Kuyin.

U Pyinnya’s Kayin
As shown above, the Kayin in U Pyinnya’s history are a lumyo that share a single ancestor with the Mon, Burman, and Shan, and who have been devoted believers of Buddha’s lessons since the beginning. U Pyinnya highlights in particular their relation with the Mon lumyo. Each lumyo has virtuous kings (min). U Pyinnya sought to prove that the Kayin were an authentic lumyo with a dynastic lineage of their own min, and faithful to their religious order. We need to take a closer look at this lumyo =min= religion scheme, examining in particular the paragraphs from section 72 at the end of Part II, entitled “Special Note,” which summarizes U Pyinnya’s ideas about the two lineages of Mon Kayin histories. Interestingly it is almost the only part that mentions Christianity.20)

He expounds his version of the history of lumyo. At the beginning, every lumyo had its own virtuous rulers and were self-governing, but influential lumyo with able rulers like the Burman gradually became dominant over other lumyo such as the Mon and Kayin. In the end, however, all these lumyos in Burma were conquered by “diligent, wise” and “greedy” Europeans. U Pyinnya continues:

Not a long time ago, there appeared “a Kayin script” invented by wise Christian (khari’yan badha) missionaries (thathana pyù dò). In this way, our unique literature and original knowledge were long lost, our learning tradition (athin acâ) also disappeared . . . so scriptures (sape pariya’), as well as old records such as chronicles (mînze’ yazawin), tales (pounpyin), Buddha’s birth stories (niba’), poems (gabya) and verses (linga) were gone. This has made people think that the Kayin people did not actually have their own scripts. Not knowing old books, knowledge, or chronicles . . . people have come to say that the Kayin didn’t have their own kings in the past. Although it was said that the Scriptures were lost together with the preaching of Buddha (thahtana-do), precious words of the scriptures . . . were written on golden leaves and kept in the hands of Alawaka.21) Similarly, inscriptions, old records, or other books of chronicles and biography regarding Kayin kings must have been kept somewhere. As a matter of fact, this Kayin Chronicle you are now reading was restored from an old document written in the Pao-Taungthu language . . . .

If there had been no “old documents of the Kayin chronicles” and no Kayin kings, it would be tantamount to saying that the people of Buddha (payâ lumyôu) are not Buddhist, that people of arhan (yàhanda lumyôu) are not arhan, or even that any people (lumyôu) are not human (lu). If one is trained enough to attain paramita to be a man of Buddha, or a man of arhan, then he is a man of Buddha or arhan. How on earth has the Kayin lumyo been able to survive without their own kings (mîn)? (Pyinnya 1929, 140–143)

In this way, in summing up the most important part of the Mon Kayin chronicles, U Pyinnya argues for the lost Kayin literature and claims the unquestionable existence of Kayin kings in the past. Most interestingly, it can be inferred that U Pyinnya intentionally avoided writing about Christianity. On the contrary, he calls his own religion thathana and never uses the word bouda batha(Buddhism).22) Secondly, the fundamental human unit in his world is the lumyo. It has, or should have, its own lineage of kingship as well as a unique written scripture (batha sa), literature (sape), and tradition of scholarship (athin aca). It is the lumyo, and not the min, that is the subject of his text.

These observations provoke further questions, which are similar to those raised by U Saw’s text. Let us then first proceed to examine U Saw’s history.

U Saw’s Kuyin
U Saw’s only reference to Christianity appears in Chapter 11: “To cite and show the assertion made by Hsayadaws of Mon Yazawin.” This is located after the “Note (hma’hce’)” section and is entitled “Special Note (ahtû hma’yan).” There are numbered “Notes (hma’hce’ or hma’yan)” in U Saw’s work making up for the shortage of descriptions or summarizing each section, but this is the only place where a “Special Note” appears, demonstrating U Saw’s emphasis.

Prior to this “Special Note” section, U Saw summarizes again that the Koliya lumyo of India split into three ancient lumyos after arriving in Burma. He then suddenly touches upon religion (badha) among the Kuyin:

Special Note: In Myanmar country, there are many Kuyin lumyos and two religious Kuyins— Buddhist Kuyin (bou’dà badha kùyin) and Christian Kuyin (khari’yan kùyin)—can be found among them. Now, let us put aside the Christian Kuyin for the time being23) and think about the past, present, and future of the Buddhist Kuyin, and we will see the truth as found in the saying “the flow of a river may become choked with sand, but the flow of a people (lumyôu luyôu) can never be dammed.” The Kuyin lumyos originate in the Shakya tribe of Buddha (thàcathakìya), and hold a legitimate lineage to the Koliya kingship. They are Buddhist people (bou’dà badha lumyôu) and the lineage of Buddhist kings (bou’dà badha mîn nwe) and now attain the name of Kan’yan. However, the blood of Shakya never extinguishes, but is inherited from generation to generation and the genealogy of our people (amyôu anwe) will never cease. (Saw 1931, 106)

U Saw next examines the mingando, an article (or a part of a ceremony) used in a ritual conducted for the deceased member of a royal family, which is quite identical with that “presently [at the time of U Saw’s publication]” used by Kuyin lumyo in ayoutkaubwe 24) a traditional ceremony in one of their festivals. He concludes this “Special Note” section by remarking that the Kuyin are surely from the legitimate “Koliya lineage (koliyà nân yô)” (ibid.).

Three aspects of the above-mentioned section should be pointed out. Firstly, while U Pyinnya describes his religion as thathana or taya and Christianity as badha, U Saw calls both his own religion and Christianity badha. However, it should be pointed out that the usage of bouda badha is found only in this citation, and could have been employed for the purpose of comparison with other religions. U Saw is, in general, as vague as U Pyinnya when referring to religion. Both writers knew the usage of badha as religion, but U Pyinnya is more cautious and never applies the word badha to his own religion. Secondly, the saying “the flow of a river may become choked with sand, but the flow of a people (lumyôu luyôu) can never be dammed” is also cited on the first page (ibid , i) and in the second paragraph to last in the final chapter (ibid., 184). It is a leitmotif of his Kuyin history, articulating his assertion that the Kuyin are an ancient people that have survived. In this respect, in a similar way to U Pyinnya’s writing, the subject of every sentence is the lumyo. Lastly, as the Kuyin are of the Shakya lineage, they are Buddhist people (bou’dà badha lumyôu) and of the Buddhist kings’ lineage (bou’dà badha mîn nwe). Symbolically, in this expression, people (lumyôu) and kingship (mîn nwe) are connected only through the concept of Buddhism (bou’dà badha).

Religion, Kingship, and Ethnicity
For both U Pyinnya and U Saw, the Kayin/Kuyin are the lumyo (ethnicity) that have a history of kingship (minzet) faithful to the Buddhist order (thathana). They therefore share a similar logic in the conceptual relationship between religion, kingship, and ethnicity in order for their assertion to be persuasive to Burmese readers.

Firstly, with regards to the relation between religion and ethnicity, U Pyinnya and U Saw basically ignore Christianity, but are at the same time hardly conscious of their own religion, which is discernable through such terms as thathana and taya appearing sporadically in the texts. Saw Aung Hla, on the other hand, has a totally different attitude towards his own religion and the enemy’s. What he fears most is the loss of Pgakanyaw as a nation. Without putting up a fight, the Pgakanyaw might have been deprived of their unique language, script, culture, and religion by Burman and Mon Buddhists. Thus Saw Aung Hla is keenly aware of the religious factor. In other words, U Pyinnya and U Saw’s Kayin/Kuyin live in a world that is absolutely and harmoniously ruled by a single prevailing principle called thathana, or Buddhism. The fundamental human unit in this world is lumyo, but this lumyo has a religious limit. Even though outsiders may consider the Christian Karen as Kayin lumyo, for these two authors the heathen Kayin are not counted in the world of thathana as a member lumyo.

A question should arise if we pay attention to this self-other relationship defined by ethnicity and religion. During the 1920s–30s in Burma, when their works were published, it was already well known, in the countryside as well as in the city, that there were many Christian believers among the Karen. Why, then, did the authors of Buddhist Karen histories intentionally disregard the Christian Karen and try to contain their ethnic world within Buddhism? Put it another way, why did the religious fellowship with the Burman and Mon have priority over ethnic brotherhood with the Christian Karen?

The second point concerns the relationship between kingship and ethnicity. U Pyinnya’s work is full of descriptions regarding the four royal lineages of the Kayin and their branches. Yet the heroes are not individual kings but the Kayin lumyo itself. U Pyinnya confidently proclaims, “How on earth has the Kayin lumyo been able to survive without its own kings?” and U Saw persistently repeats, “the flow of a river may become choked with sand, but the flow of a people (lumyôu luyôu) can never be dammed.” These are ethnic historical accounts in which the ethnic people themselves are the protagonists. The concept of kingship functions only to sustain the Kayin/Kuyin as a legitimate lumyo, which therefore guarantees them a place as a sovereign being in their worlds.

If this is so, further questions are raised with regard to their styles of narrative. Saw Aung Hla calls his book simply “a history book (li tacisoteso)” while U Pyinnya and U Saw added “chronicle” (yazawin) to their titles. As we have seen above, yazawin is a style of historical account that commemorates the achievements of kings in order to legitimize their rules. How, then, should we understand the gap between the declared yazawin style and the actual lumyo-centered contents? After the British colonization and complete destruction of the Burmese dynasty, why did the authors still choose to employ the yazawin style? And why did they write their Karen histories in Burmese?

The last point concerns the relation between kingship and religion. This is the linkage that both authors appear to be least concerned about. U Pyinnya argues the seven ranks of the kings, with Sekkya min, who embodies the rule of Dhamma (truth or law of the universe), as the supreme rank (Section 58). This is only mentioned, however, because he believes that the founders of both the Pa’awana and Zweya dynasties do not fit any of these seven categories, but should be categorized as shin-bayin, a higher type of king than any of those seven. Although U Saw writes about “boudha badha minnwe (the Buddhist kings’ lineage),” this expression makes sense only when the Kuyin are made the subject of the sentences. In the end, neither book talks much about the kingship-religion linkage.

So how is it possible for a yazawin history not to touch upon the connection between min and thathana? Ideally the min was supposed to be the guardian of the Sangha, in which thathana was the principal order of the world. In turn the Sangha granted the title of dhamma raja, King of the Dhamma, to the ruler. This is a well-known relationship in Theravada societies (Ishii 2003a [1975]; Okudaira 1994, 97), but U Pyinnya and U Saw’s books appear not to be concerned with this.

All the concepts and ideas examined so far have their basis in the actual history of the Burmese-speaking world. For example, thathana and badha indicate religion; min, minzet minnwe, and nan’yo indicate kingship; pon pyinnya, parami, and tanbara indicate virtues of kings; and lumyo is the unit of man, along with Kayin, Myanmar, Mon, Shan, and others.

VI Conclusion

We have examined the backgrounds of two Buddhist authors of Karen history books, their assertions, and their logic. What they tried to convey through their publications was that the Kayin/Kuyin were a fully qualified and legitimate lumyo in the Burmese Buddhist world. This was justified by their claim that the Kayin/Kuyin had devoted Buddhist kings from the outset, as did other lumyo such as the Burman and Mon. Burmese readers of Kayin/Kuyin history would be persuaded by this reasoning as it is structured using lumyo-min-thathana elements. This in turn raised other questions regarding the authors’ neglect of the Christian Karen, the gap between their style and content, and their indifference to the traditional relationship between kingship and religion.

The next task then is to place these two texts in the historical context of the Burmese-speaking world, particularly from the Kongbaung to the early colonial period (from the middle of the eighteenth century to the early twentieth century), and study how the fundamental concepts of lumyo, min, and thathana were nourished in the actual historical development. Then the microscopic social context, where the historical context and the texts meet, should be closely examined. It is in this context that the authors were actually motivated to write and publish their texts. This will provide us with a vivid and concrete picture of how the Buddhist Karen-speaking population felt that they were in fact Karen.

At the turn of twentieth century, a major change took place in the Burmese-speaking world, what can be described as an “ethnocization” of Burmese society, due largely to the extinction of Burmese (or Burman) kingship and a crisis of thathana. This transformation is observable in the alteration of idiom employed in the multiple waves of peasant uprisings from the end of the nineteenth century to the third decade of the twentieth century (Ito 1994; 2003; Ino 1998). At first, the peasant uprisings were aimed at the restoration of the rule of the min and its strong ties with thathana, but in the 1930s these uprisings transformed into movements for Burman lumyo by Burman lumyo with obvious “Myanmar” representations. As a result of this process, at the beginning of the twentieth century, lumyo became the basic unit of social composition and political organization, a fundamental measurement of thought and historical understanding, and an element deemed sovereign and indispensable in Burma. The age-old concepts of min and thathana saw their functions change when lumyo became more central and important to the people. Therefore, it was crucial for both U Pyinnya and U Saw to define the Kayin/Kuyin within the structure of this lumyo=thathana=min scheme. The next question is why they needed to emphasize Kayin/Kuyin sentiments at this particular point of time.

This was due to the social context of colonial Burma in the 1920s. In his final chapter, U Pyinnya brings up an incident involving a controversial movie and an angry exchange of letters in the Burmese newspaper of the day. A reader of the newspaper had written in to complain about a recent movie that treated the Kayin as a savage lumyo. This dispute lasted for half a year with 35 or so letters by Karen and Burman readers being published. Analysis of the letters shows us how the Karen were perceived as a lumyo in Burma at that time and how the Buddhist Karen, as a lumyo, began to react against Burman criticism.

A study of the contexts in which the Buddhist versions of Karen history were written allows us to grasp the earliest stage of Karen identity formation among the Buddhist section of the people. This will inevitably urge us to modify the widespread image of the Karen in general, direct our attention towards the historiographical background behind the focus on Christian Karen, and in long run, lead us to consider the process of ethnocization of Burmese society. Changes in the concepts of lumyo thathana, and min of the Burmese-speaking world cannot, of course, be observed through the Baptist missionary reports and the British administrative documents. Not only Karen, but also the earlier stage of Burman nationalism, should be reexamined in this light.

1) Burmese terms are transliterated according to the system in The Burma Research Group (The Burma Research Group 1987, 18) for the first appearance of each term, but will be mentioned in simplified form in italics without tonal symbols thereafter. For Sgaw Karen, the transliteration system by Yabu (Yabu 2011b, 526–531) will be used.

2) There are several versions of this legend, but its basic outline is as follows: When Ywa, the legendary god of the Karen, left them, he gave them a golden book, but it was lost. It is said that a “white brother” will come back with this book. In the early missionary work, missionaries were regarded as the “white brother” and the Bible or prayer books as “the lost book.”

3) Pwo has eastern and western dialects. The differences between these dialects are so great that speakers from different groups are unable to communicate with each other when they first meet.

4) Burmese- and Karen-language publications on the Karen, including Buddhism, are well represented in diploma theses such as Nilar Tin (1991) and Aung Thein (1999).

5) U Obatha acknowledges U Pyinnya as co-writer and his book has a totally different concluding remark, which corresponds exactly to two pages of U Pyinnya’s original work. Apparently, the original text U Obatha based his work on lacked the final sheet containing the last two pages and he therefore invented a different ending.

6) Slapatthutalinga by U Parama (1942) was the only peza (palm leaf manuscript) categorized in the history section by Hpone Myint (Hpone Myint 1975). It was published as a printed book in 1957 and reprinted in 2003, but it seems not to contain any historical accounts of the Karen.

7) Leke and Telakon have been active in the same region of activity as “Karen Buddhism.” The complexity of religious affairs in the Paan plain since the nineteenth century requires further study.

8) From a linguistic point of view, the Pwo Karen monastic script is strongly influenced by the Mon script, and is thought “to have been invented by the Mon monk who used to preach to eastern Pwo speakers, or by the eastern Pwo monk who studied the Mon language” (Yabu 2001a, 253). The Karen have other major scripts such as the Sgaw Karen mission script by J. Wade, the Pwo Karen mission script also by J. Wade, and the Sgaw Karen monastic script.

9) U Pyinnya states that in 1908 he went to Myohaung to visit a residing monk of Shan ethnicity, who was his childhood friend.

10) Bibliographical details are not known.

11) No bibliographical information is available as this document is thought to have been “lost” since U Pyinnya’s time.

12) The Maingkhaing brand of paper of the Shan State seems to have already been established by the 1920s. Paper was preferred to palm leaves in the Shan States in the nineteenth century (Iijima 2004, 119–120; 2007, 96).

13) References to these “Greek and Italian classics” cannot, however, be found in U Saw’s text.

14) There is some confusion in the numbering of the chapters and sections. U Pyinnya’s book has in fact 70 sections.

15) Though it has gone out of fashion, the Sgaw are still sometimes called Myanmar (Bama) Kayin, and the Pwo, Mon (Talaing) Kayin in colloquial Burmese. However, the Karenni or Kayah, who have intimate historical relations with the Shans, are never referred to as Shan Kayin.

16) Karan and Kayin: the “r” and “y” sounds are interchangeable in Burmese.

17) Yodaya means Thailand or the Thai people in modern Burmese. Yodaya is not considered to be ancient, as described here, in the general understanding of Thai history.

18) A myo was originally a fortified town or city, or simply a city or a town.

19) However, Kuyin () is thought to have been pronounced Kayin (). It would remind any Burmese speaker of the word “kùla” (), meaning Indian or foreigner. It is also pronounced kala despite its spelling with a “u” sound. This hints at why U Saw persisted in this spelling: he put much emphasis on representations of India, being the cradle of Buddhism and all the lumyos of Myanmar. This therefore serves as a device to link the Karen with an authoritative representation of India.

20) The other reference to Christianity occurs when U Pyinnya explains ywun, the olden name of the Thai people who lived in the eastern region of the Mon Kayin area, previously called gyun. He uses the English word “JESUS CHRIST” as an example: “It is transliterated as ye su’-khari’ in Burmese”; The “y” sound in ye su’ is interchangeable with the “j” (gy) sound in JESUS (Pyinnya 1929, 30).

21) Alawaka is rāksasa or a devil conquered by Buddha.

22) It is likely that before the eighteenth century, the term batha in Burmese did not carry the meaning of “religion.” Batha derives from the Pali word bhāsā, which means “speech, language” (Childers 1909, 83). All other words derived from this Pali word such as phaasăa in Thai, bahasa in Malay, and basha in Nepali are not associated with “religion.” Also, when appearing in chronicles, scriptures, royal orders, and announcements of an official character, the term usually does not signify Buddhism. When Buddhism is referred to from an internal perspective, the term used is always thathana, not batha. The association of “religion” with the term batha seems to have materialized at the end of eighteenth century or at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

23) U Saw never comes back to Christianity after putting it aside “for the time being.”

24) U Pyinnya also mentions this in his book (Pyinnya 1929, 92).