John Nisbet.

Burma under British rule--and before; (Volume 2) online

. (page 38 of 41)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

perous, now struggling under hard pressure, until it was
reduced to vassalage by King Anawratazaw of Pagan in
the eleventh century. By the thirteenth century it had
again acquired complete freedom and considerable influ-
ence, for the Shan power was made to be severely felt
eastwards to Kenghung, southwards as far as Moulmein,
westwards throughout Arakan and Manipur, and north-
wards to Assam. The Shan destroyed the capital of
Arakan, and established a dynasty in Assam, where
they were henceforth known as Ahom. When the Bur-
mese monarchy at Pagan was overthrown by a Chinese
army in 1284 a.d., the Shan power did not suffer, though
the almost simultaneous transfer of the capital to a new
Mong Maw, near the present town of Bhamo, may per-
haps have had some connexion with this Mongol incur-
sion. But, in any case, the downfall of the dynasty at
Pagan gave opportunity to the Shans who had already
acquired considerable power at the Burmese Court, for
they seized the government and established a Shan

The over-expansion of the Maw kingdom proved its
ruin. Soon after this attained its widest limits, the period
of decadence, decentralization, and dismemberment set
in, which proceeded throughout the fourteenth, fifteenth,
and sixteenth centuries. The Laos and the Siamese
dependencies shook off their allegiance and formed them-
selves into the independent kingdom of Siam. Wars
with Burma were frequent, and loss after loss was caused
by Mongol incursions made with the determination of

VOL. II. 417 EE


asserting the right of Chinese suzerainty. This constant
warfare weakened the central Maw power so much that
the various chiefs [Sawbzua) gained positions of semi-
independence. The Shan kingdom in Burma ended in
1604 with the death of San Hum Hpa, the last Maw
king. After that date the record of the Shan States in
Burma is merged in Burmese history, although the State
of Mogaung, comprising wild malarious tracts between
the Irrawaddy and the Chindwin, maintained a sort of
semi-independence till it was overrun and subjugated by
Alaung Paya's troops a century and a half later. Although
always restive under Burmese rule, and prone to revolt
against their suzerain, the Shan States never succeeded
in again freeing themselves from the Burmese yoke.
Any well organized attempt at this ought often to have
proved successful ; but they continued to be so habitually
engaged in internecine warfare that combination for this
purpose never took place. So when King Thibaw's
dominions passed under British rule all the Burmese
Shan States became incorporated in the British Empire.
They must have been pleased to find that the British
did not insist upon the annual presentation of gold flowers
{Shiuebanset) in open Durbar, as had been customary
under Burmese rule.

Thus the Shan no longer occupy the position they once
held, either as to extent of territory, population, or political
power. From many of their possessions in Northern
Burma they have been forced south-east and southwards
by the Kachin hill tribes who now people the hilly tracts
between Burma proper and China, and who command all
the trade routes into Yunnan. Many of the once great
States spread over the plateaux and valleys forming the
Shan country were reduced to insignificance under
constant internecine warfare and Burmese oppression and
rapacity ; but now, under British administration, they are
exhibiting a marvellous recuperative power giving
promise of a great and prosperous future.

The Shan are endowed with many of the natural
qualities which are bound to make for success when
allowed to develop under stable government affording
protection against oppression and robbery, and giving



encouragement to agriculture, trade, and commerce. They
have artistic instincts, and some of their silver work is
very fine. As there was no coined money in the States
even within the last twelve or thirteen years Shan
travellers used to bring down finely wrought and richly
chased silver bowls which they exchanged for. their
weight in rupees in order to make purchases in the
bazaars. They are a thrifty people, and they have keen
commercial instincts. Sprung from a race of mountaineers,
and themselves occupying lofty tracts, they share the
natural inheritance of qualities characteristic of the races
which have to struggle with nature for the necessaries of
life. The same natural causes which created differences
of this sort between those living north of the H umber
and the Mersey and those living in the more genial
southern portion of England, — between North Germans
and South Germans ; between Norwegians or Swedes
and Italians or Spaniards, — have been in operation to
make the Shan of the Burmese-Shan plateau an entirely
different man from the Burmese of the Irrawaddy valley
or the Siamese of the Menam valley. Consequently
they have greater independence of character, are better
agriculturists, are keener traders, and have a much better
knowledge of the value of money than either the
Burmese or the Siamese. But the political and social
strife and the constant internecine' warfare of the last two
centuries have made them prone to intense jealousy
and personal dislikes, and have rendered them apt to be
cruel and vindictive, defects which may probably soon
become obliterated under peaceful, good government.

The country forming the Shan States tributary to
Burma presents a remarkable variety of features. The
States lying to the west of the Salween river comprise
elevated plateaux, broad deep valleys, and grassy rolling
downs once covered with pine forests now nearly all
cleared av/ay except patches here and there on rocky
land or around monasteries, like the sacred Deodar
groves around Himalayan temples. The river courses
and their watersheds run from north to south, often in a
very direct line. As is general throughout Yunnan, so too
in some of the Shan States, the clearance of the primeval



pine forest for purposes of shifting temporary cultivation,
and more especially the permitting the fires thus lighted
to spread unchecked as great conflagrations, has destroyed
tree growth on many of the hills. Once killed and
prevented from bearing seed, the pines have no
reproductive power of throwing out shoots from the dead
stools. Fortunately, however, many of the hills are still
well wooded, and capable of water storage for the benefit
of agriculture besides satisfying other important economic
requirements. The plateaux range from about 3,000 to
5,000 feet in elevation, while the peaks of the hill ranges
rise to close upon 9,000 feet. In the valleys the rivers
are swift in current, now rushing through dark, narrow-
walled gorges cut through high rocky cliffs, and again
flowing through alluvial lands terraced for rice cultivation.
The houses forming the villages dotted about the valleys
and the hill sides are mostly hidden from view behind
clumps of dark foliaged trees or of bamboos planted in
and around the hamlets. There are few fairer landscapes
to be seen than present themselves to view in the Shan
country. The silvery gleam of the rivers, the fields and
lands now bright in summer verdure or yellow in winter
and early spring, the villages and hamlets scattered over
the valleys and the uplands, the background of lofty hills
with more or less of forest covering, all contribute the
essential requisites towards a picturesqueness of landscape
that can more than hold its own with the best scenery of
most countries.

To the east of the Salween the country becomes more
rugged. The direction of the mountain ranges and the
trend of the river valleys are less clear. The scene
presented to the eye is a labyrinth of forest-clad hills
intersected by narrow valleys, with only patches of level
land dotted here and there like oases in a rocky desert.
The largest of these is the plain of Kengtung, beyond
which again the hills stretch, towering range upon range,
in tangled confusion towards the Mekong. Further
eastwards, beyond the Mekong, the labyrinthine masses
of hills on nearer approach disclose here and there
between them flat fertile valleys and uplands carefully
terraced for cultivation. It is only when heavy fogs




hang over the valleys in the early morning that some
idea can be formed of the tracery of the river beds and
the ramification of their tributary streams.

None of the rivers in the Shan States, whether drain-
ing into the Irrawaddy, Salween, or Mekong, are
navigable for any considerable distance. The Shweli
river, the largest of the tributaries flowing into the
Irrawaddy, is blocked, even for traffic in small boats,
about eighty miles from its mouth at a village bearing
the suggestive name of Myitson, "the end of the river" ;
while the Myitnge, or "little river," draining Theinni and
the rich State of Thibaw is also blocked to traffic by
obstructions in its lower course.

Nor are any of the affluents of the Salween navigable
throughout their length, rapids being of common occur-
rence, and waterfalls not infrequent. The banks of
the main river itself do not hospitably invite to trade.
Transit is effected by boats at regular ferries, the more
important of which are far apart. Of these the most
northerly is the K union ferry in the north-east corner of
Theinni, which has recently become so well known in
connexion with railway extension for tapping the trade
of south-western China. A really more important one,
however, is the Takaw ferry at Kengkham on the main
road to Kengtung, our extreme eastern military outpost.
Between the various ferries the Salween, dark, swift,
and broken by many rapids, runs between precipitous
rocks and wooded hillsides, with here and there a sand-
bank, while in places narrow footpaths follow the banks
for short distances only. Its breadth, between the
actual banks, varies from about seventy yards in rocky
gorges to over a quarter of a mile in more open parts
where the width of water in the dry season averages
from 150 to 200 yards. In the flood season the water
level rises about fifty feet.

In its upper valley the Mekong river possesses much
the same characteristics as the Salween, but on a some-
what larger scale. Lofty, wooded hillsides slope steeply
down to the water's ed^re, and in the river-bed great
masses of rock crop up round which the waters break
into eddies and strong currents. Swift rapids alternate



with stretches of sandbanks hable to change both their
shape and their position ; and altogether the Mekong is
still less suitable than the Salween to form a highway
for internal communication, trade, and commerce, even
although it is navigable for country boats from Luang
Prabang to Tangaw. Its current is stronger than that
of the Salween, and at most of the ferries there is always
a danger of losing some of the pack-bullocks when
swimming them across. At the Kengkong ferry its
breadth between banks is about 700 yards, with a dry
season width of about a quarter of a mile ; while the
rainy season brings a rise of from forty to fifty feet in
the water level. At the Ban Law ferry the river bed is
narrower ; from bank to bank it is about a quarter of a
mile, with about 160 yards of water in the dry season.
Further north the hills and gorges become more tangled,
and offer much greater obstructions to trade and traffic.

The relicrion of the Shan is Buddhism. It was
evidently received from Burma, though the actual date
of its introduction is uncertain. It may, no doubt, have
found its way into the Shan communities at a much
earlier date, but most probably a decided advance in a
religious direction was made when King Anawratazaw,
the great religious reformer of Pagan, overthrew the
Mong Maw kingdom in the eleventh century. But,
during the next four centuries of greatest national glory,
Buddhism became inert and corrupt among the Shan,
and it was not till the second half of the sixteenth
century that King Bayin Naung introduced extensive
religious reforms into his northern conquests. Wherever
Burmese influence was strongest, Buddhism had greatest
hold on the Shan ; and this naturally explains the fact
that, even till now, the priests and monks throughout
the States lying to the east of the Salween perform their
religious duties with a laxity of practice much at variance
with the manner in which these are performed in the
western States.

Many of the Shan customs are curious. Among
some of the tribes in the Southern States it is the fashion
for girls to have brass bands welded round their throats.
The number of these rings is increased periodically in



order to produce a neck like that of a champagne bottle,
this being considered an enhancement of female beauty.
The Karen race, consisting of the three divisions,
Sgaw, Pwo, and Bghai or Ewe, is supposed to be the
descendants of Chinese tribes driven southwards by
pressure (probably of the Shan race) before they were
again made to retire to the hills by the expansion of
Mon power. Their own traditions describe their original
home as having been to the west of the sandy desert of
Gobi stretching between China and Thibet ; and this
lifeless "river of sand" was crossed on their migration
south-eastwards. The derivation of the name Karen is
unknown. Under Mon and Burmese oppression there
was a constant tendency to disintegration ; but now,
under British protection and administration, this has
been replaced by a steady process of assimilation among
the Sgaw or Burmese and the Pwo or Mon tribes
inhabiting Lower Burma. Already the Pwo Karen are
commencing to disappear as a distinct tribe. Many are
becoming merged in the Sgaw, and others are gradually
becoming Burmanized. Having no religion, except
spirit worship, but only ancient traditions strangely like
those of the Jews as recorded in the Old Testament, and
a legend that their lost sacred books would come to them
again from the west, the Sgaw and Pwo Karen have
become willing converts to Christianity, and are now in
part rapidly settling down to permanent cultivation on
the plains. They are much looked down upon by the
Burmese, and are always made to appear as figures of
fun in theatrical representations ; but now, with the
formation of national character under British rule and
Christian teaching, the Karen is in his turn commencing
to look down upon the Burman.

The tribal divisions of Sgaw, "male," and Pwo,
" female," are accounted for by a legendary quarrel
which led to the prohibition of social intercourse and
intermarriage ; while the Bghai, who probably never
penetrated further south than their present mountain
fastnesses, are said to have arrived at a much later date
than the other two branches of the Karen stock. Each
of these three main divisions has its own sub-tribes and



septs, and their langua_