Hgeocities.com/bayinnaung/modern.htmlgeocities.com/bayinnaung/modern.htmldelayedx)^J@J@OKtext/htmlz@b.HFri, 24 May 2002 09:48:45 GMT/Mozilla/4.5 (compatible; HTTrack 3.0x; Windows 98)en, *(^J@ Modern Burmese Literature

Modern Burmese Literature

About the Authors


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This list of authors and their works focuses on writings that have a social-critical aspect to them. A lot of this criticism is directed at colonialism and the influence of foreigners on Burma. This is not a new tradition in Burmese literature. The Burmese chronicle (U Kala's Maha Yazawinkyi) published in the early eighteenth century attributes the downfall of a king, King Tabinshweiti, to the influence of an itinerant Portuguese soldier who taught him to drink and carouse. A lot of the criticism in the authors below was directed at aspects of Burmese society that they wished to see changed. Probably the most popular author in Myanmar today is the French-influenced feminist Gyu (pronounced "Jew"). Note that I am restricting my attention here to established classics of the U Nu period (roughly 1948-1962).

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Journalgyaw Ma Ma Lei

This woman could very well be the greatest Burmese writer of the twentieth century, male or female. People outside of Burma have focussed a lot of attention on her work recently. Her novel Not Out of Hate which addresses the impact of the West on Burmese culture has been translated into both English and French. Her novel Blood which addresses blood relations forged between Japanese and Burmese during World War II is currently being made into a film in a joint Burmese-Japanese production. My favorites are her short story collection A Slow Stream of Thoughts and her Burmese Medicine Tales.

All the short stories in the short story collection A Slow Stream of Thoughts are interesting to read. In One Blade of Grass she depicts a situation where the rich wife of a military officer treats a child servant like a slave or actually more like a household appliance. There's a lot of hyperbole in the treatment of master-servant relations here, but the story does a good job at bringing out the features of oppression that one often finds in countries where income inequalities are extreme. In Far and Near one of my favorites, a young woman tries her hand at managing the family rice mill only to learn about every possible form that government corruption as applied to rice millers can take. There's so much realistic detail the story must be at least partially factual. By the end the government officials seem no better than the rats that gnaw through the rice sacks in search of their plunder. In Coffee a picture of utter destitution is drawn. Like the story A Little Blade of Grass this story also deals with master-servant relations, but the old woman who is the focus of this story doesn't live in the master's house and consume his food. She knows how to defer to the wealth and status of the wealthy neighbors that surround her and cater to their every need, but it does her little good in the end. A Pretty Face is a satirical story directed at those young women who abandon traditional Burmese dress for western fashions and make-up and those young men who are always working for their own advantage. Kheimari is about a young girl whose parents die and who is drawn gradually towards life as a Buddhist nun, but once she becomes one is forced into a life as a professional beggar. A popular film was made based on this short story. This Heat is about the misery and grief of an old unmarried woman who works like a maid doing the work of a wife for her older unmarried father. In A Slow Stream of Thoughts a woman's husband and her son-in-law both take lesser wives. She writes of all the suffering that the old woman has to bear because of her daughter and grandchildren. Danger of Rebirth (or "Samsara Danger" or "Cycle of Rebirth Danger") is the story of how an office clerk becomes a monk after his second marriage fails. In Please don't emulate this, sir a newly married husband encounters gets trapped by all the comforts of married life. He wakes up late in the morning and eats the food that his wife prepares for him, while his wife wakes up at the crack of dawn, cooks, and goes off to work selling boiled beans and rice.

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Thein Pei Myint

Thein Pei Myint is also known as the "Modern Monk" Thein Pei Myint because this was the title of the controversial book that he first gained notoriety as an author with during the late colonial era. This book is still entirely banned in Burma and although I have two copies of it now, it took me a month to find the first copy. It's subject matter is certainly scandalous. It's the story of an itinerant monk preacher who engages in romantic liaisons with some of his followers and a nun. After the book was published he was forced to apologize to the Burmese Sangha (the ecclesiastical organization of monks in Burma). In a volume of auto-biographical reminiscences named The Modern Age, a Modern Person, a Modern Monk: Thein Pei he published in the mid-70's he pulls together a number of articles that appeared in magazines debating the merits of the book after its publication in the late 1930's. Thein Pei Myint claims that what he has written is based on breaches of monastic discipline that were actually occuring at the time. (similar to the sexual misconduct by some famous monks in Thailand recently) If indeed Thein Pei Myint is pointing his critical eye at the Burmese Sangha then this book is different from most of the books of the time which have an anti-colonial theme. I haven't read the book yet, but if and when I do I certainly will do some background research to find out whether Thein Pei Myint's claim that the book's aim is critique and not just titillation has any ground to it.

As an act of penance the next book he quickly published his next book Evil god of the Modern Age which took the venereal disease Syphilis as its subject. I've only skimmed it with the help of my Burmese friend Than Soe, but a lot of this book seems very reminiscent of what's happened during the AIDS epidemic in the gay community of San Francisco or currently among many people in Northern Thailand. The main character is not rich enough to marry his sweetheart so he falls into a life of prostitutes and drinking and contracts syphilis from one of them. Much of the book takes place in the hospital wards and depicts the suffering of the Syphilis patients there.

A selection of Thein Pei Myint's collected short stories was translated into English as part of a master's degree in Burmese literature in the mid-60's and then republished in the Cornell Southeast Asian Series.
My favorite is Her Husband or Her Money an old widower strives to win the affections his rich neighbor, a widow. He dreams of the difference that all this money will make in his life. He eventually marries her, but the life he leads is a far cry from what he expected. The woman works him to the bone and when their lives are both put into danger when a robber breaks into the house, it becomes painfully apparent that she really doesn't love him, when she seems willing to sacrifice his life to save her money.

True to his reputation as a man who held nothing as sacred he also published two little scathing essays in which he questions the value of traditional Burmese literature, the literature which preceded colonialism and contact with the west, mostly poetry and plays in verse. The first essay Literary Rebels of Former Times argues that flattering the king was the driving force behind the literature written in the court of the Burmese king. He also lists a number of writers that in his opinion went against this dominant trend of flattery and false praise. The second essay U Ponnya, Eloquent Language with Shallow Meaning criticizes the so-called "Shakespeare" of Burma, the poet U Ponnya who was beheaded after making one too many ironical quip about those around him.

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Ludu U Hla

Ludu U Hla was a journalist and the writings of his that I find the most fascinating are the oral histories he collected from people from a diverse range of occupations including a boat master, a bamboo raftsman, the keeper of a logging elephant, a broker for Steele Brothers (a large trading company during the colonial period), and a journalist.

His collections of indigenous folklore from most of the ethnic minorities of Burma was a heroic undertaking despite the fact that he probably should have tried rendering them in their local languages (many of which are almost extinct) before rendering them in formal Burmese or at least that's the respect for the indigenous language that a modern day folklorist would be expected to have.

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Theippan Maung Wa

This author served as a civil servant in rural Burma during the colonial period. He wrote a lot of small sketches based on his observations of rural life many of which are critical of political and economic institutions, colonial and indigenous.
Paccantarac (or "The Backwaters" or "Limbo") is a glimpse at life in a small Burmese fishing village before World War II. It depicts the harsh circumstances in the village and the petty feuds that arise among it's inhabitants.
The Auction takes place during the colonial period. The story is a depiction and implicit critique of a fishery auction, a western economic institution not particularly well-suited to the Burmese as the story shows.
The Eve of an Election takes place before World War II during the colonial period. It describes the political factionalism that was arising among Burmese politicians even at this early date and which would only increase in post-independence Burma.

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Mawbi Hsaya Thein

A Crazy Man's Shoulder Bag is a collection of crazy little tidbits that has reached the status of a classic as can be ascertained by its having been included as required reading in the school curriculum not so many years ago. (this appears to have changed recently.) An Oral Chronicle purports to be an oral history or chronicle passed down from father to son about events in the court of King Badgyidaw who ruled Burma in the early 19th century. It's full of dialogues taking place in the royal court which makes it unique and interesting. Almost all books dealing with the Burmese king and his court are written in verse or a highly formal prose.

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U Nu (Former Prime Minister)

In Thaka Ala published just before the 1962 coup that would change the face of life in Burma for 36 years, U Nu paints an extremely ugly picture of corrupt politics both among the high ranking politicians in power at the time as well as among the communist leaders who were gaining ascendancy. This is a play in the vernacular, a genre that hardly exists in Burmese literature. This work certainly has pretentions to being a critique of the current state of politics in Burma at the time (around 1960) and in this critical stance it resembles Thein Pei Myint's Modern Monk. Like Modern Monk it deals with scandalous sexual liaisons not much in keeping with traditional modes of Burmese behavior. This time the scandalous sexual liaisons are among politicians both to the left and to the right. If and when I have access to Burmese newspapers and archival records from the time I would like to find out whether this book is political propaganda (it was published right before an election that U Nu won) or whether its criticism has some basis in fact.

In It's Just Cruel (or "Man, the Wolf of Man") U Nu describes how in a colonial context rich landlords were able to get away with just about any crime they wish to perpetrate.

The play The Sound of the People Victorious is about the havoc that communist ideologies can wreak in a family. U Nu was Prime Minister at the time he wrote it. Strangely enough the first production of the play seems to have been in Pasadena, California. It later became a popular comic book in Burma and feature film made at the height of the cold war 1950's and produced in the United States. Some people in Burma can even remember having had to study it in school when they were kids. One person I talked to in Yangon the capital of Burma even remembered a movie theater being burned down after a showing of it.

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The Ten Elements of Elegant Speech (author unknown)

This collection of ten rhetorical techniques for gaining the advantage in any sort of discussion along with the little tales that accompany them is short and interesting to read. The origin of this list of techniques is not clear, but at least the names of a few of them go back many hundreds of years. The earliest full list of them with accompanying tales I've seen is in a Burmese reader dated 1906. What I'd really like to know is whether the actual origin of the stories lies in the Burmese monastic tradition, Burmese folklore, Burmese law, or whether they were in some way inherited from the British. No one seems to really know for sure.
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Selected Writings:

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