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China Inside Out

Pál Nyíri
Joana Breidenbach

Chapter 8. Outside In: Sino-Burmese Encounters

Penny Edwards

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1My current project, Transnational Identities, National Ideologies and Buddhist Diplomacy in Sino-Myanmar Relations explores the ways in which two state actors—Myanmar (Burma) and China—have used Buddhism as a vehicle for cultural diplomacy in the last decade. My focus is on state-regulated traffic in, and rhetoric about, Buddhist relics, Buddhist delegations, and official visits to Buddhist sites. By examining the linkages between Buddhist diplomacy and China’s economic and strategic integration into Southeast Asia, I aim to emphasize how culture can be mobilized as a political commodity, and how cultural transactions can become intertwined, however precariously, tenuously, or unintentionally, with broader considerations of regional and national security.

2Because this is a new project, I am in no position here to present conclusions. Instead, this chapter simply aims to frame some underlying questions and underscore some research directions that are pertinent to our collective project to decenter Chinese studies.

3Like many other contributors to this project, I am interested in interrogating and subverting the notions of distinct and immutable “boundaries” around particular collectivities or countries. In this chapter, I examine boundaries from three main angles. First is spatial. I contest the notion of cartographic boundaries, and examine the disparity and disjuncture between the clean boundary lines represented on modern maps, which convey the impression of countries as both static and sealed, and the actual, material and human dynamics of life at, on, and across boundaries.

4A second focus is on the conceptual boundaries of a nation and its culture, and how, and by whom, such boundaries are articulated and contested. To date my main interests in this area have been with the construction of ethnic identities (as with the Chinese in Cambodia, or Anglo-Burmese in Burma); with gendered identities (as with the bifurcation of gender norms in dress and etiquette which developed in Cambodia under colonial rule); with religious and national identities as with the crystallization of a notion of a specifically Cambodian national culture and the idealization of a particular type of Buddhism as Cambodia’s “national religion,” processes which I examine in my forthcoming book Cambodge: The Cultivation of a Nation, 1860–1945. A common thread between these ostensibly different studies is the extent to which such emergent identifications intersect with the “national space” and how they figure in the construction and validation of the idea of a “nation” in ways which materialize what

5Benedict Anderson so brilliantly and influentially dubbed an “imagined community.” In other words, I am interested in how the adoption of a particular style of costume as “national dress,” or a dish as a national dish, to use two obvious examples, translate nationalist imaginings into the world as lived, worn, read, seen, and otherwise experienced by those who the modern nation claims as its subjects.

Anderson’s Imagined Communities see Ong pp. 5–6

6A third question running through this chapter relates to temporal boundaries, and to the interplay between the past and the present. Here I mean the way the past becomes segmented or packaged—in academic works, national historiographies, and a host of other media—into discrete time-capsules, through such labels as precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial; or “before” and “after” Mao. Such distinctions are useful, just as lines on a map are useful indications of where a country may begin and where it may end. But the danger is that they obliterate the spillover and linkages, those messy interfaces, which thread such periods together.

7Although my research on Sino-Myanmar relations has a contemporary focus, my approach is not simply to explore the past 15 years but to contextualize recent developments in a historical framework that allows us to distinguish between what is “new” here and what is “old.” Such distinctions are important when examining contemporary political rhetoric and agendas, which often promote the idea that particular visions of nation, styles of government, or international relations are a simple continuum with the past.

8Looking to history also allows us to explore both common genealogies linking southwestern China and Burma through intermarriage, cultural, and ethnic ties, and to highlight ways in which commercial and religious flows prefigured contemporary “transnational” movements. Unless we acknowledge such phenomena, we cannot fully understand or gauge the extent to which notions of a distinct, bounded “China” and “Burma” as cultural entities, national bodies, and geopolitical spaces have been artificially cultivated.

Edwards on her intellectual trajectory
The text I've written for this book is in part about circuits and in some ways my academic life has the same fish-in-a-goldfish-bowl feel, swimming in circles. I started out studying Chinese language and literature (School of Oriental and African Studies, London University, 1985). After several years working in China and London, I did a Masters in International Relations (MPhil Oxford, 1992) specializing in China and Southeast Asia, and wrote a thesis on Khmer Rouge relations with China. Further (happy) accidents of history led me to do a PhD in History (Monash University, Australia, 1999), which looked at Cambodian nationalism. After my PhD, I was lucky enough to get a postdoctoral fellowship at the Centre for Cross Cultural Research in Australia, where I broadened my geographic compass further through a combination of core research projects and conferences exploring comparisons between Burmese and Cambodian cultural nationalisms, Aboriginal-Asian encounters and ethnic minorities in Chinese Diaspora. The latter two conference-projects were coordinated with the Centre for the Study of Chinese Southern Diaspora.
I'm never sure what to say when people ask me ”what is your training?” The text I've written for this book is a very historical one. But quite often when I present on aspects of my work, people take me for an anthropologist. I suppose most of my professional experience has been anthropological in orientation, involving large amounts of fieldwork, analysis and report writing—whether as an Information Officer for the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (1992–93), as Head of the Chinese Research Unit for a UNDP-funded Interdisciplinary Research Project on Ethnic Groups in Cambodia (1995) or as an international banker working for several years in/between London, China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Eastern Europe (1997–99).
Finally, my list of specializations would not be complete without mention of my superb mastery of the art of unfinishing. My great unfinished project has been my book on nationalism in Cambodia, which is based on my PhD thesis, and for which I was awarded a book contract four years ago. Happily, the book is now very, very nearly finished and will be in press next year with Hawai'i University Press.

History in fragments

9This chapter is deliberately disjointed, moving between cameos of border-crossing figures from the nineteenth century to analyses of such national symbols as the Great Wall, public works schemes such as the Burma Road, and contemporary rhetoric about Sino-Burmese relations.

10I take this approach because I believe that a seamless, linear, chronological telling of history is as dissembling as the attempt to present a country as a flat, fold-out map. Just as we can dispute cartographic boundaries as visual rhetoric, and look instead to spaces of overlap, circuits, and a plurality of routes—sometimes converging, sometimes diverging—we can also approach history, that of China, of its relations to neighboring polities, as a series of fragments, a plurality of voices. This is a departure from the traditional voyeuristic approach to history, where the historian plays the all-seeing voyeur, looking back at time unfolding.

11It’s more a form of peep-show history, which reveals the past in glimpses, from different, often awkward and restricted angles, so that what we become most aware of is that which is always hidden and resists the linear interrogations of western historio-graphic enquiry. This mode of telling history as stories sometimes parallel, not always sequential, often only tenuously linked, is more suited to the new technologies China Inside Out is framed by. As I am at the threshold of this project, and have yet to glean oral histories, what I offer here is simply a refashioning of “mainstream” sources: books, pamphlets, bulletins, and newspapers, mostly in French and English, but some in Chinese and Burmese.

Religious diplomacy: official religions

12The Buddhism that provides the framework for China’s regional religious diplomacy is Theravada Buddhism. Practiced by Yunnan’s extensive Dai population, Theravada Buddhism is also the most widespread form of Buddhism in Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos, in all of which states it has received official unction as the “national religion.”

13In some respects, the way in which a “national religion” emerges is not dissimilar from the way in which a “national dish” emerges. Particular ingredients are included, others excised. In the case of the adoption of Theravada Buddhism as national religions in the above states, indigenous and European intellectuals often worked in concert, directly or via the circulation of scholarship and ideas, to decide what was “authentic” about Buddhism as practiced in each country and what was “inauthentic.” Each country therefore saw the development and definition of a “national religion.”

14Prior to the establishment of colonial rule, however, there were no such distinct notions of a “Thai Buddhism” or a “Khmer national religion” and so forth. Instead, the region was laced with rest houses, tracks for pilgrimage to particular holy sites, for worship, or the pursuit of scriptural knowledge. Different schools of Buddhism coexisted, appeared, and grew through the sponsorship of monarchs and gifted, visionary monks.

15Colonialism saw a remapping of this region, which had severe implications for the development of “nationalisms.” Simply put, Burma became part of British India, and was encouraged to look away from China and Siam and towards India. Siam, which was never colonized, received attention and representations from all the European powers, but particularly from Britain, which was keen to create in Siam a zone of British influence that would act as a buffer against the intrusion of French interests into British Burma and India. These imperial splits were reinforced, particularly in French Indochina, by both government edicts curtailing movement of monks from Cambodia to Thailand, and by the activities of scholars and cultural institutions tailoring notions of a national religion. For example, “superstitions” were seen to be impure accretions that needed to be excised from national religion. Much of this process, like the definitions of the nation, involved a purification and “cleansing” of elements seen to be impure. Often, the “impurity” or “inauthenticity” of a belief, artwork, or scripture was seen to be a product of its “foreign” origin.

Whose periphery?

16By interrogating boundaries, we can unsettle many assumptions, but most importantly for this China Inside Out project, we need to subvert a longstanding assumption that is still ingrained in much academic and popular discourse, namely the core-periphery model.

17The core-periphery model became widely used in the 1970s-1990s as a framework to analyze relations of both colonial and postcolonial states to peoples and territories considered to be on their conceptual, ethnic, imperial, or strategic margins. The ready availability of signs and ciphers that point to circles—such as the term Zhongguo (Middle Kingdom) or the Theravada Buddhist concept of Mandala—have lent fuel to contemporary applications of core-periphery paradigms to China as well as the various countries of Southeast Asia. The notion of a center had particular salience in China, which styled itself the middle kingdom (zhong guo) (Knapp 1998: 110–128).

18Recent attempts to unlock Sinology from its often introverted gaze have subtly reinforced this model. The late political scientist Gerald Segal acknowledged the transnational links tying China’s western and southwestern provinces to outlying regions, but qualified their importance with the Sinocentric argument that “there are few attractions on the other side of the frontier...” (Segal 1997: 60–64, 68). In the same vein, Stevan Harrell brackets China’s ethnic minorities as “peripheral peoples” and accepts the model of a “civilizing project” and a “core-periphery” relationship transacted within a tightly bounded geographic space, as illustrated in the map chosen to accompany his volume, which renders China as a place unmoored in outer geographic space (Harrell 1997).

19In the distant past, however, and increasingly in the present, the peoples of southern China relate to other “cores” than Beijing. Indeed, Beijing—both as a city and as the central power structures of the Chinese government and Communist Party, which it has come to symbolize in the popular imagination—is increasingly peripheral to the identifications of Yunnan’s long-term ethnic minority residents.

History on the move: a tale of two pilgrims

20In this part we will meet two people who moved to and through China and Burma in the nineteenth century. It’s tempting to read them as border figures, as interlocutors between and across cultures, or figures defined by hyphens: a Muslim-Chinese, or a Sino-Burmese. But I'd like to avoid typecasting them in this way. The following cameos are fashioned from French and British accounts of Ma Dexing, born near Dali in Yunnan in 1798, and from the writings of Taw Sein Ko, who was born in Mandalay in Upper Burma in 1863. Taw Sein Ko was not guided by a sense of religious devotion, but he was in many ways a pilgrim to a new ideal: the secular nation-state, albeit in a colonial framework.

21In emphasizing their movement, I've been inspired by the work of Arjun Appadurai (1993) and James Clifford (Clifford 1997), and also motivated by the constant elision of the mobility of the ‘indigenous’ in the European travelogues from which much of my work on Cambodia, Burma, and Yunnan has been drawn. The colonial travel genre necessarily emphasized the movement of the writer who revealed Asia—or its component, colonized parts—to his armchair audience in Paris, London, and elsewhere. One effect of this approach, with its descriptions of the author’s passage by elephant, on horseback, by steamer, automobile or rail, is a constant inscription and reiteration of the “native” as a static, immobile feature. In his critique of European ethnographic approaches, Appadurai has marked a carryover of this trend into the western discipline of anthropology. In its focus on a particular location of fieldwork site, Appadurai remarks, European ethnographies have had the effect of “freezing” and “confining” and even “imprisoning” nonwhite people in particular locations. To Appadurai, this bounded approach can never represent the lives, in their totality, of those people who momentarily come under ethnological scrutiny: what results instead is a form of representational essentializing (Appadurai 1988: 39).

22In Chinese studies, this emphasis on place has indeed been of great importance. The recognition of Confucian norms which value filial piety and place an onus on sons to honor parental and ancestral graves so as to guard the lineage, and of the importance of locality-based guilds and associations as channels of social organization both inside and outside China, have encouraged this focus. Conversely, scholars of Chinese communities outside China, in Chinese diaspora, have in recent decades sought to emphasize the attachment of Chinese migrants to their adoptive countries and to explore the diverse means by which Chinese have fashioned new territorial ties.

23Building on Appadurai’s thesis, Clifford calls for an overhaul of ethnographic practice and the study of “other” worlds and peoples. Ethnography, Clifford argues, is one of a number of colonial forms of knowledge production which have localized what is actually a regional, national, or global nexus and relegated to the margins the external relations and displacements of a “culture.” Clifford argues against such a place-based approach which, in its specificity of focus and emphasis on locality, ensures that the messy edges of human lives and interactions get overlooked. Instead, Clifford argues for the need to consider “circuits” and to focus on the “cultural processes that complicate, cross, and cross up national boundaries and communities.” Clifford stresses the need to consider “circuits” as opposed to just a single place and encourages us to think in terms of “itineraries” rather than bounded sites (Clifford 1997: 22–23, 37). Those itineraries might encompass diasporas, borderlands, immigration, migrancy, tourism, pilgrimage, and exile. A central question that Clifford raises is: to what extent is one group’s core another’s periphery?

24This question probably never perplexed Ma Dexing, a Muslim cleric born near Dali in Yunnan at the close of the eighteenth century. Ma Dexing’s Muslim identity is disguised by the homogenizing, sinic nomenclature common to all Chinese historic record keeping, in which non-Han are inscribed into history with Chinese names, and which effectively erases plural ethnicities, incorporating them into a single naming register (Jenner 1992: 226). This chapter explores the history and significance of walls from China’s earliest dynasties to the 1990s, in managing various dynasties' control of the mobility of subjects as well as defense mechanisms against outside world. However, his surname Ma, meaning horse, does serve as a partial ethnic marker, as this was a common surname among Muslims in Yunnan on account of their common vocation as horsemen and muleteers. Europeans also opted for this dominant nomenclature: Ma Dexing’s story, and that of the ensuing years of bloodshed and immense Muslim casualties in Dali, are told by E. Rocher in La Province Chinoise du Yun-Nan Premiere Partie 1879 (Paris – Leroy, 1879).

25Born in the valley of Xiaguan ten li from Dali prefecture in 1893, Ma Dexing completed some seventeen years of Chinese schooling, as well as schooling in Arabic at a mosque, followed by four years of Arabic and Islamic studies in Shaanxi, before deciding to make the haj and leave for Mecca. With 45 taels of gold in hand, he joined a caravan of merchants who traded between China and Burma, and traveled from Dali to Bhamo. From here he boated down the Irrawaddy to Ava and Rangoon, where, he joined other Muslims on a ship bound for Mecca. After a seven year sojourn in Mecca, Constantinople, Alexandria, and Singapore, Ma Dexing returned to Lin’an, in Yunnan, where he established himself as an influential Muslim cleric, authored several books in Chinese, on astronomy and geography, and played a prominent part in protecting the interests of Muslims when war broke out between Muslim and Han Chinese miners during the 1860s.

Thinking in circles

26In a recent essay, historian Anthony Reid has used the notion of a high center to argue for a saucer model of Southeast Asian identity, maintaining that Singapore functioned as the “center” for Siam, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam by dint of its role as a major trade and transport hub.

27Cambodia, Siam, and Vietnam had in the 18th century, Reid argues, largely fallen back on China for trade, but the establishment of Singapore changed their trading operations and regional orientation, shifting their commercial center to Singapore. Despite colonial and nationalist attempts to close off Singapore to India and Vietnam, it has retained this role, and is still “surrounded and lies in the middle” of Southeast Asia. He backs up this idea of a “circle” model of thinking with comments from the then Comintern agent Tan Melaka, in 1946, of an “Aslia”: “Make a circle [from Singapore] with a radius of 1500 miles. Inside this circle lie Burma, Annam, Siam, the Philippines, the whole of the Republic of Indonesia, and Australia. This is what we call Aslia (Asia-Australia).” Other circular paradigms, albeit three-dimensional ones, were Japan’s notion of a Greater Co-Prosperity Sphere (Reid 1999: 14).

28More recently, in 1988, scholar Huang Zhilian predicted the emergence of a Southwest China Circle linking Sichuan and Yunnan to Southeast Asia (Huang 1995: 19). Four years earlier, in 1984, the provincial administrations of Chengdu, Chongqing, Guangxi, Guizhou, Sichuan, Tibet, and Yunnan established the “Southwestern Economic Cooperation Zone”(SECZ) to pool economic efforts and resources and to focus central government attention on their needs and ambitions (d'Hooghe 1994: 295).

29In 1992, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) mooted the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) as a framework for constructive engagement through infrastructural alignment. Despite its relative youth and its engineered birth, the GMS is by no means an artificial construct. Its constituent parts-the Chinese province of Yunnan, and the countries of Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand-share borders, common natural resources and a tightly interwoven history laced with cultural and ethnic ties. The region’s improving international relations in the wake of the Cold War thaw have fostered a keen desire on the part of international organizations and national governments to pave over old geopolitical fissures by harmonizing economic interests.

30A central element of this plan is the Mekong River. The 4,180 kilometer long Mekong flows from western Tibet through Yunnan, serves as the boundary between Laos and Myanmar, runs through Cambodia and southern Vietnam where it empties into the South China Sea. In addition to its powerful symbolic appeal and central place in regional cultures, the long neglected Mekong offers huge hydropower potential. In order to tap this resource while reducing the potential for regional conflict over water resource management, the ADB has identified seventy-six projects totaling US$15 billion. Predominantly in energy and transportation sectors, the projects are designed to promote export-led growth and enmesh all six countries in a web of economic and infrastructural interdependence. China’s vibrant economy and Thailand’s commercial sophistication are lynchpins of the ADB initiative. Yunnan’s population of 39 million and its rapidly developing industrial base make it potentially the strongest economic component of the region.

31In his 1985 article, Pan Qi stressed Burma’s potential as a channel for Chinese goods to the Indian Ocean and singled out the railheads in the northern Burmese towns of Myitkyina and Lashio as possible links in a future transport chain (Pan Qi, “Opening to the Southwest: An Expert Opinion,” Beijing Review, 2 September 1985). In 1990, the Governor of Yunnan led a provincial delegation to Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos, and signed 33 cooperation agreements to pave the way for Yunnan’s expansion of links with Southeast Asia. By 1992, Yunnan had prioritized transport networks as a key to accessing Southeast Asian markets. Basic roads and bridges in southern Yunnan province and northeast Thailand needed comprehensive rehabilitation, as did the poor roads and traffic conditions in neighboring Laos and Myanmar. That year, China staged an “Advance Towards Southeast Asia” conference at which provincial heads from Sichuan, Guangxi, and Yunnan discussed strategies to improve southwestern China’s integration with Southeast Asia. Later that year, delegates from Sichuan, Yunnan, and Guangxi visited Southeast Asia to discuss economic, trade, technical and cultural exchange. In 1993, hundreds of Thai business delegates attended the first Kunming Export Commodities Fair, an annual event in Yunnan’s Provincial Capital, established by State Council decree in 1992 to expand China’s market share in Southeast Asia. In 1993, official media emphasized the province’s role as a “key inland transport hub linking up Southeast Asian countries.” In 1997, the Yunnan provincial government announced its priority plan to transform the area into “an economic corridor linking China with Southeast and South Asian countries” (Zheng Ling, “Opportunities Abound in Yunnan,” Beijing Review, 10–16 February 1997, pp. 19–21). In June 1997, Yunnan invited 30 economists and business delegates from Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, and other Southeast Asian countries to discuss economic exchanges.

32While clothed in the latest technological advance and the relatively new fabric of nation-statehood, this is no new development. Traditionally, Yunnan served as a crossroads for routes leading from the Yangtse region to Burma, and from Tibet to Tonkin. Stifled by regional tensions from 1950 until its resumption in 1984, Yunnan’s border trade dates to the establishment of a trading artery in the second century BC. Indeed, China’s rise was facilitated by international exchange through this “southern silk road,” and maritime routes crisscrossing the South China Sea (Friedman 1994: 68). In the precolonial era, China enjoyed suzerainty relationships with the various Southeast Asian kingdoms, among them the fragmented polities which France and Britain reinvented into the Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Myanmar we know today. The intrusion of western powers in the region caused a hiatus in China’s traditional relations for over a century. Until 1954, France ruled Indochina (comprising the Protectorates of Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam). Myanmar was “British Burma.” Although Siam (renamed Thailand in 1932) escaped colonization, Anglo-Gallic rivalry reined Siam into the British sphere of influence, earning it the description of a “semicolonial” state in recent scholarship.

33From the 1950s to the 1980s, geopolitical fissures riddled the Mekong region. Cold War rivalries filled the vacuum left by colonial collapse as the US, China, and the Soviet Union fought to expand ideological command over Southeast Asia’s newly independent states. Direct military intervention and foreign patronage of resistance movements and governments kept the region divided until the early 1990s. The 1991 Paris Peace Accords that ended the Cambodian civil war brought a symbolic end to Cold War fault-lines in Southeast Asia. Since 1992, national governments and international and regional organizations such as the UN and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) have sought to underwrite the region’s future interdependence through infra-structural links designed to promote transnational ties.

34I use the term “transnational” to signal the fluidity with which objects, ideas, capital, and people now move across borders. This is of course no new development: the hermetically sealed state boundary and notions of exact geographical reach as contiguous with political power were largely introduced into the region by European powers. Yet technological advance and global change during the last decade have fundamentally altered the shape and symmetry of these ancient patterns of exchange.

35The 1990s signaled a radically new stage in China’s relations with Southeast Asia. The GMS provides a framework for this interaction and a model for regional cohesion underpinned by the natural magnetism of shared routes and resources. Funded by the ADB, private enterprise, national and provincial governments, the GMS road and rail network is tying China into the economies of Burma, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia while providing China with land access to the Indian Ocean for the first time. In many respects, it is providing a counterbalance to the role of Singapore described by Reid. It is also resurrecting a region which has never been seen as such, but which has a centuries-long history as a cultural and geographic zone, dominated by ethnic Thai/Dai collectivities and polities. The cleavages of colonial cartographies coupled with the nation-state building project in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Siam literally saw this region fall off the map. Part of it was segmented into British Burma, whose administrators pressured China to rethink the region and to drive a line through parts of it. The establishment of Laos, in 1897, via the mapping and ethnographic projects of Auguste Pavie, further split this zone. Despite these projects, trade and religious networks across these new boundaries persisted well into the 1940s. In recent years, these networks have resurfaced at a grass-roots level, facilitated by bilateral and multilateral infrastructure projects.

36If centers did figure in Ma Dexing’s world-view, they are likely to have oscillated between his spiritual center in Mecca, the center of his later life as a leading Muslim cleric in the town of Linan in Yunnan, and are unlikely to have included either the political center of China, Beijing, or the trading center of Southeast Asia, Singapore.

Knowledge of boundaries and the boundaries of knowledge

37Colonialism’s preoccupation with mapping geographic boundaries was deflected in anthropology in interesting ways. Paralleling the dominance of bounded sites, the notions of boundaries became powerful analytical categories apparently applied across cultures at least some of which would not have had an equivalent term corresponding to this universalizing discourse of “boundaries.” Chronologically, western anthropological interest in defining boundaries coincides in interesting ways with the geopolitical freezing and solidification of boundary lines in the Cold War. In the late 1960s and 1970s, for example, a number of scholars affirmed the importance of boundaries and thresholds for maintaining the coherence of social systems and physical transitions between social stages or different symbolic systems. In the 1980s, interest shifted to mechanisms by which artificial boundaries were cultivated to differentiate between ethnic groups. Initial scholarship in this area focused on the construction of ethnic identities and stereotypes of the colonized by European colonizers. Later interest turned to ways in which these boundaries had carried over into postcolonial regimes, as attempts were made to explain the racially framed violence and expulsion in, for example, Idi Amin’s Uganda. Increasingly, scholars came to focus on how boundaries were both culturally and politically constructed and manipulated, and the role of external and internal actors in this boundary work.

38Since the late 1980s, in parallel with the freeing up of political borders, greater mobility, transnational movements, many scholars across disciplines have called into question the usefulness of thinking in boundaries. In particular, the disciplines of history, human and cultural geography have begun to scrutinize the artificiality of cartographic boundaries. Thongchai Winichakul’s (1994) Siam Mapped was the first book-length publication in this genre to critically examine the bounding of nations into what he calls “geo-bodies” in the nineteenth century, via the translation of western concepts of boundaries into the consolidation of state boundaries demarcating Siam from outer terrain.

39In the past two decades, new forms in migration facilitated by political reform in China and transnational movements globally have opened up the boundaries of China, and the Chinese diaspora, to new scrutiny. An exciting new body of work, exemplified by Aihwa Ong, has shed light on the multiple itineraries and plural identifications of Chinese diaspora. This scholarship has emphasized plural identifications, but its focus on ethnic Chinese has seen the mapping of a particular “ethnoscape,” to use Appadurai’s (1993) terminology—a sort of global Sinoscape from which people identified as Chinese cannot easily escape. Much of this work has oscillated between cosmocrats—cosmopolitan elites whose habitus is the airport, international hotel, overseas boarding school and modern metropolis—and subalterns: refugees, the displaced and dispossessed whose temporary locale is between or on political borders, often in refugee camps or shanty towns.

40At the same time, some of this work has suffered from an ahistorical approach, in that it has presented a view of contemporary Chinese diaspora as unequivocally “new,” as much a product of the postmodern world as email, and as elusive and fleet-footed in its perceived resistance to laying down roots.

41In their work on the Hmong diaspora, Louisa Schein (this volume) and Nicholas Tapp (Tapp 2002) have complicated this picture, as has Jacqueline Armijo-Hussein in her work on the contemporary and historical trajectories of haj (journeys to Mecca) by Hui Muslims from Yunnan to the Middle East (Armijo-Hussein 2002).

Sites of exchange: trading religions

42In the late nineteenth century, long Chinese caravans of bullocks and mules were a familiar sight in the roads leading from the plains of Burma into the northern and southern Shan states. Similar caravans plied the roads from Yunnan via Dali to the Burmese frontier town of Bhamo. The muleteers and horsemen who carried goods and people from Dali to Burma were mostly Muslims. The trade to Mandalay was largely in the hands of Muslims and Chinese merchants. These trading routes also facilitated the flow in religious artifacts and pilgrimages, both Muslim—as we have seen in the case of Ma Dexing—and Buddhist.

43Commodities of religious import also traveled the route taken by Ma Dexing, notably gold leaf, used to gild Buddhist statues and to embellish the hti or uppermost structure of pagodas, as a means of acquiring merit. In Dali, in the 1880s, gold leaf was being prepared to send to Burma. In addition, many muleteers returning to Yunnan brought back with them Shan dhas or knives, gongs, and betel boxes in Burmese silverwork (Colquhoun 1883: 255). From 1899–1900, gold leaf—“largely used for the decoration of pagodas and religious shrines”—was one of Yunnan’s largest imports to Burma, alongside horns and raw silk; while the chief exports are raw cotton, silk and woolen gods, twist, yarn and cotton piece goods. The total inland transfrontier trade between Burma and Yunnan was about £250,000 a year (Nisbet 1901). Buddhist monks also journeyed across these borderlands, between Sichuan, Yunnan, and Burma, carrying with them figures and images. In the late 1900s, one British traveler encountered at Wan Nian Si, a monastery in Puxie, “a small alabaster image of Gautama Buddha recently brought from Burma by a Chinese Buddhist monk who had been on pilgrimage to the shrines of Mandalay and Rangoon. The same pilgrim presented a colored picture of [the Burmese pagoda] Shwe Dagon, which monks at the Wan Nian Si temple regarded as a precious work of art” (Johnston 1908: 86–87).

Horizons of movement

44The historical background which I am incorporating into my project on Sino-Myan-mar relations aims to emphasize the longevity of human travel, trade networks, and cultural crossings tying Burma and China and to situate such traffic not “across” boundary lines but within a sort of hinge-zone or transit zone. This zone was not seen to require strict monitoring or surveillance, but acted as a form of shared terrain and site of exchange through which China interacted with its neighbors.

45In his analysis of Southeast Asian polities, Benedict Anderson has used the notion of centrality, arguing that kingship organizes everything around a high center, but has also allowed for the fact that where “states were defined by centers, borders were porous and indistinct, and sovereignties faded imperceptibly into one another” (Anderson 1991: 19). These areas of merging, often vast tracts of mountainous or wooded terrain, are unlikely to have been seen as “corridors” or “transit zones” between distinct countries or cultures, in the time of Ma Dexing. European cartography had no space for such fuzzy, indeterminate areas, or “ambiguous mapping” as Prasenjit Duara calls it in his chapter.

46By contrast, as Duara notes and as Richard Smith (1998) has shown in his work on mapping in China, distinct boundaries were not a feature of Qing Dynasty maps, which showed no obvious borders separating China from, or clearly delineating the individual kingdoms and territories of, mainland Southeast Asia as Russia, India, and Central Asia (cf. Hevia 1995). In a few cases written inscriptions marked boundaries; but only the oceans and seas allowed certain countries to appear fully separated from the Central Kingdom. Textual attention is given to the tributary system from the Song onwards, and by the Qing, the preface to each large-scale map outlined the tributary process and how barbarian envoys come to China and offer themselves as vassals of Qing dynasty. “This process of symbolic submission,” Smith writes, “is always described as an arduous one, involving the crossing of such physical divides as mountains and oceans, and the scaling of a cultural divide involving several stages of translation.” One such document, the Huang Qing fanbu yaolue, from 1845—close to the year in which Ma Desheng made his haj—explains how barbarian tribes turned towards China: xiang hua. And yet, as we have seen from Ma Dexing’s brief cameo, there also existed groups who fitted within that ‘barbarian’ rubric, who were situated on Chinese territory, but who were looking away from China.

Lomanov on Sino-Russian treaties pre- and post-Westphalia see p. 44

47This terminology—of scaling mountains, sailing seas, translations, and turnings—implies not a flat, Mercatorian model of mapping space nor a European obsession for the exact measurements of geopolitical boundaries, but a deeply layered sense of space where in place of clear neat linear boundaries that need to be crossed there are obstacles, journeys, rewards (Smith 1998: 82, 89).

48Even those strongly tied with the “center” of the “Middle Kingdom,” as Han scholars, writers, and officials, are likely to have visualized its boundaries not as distinct linear borders, but more as horizons of influence and contact. This notion is reflected in such terms for “boundary” as fen-ye, a compound of a character meaning to divide or part, and another character, ye, meaning both “wild” and “open country” and in another common character for boundary, jie, can also denote scope, extent, and realms. Similarly, Khmer and Burmese terms for boundaries existed in the nineteenth century, but like the Siamese terms analyzed by Thongchai Winichakul, these signified “areas, districts or frontiers” (Thongchai 1994: 75) and none correlated with the British notion of a “boundary” as a line.

49Recently, several scholars have sought to come up with a cultural equivalent for the rugged terrain traversed by figures such as Ma Dexing and Taw Sein Ko. David Tomas posits the notion of transcultural spaces. These spatial zones between cultures, Tomas writes, are “by nature...difficult to perceive and analyze since they are fragmentary, transient, and thus rarely documented. They are the ephemera of cultural contact, events whose significance is rooted in the moment, and which have, as such, no 'historical efficacy'” (Tomas 1996: 15). Historian Greg Dening argues that boundaries and thresholds might have “no dimensions, no space of their own” but that special dimensions, spaces, and modes of symbolic articulation are invented. Dening uses the metaphor of “islands and beaches” to explain the dynamics of constantly shifting group and individual identities. These islands are “less physical than cultural” since they “are the islands men and women make by the reality they attribute to their categories, their roles, their institutions, and the beaches they put around them with definitions of ‘we’ and ‘they’” (Dening 1980:3, 157). Of course, the invention of boundaries and their markings on maps did not radically and immediately alter such movements. Cartography was not always translated into colonial border zones: indeed, the crisp precision of a map may be read as the projection of colonial fantasies of control which could never be realized, or certainly not immediately realized, on the ground. Maps also acted as a means of gift-wrapping the conquests of colonialism for external audiences, in London, Paris, and elsewhere. These paper trophies belied the continuous crossings and pilgrimages that continued under colonialism. In cases such as Burma’s border with China, rugged terrain made tight monitoring next to impossible; but such tight monitoring was also not seen as entirely desirable. To the European powers, such trade corridors and crossover points had strategic use as windows or back doors onto Chinese territory.

50In a recent paper examining the circuits of movement and strands of identification linking Buddhist monks from Yunnan to Buddhist monks in the Shan States of Burma and in Thailand in the 1990s and the present, historian Sarah Davis argues against the notion of a single center and for an appreciation of Theravada Buddhist relations to home, polities, and cosmologies as a system of overlapping webs. What is privileged here is a notion of a plurality of possible arenas of belonging and the sense that these were reconcilable (Davis 2001). This broad, expansive sense of belonging to multiple networks ran counter to European world-views in the nineteenth century. What European travelers, administrators and cartographers brought to Burma, China, and elsewhere was a restrictive and reductive view that tended to think in terms of bounded spaces.

51In nationalist movements, maps have served as a highly potent weapon in turning linguistic and religious groupings into new national entities, not least because they give an explicit visual dimension to the idea of a nation. As Michael Herzfeld writes, maps “furnish emergent ethnic solidarities with expressive force and direction” and with what he terms the “carefully guarded spaces of cultural intimacy from which they may later emerge in resplendently militant and public form” (Herzfeld 1997: 13).

52From the 1860s to 1890s, maps formed part of China’s self-strengthening movement, and study associations, books and journals devoted to geographic and cartographic issues burgeoned in China, as they were in England, France, and other European centers. Not until the late Qing did Chinese cartographers begin to produce their own colorful, modern looking maps (Smith 1998: 91). Japan’s victory in the Sino-Japanese war of 1894–5 struck the final death-blow to Chinese cartography. From now on, as Smith writes, “Chinese nationalism affected in fundamental ways the rendering of geographical space by cartographers in China” (Smith 1998: 74–75).

53One way in which we can explore the formation of boundaries between Burma and China is through the life of Taw Sein Ko, born in Mandalay in 1863 of a Burmese mother and a father descended from Xiamen. As a boy, Taw Sein Ko was sent south to the colonial capital of Rangoon for schooling. On graduation from Rangoon College he joined the British colonial civil service and was later sent by the British government to study in Cambridge and London, as well as Chinese language and literature in Peking before being appointed the colonial government’s Advisor on China and assisting with the Sino-Burmese Boundary commission in 1897.

Tracking Taw Sein Ko

54Taw Sein Ko, the pioneer of western archaeology in British Burma, enjoyed a meteoric ascent through the colonial civil service, and was also a prolific writer. He was born in 1864 in Mandalay (“The Career of Mr. Taw Sein Ko,” in Burmese Sketches, Vol. II, pp. 219–222; see also Burma Gazette, 6 December 1919). His ancestors were from Amoy (Xiamen, in southern China); he frequented Chinatown and its temples, and in later life called his Mandalay home “Peking Lodge.” But these affiliations did not preclude other identifications. Taw Sein Ko, fluent in spoken and written Burmese, conversant with the Jataka tales, a promoter of Pali education, and deeply familiar with the lore and legend of Burma, is likely to have had a Burmese mother, and some monastic education. This cultural orientation had a localized dimension in his deep attachment to, and admiration for, Mandalay.

55By the 1880s, some 13,000 Chinese from Singapore, Canton, and Fujian had settled in Burma, intermarrying with Burmese and becoming permanent citizens of the country. In this they formed no exception to “all the different races represented in Burma” which had, as one 1890s observer declared, “intermarried with the native Burmese forming mixed populations that became more mixed down generations” (Morrison 1972: 289).

56Such mixing was reflected in the built environment. Mosques and Chinese Temples formed part of the cultural landscape of nineteenth century Rangoon and Mandalay, as did Armenian and Christian cemeteries. In addition to its European dwellings and Colonial clubs, Rangoon possessed a Jewish quarter, a Chinese quarter, a sizeable Indian population, two “Chinese Clubs” and a “Hong Kong Club” (Bird 1897). Even those monuments which have emerged as specific registers of a “Burmese” national identity, notably Shwedagon Pagoda, were polyethnic sites of worship, with Indians, Shans, Muslims, Burmese, Chinese, and others thronging their steps and shrines. The new temples of modernity, colonial schools, were similarly mixed. In 1894, Rangoon College counted four Europeans and over 540 Asians and Eurasians, including Chinese, Karens, Kachins, Shans, Hindus, and Malays, “both pure” as one observer commented in the language of the time, “and blended with the Burmese race” (Morrison 1972: 289).

57Taw Sein Ko’s deep familiarity with Pali and Burmese language and literature indicate that he spent his formative years in Burmese temple schooling. But as a boy he was sent to Rangoon College in the colonial capital, which had been annexed during the Second Anglo-Burmese War in 1952. On graduation, in about 1884, Taw Sein Ko joined the British Indian civil service. Soon thereafter he was assigned to assist with the 1885–1886 “Expedition” to Upper Burma: expedition being a euphemism for Britain’s invasion of Upper Burma in the Third and final Anglo-Burmese War, in which the Burmese royal family was exiled to India, the monarchy abolished, and Upper Burma—including the northern frontier lands and posts of Myitkyina, the Shan states in which sizeable ethnic Thai population lived-annexed. In 1886, Taw Sein Ko was part of the British occupation of the Royal Palace, working with the civilian head of the British administration in Upper Burma, Thirkell White.

58That year, Taw Sein Ko wrote Maung Po: A Product of Western Civilization. Educated at a colonial school but discouraged from attending Calcutta University by his father, Maung Po is “A sharp lad. Boyish, full of spirit and . fun . more of an English boy, than a Burman boy born and bred in the enervating tropics.” He joins the Indian civil service as a clerk, and marries a Burmese woman who encourages him to pursue a life of secular intellectual engagement, through education and writings, so that he might “become the radiating center of an influence that [will] benefit, refine and elevate [his] fellow countrymen” and cultivate in them of “the Spirit of Patriotism” (“Maung Po: A Product of Western Civilization” [Excerpt] in Taw Sein Ko, Burmese Sketches: Volume 1 [Rangoon: British Burma Press, 1913], pp. 346–365).

59Taw Sein Ko’s own life was shaped by a similar sense of vocation, as reflected in his numerous articles and speeches, promoting educational reform and popularizing knowledge of Burmese culture and history. In an early essay on Moral Education (1884), he welcomed the expansion of state schools under British rule, but expressed grave reservations at the lack of Buddhist tuition and the decline of Burma’s traditional books of morals. From the 1880s to 1910s, he emerged as a key advocate of both a university for Burma and female education.

60In 1888, Taw Sein Ko was promoted to Government Translator. In 1891, he completed his first archaeological tour through Burma’s Mon country. His detailed findings, published in Bombay in 1893, advocated the preservation of the Mon language through the conservation of manuscripts and relics at Burma’s Bernard Free Library and Phayre Museum, as well as the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, and the British Museum. In 1892, Taw Sein Ko spent a year at the Inner Temple, London, and Christ’s College, Cambridge. On his return to Burma in 1893, he was appointed Assistant Secretary and Government Translator.

61In 1894, the Australian Sinologist George Morrison visited Burma and was introduced to a Government Translator of Taw Sein Ko’s description, fluent in Burmese, Pali, Hindustani, and Chinese, who gave him a tour of Rangoon’s Chinese quarter. So impressed was Morrison by this encounter that he penned lavish praise for Burma’s Sino-Burmese population. Emphasizing the willingness of Burmese women to intermarry, he alleged that “No one treats her so well as the Chinaman . who is of a cognate race to her own, is hardworking, frugal, and industrious, permits her to live in idleness, and delights her with presents, loving her children with that affection which the Chinaman has ever been known to bestow upon his offspring” (Morrison 1972: 289–91).

62In 1896, two years after the first Sino-British Boundary Treaty (1894), Taw Sein Ko was deputed to Peking to study language and literature. On his return to Burma in 1898, he was appointed Advisor on Chinese Affairs, in which capacity he played a significant role in the Sino-Burmese Boundary Commission, negotiating the second Sino-Burmese Boundary Treaty of 1897.

63These treaties, followed by another in 1941, effectively demarcated the contemporary boundary line between Burma and China. Through that boundary, Britain hoped to make Burma and India coterminous by claiming the whole of the basin of the Irrawaddy River. China was reluctant to agree on any boundary through this area.

Sino-Burmese boundaries: 1894 and 1897

64A focal point of these negotiations and of British settlement was the border town of Bhamo, a thriving entrepot for trade through which Chinese traders, most typically Yunnanese Muslim muleteers, plied their wares. Burmese rulers had expressed little interest in this area, which existed as a large no man’s land, inhospitable but useful terrain. The de facto boundary followed a major watershed between the Irrawaddy and Salween rivers systems. It was ribbed with steep ridges that became progressively lower, merging into the lower Yunnan plateau. These valleys provided opportunities for intensive farming, and migrations along north-south axes. Following these routes, distinct ethnic groups had intermingled in a complex pattern, making it easier for Chinese and British interests to clash, and “harder to disentangle the indigenous patterns of political authority and loyalties” (Prescott 1977: 50–53). This historic presence led to strong opposition from China to British desires to drive a dividing line between these upper reaches and China.

65“Much of this opposition,” noted one observer in 1892, “can be traced to Chinese influence; all along the frontier, from here down to Bhamo, the Chinese traders have acquired a preponderating influence, and they strongly object to any attempts to gain information about the country” (Walker 1892: 167–68). One group in particular that exercised British attention was the region’s large ethnic Tai population and its indigenous political formation into units, such as at Munglem and Kiangtong, which owed allegiance to both Burma and China. So strong were these entities that one leading British administrator advised their amalgamation into a ‘Sino-British’ condominium. This advice was never taken.

66More recently, Davis has documented the Tai preponderance of both ethnic presence and political power in such regions, where Tai chieftains often sat alongside, and eclipsed in real power, nominal Chinese magistrates, ruling over populations that counted at best a handful of Han Chinese. Tais, in Davies view, were neither “fully assimilated by either empire,” nor “receptive to proselytizing by other civilizing projects.” Those in Southern Yunnan maintained “a high degree of local autonomy, a strong sense of local religious and linguistic identity, and alliances with neighboring states” (Davis 2001).

67Following the 1894 boundary treaty, Bhamo was used as a garrison for Indian troops stationed there to keep an eye on the “Kachins” of Northeast Burma. In 1894, G. E. Morrison described Bhamo as a “wonderful mixture of types”: “Nowhere in the world,” he wrote, “is there a greater intermingling of races. Here live in cheerful proximity Britishers and Chinese, Shans and Kachins, Sikhs and Madrasis, Purgabis, Arabs, German Jews, and French Adventurers, American missionaries and Japanese ladies.” In 1897, the Sino-Burmese Boundary was revised to incorporate approximately 3300 square kilometers of territory west of the Salween River into British Burma, including the whole state of Kokang. However, the precise renderings of this territory in clean lines on new maps belied the actual arrangements on the ground.

68The treaty defined the frontier not only in physical terms (generally speaking as the watershed between the Salween and Mekong) but also in political terms, assigning the territories of certain local rulers to China or to Burma. Unfortunately, however, the two lines did not coincide. The territories of the chiefs would spill over the watershed;

69moreover they were fluctuating and ill-defined, and were further complicated by the fact that some areas might owe a form of allegiance, indicated by the periodic payment of tribute, to two or three rulers at once. (W. S. Toller, “The Burma-Yunnan Boundary Commission,” pts. 1, 2, Eastern World, May, June 1949.) In other words, local networks and polities, many of them predominantly Tai, resisted attempts to run boundaries between them and to slice up their allegiance, and retained a system of shifting or multiple political alliances.

70However, these constellations of power and ethnicity did not reflect a clean-cut tri-angulation of Tai/Dai/Shan, Han and ethnic Burmese, but were further complicated by the presence of Yunnanese and Burmese Muslim and Chinese traders. Writing in 1901, one writer hailed Bhamo as an “emporium of . Chinese muleteers coming down through Namkhan, our frontier town on the Shweli river .” (Nisbet 1901: 36). The Anglo-Chinese Agreement of 1897 (Article XII.) provided for the construction of railways in Yunnan, if trade justified, and for these being connected with Burmese lines. A 56-mile track was laid between Bhamo and Namkhan, the frontier town on the Shweli River.

71Bemoaning the alacrity with which “tribes” intermarried, one census-taker diagnosed Burma with a chronic case of “racial instability.” This phenomenon, one official warned, was most acute at Burma’s borders. To ease such fears and to help squeeze these fluid, plural ethnic identities into British census categories, Taw Sein Ko was tasked, in the 1910s, to write a history of the Burmese race. Unlike either India or British colonial society, with their rigid racial and social segmentation, Taw Sein Ko enthused, Burma had “no caste prejudice” and Burmese were extraordinarily tolerant and open to other races. The census-takers of 1901, 1911 and 1921 were less enthusiastic about such findings, and repeatedly expressed exasperation at the difficulty in naming and labeling.

72In May 1899, propelled in part by parallel concerns with the vanishing of “Burmese culture,” the establishment of an Archaeological Department of Burma was sanctioned. But it was not until December 1901, with Lord Curzon’s visit to Pagan and Mandalay, that the Department was really set in motion. Appointed Government Archaeologist, a post he held in conjunction with other posts until 1916, Taw Sein served as an intermediary for particularly European views of temple conservation. In his 1891 report on the Mon country, Taw Sein Ko had been quite happy to leave temples in the custody of their longtime religious caretakers from within the community. But by 1901, he is enforcing a government ban on using temple maintenance funds for gilding or pwe—both traditional merit-seeking activities. This was the beginning of a dual tendency in Taw Sein Ko’s writings, which would become more pronounced: the celebration of Burmese culture, as lived, and the parallel call for its conservation and museumization. By 1910, he is championing more active state intervention in religious conservation, indicating that the preservation of the “national culture” has become more important than the active practice of religion. Thus, in 1910, he denied permission for one “pious layman” to go about traditional merit-seeking activities by embellishing and regilding two shrines at Pagan. Increasingly, these visions led Taw Sein Ko to clash with figures of Buddhist authority commonly associated with Burma’s nascent nationalist movement.

73Given such stances, it would be easy to dismiss Taw Sein Ko as a “collaborator” or another popular category in Southeast Asian nationalist historiographies, that of the “Chinese comprador.” Such characterizations fit nicely with the villain-hero/colonizer-colonized binary. But I prefer to see him in a different light.

74With his Sino-Burmese parentage and upbringing, his British education, and later sojourns in London and Peking, Taw Sein Ko was both a racial and a cultural hybrid, and we glean a sense of European discomfort with this interloper between cultures, races, and status. Little space has been made for Taw Sein Ko in colonial historiography or its aftermath. In a rather cursory reference to Taw’s work with the archaeological survey, Gordon Hannington Luce dubbed him “a Chinaman.” A more recent publication has wrongly billed him as a Chinese civil servant from India.

75Despite his work in determining the Sino-Burmese Boundary, Taw Sein Ko was himself a breaker of boundaries as an interface between three cultures: Chinese, Burmese, and British who in many ways personified that indeterminate, fuzzy border zone which resisted colonial attempts at demarcation and division. But he was also a bridge between two eras, that of the indigenous, traditional literati, or the “old order,” and the new one which emerged in colonialism’s wake.

76The abolition of the monarchy meant that Burmese nationalists were denied the holy trinity of ‘nation-religion-king’ around which nationalists in Theravadan Cambodia and Thailand coined their new conceptions of nation. In Burma’s nationalist mantra, ah-myo-bhartha-thatenaa (race-language-religion), coined by the Young Men’s Buddhist Association in 1906, language took the place of “kingship.” Language and literature—their retrieval and revival, and placement on state and university school curriculum—became central pre-occupations of the young, western educated elite. Their efforts to identify and conserve a body of specifically Burmese cultural and national traditions owed much to individuals like Taw Sein Ko.

77Alongside other gifted Burmese intellectuals, and in the same spirit as his contemporaries in the late Qing discussed elsewhere in this project by Frank Dokötter and others, Taw Sein Ko acted as a bridgemaker between the cosmologies of kingship and those of the secular nation-state. More specifically, he made way for such figures as Pe Maung Tin and later veterans of Burmese epigraphy, archaeology, and history who helped to map the contours of the conceptual, cultural Burmese “nation” on which nationalists built their visions.

78Taw Sein Ko vanishes from archival view somewhere in the 1920s, which is where my version of his story ends, for now. By tracking it, I have tried to move away from a reading of history as a series of parallel strands moving back in cultural isolation as linear tracts of time, to be deciphered or filled in, and to focus instead on mapping those critical but often overlooked horizontal linkages, points of convergence and sites of interaction between and across cultures and spaces.

79In his recent book on Burmese culture, Li Mou asks why European scholarship has to date placed exaggerated emphasis on Indian cultural influences in Burma, while downplaying China’s deep and historic connections with the country. Part of the answer, Li argues, lies in British colonialism’s downplaying or distorting Sino-Burmese histories (Li Mou and Jiang Yongren, Miandian Wenhua Zonglun. Beijing: Beijing Daxue Chubanshe, 2002, p. 351). Indeed, Britain did seek to make the contours of Burmese and Indian history and culture coterminous in the same way that they remapped the Sino-Burmese boundary. By emphasizing Burma’s common heritage with India, they reiterated and naturalized its incorporation into British India. This formulation was only slightly complicated by the decision to grant Burma the status of a separate country in 1937, prior to which it was ruled as a province of India. But from this time on until Independence ten years later, Burma still sat within the “British Empire.”

Mapping new nationalisms

80To nationalists, whether intellectuals, politicians, or government officials, the boundaries of a nation—the lines drawn around a nation-state, geographically, politically, and conceptually—are its most vital components. Without borders, the content of a nation—those things seized upon as its cultural characteristics, or national institutions—lose their meaning. The fact that technological and infrastructural development has facilitated the ease of crossing borders does not mean that this role of the border in bounding a national space is any less important. On the contrary: the more borders are crossed, the greater the need felt by governments and intellectuals to reaffirm and entrench those borders. In her work on the role of space and place in ethnic and national identity boundary formation, Ana Maria Alonso explores the equation of the majority ethnic group and a dominant ethnic identity with the core of the nation, and posits the notion of a “sedentarist nationalism.” Transnational movements and “displaced peoples,” Alonso argues, unsettle the identification of state, nation, and territory, leading modern nation states to construct a “pathology of the displaced.” Alonso examines culture not as a unified entity, but as the mundane practices of everyday life and focuses on the border zones within and between putatively homogeneous communities (Alonso 1994).

81One way in which the Chinese government has responded to the challenge of countless people moving in and out of China, movements which threaten to destabilize and denaturalize the geographic and political construct of the Chinese state, is by retreating into a symbolic, cultural universe of national constructs over which it still feels it has considerable control.


82China’s southwesternmost province, Yunnan borders Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam to its west and south, and Tibet, Sichuan, Guizhou, and Guangxi to its north and east. A rough, mountainous land affected by the formation of the Himalayas, its highest point is Meili Snow Mountain, in the northwest, and its lowest is at Hekou, on the Vietnam border.

83Yunnan’s position on the boundaries of Chinese and Southeast Asian civilizations was reflected in the dual tribute historically paid by local chieftains to the Burmese King and the Chinese emperor. Yunnan’s cultural proximity to Southeast Asia, and its geographical remoteness from China’s political center rendered it a haven for opponents of government. It remained under Mongol control after the fall of the Yuan dynasty until 1381. Population pressures in central China inspired Ming policy to “Sinify” the area through voluntary and forced Han migration in the seventeenth century (Clarke 1994: 226). Yunnan then became a center of Ming resistance to Manchu rule until Qing dynasty troops finally chased the last Ming emperor into Burma in 1658. Under the Qing, Han settlers continued to move into Yunnan.

84During the Second World War, Kunming became the de facto military capital of unoccupied China and a hive of intellectual activity, attracting many scholars and students, sustaining a 60,000-strong refugee community. Yunnan remained the last bastion of anti-Communist forces well into the 1950s. After 1949, autonomous regions and districts were set up in zones where the minorities formed large enough communities, but population transfers in various political guises continued to alter the ethnic complexion of the province.

85By the 1990s, Yunnan’s population was over two thirds Han, the rest comprising thirty-two of China’s fifty-six indigenous ethnic groups. Fifteen of these groups reside along southwest China’s 4,060 km border, mingling with fellow ethnics in Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam. The chief such groups are the Yi (Tibeto-Burman) at 4,054,000, also found in Laos and Vietnam; the Hani (Tibeto-Burman), 1,248,000, also found in Burma, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam; the Dai (Tai-Kedai), 1,014,000, also found in Thailand, Burma, Laos, and Vietnam and the Zhuang (Tai-Kedai), 1,003,000. Ethnic groups are concentrated in fairly cohesive enclaves. In Xishuangbanna, for example, the Dai alone comprise 35% of the population.

86In 1993, Wu Guangfan, Secretary-General of Yunnan Provincial Government emphasized the salience of regional links and stressed the remoteness of Beijing, stating that “Close neighbors are better than distant relatives” (Lintner 1991: 21, Handley 1993: 69). But where central governments once took pains to rein such feelings in, the 1990s saw a radical reorientation in central directives. Symbolized by Deng Xiaoping’s “Southern Tour,” involving the top leader’s high-profile visit to Guangdong and Shenzhen in 1992, this shift brought official endorsement and encouragement to Yunnan’s vision of regional integration. In 1984, the provincial administrations of Chengdu, Chongqing, Guangxi, Guizhou, Sichuan, Tibet, and Yunnan established the “Southwestern Economic Cooperation Zone” (SECZ) to pool economic efforts and resources and to focus central government attention on their needs and ambitions (Hooghe 1994: 295). Despite the obvious economic benefits for Yunnan’s inhabitants, this shift in emphasis away from Beijing-centric lines of vision was thought to require a complete rethinking by some senior government figures in Yunnan and its partner provinces in what now became known as the “Big Southwest.” As one wrote in 1995, we must “liberate our thinking” and “turn our perspective around” so as to adopt this policy of “regionalization” (quyuhua) which was a prerequisite for Yunnan’s economic integration with Southeast Asia.

87As described by Governor of Yunnan He Zhiqiang, regionalization has effectively transformed Yunnan from a place on China’s “periphery” to a “frontline.” China was still “opening up”—but it was opening up in new directions, no longer just to Japan and Europe, but to Southeast Asia and South Asia. In this process of “throwing wide open the southern door and marching towards Asia,” Yunnan held a critical role. But in order to exercise that role to full advantage, knowledge was needed: it was time for China to learn about the economies, cultures, societies, and regions on its southern frontier. Governor He’s comments appeared in the preface to a book compiled by the Chinese historian of Burma He Dasheng (Dangdai Miandian [Contemporary Myanmar], Chengdu: Sichuan Renmin Chubanshe, 1993), one of a series of ‘Practical Guides’ to Southeast Asian countries compiled by the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences, of which he is now Deputy Director. The series includes guides to Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, and plans further additions on the Philippines and Indonesia. Its stated intent is a handbook for “penetrating new markets.”

88These new formulations—with their emphasis on outward mobility, and China’s incorporation into this southern region—offer a direct reversal of historic narratives of nineteenth century China, which commonly use the term xiang hua (facing China/to China) to describe “barbarians” from the suzerain kingdoms making journeys to China. They reflect a repositioning of China in terms of its contemporary engagement with the region: and a recognition by the political “core” that these frontier zones may no longer be peripheral to Chinese interests.

Ethnic diplomacy

89Increased economic interdependence and improved information technology in the Pacific Rim have softened cultural as well as political boundaries, altering provincial and national frames of identity. As we have seen, porous borders and shared histories, languages and ethnicities are cementing transnational links between Yunnan and Myanmar. Once the temporary edge of empires, China’s political borders now form sensitive international boundaries which raise political problems of control and citizenship regarding the incorporation of ethnic minority groups. A case in point is the Dai, one of thirty-nine ethnic minority groups in Yunnan Province. Commodified as a “cultural resource” in official media, Yunnan’s ethnic minorities are increasingly forming the focus of such regional diplomatic initiatives.

90The Dai speak a language akin to modern Thai, celebrate Thai festivals, and share other traditions both with the Thai and with the Shan of Burma. In addition to these specific ethnic links, the Dai share Buddhist beliefs with the ethnic majorities of Burma, Laos, and Cambodia. But it is only during the last decade that Chinese authorities have actively advertised their existence to the region.

91This cultural diplomacy began with a Dai–Thai encounter orchestrated in Xish-huangbanna to cement Sino-Thai links in the early 1980s. Thousands of Thais now flock to Xishuangbanna annually to see their cultural roots. To the Thai tourist market, these tours are packaged as a means of reconnecting with an “authentic” Dai ancestry. The tourist sector in Yunnan has designed a number of attractions centering on ethnic minorities. A Dai nationality village was built on the banks of Dianchi Lake in Kunming in 1992 as the first ethnic enclave in the Haigeng Nationality and Cultural Village, a 580 hectare tourist complex scheduled to encompass 26 different ethnic minorities by 1995. Ethnic Dai from Ruili and Xishuangbanna reside in the artificial village, which incorporates Buddhist pagodas and bamboo houses and venues for tourists to sample Dai food, Dai music, and Dai dance (Beijing Review, April 21–27, 1997).

92In 1996, Zheng Xiaoyun, Director of Yunnan’s Cultural Anthropology Institute, asserted that “the integration of tourism, trade and ethnic culture can help promote economic development in the Dai regions” (Beijing Review, 25 April 1996). For Thailand, this cultural dialogue dovetails with government strategy to shift economic activity from Bangkok to the North and Northeast. In 1993, Thailand opened a consulate in Kunming. In 1994, Kunming established a consulate in Songkhla. In 1996, Thailand invited official representatives from Yunnan, Laos, and Cambodia to Thailand for the Songkran (Water festival), which is celebrated by ethnic Thai in all four countries. A Thai Foreign Ministry working paper of 1996 stressed the potential of “common cultural practices” between ethnic Thai in diverse domains to promote “friendship and cooperation” (Michael Vatikiotis, “The Thais that Bind: Bangkok uses culture as a diplomatic tool,” Far Eastern Economic Review, 25 April 1996, p. 17).

Buddhist diplomacy

93However inadequate or complex in their definition, the colonial regulation of Sino-Burmese boundaries had the effect of splintering this broad web of Tai-based Buddhist constituencies and indigenous polities.

94Those Tai who found themselves in China’s borders were subject to a series of Sinicization initiatives following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. These initiatives took the form of modernization and the rejection of a past that was rendered as obsolete (jiu) and bad in its “feudal” organization in favor of modern socialist cooperative organization. After a slow start, the people’s commune system was introduced among the Dai Lue of Xishuangbanna in 1966. Vestiges of feudalism were seen as not only being marked in the lifestyles, but ingrained into the organization of space and style of architecture. Eradication of feudalism in this era of high revolution necessitated the destruction, desecration, secularization, or neglect of temples and sacred sites. Han China’s mission civilisatrice took a particularly brutal shape during the forced assimilation drives of the Cultural Revolution.

95After the central government renounced these policies of violence and adopted a policy of cultural conservation, these policies have been replaced with a different course of modernization. Since the early 1980s, to be modern, or anti-feudal, has required brick and cement construction of party offices, schools and so forth, in place of community centers traditionally organized around temples or in communal salaa, raised wooden shelters which function as points of social organization and rest-houses for monks on pilgrimage throughout Theravada Southeast Asia.

96Interestingly, notes anthropologist Jacques Lemoine, these modes of construction were so foreign to Dai that itinerant construction workers from the northern town of Dali were hired. In addition, Buddhist monks were invited from Moung Young in Burma to come and direct religious ceremonies and instruct their boys in monastic life and the Buddhist scriptures. In considering the economic role of the monastery in this process of reconstruction, Lemoine points to its role as an “incentive to produce more, save, and finally make donations to the monastic ceremony” (Lemoine 1989).

97But of immediate interest to us here is the revival of common paths of travel and knowledge, which saw Burmese monks and workers from Dali once again converging in these borderlands. Since the 1980s, licensed Buddhist and Daoist shrines in China have flourished, drawing worshippers and donors in great numbers while the number of novices has also increased dramatically. This process is largely driven by grassroots initiatives, often with overseas Chinese funding. However, official imperatives exist in the form of the PRC’s Overseas Chinese Office’s sponsoring and encouragement of Temple and Ancestry Hall renovations as part of its program to attract overseas Chinese capital. But state-licensed Buddhism and Daoism are to a greater or lesser extent compromised by the accommodation they have reached with the regime. Noting how official Chinese Buddhists in particular have allowed themselves to be used in cultural propaganda and diplomacy, William Jenner has suggested that they might see the state’s recognition as some compensation for the low esteem in which the Buddhist clergy has traditionally been held in China (Jenner 1992: 195).

98In the past few years, Buddhist missions have emerged as a central element of this regional “cultural diplomacy.” Symbolic of this trend was the high-profile Krathin (Buddhist merit-making) ceremony at a prominent Yunnanese monastery, sponsored by the Thai crown and attended by a delegation of Thai monks in November 1999. Such bilateral Buddhist ceremonies form part of a series of growing traffic in Buddhist delegations between China, Myanmar, and Thailand. This rise in officially regulated religious diplomacy reflects the increasing political significance of religion as a platform for state legitimacy in Southeast Asia.

Buddhist diplomacy and Myanmar

99Like other modern Southeast Asian nations, various regimes in Burma have circumscribed and co-opted religion under the umbrella of the state. From the 1970s–1980s, Communist regimes in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos tried to erase the populist role played by the Buddhist clergy. But since the 1990s, such states are increasingly aware of the power of Buddhism as both an element of nationalist rhetoric, a lynchpin of moral authority and political legitimacy, and a powerful tool of social control.

100From 1962 to 1988, during Burma’s isolation from the region and the world under Ne Win, Buddhism acted as a significant if little-publicized instrument for the internationalization of Burma. Select overseas missionary activities allowed the travel of privileged Buddhist organizations, whose contact with overseas Burmese communities represented the only permitted exchange with the outside world outside the diplomatic corps. From 1988 to 1990, Burma’s military government actively and violently suppressed Buddhism, while orchestrating a smear campaign accusing opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi of “anti-Buddhist,” anti-patriotic activities.

101Faced with mass opposition from the influential Buddhist monkhood (sangha), culminating in the first known boycott of a Burmese government by the sangha from August and October 1990, and with no hope of securing political legitimacy following its massive defeat in the 1990 elections, the junta was forced to reverse this stance. A major public relations program to co-opt Buddhism was launched, alongside massive public works programs across the country to renovate and restore thousands of Buddhist temples. This policy aims simultaneously to convert temples—such as the Shwedagon Pagoda, a nodal point for the galvanization of opposition sentiment and the rallying of protests from 1988–90—from active sites to dormant monuments, and to advertise the junta’s supposed Buddhist virtue as restorers of the temples. In tandem with this process, museums, TV programs, and media saturation have all been brought to bear by the junta in its attempts to rewrite a national history for Burma, foregrounding Buddhism and essentially delegitimizing non-Buddhist religions while homogenizing ethnic minority identities into a unifying “Myanmar” national discourse.

102Government departments were also restructured to corral the sangha into government. The establishment of a new Department for the Propagation of the Sasana in June 1990 was followed in March 1992 by the reconstitution of the Ministry of Religious Affairs; a new awards system for the Sangha; the restoration of precolonial official recognition for monastic schools; and increased official news coverage and TV promotion of Buddhism. This domestic focus has an external parallel in the junta’s active development of religious and cultural diplomacy as a strategic vehicle for tightening links with regional powers, notably China, but also Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Singapore, and South Korea.

103To this end, the junta has instituted new programs and funded schools for training Buddhist monks to missionize globally. From the late 1980s, both Myanmar and China framed or coordinated aspects of their diplomatic relations by both stressing historic linkages and cultural affinities between the two countries. In 1991, for example, the Chairman of the State Law and Order Restoration Council (the junta) visited the Tooth Relic Pagoda in Beijing, met with the Chinese Buddhist Association, and presented “a Buddha relic, relics of Arahata [sic, but = Arhat], Buddhist scriptures and cash donations” to a senior monk at Guang Ji Si monastery in Beijing (Bo Thanmai, China Myanmar Goodwill Visits of Great Historic Significance. Yangon (Rangoon): n.d., pp. 309–310).

104Although such exchanges are executed at a senior, government to government level, involving limited meetings of individuals from both governments as well as Buddhist temples and associations, the surrounding rhetoric emphasizes a community of “Buddhists in Myanmar ... and the People’s Republic of China” and their shared identities as “disciples of the Lord Buddha.” At the same time, Myanmar media coverage of these events highlighted both the efforts which the Myanmar government would be making for the development of Buddhism in Myanmar, and emphasized that it would also be “helping the members of the Sangha making arrangements for them to visit the countries where [Buddhism] flourishes.”

105The Myanmar government has also invested considerable money and publicity in the restoration of the Tooth Relic Pagoda. A historic monument to Chinese-Burmese friendship and Buddhist relations, the Pagoda is a regular feature on Chinese delegation visits. In 1995, great fanfare accompanied the official return, from China, of the revered Buddhist tooth relic for installation in the pagoda after its “1500 years in China.” Such visits are enshrined in official publications, such as China Myanmar Goodwill Visits of Great Historic Significance, an illustrated, English language pamphlet containing reprints of relevant news articles, photographs, and songs, published in Myan-mar in 1997.

106Similarly, a Chinese publication on Burma published in 1997, asking the question “how do we adapt [our policies, whether commercial or official] to [Burma’s] habits and customs,” stresses the value of religious diplomacy. Emphasizing that Burma is a “Buddhist country,” the book asserts that “when Burma’s national leaders are paying visits to overseas countries, providing there is a famous Buddhist pagoda or monk of high standing . they will always . request to pay a visit” to that site or monk (Dan-gdai Miandian, p. 494).

107Official Myanmar media reports frame Sino-Burma relations with reference to Buddhist values, such as an April 1998 editorial that urged Myanmar people to turn their back on the West while looking to the North and marching East. The article pointed to bridges, theatres, and youth centers built with Chinese aid, and stated that the PRC “has metta [loving kindness] and catana [benevolence] on us” (Sithu Nyein Aye, “Walking East while Looking North,” New Light of Myanmar, 8 April 1998: 5). In December 2000, Myanmar hosted a Chinese Buddhist mission led by the Vice-Chairman of the Buddhist Association of China.

National symbols: walling China in

108James Clifford has urged us to “look behind configurations of a nation, of an authentic culture, or representations of transnational movements, and ask these questions: who is deploying nationality or transnationality, authenticity or hybridity, against whom, with what relative power and ability to sustain a hegemony?” (Clifford 1997: 10). Groups with a vested interest in mobilizing and manipulating particular images and visages of such movements include, but are not confined to, governments, nongovernmental organizations, international organizations, and nonstate actors, such as opposition groups either operating within a state, or in exile, or through a combination of approaches. They might also include commercial groups, such as those involved in ethnic tourism.

109Images of antiquity are a prominent motif often used to legitimize particular governments by reiterating a supposed descent-line tying a contemporary regime to a mythical national past, as enshrined in a particular figure or building. An obvious example in China is the Yellow Emperor, the mythical founder of the Chinese “race” and empire. In Myanmar, King Anawratha, an eleventh century empire-builder whose subjugation of non-Burmese kingdoms is currently lauded in pageants, films, and soap-operas designed to stress a lineage between the current military government and past rulers, and to legitimize current projects of homogenization.

110During the Mao era, all sorts of symbols and figures were mobilized to marshal support for communism and to galvanize patriotic sentiment. However, the fight against feudalism and the denunciation of much that was old as bad, and much of those symbols such as religious edifices and historic buildings, as ideologically rotten objects, meant that those features of China most often mobilized during this period were natural-such as the Yellow River. Figures who had been mobilized by the late nineteenth and early twentieth century nationalists, such as the Yellow Emperor, were discredited as oppressive. Instead, new models were cultivated: in addition to Mao himself, soldier-worker heroes such as Lei Feng became the stuff of politico-national myth. Similarly, monuments such as the Great Wall were deemed largely irrelevant: instead, China’s natural landscape was commonly invoked in both the poetry and propaganda of Mao.

111After Deng Xiaoping came to power, the 1980s saw the discrediting of icons too closely associated with Mao, the rehabilitation of the Yellow Emperor as a national icon, and the promotion of the Great Wall. Promotion of the Great Wall as a symbol of China helped to anchor Deng’s regime in a time period not associated with the Cultural Revolution. As a motif that predated, and thus transcended, communist ideology, it also helped to cultivate a broader sense of membership and of belonging to China among Chinese Overseas, who were once again courted as a source of global capital and global goodwill.

112At the same time, from the late 1980s onward, in a complex development which Geremie Barme has examined through a collection of Chinese voices in his book Shades of Mao (1996), Chairman Mao himself became miniaturized, deified, and widely iconized, a process which has simultaneously inserted Mao’s image very much into the present, from amulets dangling from taxi mirrors to marketing for a range of commodities, and through this idealization and lionization, has planted him and his governance very firmly in the past, and slicing him off from successor leaders and governments.

113Some of the most potent national symbols are built monuments. They may be secular, such as China’s Great Wall, or sacred, such as Myanmar’s Shwedagon Pagoda. But by their very nature, nationalist projects end up investing the most sacred sites with layers of new, secular meaning-as sites whose constant reiteration with a particular nation ultimately deifies that nation.

114Whatever the symbols deployed, their mobilization by governments generally has the effect not only of shoring up their own national legitimacy, but of delegitimizing or marginalizing certain groups. For example, the Great Wall is very much a product of northern China, with few parallels in southwestern provinces such as Yunnan. Similarly, promotion of the Buddhist Shwedagon Pagoda, and other Buddhist temples, as symbols of the state and nation in Myanmar appears to exclude Rohingya Muslims or Karen Christian populations from the official theatre of nation.

115The anthropologist Gustaaf Houtman has written at length about this phenomenon in relation to contemporary Myanmar. He calls it “Myanmafication,” and he explores various means by which the current government has strived to achieve a homogeneous image of Myanmar through the establishment of museums and preservation of monuments in ways that reflect their visions of the nation. Houtman interprets these constant displays of reverence for Buddha and of making merit as the government’s display of wealth, power and patronage. The principal audience of these activities is not so much Buddha, but the Buddhist and lay population.

Houtman on Buddhist relics in nation-building:​pubs/​at/​muse-ums/​myanmar.html

116Over time, the constant promotion of a feature of the built or natural environment ultimately leads to its acceptance as somehow eternally and intrinsically invested with the spirit of a nation. It gains a time-lessness. However, the Great Wall was not popularized as a national symbol until the early to mid-1980s. This is interesting, because it means that the promotion of the Great Wall as a national symbol, decisions about its value as national heritage, and campaigns to preserve and restore the Great Wall precisely coincided with the promulgation of Deng Xiaoping’s “open door policy.” Although a new development, this promotion of the Great Wall as a national symbol represented a political continuum in its reiteration of a specifically Northern Chinese feature as an all-encompassing motif.

117This is not to say that the Great Wall had been absent: it had figured in popular culture, as in the phrase fei dao Changcheng bu hao han [”if you haven’t been to the Great Wall you're not a good Han,” or in another translation “not a real man”], and in “The March of the Volunteers,” a popular revolutionary song by the playwright Tian Han:

Arise! Ye who refuse to be bond slaves!
With our very flesh and blood
Let us build our new Great Wall. (Translated by Li Baoqian from Chiang Yee)

118That ditty was originally coined in the late 1930s, to muster morale for a quite different public works scheme: the Burma Road, designed not to close China off but to open China up to Southeast Asia and Allied territories during the Second World War and the Sino-Japanese War.

119In the following section, I am going to consider the historic, political, and cultural uses and associations of walls in China that make the Great Wall such a potent symbol. Then I'm going to look at The Great Burma Road, built in the late 1930s, and speak about the historic porosity and permeability of southern China’s boundaries, as well as different approaches to, and uses of, space in southern China.


120Several Chinese dynasties invested extraordinary resources in walling themselves off from the outside world. An estimated 50,000 kilometers of defense wall was constructed along the northern frontier of China between the 6th century BC and the 16th century AD.

121One of the few ‘high-points’ of Chinese architecture were watchtowers. In his seminal work, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, Benedict Anderson emphasizes the role of the colonial state in Southeast Asia in introducing not only new classificatory systems but new modalities of state control, particularly relating to the monitoring of the traffic and flow of people. Evidence from China suggests that, in north China in particular, as early as the Han dynasty, some 2000 years ago, the state used walls, watchtowers and permits to monitor the mobility of its subjects: no one was allowed through the wall either way without an official permit.

122But walls were not only used to mark and monitor the boundaries of a kingdom. They also assumed a significant function in the planning of cities and homes.

123One of the current Chinese words for city, cheng, earlier had the meaning of “wall.” In ancient and early medieval China, capital cities included not just a principal wall (cheng) but also an outer wall (guo) some distance beyond it that enclosed a much bigger area. These walls encircled other walled enclosures: palaces, government departments, and other official institutions, residential wards, markets and temples. In northern China especially, houses, which were commonly one-storey high and built on ground level (as opposed to houses in such southwestern border regions as Yunnan, for example, which were often built on stilts), were surrounded by walls that concealed them from the outside eye. These residences were designed not to look out onto the surrounding city: the walls were windowless. Instead, residents looked inward, onto courtyards or, in wealthier homes, a garden. Their only interface with the outside world was a gatekeeper or watchman. At night all perimeters were locked and sealed, and only the army patrolled the streets. This ensured the near-complete bifurcation of domestic/ inner and urban/outer lives. The function of walls was enclosing and concealing.

124This use of walls in Chinese city planning, boundary mapping, defense systems, and domestic architecture materialized and reaffirmed distinctions between nei

125[inside] or li [inner] and wai [outside], which are replicated on many conceptual levels in Chinese nationalisms. The Chinese term for foreigner, for example, is waiguoren, which translates literally as out(er)-country-person. In his analysis of the practice of everyday space in rural northern Shaanxi (Xin Liu Yao 1998: 145), Xin Liu Yao demonstrates how the cultural distinctions between li and wai become embodied in everyday practice of domestic space.

126Part of the potency of the Great Wall as a symbol of China in the western world has to do with notions of China as a hermetically sealed space, highly resistant to foreign influences. This image of China, and the salience of the Great Wall, were strengthened after the establishment of the People’s Republic. The Mao era brought frontiers under very effective control. It became very difficult to leave China. This tightening of boundaries had a microcosmic dimension: within China, a series of check-in points and walls were constructed around enclaves or buildings housing foreigners. Such controls were not exclusive to China: they became a common feature of communist and socialist regimes.

127In the 1980s, while government departments and state factories were busy promoting the Great Wall as a symbol of China, through posters, renovations, tourism, and souvenirs, filmmaker Zhang Jie promoted a different view of Chinese walls in his film Raise the Red Lantern. Almost entirely set and filmed within a walled residence of Beijing, the film evokes a suffocating atmosphere of enclosure. Walls symbolize the indestructible forces of patriarchal society, dramatized in the fate of its central protagonist, a young bride who goes insane. The bride is played by Chinese actress Gong Li, and the film charts her journey from rural China and the more architecturally open world of a village, evoked in sky-filled opening scenes, to the core of tradition. The transition between these two spaces is symbolized in the curtained sedan chair in which the bride is carried.

128Owen Lattimore has suggested that one of the main purposes of China’s elaborate frontier systems, including walls, was to keep the Chinese in. The lifestyles of different ethnic groups in Yunnan, and in particular the roads that connected cities and countries, homes and sites of worship or social centers, problematized this notion of a world confined to simple inner domestic and outer city or public spaces. One major dialect group, the Hakka, exemplify this dilemma in that they have traditionally been highly mobile, carrying their homes on their backs, and using cloth, instead of stone tablets, for commemorative and ritual purposes. At the same time, the Hakka have been known to build huge, circular walls around their communities on establishing settlements, at certain times in history.

129Walls are helpful symbols, then, but they only tell part of the story.

The Burma Road

130In the nineteenth century, competition between French and British ambitions to establish trade routes into China had seen two separate systems: the Myitkyina railroad, linking British Burma to Yunnan, and the Yunnan-Haiphong railway, built by French engineers, which linked Kunming to Hanoi in French Indochina. For much of the period from 1911 to 1949, warlords ruled Yunnan, and officials from Beijing used the Indochinese railway to visit the province, preferring the Hanoi detour to Yunnan’s bandit-ridden mountains (Bertil Lintner, “Pushing at the Door,” Far Eastern Economic Review, 28 March 1991: 28). Following the outbreak of the Second World War, the Indochinese railway was also used to transport war supplies from the European allies to China to circumvent Japan’s naval blockade along China’s coast. However, this line was physically damaged by Japanese bombardment of a key rail terminus in the late 1930s, and politically paralyzed by the Vichy victory of 1940, which saw Indochina fall into an alliance with Japan.

131These developments focused urgent Allied interest on constructing a new land-route to reconnect Yunnan to the outside world: the Burma Road, built as a supply line for war materials from America and Britain, in the Allied fight against Japanese forces.

132Plans for the Burma Road were announced in 1937 by the Central Government of China, which had opted for a route linking Kunming to Lashio, where the road would connect with the Burmese railway providing access to the deep-sea port of Rangoon. The public call for labor to build the Burma Road, Chiang Yee (1942: 54–55, 72) writes, attracted massive crowds to government in Kunming, whose willingness to labor on the road was fired both by promises of food for work, and popular sentiment to “beat the common enemy.” This massive “voluntary labor scheme” involved extensive internal migration within Yunnan, as people left there home localities in groups ranging from a few to two thousand, to work on their assigned section on the road.

133During the Sino-Japanese War Kunming became a target of what Chinese travel writer Chiang Yee called “the greatest mass migration in Chinese history,” with daily influxes of people escaping the northern provinces of Hebei, Henan, Shandong, Jiang-su, Zhejiang, Anhui, Hubei, Jiangxi. These movements changed the cultural complexion of Kunming. Relocation of the seat of the Central Government to Chongqing in the neighboring province of Sichuan, and about 700 kilometers from Kunming, further enhanced Yunnan’s importance to the war effort. Kunming, however, emerged as China’s new cultural capital and the center of intellectual opposition activities. This changed status and the opportunities provided by the war-economy in late 1930s also attracted a number of Vietnamese stallholders and tailors to Kunming, and smaller numbers of French, Greeks, and Americans.

134Burmese, Indian, and Chinese truckdrivers were particularly evident, and became more so as the construction of the Burma Road gathered pace. As described by Tan (1945: 128–130), the Chinese truckdrivers “all went hatless and wore chamois jackets—which they had bought in Rangoon if they were wealthy, in Tali if they were poor—and yellow khaki pants. Nearly every driver wore an ivory ring on the third finger of his right hand, with his name on it. He was forever having to sign something, and this was his 'chop', or personal seal.”

135A preliminary road was opened in 1938, 717 miles in length. Most of the Burma Road—some 600 miles, from Kunming to Wanting—sat within China’s borders (Tan 1945: 1–2).

136Construction of the road transformed both the socio-economic life and demographic complexion of several key sites. One was the highway terminus at Lashio, 117 miles from Wanting. “Once just a sleepy village,” Lashio “hum[med] with a newfound prosperity,” wrote Tan (1945: 151–153) and reflected a split personality: “New Lashio with its impressive government buildings, electric lights, water works, hotels, restaurants, offices, big bazaars, and English stores. Old Lashio, a backward native village with no improvements, where Shans, Indians, and Burmese all live together, governed by the Sawbwa [Shan Prince] of Hsinwei. In time, the Chinese built offices and a large trans-shipment center in old Lashio for moving goods from the Rangoon railhead to the trucks bound for Kunming.”

137Tan’s description resonates with much European colonial literature in nearby Indochina, where, as elsewhere in colonized Southeast Asia, the road became a significant trope of modernity and its “civilizing” projects. The “split” terrain described above was a common feature of such literature. In these narratives, modern roads bifurcate not only terrain but also time, driving cleavages between the “sleepy” stasis of “traditional” village life and the dynamic action of the present. These distinctions are reflected in a symbolic binary of the “straight” piercing, linear properties of the road and the “drowsy,” twisting, narrow, and dusty trails which pre-existed it (Edwards 1998).

138Paradoxically, the opening of the road complicated travel for Chinese in its first few years of operation, in some cases effectively slowing passage between the two cartographies of China and Burma. Prior to the opening of the Road, no passports had been required of Chinese moving between the two countries, but “after the opening of the Road,” writes Tan (1945), “they had to show passports to go anywhere. Sometimes a great nuisance was made over it; sometimes they were never requested at all; one never knew what to expect.” In 1942, writes Tan, when the Chinese military came in to cooperate with the British, the practice was abandoned altogether.

139In the eyes of Tan, the borderline of the Shan states, marked by the city of Mang-shih, the richest and largest of all the Shan towns, marked a cultural border, too: “From this point on, everything is strange. It is neither quite like China nor altogether like a foreign country. The people look just like other Chinese, but everything in the landscape is just slightly different.” From the border to Rangoon, Tan writes, all the shopkeepers are either Indians or Chinese. The farmers, laborers, factory workers, truckdrivers, railway workers, stationmasters, cooks and waiters are mostly Indians. Rangoon was “the true terminus of the Burma Road. During critical months, China had no other seaport; and over its hustling wharves and through its noisy warehouses poured trucks and ammunition from the outside world—all the materiel that did so much to keep our nation in the war.” At that point, goods were transported by rail from Canton to the provisional capital of Hankow, and on the French Indo-China Railway to Kunming.

Reinventing the Burma Road

140Since the 1980s, globalization and China’s internal reform program has seen the Burma Road resurrected and reinvented in ways which link Chinese road and rail routes with the Indian ocean, providing a channel to vital markets, and reflecting China’s engagement with the region.

141In 1999, over fifty years after the Burma Road labor teams laid a narrow, congested, and winding road from Chuxiong to Dali in 1941, Asian Development Bank (ADB) assistance enabled the upgrading of the route into the two-lane, bitumen Chuxiong-Dali highway, an official subsection of the Greater Mekong Economic Subregion (GMES) Ring Road. The Chuxiong–Dali highway is part of China’s No. 320 National Trunk Highway, which begins in Shanghai, passes through Kunming, and ends in Ruili on the Myanmar border. In terms of domestic impact, Chinese authorities see the Ring Road and the Chuxiong–Dali subsection as a key to economic development along existing growth poles in nonferrous metal industrial development, tourism, and light industry.

142This road and rail network create new boundaries that cut across national political borders to map a new zone of travel and exchange, dubbed the “Economic Quadrangle” by international organizations, whose maintenance will be financed by a transnational toll network. The engine of the Greater Mekong Subregion’s planned future growth, this Economic Quadrangle spans northern Thailand, southern Yunnan, northwestern Laos, and eastern Myanmar. An ADB-backed circular route linking Chiang Rai, Jinghong, Myanmar, and Laos is expected to catalyze exploitation of the Quadrangle’s readily realizable economic potential.

143China provided engineers, labor, and equipment to assist construction of the Burmese trunk of the Ring Road, which runs from Thailand’s northeastern cities of Chiang Rai and Mae Sai via Myanmar to Kunming. This section of the route is seen as a key conduit for Chinese travelers and businesses shipping products south from Kunming and Jinghong to ports in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Chinese engineers have also improved the highway from Mandalay to Rangoon; while Chinese companies have developed a railway from Mandalay to Myitkyina, near the Chinese border, and a railway line from Mandalay to Yangon. By 1994, Mandalay had emerged as a thriving hub of Chinese business, as traders surged south from Yunnan in search of new markets (Bertil Lintner, “Enter the Dragon,” Far Eastern Economic Review, 22 December 1994: 22–24).

144To combat or diffuse the centripetal pull of these new transborder routes, to enhance “national stability” by incorporating geographically isolated, socially marginalized, ethnically differentiated, and politically insulated communities in China’s border regions, and to galvanize interprovincial economic exchange, the Chinese Government has implemented a parallel upgrading and restructuring of domestic infrastructure. The Ministry of Communications recently published a 30-year development plan for the construction and improvement of national highways, waterways, and ports (Wu Bian, “Good Prospect,” Beijing Review, 19–25 May 1997: 21). A rapidly evolving road and rail network links Yunnan to southwestern China as well as to northwestern inland and southeastern coastal areas. In March 1997, one hundred years after the laying of tracks at Myitkyina, Premier Li Peng presided over the opening of the $2.4 billion Nanning-Kunming railway, and applauded the railway’s potential for opening southwest China to the outside world (“Improvement of Urban Infrastructure,” Beijing Review, 7–13 April 1997).

145But can these routes serve the center’s goals of advancing regional integration while reigning border provinces firmly into the national economy? The evidence suggests not. Controlling and planning the development of routes has proved easier than channeling the direction of traffic.

146From its colonial inception to its realization in the Second World War, the Burma Road was primarily conceived as a reverse formula to that described by Li Peng: as a conduit into China—as a means of opening up China to British goods, or Anglo-American war supplies. Although existing trade routes from Yunnan to Burma were acknowledged, and trade continued, it was often construed as cultural traffic, which took such forms as gold leaf and Buddhist images. European and American visions for a railroad into China, shaped by the power politics of high colonialism or the strategic exigencies of warfare, saw the Burma Road as allowing the outside world into China.

147Returning to the title of this project, we could argue that the combined effects of globalization and Chinese nationalism as expressed or cultivated in government circles, have at once seen a downturn in the invocation of the Great Wall as the leitmotif of a Chinese nation, and simultaneously turned the Burmese Road inside out.

148In its recent reincarnation, the Burma Road—as integrated into the new regional ring-road—is contributing to a material reintegration of Yunnan into Southeast Asia, and a redirecting of southwestern China’s gaze out, not in. This infrastructural alignment has paved the way for the transit and traffic in numerous fields outside the official and original intentions of both governments and international organizations. Smuggling in narcotics, humans, weapons, endangered species, and other profitable trades has burgeoned along these routes, tying pockets of Yunnan into a transnational criminal economy on an unprecedented scale. In turn, efforts to combat these malign transnational flows have encouraged a different form of regional integration, through multilateral and regional committees, both intergovernmental and professional—involving, for example, crosscountry liaison between domestic as well as international law enforcement offices or medical bodies—on Illicit Substances, Human Trafficking, and AIDS. Here, the “Burma Road”—which I am using as shorthand for both the external links into the new Ring Road, and the internal links into China’s new and improved telecommunications system—can be seen as a symbol of those forces of transnationalism which are at once beyond the control of official governments, and at the same time lead those governments to assert new modalities of control, across borders but between centers.

149At the same time, the new and improved “Burma Road” is symbolic of an apparently unprecedented appetite, most conspicuous among a new wave of domestic Chinese tourists. But is this really such a new phenomenon? For centuries, against great odds, Chinese seafarers and others, traveled and started new communities throughout Southeast Asia. Much attention has been paid to the push factors driving these migrations: these were refugees, on the run from fire, flood, and famine, driven to new shores only by desperation. As we saw earlier, narratives of the Confucian elite emphasize the Middle Kingdom-centric journeys and orientations of “barbarians” in and across the frontier. But these narratives reflect the elite thinking of writers who were often positioned both geographically and institutionally at China’s center. If we move away, not only from the center, but down towards those layers of society who formed the bulk of Chinese outmigration across the centuries, we begin to sense a much broader range of possibilities, both in terms of motivations for travel and avenues for identification.

150In this exploratory essay, I have attempted to show ways in which the “new” Burma Road stands as a more convincing metaphor for the uneasy tensions between nationalism and transnationalism in contemporary China than the Great Wall. The Burma Road as known in western history is variously a project and product of British colonialism or Allied intervention. By shearing it off these specific histories and reading it instead as shorthand for a historic system of roads linking Yunnan and Burma, and so tying China into Southeast Asia, which existed long before European occupation and which has recently been resurrected long thereafter, the Burma Road becomes not a trophy of colonial expansion or wartime endeavor, but a frame through and from which we can view China not from a periphery—but China as periphery.


Penny Edwards is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for Cross Cultural Research, Australian National University. Her main interests are in questions of identity—gender, ethnic, national, transnational, and religious—particularly as played out in colonial and postcolonial Southeast Asia and also among Chinese in diaspora. She is coeditor of Beyond China: Migrating Identities (Canberra: Coombs Publishing, Australian National University, 2002) and author of the forthcoming Cambodge: The cultivation of a nation, 1860–1945 (University of Hawai’i Press). She is currently researching two key projects: National Ideologies, Transnational Identities and Buddhist Diplomacy in Sino-Myanmar Relations and Gender Ideology, Racial Mythology and the Cultural Politics of Child Removal in British Burma, French Cambodia and Western Australia, 1885-1947.

© Central European University Press, 2005

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