We find the earliest examples of literature in the Burmese language in hundreds of inscriptions carved on stone which still survive from the kingdom of Pagan dating back to the eleventh century. Next we have books written on dried palm leaves, such as the Maniratanapum, a fifteenth-century collection of ancient traditions, or Bhikkhu Ratthasara's Hatthipala Pyo, a long poem based on Jataka stories of the lives of the Buddha.
Nawadegyi and Natshinnaung were our great poets of the Toungoo dynasties, and the pandit Binnyadala has left us an exciting prose chronicle of the long struggle between the Burmese King of Ava and the Mon King of Pegu. Much of our history comes down to us from the Egyins, historical ballads that were sung at the cradle ceremony of a new-born prince or princess. Dramatic literature flourished at the courts of Ava and Shwebo, in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, with the themes for poetic plays drawn first from the Jatakas and later, through contact with Siam, from Hindu sources such as the Ramayana.
Our last dynasty had its court at Mandalay (1857-1885) and here were gathered poets, dramatists, and writers of chronicle. Their works were inscribed on heavy paper folios, folded in pleats, called parabaiks, and often were very beautifully illustrated in vivid color. (See Training Elephants, Plate 38 in the art section.) With the British annexation of Burma in 1885 came new forces which were completely to change the patterns of Burmese writing: the printing press and the influence of Western education and literature. Our classical dramas in court style gave way to plays for a less refined audience, and these, in turn, to popular novels based on Western models.
Thus the first Burmese novel, published in 1904, was a skillful resetting, with Burmese characters in a Burmese scene, of Dumas' Count of Monte Cristo, so well done that our grandmothers used to speak with real affection of the ill-fated raft-man Maung Yin Maung and his perilous adventures. There followed a spate of similar novels which were written obviously for entertainment. Sherlock Holmes appeared among us, in gaungbaung and pasoe, as the Burmese detective Maung San Sha, and the Burmese East Lynne was called Ratanabon.
To understand what happened to Burmese writing in the first decades of this century — the apparent total abandonment of our old literary traditions in favor of imitation of sometimes rather mediocre Western authors—we must remember that our most promising young men became civil servants for the British, and, though for the most part they retained their Buddhist religion, looked to England for their culture and entertainment as much as for their livelihood. It was only in the 1920's, when agitation for independence led to a national awakening, that Burmese classical literature came into the curricula of the schools and Rangoon University, and serious writing in Burmese was supported by the cultural leaders of the country.
During this dark period for Burmese writing the outstanding figure among those who resisted the trend to English was the novelist U Lat, whose Shwe-pyi-soe and Sa-be-bin were first published about fifty years ago. Today U Lat's books seem effusive and disorganized, more like anthologies of descriptive passages mixed with narrative than novels, but he did have vitality of a kind and he did focus his attention on a real Burma and the radically changing conditions of a transition period. The clash of cultures was U Lat's major theme. His caricature of an "England-returned" student who would not sit on a mat because of his trousers nor let his father enter the room where he and his wife were dining, is a little classic.
Most of U Lat's contemporaries in the novel were little better than hacks, who occasionally attempted realism but more often turned out "penny-dreadfuls." However, Ledipandita U Maung Gyi, the editor of Dagon, a Burmese monthly now defunct, produced some multi-volume accounts of the last days of the Burmese aristocracy which, though long-winded and loosely written, are not unentertaining. And Nay-yi-yi, by P. Monin, is still remembered, among the realistic novels of the period, as a work of considerable merit.
Soon after the First World War, political consciousness began to increase among the Burmese, particularly in student circles. The Young Men's and Young Women's Buddhist Associations, modeled on the YMCA and YWCA, became centers of the independence movement, and the rising tide of nationalism found expression in the work of a new generation of writers. It was customary for these new writers to take pseudonyms, both to conceal their identities from the authorities and, by using several pen names, to make the number of those in the movement seem larger. Today, these pseudonyms are still maintained —a badge of honor, as it were —and many younger writers have taken up the fashion.
One of the leading champions of Burmese nationalism, the poet U Lun, wrote under the names of "Mr. Maung Hmaing" (to ridicule the anglicized Burmans who prefixed their names with a "Mr.") and "Thakin Kodaw Hmaing." ("Thakin," or "master," is the Burmese equivalent to "sahib" in India, and was the prefix adopted by many of our Resistance leaders who formed their own Thakin party to drive out the British masters.) U Lun took an old Burmese poetic form, the laygyogyi, and developed it to serve his modern need. Though a poet to the core, he did not hesitate to put his whole art at the service of the fight for freedom. His odes extolled the glories of Burma's great past and exhorted his countrymen to throw off the foreign yoke. The varying moods of U Lun's poetry are those of a nation going through the painful, slow ordeal of rebirth. From month to month, he recorded the struggle and stirred us to further effort.