Modern Burmese Literature

Its background in the independence movement

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.

In the 1930's, there sprang up in the precincts of Rangoon University a literary movement called Khitsan ("experiment for a new age") which has left a deep impression on all subsequent Burmese writing. One foreign critic has compared the Khitsan renaissance to the Imagist movement in Anglo-American poetry, and, to be sure, there was in both schools the same emphasis on simplicity, directness, and purity of language. But the inspiration for the Burmese movement was indigenous: it was the concentrated limpid beauty of the lithic writings left by the pagoda-building people of Pagan. In these old inscriptions, collected and transliterated by scholars such as Duroiselle, Blagden, Luce and Pe Maung Tin, the Khitsan writers found a native style to emulate which left no room for the excess word.

The leaders of this movement, all graduates of Rangoon University, came to be known as the "triumvirate"; they were U Sein Tin, U Thein Han, U Wun. All were deeply committed to the independence struggle, but their writing was less directly political than that of U Lun. They felt quite as keenly about literary as about political freedom, and in resisting literary conservatism they championed the freedom of the spirit.

In this, U Sein Tin was particularly successful. He had joined the Civil Service, and in essays, sketches and diaries which he signed "Theippan Maung Wa" he wrote of the incidents and people in various walks of life with whom he had come in contact as a district officer. U Sei Tin created a conversational style with short, simple sentences which shocked the orthodox but set a standard in Burmese writing that has found many followers.

It was typical of U Thei Han that he chose as his pen name the word "Zawgyi," which means a worker of wonders — an alchemist or magician. As Librarian of the University, Thei Han was deep in books and steeped in the history and customs of old Burma. As literary alchemist he transmuted the dusty records into poems and essays which made our past shine with a new brilliance — a romantic view, perhaps, but one which served to remind us that the strength of the struggle for freedom was inherent in our people.

The third founding member of the Khitsan group was U Wun, one of the finest scholars our University has produced. Writing as "Minthuwun," he has also become a leading poet; he well deserves the high tribute which Gordon Luce, the inspired interpreter of Burmese culture, has paid him:

Minthuwun is a son of the Irrawaddy Delta, born almost within the sound of the sea. For all the alien influences around him, his language is Burmese pure and undefiled. His themes, too, are Burmese, Buddhist and even traditional. He is a scholar who has drunk deep of ancient Burma — of Pali, Pyu, Old Mon and Old Burmese. Yet few of his poems are burdened with scholarship. Long-winded rigamarole is utterly eschewed. With a few simple, artful touches the poet stamps his own image on the mind. He delights in homeliness, colloquiality, in village life and nursery ditties. Even out of sweetness comes forth strength, the strength of delicacy, of one who knows and trusts his feelings and dares show them, of one who looks into his heart and writes.

A number of the Khitsan writers, and particularly those who wrote stories, were also good translators. They affiliated themselves with a more formal organization, the Burma Education Extension Association, writing and translating for its bilingual magazine The World of Books. This little review had an influence out of all proportion to its very modest size and format; in its pages the seeds were sown for our modern literary renaissance.

Perhaps I should pause here to record the debt which so many of us Burmese writers owe to another great Englishman who, like Gordon Luce, has spent most of his life in Burma. J. S. Furnivall has written the definitive study of our political economy, and, because he has been able to understand us as few other Westerners have ever done, inspired many of our intellectuals with the self-confidence they needed to stand on their own feet and express themselves. Furnivall not only founded the Burma Education Extension Association, but has also been one of the moving spirits behind the Journal of the Burma Research Society, which, since 1910, has provided publication for the scholarly papers of our scientists and historians.


If Burma today has a socialist philosophy of government, it may well be because, in the 1930's, so many of our students read the books which came out to us from Victor Gollancz's Left Book Club in London. The ideas of Marx reached Burma not from Russia but by way of England, so that we think in terms of a social welfare democracy, not of a totalitarian dictatorship. One of these young intellectuals at the University of Rangoon, who was then known simply as Ko Nu (later to become Thakin Nu, the Resistance leader, and now Prime Minister U Nu of the Union of Burma), hit upon the idea of starting a Burmese book club along the lines of the Left Book Club. Thus the Nagani (Red Dragon) Book Club was born. It translated into Burmese the leftist books of John Strachey and others, and also encouraged our own writers to turn their attention to social problems and the struggle against colonialism.

Often the propaganda novels of this period were pretty poor stuff— labored and tedious concoctions about the deep misery of the poor and the exploited in a capitalist, colonial society — but a few of them had enough literary quality to be convincing. Two, in particular, are worth mention: Tet Phongyi by Thein Pe and Mein-ma-ba-wa by the popular woman novelist Khin Khin Lay.

Tet Phongyi ("The Modern Monk'') is a vigorous indictment of some of our Buddhist monks who do not strictly observe the precepts to which they are bound by their holy order, the Sangha. In recent times many of them have become too secularized, meddling in politics, holding demonstrations and even engaging in criminal activities behind the protection of the saffron robe.

Daw Khin Khi Lay's Mein-ma-ba-wa ("The Life of a Woman") is a fine study of the lot of a peasant woman in the rural society which is proverbially poor. It has been compared 10 Pearl Buck's Good Earth, and not unfavorably. The condition of the countryside, the plight of the peasants, who only know how to work hard and then spend their earnings in giving charity, the human character of the all-enduring mother and her two sons, one an honest laboring swain, the other an incorrigible criminal — these are the chief, and memorable, features of the story.

In 1942 the war, which had at first seemed only a distant threat, struck Burma in full violence, wreaking frightful destruction. We were bombed and burned once as the Japanese forced the British to retreat, and then once more, a few years later, when the tide turned and the Anglo-American forces drove the Japanese out again. The lot of our writers in the war years, like that of all other Burmese, was a hard one. The Japanese, whom some had mistakenly welcomed as liberators of the Asian from colonialism, proved instead to be chiefly interested in draining our country of its wealth, which they did with a cruel disregard of human rights. The most important novel of this period is U Nu's Yet-set Pabe Kwai ("Man, the Wolf of Man"). U Nu has always maintained that he would far rather be a writer than a politician and as soon as he was released from detention after the British retreat he wrote this book, which deals with the experiences of a young Burman jailed through the machinations of unscrupulous bureaucrats.

Soon after Burma's liberation from Japanese rule, some of our writers began, quite naturally, to produce novels about the war. Outstanding among them was Nga Ba by Htin Fatt, a member of the Khitsan group noted for the lively style and incisive satire of his earlier stories. Nga Ba, the book's central character, is a farmer who reacts in a typically Burmese way to the sudden changes in his rural life under the Japanese. A true Burman, he is as steadfastly optimistic as he is easily excited.

Both the Burma Education Extension Association and the Nagani Book Club were suppressed by the Japanese, but their place has been taken by a new and far larger organization, the Burma Translation Society. Sponsored by Prime Minister U Nu, who takes a close personal interest in its work, the Society is now the biggest publisher in Burma, turning out textbooks, an educational monthly magazine, the Burmese Encyclopaedia, series devoted to popular knowledge and the sciences, and many other works.

To encourage good writing in Burmese, the BTS has established the Sape Beikman Prizes, which, like the Pulitzer Prizes, are awarded to meritorious works in different categories. The first novel to win an award, in 1949—and it was chosen from among sixty-six entries — was "Min Aung's" Mo Auk Mye Bin ("The Earth Under the Sky"), a story of peasant life with such typical situations as the harsh landlord and the philandering son of a good father.

The next year my own (or should I say "Tet Toe's") novel Min Hmu Dan ("The Civil Servant'') was honored with the prize. Going back to prewar days, I tried in this novel to give a true picture of the overbearing attitudes of certain British officials and of the corruption that was rampant in some parts of the Civil Service.

We Burmese are justly proud of our new and democratic army, the subject of a novel by "Tha Du " which next won the Sape Beikman award. An old-timer, Sagaing U Po Thin, was recognized in 1954 for a tale of ancient Burma, while the most recent prize went to a woman writer, "Ma Ma Lay." Her Mon Ywe Mahu ("Not That He Hates") revolves around an ill-fated young girl, brought up in the orthodox Burmese way, who marries an extremely Westernized man several years her senior.


Perhaps none of these prize books are masterpieces, but there is no question that the Burmese novel has come a long way in fifty years. We have moved from outright cribbings or poor imitations of Western romances to realistic and serious treatments of themes, human and social, which closely affect the average citizen. Our writers are also making progress in the short story. This form was unknown to our ancestors and our best efforts in it still fall far short of the subtlety and technical virtuosity which we find in Western writing, but an eager public gives good support to a number of popular magazines and the standard is slowly rising. One thing which we badly lack is good literary criticism. That stage of sophistication has not yet been reached, and there is little effort, outside the University, to make the taste of the reading public more discriminating.

Thus far I have concentrated on our writing in Burmese. It is the language of the country (though the different regional peoples have their own languages, too) and there is no longer any need for our authors to take up English unless they wish to reach an audience abroad. The future of our literature will lie with the writers who use Burmese. But some of our most talented writers were educated in English, and have written interesting books in English through which American readers can learn much about Burma and her culture.

The Rector of Rangoon University, Dr. Htin Aung, commands a first-rate English prose style. Oxford University Press has published his adaptations of Burmese Folktales and a definitive study, with sample translations, of Burmese Drama.

Among the most versatile of our authors is the poet, musicologist, and story writer U Khin Zaw, or "K," whose delightful autobiography, Burma in My Lifetime, half personal reminiscence, half informal history, has been serialized in The Guardian, an English-language magazine published in Rangoon which can be found in some American libraries. The editor of The Guardian, Dr. Maung Maung, is the author of Burma in the Family of Nations, published in English in Holland; he has also written a series of profiles of prominent living Burmese for his magazine, which is the vehicle for the best

creative writing being done in English in Burma today. Among his contributors are two very gifted young men who write both stories and verse: U Mya Sein and U Win Pe. As our principal literary ambassador abroad, The Guardian is invaluable.

U Maung Maung Pye, a journalist, has produced a book of humorous essays and sketches, and another on the Burmese kings, both published locally in Rangoon. And one can learn a great deal about the Burmese people from the work of U Nu. He writes originally in Burmese, but his novel, Man, the Wolf of Man, ably translated by "K," was serialized in The Guardian, while his didactic play, The People Win Through, has been published (and produced) in America, as is the case with his highly personal account of Burma Under the Japanese.

Finally, there is the engaging and very informative Burmese Family of Daw Mi Mi Khaing. Published in India, it is an autobiographical sketch which gives a comprehensive account of the customs of the Burmese in modern times.