Nationalism and Burmese Dress

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Burmese men wear longyi and blazers at an elephant camp. c. 1920s.

Recently, I was re-reading George Orwell’s 1933 novel, Burmese Days, which the author based on his experiences as an imperial policeman in lower Burma in the 1920s, when I came upon a passage that reminded me of an entirely different dimension to the evolution of Burmese dress, that is, the way in which clothing came to symbolize the debates over Burmese nationalism at the beginning of the twentieth-century. I include the relevant passage below:

They were about to climb the steps when a slim youth of twenty, damnably dressed in a longyi, blue cricket blazer and bright yellow shoes, with his hair parted and greased ‘Ingaleik fashion’, detached himself from the crowd and came after them. He greeted Flory with a small awkward movement as though restraining himself from shikoing…

The passage goes on to say that the Burmese youth is delivering a letter to the European Flory from his spurned Burmese mistress Ma Hla May who is “blackmailing” him. Flory quickly sends the man away and then he (Flory), and the newly-arrived Englishwoman, Elizabeth, continue into the store whose “European look…piled with Lancashire-made cotton shirts and almost incredibly cheap German clocks” comforts Elizabeth after “the barbarity of the bazaar.”

The passage is short, but hints at a greater meaning. The Burmese man wears a hybrid of Eastern and Western clothing known as khit san or “modern” dress. He greases his hair Ingaleik or “English” style, and declines to perform the traditional shiko or full bow to one’s superior that an interaction between a Burmese man and a European would have otherwise have dictated. By describing him in this way, Orwell is singling him out as a type, and one that would have been immediately recognizable to his colonial readers as the “modern” Burmese young man.

The political context of the book reveals a lot about the Burmese young man. In the 1920s, a new national identity was being forged among young people throughout Burma. The wunthanu athins or “own race associations” were spreading nationalist beliefs throughout the countryside, while in the city, the YMBA or Young Men’s Buddhist Association, was becoming a centre for disillusioned Burmese civil servants who found themselves the objects of discrimination within the racist hierarchy of the Indian Civil Service (ICS).

This state of affairs would culminate in the formation of the Rangoon Student’s Union in 1931 and, more violently, in the Sayar San Rebellion of 1930 (echoed in the somewhat comical siege on the European club at the end of Orwell’s book), which took the British authorities two years to put down and cost a great deal of Burmese and Indian lives. By this point, anxiety about “Burmanization” – the term given to any sort of accommodation to Burmese political rights – had reached a fever pitch amongst British colonial officials. Needless to say, the situation was tense.

At the same time, conservative Burmese men, especially of an older generation, were concerned about what they perceived to be the impending loss of a traditional Burmese culture. Many cited a decline in morality and the authority of the sangha or Buddhist clergy and expressed anxiety over the future of their children in a rapidly modernizing society.

The historians Alicia Turner, Chie Ikeya, and Carol Ann Boshier have all highlighted the importance of these arguments to the growth of Burmese nationalism, and Ikeya in particular has explored the relationship between khit san fashion and the construction of a Burmese nationalist identity. She has focused on the “modern girl,” who drank, smoked cigarettes, and drove cars, as the lightning rod for debates about the effects of Western consumerism and individualism on Burmese culture. These debates, she argues, were really an outlet for Burmese men to vent their own nationalist frustrations, misogyny, and paranoia about women’s newfound roles in society.

But what of the “modern” Burmese man? Later on in the book, Orwell makes the somewhat tongue-in-cheek remark about a group of Burmese youths that they were “Nationalists, like all schoolboys.” But what did the nationalists wear? In her article, Ikeya says that the Burmese nationalists or thakins chose to wear slippers and longyi instead of Western dress out of an interest in reviving traditional Burmese culture as an antidote to the negative effects of colonialism (in the same way that Gandhi’s supporters advocated khaddar or homespun cloth as part of a general boycott of British goods). But the picture of Orwell’s messenger is more complex than that; he is dressed in khit san, rather than the “traditional” clothing of paso (full sarong) and ingyi (short jacket), but he also declines to shiko in front of Flory, a gesture which sets him apart as holding nationalistic beliefs.

The shiko – or full bow – had by this time become a point of anti-colonial resistance to the British government. Young Burmese argued that the shiko ought to be reserved for peya (images of the Buddha) and that it was demeaning and servile for Burmese men to shiko before their British superiors (as it involved knocking one’s forehead against the floor). Some students even went so far as to stage protests against shikoing to their secular teachers in 1903. These arguments were part of a larger movement for Buddhist nationalism that, as Alicia Turner has shown, sought to revive the teachings of the Buddha as a potent political ideology for the twentieth-century.

Another point of contention between young and old was the so-called “English” hair cut or bou ke. Since the arrival of the British in 1853, young, urban Burmese men had begun to cut their top-knots and close-crop their hair in the English way. This was a sore spot for conservatives who deplored the tendency of the young to adapt and re-purpose Western culture for their own purposes. 30 years later, the author Maung Htin Aung would recall disparagingly the typical Burmese boy who entered the monastery as a novice only to give himself an “excuse to wear his hair in the new European style after it had grown again on his shaved head.” For Htin Aung, this generation of young Western-educated Burmese clerks were dissolute; drinking whiskey, gambling, and openly denouncing Buddhism. According to him, the threat to Buddhism from this class of men was especially felt as those who had been educated in English schools knew little of the Buddha or his teachings and entered the monastery only for social reasons.

At the same time, the Cambridge-educated barrister U May Oung observed around 1910 that such men hindered their own prospects for advancement in the ICS. In an article written for Twentieth Century Impressions of Burma, a collection meant to showcase the economic and cultural might of the Province, May Oung remarked that older men were seen wearing the traditional top-knot for official government ceremonies while “the new generation, which has taken to close-cropping [their hair]…finds it impossible to comply.” May Oung was part of this older generation of Burmese men who sought to revitalize Burmese culture and to win greater representation for Burma within the British Empire (at the time in was ruled as a province of India). These men were also keenly aware of the cultural mixing going on in Burma’s growing port cities like Rangoon, Akyab, and Moulmein and perceived a “threat” to Burmese culture from this mixing of Indian, European, and Burmese styles.

Moreover, they were not alone in voicing their opinions on what constituted “traditional” Burmese culture and dress. Many Europeans felt that, as the ruling class, they too should weigh in. A prime example are the writings of Sir James George Scott, at one time Superintendent of the Southern Shan States. In his book Burma: A Handbook of Practical Information (1906), he writes of Burmese women’s dress “a detestable modern fashion has introduced kirtles or farthingales of velvet or velveteen, and all of one dead colour, instead of the butterfly hues, but the Burmese coquette may soon be trusted to find out the mistake.” What Scott means by “kirtles…all of one dead colour” I haven’t a clue (perhaps it is the sheer blouse described in an earlier post), but his contrast of such “modern” fashions with the “butterfly hues” of what he sees as traditional Burmese dress places him firmly within an orientalizing tradition – one that saw Burmese culture as a static, ancient entity that must be protected from the onslaught of the modern world. In addition, Scott’s assertion that the “Burmese coquette may soon be trusted to find out the mistake,” echoes the condescension of the popular Burmese language press that frequently disparaged young women for wearing hybrid fashions, driving cars, and taking employment.

Meanwhile, the Burmese man in Western dress was an object of frequent satire on the part of Europeans. May Oung alludes to this tendency when he says “at one time there was a strong prejudice against the Burman in boots, but it is now happily almost extinct.” A story recounted by Burma’s first president U Ba U in his autobiography, however, demonstrates that such prejudices were manifestly not extinct. In 1907, Ba U and two of his friends boarded a steamer bound for university in England wearing new sets of European clothes made for them by an Indian tailor in Rangoon. But when the ship’s surgeon saw them in their ill-fitting suits and tiny hats, he burst out laughing. Ba U never forgot the slight, nor the many other incidents of racism he was made to endure in his time in England, and they no doubt fueled his desire to see Burma become independent after WWII.

These same racist, colonialist tendencies are present in Orwell’s description of the young Burmese “lad”. Where modern scholars see creative hybridity, Orwell was only able to see slavish imitation or worse, undesirable miscegenation. Burmese Days is often taught as an dark critique of British imperialism, where all the characters who do the really dirty work of imperialism, namely Flory and the corrupt Burmese official U Po Kyin, meet a tragic end, while the benefactors of British rule, Elizabeth and the British lieutenant Verrall, survive. It is often read in conjunction with his short stories The Hanging and Shooting the Elephant, the message being that Orwell disliked imperialism because he thought it was unjust. These stories, when coupled with his coverage of the Spanish Civil War, are supposed to have laid the groundwork for the anti-totalitarian beliefs he expressed in Animal Farm and 1984.

But on second glance, it appears that Orwell disliked imperialism not only because it was unjust, but because he thought it diluted European values and produced undesirable cultural amalgamations like our young Burmese man with an English hair-cut. In Orwell’s words, this man is “damnably” dressed and his shoes are a bright yellow that no Englishman would wear. Moreover, both the young man and the storefront are defined by their deviation from what Elizabeth perceives to be the local norms – in the case of the shop, from the “barbarity of bazaar,” in the case of the Burmese man, from the attire and deferential attitude of Flory’s Burmese servant, Ko S’la.

It is immediately apparent that Orwell’s book is written through an orientalizing lens. In the same way that early European photographers set their Burmese subjects against ‘Oriental’ backdrops, wearing costumes and holding props completely alien to the Burmese environment, Orwell sets his story about the decline and death of a British logging agent against the backdrop of a generalized “Eastern” land. He seems to have a clear idea of how things should be in Burma and so he deems any adaptation of European culture an undesirable side-effect of colonialism (as undesirable as the many illegitimate children born to Englishmen and Burmese women), and therefore fated to end badly (just like Flory’s relationship with Ma Hla May). In fact, there is not a single likable Burmese character in the whole book, except for perhaps Ko S’la, who is at best a caricature of the archetypal Burmese manservant.

Burmese Days, therefore, gives us an interesting insight into hybrid colonial culture and dress, but leaves a bad taste in our mouths. Ikeya, Turner, and Boshier have all shown that the same kind of anxiety about cultural mixing that Orwell expressed helped fuel the fire of Burmese nationalism (and anti-Indian violence) in the years leading up to World War II. Later on, it would give birth to the xenophobic policies that have kept Myanmar isolated from the rest of the world since the 1960s. At the same time, dress was only one component of a larger phenomenon of modernization and cosmopolitanism that Su Lin Lewis has identified in the culture of port cities throughout Southeast Asia at the time. In Burma, this process was occurring at all levels of society and not just in the ports, but in the many smaller inland cities and towns, where the new technologies of the railroad, the telegraph, and the new multi-lingual print culture, were all enabling young Burmese to look outwards and re-appropriate the foreign as their own. This cosmopolitan world prefigured our own globalized world of today. And all this we can read in a pair of clothes.

Sources:

Chie Ikeya, “The Modern Burmese Woman and the Politics of Fashion in Colonial Burma” in The Journal of Asian Studies (Vol. 67, No. 4; 2008), pp. 1277-1308.

Maung Htin Aung. Burmese Monk’s Tales (New York, 1966).

Wright, Cartwright, and O. Breakspear. Twentieth Century Impressions of Burma: Its History, People, Commerce, Industries and Resources (London, 1910).

James George Scott. Burma: A Handbook of Practical Information (London, 1906).

George Orwell. Burmese Days (1934. accessed online: ebooks.adelaide.edu.au).

Su Lin Lewis. Cities in Motion: Urban Life and Cosmopolitanism in Southeast Asia, 1920-1940 (Cambridge, 2017).

Carol Ann Boshier. Mapping Cultural Nationalism: the Scholars of the Burma Research Society, 1910-1935 (Copenhagen, 2018).

Thant Myint-U. The River of Lost Footsteps (New York, 2006).

Alicia Turner. Saving Buddhism: the Impermanence of Religion in Colonial Burma (Honolulu, 2014).

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