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The literature of Burma (or Myanmar) spans over a millennium.

Burmese literature was historically influenced by Indian and Thai


cultures, as seen in many works, such as the Ramayana. The Burmese
language, unlike other Southeast Asian languages (e.g. Thai, Khmer),
adopted words primarily from Pāli rather than from Sanskrit. In
addition, Burmese literature has the tendency to reflect local folklore
and culture.

Burmese literature has historically been a very important aspect of


Burmese life steeped in the Pali Canon of Buddhism. Traditionally,
Burmese children were educated by monks in monasteries in towns
and villages. During British colonial rule, instruction was formalised
and unified, and often bilingual, in both English and Burmese known as
Anglo-Vernacular. Furthermore, Burmese literature played a key role
in disseminating nationalism among the Burmese during the colonial
era, with writers such as Thakin Kodaw Hmaing, an outspoken critic of
British colonialism in Burma.

Classical literature
The earliest forms of Burmese literature were on stone engravings for
memorials or for special occasions such as the building of a temple or
a monastery. Later, palm leaves called peisa were used as paper,
which resulted in the rounded forms of the Burmese alphabet. During
the Bagan Dynasty, King Anawrahta adopted Theravada Buddhism as
the state religion, and brought many Pali texts from Ceylon. These
texts were translated, but Pali remained the literary medium of the
Burmese kingdom. Furthermore, Pali influenced Burmese language in
structure, because of literal translations of Pali text called nissaya. The
earliest works of Burmese literature date from the Bagan dynasty.
They include proses recording monarchical merit acts and poetic
works, the earliest of which was Yakhaing minthami eigyin (Cradle
Song of the Princess of Arakan), dated to 1455.[1] During the Bagan
and Innwa dynasties, two primary types of literature flourished,
mawgun (မမမမမမမမမ) and eigyin, (မမမမမမ) and pyo (မမမမမ),
religious works generally derived from the Jataka tales.[1] Non-fiction
and religious works prevailed during this period although kagyin
(မမမမမမ), a war poem by a monarch, was an early form of this
genre in history.[2]

As literature grew more liberal and secular, poetry became the most
popular form of literature in Burma. The flexibility of the Burmese
language, because of its monosyllabic and tonal nature, and its lack of
many consonantal finals allowed poetry to utilise various rhyming
schemes. By the 1400s, four primary genres of poetry had emerged,
namely pyo (poems based on the Jataka Tales, linka (မမမမမမ
metaphysical and religious poems), mawgoun (historical verses written
as a hybrid of epic and ode), and eigyin (lullabies of the royal family).
Courtiers also perfected the myittaza (မမမမမမမမ ), a long prose letter.

Monks were also influential in developing Burmese literature. Shin


Aggathammadi rendered in verse the Jataka stories. During this time,
Shin Maha Thilawuntha (1453–1520) wrote a chronicle on the history
of Buddhism. A contemporary of his, Shin Ottama Gyaw, was famous
for his epic verses called Tawla that revelled in the natural beauty of
the seasons, forests and travel. Yawei Shin Htwe, a maid of honour,
wrote another form of poetry called aingyin on the 55 styles of
hairdressing.[3]

After the conquest of Siam by the Toungoo Dynasty, Thailand became


a Burmese colony. This conquest incorporated many Thai elements
into Burmese literature. Most evident were the yadu or yatu (မမမမ),
an emotional and philosophic verse and the yagan (မမမမမ), which
imitated the themes of the yadu genre, which was more emotionally
involved, could be inspired by mood, place, incident, and often
addressed to sweethearts and wives. Famous writers of yadu include
Nawadei I (1545-1600) and Prince Natshinnaung (1578-1619).[1] Some
parts of Laos and Cambodia also became Burmese colonies during
Second Burmese Empire and thereby influenced Burmese literature.

In the areas of law, there were two major types of literature,


dhammathat (မမမမမမမ ), which appeared prior to the 13th century,
and shauk-htone (မမမမမမမမမမမ), which were compilations of brief
accounts of historic cases and events in simple narrative to serve as
guides and legal precedents for rulers.[1]

As the Konbaung Dynasty emerged in the 1700s, the Third Burmese


Empire was founded. This era has been dubbed the "Golden Age of
Literature". After a second conquest of Ayutthaya (Thailand), many
spoils of war were brought to the Burmese court. The Ramayana
(မမမမမ) was introduced and was adapted in Burmese. In addition,
the Ramayana inspired romantic poems, which became popular literary
sojourns among the royal class. Burmese literature during this period
was therefore modelled after the Ramayana, and dramatic plays were
patronised by the Burmese court.[4] Moreover, the Burmese adapted
Thai verses and created four new classical verses, called: taydat
(မမမမမမ), laygyo (မမမမမမမမ), dwaygyo (မမမမမမမမမ) and
bawle (မမမမမမ).[1] Furthermore, the arrival of the first printing press
in Burma in 1816, sent by the Serampore Mission, helped to liberalise
centuries-old traditions of writing in verse (lay-lone tha-paik
(‌မမမမမမမမမမမမမမမ), a poetry type, where four syllable lines are
linked in a climbing rhyme and grouped into stanzas of 30 lines.).[1]

Monks remained powerful in Burmese literature, compiling histories of


Burma. Kyigan Shingyi (1757–1807) wrote the Jataka Tales
incorporating Burmese elements, including the myittaza (Pali metta or
love + Burmese sa or letter), which are love letters and are important
sources of first-hand accounts of the economic and social changes
Burma was undergoing before colonialism.[1] During the First Anglo-
Burmese War (1823–1826), more solemn and muted moods exuded
from Burmese literature, including lyrical music. In addition, yazawin,
historical chronicles, became important in the Konbaung dynasty,
although they had been written since the Innwa dynasty. In 1724, U
Kala wrote the Maha yazawin gyi (The Great Chronicles), covering
Burmese history until 1711.[1] In 1829, King Bagyidaw appointed
scholars to compile the Hmannan yazawin dawgyi (Glass Palace
Chronicle), covering Burmese history until 1821.[1] A successor king,
King Mindon Min appointed a committee of Burmese scholars from
1867 to 1869 to create the Dutiya maha yazawin dawgyi (The Second
Great Royal Chronicles).[1]

[edit] Colonial literature


When Burma became a colony of British India, Burmese literature
continued to flourish, even though the institution of the Burmese
monarchy, the leading patron of Burmese arts and literature in pre-
colonial times, had been dismantled. English literature was still
relatively inaccessible although both English and Burmese, in a
curriculum called Anglo-Vernacular, was now taught in schools.[5]
Despite the fact that Burmese literature was well entrenched in
Burmese culture, the lack of patrons to support literature slowed its
further development. The colonial period marked a tremendous change
in Burmese literature, which had once been patronised and innovated
by members of the royal court, and was now being led by civilians
such as university students.

In 1910, J S Furnivall established the Burma Research Society, which


further emboldened the Burmese to protect their literary and cultural
heritage.[1] Beginning in the 1920s, a nationalist movement emerged,
and this influence became evident in modern novels, short stories, and
poems. At the University of Rangoon, student writers continued to
develop new forms of Burmese poetry.
A major landmark in Burmese literature was called the Hkit san
(Testing the Times, မမမမမမမမ) movement, a search for a new style
and content, led most notably by Theippan Maung Wa along with Nwe
Soe, Zawgyi, Min Thu Wun and Mya Kaytu, while still at university and
after, in the decade before the Second World War.[6][7] During the Hkit
san movement, University of Rangoon students innovated new styles
of writing, with shorter and clearer sentences, and unadorned prose, a
radical transformation from royal writings of the pre-colonial eras
beforehand.[1] The movement for independence continued to fuel
Burmese literature.

Thakin Kodaw Hmaing was greatly influential in spawning this anti-


colonial literature with his powerful laygyo gyi (မမမမမမမမမမမမ) and
htika (မမမမ) verses famous for their patriotic and satirical content.[6]
Hmawbi Hsaya Thein was particularly influential, with Bazat yazawin
(Oral Chronicles), which relied on oral tradition. Novels also came into
vogue, with the first being James Hla Kyaw's Maung Yin Maung Ma Me
Ma, written in 1904 and inspired by the Count of Monte Cristo. Kala
paw wut-htu (မမမမမမမမမမမမ , 'modern novels') became popular
during this era, with P Moe Nin writing the first Burmese novels to
focus on the individual and place that character at the center of the
plot.[1] Theippan Maung Wa, and Thein Pe Myint[6] were among other
original and innovative authors from the colonial period. Women
writers, such as Dagon Khin Khin Lay, who wrote about the hardships
of peasant life under colonialism, also gained prominence during the
nationalist period leading up to independence.[1] The British author
George Orwell, who was severely critical of British colonialism, wrote
Burmese Days published in 1935.

In addition, literary culture in Burma expanded to the masses during


this period, with the arrival of printing presses and publishers, such as
the Hanthawaddy Press, a major publisher of Burmese and Buddhist
works established by Phillip Ripley.[1] In the 1920s to the 1930s,
monthly literary magazines like Dagon and Ganda Lawka (World of
Classics) were published to connect readers to writers, who often
published novels in serial installations.

[edit] Post-colonial literature


After independence in 1948, Burmese literature developed further to
adopt and assimilate Western styles of writing. A year earlier, the
Burmese Translation Society, a government-subsidised organization,
was founded to translate foreign works, especially those related to the
fields of science and technology. In 1963, a year after the socialist
coup, the Society was merged into the Sapay Beikman
(မမမမမမမမမမ), a government publishing house. Another influential
publisher was the Pagan Press (est. 1962), which translated Socialist
and Marxist works into Burmese.[1] In 1976, the first Burmese
encyclopedia (Burmese: မမမမမမမ မမမမမမမမမမမမ) was published.

The socialist government, like the previous civilian government, was a


patron of Burmese literature, believing "enriching literature" to be a
goal of socialist democracies, as outlined in the Revolutionary Council's
System of Correlation of Man and his Environment. However,
censorship and promotion of socialist ideology became important aims
of the government, in regulating literature, as seen in the
reorganisation of the Ministry of Information, which censored works
according to three primary objectives that aimed to promote socialism:
[5]

1. To introduce necessary bills, acts and orders concerning literature and


information agencies.
2. To promote participation of the people in the construction of the
socialist state.
3. To defend the socialist system from its ideological enemies.

—Discussion of the National Literary Conference. Rangoon: Ministry of


Information, 1963.

In 1971, the government formed the Burmese literary Commission, to


develop Burmese literature further.[5] On 5 July 1975, the Printers and
Publishers' Central Registration Board, the main censorship board of
the Home Ministry (four years earlier, the Board had been a part of the
Information Ministry), issued a statement to warn publishers to self-
censor works (especially those criticising the Burma Socialist
Programme Party, the government, pornographic writing and libel),
undermining the principle of freedom of expression.[5] Many
contemporary works are of history and biographical accounts. Because
of strict government censorship beginning in the 1960s with the rule of
Ne Win, Burmese literature has become subdued in many ways.

By 1976, only 411 titles were published annually, compared to 1882,


when 445 titles were published.[5] Various factors, especially the
lengthened bureaucratic process to obtain printing permits,
censorship, and increasing economic hardship of consumers because of
the socialist economic schemes, contributed to the decline of Burmese
literary output.
Popular novels are have similar themes, often involving adventure,
espionage, detective work, and romance. Many writers also translate
Western novels, especially those of Arthur Hailey and Harold Robbins.
The flourishing translation sector is the result of the Burmese
government, which did not sign the Universal Copyright Convention
Agreement, which would have forced Burmese writers to pay royalties
to the original writers.[5]

Short stories, often published in magazines, also enjoy tremendous


popularity. They often deal with everyday life and have political
messages (such as subtle criticisms of the capitalist system), partly
because unlike novels, short stories are not censored by the Press
Scrutiny Board. Poetry is also a popular genre today, as it was during
the monarchical times, but unlike novels and other works, which use
literary Burmese, may use the vernacular, instead of literary Burmese.
This reform movement is led by left-leaning writers who believe
laymen's language (the vernacular and colloquial form of Burmese)
ought to be used instead of formal Burmese in literature.[5]

One of the greatest female writers of the Post-colonial period is Journal


Kyaw Ma Ma Lay. Khin Myo Chit was another important writer, who
wrote, among her works, The 13-Carat Diamond (1955), which was
translated into many languages. The journalist Ludu U Hla was the
author of numerous volumes of ethnic minority folklore, novels about
inmates in U Nu-era jails, and biographies of people working in
different occupations. The Prime Minister U Nu himself wrote several
politically oriented plays and novels.

Other prolific writers of the post-colonial era include Thein Pe Myint


(and his The Ocean Traveller and the Pearl Queen, considered a
Burmese classic), Mya Than Tint (known for his translations of Western
classics like War and Peace), Thawda Swe and Myat Htun.
Distinguished women writers, who have also been an ever-present
force in Burmese literary history, include Kyi Aye, Khin Hnin Yu, and
San San Nweh.

[edit] See also


• Culture of Burma
• Yama Zatdaw
• Cinema of Burma
• Censorship in Burma
• Literature about Southeast Asia
[edit] References
1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p Herbert, Patricia; Anthony Milner and
Southeast Asia Library Group (1989). South-East Asia.
University of Hawaii Press. pp. 5–21. ISBN 9780824812676.
2. ^ Nga-zi-shin Kyaw-Zwa (14th C.). "Shield Dance Song (ka jin)
inc. audio".
http://www.seasite.niu.edu/Burmese/literature/Poetry/ka-
jin.htm.
3. ^ D.G.E. Hall (1960). Burma. Hutchinson University Library.
pp. 32–33.
http://mission.itu.ch/MISSIONS/Myanmar/Burma/bur_history.pd
.
4. ^ "Ramayana in Myanmar's Heart".
http://goldenlandpages.com/hotspots/rama/rama.htm.
Retrieved 2006-09-05.
5. ^ a b c d e f g U Thaung (Aung Bala) (1981). "Contemporary
Burmese Literature". Contributions to Asian Studies 16: 81–99.
http://pao.chadwyck.com/articles/displayItem.do?
FormatType=fulltextpdf&direct=true&QueryType=articles&Result
sID=11B1040CD6BBDF952&filterSequence=0&ItemNumber=1&j
ournalID=u309. Retrieved 2008-08-10.
6. ^ a b c Anna J. Allott Ed. (1988). Far Eastern Literatures in the
20th Century - Burmese Literature. England: Oldcastle Books.
pp. 2,5–6,8–9.
7. ^ Maung Swan Yi (Dec 2002). ""Chewing the West":The
Development of Modern Burmese Literature under the Influence
of Western Literature". pp. 4-5.
http://www.uiowa.edu/~iwp/WRIT/documents/MAUNGSwanYifor
mattedOctober13.pdf. Retrieved 2006-09-05.