Open Access
1 February 2008 The Shan: Culture, Art and Crafts
Cordula Ott
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The Shan: Culture, Art and Crafts by Susan Conway. Bangkok, Thailand: River Books, 2006. 212 pp. US$50. ISBN 974-9863-06-2.

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First of all, The Shan: Culture, Art and Crafts is a surprising book. This may be due to the fact that its appearance and title, at a first glance, suggest a descriptive, somewhat museumizing approach to the subject. The author takes her readers on a journey through the eventful history of the Shan States in inland Southeast Asia, which, even at present, comprise nearly a quarter of the country known today as Myanmar. The wealth of historical photographs and beautiful pictures of crafted artifacts in this lavishly illustrated book evoke stories of legendary exotic countries in a distant past. At the same time, it promises a deep insight into the arts and crafts of bygone cultures. And indeed, the volume nourishes fascination and scientific interest alike. Susan Conway—a British artist and Research Associate at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London—has compiled a highly differentiated collection of art treasures and expert knowledge about cultural artifacts.

At the core of the book, Chapters 3 to 6 deal in detail with the art and crafts of the Shan. “Male Dress in the Shan States” and “Female Dress in the Shan States” (Chapters 3 and 4) consider the dress of both villagers and royalty in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Conway points out how the Shan royalty, in particular, modified their dress to suit prevailing political and economic circumstances. Moreover, clothing and textiles were closely associated with sumptuary laws—a fact that is particularly evident in dress worn to lavish ceremonies at the Burmese court. Chapter 5, “Princes and Palaces,” highlights royal customs and lifestyles, as well as palace architecture and regalia, which, much like dress, reflect the local hierarchies and influences of surrounding powers at any given point in time. “Shan Art and Crafts” (Chapter 6), finally, presents the Shan craftspeople, who have always been considered legendary by their neighbors, along with their astounding palette of products, including Buddhist mural paintings, textiles, furniture, lacquer ware, silverware, pottery, and basketry.

The most surprising quality of the book lies in the way Conway succeeds in imparting to her readers a deep understanding of how artifacts obtain their place, interpretation and meaning within a culture. This is reflected in the chapter sequence: the central chapters described above are framed by 2 introductory and 2 final chapters. The introductory chapters unravel the historical background up to modern times, describing societal changes and, in particular, the intense interactions between the Shan and the surrounding, usually dominating, powers. Chapter 1, “Setting the Scene,” provides an introductory analysis of the cultures, traditions and economies of the Shan States in the context of their ethnic fabric. Over time, hill and valley dwellers established, modified and resolved complex family networks and political alliances that enabled them to interact socially, politically and economically, and, at times, to fight and go to war. “The Shan States: History” (Chapter 2) traces the formation of the Shan States and describes how the Shan elites succeeded in preserving their culture alongside the surrounding powers that dominated them—Burma, China, and the colonial powers of England and France—until 1962, when the Burmese military regime forced the Shan elites into exile and shattered the cultural and social interaction patterns developed over the centuries. The first of the closing chapters, “Trade” (Chapter 7), deals with long-distance and petty trade in the Shan States, with particular reference to textiles, dress and raw materials. This is followed by a brief “Conclusion” examining the state of the Shan culture in the current political climate.

Conway thus attaches great importance to the social and political dynamics that form the backdrop for the artisan and artistic expression of the ethnic groups subsumed under the term Shan. She points out that, for centuries, the Shan States formed a marginal region between the centers of power of Burma and China, and, later on, the colonial powers. The border along the Mekong river that separates Myanmar from China and Thailand was established only at the end of the 19th century, under British rule. Before, borders had not been understood as fixed lines, but rather shifted in accordance with the expansion or diminution of the dominant political powers' realms of influence. By means of alliances and intrigues, as well as war and trade, the Shan royalty succeeded in playing off the surrounding powers against each other and maintaining a certain degree of independence. The backbone of their sophisticated culture was highly productive rice cultures—sufficient to sustain not only the religious and political elites, but also a class of craftspeople—along with a natural environment rich in gem-stones, precious metals and precious woods. Surrounding powers repeatedly failed to annex the area due to its poor accessibility and controllability. Thus, the Shan States took on the function of a buffer zone, as well as that of a connection along which, in good times, trade flourished. Openness and interaction with the surrounding cultures were important preconditions for the development of an autonomous Shan culture. However, it would be wrong to assume that the common people had any choice in this regard. The constant need for manpower in the sparsely populated country led to resettlement of farmers and forced recruitment of craftspeople from abroad. These, along with slavery, war and trade, were the actual drivers of interaction. Conway calls attention to the activeness and also the pragmatism with which people in this dynamic environment continuously adapted and recreated their cultural heritage, while at the same time successfully maintaining their cultural identity. Interaction between the different groups of hill and valley dwellers was a central integrative power, employing culture and cultural elements as strategic means for building identity, forming alliances, and modernizing the country.

Wherever there is a need for proof that neither culture and tradition, nor ethnicity can be dealt with as static concepts; that, on the contrary, they are constantly subject to change and adaptation, this is certainly a book to refer to. In this regard, Conway presents a deeply ethnological piece of work. And despite its complexity, it is an enthralling read from the first page to the last. Its structure is a great benefit, as it enables experts to use the book as a reference work. Much detail and expert knowledge may confuse lay readers; however, these sections can be skipped without substantially interrupting the flow of thought. A minor drawback of the chosen structure and chapter sequence may be that it inevitably leads to certain redundancies. The only major shortcoming of the book is the absence of high-quality cartographic material. Given the significance of geographical interrelations, detailed maps would have provided a helpful means of orientation and an aid in structuring the wealth of information provided throughout the volume.

A review of the history and culture of the Shan could not have been more timely. The recent events in Burma have reminded the global population of the tragedies taking place in this almost entirely isolated country. Today, Burma is one of the world's poorest states. The splendor, wealth and power of the past have been lost, and the various ethnic groups are suffering oppression and fragmentation. One may well share Conway's hopes for a future revival of the Shan culture and craftsman-ship under more favorable political conditions in Burma. However, her records also imply that it is nearly impossible to assess how much of the Shans' knowledge, skills and local craftsmanship has been preserved, or how they have been handed down from generation to generation. Even if the Shan States should recover the freedom of interstate mobility, dialogue and open interaction, local producers would face unfavorable conditions. With the exception of marginal areas, local craftsmanship was already destroyed towards the end of the 19th century, when foreign goods such as cotton began to invade the markets. Today, markets are flooded with cheap Chinese mass products. Craftspeople do not have sufficient purchasing power to buy raw material for their products. Secular buildings are being left to decay, art treasures have been stolen, and the decline of craftspeople and artists is progressing along with the deprivation of ethnic minorities and their cultures. In the long run, tourism and niche production of high-quality art and crafts may prove a potential—but only if knowledge and skills are not entirely lost. This is where the strength of Conway's book comes in. As a comprehensive collection of art treasures preserved both in Burma and abroad it contributes substantially to the struggle against oblivion. When time comes, it will help to revive remaining integrative forces.

Cordula Ott "The Shan: Culture, Art and Crafts," Mountain Research and Development 28(1), 95-96, (1 February 2008).
Published: 1 February 2008
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