Being and Becoming Kachin

Mandy Sadan, Being and Becoming Kachin: Histories Beyond the State in the Borderworlds of Burma.

Oxford and London: Oxford University Press and the British Academy, 2013. A British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowships Monograph. Pp. xiv, 512; maps, figures, notes, bibliography, index and an accompanying Web-site, “Research Notes: Fieldwork Notes, Photographs and Translations” (

Reviewed by Magnus Fiskesjö.

Mandy Sadan has written the most important book on the Kachin in a long time. It is a voluminous, very rich tome, which treats the history and culture of the Kachin in northern Burma (Myanmar), with extensive discussion of areas that now belong to India and China and where the Kachin are often labeled Singpho and Jingpo, respectively.

Sadan’s book aims to understand “how a modern socio-political discourse centred upon ideological claims about what it means to be and to become Kachin emerged in response to historical experiences” (p. 13), in other words: what it means to be Kachin, in the light of Kachin history since the eighteenth century, and how the Kachin have reconstituted themselves and their relations to others, since then. This story has played out “within, between and across multiple national boundaries” (p. 4), most notably on Burma’s periphery, but it has at the same time been firmly “embedded in … global and regional histories” (p. 13).

The book delves deeply into different accounts of these histories, including prominently those of the Kachin themselves. It offers a wealth of materials, and it even continues on an accompanying Web-site which extends the book further with explanatory commentary, more illustrations, and more translations.

Being and Becoming Kachin is highly recommended for everyone interested in the Kachin, in their situation in Burma, and also for everyone concerned with the broader ethnic issues which loom so large in that country and its region – India, China, Thailand and beyond. It builds above all on the author’s own extensive, multi-year research on the Kachin, both in the field in Burma and beyond and in the British colonial archives from Burma in the India Office Records, at the British Library in London. A prolific scholar, Sadan has previously published a very helpful guide to the Burma materials located in those same archives (Sadan 2008).

The book also builds on Sadan’s previous writings on the Kachin, including her contribution to the volume Social Dynamics in the Highlands of Southeast Asia: Reconsidering Political Systems of Highland Burma by E. R. Leach (2007), which Sadan co-edited with Fran├зois Robinne, and which is in its own right an important scholarly contribution (though not one without its flaws, on which more below). This earlier book is, likewise, one that should not be overlooked by anyone interested in the Kachin and in the many implications for Kachin studies since Leach, and before him.

In the past, Kachin studies have seen some of the giants of anthropology – notably Claude Lévi-Strauss, Edmund Leach, Jonathan Friedman, and James Scott – seeking to make of the Kachin a case study for their own more general propositions in social theory, and Sadan’s book also engages with some of those debates, although for reasons not explained she leaves out Lévi-Strauss. As its title and as its solid, scene-setting introduction announce, this book is squarely focused on the history of the Kachin themselves, on what they have to say about their history, and on what they have made of it. The author forcefully critiques various earlier scholars for omitting and overlooking both Kachin history and the ways in which the Kachin have updated themselves, in the course of that history and as part of their dealing with that history.

Here I will first briefly point out some of the rich contributions of this voluminous book. After that, I also offer a few brief comments on two of the major exciting “general” issues raised by the book: the debate over the social dynamics of the borderlands on the margins of states and the relationship between Burma’s borderlands and pre-colonial Burmese political traditions.

Chapter One, “Global Histories, Local Exclusions”, begins in the west of the Kachin lands, in India’s Assam region, because this was the entry point at which the British colonial project met the Singhpo/Jinghpaw/Kachin, and provoked a new trajectory of Kachin re-definition. This confrontation was part of a global reordering of the Kachin region as the periphery of a new global-capitalist system dominated by the British empire and engaged in expansion, the tea trade, and the extraction of other resources. Sadan here also discusses the role of the old Ahom kingdom, Kachin migrations and expansions, practices and accusations of slavery, and as well as Burmese expansionism and Burma’s uneasy coexistence and confrontations with the eastward-expanding British.(1)

Continuing to build mostly on extensive discoveries made in British archives, which begin to feature accounts of encounters with the Kachin (or Singhpo) from about 1825, Sadan proceeds to treat the 1843 uprising provoked by British encroachments. She notes as an aside (p. 86, n. 3) that certain nationalist Indian writers have claimed this uprising as the first Indian anti-colonial struggle, when it really was a highly consequential assertion of Kachin aims.(2)

In Chapter Two, on “Ritual, Ideology and Politics”, Sadan discusses the broader landscape of the changing relationships between the Kachin and outside powers during the 1843-1878 period. These relationships included those centered on the extraction of resources like jade. These relationships included those centered on the extraction of resources like jade, whose mining Kachin chiefs (like other mountain peoples of the region) controlled by granting concessions. She also notes (p. 94) that Kachin authority in this field was explicitly recognized by Burmese royal authorities. The chapter also offers a particularly fascinating, lengthy discussion of competing notions of power and legitimacy in the Kachin relationship with the Burmese throne, especially as staged in the curiously political Kachin ceremony called Tawn Nat (p. 119 ff.; also see discussion below).

Chapter Three,”Boundaries and Borders”, on the 1878-1915 period furthers the discussion of the ways in which the Kachin and their elites came to define themselves as such, in the process of state/non-state interactions during the British colonial era of purposeful boundary definition.

Chapter Four, “Militarisation and the Contest of Modernities”, moves to the “late colonial period”, up until 1942, and centers on the nature and effect of the militarization of the Kachin, including their recruitment as soldiers into British-colonial military units from 1898 onwards. This recruitment led to service as far away as in distant Iraq during the First World War under the command of the curious and very prolific British military man C. M. Enriquez, who figures prominently in the book’s account. It also addresses what this militarization meant for the processes of self-definition and ethnic constitution taking place in relation to established patterns of kinship affiliation. According to Sadan (especially p. 242-51), it is really only in this era, and partly under the impact of the horrifying shock effects of war, that Christianization takes off and that the term and the concept of “the Kachin” came to be consolidated as a multi-group referent. As an ethnonym, its genesis was complicated, with competition from other reference terms, formerly deployed to encompass a multiplicity of kin groups under a shared banner, and now to carve out a new kind of “national” Kachin space within the British colonial order.

Chapters Five and Six, entitled “War and Independence” and “Dimokrasi Prat to Rawt Malan!”, discuss how, following all these developments in colonial times, certain groupings were during the Second World War and in the early years of independent post-colonial Burma “able to claim authority over ideologies and political and social identity, coming finally to legitimize an armed uprising against the newly independent nation of Burma under the flag of Kachin ethno-nationalism” (p. 37). The former chapter narrates the role of veterans, an important social group active in the making of the new Kachin, and of other social groups in coming to influence what became the demand for a Kachin State at the Panglong conference of 1947.

The latter chapter, on the period from 1948 to 1961, discusses the emergence, after Panglong, of animosity towards a Burmanizing central state under U Nu and the rejection of U Nu’s choice for Burma’s president – a Kachin named Sama Duwa, who tried to transport a Buddha image by train to the Kachin regional city of Myitkina only to have the train blocked by Kachin (p. 323-25). The chapter goes on to focus on the founding of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and its activities, partly as seen in an illuminating, extended account from the perspective of one of the KIA’s founders.

Chapter Seven, “Violence”, proceeds to discuss the pressures arising from the violence of the ethnic war (1961-1994) for adherence to and maintenance of the new pan-Kachin identity. Only in Chapter Eight, on “Virtue: Religious Interactions Across the Borderworlds”, is the widespread Kachin conversion to the foreign religion of Christianity discussed in depth, even though this conversion had started much earlier, under the influence of foreign missionaries whose work is also recounted here. This discussion breaks to some extent with the chronological ordering of the other chapters, but I think it is a wise move. It gives proper recognition to the other factors in the remaking of the Kachin. Many veterans of the Second World War were not Christians, and the abandonment of Kachin indigenous ways was not a rapid, conclusive process. The vehement anti-Buddhism of some Christianized Kachin that Sadan describes was not an original given, but rather a product of the complex history that she recreates for us. I think that Sadan’s organization of the book thus properly situates both Christianity and the ensuing Christian-theological interventions in the re-composition of a Kachin history for the purposes of the new polity. The chapter also offers a nuanced discussion of the relationship among Christianity, Kachin spirit beliefs, and popular Buddhism in Burma today (p. 391-97).

Chapter Nine, “Transnational Symbols in National Spaces”, treats the re-creationof the public manau (manao) ritual, or festival, especially after the 1994 ceasefire with Yangon. It explains the ritual’s having become a vehicle for maintaining the new-order unity fashioned during the war years and at the same time a new locus of contestation and argument over what it is to be Kachin, in Burma and India as well as in China.

The conclusion of Being and Becoming Kachin reviews the achievements of the book. As Sadan notes, the book delves at length into how “the dynamics of a rapidly changing world … influenced the internal social discourses of Kachin communities in intimate contact with those forces of transformation” (p. 457). At the same time, she argues, it also offers an extensive overview of the ways in which different Kachin actors have not only participated in their history and thus been affected by external forces, but also acted to shape that history and their own part within it under agonizingly difficult circumstances. Sadan also attempts to look forward to the possibility of reconciliation and dialogue in Burma, despite the many years of war and confrontation.

I cannot do justice to the rich detail and astute discussions that fill the pages of this book! I will only offer this much of an (admittedly very truncated) summary presentation. Ultimately, readers will have to find a copy of their own (and link up with the accompanying Web-site), to judge the volume for themselves. Still, as part of the new discussions that this book will provoke, I also want to take the opportunity to offer a few thoughts on some of the general questions raised by Sadan’s important work.

A first question centers on the longstanding debates over the social dynamics of the borderlands of the Burmese state. Most writings on the Kachin prominently mention Leach and his Political Systems of Highland Burma, first published in 1954, but not Jonathan Friedman’s (1979, 1998) demolition of Leach’s theory, which was undertaken using the tool-kit of 1970s structural Marxism. I was pleasantly surprised that in this new book Sadan breaks with this longstanding pattern, and does engage Friedman on multiple scores. This is as it should be. However, while foregrounding Friedman’s own call for renewed analysis of the peoples of this region “in their historically specific circumstances” (p. 19) – something Friedman himself admits was sorely missing in his all-out assault on Leach’s theory – she actually does not go very far in taking on Friedman’s original claims. He himself has not backed away from these claims, at all.

Friedman should not have been included in Sadan’s blanket dismissal of “traditional anthropological discourse on this region” (p. 20), as if he were suggesting that somehow the Kachin were stuck in tradition as un-modernity. Anthropology has indeed at times suffered from its own primitivism, but in Friedman’s case, this is not really relevant. His Kachin argument was about general principles that would not be fundamentally different in Europe or anywhere else and that would encompass both “mandalas” or “galactic polities” and “Sons of Heaven” or any other such ideological fictions turned political fact. This point is, I believe, a central feature of the “global anthropology” that Friedman has pursued since his work on the Kachin.

As for the Kachin, in my view, Friedman’s feat in System, Structure and Contradiction was above all to provide a viable explanation for change, where Leach and his failed theory of “oscillation” had not been able to do more than suggest the attraction and the “mimicry” of foreign ideals present on the horizon in the form of Indian and Chinese ideals of kingship. In effect Leach thus left the Kachin as one component of a static machinery, not as an agent of history. Indeed, many have pointed out Leach’s engineering background, which may have prevented him from realizing that society is more than a machine.

But Friedman outlined a dynamic process involving the interplay of both the ideology and the material conditions of the actors involved in the drama, and leading both to the “internally” generated cascading of and the collapse of social hierarchy, and to its transformation in the process. His was a general argument about how social hierarchy comes to be, and may be undone, and transformed. Lévi-Strauss (1969, 1949), writing before Leach, had been unable to do more than (astutely) draw on Hanson and Gilhodes and the other Kachin “classics” to discover and point out the internal drivers of change and instability built into Kachin kinship systems’ dynamics. Friedman fleshed all this out into a general theory of the forces driving emergent polities on the frontiers of established states and in the context of the waxing and waning of empires such as China – which he saw as originally having begun as a Kachin-style polity!

Curiously, Friedman’s theory has long been ignored in Asian studies, even in the Robinne-Sadan 2007 edited volume expressly devoted to discussing the legacy of Leach! What could be the reason for this perplexing silence? It has long been a mystery to me, and the only possible reasons I can think of are either, first, a taboo against anything that espouses Marxism, however critically or innovatively, or, second, a wariness toward or even exasperation with the high threshold presented by Friedman’s sometimes impenetrable 1970’s jargon. Even the 1998 edition of his book, with its masterful new preface, left the main text unchanged. But it should be noted that in the 1980s multiple reviewers were perfectly capable of reading the book and engaging with its main tenets. Thus the taboo on Marxism must be the main reason that Friedman’s powerful book has come to be so studiously ignored in Southeast Asian studies. Some people even teach Leach’s Political Systems without mentioning Friedman (or Lévi-Strauss . . . )!

At least with the extended critiques of the flaws in Leach compiled by Sadan and Robinne (2007), and the new critique now presented in Sadan’s marvelous new book, Leach will be further reduced to an illustration of a certain moment in the history of anthropology and no longer viewed as a reliable guide to Kachin studies. For that purpose, also see Lehman 1989 (also left out by Sadan), a neat and very readable primer on aspects of Kachinology related to Friedman’s theory-building and on the socio-economic factors behind the abandonment of Kachin ritual and switch to the foreign religion of Christianity.(3) I often bring Lehman’s short piece up in my own teaching, and in my experience, if they make the effort, students today are perfectly able to read, understand, and debate Friedman and the complex issues involved.

We will now have much more to go on, with Sadan’s Being and Becoming Kachin and some recent works on the Naga (for example, Oppitz et al. 2008) that also take up the challenge of Friedman’s 1998 call for the writing of the histories of the Kachin, Naga, Wa and others, which his own “laboratory” model anno 1979 had not taken into account.

On the related, large question of the historical relations between the Burmese state and its “borderlands”, I believe that Sadan’s book makes valuable suggestions that will open further discussion. She correctly points out that Kachin polity-building has not been only about mimicking ideals on the far horizon, but also about broader notions of “state-based political authority” (p. 134 ff.; p. 134 n. 173) – again, see Friedman! Moreover, that process must also be related to the legacy of Burmese Buddhist kingship, on the near horizon.

This reviewer could not agree more. There are other scholars (Gravers 2012, for example), who have written about the pre-British Burmese configuration of a “universal” Buddhist kingship in which, crucially I think, the modern version of “ethnicity” simply was not salient in the same way that it is now. Today, as a religion even Buddhism has, like the more recently imported religions of Christianity and Islam, itself has become rather “ethnified”, of course, but it is important to note that its pre-colonial configuration as a political order in Burma involved an aspiration towards a universalism that de-emphasized any ethnic division.

Sadan’s note (p. 134 n. 173) that Leach, when writing about the Kachin as a self-contained machinery, failed entirely to take Burmese Buddhism into account as a political ordering of Burma as a whole, is very pertinent. So, too, is her own discussion of these issues (pp. 212 ff. onwards), which is carried out in the light of Lieberman’s and Brac de la Barrière’s comments on the tensions in Burmese Buddhist politics between universalism and a Burmanization and nationalism provoked not least by the confrontation with Britain.

Even with the history of long-entrenched confrontation between Buddhists and non-Buddhists, these points might still inspire new and further debate on the traditional potential of Buddhism and Buddhist politics to contribute to a universal politics beyond ethnic affiliations.

Finally, the literature on the Kachin and on Burma is very extensively and admirably covered by Sadan. Her coverage includes a wealth of Jinghpaw/Kachin language sources, and personal communications with Kachin interlocutors. But there are some sources that have not been taken into account. One other prominent figure in Kachin studies is the Taiwan scholar Ho Ts’ui-p’ing, but her extremely valuable 560-page doctoral dissertation in English, “Exchange, Person and Hierarchy: Rethinking the Kachin”, is not drawn upon here, even though it provides penetrating and independent insight into Kachin culture and on the ways in which gender and identity are culturally constituted in Kachin persons. It presents a formidable critique of Lévi-Straussian as well as Leachian failures in understanding Kachin culture. Ho’s dissertation did not formally appear as a book in English, but it is readily available and worth the attention of all Kachin scholars. Since the completion of her doctorate, Ho has mostly published in Chinese, with work on the manau ritual and on the political objectifications and commodifications of Kachin identity in China. There is but one reference to Ho’s work in Sadan’s work, to a piece entitled “Rethinking Kachin Wealth Ownership” , cited in the Robinne-Sadan volume. Treating what “wealth” means in the Kachin cultural and historical context, this piece gives readers a first sampling of Ho’s productive approach to culture as personhood and personhood as culture.

There is also a voluminous literature on the Kachin in Chinese, one which goes back centuries and includes with chronicles mentioning and describing the Kachin both from a distance and sometimes up close. This literature it is largely left out in Sadan’s work, with exceptions in the case of secondary writings in English and Chinese writings like the late Wang Zhusheng’s and Yang Hui’s book, The Jingpo (1997), which was originally written in English. To be sure, Sadan already does a highly admirable job of integrating Southwest China into her overall argument about the Kachin. But the large Chinese-language literature on the Kachin is in itself valuable, not least from a deep historical perspective. Oof course, much of it pertains to circumstances on the Chinese side of the post-1960s border that cut through the land of the Kachin and left large Kachin-dominated regions and many closely related people like the Lisu on the China side. It is also, and consequentially still, true that much of this Chinese literature is hampered by the limitations imposed by the narrowly biased perspective that constrains much Chinese scholarship, both in the imperial era and today. Still, much as the British documents do for Britain and its imperial system, this literature can cast light on the influence of China, once again increasingly important and reminiscent of the pre-British Chinese imperial system.

In the big picture, these lacunae are less important. All in all, I want very highly to recommend Being and Becoming Kachin as a lasting achievement. Sadan’s rich book is a tremendous contribution to understanding the Kachin and their history. It opens a new era of scholarly discussion. For the peoples of Burma and beyond, it could also contribute towards the process of finding new ways of reconciliation, and future-building.

Magnus Fiskesjö is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Cornell.


1. Kachin expansionism was also treated by Friedman, 1998: 282, as part of his discussion of Kachin state formation. Friedman drew on materials in Edmund Leach’s unpublished 1947 LSE dissertation, “Cultural Change, with Special Reference to the Hill Tribes of Burma and Assam”, that Leach had excluded from his more famous 1954 book.

2. As it happens, these claims offer a fascinating parallel to the way in which, in China, indigenous struggles are often, regardless of their real motivations, re-encompassed within a narrative of “minorities” defending the “nation” – before they even could have known that they were supposed to form part of that nation.

3. Friedman did not, as he might, extend his theorization to the Christianization of the Kachin and its twentieth-century global context).


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Ho, Ts’ui-p’ing. “Rethinking Kachin Wealth Ownership”, pp. 211-55 in Fran├зois Robinne and Mandy Sadan, eds. Social Dynamics in the Highlands of Southeast Asia: Reconsidering Political Systems of Highland Burma, by E. R. Leach. Leiden: Brill, 2007.

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