It got me thinking.
Students of mainland Southeast Asia cannot ignore the long history of well-documented Christian missionary activity in the region.
And it is a genuinely long history. Trawling through an annotated bibliography I have been putting together over the past few years I came across this quotation from a volume published in 1911. It provides a useful window into a particular historical moment in the missionary encounter in the region. An extract reads:
Kachins – These people inhabit the mountains in the north of Burma on the frontier of Assam. They are a warlike people, and now that they have been prevented from invading their neighbours’ territory by the British Government, they gratify their warlike instinct by quarrelling amongst themselves. Part of their territory is still not directly under British rule, and the Government prohibits Europeans from travelling these parts lest they should be killed and the expense of a punitive expedition should have to be incurred.
The Kachin language has been reduced to writing by Mr. Hanson of the American Baptist Mission. Mr. Hanson has also prepared a Kachin-English dictionary, and Kachin reading-books for schools, which have been published at the expense of the Government.
Extracted from: W. C. B. Purser and A. M. Knight (1911). Christian Missions in Burma. Westminster: Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts. p.23.
Today the majority, and perhaps even the vast majority, of the Kachin in Burma identify as Christian. This is, by any measure, a recent change and one that was only brought about by generations of missionary effort.
As a part of that history of evangelisation, Ola Hanson (“Mr. Hanson” in the 1911 book) remains a figure of considerable renown throughout the Kachin State. He is, of course, most famous as the primary translator of the Jinghpaw-language Bible. In the Kachin State the translation of the Bible is linked to the year 1895 when Ola Hanson presented a version to the Kachin in their own vernacular. Among the hundreds of Westerners who have tried to get to know the people who live in the hills and valleys of northern Burma it is Hanson that arguably made the most long-lasting impact. His reputation – as a linguist, translator and scholar – now only seems to grow as the years tick by.
Readers who want to share reflections on the history of Christian missionary work in Southeast Asia are more than welcome to weigh in here.
In the rush to understand the many other complexities of life in the region, sometimes (secular) scholars ignore the histories of interaction and change that fall outside our immediate experience. But in many parts of Southeast Asia it is very sensible to remain aware of the profound changes brought about by long decades of missionary toil.
And the writen materials left behind by missionaries – in the shape of dictionaries, grammars, translations, biographies, memoirs and all the rest – are, in so many cases, a wonderful resource. Reading between the lines of this historical material can, in my experience, be a very useful academic exercise.