Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Stranger kings: Ancient traditions of Chinese power in northeastern Myanmar

As the Chinese state and its emanations extends its reach beyond its traditional powerbases in the Sino-Myanmar hills, it pays to be aware of the motif of strategic Chinese infiltration.

Looking across the border from China into Myanmar (Photo: David and Jessie/Flickr)
Looking across the border from China into Myanmar (Photo: David and Jessie/Flickr)
Published 18 Sep 2017 

The world is transfixed by the appalling situation in Myanmar's Rakhine State, itself a story of sojourning populations, commercial networks that go back to ancient times, and the modern state’s desire to draw lines between insiders and outsiders. The frontier region along another national border, that which Myanmar shares with China, is also a place where flows of illicit and licit trading have long passed through, and with them, short and long term migrants. Yet the history of elite level influence is profoundly different in this part of Myanmar. 

Since independence in 1948, this jagged landscape has seen decades of smuggling, trafficking, armed conflict and proxy warfare. Once a collection of royal principalities, the area is now divided into Northern Shan State, with the major trading and transport hubs of Lashio and Muse, and Eastern Shan State, which includes Kengtung and Tachileik. Over the course of history, the geostrategic significance of these hills has caught the attention of the Burmese, Chinese, and Thai lowland rulers. Arguably, the historical relationship that is the most relevant today is that reflected in the power dynamics the various emanations of the Chinese state have exerted on these lands, strategically positioned between China and the Indian Ocean

American anthropologist Marshall Sahlins wrote in 2008 about the ‘potency of alterity’ in Indonesian and Oceanic polities, that is, that ‘from ancient to modern times, the rulers of a remarkable number of societies around the world have been strangers to the places and people they rule’. The same can be said about Shan State, and the waves of history that brought Chinese sojourners, settlers, and hopeful sovereigns to those parts.

The indigenous rulers of these lands include the Shan; a people who span the Myanmar, Thai, and Chinese borders with a language and origin narrative close to the Thai side. For centuries it was these princes who presided over their realms from hilltop palaces. Official records, such as the documents issued by the palace in Kengtung, wrote many times of successes in staving off Chinese vassalage. Yet the classic model of waxing and waning Chinese power, of celestial rulers based in a faraway imperial capital, only marginally makes sense in this part of the world.   

Commerce has brought Chinese faces into the rugged hillscape of northeastern Myanmar for centuries. The Yunnanese muleteers with their piles of wares, and the southern Chinese businesspeople who migrated to Myanmar towns to set up shops, have contributed to the patchwork of ethnicity in the hills and and a historic awareness of Chinese language and culture. Beyond these familiar, local representations of Chinese integration in the hills, lies an elite-level trend of influence that has repeated itself across history from pre-modern times.   

I argue that the stranger king concept is a way of explaining the strategic placement and long-term incorporation of Chinese elites into the fabric of borderlands politics. Stranger kings, Chinese scholar Liang Yongjia argues, were seen by their subjected people as ‘extra-social’, yet with indigenous roots sur place, by being ‘the descendant of the union of an indigenous woman with a dragon from the ‘supernatural world’, in other words, ‘like a cross-cousin… a kind of affine’. An illustrative example lies in the case of Kokang, whose rulers transformed themselves to straddle the worlds of the indigenous and the stranger.

The ruling family in Kokang state, a now-archaic name for a historical region in the far northeastern corner, were exiled loyalists of the Ming Dynasty who fled at the time of Qing conquest, in the 17th century. They retained their Chinese heritage, and colonial correspondences indicate members of the royal family were literate in Burmese and English as well. In the administrative turbulence between the Second World War and Burma’s independence in 1948, colonial records show that the Kokang rulers successfully lobbied to secede from the Shan principality of Hsenwi and administer their territory in its own right. This had the consequence of elevating their ruler’s status to the highest rank, a sawbwa, where previously they were a subservient level. It is a striking example of kingly re-invention, from regime defeat, to renewal in the Myanmar hillscape.

Followers of Chinese history are familiar with the notion of dynastic cycles and regime collapse. If we consider the late 1940s and early 1950s as the winding down of the Republic of China (ROC) dynasty, then the calculated spread of several divisions of the Republican Army (guojun, or widely known as the guomindang or Kuomintang) into the Shan states fits the same trend. Arguably, their main intention in the Shan states was, contrary to contemporaneous Burmese propaganda, not to use the territory as a launchpad from which to instigate reprisals into mainland China, but rather to profit off the multitude of trades running through the area, in concert with the sawbwa.

Wartime intelligence reports indicate that this should have been no surprise. During World War Two a number of ROC divisions were stationed in the Shan states, over the border from their powerbase and traditional army headquarters in Yunnan. In 1945, a British analyst noted that the 2nd Chinese Army had successfully sought the co-operation of the Hsipaw royal family, a significant Shan principality. This co-operation was founded on a promise made by the Chinese to ‘return their kingdom to them’. Further north in Hsenwi, an informant revealed that Chinese authorities were issuing passes to wartime deserters to settle in the Shan states. The analyst lamented, ‘since when have foreign authorities been empowered to sanction such passes?’. The answer perhaps, is, since forever.  

The hills of Myanmar’s northeastern frontiers are no longer places of princes, and the Kuomintang of the post-war era are have all but gone, or transformed into the constantly evolving network of anti-government armies. The abhorrent conflict in Rakhine may be grabbing the headlines now, but it is one element of a multifaceted condition that former Prime Minister U Nu once described as being ‘hemmed in like a tender gourd among the cactus’. As the Chinese state extends its reach beyond its traditional powerbases in the Sino-Myanmar hills and lowland urban centres, to developing a major port off the Rakhine coast, it pays to be aware of the motif of strategic Chinese infiltration. This is a motif that goes far deeper than the traditional models of distant capitals, celestial rulers, and vassal states, and extends to a point when Chinese elites start to act like the stranger kings of Sahlins' imagining. 

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