Academic journal article Southeast Asian Studies

Being and Becoming Kachin: Histories beyond the State in the Borderworlds of Burma

Academic journal article Southeast Asian Studies

Being and Becoming Kachin: Histories beyond the State in the Borderworlds of Burma

Article excerpt

Being and Becoming Kachin: Histories Beyond the State in the Borderworlds of Burma

Over the past 15 years, Mandy Sadan has single-handedly launched new historical scholarship on the Kachin people. The Kachin, a group of highlanders who mostly reside in the northern region of Myanmar, had long been widely known among academics, thanks to Edmund Leach's 1954 classic Political Systems of Highland Burma: A Study of Kachin Social Structure. The lack of access to Myanmar, however, has meant that until very recently scholarly discussions were often more about Leach and his theory than about the Kachin people themselves. Sadan, an English historian, has introduced an entirely new set of historical studies from a resolutely empirical perspective. The much-anticipated monograph, Being and Becoming Kachin: Histories Beyond the State in the Borderworlds of Burma, brings together the fruits of her scholarship, including a surprisingly large amount of findings that have not been published before. This publication is certainly a cause for celebration, especially because it is rare that such a thick monograph exclusively focused on one ethnic minority group is published at all nowadays.1) With this monograph, Sadan has again raised the standard of Kachin scholarship to a new level. Students of Kachin studies will be indebted to this book for decades to come.

Being and Becoming Kachin is not an accessible book, however. Sadan herself admits in her Introduction that "the primary concern of this book is to explore the historical, ongoing, lived complexities" (p. 20) and as such her determination to do justice to the "complexities" of the subject has made the book exceptionally long.2) She uses the word "complex" often-too often, in my opinion-to characterize the subject matter in order to justify the length of this 512-page tome. It is not available as an e-book, and the price of this book is unforgiving. As a result, it is unlikely to be widely available, especially in Southeast Asia. Aware of these concerns, Sadan has created a very impressive accompanying website (www.mandysadan.weebly.com), which presents not only chapter-by-chapter summaries but also extremely rare archival materials in digital formats. The website is a truly commendable effort, which should inspire many other scholars.

In this review, I will not perform the conventional task of offering chapter-by-chapter summaries, mainly because we can easily find excellent summaries on the Internet.3) Rather, I will treat this monumental book as the culmination of Sadan's distinguished scholarship and raise a few broad questions about her method. I will therefore refer not only to Being and Becoming Kachin but also to some of Sadan's earlier studies. I will first highlight what I consider to be the book's most original and promising contributions, and then move on to address methodological and historiographical issues. Calling into question her strong faith in secular historiography and textual positivism, I will argue that the historical narratives that are produced and consumed among the Kachin people themselves deserve more scholar attention. My contention is that the Kachin selfrepresentations, which are replete with Christian evangelical rhetoric today, are a worthy object of sustained inquiry.

One of the most important contributions of Being and Becoming Kachin is the spatial scope with which Sadan reframes the geography of "Kachin." Her study broadens the geographical scope of "Kachin" by consistently including the adjacent areas of Jinghpaw-speaking communities: "Singpho" area of northeast India and the "Jingpo" area of southwest China.4) Refusing to treat the Kachin space as a periphery of a nation-state, she treats this region as one integral area. This geographical perspective was always latent in her scholarship, but in this book it is explicitly articulated and substantiated throughout the book. While ethnicity was the primary focus in her previous studies, she emphasizes this geographical framing in this monograph. …

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