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SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research, Vol. 1, No. 2, Autumn 2003, ISSN 1479-8484 

[Lecture on the Shans] 

Rev. Dr. J. N. CUSHING 

From Rangoon Gazette and Weekly Budget 26 October 1888. 

The lecture given by Dr. Cushing on the subject of the Shans the other evening, does much to 
make one realize the extent of the country recently annexed to the British Empire, and the 
wonderful variety of peoples and races dwelling in it. Of course, everyone who has seen 
anything of Burma, and paid any attention to its history, knows that it is essentially not the 
country of the Burmese. The Burmese proper are probably a very small minority in it, though the 
peoples of other races, Talines, Shans, and some others, have in certain places become so 
Burmanized that it is difficult to distinguish them from the Burmese. The process has probably 
been going on for centuries in some degree, and was no doubt greatly accelerated first by the 
conquests achieved by Alaungpra and his immediate successors, and latterly by the policy of 
the British who, misled by the fact that the provinces they annexed were wrested from the kings 
of Burma, took it for granted that the great majority of the people were Burmese, and that 
Burmese was the language of the country. It will probably never be known exactly how much 
the British Government has done to make Burmese the language of the country, from the first 
by making it the language of the Courts, and the language which British officials in Burma must 
study; and latterly by the educational policy which almost forced every school-boy who came to 
school to learn English, to learn Burmese as well.. 

The fuller knowledge we now possess of the country known as Burma, show us that it 
was very far from being the country of the Burmese, in the sense of being the country peopled 
exclusively by that race and generally speaking that tongue. It was a country of many races and 
peoples, speaking many different tongues, and with our present knowledge of those different 
races the constant wonder is how the Burmese came so much to the surface as they actually 
did. They do not seem to be naturally more brave, more industrious, more capable of 
organisation, or more ready to admit to discipline, than such races the Shans, Talines, and 
Karens. On the contrary, looking at these races as we know them now, both the Shans and 
Karens at least, seem to have far more those qualities which ought to have brought them to the 
surface, than the Burmese have, who actually did become the dominant race. To say that the 
Burmese gained their ascendancy because they had become welded into a nation, while the 
others were still split up into petty clans and principalities, only throws the difficulty back a 
stage. The Burmese became welded into a nation because they had got possession of the 
plains, where the organisation of a kingdom in more easily affected than in mountainous regions 
where communications are difficult. But then the question naturally arises as to how the race, 
apparently least endowed with the qualities which contribute to success in the struggle for 
existence, got and retained, possession of the plains, driving their "betters" 'from this point of 
view, to the hills and to the more inaccessible jungles. 

Another curious point raised by the consideration of the condition of Burma as the British 
found it, is its striking contrast in many ways to India. Both countries had for centuries been the 
scene of incessant conflict among the petty Kings ruling over parts of them; both countries too 
had been swept over by wave after wave of invasion from abroad; and in both cases the 



invaders, finding a more fertile land than their own mountains fastnesses, were apt to stay. The 
invasions of India by hordes from the north-west are matters of well known history; and in a 
similar manner successive hordes from the neighbourhood of China poured into Burma. 
According to Dr. Cushman the founders of the kingdom of Siam, were probably the last comers, 
and it can have been no petty irruption of a small fugitive band, which went so far and started 
that kingdom. But though both India and Burma had been subjected for centuries to very similar 
conditions before they passed under British control, there were great differences in the results. 
In India in spite of decimating wars common to both countries, and in spite of fearful famines 
which are peculiar to India, in great parts of that peninsula the British found a teeming 
population, while in Burma the country was so scantily populated that the greater part of its had 
lapsed back into impenetrable jungle. It is difficult to see why perpetual conflict and recurring 
famines combined, had failed to depopulate India. Probably when Eastern history is more 
carefully studied than it has yet been, some light may be thrown on these points, but meantime 
they seem to be inexplicable.