Posts Tagged ‘non-fiction’


The People Elsewhere

Unbound Journeys with the Storytellers of Myanmar

Lucas Stewart

Shortlisted for the 2018 Saroyan Prize


In a five year journey all across Myanmar, Lucas Stewart travels from Yangon in the south to the northern limits of Kachin State in search of the literary luminaries of the country’s recent past. He bonds with censored and jailed writers, poets, publishers and booksellers, recording their stories of heritage and resilience. In his conversations with students at an Aung San Suu Kyi rally or sharing stories with a Kayah farmer in his village house, the long-suppressed literatures and languages of minorities such as the Chin, Kachin, Shan and others shine through. The People Elsewhere is a vivid tableau of time and place, and an ode to the ethnic richness of Myanmar.

Penguin Books/Viking


…This book isn’t a memoir but a weaving of two stories. On the one hand it is a simple journey through the writers of a country that is undergoing a transformation many thought would never come; this is a story set in the ‘now’, where change can be seen and touched. The other story is much more complicated: it tells of a country in which the ‘now’ is not as important as the ‘before’, where history and the lessons learnt from it, cannot be easily set aside or forgotten…

Lucas Stewart, The People Elsewhere, Viking, 2016


Available from Penguin/Viking and in digital formats from Amazon.


Praise for ‘The People Elsewhere’:


‘Lucas Stewart’s book is an exquisite map of the many literatures of Myanmar, of the human impulse to express oneself through story and song… In scenes alternately warming and harrowing, it braids travel, history and literary criticism in a most ingenious way to give us an unforgettable portrait of a country long forgotten by the world.’

Chandrahas Choudhury, Author of Clouds and editor of India: A Traveller’s Literary Companion


‘The People Elsewhere is a vigorous and compelling travel parable … In a vivid and tenacious tour through some of the country’s militarily-sealed borderlands, Lucas Stewart explores with great generosity and kinship how previously banned or censored languages are still being preserved in some of remotest and educationally-marginalised areas in the world.’

James Byrne, Co-editor of Bones Will Crow: 15 Contemporary Burmese Poets


‘Lucas Stewart’s journey across Myanmar offers a fascinating insight and a rare glimpse of life through its storytellers … Anyone wanting to discover Myanmar’s rich cultural heritage and how these endearing, diverse and remarkable peoples did more than just survive will find this an important and essential read.’

Nick Danziger, Photojournalist and Author of Danziger’s Travels.


More by Lucas Stewart:


Hidden Words, Hidden Worlds

Dinesh Allirajah Prize for Short Fiction 2018 Winner – ‘Bakhur’

The Act of Insanity – Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Issue 25

Shadow Signatures: A Legacy of Burmese Pen Names – The Bamboo Sea

Hidden Worlds – The Irrawaddy, July, 2014

Myanmar’s Literary Talk Shows – The Diplomat, May 2014

The Kachin: Culture of the Mountain Lords – The Dissident Blog, March 2014

SADAIK Writer and Editor Lucas Stewart’s Personal Website


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Gu Temple

The Abbot


In the spring of 2003, while climbing Fengqi Mountain [凤栖山], about sixty kilometers west of Chengdu, my friends and I stumbled upon an ancient Buddhist temple hidden in a thicket of trees. Guangyan Temple [光严禅院], also known as the Gu Temple [古寺], harkens back to the Sui dynasty (581–618 AD). Built on the slopes of a mountain, the temple is divided into two parts: an upper and a lower section. In the upper section, I encountered a scene of neglect: overgrown plots of grass, and crumbling pagodas, which housed the bones of deceased Buddhists. Two halls of worship were in ruins. In contrast, the lower section was abuzz with the noise of activity generated by a long stream of worshippers and tourists. The chanting and the strong smell of incense wafting from the newly renovated halls reminded me of its recent prosperity.

The then 103-year-old Master Deng Kuan [灯宽法师] was the abbot in the Gu Temple. He lived in a spartan room at the back of the lower courtyard. Unlike those abbots in the movies, Master Deng Kuan didn’t look distinguished at all: he was short, with small eyes, and always wore a yellowish woolen hat. He had to sit by an electric heater all the time because he was extremely sensitive to cold. The master was a heavy smoker and puffed on his tobacco pipe every few minutes. At the urging of his nephew, he also took a couple of sips of milk through a straw. He was extremely hard of hearing. Each time I asked a question, I had to shout in his ear. Eventually, after much shouting, coupled with occasional interpretations by his nephew, I managed to piece together this interview.

In September of 2005, one year after this interview was completed, I read in a local newspaper that Master Deng Kuan had passed away. [Note: Liao visited the temple on a number of occasions.]

* * *

Master Deng Kuan

LIAO YIWU: Master, you look really good, very healthy.

MASTER DENG KUAN (DK): I was just hospitalized for two months in Chengdu. I’m falling apart. My body is stiff. Amitabha, Merciful Buddha. Now that I can’t move around that much, I have a lot of time for meditating and thinking. I’ve been thinking a lot about the things that have happened to me in this life. Unfortunately, I’m only lucid half of the time. Some days, I’m so out of it that I have no idea where I am, what day it is, and who is standing beside me.

Have you read anything about our temple? In the Ming dynasty [1368–1644], Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang gifted this temple with an official name, “Guangyan Buddhist Temple.” Later on, Master Wu Kong [悟空祖师], Emperor Zhu’s uncle, became enlightened at this temple. If we count him as our first abbot, I’m now the eighth abbot in the past six hundred years.

I was born in 1900 when China was still under the Qing emperor Guangxu. My secular name was Chen Jingrong. Since my family was poor, my parents sent me to this temple at the age of seven so I could get fed. So that was how I started out as a monk. My teacher, Master Zu Run, was an eminent monk in the region. He was well-known for his knowledge and his righteousness. Apart from teaching me the Buddhist scriptures, he also invited scholars to the temple to teach all the young novices how to read and write. Thanks to him, I grasped the basic literacy skills in a few years.

In 1928, I walked over ninety kilometers to Chengdu to get ordained in a big temple there. Following my ordination, I was enrolled at a Buddhist school run by Master Chan An. After I graduated in 1930, I studied at two more temples, and continued to receive guidance from various eminent monks. In 1944, after a decade and a half of traveling and studying, I returned to the Gu Temple. Initially, I worked as an official greeter, coordinating daily worshipping activities. In 1947, I was promoted to be the abbot. I stayed in that position until the Communist takeover in 1949.

LIAO: Your life has spanned the entire twentieth century. If we use 1949 as a dividing line, your life is pretty much divided into two equal phases. But you seem to play down the first half of your life with only a couple of sentences.

DK: When you turn one hundred, and look back on the early part of your life, a couple of sentences are sufficient. Otherwise, I can go on for three days and three nights. I have personally benefited from the teachings of over thirty grand masters of Buddhism. You could write a whole book about every single one of them.

LIAO: Sorry for the interruption. Please go on with your story.

DK: This temple was first built during the Sui dynasty. Since then, over thirty convents and temples have been built along the Qingcheng mountain range, with Gu Temple as the main center of worship. At one time, this temple housed over a thousand monks. Over the centuries, as old dynasties collapsed and new ones came into being, the temple remained relatively intact. This is because changes of dynasty or government were considered secular affairs. Monks like me didn’t get involved. But the Communist revolution in 1949 was a turning point for me and the temple.

After 1949, the new government launched the Land Reform movement. Many former landowners in the region were targeted. Several were executed, their property seized and redistributed. One day, a government work team raided the temple. The team consisted of government officials and peasant activists. They set up a tribunal inside the temple to dispense justice. They called me a “rich temple owner” and declared that I was under arrest. My captors dragged me onto the stage, stripped me of my kasaya, and forced me to stand in front of a large crowd of villagers, with my arms pulled up behind my back in the jet-plane position. One by one, peasant activists stood up to share with the crowd about my “crimes.” I was accused of accumulating wealth without engaging in physical labor, and spreading feudalistic and religious ideas that poisoned people’s minds. Some even suggested investigating my past activities under the Nationalist government because I was collaborating with the rich to exploit the poor. At the end of each speech, the head of the work team would stand up and shout slogans like “Down with the evil landlord!” and “Religion is spiritual opium!” Then the whole crowd followed his lead with slogan shouting. Emotion soon ran very high: people spat at me, punched and shoved me. About thirty to forty monks were hunched over side by side with me on the stage. They were categorized as “bald lackeys of the rich landowner.” The landowner was, of course, me.

LIAO: This is the first time I heard about the term “rich monk.”

DK: It came as a shock to me as well and it was hard to cope with those unfair charges. All monks abide by the vow of poverty. In the pre-Communist days, many of us came from very poor families. Once we accepted the teachings of Buddha, we vowed to stay away from all human desires. In this vast province of Sichuan, there were over a hundred temples. No matter which temple you go to, you will find the same rule: monks pass on the Buddhist treasures from one generation to the next. Since ancient times, no abbot, monk, or nun has ever claimed the properties of the temple as his or her own. Who would have thought that overnight all of us would be classified as rich landowners! None of us had ever lived the life of a rich landowner, but we certainly suffered the retribution accorded one.

LIAO: What happened after those “struggle sessions”?

DK: Soon the struggle sessions turned into public beatings. Getting spat on, slapped in the face, and kicked in the back were common occurrences. Many times the local militia would show up at the temple at random and drag me to a room for interrogation. During one interrogation in the wintertime, a village militia chief and his men stripped me of my shirts and pants, and then hung me from the ceiling. It was so painful that I passed out in about ten minutes or so. They poured cold water onto my body. When I came to, my right arm was dislocated. Even today I still experience excruciating pain when I try to raise this arm. Sometimes I was beaten up for some ridiculous reasons. One time, an official called me to his office and ordered me to turn in one hundred golden bowls that I had allegedly hidden inside the temple. The official said a junior monk had revealed the secret to the work team. I had no idea what he was talking about. I didn’t even own a regular porcelain bowl, not to mention a bowl made of gold. When I told them that I didn’t know, they accused me of lying and hung me from a tree. Then, several villagers went to search the monks’ living quarters. Believe it or not, they did find one hundred bowls in the corner of the kitchen. To their disappointment, however, they were bowls made of pottery, not gold. Finally, I understood what the whole fuss was about. Since each bowl could hold only one jin [500 grams] of rice, we called it the “jin bowl”—which sounds the same as “gold bowls” in Chinese. The situation was truly hopeless.

By the way, during the Land Reform movement, the local government seized all the Buddhist treasures and confiscated hundreds of hectares of pristine forest and farmland from the temple. We were not alone. Temples around the whole country suffered a similar fate.

LIAO: I have checked some historical records and found that many prominent monks suffered persecution during that time. For example, Master Kuan Lin from Chengdu’s Wenshu Temple was brutally tortured by local peasants. They broke his legs and arms, and pulled his teeth out. He collapsed and passed out on the floor. His torturers thought they had killed him. Out of fear, they sent him to the hospital, and luckily the doctors were able to save his life. Master Qing Ding at Zhaojue Temple was sentenced to lifelong imprisonment in 1955. That was because he had been a cadet in the Huangpu Military Academy under the Nationalist government before he became a monk. He ended up spending twenty years behind bars. Master Wei Xian, the former abbot at the Ciyun Temple near Chongqing, was arrested in 1954 for his efforts to establish a Buddhist school. He was jailed for twenty-seven years. The list goes on.

DK: The Land Reform movement was just the beginning of a series of disasters that befell the temple. In 1958, Chairman Mao launched the Great Leap Forward campaign, calling people in China to find ways to mass-produce iron and steel so China could catch up with industrialized nations like the U.S. It was also the beginning of the collectivization campaign. No household was allowed to keep any private property or to cook at home. People were ordered to eat at communal kitchens and dining halls.

I put myself at the mercy of heaven and decided to go with the flow. I registered with the local village leader, who gave me permission to lead ten monks to look for iron-containing rocks in the mountain, and to participate in the production of steel. Peasants built a makeshift furnace inside the temple. We were a bunch of laymen and had no idea what an iron-containing ore looked like or how to produce steel from those rocks. The government sent a young scientist, who gave us a quick thirty-minute crash course. Then, confident in their newly acquired knowledge, people rolled up their sleeves and worked in groups to scout the mountain for iron-containing rocks. Many villagers ended up by gathering lots of dark-colored rocks and stones, and dumped them into the furnace.

Meanwhile, the local government also called on people to donate every piece of metal they had in their homes: farm tools, cooking utensils, basins, locks, metal hoops, even women’s hair clips, and to melt them down to produce steel and iron. There was a popular slogan: To turn in one piece of metal is to wipe out a foreign imperialist. We monks didn’t even have a home, but we didn’t want to lag behind the others. We sniffed around the temple like dogs. We found incense holders, metal collection boxes, bells, and locks. We pried and hammered off the metal edges of the wooden incense tables, and even smashed and knocked down the small bronze statues on the four corners of the temple roof.

Near the entrance of the temple, there used to be a pair of royal cast-iron cauldrons given by Emperor Yongle in the Ming dynasty. None of it survived the Great Leap Forward. Since the royal cauldrons were huge, made with thick cast iron, it took over twenty strong and tough men to smash them with large sledgehammers. The loud echoes of the hammering sound could be heard miles away. Besides, melting those thick, ancient cast-iron pots was no easy job. People chopped down hundreds of big trees to fuel the furnace.

It wasn’t long before the mountain was stripped bare. When I first entered the monastery here, there were hundreds of hectares of trees, many of which were rare species, such as ginkgo, nanmu, and ancient cypress. But during those crazy years, they were all cut down. Have you seen that big thousand-year-old tree outside the temple? The tree was left untouched because it grew on a cliff and people couldn’t reach it. Nowadays, visitors have been telling me how precious and beautiful that tree is. Little do they know that there used to be seven big trees around here, each was thick enough for three people to circle around. That one left was the ugliest and quite useless. The other six were cut to feed the furnace.

It’s really hard to imagine what happened then. People were exhilarated by Chairman Mao’s lofty vision of building a strong socialist country. I was assigned the task of working the bellows to keep the fire in the furnace going. I used to practice kung fu at the crack of dawn every day to stay fit and healthy. That rigorous training helped build up my stamina. While most people were on the verge of exhaustion and some had even collapsed, I was still full of energy, working the bellows nonstop for hours in a half-squatting position beside the furnace.

LIAO: You were almost sixty years old around that time, weren’t you?

DK: Yes, I was. But even the twenty-year-olds were no match for me. Villagers secretly gave me a nickname, “The Steely Mountain Soldier.” Anyway, after days and nights of hard work, we finally saw some results—a bunch of hard irregular-shaped pig iron. Some looked like beehives, with small pieces of rocks sticking over their surfaces. We waited until those lumps became cold and solid. Then we tested their quality by hitting them with a hammer. Guess what, they immediately crumbled into small dark pieces. So did our hope.

LIAO: Since you worked so hard during the Great Leap Forward, did the villagers think that you had redeemed your past wrongdoings?

DK: Not exactly. After the steel production campaign turned into a total failure, people resumed their daily routine. At night, after eating at public kitchens, they had nothing else to do. Once again, public rallies against the bad elements were resumed as a form of entertainment. We were at the whim of the village leaders. Whenever or wherever they wanted to hold a struggle session, all of the class enemies would be at their disposal. From 1952 to 1961, I attended over three hundred struggle sessions.

In those difficult years, I constantly thought about a legendary tale relating to the Gu Temple. In 1398, when Zhu Yuanzhang, the founder of the Ming dynasty, died, his grandson Jianwen was crowned emperor. Jianwen’s uncle, the prince of Yan, possessed a strong military base in the north and formed a serious threat to Emperor Jianwen’s power. They engaged in a four-year armed conflict that eventually ended the reign of Jianwen. The prince of Yan usurped the throne. He called his era “Yongle” or “Perpetually Jubilant.” Emperor Yongle spent several years purging China of Jianwen’s supporters in a brutal manner. His nephew, the deposed ruler, escaped and then disappeared. Several years later, there was a rumor circulating that Jianwen had turned into a monk and was hiding inside the Gu Temple. One day, a spy dispatched by Emperor Yongle spotted the deposed emperor and relayed the news to the palace. The emperor immediately sent an assassin over. Right before the assassin arrived, Jianwen caught wind of it and disappeared. His would-be assassin found a poem written on the wall of a worship hall:

“Traversing the southwest in exile for forty long years,

gray has tainted my once dark mane.

Heaven and earth I once reigned, but now nothing remains.

Not even a hut to rest my soul.

Rivers and streams pass by silently; where do they flow?

Grass and willows turn green year after year;

this old countryman is choked with tears.”

The assassin jotted down the poem and presented it to Emperor Yongle. He read it aloud; tears streamed down his face. He waved the long sleeve of his robe and sighed: “Let my nephew go.”

LIAO: What a story. How did that relate to your predicament then?

DK: Emperor Yongle ruled China with brutality. His police and spies were planted all over the kingdom. Even so, Jianwen, his former nemesis, could find shelter inside the Gu Temple. But in Communist China, a harmless monk had nowhere to escape to.

LIAO: Chairman Mao certainly tried to wipe out the spirit of Buddha, and every other form of religion.

DK: No human being possesses the power to destroy Buddha in people’s hearts. This is because Buddha is as essential to us as the air we breathe and the water we drink. That’s where all kindness, forbearance, compassion, and wisdom originate. I would never have survived that difficult period had it not been for my belief in Buddha.

Let me tell you a story. A poor old lady named Wang lived near the temple. She secretly helped me for many years. Since I was a counterrevolutionary, she couldn’t talk with me when there were people around. While I was working in the field, she would walk past me, and stop briefly, pretending to tie her shoelaces. Then, she would bang her sickle on the ground a couple of times to get my attention. After she left, I would dash over to the place where she banged her sickle, and pick up the corn bread she had left there for me. It was in January of 1960, the onset of a nationwide famine. Many folks in the village had already died of starvation. That lady squeezed food from her tiny ration and saved it for me. She was the reincarnation of the Goddess of Mercy. Even now, I can still remember her courage and generosity and pray for her soul.

By 1961, half of the people labeled as members of the bad elements had starved to death. To reduce the number of people on the food ration roll, the local government simply deported me back to my birthplace in Chongqing County. I moved in with a distant nephew and lived the life of a peasant. In 1966, when the Cultural Revolution began, the Red Guards took the place of the village militiamen and became my new tormentors. I worked in the rice paddies during daytime and was forced to attend public denunciation meetings at night.

LIAO: So how did you manage to survive the various political campaigns?

DK: Buddha says: “If I don’t go to hell, who will?” I had to suffer to redeem the sins of my previous life. Otherwise, the suffering could befall someone else. That was how I motivated myself to live. Eventually, I simply resigned myself to adversity.

In those years, the worst part was that all Buddhist teachings were banned. We were not allowed to pray. Sometimes I would close my eyes and silently chant some scriptures. But then some villagers found out and reported it to village officials. I ended up getting more beatings for refusing to mend my feudalistic, superstitious ways.

LIAO: As an eminent monk, it must be very hard to live without praying or reading the scriptures.

DK: It was difficult. Deep in my heart, I never gave up my belief in the benevolence of Buddha.

For a while, I thought that I would be destined to farm and lead the life of a secret monk for the rest of my life. However, after over seventeen years, the tide started to turn. One day in 1978, a friend from out of town stopped by and told me that new leaders in Beijing had relaxed the government’s religious policy. People were allowed to openly practice Buddhism.

Initially, I didn’t quite believe his words and wanted to find out myself. But I didn’t dare to tell anyone because the local government was still clinging to the old Communist doctrine, even though Chairman Mao had died two years before. If I got caught, I was sure to get myself and my nephew into trouble again. So, I waited for a couple more days. One night, after the whole village was asleep, I quietly packed my bags and left. I ran and walked for about sixty kilometers in the darkness. By noon the next day, I arrived in Chengdu, and went directly to Wenshu Temple. There, I reunited with about thirty monks who had just returned. It was quite an emotional reunion for us.

I stayed at Wenshu Temple for over three years, working as a greeter and presiding over Buddhist ceremonies. Since I was pretty good at performing the “releasing the soul from purgatory” ritual, I gradually established quite a reputation in the region. In 1984, I think it was on July 15 on the lunar calendar, I was welcomed back to the Gu Temple to continue my service to Buddha. Over ten thousand residents showed up and filled every corner of the temple. People lit firecrackers nonstop, and the smoke shrouded the temple like a thick fog, which lingered around for quite a while before drifting away. There were gongs booming and bells pealing. It was quite a festive spectacle.

LIAO: You were eighty-four years old that year. When you smelled the smoke of fireworks and saw the crowd, how did you feel?

DK: My feelings were of joy and sadness mixed. From 1949 to 1978, China experienced the longest period of retribution for sins in history. For twenty-nine years, there were no real monks in Chinese temples.

LIAO: But in those crazy years, the government still kept the Buddhism Association.

DK: The Buddhism Association was simply an empty shell. All the monks were defrocked and put under the supervision of the village party chief. In many small temples around here, lay peasants kicked the monks out and converted the temples into residential quarters.

For myself, I felt lucky that I was still alive. I didn’t have time to dwell on the past. I was already old and ailing like a candle’s flame fluttering in the wind. The temple was in disarray with dilapidated buildings and broken walls. Weeds were growing everywhere. I couldn’t find a single room without a leaking roof. Wherever I looked, I saw the tragic results of manmade damage and years of neglect.

About thirty monks and lay Buddhists joined me at the temple. We didn’t even have enough beds. Many had to sleep on the floor. Occasionally, snakes and rats would sneak under our quilts. The young monks were very scared. I would often tell them: The rats are cold too. Let them in so they can get some warmth and good sleep. Even now, rats constantly get into my quilt, and a couple of them will snuggle under my chin. They are like my kids. One time, a naughty rat dragged my rosary beads away. So I scared it with the words: “You little rascal, what do you need that rosary for? You can’t eat it. Bring it back. If you don’t, I’m going to kill you with rat poison.” It must have heard me. Not long after, the rosary beads showed up beside my bed.

LIAO: You have done a great job restoring the Gu Temple.

DK: You are too young to see what the temple was like before. It’s far from being restored. Have you ever visited the upper part of the temple?

LIAO: Yes, I have.

Relic Stupas

DK: The Receiving Hall is being reconstructed on its ruins. If you pass the crumbling Hall of Burning Candles, you will see the forest of pagodas, where generations of Buddhist monks were buried. The tall pagoda in the middle held the body of our grand master Wu Kong, the first abbot of this temple. Grand Master Wu Kong had seen through the secular world at an early age and had always wanted to be a monk. When the prince of Yan deposed Emperor Jianwen, the grand master was traveling in India and Tibet to study Buddhism. On his way back, he stopped at this temple and experienced enlightenment. He shaved his head and was ordained here. Grand Master Wu Kong read extensively and became a well-known Buddhist scholar and practitioner. He reached nirvana, and passed away while in meditation, with his body in a lotus position. His disciples consecrated the Wu Kong Pagoda to hold his body. After over 550 years, the body miraculously remained intact, with no signs of decay. It became the most precious Buddhist treasure inside the Gu Temple.

Wu Kong Stupa

LIAO: I stood in front of the Wu Kong Pagoda and noticed that the shrine lies empty now. The characters engraved on both sides of the shrine are hardly recognizable.

DK: The characters were supposed to express the grand master’s ecstatic feelings of being enlightened and coming to the realization that “all worldly things are empty and transient, like the floating clouds.” During the Land Reform movement, a leader of the local militia led a group of armed peasants into the temple in the name of “eliminating superstition.” They started in the upper section. When the militia leader stopped in front of the Wu Kong Pagoda, he seemed to have been taken over by demonic forces. He raised his rifle with its bayonet, screaming, “Kill that Buddha!” He stabbed into the preserved body of the grand master twenty or thirty times. Soon, the rest of the mob joined him. Pieces of the grand master’s body were strewn on the ground. Then he ordered his fellow militiamen to round up all of the monks and parade us on the street for several hours. After we returned to the temple, we found out that the flesh on his body had already dissolved in the soil, leaving only his bones. When the bell struck midnight, I held back my tears, went secretly up to the forest of pagodas. It was painful to see his bones scattered on the ground. I quietly gathered every single piece and carefully put them in a bamboo basket. I found a place on the ceiling beam of the Guanyin Hall. With a makeshift pulley, I managed to send the basket up and put it on the beam. I thought it was going to be safe there, but I was wrong.

During the Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards from the nearby schools launched an assault on what they called the Four Old Elements: old customs, old thinking, old habits, and old culture. They ransacked the temples, burning and destroying anything that had survived the previous political campaigns, including the worshipping halls.

Let me give you some background. In the Ming dynasty, Emperor Yongle had commissioned the construction of five halls of worship with glazed tile roofs. Despite their normal wear and tear, those buildings remained preserved and survived the craziness of the 1950s. One day in 1966 I snuck away from my hometown and climbed up the mountain to take a look at the temple. Before I approached the main entrance, I heard the singing of revolutionary songs. There seemed to be a lot of people in there. I walked closer and hid behind a tree. There were red flags everywhere, with the characters “Revolutionary Fighters” emblazoned on them. A large group of young people were on the roof of the Daxiong Hall—singing while pulling the glazed tiles out and then kicking them off the roof. I just stood there in a daze. After the roof had been stripped, the Red Guards began to punch holes in it. Inside the Daxiong Hall, there were eight floor-to-ceiling stone columns decorated with engravings of poems and paintings by well-known artists and calligraphers. The Red Guards tied thick ropes around the columns and pulled the ropes in unison until the columns collapsed. It was too traumatic for me. I just left.

Master Wu Kong Picture

I was told later on that the Red Guards toppled the other four halls with similar barbarous methods. When those buildings collapsed, people could feel the vibrations from far away, as if an earthquake had hit the region. Like the ancient saying goes: “No eggs can remain intact when the nest is destroyed.” As I mentioned earlier, I put the bones of Grand Master Wu Kong in a basket and hid it on the ceiling beam of the Guanyin Hall. When the hall was demolished, the basket mysteriously disappeared. Nobody knows what happened to the treasure.

Thanks to those young zealots, the whole upper section is now in total ruins. There is no way to rebuild those halls. In addition to demolishing the worshipping halls, the Red Guards also burned hundreds of royal edicts issued by emperors from various dynasties. They destroyed paintings by famous artists, as well as rare editions of books and scriptures, and smashed hundreds of Buddhist statues.

LIAO: In other words, most of the buildings we see now have been reconstructed in recent years?

DK: Since 1984, many pious Buddhist followers have begun to donate money and manpower. Little by little, we are able to build new worship halls and sculpt new Buddhist statues. It is starting to look like a temple now. Let me tell you: It will take at least 20 million yuan [US$2.4 million] just to restore half of the temple to its original scale. You know the saying: The fire burns high when everyone adds wood to it. We have set up a stone tablet, engraving the names of those who have contributed over 100 yuan [$12]. There are several thousand names on the tablet. A private entrepreneur has recently donated 30,000 yuan [US$3,500] to dedicate a jade Buddha statue in the newly built Receiving Hall. We have other revenues from the sale of incense and candles, as well as from our teahouse.

LIAO: Do monks have to pay taxes?

DK: We wouldn’t mind paying regular government taxes. But with the decline of moral values, corrupt officials, both big and small, are trying to milk what they think is a fat cow. Administratively, our temple is under the supervision of the Bureau of Religious Affairs, which is a subsidiary of the Department of United Front. Officials there are always looking out for ways to fatten their pockets. If we don’t pay money as a tribute to those “servants of the people,” they will threaten either to expel monks from the temple or to sell part of our temple to a private developer. As you know, many small temples in the area that resisted have been sold to private investors.

LIAO: You are a well-known religious figure in the community. How could they dare to do those things to you?

DK: Those Communist officials dare to do anything. Do you want to hear this? The car driven by the director of the United Front Department was paid for by the monks. He ordered each temple to contribute at least 5,000 yuan [US$625] so he could buy a luxury model. One time, the head of the county Religious Affairs Bureau visited me. I invited him to have tea at my private living quarters. He slammed the door shut, banged on the table, and pointed at my face: “You turned a deaf ear to my request. I want your temple to contribute 100,000 yuan [US$12,500] to the road construction fund.” I knew very well that the central government had already allocated funds for the road project. Local officials had embezzled a large portion of the money. They wanted the monks to fill in the funding gap.

LIAO: You could report him to the central government or sue him, couldn’t you?

DK: Monks take forbearance as a virtue. So I told the official: Monks beg alms. We rely on the kind contributions of Buddha’s followers. We’ll pay when our collection reaches the amount you have requested. He responded impatiently: Give me a deadline. I said calmly: If we can collect the sum tomorrow, we’ll give it to you tomorrow. If we have it in the indefinite future, we’ll pay you in the indefinite future. Upon hearing that, he became furious and began to swear at me with four-letter words. His loud swearing was heard by many worshippers in the temple. Several of them stormed in and eventually kicked him out. Corruption is a sin, but Buddha has mercy.

A couple of months ago, some officials showed up and set up their mah-jongg tables right inside the temple. They played that gambling game all day. Some ended up losing money. They walked into my room and wanted to get a loan from me. I did “lend” some to them. You know they will never pay back. Besides, they made a mess here, with food and cigarettes butts all over the floor. Before they left, they came to the worshipping hall, put their two hands in front of their chest, palm to palm, and knelt in front of a Buddha statue, chanting, “Amitabha,” Those scoundrels, what can you do? Right now, the Religious Affairs Bureau takes charge of all Buddhist, Taoist, and Muslim temples, as well as the Christian churches. The officials are so powerful, and can destroy you at a whim. The chief of the Religious Affairs Bureau shamelessly calls himself the parent of all gods. Many people use the phrase “covering the sky with one palm” to describe the government power over religion.

LIAO: This is ridiculous.

DK: Throughout ancient history, no matter how incompetent the emperors were, or how corrupt and decadent the royal courts became, one never heard about officials blackmailing and harassing monks.

LIAO: This is the first time I have heard about it, too.

DK: With all of this corruption going on, I don’t know when I will be able to raise enough money to pay for the restoration. I just have to let nature take its course.

LIAO: But, Master, you have already done a great job in restoring the temple to its former glory. You are now considered a Buddhist treasure in this whole region.

DK: That’s an exaggeration. Have you seen the newly restored Scripture Building?

LIAO: I’ve seen the outside, the white walls with black tiled roof. The building reflects the simplicity of the Tang dynasty [618–907] architectural style. I was told that the name engraved on the front of the building was given by Yu Youren, a well-known politician under the Nationalist government. His handwriting was far superior to those of Ming emperor Zhu Yuanzhang and Qing emperor Kang Xi, both of whom left their marks here.

DK: Mr. Yu Youren was climbing the Qingcheng Mountain in 1944. He overheard some monks talk about a Buddhist encyclopedia. The book, published in 1372, was a compilation of well-known Buddhist writings in seven thousand volumes. [《洪武南藏》] The whole project took thirty-one years to finish. Several hundred scholars and craftsmen were involved in the editing, hand-printing, and volume-binding of the book. Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang ordered two sets, each of which weighed over three tons. One set was lost in a major fire. The second set was stored here inside the Gu Temple. This Buddhist encyclopedia and Grand Master Wu Kong’s preserved body were the crown jewels of this temple, attracting Buddhists and scholars from all over the nation. The legendary tales surrounding this rare book greatly piqued Mr. Yu’s curiosity. He came into the temple and spent several days poring over the book. When the former abbot asked him to write a couple of words, he raised his ink brush and with one long stroke he wrote, “Scripture Building.” His calligraphy, like a flying dragon, was later engraved on the building’s front wall.

LIAO: With your permission, may I go up to the building and take a look at the book?

DK: The book is no longer here.

LIAO: Has it been destroyed by the Red Guards?

DK: Amitabha. No. In the summer of 1951, Yao Tixin, an intellectual, was appointed the Chongqing County chief. He had read about the book in the county almanac. Shortly after his appointment, he visited the temple and went up to the Scripture Building to examine the treasure. It was in the middle of the Land Reform movement. Many monks had been banished to the countryside, and I was going through those struggle sessions. Yao emerged from the building and issued an order to his subordinates: Since the abbot has been declared an enemy of the people, the temple doesn’t have the manpower and resources to maintain custody of this rare, voluminous treasure. The building will be sealed. He then invited some experts from Chengdu to make an appraisal. After they confirmed that the books were authentic, he packed the volumes into boxes and mobilized over a hundred porters to carry those boxes on shoulder poles—three tons total—all the way to the Sichuan Provincial Library in Chengdu. It’s been there for over fifty years.

LIAO: Thank Buddha that the book was protected. Otherwise, it would not have escaped the fire of the Red Guards.

DK: County Chief Yao must have been the reincarnation of a Buddhist guardian warrior. Other government officials were not as farsighted as he was.

LIAO: During the past several hundred years, how did the monks manage to keep the book of scriptures from decaying?

DK: Once a year, all the monks in the temple would gather and bring those volumes out under the sun. Our method was quite primitive. We were not allowed to touch the pages with our hands. We used a thin bamboo sliver to carefully turn over every single page to allow the mustiness to escape. Then we would put special tobacco leaves inside the book to prevent book-eating moths. Several hundred pounds of tobacco leaves were brought in every year. Airing the book was an annual tradition that had been passed down from generation to generation.

LIAO: Now that things have gradually returned to normal and there are no more political campaigns, are you planning to move the book back?

DK: In the past, it was the crown jewel of the temple. Now, it’s a national treasure. Any request to transfer the book has to be approved by the State Council.

LIAO: Aren’t you allowed to take a peek at it?

DK: There are all sorts of rules, and I haven’t had the luck to revisit the book yet. But the rigorous system put in place has not been foolproof. A monk in Peng County managed to use 12,000 yuan [US$1,500] to bribe the curator. He then made a pirated copy of one volume and sold it overseas.

I heard he made quite a fortune. I have gathered several abbots in the region and made a plea to the provincial government, saying that the temple should own the copyright to the book. Nobody listened to us.

LIAO: I don’t think staff members at the Sichuan Provincial Library will do the book-airing ritual and put tobacco leaves inside each volume every year. I wonder what will happen to the book.

DK: Everything has its preordained fate. We just have to let it go. By the way, you sound like someone who truly possesses the mind of an intellectual. Let me give you a picture as a gift. This is the picture of the body of Grand Master Wu Kong. The photographer’s Buddhist name was Xu Kong, and he used to live in Gu township at the foot of the mountain. In the 1940s, he was the first in the region to purchase an old magnesium flash camera. He carried the camera to the temple and took a picture of Grand Master Wu Kong’s body. He then sold the picture to a newspaper and the picture got lots of attention from the public. He eventually used this picture as a passport to visit Tibet because Tibetans were pious Buddhists and they worshipped [Tantric masters such as] Grand Master Wu Kong. When the Tibetan guards saw the picture, they all prostrated themselves on the ground to show respect. Guess what, he used his special status to travel back and forth between Tibet and Sichuan Province smuggling opium. He was never caught. During the Cultural Revolution, he was persecuted for his association with the temple. Other people also reported his opium-trafficking business to the authorities. The Red Guards tortured and locked him up in solitary confinement for several years. But he never admitted that he was the photographer for Grand Master Wu Kong’s picture. The day before he died, he sent his relatives to look for me in my hometown. I did go see him. After I arrived, his eyes were wide open and he was gasping for breath. I held his hands, one of which was making a fist like a ball. He murmured to me: “Wu Kong, Wu Kong.” Tears streamed down his cheeks. He then opened his fist and handed me a tiny negative, wrapped with layers of soft tissue and cotton. Before I even had the chance to say anything to him, he was gone.

This picture has been around for sixty years. Look at Grand Master Wu Kong and how well his body was preserved—his face looked so kind and calm, his two earlobes hanging low, he looked divine.


LIAO: You have so many amazing stories. By the way, I have seen a portrait of Communist leader Deng Xiaoping in the hall for worship. He is not a Buddhist. Why do you put his picture up there?

DK: Without Deng Xiaoping, the temple would have been gone. He was the one who reversed Mao’s fanatical policies in the late 1970s, opened up China to the outside world, and relaxed government control over religion.

LIAO: During the past hundred years, you have experienced many ups and downs. You can’t attribute all your sufferings to karma and to the retribution of sins in our previous life, can you?

DK: I have lived for over a hundred years. I’m gradually ambling my way to the ritual of reincarnation. As a Buddhist, one needs to contain displeasure, anger, and complaining. I have tried to abide by these principles during the past decades and try not to dwell on my past. In recent years, many of the villagers who participated in torturing me have come to seek help because they are poverty-stricken and can’t send their grandchildren to school. I have given them money and support. The money is not mine. It was raised from Buddha’s followers. It’s a sin to keep the money. I remember very well what those villagers did to me in the past, but I don’t harbor any ill will toward them. When you start to blame and hate people, retribution will befall you.

Remember that local militia leader who committed the atrocities on Grand Master Wu Kong’s preserved body many years ago? He was so evil and full of hatred. Several years later, someone told me that the militia leader had found a big lump growing on his groin. He traveled all over in search of a cure but nobody could help. Eventually, his lower body became rotten and foul-smelling. He died a most wretched death. After he was gone, his wife and children starved to death during the famine in 1960. It was very sad. But how do you explain this phenomenon?

* * *

 Liao Yiwu [廖亦武]

The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up


Pantheon Books, 2008

 [Chinese characters and notes in italics added by consulting the original Chinese text.]


* * *

The Tiananmen Square massacre changed my life and my way of thinking. I heard about it on the radio and was filled with despair. Terrified and helpless, I shouted out these lines:

‘Leap! Howl! Fly! Run! Freedom feels so good. Snuffing out freedom feels so good. Power will be triumphant forever, will be passed down from generation to generation forever.'”

From these lines came Liao Yiwu’s poem ‘Massacre‘. A poem that was never published in China, only recorded. A poem that he was sentenced to four years in prison for writing and placed on the government’s permanent blacklist.

…After going to prison, I saw an aspect of China I had never seen as a poet. When I entered the prison, I couldn’t even speak. There would be a group of people pressing you to the ground, completely stripped, with one foot on your face, shaving your head, and using chopsticks to fuck you in the ass. I couldn’t understand this kind of thing when I was a poet. I didn’t know of these atrocities until they happened. When I was young, I didn’t want to know. They don’t have anything to do with poetry. After experiencing this, as a person whose occupation is related to language, I lost my voice. There is no way to talk about this violence using the language of an intellectual or a poet, and there is no way to convey the grief underneath the violence. You can’t understand the malicious language in the prison, the kind of savagery that exists.

It was the most dark and preposterous side of humanity. In order to adapt to that, whether you want or not, you become a witness. When you’re sleeping between two death row inmates, what kind of a poetic sense can you have? One prisoner is telling you how he cut his wife into pieces. Another is telling you he is going to escape through the sewer. Poetry is something so different from those kinds of people. And little by little I became like them. I was transformed…

Like the Chinese writer Ai Wu [艾芜] before him, Liao had been initiated into the world of those, “whom the world has abandoned.” An overwhelming and life-changing experience that is recounted in his graphic prison memoir, ‘For a Song and a Hundred Songs‘.

The prison book is pretty cruel. I was serving time in Chongqing. At one point they tortured me so much I smashed my head against the wall to try to kill myself. I passed out and then over the next few days the non-political prisoners came by and said, “Hey buddy, if you really want to kill yourself that’s a stupid way to do it. A better way is like this: you find a nail sticking out of the wall and smash your temple against it. It’s much more effective, believe us.” So this book is maybe more cruel than the others. The authorities said to me: “If you publish this book we’ll send you back to Chongqing.” There’s no way I’m going back there. That’s too terrifying…

Upon release from prison, Liao found himself homeless and wandered around Sichuan and Yunnan, earning what he could as a street musician and recording the stories of those he met living on the fringes of society,

I was with people who lived in the bottom of the society. And when I came out of prison, I was also living at the bottom of society. I know these people, the people of really low social status. And in these people, I see my own shadow. I identify myself with them.

We are a deserted group of people, but we are the majority. The so-called elite don’t care about us, but we are the mainstream of society.”

These interviews with, “hustlers to drifters, outlaws and street performers, the officially renegade and the physically handicapped, those who deal with human waste, the disposal of corpses, artists and shamans, crooks, even cannibals,” were published in Taiwan in 2001 as a multi-volume collection, entitled, ‘Interviews with People from the Bottom Rung of Society‘. A collection from which 27 interviews were selected, translated into English and published in 2008 by Pantheon Books, under the title, ‘The Corpse Walker‘, from which the extract above comes.

In this collection, the people’s lives and stories are presented as they are, including all of their imperfections, with little to no interruption from Liao himself.

If someone writes fiction or a novel, it’s okay. But if they write in a reportage style. And if people read it, then they know it’s the truth. It’s not imagination…

Through Liao’s avoidance of subjective commentary and opinion, the reader is left to engage directly with the person being interviewed, as if we are talking to them ourselves, making the experience not only more immersive and powerful but also more universal and human. In these people; the grave robber, the migrant worker, the former Red Guard, the Tiananmen father and the many others interviewed, we can, if we open our eyes, gaze upon our own shadows.

Works by Liao Yiwu

Further Reading:

Works by Liao Yiwu (English):

The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China from the Bottom Up, Pantheon (2008)

God is Red: The Secret Story of How Christianity Survived and Flourished in Communist China, HarperCollins (2011)

For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey Through a Chinese Prison, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (2013)

Articles, Essays, Extracts & Interviews (English):

Liao Yiwu Documents (Text & Audio) – Digital Archive for Chinese Studies

The Public Toilet Manager – Paris Review, Autumn, 2005

The Leper & The Corpse Walker – Paris Review, Winter, 2006

My Enemies, My Teachers – Paris Review, Winter, 2007

The Peasant Emperor and the Retired Official – Paris Review, Winter, 2007

BBC Hard Talk (Interview) – March, 2008

The Survivor – Paris Review, Summer, 2008

Voices from the Bottom Rung of Society – PEN American Center, August, 2008

Nineteen Days – Paris Review, Summer, 2009

Liao Yiwu’s Persistent Voice – The New Yorker, March, 2010

Dangerous Words (Profile) – Loud Canary, June, 2011

Liao Yiwu Unbound – The New Yorker, July, 2011

Walking out on China – NY Times, September, 2011

An Evening with Liao Yiwu (Interview/Discussion) – PEN America, September, 2011

Christianity in China: God is Red – Huffington Post, September, 2011

Writer as a Recording Device (Interview) – Artspace China, November, 2011

This Empire Must Break Apart – The Wall Street Journal, October, 2012

Freedom is a Long Process (Interview) – Deutsche Welt, October, 2012

The Book I Wrote Three Times – Huffington Post, June, 2013

Liao Yiwu in Coversation with Paul Holdengraber – New York Public Library, June, 2013

Prison of the Mind – The New Yorker, July, 2013

Liao Yiwu Howls Against the Chinese Government (Interview) – PBS Network, July, 2013

China is Liao Yiwu’s ‘Nightmare’ (Interview) – Deutsche Welt, September, 2013

“If I’m Not Speaking That Means I’m Dead” (Interview) – Sampsonia Way, January, 2014

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Between Two Fires

Between Two Fires

When I first met Saw Htee Byan in Rangoon Central Jail in 1956 he was just twenty-four years old. He was a strapping young man with a stocky build and a healthy complexion. His mother was Karen and like most Karens he possessed a fine melodious voice. At my request he sang several Karen songs while accompanying himself on the guitar.

After we had grown better acquainted he readily recounted to me the story of his life.


My grandfather was a village headman in Pyapon during the administration of the Hteebyan District Commissioner. Because I was born at this time I was named Saw Htee Pyan. My birthplace is Amar village which is about thirty miles away from Bogale Town, Pyapon District. My father’s name is Ko Hla Shein and my mother’s is Ma Ngwe Khin or Naw Yon Mu. My father is pure Burmese hailing from Upper Burma and my mother the daughter of a Karen Headman. My grandfather, U Po Bylu was well known in the area, being a headman who had been awarded a double barreled shotgun by the government for meritorious service. My father was a carpenter. He had come to repair the paddy barges belonging to my grandfather and had fallen in love with my mother. Grandfather approved of the match, and had them married with a proper ceremony.

I was the first child to be born of their union. My grandfather doted on me and named me Htee Pyan (“The umbrella returning” Commissioner, because practically all accused who appeared before him were sent to prison and only their umbrellas returned home).

Amar was a Karen-Burmese village of about two hundred houses. While it boasted two Buddhist monasteries, it had no secular school. When I was five years old my grandfather died and we moved to a village about fifty miles away called Kanyin-tabin. This village also had about two hundred houses and there were both Karen and Burmese families in the village. However, the Burmese far out-numbered the Karens, of whom there were only twenty households. My father set up shop as a carpenter, while my mother opened a small school to teach Karen and Burmese.

About the end of the Japanese occupation I was ten years old, and had acquired three sisters. The person charged with the anti-Japanese Resistance in our area was a man named Bo Kyaing. This officer attacked the Japanese prematurely and in reprisal they came and razed our village to the ground. We had to flee to another village thirty miles away called Myit-nga-hseik. Father set up a general provision store there, in partnership with five friends from Ohn-bin-su village near Pyapon. My mother no longer taught school and I had to attend the Karen school in the village.

Grandfather had been a pastor in the Karen Christian Church. Before he died he had managed to convert my father from Buddhism to Christianity and my father now became a pastor as well. He could deliver very fine sermons both in Burmese and Karen.

At about this time the political situation took a turn for the worse, and one day hearing gunshots, I ran home to find that rebels from the Karen National Defense Organisation had attacked our home. Father had managed to escape unscathed, but of his five Burmese friends, two were found dead inside the house while the remaining three were found outside also dead from gunshot wounds. Mother was inside the house weeping. The rebels pointed their rifles at the me and shouted, “How about you? Do you want to be a Burman or a Karen?” Only by replying that I wanted to be a Karen was my life spared. They then carried off all our property, leaving only our clothes, some salt, and a basket full of rice.

The K.N.D.O rebels then left after ordering the village militia to deliver the corpses to Pyapon. The militia had been organised by the government, but its members were Karen. They took the bodies to the Pyapon police station, where they reported that my father Ko Hla Shein had murdered his partners and absconded.

Meanwhile my father was hiding out in the jungle without food and water, not daring to approach the vicinity of human habitation because the story the K.N.D.O rebels had spread and had turned every man’s hand against him.

I travelled to Pyapon to see my father’s younger brother who was a Lieutenant in the Army and related the true story to him. My uncle came with me to view the corpses to make sure that father was not included in their number. Then he accompanied me back to the village, together with a squad of soldiers to search for him.

Some young cowherds informed us that a man had been seen sleeping at nights in the cemetery of nearby Char-gyin village, and making our way there quietly, we saw that it was my father. “Father! Father!” I called out to him, but he took fright and ran away. However the others immediately gave chase and finally succeeded in capturing him. Since he was wanted by the authorities my uncle had to surrender his own brother into custody.

After a month’s investigation the government published its findings declaring that my father was innocent of the crime, and that the K.N.D.O’s and the militiamen were the murderers. The relatives of the victims wanted action to be taken against the real culprits, but they could not be found. Ever since the news broke that my father was innocent, the militiamen had refused to obey all summonses issued for their appearance at the Pyapon police station. Father was released from custody, but he no longer dared to return to the village. Mother also was afraid to join him. Their separation dates from this time. I remained with my mother. I hear that father is living in Rangoon but I know neither his address nor his present occupation.


Although father had been a pastor he had put me in the Buddhist monastery school. He said that he wished to see his son brought up as a Buddhist. Accordingly, during the Japanese occupation I was novitiated together with seven other boys in a grand ceremony.


When I returned to the village with mother the Karen insurgents asked me: “Are you going to stay here, or do you wish to move to a Burmese village?” I had to reply: “I would like to stay in this village please.”

To make both ends meet, my mother had to sell the five cows that we had left, and with the proceeds buy a garden plot which we worked for the next two years. At the end of this period the Communists attacked Myit-nga-hseik village and so we returned to our original home in Amar village where we took up catching shrimps for a living.

Having grown up in Burmese villages I could not speak Karen when I was young. On going to live with my mother and her relatives my cousins found out that I could not speak Karen and ostracized me as a Burman. Occasionally I would be punched and kicked by the older boys. When my mother complained to her brother about this he summoned all of us and explained to the other children that I was the son of their aunt and a Karen also and that I did not know their language because I had been brought up in a Burmese village. He urged them to help me learn Karen instead of ill-treating me because I could not speak the language. He then turned to me and said that from that day on I was not to speak a single word of Burmese and that every time I did so I would be caned, and also fined one anna. For a long time I found great difficulty in communicating with the people around me. My uncle would talk to me in Karen asking me to fetch something and I would have to rush to my mother and ask her in a whisper what it was that he wanted. Then I would run to him and say in Karen: “Here it is, uncle.” His face would be wreathed in smiles and he would rattle off some long sentences, none of which I understood.

Finally my mother had a brilliant idea and had me enrolled in the Karen village school. The schoolmaster was a very sympathetic and kindly soul, and took my education in hand. I worked very hard under his tutelage, with the result that now I can speak and read Karen more correctly than any of my cousins.

When I reached manhood I was enlisted as a member of the local security force set up by the Karens to maintain law and order in our area. I was appointed leader of a platoon. One day a member of my unit got drunk and held up a Chinese merchant from Bogalesetsu. On my next trip to this town to deliver dried shrimps I was stopped by armed police and searched. They also proceeded to my hut where they uncovered a revolver and three cartridges. I was arrested straightaway. At first they charged me with the unsolved murder of a man named U Than Maung, but I could prove my innocence on that charge and so it was dropped. However the Chinese merchant came forward to accuse me of robbery and the magistrate sentenced me to two years imprisonment.

I have been working as a carpenter in the prison. When I have served my sentence I intend to go back to shrimping, at which I can earn up to fifteen kyats a day.

Being a Karen-Burmese I often encounter armed partisans of both sides. The Karens want to kill the Burmese and the Burmese feel that the only solution is to exterminate the Karens. It saddens me greatly to hear such talk. Having witnessed how my father and his friends had to suffer at the hands of Karens holding narrow sectarian views I find it difficult to forgive the Karens. On the other hand I have seen how cruel the Burmese can be and that makes me embittered at them. When Karens suffer I feel resentful and when Burmans suffer I feel resentful also. Sometimes I wonder whether racial strife and civil war will ever be ended.


Ludu U Hla

Extract from:

The Caged Ones

Translated from Burmese by Sein Tu

© Orchid Press, Bangkok, 1998

ISBN 974-8299-15-5

The extract above is reproduced with the kind permission of Orchid Press.

It may not be reproduced, copied or used anywhere else without the written permission of the publisher.

The Caged Ones - Ludu U Hla

Ludu U Hla (1910 – 1982) was born in Nyaunglebin in lower Burma. In 1933, he began publishing a magazine named Kyipwa yay (“Progress for Youth”), which continued until the beginning of the second World War. In 1939 he married Daw Amar.

During the war, Ludu U Hla translated into Burmese and published Ashihae Hino’s “War and Soldier”, the first book ever published during the Fascist occupation.

After the war, he began publishing the fortnightly journal Ludu, which means “The People” and from which his pen name Ludu U Hla originates.

An avid collector and publisher of folktales, Ludu U Hla collected around 2,000 folktales of the peoples of Burma and published around 1,500 folktales in a total of 43 books. In 1963, he was awarded the prestigious Burmese “Sarpay Beikman Literary Award” for his collection of Arakanese folktales.

Alongside this vast undertaking, he wrote 54 books, nine of which were biographies of prisoners he met whilst jailed for political reasons in the 1940s and 1950s. Before he passed away, he also left more than 500 unpublished folktales and seven unfinished manuscripts to his wife.

Haung-chaine-hte-ga-nghet-nge-myar (“The Caged Ones”), from which “Between Two Fires” comes, was originally published in Burmese and won the 1958 UNESCO Award. In the book, Ludu U Hla recounts with great compassion the life stories of sixteen young prisoners he met whilst in Rangoon Central Jail. Told in their own words, these accounts outline and explain the social pressures and reasons why these unfortunate young people had been driven to a life outside the law.

Because I have written a lot about the prisoners, I do not want the reader to assume that I am wholly on the side of the criminals. But what I wish to make clear is that though they may commit atrocious crimes, they are not animals. I strongly believe that they should have a chance to be re-accepted among their fellow citizens should they repent.”

Orchid Press

Orchid Press was founded in 1981, originally as White Orchid Press, by Hallvard K. Kuløy, a former United Nations executive who lived and worked for many years in Asia.

A specialized publishing house devoted to books related to Asia, Orchid Press publishes and provides readers with affordable high-quality editions of important works on the art, culture and religions of Asia.

For more information, please visit their website: Orchidbooks.com


Further Reading:

Between Holidays and Hell – Aung Zaw, The Irrawaddy, May, 2003

The Karen: Prospects for a Durable Peace

– The Karen National Union, Burma Debate Vol. III, No. 6, 1996

A Window to the Past – Stuart Alan Becker, Myanmar Times, January, 2015

Ludu and I – Bo Bo Lansin, The Dissident Blog, March, 2014

Ludu Daw Amar: A Burmese Literary Figure of Conviction and Courage – Myint Zan

Ludu Daw Amar: Speaking Truth to Power – Min Zin, The Irrawaddy, October, 2002




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Three Days at Inya Lake Hotel

Three Days at Inya Lake Hotel

(The First Irrawaddy Literary Festival)

Day One

There’s no need to mention the February heat. It is still as hot as ever.

Who wants to live in this heat? It always makes you sweat.

The traffic jams only make it worse. Whenever you think about getting away from the downtown bustle, it is always this frustration comes to mind. What a thing! Everything is stuck, nothing moves.

I am heading for the Inya Lake hotel where for the first time a literary festival called ‘The Irrawaddy Literary Festival’ is being held. Both international and local writers are going to be participating. I think it will be marvelous to take part in this festival.

At the entrance of the hotel, I look for my senior writer, Sayar Lay Ko Tin who has invited me to come to this occasion. I see several people gathered round, buying books from assorted book stalls but I don’t see him.

San Lin Tun!”

I turn around and see Sayar Lay Ko Tin walking towards me. We shake hands and he gives me an identity card to wear. I look at it and smile to see my name on it, as we both make our way into the lobby.


There are several tables set out on the terrace. We choose one of them and sit down to discuss the topic we have to present at the panel discussion. Our session is at 11:30 after the poetry session.

My senior writer suggests we go and listen to the first session which is sure to be interesting. He says that we will leave half-way through and then walk up to Ruby Room A where we will present our topic after the poetry session has finished.

Excuse me…”

A foreign voice interjects.

Here, is it alright to call out ‘psk…psk…psk…‘ to a taxi driver?”

Looking up, I am really surprised to see who it is. It is Vikram Seth. I feel really thrilled because he is the one writer I really hoped to meet at this festival. What a chance!

It’s OK,” I reply, “as long as the custom permits.”

He seems to like my answer and smiles at me when I speak to him. I tell him I know him because I have read and admire his books. Another surprise is that the famous writer, Jung Chang is with him. She looks fabulous in her pink blouse.

When they see our ID cards, they learn that we are Myanmar writers and we talk about the festival and literature until we hear the announcer’s voice coming from the Sunset terrace where the opening ceremony is about to be held.

There, the British Ambassador makes a speech, remarking upon the significance of this festival, followed by a speech by U Pe Myint.

All the audience applauds their well-chosen words.

U Pe Myint - Irr Lit Fest

We enter the ball room where the poetry panel discussion is being held.

It is spacious and there are many people sitting there, listening to the four members of the discussion panel – the editor, James Byrne, the translator Ko Ko Thett, the moderator Zeyar Lynn and a female Filipino poet. They talk about the nature of the poems in ‘Bones Will Crow‘, a collection of Myanmar poetry which Arc Publications has recently published.

It is very interesting and I would like to stay longer but my senior writer is now pointing at his watch.

It is time to leave and we walk upstairs to Ruby Room A.

Bones Will Crow - Ko Ko Thett-1


At first, there are only a few people there, but, by the time we are ready to start, nearly every seat is taken.

The topic of our discussion is “Translation and Adaptation,” and after my senior writer has introduced us both, Ko Thet Oo begins the discussion.

I feel it goes very well and many interesting points are made.


In the evening, I sit out on the terrace and reflect upon the day.

The atmosphere here is peaceful yet stimulating.

Away from the daily pressures of the busy city, creativity seems to flow unimpeded.

Yes, everything appears more vivid to me.

The lake in the background. The sunlight dancing on its green ripples. The walkways fringed with palm trees. The small wooden bridge that protrudes into the lake. The men and women standing and sitting on its boards, drawing and writing.

I feel sure that this experience will linger in my mental mouth, far longer than these three days.

Hotel walkways

Day Two

I am thinking about whether I should buy the novel, ‘Two Lives’ by Vikram Seth.

I am confused because I only have a limited amount of cash but would dearly like to read the book and for him to sign it for me.

Putting it back down, I decide, for now, to make do with the photograph I took yesterday of Sayar Lay Ko Thin, Vikram Seth, Jung Chang and me together. I will buy the book later.

Unfortunately, I cannot. For when I do return, the last copy has been sold.


At the festival, there are many foreigners.

They outnumber the local people, but I think it is good that they are here.

Out on the terraces, some are seated in front of a Myanmar puppet show, some are listening to Myanmar classical music being played by a young local woman upon a Myanmar harp, and some are sitting on the lawns, talking and playing with their friends and children.

The mood is relaxed and carefree and the air is an inclusive one.

The festival appears to be not only affecting me.


Sitting in the shade and drinking a glass of sweet iced tea, my mind goes back to the panel discussion with Jung Chang this afternoon.

In the audience there were both young and old people.

But the person I recall most clearly, is the female Japanese photographer who was trying to get the best shot she could of the lively discussion.

Although I watched her keenly, she paid no mind to my attention.

Rather than her looks, it was this modest manner which made such a strong impression on me.


Day Three

It is nearly the last session of the last day of the festival and I have to attend it.

It is the panel discussion with Vikram Seth and I want to ask him a real question.

At 4.30 PM, the discussion starts and I listen carefully, making sure to take notes.

The moderator is discussing with him the nature of his fiction. His answers are illuminating.

When I met him, he asked me how I had first discovered his work. I told him that the first thing I read were some of his poems on poemhunter.com. I liked them very much, so decided to read his novels. During our conversation, Jung Chang also told me that she’d heard that her book “The Wild Swans” has been translated into the Myanmar language. I told her that indeed it had, but, sadly, the translator had now passed away.

After the discussion, Mr Seth takes questions from the audience. There are many people who want to, so, I have to wait my turn before I ask him mine.

Do you have any advice for future writers?”

Live and write,” is his reply.

I thank him for his answer; it is inspiring enough.


The festival now comes to a close, as it began, on the Sunset terrace.

To an orange backdrop of the setting sun, the writers, organisers and the people in attendance listen to the closing speeches then bid farewell to one another before the curtain comes down on the festival and the darkness falls.

Leaving the hotel alone, I hear a quartet playing jazz in the lobby bar.

Like my mood, the melody is lively and happy.

Strolling slowly down the driveway, which winds its way to the gate of the hotel, I reflect upon my own experiences over the last three days.


I smile and nod to myself.

Live and write, live and write…”

Maybe the future will come about as I wish, or maybe not. No one can be sure.

For the time being, what matters is to stay focused and determined.

Yes, I feel I have become more mature.

San Lin Tun

About the Writer

San Lin Tun is a Myanmar-Mon national and lives in Yangon, Myanmar. As well as having his story, ‘An Overheated Heart’ appear in Hidden Words, Hidden Words: Contemporary Short Stories from Myanmar, his own work has also appeared in the New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology, 2011  and his translations have appeared in the Asia Literary Review. His poem ‘Red Dragon‘,  won the inaugural Welsh Day poetry competition in 2015, chaired by the former Director of Poetry, Ireland and he has completed and published the first English translations of Shwe U Daung’s Burmese Sherlock Holmes, as well as having 10 English language fiction and non-fiction books published in Yangon, Myanmar.

Further Reading:

Writer San Lin Tun  – Writer’s Own Website

‘Parallel Lines’ by San Lin Tun- New Asian Writing

Myanmar Launch of Hidden Words Anthology – SADAIK

San Lin Tun: A Profile – SADAIK

The Lady, the Writers and the Ex-Prisoners – FreeSpeechDebate, February, 2013

Literary Festival Encourages Bolder Writing, Open Debate

– Bill O’Toole, Myanmar Times, February 2013

Literary Festival Reflections – Lucas Stewart, SADAIK, February, 2013

Burma’s First Literary Festival is a Milestone – Petra Halbur, Bonfire Impact, February, 2013

A Literary Festival in Myanmar? – Sarah Hoffmann, Pen America, January 2013

Burmese Bards to Boycott Literary Festival – Kyaw Phyo Tha, The Irrawaddy

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Daw Khin Myo Chit

Shadow Signatures

A Legacy of Burmese Literary Pen Names

U Win Tun may not have had his face emblazoned on T-shirts sold for Westerners outside Yangon’s tourist shopping mecca of Scott Market, but for the Burmese, he was one of a trio of democratic heroes, just as iconic as Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Min Ko Naing, having spent nineteen years in prison for his involvement in the 1988 revolution.

Then in his eighties, his frail figure dwarfed by the chair he sat on, he mesmerized the Pearl Room of the Asia Plaza Hotel in Yangon with his love for books; how when he was a child books spurred him to become a journalist; how in prison books were banned by the jailors; how scraps of papers with letters became novels in his free imagination. Flanking him were two people with very similar stories; Dr Ma Thida (Sanchaung) political activist and writer, jailed for four year in the nineties and blogger Nay Phone Latt, sentenced to twenty one and a half years for ‘creating public alarm’ by reporting on the 2007 Saffron Revolution.

In fact, a lot of the people in the room that day had breathed U Win Tun’s memories.

On my table alone, there were two ex-literary prisoners and a former exile: Seyar Lay Ko Tin, sentenced for 4 to 10 years for possession and distribution of censored materials in the 1970’s under the Ne Win era; poet and installation artist Saw Wai, imprisoned for his infamous 2008 Valentine Day poem which criticized General Than Swe; and poet-translator U Zeyar Lynn, forcibly relocated from Yangon to Upper Burma.

But then, such a roll call of literary giants was to be expected when the event was to officially announce the new chapter of a literary organisation once so despised by the military junta; PEN Myanmar. Inconceivable as little as a year ago, the event was an historical occasion, for many of those present had won PEN Freedom awards during their imprisonment.

For me, however, the afternoon took on a more personal significance. It was the afternoon when, almost by accident, I was gifted a pen name.

Top-L-R-U Win Tu, Min Ko Naing, Ma Thida, Bottom-L-R-Nay Phone Latt, Saw Wai, U Zeyar Lynn

The use of alternative names is not just reserved for writers in Burma. Unlike in the West, Burmese do not use surnames, and often use astrology to name their children, corresponding to the day they were born to the consonant that represents that day; which accounts for the propensity of Aungs and Kyaws amongst ethnic Bama men. People will also use numerology and horoscopes to forecast their lives. If a negative future is viewed, then a simple change of name will divert the bad luck.

In other regions of Burma such as the northern Kachin State, clan names are prevalent resulting in several ‘Bawk’s in a single room. In in the east, most Kayin men you meet will be called ‘Saw’ meaning ‘Mr.’ but used as integral part of their name; on passports and national registration cards. A few months ago I conducted a short story workshop in Mawlamyine, the capital of Mon Sate in which every participant, man and woman, had ‘Mon’ in their name.

It’s no surprise then that most Burmese employ multiple titles, if only to distinguish themselves from their neighbours. Yet it is a practice which even foreigners in Burma have adopted. Eric Arthur Blair most famously took an alter-ego to heart; writing ‘Burmese Days’ under the authorship of George Orwell. Mr Orwell may possibly have been influenced by Hector Hugo Munro, a Scot born in Burma in 1870, employed as an imperial policeman – like George Orwell – before going on to write short stories under the pseudonym Saki. J. G. Scott, a man who devoted most of his life to Burma and its people, wrote his seminal ‘The Burman: His Life and Notions’ in 1882, under his given Burmese name, Shway Yoe. Then of course, there was Nefaltí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, Chilean Honorary Consul to Burma in the 1920’s, probably better known as the poet Pablo Neruda. Foreign writers in Burma have carried this inclination over into the 21st century, with Emma Larkin aping the object of her quest in her excellent book ‘Finding George Orwell in a Burmese Teashop’; Emma Larkin not being her real name.

George Orwell in Myanmar (back row 3rd from left)

Among early Burmese writers, the practice of taking a pen name was a natural path to take considering the ease and familiarity at changing names in their public life. The use of literary pseudonyms can be found at the birth of modern Burmese literature. The first recognised short story published in Burmese, ‘Maung Thein Tin, Ma Thein Shin Wuthtu’, printed in Thuriya Magazine, volume 1, no.1 in March, 1917 was written by Shwe U Daung. Shwe U Daung is perhaps more famous in Burma for his detective stories based in large part on Sherlock Holmes; his Burmese Sherlock U San Sar complete with longyi and living on his own version of Baker Street – 38th Street, Kyauktada Township. Other modern literature pioneers of the early 20th century followed, with U Sein Tin, better known as Theippan Maung Wa, depicting the lives of ordinary villages through his short stories using the experimental ‘wuthtu saungbar’ style; narratives based on real people or events with a loose fictional plot and dialogue. Thein Han, an early proponent of the ‘khitsan’ movement – literally ‘testing times’; a fundamental shift in literary focus away from courtly prose, Buddhist scripture and national myths to lives and words of the common people – ironically, wrote poetry under the name Zaw Gyi, an anthropomorphic sorcerer of Burmese legend.

L-R Zaw Gyi, Dagon Taya

And then there is Dagon Taya, as close to a national bard as is possible in a country like Burma with such a legacy of literature. Passing away at the grand age of 94 only in August 2013, Dagon Taya, born Htay Myaing, was a poet, a story writer, an anti-imperialist campaigner, leading member of the 1930’s khitsan movement, Independence day speech writer, national literature award winner, political prisoner and ultimately an exile, removing himself away from the attentions of the New Win government in the 1970’s to the small town of Aungban in Southern Shan state and disappearing from public view. He was also a man of many pen names; at least 7.

The post war period saw the rise of Burma’s golden generation of female writers. Ma Khin Mya, often called the ‘grand dame’ of Burmese literature, wrote under the pen name Daw Khin Myo Chit. Her fist novelette ‘College Girls’ appeared in the 1930’s and she continued writing up to her death in January 1999. Writing in English, her short story ’13 Carat Diamond’ published in 1956, was later included in the Bantam Classics ‘50 Great Oriental Stories’.

This great tradition of female writers and pen names continues to this day in Burma with the likes of Cho Cho Tin (Ma Sandar), and Nu Nu Yi (Inwa).

Of course, in a country like Burma, the reasons for the popularity of aliases amongst writers aren’t simply down to the fluid customs of name giving and taking in Asia. In a country like Burma, with its recent history of censorship, imprisonment and general abandonment of freedom of speech and expression it was never a bad thing to write under a name which had no physical connection to you.

This was certainly the case with Dr Ma Thida (Sanchaung), who published her documentary fiction ‘The Roadmap’ in Thailand under the name Suragamika, which roughly translates as, ‘Brave Traveller’; a suitable moniker giving the context of the book (it is set during and after the 1988 revolution following the lives of one family whose father had been imprisoned). Maung Thura, writer, comedian, democracy activist and a constant thorn in the military junta’s side goes by the name of Zarganar, in English, ‘Tweezers’.

Having a pen name can distance the writer from the words, can protect themselves and their families from the scrutiny of the feared special police, but often the writer cannot distance themselves from the name. The poet Maung Ba Gyan is a particular favourite of mine. When I came to Burma, I stenciled a three line poem of his onto the wall of my lounge, ‘The Great Guest’, he left Burma in 1999 never to return, yet before he died in a Californian exile in 2007 he continued to write and publish as Tin Moe.

L-R Maung Thura, Tin Moe

Often the use of a pen name in Burma goes further than self-preservation. Simple realities of the literature industry in Burma dictate that poets and short story writers must submit their work under different guises. A poem can fetch as little as 5 dollars; a short story, if the writer is lucky, maybe 10 dollars. To survive on your writing in Burma – which many writers don’t, having second day jobs as editors or language teachers – means multiple submissions. But like any publishing industry, editors are wary of over-selling a single author; so a writer will adopt several names. I once met a writer who had forgotten how many names he had submitted work under, he guessed about twenty but he wasn’t sure. Most writers here I speak to say about five is norm.

Which begs the question, how do writers in Burma choose their identities, if so many must be utilized?

As the only Westerner on my street, it’s safe to assume that everybody knows who I am; knowing who everybody else is, is trickier. Even those who have lived on the street all their lives often refer to their neighbours, not by name, but by physical or habitual characteristics that have morphed over time into the standard name that everyone uses. For example, the old Chinese man who spends his days sitting on his front step smoking, is known simply as ‘old Chinese man’, the curiously obese boy who plays street football every night is called, cruelly, ‘fatty’, there is also ‘skinny man’ and ‘tall man’. The last foreigner who lived on my street in the mid 80’s, a British Embassy employee, was affectionately known as ‘Uncle Poori’ due to him eating poori every night in the Indian restaurant on the corner.

Nobody remembers his real name.

L-R Dagon Khin Lay Lay, Ma Ma Lay.

While not many Burmese writers fashion aliases around their height or weight, there are commonalities to most. Attaching the name of the journal they publish has been a popular method since the early 20th Century. Khin Lay Latt, arguably the greatest of the pre-war female writers in Burma, wrote as Dagon Khin Khin Lay, after her magazine of the same name, ‘Dagon’, ‘The Star’. Her post-war successor, Ma Ma Lay, wrote one of only two Burmese novels to be translated into English, ‘Not Out of Hate’, though her biography of her husband ‘A Man Like Him”, translated and published in America in 2008, is without doubt one of the most heartfelt pieces of Burmese literature in English. Right through the war she published a magazine with her husband, the title of which, ‘Journal Kyaw’ (Brave Journal), she prefixed to her name to become, ‘Journal Kyaw Ma Ma Lay’. Ludu U Hla, the great Mandalay publisher, writer and collector, most famous for his series of interviews with prisoners in the 1950’s, ‘The Caged Ones’ simply attached the name of his printing press, Ludu.

In rare circumstances, the journal itself will decide to bestow its name upon a worthy writer. Depending on the quality of the journal, this is about as big an honour a writer can receive in Burma. ‘Shwe Amyutay’ is without doubt the leading literary journal in Burma, to have a short story included in their edition is the sign a writer has ‘made it’. In fact, competition is so fierce that the journal actually has a two tier selection criteria; to even be considered for inclusion in the journal, a writer must have published at least two stories in its smaller, less critical sister edition. Eight years ago, a young woman writer called A Phyu Yaung, translated as ‘white’ or ‘pure’, having spent two years in careful deliberation on her pen name, was distraught to find another writer had successfully submitted a story to ‘Shwe Amyutay’ under the same name only weeks before her. The Chief Editor, in a decision which caused ripples in the Yangon literary community, authorized A Phyu Yaung to affix ‘Shwe’ or ‘Gold” after her name, thereby associating this young writer – and only this writer – to his journal.

Most pen name constructions are less dramatic; some like ‘U Phone’ (Chemistry) denote their university major, others are less specific, such as pre-war writer ‘Paragu’, which simply means, ‘The Expert’. Many Burmese writers choose a place of special importance to them; Dr Ma Thida places ‘Sanchaung’ after her name as this is the Yangon township where she was born; Nu Nu Yi chose ‘Inwa’ as this was the name of her university hall where she started her writing career; Naing Swann uses a combination of a location and abstract referencing, writing as Thway (Sagaing), ‘Thway’ meaning ‘blood’, a respectful allusion to her father, the famous detective novelist Sagaing Ei Lwin and ‘Sagaing’ the area in Burma she grew up in.

However a Burmese writer chooses their pen name, once they are in possession of one, it will become the name by which, for all intents and purposes, they will die with. They will introduce themselves by it, sign by it, biographies and news articles will refer to them by it. Only their passports (if they have one) and national registration card will bear their real name.

Just like the neighbours in my street, often writers who have known and respected each other for years will not know each other’s real name. Working recently with A Phyu Yaung (Shwe) it was necessary for me to book an air ticket for her. Feeling embarrassed at not knowing her real name, I trawled through my correspondence with her; emails, articles, an old application form for a workshop, I could find no mention of it. I called a writer friend, who also didn’t know, I called a second writer with the same results; at one point there was the real possibility of contacting somebody who apparently knew A Phyu Yaung (Shwe)’s mother who surely would have known. In the end, the editor of ‘Shwe Amyutay’ magazine delved into his database and came up with her real name; Yee Kyaw.


As a founding member of PEN Myanmar, it was A Phyu Yaung (Shwe) who steered me towards the table I was sitting on. Recognizing only some of the writers and publishers present, I asked Seyar Lay Ko Tin who else had come. Leaning his small frame closer to me he pointed to several distinguished members of the Burmese literary community; U Win Nyein, the Chief Editor of ‘Shwe Amyutay’; short story specialist Ye Shan; the poetess Pandora. Eventually he pointed to a middle aged man sitting on the table across from us.

That’s Ko Anyu.”

Mr. Brown?” I asked recognizing the colour in Burmese.

Yes. That’s his pen name.”

Why on earth is his pen name Mr. Brown?” I asked again.

Because he is brown. His skin is dark.”

But everybody is brown here,” I protested.

You’re not,” Zeyar Lynn chipped in, “You’re white.”

So what does that make me then? Mr. White?”

That is a good name for you.” Seyar Lay Ko Tin casually suggested, adding, “Although I think there is already a Ko Phyu, so you should put your township after it. Ko Phyu (Kyauktada).”


Lucas Stewart (Ko Phyu Kyauktada)


Read More by Mr White:

The Act of Insanity  – Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, Issue 25

Hidden Worlds – The Irrawaddy, July, 2014

Myanmar’s Literary Talk Shows – The Diplomat, May 2014

The Kachin: Culture of the Mountain Lords – The Dissident Blog, March 2014

SADAIK (An online manuscript chest for all things literary in Myanmar)


Further Reading:

Writers Day, 9 December, 1988 – An Address by U Win Tun

– Burma Debate, Vol. VIII, No.1, 2001

Voices of ’88: In Their Own Words – Burma Debate, Vol. V, No. 3, 1998

Burma or Myanmar? Burmese or Burman? – U Khin Maung Saw

Selected Myanmar Short Stories – Translated by Ma Thanegi

Khin Hnin Yu’s Short Stories

Dandruff in My Hair – Khin Myo Chit, Burma Debate, Vol. VI, No.1, 1999

Burmese Sketches – Taw Sein Ko, British Burma Press, 1913

Modern Burmese Literature – U On Pe (The Atlantic, 1958)

Another Look at Burmese Days

– Stephen H. L. Keck, SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research, 2005

Neruda’s Burmese Days – Seamus Martov, The Irrawaddy, June 15, 2015



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When you conceal your will from others, that is Thick.

When you impose your will on others, that is Black.

– Li Zongwu

In the West, Machiavelli’s book The Prince is probably the best known work on simulation and dissimulation. In Chinese culture however there is a rich and deep seam of literature on strategy and deception. Sun Zi’s Art of War is the most famous, but the more recent book, Thick Black Theory (厚黑学 – Hòuhēixué), written by Li Zongwu (李宗吾) in 1912, is possibly the most important when it comes to trying to understand the Chinese strategies of today.

Li Zongwu was a social philosopher and critic and his purpose in writing Thick Black Theory was to describe the symptoms of an illness, or, to be more precise, to bring into the light the cultural shadow which is known to all in Chinese society as “thick face, black heart.”

The description “thick face, black heart” is used to describe what many, but by no means all, in Chinese society, whether they say so publicly or not, perceive to be the “must have” quality of Chinese people if they want to be successful, whether that be in society, business or politics.

“Thick face” is in essence a shield to protect a person from the criticism and negative opinions of others, thus preserving and thickening their own “face,” both in their own eyes and in the eyes of others, by refusing to accept the limitations or criticism that others have tried to impose or force upon them.

“Black heart” is the sword used to do battle with others as well as oneself. The black-hearted practitioner focuses their attention purely on their goals and ignores the possible cost to themselves or others. Together with this well-defined and honed killer instinct, the cutting edge of a practitioner’s sword is dispassion – to do battle without or, in spite of fear, and to be able to detach themselves completely from their own and others’ emotions so that their presence does not thwart or hinder them from achieving their ultimate goals.

In Thick Black Theory, the methods by which people use the idea of “thick face, black heart” to obtain and hold on to money, status and power, and how they use these to preserve their position and accumulate more are described in detail.

Li Zongwu’s original intention was to publish Thick Black Theory in a series of three articles in The Chengdu Daily in 1912. However, the official outrage and violent reaction caused after the first article was published led to a cancellation of the series. This series of three articles was later published several times between 1934 and 1936 in a single volume in Beijing by friends of Li Zongwu. Despite the controversial image of Chinese society that it portrayed, each edition sold out immediately before being banned by the government – a deliciously ironic fact given that in 1989; when the ban on the book was lifted, it was published by the Central Party School in Beijing. The book is now a consistent bestseller throughout mainland China, has been published in multiple editions and has spawned a whole sub-genre of “self-help” books, as well as in-depth studies of historical events and characters following the “thick black” premise.

It is important to remember that Li Zongwu’s work is purely an observation and study of “thick face, black heart,” and was never intended to be an endorsement of the amoral practices when mastered (which many non-practitioners would consider to be immoral) that the book describes. The irony that it is now used and reinterpreted as a manual for succeeding in business and society, only goes to show how prescient these observations were, both then and now, and how little has actually changed.

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