Foon Ming Liew-Herres & Volker Grabowsky & Renoo Wichasin, Chronicle of Sipsong Panna: History and Society of a Tai Lue Kingdom, Twelfth to Twentieth Century.
Published by Mekong Press, Chiang Mai 2012 (406 pages).
A Book Review by Reinhard Hohler, Chiang Mai (17.08.2012)
This “complicated” book on the “Chronicle of Sipsong Panna” fills an important gap to understand the history and society in the modern “Economic Quadrangle” of the four nation states China, Myanmar, Lao PDR, and Thailand. In the last more than 800 years this border area was peopled by the Tai Lue, a branch of the Tai-speaking language group.
Through the fruitful co-operation of three scholars, namely Foon Ming Liew-Herres, a sinologist specializing in Ming historiography, Prof. Dr. Volker Grabowsky, Head of Thai Studies at Hamburg University in Germany, and Renoo Wichasin, Associate Professor of Thai Philology at Chiang Mai University, the present work contains the annotated translations of four versions of the Moeng Lue Chronicles, in summary also called Sipsong Panna Chronicle.
Actually, the book’s contents conventionally start with a list of maps and tables, abbreviations and signs, authors’ note (page vii), 9 maps, a preface and acknowledgements. But then the text is divided into three parts. First, there is a two-part introduction (pages 1-104), including the descriptions of four manuscripts of the Moeng Lue Chronicle (!). Then there follows Part III (pages 102-344) headed as Chronicle of Sipsong Panna. Finally, there are 5 appendices, a comprehensive bibliography and an index. Last not least, there is an 8-page intrusion of photographs, which is not specially marked.
While the careful reading of the Sipsong Panna Chronicle in Part III of the book is only for real history experts, the merit of the book for the more general reader is Part I, which gives a detailed overview of the history and society of Sipsong Panna. Interesting to note is that the research for the book was generously financed by the German “Forschungsgemeinschaft” (DFG) under the “Traditional Polities of the Tai” project during the years 2001 to 2006.
Sipsong Panna is a Tai expression, which means “twelve districts” (wet-rice plains?) and was located in China’s southern Yunnan, in the northeast of Myanmar’s Shan State and in the utmost northwest of Lao PDR, covering an area of nearly 20,000 square kilometres with slightly more than one million inhabitants. The elevation of the river basins ranges between 500 and 1,100 metres above sea level. The mighty Mekong River, called Lancangjiang by the Chinese, divides the region into almost two equal halves. The administrative division into twelve districts was introduced in the second half of the sixteenth century. Before that time the whole region was known as “Moeng Lue”, meaning Kingdom of the Tai Lue, which was founded in the late twelfth century (ca.1180).
The word “moeng” equals the word “muang” in Thailand and Laos as well as “mong” in Burmese and “meng” in Chinese. Chinese sources generally refer to the region as “Cheli” that most probably connects to Chiang Lue and was used by the Chinese until the mid-twentieth century to designate both the Tai Lue polity of Sipsong Panna as a whole and its capital Chiang Rung or Chiang Hung (Jinghong in Chinese) in particular.
The original Tai Lue polity was much larger than that of the present-day autonomous prefecture of Sipsong Panna (Xishuangbanna in Chinese) in southern Yunnan. In the mid-nineteenth century, it lost ground to the colonial powers of Britain and France - and last not least also to China, which marched into the region in 1953, four years after the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China.
The “Tai Lue” people are known like all other Tai-speaking groups to be wet-rice farmers. Also, they follow Theravada Buddhism, which was introduced from Northern Thailand (Lan Na) in the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century.
Roughly 350,000 Tai Lue live in Sipsong Panna at the present time. They are closely related to the Tai Nua in Yunnan’s Dehong Autonomous Prefecture and several smaller Tai groups, such as the Tai Ya, Tai Laem, and Tai Khuen amongst others. Tai Khuen people live mostly in and around Chiang Tung (Kyaing Tong in Burmese) in today’s Myanmar’s eastern Shan State - side by side with Tai Lue.
The Tai Lue population in Lao PDR amounts to 150,000 with the largest concentration in and around Muang Sing of Luang Nam Tha Province. In Thailand, Tai Lue people mostly live in Chiang Rai, Phayao, Nan and Chiang Mai (40,000?).
Apart from the Han Chinese, the Tai Lue people in Sipsong Panna possess a written language. The script is a variant of the “Dhamma” script, which was widely used among Tai peoples of the Upper Mekong region. The American Presbyterian missionary William Clifton Dodd was one of the first foreigners to do fieldwork in the region (ca.1913). His book “The Tai Race: Elder Brother of the Chinese” (Cedar Rapids, Iowa 1923) is a classic and was reprinted by White Lotus Press, Bangkok in 1996.
Another foreigner, German geographer Hermann von Wissmann, visited Sipsong Panna and published “Sued-Yuennan als Teilraum Suedostasiens” (Heidelberg 1943). Strangely enough this work is not mentioned by the authors. Recent evidence supports the theory that the proto-Tai language emerged more than 2,000 years ago in the border regions of northern Viet Nam and south-eastern China (page 11). For further references, please consult the comprehensive bibliography, which also includes archival sources as well as literature in Chinese and Thai (pages 367-379).
The new book also delves into the Tai-Kha relationship, which describes the different hill tribes living in Sipsong Panna, such as the Hani, Lahu, Jinuo, Wa, and Bulang amongst others, who all practice slash and burn agriculture on slopes of the forested mountains.
Furthermore, there are chapters about the Tai Lue society and its administrative systems, trade and economy, the tributary relations with China, Burma, Lan Na and other smaller Tai polities, as well as forced resettlements.
From 1912 to1950, Sipsong Panna already fell under Chinese rule. Its last king, Chao Fa Phaendin Mom Kham Lue (Dao Shixun), the number 44 in line of the rulers according to some chronicles, abdicated in 1950 and went to live in Yunnan’s capital Kunming, where he was visited in March 2002 by two of the authors (page xx).
After the English publications of “The Chiang Mai Chronicle” by David Wyatt and Aroonrut Wichienkeeo in 1995 (Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books), “The Padaeng Chronicle and the Jengtung State Chronicle translated” by Sao Saimong Mangrai in 1981 (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan), and “Chronicles of Chiang Khaeng” by Volker Grabowsky and Renoo Wichasin in 2008 (Honolulu: The University of Hawaii), the reader of the new book will be more than satisfied to get to know the history of the Tai Lue people with this English translation and analysis of the “Chronicle of Sipsong Panna” which was long overdue.
Finally, special thanks go to publisher Trasvin Jittidecharak and her staff of Silkworm Books in Chiang Mai in dealing with the publication of such a difficult and complicated book. Especially Mekong Press, which was initiated in 2005 with the financial support of the Rockefeller Foundation, is well-known to support the work of local scholars within countries of the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS).