By Frances O’Morchoe
Carol Ann Boshier’s newly-published book – Mapping Cultural Nationalism: The Scholars of the Burma Research Society – charts the rise and fall of the Burma Research Society from 1910 through the 1930s. She contextualises the society within Burma’s growing cultural nationalist movement, emerging public sphere, and the confrontations between local forms of knowledge and the intrusive colonial presence.
The Burma Research Society (BRS) was the brainchild of one man, J.S. Furnivall. Furnivall is today famous for his concept of the ‘plural society’, in which natives, Europeans and Chinese kept their own language, religion and culture, meeting only in the marketplace. Less well known is his attempt to promote a Burman- Buddhist homogenising identity in an effort to unify Burma as a modern nation-state. The example of the Young Men’s Buddhist Association inspired Furnivall to set up the BRS. Instead of fostering national consciousness through religious reform, however, Furnivall envisaged unifying the nation around Burman- Buddhists’ shared culture and history.
The BRS scholars, with a core group including Pe Maung Tin and G.H. Luce, thought that they could create a collective Burmese national identity around ideas such as that of the ‘golden age’ of ancient Pagan. Ultimately, however, the society and their ideas were overtaken by developments in the 1930s. Their focus on high culture lost relevance during a period of militant expressions of nationalism and anti-British sentiment. These changes exposed the contradictions and the Orientalism inherent in Furnivall’s idea that it was the West, in collaboration with colonised scholars, which should lead Burma into the modern world.
Carol Ann Boshier approaches the controversies and contradictions at the heart of the society through a series of case studies, including the BRS debates over the construction of ancient Pagan as precursor to a modern Burmese state, and the BRS members’ attempts to shut down an anthropological survey of Burma’s ethnic minorities, which they considered potentially divisive and destabilising. At its foundation, the Burma Government warned the BRS that it was not to touch on politics and economics. The Society’s attempt to provide a space where people of different races could debate as equals proved controversial in the context of the colonial society in which they operated.
Boshier’s painstaking data-basing of membership lists and article contents is displayed in numerous tables in the first chapter. The usefulness of these could have been improved by more attention to their legibility. In addition, the data sets are so small, and discernible trends so scant, as to suggest that there are perhaps more interesting granular stories to be found underlying the data. Her qualitative analysis, shedding light on cultural nationalism, controversies over elite knowledge production, and the racial divisions at the heart of Burmese colonial society, is often more fruitful than her quantitative analysis.
The BRS was evidently unique among Southeast Asian learned societies. Boshier neatly lays out how the mixture of colonisers and colonised among its members produced fascinating debates, which shed light on a formative period in the early years of Burmese nationalism.