…fernquest’s pre-modern burma

irrawaddy nyhao

( …along the Irrawaddy River in present day Myanmar, by Nyhao )

Often with history-telling we are faced with the facts vs. fiction, what an historical period actually was, along with its elusive fictional embellishments. The task of the historical scholar then is to filter through available sources to tease out what is of use & to reach into what has been traditionally cast off as irrelevant. Jon Fernquest has been working on such a project with the pre-modern history of Burma. He wrote a paper for the SOAS Bulletin of Burma (2008) on “The Ecology of Burman-Mon Warfare & the Pre-Modern Agrarian State (ca. 1388 – 1425). Although Fernquest steps away from the old fashioned mandala & galactic polity models of looking at Southeast Asian history, he still uses traditional Burmese texts.

Burma has centuries of peace & war stories to tell. It appears to us in the west as overshadowed by its neighbor’s to the east e.g. Vietnam, Cambodia, The Philippines, Indonesia &c. This may simply be our narrow focus without too much attention to such a unique area of Southeastern Asian scholarship. It’s surprising to our modern ears to think of warfare as having its roots in agriculture & the ecology of a place. We are reminded of the fact that Burma has been an agrarian country for centuries, this coupled with warfare, creates a special interest for someone wanting to understand how weather patterns, river flow, agriculture &c. all have had a part to play in the detailed way that Burmese history has presented itself to an attuned mind like Fernquest’s. 

A pre-modern-post-Mongol Burmese farmer had to be ready to till the land & also had to wear a soldiers helmet to kill when his kingdom called for it. Although wartime was usually held outside settlements, it still affected how the population & the local eco-systems were affected. Fernquest uses a “hypothetical ecological chain of causation” (EBMW 72) that looks like this: “environment → land → agriculture → food supply → man/animal power → warfare → state formation.” We also have a mention of Braudel’s ”longue durée” showing how short term war events are positioned & examined with long term environmental patterns in pre modern Burma. (EBMW 72) “Bayesian inference” too, has been a useful tool to help Fernquest to expand on any of the unaccounted patchwork of facts. Fernquest is simultaneously cross-cultural in that one narrative is not favored over the other. He looks to a series of conflicts around the Irrawaddy River, partially using the Rajadhirat, A Mon Epic, this is one of the classic texts Fernquest translated & is featured in a blog format. last lines of the rajahirat

( …last lines of the Rajahirat Mon Epic in Burmese, click here for the English translation by Fernquest )

Fernquest names these conflicts ‘The Ava-Pegu War’ of 1383-1425. Ava is known as Innwa, & Pegu is known as Bago, all located in Burma, today’s Myanmar. “The epic tale of the Rajahirat records a long war between Lower Burma & upper Burma…” (EBMW 72). Fernquest additionally uses colonial-era British gazetteers, along with the early 18th century text U Kala’s Burmese Chronicle of which Fernquest has translated & is featured in a blog format.

Essentially Fernquest blends all these into a contemporaneous telling of a rarely visited region of time that allows for multiple views & a specific focus.

“…the middle Irrawaddy River region is a pivotal thoroughfare providing access to the delta region, Lower Burma, & food supply located along the river. Battles over this strategically important stretch of river are a crucial point in the Ava-Pegu War. With food supply & adjustments in military logistics playing a crucial role in the course of the conflicts.” (EBMW 74)

With a range of sources that can be used in looking back in time to pre-modern agrarian wartime Burma, there are restrictions. One has to rely on inscriptions, chronicles, later documents & scant written records of the time, this exposes a surprising amount of unavailable evidence open for interpretation, shown in Fernquest’s diagram below (EBMW 109):


…with a full recognition of the arduous task of sorting through the limited evidence of a time where wet weather, farming, mud, & kingdoms were all operating in unison to create the Burma we remember now, we are indebted to a man like Fernquest who scrupulously finds the story of the land to let us feel a curious example of the seasonal wartime protocol of slowing down the fighting during the monsoons. This was a time to wait for the rains & a time to take strategic advantage of the season. We won’t forget that base starvation is (& was) a weapon too during these trying times of the year.

Dear Jon Fernquest, help us to continue to see the Burma you know with new eyes & help us with a desire to supplement what has not been noticed. Soon you will show again a history that has not yet been revealed, learning & teaching of a people so far away, long since gone, to be brought alive again in our mind, our hearts…

pyay market nyahao

( …market near the Irrawaddy river in present day Pyay (Prome), Myanmar, by Nyhao )

―Aurelio Madrid

on hume’s standard of taste

…that there is a great variety of taste is observable in a small circle of people as there is to be found in the whole of history throughout differing cultures & beliefs. The ‘sentiments’ of beauty & ugliness are generally accepted, but when we turn to specifics of such an aesthetical inquiry we find a quick variance of opinion where “…this seeming unanimity vanishes.” (OST 249) David Hume* makes the comparison that with morality as with the aesthetical, the general is easier to agree upon & with the specifics, it is difficult to find a consensus. We can also observe that the moral vs. the aesthetical as having like qualities that can be held apart or brought together, depending on the context of an aesthetical & ethical considerations.

maquette_dieux_supp 3

Patrick van Caeckenbergh “Les Dieux Suppliants – Model” 2000 – 2009, model, mixed media.

…meanwhile, we observe that with Hume the desire to create a standard of taste requires a set of guidelines that can be lead to a deeper analysis of an object in question without resorting to a base relativism of taste. Hume writes that sentiments (instead of judgments) cannot  reach outside of what is true for an individual observer, they are “…determinations of understandings [that] are not right because they have a reference to something beyond themselves to wit, [a] real matter of fact & are not always conformable to that standard [sentiment].” (OST 251). Perhaps this means that a sentiment, how we feel about a particular art object, is undeniably true to us as having experienced it. “Beauty is no quality in things themselves: it exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; & each mind perceives a different beauty.” (OST 252) Within this observation Hume paraphrases the proverb that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. But, before we can be too comforted by such an adage we’ll recall that “common sense” (OST 252) also does not allow such a proverb its fullest flight of fancy. Rather, we’ll see that all art objects are not of the same standing & some are esteemed more than others. We would be hard-pressed to make a claim all art objects are of equal value aesthetically. Hume is quick to point out that standards of art are not known to us ‘a priori’. We already know that art is not strictly a set of rules to follow & art can be made resulting from the eccentricities of customary rules without always having to account for such an extravagance &/or abuse of accepted standards. This allows the critic to account for the sensitivities of human sentiment that can easily vary at a moments notice.

Beauty cannot be forced with a favorable sentiment 100% of the time. On beauty Hume writes of the influence of the work of art cannot always be ascertained by describing it’s specific beauties, but by its lasting influence: “We shall be able to ascertain its influence not so much from the operation of each particular beauty, as from a durable admiration which attends to works that have survived all the caprice of mode & fashion, all mistakes of ignorance or envy.” (OST 255) Envy & jealousy can obscure genius, but in due time such obfuscations are sometimes removed & the work can endure through the impediments of shallow dis/regard. The tendencies of “approbation or blame” (OST 256) can be found in the mind & to not see such things as elicited from the artwork is attributable to the deficits of the observer, enough to be an unreliable purveyor of taste.

guixe cakes

Marti Guixe: I-cakes, 2001, “The pie graphic indicates the ingredients of the cake in percentages. Decoration becomes information.”

…so a discernment of taste can be found among a group of persons with normal & unimpeded sense organs. Sentiments can vary can vary from one individual to the next, but these sentiments are not as reliable if the person has an actual physical hindrance by which to observe a given object (there are exceptions to this, remember Beethoven’s hearing loss).   Hume writes of a certain: “…delicacy of imagination which is a requisite to convey a sensibility of those given emotions.” (OST 257) A delicacy of taste to discern matters goes beyond the obvious sentiments that every person can be said to possess. Certain delicacies are easily missed & overlooked. Once brought to the forefront, qualities of an object can have a set of predetermined effects on the observer: “…whether we employ these terms in a literal or metaphorical sense.” (OST 258) Such observances may not always silence the strong opinions (sentiments) of a casual observer, enough for her to insist on a crude taste assessment. A refined taste is brought about by understanding major vs. minor nuances of an art object under consideration. “A delicate taste taste of wit or beauty must always be a desirable quality..” (OST 259) There is to be found a disagreement in such delicacy & experience with matters of taste will improve with continued involvement within a specialized area of interest. Differing areas of expertise are usually not judged against one another. Hume states that one must have a practiced involvement with whatever art one seeks to praise or censure. An unpracticed eye will clumsily assess that which she has no former/formal knowledge of to begin with. We’ll easily value the words of a seasoned critic more than the casual observer. “In a word, the same address & dexterity which practice gives to the execution of any work, is also acquired by the same means in the judging of it.” (OST 261)


Leopold Rabus “Personnes déplaçant un matelas”  [people moving a mattress] 2009, Oil on canvas.

Following these thoughts Hume tells us of the indispensible use of the comparison. An object of comparable value is used to compare the merits of the former. A critic use’s comparisons as a tool to weigh-out the merits of one object for/against another. Of all the tools Hume speaks of, one stands out as the most difficult to maintain is the removal of prejudice. This is the removal (in the mind of the critic) of a personal bias that will predetermine a ‘fair’ evaluation. A certain objectivity is desirable if the object under scrutiny is to be given full credit on its own. “…prejudice is destructive of sound judgment, & perverts all operations of the intellectual faculties […] It belongs to good sense to check its influence…” (OST 263) It must be added that one would need to have a personal preference for the area of focus, where a sentiment continues to reside with predilections of the critic—e.g. as one chooses a friend. How this is done for the artwork without prejudice is certainly a feat of skill & self-mastery.


Michael Sailstorfer: “Zeit ist keine Autobahn – Frankfurt” 2008, tire, iron, electronic engine, electric current.

“When the critic has no delicacy he judges without any distinction & is affected by the grosser & more palpable qualities of the object: the finer touches pass unnoticed & disregarded.” (OST 265) It is noteworthy that vacillations of taste do happen throughout a lifetime & throughout history. What one found a sentiment for in youth, may not appear to the eye in old age. This cannot go without the changes of taste unnoticed. Along with this we should accordingly account for un/obvious cultural differences & similarities. Nowadays such disparities of culture are less & less vivid as they might’ve been in Hume’s 18th century. Globalized culture is now the norm, with a hegemonic American culture as the ‘rule’ This is problematic for the critic only if she doesn’t have the sensitivity to attenuate her modulations of taste from one cultural standard to the next.

Hume closes with a few ideas on religion, through a bit dated to a 21st century reader, we’ll recall that he was a famous atheist & so whether religion is intrusive to a particular work of art is debatable, yet worthy of further consideration. We can stand to make more allowances for such religious inclusions these days. The issue that could be of notice goes with an idea Hume looks to at the start of the essay, where he compares aesthetics to morality. Let us determine that a collective aesthetic might have affinities in a general sense concerning a standard of taste as morality is observed. To repeat, these connections are similar in a general sense, while being dissimilar in a particular sense. This raises a curious question as to where the two actually merge. Aesthetics & ethics have a relationship in our judgments of other’s taste as ‘wrong or right,’ depending on our assumed expertise in matters of taste. In the other direction, a particular person’s ethics can be said to be ‘distasteful’ & someone else’s charity is seen to be beautiful, &c. These distinctions are to be clarified from the individual standpoint of knowing the difference between ethics & aesthetics, how the two are determined to be in combination or separate. On this we’ll have to lean on Hume’s understanding that a delicacy of taste is brought about only with a learned experience, considering a particular context, a keen sensitivity for comparison & an acuity that aspires to be without prejudice…

*David Hume, Of the Standard of Taste [OST], The Philosophical Works vol. III, Little, Brown & Co.,1854, pp. 248-273. Follow this hyperlink for an online link to the text with commentary: “Of the Standard of Taste”

Aurelio Madrid