- Japanese: ビルマ (biruma)
Burma, or Myanmar, is a mainland Southeast Asian country bordering China to the northeast, India to the northwest, and Thailand to the southeast. It also has limited borders with Laos and Bangladesh. A number of Burmese kingdoms have risen and fallen over the centuries; in the early modern period, it was one of the most stable and thoroughly bureaucratized states in Southeast Asia, and maintained relations with the Ming and Qing Chinese courts. With the exception of Mongol conquests in the 1280s, however, Chinese military efforts against Burma, e.g. under the Qianlong Emperor in the late 18th century, were never successful.
The Burmese kingdom of Pagan ruled most of what is today also Burmese territory, until it was conquered by the Mongol Empire in the 1280s. Though Burma engaged in tributary relations with China throughout most of the medieval to early modern periods, the period from the 1280s until the 1330s seems to have been the only time when Burmese kings themselves recognized this as a tributary relationship; however, this is all according to Chinese sources. During the period, from 1289 to 1339, Burma sent more than twenty tributary missions to Beijing, and received a number of missions from China in return, including two investiture missions.
Burmese formal communications with the Chinese court were written in Burmese, and were translated into Chinese by Beijing's own Translation Bureau. As a result, the Burmese and Chinese archives reveal rather different accounts of the relationship, accounts which have not yet been reconciled by scholars. While Chinese sources often indicate that the Burmese court observed all the proper obeisances, for example the king kowtowing while receiving an official golden royal seal in 1792, the Burmese sources give no such indication.
By the mid-14th century, Burma was divided into the maritime Pegu kingdom, ruled by the Mon people, and the inland Burmese kingdom of Ava. Pegu was visited by Zheng He, and responded with five tributary missions to Nanjing in the period from 1407 to 1415, while Ava cultivated a relationship with China in order to bolster its legitimacy against claims from rival clans. Despite Chinese sources representing Burma as a tributary, however, they also reveal that Burmese language and practice often did not accord to the idealized deferential behavior: Burmese letters referred to the Chinese emperor as "elder brother" rather than as "all-father," and Chinese envoys to Burma were made to kowtow to the Burmese king, rather than the reverse.
In the 1580s, the Burmese had a number of border skirmishes with the Ming, as did Ayutthaya (Siam).
Following the Qing conquest in 1644, one of the last Ming claimants to the throne, the Prince of Gui, escaped into Burma. He was initially given sanctuary, but eventually the king of Burma changed his mind, executing most of the Prince's family and followers. After Wu Sangui led an army into Burma to get back the pretender emperor in 1661, the Burmese turned the Prince over; he was then executed in Yunnan the following year.
Burma was ruled from 1752 to 1886 by the Konbaung Dynasty, one of its strongest dynasties but also its last before colonization by the British. In the early years of this dynasty, the Burmese ignored the Qing, as they had been doing for some time. However, in 1765, conflict erupted between Burma and Qing China, resulting in a devastating border war for the Chinese. Numerous Chinese were felled in battle, and by disease, and by 1769, the Qing gave up their expansionist plans. After this, the Burmese refused to pay tribute, but did agree to send "goodwill missions" once every ten years. Around this same time, Burma fought a series of successful wars against the Siamese kingdom of Ayutthaya, taking and destroying the Siamese capital city in 1767.
The Qing closed the border with Burma at this time, until 1787, when a group of Yunnan merchants, desperate to reopen their trade relationships, sent a number of representatives, pretending to be formal Qing envoys, to reopen relations, and the Burmese agreed. Some ten or twenty missions were then sent from Burma to China over the remainder of the 18th-19th centuries.
The British conquered the city of Mandalay in November 1885, and deposed the last Burmese king, marking the beginning of British colonial rule of Burma. China complained that Burma had been a tributary, and that China was compelled to intervene, citing Chinese records of tributary status. The British countered with Burmese documents which give no such impression, but in the end agreed in an 1886 treaty to allow the Burmese people to continue to send their once-in-a-decade missions of "friendship." This promise was never followed-through, however, due to border disputes and other disagreements with China.
During World War II, Burma was one of the many Southeast Asian countries to fall under Japanese control. Following its independence after the war, Burma pursued a friendly relationship with the Communist People's Republic of China, in order to avoid its massive neighbor being an enemy.
- Anthony Reid, "Introduction," in Reid & Zheng Yangwen (eds.), Negotiating Asymmetry: China's Place in Asia (NUS Press, 2009), 13-14.
- Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China, Second Edition, W.W. Norton & Co. (1999), 38.
- Coedes, G. (H.M. Wright, trans.) The Making of South East Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966, 164-165.
- Reid, 18-19.