Sunday, May 24, 2009

Asia / Refugee Stuff: Illiteracy and myth among Southeast Asian Refugees: The Chin

In a previous blog entry (see below), I discussed briefly the role of illiteracy in the self-image and self-identity of the Hmong (Miao, Meo) a so-called tribal people who live in China, Laos and Thailand and make up a sizeable portion of the world's refugee population.

In that entry, it was discussed how the Hmong were, until the twentieth century, illiterate and had no system of reading and writing. As they had extensive contact with other peoples, notably the Chinese, who could read and write, the Hmong people developed a variety of myths to explain why they were lacking in this area while their neighbors were not.

In this entry I will briefly discuss the myths surrounding and explaining traditional illiteracy among the Chin, a tribal people of Northwestern Burma, Northeastern India and parts of Bangladesh. Until the early twentieth century, when a system of reading and writing was introduced to the Chin by Western missionaries, the Chin did not have a way to read and write any of the several dialects of their language.

If you'd like you may find a copy of the Bible written in Hakha Chin, here. You will see that unlike Karen or Burmese it is written in the Roman alphabet, a legacy of its origins among primarily American and British missionaries.

Here is an excerpt taken from page 14 of Lian H. Sakhong's "In Search of Chin Identity --A Study in Religion, Politics, and Ethnic Identity in Burma." (2003, Nias Press, Copenhagen.):

In the beginning, when the stones were soft, all mankind spoke the same language, and there was no war on earth. But just before the darkness called 'Chun-mui' came to the earth, God gave different languages to different peoples and instructed them to write on something else. While the Chin ancestors carefully inscribed their language on leather, the Burman ancestors, who were very lazy, wrote their language on stone, which was soft. However soon after they had made the inscription of their languages, the 'darkness' came and the sun disappeared from the earth. During the 'darkness' the stone became hard but the leather got wet. Before the sun came back to the earth, and while the leather was still very smelly, a hungry dog ate up the leather, and in this way, the Chin ancestors lost their written language.

When the sun came back to the earth, the Chin ancestors realized that while they had lost their written language, the Burman language which was written on the stone had turned into 'the magic of letters'. Moreover, while the sons of Burman spoke the same language, the sons of China spoke different dialects because their common language was eaten up together with the leather by the hungry dog. Thus, the ancestor of the Chin prepared to make war against the Burman in order to capture 'the magic of letters'. Although the Burmans were weaker and lazier, the Chin did not win the war because 'the magic of letters' united all the sons of the Burman. Since the sons of Chin spoke different dialects, their fathers could not even give them the war order to fight the Burman. It was for this reason that the Chin broke into distinct tribes and speak different dialects.

Sakhong says he received this story from Pu Sakhong who recorded it in 1969.

There are other versions of the story, including one recorded by Shakespear in 1912 in which God gave different talents to different kinds of people, and the white man, not the Burman, recieved the talent of reading and writing. (Sakhong, p. 14)

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