China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
In the late 1800s, Yunnanese began travelling more frequently, both domestically and abroad. Some left for schooling, others to labor, but many were dispatched to do business—often for years at a time—in Rangoon, Hong Kong, or smaller places around Asia. Building on recent studies, I investigate how migration to Burma impacted Yunnanese identities. Experiences varied, naturally, as some acculturated, disappearing into Burmese society. Others, Yi Li has demonstrated, focused on building a new Chinese-Burmese community. This paper introduces merchants who constructed a modern Chinese identity, both in Burma and in their hometowns, their aspirations shaped by the times as well as the Yunnanese past. Prodded into action by encounters with British colonialism, Hokkien communities, and the transnational movement of ideas about race and modernity, these merchants became involved in education in the years after the Burmese school systems expanded. According to the government, Chinese who enrolled their children in these new Burmese schools were often content, but, for these merchants, the accessibility of education, particularly for girls, laid bare the need to articulate a separate identity and culture. They worried about intermarriage and child-rearing, admonishing Chinese fathers for allowing their offspring, particularly daughters, to remain ignorant of Chinese ways. Their answer was to build Chinese schools in Burma, and, for some, the experience transformed their thinking about themselves and China’s future. They started promoting reform in their hometowns, setting out to destroy allegedly backward practices, including the lineage and gender norms only recently constructed by their forbears.