The Myanmar Performing Arts Of The Pyu Period

In A.D.802 the King of Sri Kstra, a Pyu City Kingdom in Central Myanmar despatched a diplomatic mission to the Court of the Chinese Emperor of the Tang Dynasty (A.D.618 -907) at the Capital Chang-an. Led by the Pyu Crown Prince Sunanda who was accompanied by Minister Nakya Konra and General Maha Thena, the mission took with it a cultural troupe of 35 performing artistes.

Poems of the early 9th century describe performances by Pyu artistes at Chang-an, the Tang capital, in AD 800 and 801-802.

Later historical compilations the Man shu, or Book of the Southern Barbarians (AD 863), the Jiu Tang shu or Old History of the Tang Dynasty (AD 945) and the Tang huiyao or Important Documents of the Tang (AD 961) all refer to the musicians’ visit of AD 801-802. The Xin Tang shu or New History of the Tang Dynasty contains a detailed description of the Pyu kingdom, even listing the songs performed by the Pyu on their visit to Chang-an.

The Myanmar Performing Arts Of The Pyu Period (Monday, November 12, 2001)

By Dr. Khin Maung Nyunt

In A.D.802 the King of Sri Kstra, a Pyu City Kingdom in Central Myanmar despatched a diplomatic mission to the Court of the Chinese Emperor of the Tang Dynasty (A.D.618 -907) at the Capital Chang-an. Led by the Pyu Crown Prince Sunanda who was accompanied by Minister Nakya Konra and General Maha Thena, the mission took with it a cultural troupe of 35 performing artistes.

During the long land journey which lasted 214 days the mission rested at several transit stations. At one transit , while the Pyu artistes were rehearsing their programmes, one Chinese musician of the Royal Music Academy overheard their songs and music. He wrote them down in Chinese musical notes and proceeded to the Capital to teach the Court musicians.
The Chinese historical archives such as old history and new history of T’ang dynasty graphically recorded the account of the Pyu mission and their cultural performances at the Chinese Imperial Court. In pre-war days one British sinologist named Mr.E.H. Parker, adviser to the British Colonial Government first made mention about this Pyu mission in his booklet entitled Burma with Special Reference to her Relations to China published in Rangoon 1893. In it the author included his translation of the relevent portions of the new history of T’ang dynasty. G.E.Harvey, a noted British historian quoted Parker in his History of Burma London 1925 and gave a translation of the poem on the Pyu cultural performances composed by a Chinese Court Poet named Po Chu-i who was ever present at the performances before the T’ang Emperor. More writings on this subject flowed from the pens of eminent researchers.

A research paper entitled Ancient Pyu by G.H. Luce, Professor of Oriental Studies Yangon University was published in the Journal of Burma Research Society Vol.27, Part III (1937).

Another paper on the same subject by the same author and U Pe Maung Tin jointly entitled Burma Down to the Fall of Pagan appeared in the same journal Vol.29, Part III (1939).

In these two papers we find references to the Pyu mission and cultural performances.

In his book Burmese Music. A Preliminary Enquiry published in Rangoon 1940, U Khin Zaw (K) made a passing reference to the Pyu mission and music.
Later followed three scholars who did specific research on the mission and its accompanying cultural troupe.

Two musicologists D.E. Twitchett and A.H. Christe jointly did an intensive tapping of Chinese archives and jointly produced their results in the form of a long learned article entitled A Medieval Burmese Orchestra which was published in the Journal named Asia Major (New Series) Vol. vii, parts1-2,1959, pp.l71-95. This article provides us a full information on Pyu music, dance, and musical instruments, with sketches to illustrate the instruments.

The third scholar was a research officer of the Myanmar Historical Research Department U Yi Sein (Mr. Tang Yi Sein) who contributed a fuller account of the Pyu mission of A.D. 802 based upon ancient Chinese archives. His account was in three instalments namely Pyu-Chinese relations , The Journey taken by the Pyu diplomatic mission despatched to China and The Pyu Diplomatic Mission of A.D. 802
despatched to China. These three research papers were presented by the author at the gathering of scholars at the Department of Myanmar Historical Research, on 29-10-1977, 18-3-1978, and 29-7-1978 respectively and were published in the Journal of Research in Myanmar History Vol.1, 1977, Vol.2, 1978 and Vol.3, 1979 respectively.

From the above-mentioned research works we learn that three Court chroniclers were present when the Pyu cultural performances were presented to His Imperial Majesty the T’ang Emperor at his Court. The first chronicler was a Court Poet Po Chu-i who acted as Imperial Secretary on the occasion, the second was also a Court Poet Yuan Wei-chih and the third Commander Wei Kao.

The two Poets recorded the Pyu cultural performances verses and the Commander jotted down Pyu music in notation and Pyu dancers, dance patterns and musical instruments in sketches and painting.

The following are the facts and figures regarding the Pyu performing arts which we glean from the eyewitness accounts of the above mentioned Court chroniclers.
Musical Instruments
In Myanmar traditional musical instruments there are five categories viz. (i)Kyey which means brass, bronze or any non-precious metallic instruments (ii) Kyo which means string instruments (iii) Thayey which means hide instruments (iv) Lei which means wind instruments and (v)Let khup which means clapper. All these five kinds were represented in the Pyu cultural troupe as follows:

(A)Brass instruments
(i) ‘See’ or small cymbals. . 4 sets (ii) Brass discs . . . . . . 2

(B) String instruments
(i) Harp with the figure of a pheasant’s head . . . . . . . . . . 4 sets
(ii) ‘Byat’ harp in the shape of a crocodile Figure. .. . . . . . . 2
(iii) ‘Byat’ harp with the figure of a Naga’s head . . . . . . . . . 1
(iv) ‘Byat’ harp with the design of clouds . . . . . . . . . . . 1
(v) ‘Byat’ harp made of a big gourd. 2
(vi) ‘Byat’ harp made of a gourd with one string. . . . . . . . . .1
(vii) ‘Byat’ harp made of a small gourd. . . . . . . . . . . . 2

(C) Hide instruments
(i) Three faced drum. .. . . 2 sets (ii) Small drums. . . . .. . .4

(D) Wind instruments
(i) Conch shell . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4
(ii) Flute. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2
(iii) Double flute. . . . . . . . . . . . 2
(iv) Flute made of big gourd. . . . 2
(v) Flute made of small gourd . . 2
(vi) Flute made of ivory. . . . . . . . 1
(vii) Flute made of three horns. . . 1
(viii)Flute made of two horns . . . .1

(E) Clappers
Although clapper was not mentioned in the record it can safely be assumed that it was among the Pyu musical instruments. Myanmar Saing Waing (Musical Ensemble) of today uses bamboo clappers, (Wa Let Khup). In Myanmar music ‘see’ or a pair of small metallic cymbals and “Wa”or wooden or bamboo clappers are the basic and essential musical instruments for timing. These two “see” and “Wa” always go together. Since “see” was mentioned in the Chinese record, there surely must be “wa” (clappers).
Why clapper(wa) was not mentioned may be explained by the fact that the Pyu artists used their palms for clapping instead of wooden or bamboo clappers.
Reportoir of twelve songs presented at the Imperial Court
(1) Overture song- Insignia of the Lord Buddha
(2) second song -An appreciation of the Flower the Cotton Tree
(3) third song – In praise of the white pigeon
(4) fourth song – The flight of the Crane
(5) fifth song – Victory of the fighting Sambhur
(6) sixth song – A one string ‘byat’ harp with the figure of a Naga’s head
(7) seventh song – Meditation
(8) eighth song – The Rhinoceros
(9) ninth song – The Peacock
(10)tenth song – The Wild Goose ( Hamsa or Brahminy duck?)
(11)eleventh song -Song for the State Banquet
(12)twelfth song – Removal of anxiety.
The above is the list given by U Yi Sein who translated directly from the Chinese records. There is another version as follows:
(1) Overture song – Eulogy of the glories of the Lord Buddha
(2) Second song – In tribute to the great Hermit ” Yanalabi”
(3) third song – In honour of His Imperial Majesty
(4) fourth song – Song for the Emperor’s Feast
(5) fifth song – Song for the Emperor’s happiness
(6) sixth song – Song for the Emperor’s victories
(7) seventh song – The Flower of Sal Tree ( Pentancme Siamensis)
(8) eighth song – In praise of the Dove
(9) ninth song – In praise of the Crane
(10)tenth song – In praise of the Peacock
(11)eleventh song – In praise of the Hamsa ( Brahminy duck )
(12)twelfth song – In praise of the the Rhinoceros ( Sambhur)

Twelve variations of Pyu dance
According to the Chinese records each song of the twelve mentioned above accompanied a separate kind of dance. So it is to be understood that there were twelve different variations in their performance programme.Both old history an new history of T’ang dynasty say that the Pyu dance patterns were recorded in painting. But since no trace of such painting has yet been discovered till to-day, we are still in the dark as regards the twelve variations of Pyu dance patterns. Nevertheless the following excerpt gives a general idea of what Pyu dances would be like.
“Before each item of the programme began, the announcer explained the meaning of the song to be presented.”
” Regarding the style of dancing, two dancers, or four dancers or six dancers or eight to ten dancers, depending upon the type of the song sung, depicted the meaning of the song.”
” When they sang the song, they sang in chorus. Two hands and ten fingers of each performer made artistic supple movements as if giving correct timing to the music. In the ebb and flow and the rise and fall of the chorus there was no disharmony. When the end of each item was indicated, all performers bowed to pay respect to the audience.”
” Court Poet Po Chu-i describes the Pyu dance in his poem Music of the Pyu:
“Music from the Land of P’iao, music from the Land P’iao,
Brought hither from the great ocean’s south-west corner
Yung Ch’iang’s son Shunanto
Has come with an offering of southern tunes to fete the New Year.
Our Emperor has taken his seat in the courtyard of the Palace.
He does not press his cap strings to his ears, he is listening to you
At the first blast of the jewelled shell their matted looks grow crisp
At one blow from the copper gong their painted limbs leap.
Pearl streams glitter as they twist, as though the stars were skaken in the sky.
Flowery crowns nod and Whirl, with the motion of dragon or snake…….”
Though the recordings in painting of the costumes and coiffeurs of the Pyu dancers are still at large we may sketch a fair picture of them from the contemporary description:
“They wore scarlet cotton attires with a long flimsy drape flowing from the knees. A long thin scarf was worn entwining the shoulders and dropping at the sides. Their bodies were ornamented with gem-studded bangles, armslets and anklets. Their heads were crowned with gold headdress. Beautiful ear-rings adorned both ears, and garlands of flowers were worn on their necks. Each performer had two hair-pins in the head, decorated with bright bird’s feathers.”
In his poem on the Pyu cultural performances, Poet Yuan Wei-chih makes the following remarks:
(1) The head of Pyu musical instrument looks like a camel
(2) Their five tones and seven tones have no difference from those of the music of T’ang dynasty
(3) When they dance, their limbs and joints become tense and stiffen.
(4) The wordings of their songs were very diverse and plentiful, the names and terms were very unfamiliar to us.
(5) Every singing had melody and crooning.
(6) Bending flexibly to the right and to the left they danced as though being intoxicated with the wine of music.
(7) Even if you kneel down on the ground and pray to Heaven, you will never learn Pyu music and dance.”

After fulfilling its assignment, the Pyu diplomatic mission returned home bringing with it complimentary letters and presents from the Chinese Emperor to be presented to the Pyu King.
From A.D.802 to A.D.1998 to-day is a very long historical period of one thousand one hundred and ninty six years (1196) which is almost twelve centuries, during which traditional songs, music and dances of Myanmar have resiliently sustained themselves despite foreign impact. To suppose that a lond period of progress and development must have preceded the time of the Pyu cultural troupe that visited China in A.D.802 may be a too far-fetched conjecture. It is incumbent not only upon the older, the middle and young generations of to-day but also upon the future posterity of Myanmar to help maintain their performing arts which form part and parcel of their cultural heritage.


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