When Gorillas Smoke Cigars…

A few months ago I wrote a short blog post about Thakin Kodaw Hmaing’s Myauk Htika, a book about monkeys and apes published in Myanmar in 1923. Thakin Kodaw Hmaing was a Burmese nationalist and an influential early twentieth-century literary figure. His Htikas are texts—often about animals—written in the form of religious commentaries. They brought Burmese-Buddhist cultural and religious understandings together with contemporary scientific and political ideas. At the end of his Myauk (monkey) Htika, he discusses different species of primate, beginning with the gorilla.

Section on gorillas from Mr Hmaing, Myauk Htika (1923), pp. 254-5
Paragraph on gorillas: Mr Hmaing, Myauk Htika (1923), section 1 at the bottom of 254, start of 255

In this short paragraph he informs the reader that gorillas come from central Africa, that they can be six feet tall, weigh as much as four humans, and that they are very strong. At the end of the section he makes some comparisons with human behaviour. He notes that they go out to gather food during the day and sleep at night, not unlike human daily routines. Going further, he writes that as they interact with humans, their habits become ‘tame’ (yin) and they are able to eat, drink and smoke like humans. Kodaw Hmaing’s writings are said to satirize the colonial era. In writing about gorillas shedding their wild tendencies and becoming smokers, I wonder whether he is satirizing the idea of ‘modernization’? Other texts from interwar colonial Burma also appear to make the ‘taming’ of apes analogous to the development of human societies.

Either way, Kodaw Hmaing seems to be playing with the divide between humans and other primates. His use of the verb kyeq sa: for ‘going out to find food’ might be another sign of this. The 1893 edition of Judson’s Burmese-English Dictionary provides the following English definitions for the word:

See the last definition. Judson's Burmese-English Dictionary (1893)
See the third and last definition. Judson’s Burmese-English Dictionary (1893)

The verb appears to have one meaning for humans and another (related but different) meaning for animals. This raises several questions that I can’t answer with my limited Burmese. Is Kodaw Hmaing deliberately using this term in order to subtly draw parallels between gorilla and human activities? Or are the connotations of the verb self-evidently specific to particular species? Alternatively, does the verb imply that cattle in pasture and English officials leaving to work in colonial Burma are conceptually similar things? Perhaps it was the missionary Adoniram Judson, and the dictionary’s later editors, who were making the division between animals and humans in this definition?

Following post-humanist approaches, by exploring how the division between humans and animals is differently conceptualized in differing historical contexts, means that these are hard but crucial questions. Tracking when and how changes in these conceptualizations occur is even more tricky. Do, for instance, gorillas go from being foragers to commuters when they start smoking cigars?

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