An Exhibition on Shan Culture: Arts, Manuscripts, Festivals

By Jotika Khur-Yearn|November 19, 2014|South East Asia|0 comments

Exhibition for Raising Awareness of Information on Tai or Shan Cultural Studies

Where: Wolfson Gallery in SOAS Library, University of London
When: November and December 2014; Admission: Free
(Subject to Library Admission –

The Shan ethnic group, who call themselves “Tai”, is one of the Asian ethnic groups with a long history of civilization as seen in their rich cultural traditions, visual and performance arts, literary works and seasonal festivals. This exhibition of Shan Culture: Arts, Manuscripts and Festivals, with a major focus on the lifecycle of Shan manuscripts, reveals some past Shan events and the process of making Shan identity as expressed directly or indirectly through the distinct character and forms of their social and cultural activities.

The exhibition begins with narrative photos of Shan landscapes and artworks. Shan masterpieces of art, especially wood carvings, can be found in their house designs and monastic architecture such as temple roofs, Buddha statues, and pagodas.

While many Shan monastic arts and architecture show influences from the neighbouring Burmese and Lan Na styles, they have a distinctive ‘Shan’ character. For example, when comparing features of Buddhist architecture, such as temple roofs and images of the Buddha, of Burmese or Thai origin from any given period, the Shan pieces are easily recognizable by the floral details on woodcarvings, the facial style of the images and the profile of pagodas and monastic buildings.

Shan style can also be found in the form of textiles and gilded manuscript covers decorated with floral designs, precious stones and inlaid glass mosaic work. The fact is that the tradition of producing manuscripts has been an important custom among Shan communities for many centuries. As a result, Shan manuscripts can be found everywhere in the Shan State, stored in Buddhist monasteries as well as in people’s houses.

Nowadays, Shan manuscripts can also be found outside Shan communities, in archives, research libraries, art collections and antique shops. Some large collections of old Shan manuscripts are found at research libraries in Western countries including the U.K., U.S.A. and Germany. In the United Kingdom, a large number are held by Cambridge University Library, Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, the British Library, and SOAS Library (University of London).

The exhibition unfolds through digital images that highlight the lifecycles of Shan manuscripts: the methods of making native papers, customs of producing and keeping manuscripts, ritual practices in connection with manuscripts, the migration of Shan manuscripts, and the preservation and cataloguing of Shan manuscripts.

The final part of this exhibition focuses on some popular Shan festivals, in which Shan people from all walks of life participate in cultural and social activities in their own spectacular styles, often with great merriment and hilarity. The most popular Shan festival is the Pi Mai Tai or the Shan New Year Festival. Some photos of the celebration of this festival held at SOAS in the past few years are on display in this exhibition.

The exhibition is presented by Dr Jotika Khur-Yearn, a SOAS PhD graduate in Shan classical literature and subject librarian for South East Asia and Pacific Islands collections at SOAS Library, University of London. Jotika also works as a subject consultant for SENMAI, the ongoing project to compile an online catalogue of Shan manuscripts hosted at the Bodleian Library Oxford, while he is currently writing up his librarianship master’s dissertation at the City University London on ‘Mapping Shan Manuscript Literature’.

The exhibition is funded by the SOAS Southeast Asian Art Academic Programme (SAAAP), the Oxford Buddha Vihara, the Shan Cultural Association U.K. (SCA-UK) and two private donors: Dr Sai Tin Maung & family and Sao Phong Keau & family.

A great number of people have been involved in the preparation process of this exhibition project and it is impossible to mention all of them here. The team of this exhibition would like to express our heartfelt thanks especially to the following individuals and organizations:

  • Venerable Dr Khammai Dhammasami (Abbot and Founder of the Oxford Buddha Vihara & Chair/Shan Cultural Association UK) who has given his full support to the initial plan of this exhibition project and extended his appeal to his devotees and EC Members of SCA-UK for financial support & their lovely photos of Shan New Year celebrations being displayed in this exhibition.
  • Professor Elizabeth Howard Moore, Chair/SOAS Centre of South East Asian Studies.
  • The SAAAP (SOAS Southeast Asian Art Academic Programme), the main sponsor of this exhibition.
  • Professor Kate Crosby (King’s College, London) and her team members on the British-Academy (SEAS Committee) funded Shan Buddhism at the Borderlands Project (SBBP) in which this exhibition has its root; a new copy of Shan manuscript made for the SBBP in 2009 is on display in this exhibition.
  • Drs Andrew Skilton and Gillian Evison and their team members at the Oxford-based Revealing Hidden Collection Project.
  • Dr Sai San Aik, a native Shan scholar, who presented two copies of Shan scrolls to Dr Jotika Khur-Yearn during his Shan “Lik Loung” Manuscript Conference in Yangon in December 2013. The two scrolls are on display in the exhibition.
  • Members of SOAS Library and Information Services, especially Barbara Spina, Lance Martin and Jiyeon Wood.
  • Jana Igunma, curator at the British Library.
  • David Wharton, PhD Researcher on Tai Nuea Literature (Passau University, Germany) and project manager of the Digital Library of Northern Thai Manuscripts (DLNTM), for his fieldwork photos on traditional Tai/Shan native paper making process and the digital images from the DLNTM.
  • Members of Shan communities in Shan State of Myanmar, Thailand, UK and all people who love and care about Shan Culture: Arts, Manuscripts and Festivals.

And, big thanks to the SOAS Thai students in the pictures above and below (guess who they are) for their wonderful work of making up the exhibition!

We hope that this exhibition gives some insight into the landscape of Shan culture and some useful resources for various areas of Asian studies especially Tai or Shan art and cultural studies.

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