Contributed by Ed Conyngham (an ‘Old Asia Hand’)

I recently ordered a reprint of George Bird’s 1897, Wanderings in Burma, which starts with a chapter on the Shan state written by a Colonel Woodthorpe of the Survey of India.

He reported that “there was a large colony of Shan Chinese living east of Keng tung, and that Mr. Scott considers that “they introduced the manufacture of tiles into Keng Tung, and that the pottery, plates, cups, bowls, jugs, tea-pots, spittoons, pagoda ornaments, etc., which are so varied in kind and so cheap in Keng Tung, is mainly their work.”

I wanted to find an original text, but who was Scott? I guessed it was Sir John G. Scott, but which of his books might it be from? I picked one at random and ordered a reprint of the 1921 third edition of Burma, A Handbook of Practical Information. Not surprisingly, I didn’t find an original text, but did find the attached account of pottery production slipped into the chapter on industries in the section titled Pottery. The text from pages 278- 280 follows:

Pottery, “like weaving cotton or silk, is an occupation pursued only in the dry-weather months, when there are no agricultural operations going on. In a very few places there are villages which are entirely devoted to making pottery, but this is the exception. Perhaps on account of this fitful character, the pottery nowhere rises to the very highest rank; and there is no such thing as porcelain made, and it does not appear even to have been attempted.

“Possibly Burmese potters’ work is as good now as ever it was, but it is quite certain that it has not improved, and that the work of hundreds of years ago was as fine as that of to-day [sic]. The old Sawankalôk pottery of Siam is greatly prized; but there is nothing like it made now, and it does not ever seem to have been emulated or imitated in Burma. Apparently, however, the makers of Sawankalôk pottery were Chinese, and, no doubt, immigrants from the great establishments of the Middle Kingdom. Doubtless pottery as an art came to Burma from China and it is, perhaps, for this reason that the best potters in the country are Shans. Those of Papun are, perhaps, the most noteworthy in Burma proper, and the Shan potters of Lawk-sawk and Möng-kung still turn out very characteristic and elegant work.

“The characteristic of Burmese art is boldness and freedom of design and a just eye for proportion, and this appears in their pottery work. There is nowhere the finish in detail that is to be found in China and in India; but, on the other hand, the Burmese make both glazed and unglazed ware, while the art of glazing is not known in Bengal, and is not commonly practised in the Punjab.

“The jars of Pegu were formerly famous, and are often referred to by old writers as ‘Martabans.’ They are still made, and some of them are capable of holding 150 gallons, but they are not now the monopoly of the province. Some are made in Upper India, where, curiously enough, they bear the old name of Martabans. Pegu is nowadays noted for its domestic pottery, cooking pots, water jars, goblets, flower pots, and lamps of curious shape, nowadays not much used. Twante, near Rangoon, is notd for its glazed ware. The goblets of Tavoy have a great name throughout Burma for keeping water cool. They are very porous, and are coloured black. Many have to be filled with water from the bottom, so that insects and dust are kept out. There is a funnel-shaped opening which runs up inside the goblet, and the water is decanted through a horn-like spout. The fancy flower jars and stands and flower pots of Papun and of Pyinmanā are worth noting, and some of the same work from the Shan States is remarkable for the clever blending of colours. Bassein work also has some artistic merit. Flower pots, recalling somewhat the trisul emblem of Buddhism, are made in Bassein town, where the double potters’ wheel is in use.

“Much care and ingenuity is everywhere bestowed on the manufacture of flower vases for the pagodas, alms-bowls for the monks, and the little circular lamps, lighted at the end of Buddhist Lent, and on festival days generally. The vases and lamps are usually red. The alms-bowls are made black by smearing the freshly moulded pots with sessamum oil and baking them in huge jars.

“In the Shan States the slag, called Chaw, or Bwet, from the argentiferous lead mines, is used for glazing. It is yellow, and has as much as 90 per cent of lead in it. A vitreous glaze is obtained by smearing green pots–that is to say, unfired pots–with a liquid mixture of this substance pounded up, and clay, or water in which rice has been boiled, and firing the pots in a kiln. To obtain a green glaze, blue-stone (sulphate of copper) is pounded up, and mixed with the Bwet and rice-water.

“The pottery is sold for very low prices. It is, therefore, not surprising, perhaps, that the manufacture is only carried on as an occupation in the slack farming-time. Glazed pottery is slightly more profitable, because there are not so many breakages in the firing.”

For an overview of Burmese pottery, see our dedicated page on Burmese ceramics here: