- Bogus Chinese Envoys, Spurious Chinese Princesses at the 18th-Century Myanmar Royal Court
This article examines a series of events in which certain Chinese envoys were supposedly sent by the Emperor from Beijing, but was actually concocted by the Governor of Yunnan, sometimes in collusion with the Sawbwa (Chieftain) of Bamaw (Bhamo). The main focus will be on the Chinese diplomatic missions of 1750 and 1790, which brought three Yunnanese ladies, purportedly the Emperor’s daughters or granddaughters and sent as “tribute brides” from the Chinese capital to King Badon (Bodawpaya) (1782–1819), to the new Myanmar capital of Amarapura, located between Innwa (Ava) and Mandalay.
These bogus missions were sent from Yunnan with fake letters from the Emperor of China, during periods when the China-Myanmar border was closed by Myanmar kings or the Chinese emperors after periods of discord and warfare. Myanmar kings and Royal Court innocently accepted these bogus missions as genuine, and the kings sent back authentic return missions to Beijing that were accepted by the Chinese emperors as “tribute missions.” The conniving high officials in Yunnan and Bamaw achieved their goal of reopening the lucrative border trade after the exchange of these bogus missions from China and the genuine Myanmar missions from [End Page 193] Innwa (Ava) and Amarapura.1 The Myanmar Court records all accepted the Chinese diplomatic missions as genuine, with the envoys depicted as coming from the Emperor of China in Beijing. The three Chinese “Princesses” brought by the 1790 mission were also accepted as the granddaughters of the Chinese Emperor.
The authenticity of the Chinese envoys and the true identity of the so-called Chinese Princesses were first questioned by the British scholar diplomat Lt. Col. Henry Burney as early as 1837, and later by the Adviser to the British Colonial Government of Burma on Chinese Affairs, Edward Harper Parker.2 In the post-independence period, it was Professor Kyaw Thet of the Rangoon University, Far Eastern History Department who first pointed out the bogus nature of the Chinese embassies to Myanmar during King Badon (Bodawpaya)’s reign (1782–1819).3 [End Page 194]
Later, Chen Yi-sein, or U Yi Sein as he is known in Myanmar, an erudite self-made scholar of ethnic Chinese origin, born in Myanmar and proficient in Myanmar, Chinese, and English, proved decisively that the Chinese diplomatic mission of 1750 was not sent from the Emperor, but that it was instead a conspiracy conceived and perpetuated by Aye Thu Yei (named in the Myanmar chronicles) whose real identity Chen was also able to uncover as the Chinese adventurer Wu Shang-hsein.4 As for the 1790 Chinese mission and the three Chinese Princesses, it was Dr. Sylvie Pasquet, a French scholar proficient in Chinese, Myanmar, French, and English, who researched and revealed their true identity.5
According to the English expert on Myanmar-China relations, Edward Harper Parker:
Colonel Burney in the Bengal Asiatic Society’s Journal of 1857 [sic. it should be 1837] gives a wonderfully accurate account of the various embassies to China between 1787 and 1833, from which it appears that in nearly every instance the Burmese embassies were preceded by bogus embassies purporting to be from the Emperor of China to the King of Burma, but in reality got up to deceive both the Emperor and the King by the Yunnan officials. The King seems to have been totally unconscious that he was being ‘invested’ by the Emperor, and the Emperor himself was evidently hocussed by his own officials in his old age.6 [End Page 195]
Chinese and Myanmar Diplomatic Missions of 1750–51
I became interested in these missions after acquiring a rare palm-leaf manuscript in 1983 with an account of a Myanmar Diplomatic Mission to the Emperor of China sent by the Myanmar king from Innwa (Ava) in 1750.7 The manuscript recorded that the Myanmar king’s mission sent to China in March 1750 was a return mission in response to the Chinese mission of the previous month, supposedly sent by the Emperor of China, led by the self-styled “Imperial Envoy Aye Thu Yei.” This Burmanized name, “Aye Thu Yei,” has...