P. Moe Nin: A Companion of Burma
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P. Moe Nin: A Companion of Burma

By Htain Linn APRIL, 2004 - VOLUME 12 NO.4

The career of Burma’s modern literary pioneer was marked by contradiction. On November 5, 1883, a hailstorm pounded the central Burmese town of Thonse in Pegu Division. It was an unremarkable event hardly worth remembrance, except that day saw the birth of one of Burma’s most prolific and treasured writers. His parents called him Moe Nin, which means “sleet.” Better known today as P Moe Nin, he spent most of his childhood in penury, partly because at a young age burglars broke into the home of his grandparents and stole nearly all of the family’s belongings. But rather than lose hope, the setback seemed to urge him on. By the time he turned 10, he left home to go live with his sister who was studying at a local Roman Catholic missionary school, no matter that both were Buddhist. (He was later ordained as a monk by one of the most venerated abbots in Burma, Ledi Sayadaw, who died in 1923.) Soon, they convinced the headmaster to admit Moe Nin. It would prove the springboard to his long and illustrious literary career. Three years later, he was sent south to another Roman Catholic school in Moulmein to study Latin. As per school regulations, he assumed the Christian name Phillip. Only a few years passed before he headed further south, to Penang in Malaysia, where he steeped himself in his favorite subjects of public speaking, philosophy and logic. In fact, his first book, written during his days in the monkhood, was titled “Logic” (paradoxical perhaps in a country as illogical as Burma). But when he approached a newspaper publishing house to print his tome, it refused on the grounds that the writing contradicted the Buddha’s teachings. As consolation, the paper took him on as a translator. It wasn’t until just before World War I when P Moe Nin finally put his stamp on Burma’s literary conscience. His magazine “Myanmar Mate-swe” (Companion of Burma) enjoyed great popularity for a short time. But when the war broke out he stopped publication and went to Rangoon to work for several newspapers. In the capital, he applied for a job teaching Latin in a Baptist school. But on his application, he used his given Burmese name, Maung Kyaw Nyunt. When the selection committee reviewed his resume, it rejected him. Down, but not out, he reapplied for the position, only this time he used his guile to outwit the school board. Remembering his Catholic school name, Phillip, and the nickname his parents gave to him, he resubmitted his application under the name Phillip Moe Nin and landed his first job as a Latin teacher. From that day forward, he assumed the nom de plume P Moe Nin. Skilled at English and Burmese (though he only studied Burmese language formally until fourth grade, he compensated by reading voraciously the books in his stepfather’s library) he began producing an impressive output of literary works that would cement P Moe Nin’s spot in history as Burma’s literary trailblazer. Departing from the early Burmese writing style, characterized by long sentences and complex prose, P Moe Nin was more Hemingway-like, choosing to write concisely and clearly. For this, he is often regarded as the father of Burmese short story writing, screenplay writing and the modern Burmese novel. He could also be considered the country’s father of instructional films. In 1920, the Cin’ema de Paris showed the country’s first silent film, Myitta Nit Thuyar. Based on the P Moe Nin novel “Love and Liquor”, the film admonished Burma’s youth to heed the dangers of drinking liquor to excess. In fact, he is regarded as Burma’s first “self-help” author. His writings advocate moral rectitude and social cohesion. He has written books and essays on assorted subjects ranging from health, psychology, education, religion and agriculture to biographies and political treatises. In all, he is credited for having written over 80 novels and nearly 700 short stories and articles. Yet, despite his prolific output and his long list of his self-help books, P Moe Nin never prospered financially. Poor his entire life, he was driven primarily by his desire to educate the Burmese audience, in both the Western classics and local knowledge. He introduced Burmese readers to the American best-seller “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie. In 1923, he published The Book of Basic Politics. One of his most celebrated novels, Nay Yi Yi, is a Burmese adaptation of an English novel that encourages his compatriots to question colonial rule. His illustrious career also included a stint as a movie director (he also trained his son to become an actor) which goes some way to explaining his tendency to “get into character” before beginning a manuscript. In one notable instance, when he wrote about the homeless, he first went to live in the streets of Rangoon to spend time living as a beggar.

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