China Subdues Burma Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

China and Burma’s Kingdom of Ava battled over trade routes, initially resulting in the subjugation of Ava as a Chinese “comforter.” Although China secured loyalty from several Burmese states, by the early sixteenth century it lost control as strife among the Burmese states set the stage for a national conciousness.

Summary of Event

After conquering Pagan in 1287, the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan controlled large portions of Burma and utilized the region as a major trade route. When Kublai Khan’s Yuan Dynasty fell in 1368, China China;Burma and lost control over not only portions of Burma but also its trade route to the west. To reestablish that route, the Ming planned first to take over the Maw (Mao) Shans in northern Burma, then continue into the Irrawaddy Delta, which extended into the Bay of Bengal. The struggle between the Maw Shans and the Chinese lasted from 1438 to 1465 and involved the Burmese kingdom of Ava beginning in 1441. Burma;and China[China] Narapati Thonganbwa Thihathura Wang Ji Minhkaung Thonganbwa Wang Ji Narapati Nang-han-lung Thihathura Minhkaung Bayinnaung

The Maw Shan chieftain Thonganbwa had planned to revive the Nanchao Empire, a move that would challenge Chinese authority and obstruct trade routes. The Chinese emperor, in an effort to recruit more people willing to fight, offered to give Thonganbwa’s land to whoever arrested him. The president of China’s Board of War, Wang Ji, was given a strong army in 1441, and he successfully drove Thonganbwa and his Maw Shan army to the province of Mohnyin, a Shan state on the border with China. It was here that Thonganbwa was captured by the Burmese and presented to their king, Narapati, at his coronation.

Wang Ji followed Thonganbwa to Mohnyin, captured the state, and threatened to capture Ava as well if Thonganbwa was not turned over. Narapati refused, so Wang Ji returned to China to gather a stronger army. In 1445, Chinese and Burmese forces clashed near Tagaung, and a Chinese general was killed. In 1446, the Chinese appeared in even greater numbers at the walls of Ava, still demanding Thonganbwa. Narapati conceded this time, and rather than being taken by the Chinese, Thonganbwa committed suicide. His body and troops were handed over to the Chinese, saving Ava from possible ruin. The Chinese desecrated Thonganbwa’s body by drying out his skin and then placing a spit through his corpse. This would be the last time in Ava’s history—as the main kingdom of Burma— that it would submit to China. China’s grip on Burma would loosen, but, for a short time after, China was still able to control Burma through tributaries, the payment of tributes to China by the recently subjugated Burmese.

Because Narapati conceded to China’s request, he had to accept Chinese overlordship and was appointed the title of comforter (pacifier) of Ava in 1451. By 1454, China considered eight states to be comforters. Ava’s status as comforter afforded it some protection, and in a show of appreciation, the Chinese gave Narapati a piece of Mohnyin province in 1456. Although relations between China and Ava appeared peaceful, in an incident in 1449, Ava managed to keep the Chinese from its land.

By 1454, the Burmese-Chinese war that began in 1441 was virtually over, and a majority of the conflicts were little more than skirmishes. Ava, for the most part, was left alone by Chinese forces, who were focused instead on keeping the Shan states subdued. Some Shan states were rich in jewels, further encouraging the Chinese to control the area. In 1465, the Momeik state’s chieftain, the queen regent Nang-han-lung, sent a ruby tribute to China’s frontier eunuch, attempted to ally with Annam (Vietnam), then stole most of the Shan state of Hsenwi. When China sent officials to deal with Nang-han-lung, she offered rubies as gifts to the officials and maintained that Momeik had outgrown Hsenwi. The Chinese officials sympathized, so Momeik remained in China’s possession. China was still worried that Momeik would attack Hsenwi, so, in 1488, Mohnyin was ordered to send troops to prevent a battle, but Mohnyin’s troops were ill-prepared and beaten back. China pursued no other options, a strong indication that its control was loosening.

Narapati’s apparent loyalty to China aided his son Thihathura, who managed to maintain peace with the Chinese Empire for most of his reign and therefore was usually not harassed. One minor incident, however, occurred between Ava and China during Thihathura’s reign, again involving Mohnyin. In 1472, Thihathura, wanting to expand his kingdom, demanded the cession of Mohnyin to Ava. Around the same time, though, China was once again having difficulty controlling the Shan states of Upper Burma, so China instead focused its attention on keeping the Shan states divided. The Chinese wanted to keep the Shan states from becoming a strong, unified threat. Allowing Mohnyin to go to Ava would not only allow a Shan state to gain strength but would also obstruct China’s trade route into Burma. China denied Thihathura’s request, and the Ava king decided against taking Mohnyin by force, which would have enraged the Chinese.

By the time Minhkaung ascended the throne, China’s control over the Shan states, and therefore China’s trade route, had weakened significantly, allowing the states to grow stronger. Because of this, Minhkaung and his successor had to resort to appeasement with portions of territory to keep the Shans from sacking Ava. In 1520, China became concerned about the situation and moved its base closer to the conflicts, but its presence had little effect. Ava was sacked in 1527, and Thohanbwa, the son of a Mohnyin chief, became ruler of Ava. By this time, Ava was descending into several decades of civil war, which ended with a strong national kingship that united all Burmese.


The Burmese-Chinese Wars significantly affected not only Burmese but also Chinese history. To keep its trade route open, China had to keep a firm grip on the Shan states of upper Burma, focusing on separating the states so that no central power could arise. Whereas this separation was detrimental to China, it helped Burma create a national conciousness. The increasingly powerful yet divided Shan states fought with one another and united only after Toungoo became the most powerful state in Burma. When Toungoo’s king Bayinnaung (r. 1551-1581) attempted to annex Ava in 1555, the Shans were not strong enough to keep them back, so they became part of the Kingdom of Burma. If the Shans had been able to develop a centralized power, the makeup of the Kingdom of Burma would have been different.

The Burmese-Chinese Wars also affected relations between the two countries, even into modern times. Narapati’s recognition of Chinese rights to Burma signified to the emperor that Ava, and eventually Burma, were to be permanent comforters. Because of this recognition, all relations and policies toward Burma after this period were based on China’s belief that Burmese comforters would be always loyal and subordinate to China. Chinese-Burmese relations often deteriorated into war whenever China felt its belief in Burma’s subordinate status to be challenged. China still considered Burma to be, even into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a tributary.

China and the British Empire also fought over rights to Burma. It has been postulated that the status as comforter also has marred relations between Communist China and Communist Burma (now Myanmar), affecting trade, politics, and the multiple Indochinese wars of the second half of the twentieth century.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aung-Thwin, Michael A. Myth and History in the Historiography of Early Burma: Paradigms, Primary Sources, and Prejudices. Monographs in International Studies 102, Southeast Asia Series. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1998. Discusses the historic basis of various myths of the three kingdoms of Pagan, Ava, and Toungoo.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hall, D. G. E. A History of Southeast Asia. 4th ed. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1980. A concise history of the struggles between China and Burma, with a focus on Narapati, Thonganbwa, and Wang Chi.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Phayre, Arthur P. History of Burma Including Burma Proper, Pegu, Taungu, Tenasserim, and Arakan: From the Earliest Time to the End of the First War with British India. 1883. Reprint. Bangkok, Thailand: Orchid Press, 1998. A comprehensive history of Burma, with some discussion of the conflicts between China and the Burmese states.

1450’s-1529: Thai Wars

1469-1481: Reign of the Ava King Thihathura

c. 1488-1594: Khmer-Thai Wars

1490’s: Decline of the Silk Road

1505-1515: Portuguese Viceroys Establish Overseas Trade Empire

1511-c. 1515: Melaka Falls to the Portuguese

1527-1599: Burmese Civil Wars

1539: Jiajing Threatens Vietnam

1548-1600: Siamese-Burmese Wars

1558-1593: Burmese-Laotian Wars

c. 1580-c. 1600: Siamese-Cambodian Wars

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