Footwear Diplomacy

Original artwork sketched by one of Shwe Lan's artist contributors shows a typical pair of monk's sandals 

In this excerpt from the book, we pick up an entry from our "Monastic Life" chapter. Following is a short excerpt from the section on proper pagoda protocol:

The tense relationship between England and Burma in the 19th century and their contrasting cultural perspectives was perhaps nowhere better displayed than through their opposing attitudes towards footwear. While the Burmese demanded bare feet on all religious sites, the British insisted that the public removal of one’s shoes was a degrading, humiliating, and servile practice. It was further exacerbated by the intricate boots that British officers wore at the time, which were time-consuming to unfasten, as well as by the fact that no similar custom was anywhere near present in Victorian society at the time. Long diplomatic meetings attempted to clearly designate appropriate shoe-wearing and non-shoe-wearing zones, which eventually proved to be so ineffective that “meeting houses” were actually built in a kind of no-man’s land. On these sites, the British could comfortably keep their shoes on while the Burmese could still feel were within their premises. When Yangon fell in one of their Anglo-Burmese wars and the British gained control of the city, the victorious British troops paraded around Shwedagon. At this time, one soldier recorded in his diary his immense joy and pride at finally being able to approach the religious monument while clad in boots. This sensitivity to footwear goes back some time, as there is a story of King Narathiapate executing an entire Mongol diplomatic mission when they didn't remove their shoes for a royal audience. And it was taken up by the Young Men’s Buddhist Association in 1916, when they protested British authorities who continued to wear boots on the upper platforms of Shwedagon.

Today, of course, bare feet are the requirement for all nationalities, and one that the current world power has no difficulty in following— as evidenced by the photos from the 2011 and 2012 visits to Shwedagon Pagoda by US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and President Barack Obama, respectively. Unfortunately Jackie Chan did not follow suit, and a recent photo of him at Shwedagon in sneakers gathered immediate criticism from Burmese voices across the web.