Contested yet Immortal, The Exceptional Potency of Burmese Alchemy
‘Gold ash’ (shway pya), a substance Burmese alchemists produce through a complex process of the combination and burning of metals, is considered by many Burmese as the most potent medical ingredient existing in the country. In this article, I explore the factors underpinning its exceptional potency. Grounding my analysis on ethnography conducted in Myanmar since 2004, and more specifically on the case study of Master U Shein (1926-2014), the most well-known alchemist of the country, I illustrate the multiple facets of gold medicine’s potency and show how they emerged from the dialogue between the substance and the layers of meanings it has come to acquire by its existence within a specific social and political space. In particular, I show how gold medicine has come to occupy a controversial position given that it both contrasts with the biomedical paradigm and is perceived as a threat to state power. I argue that although this controversial position limits its growth, it also provides it with a specific political power, which, alongside the medical and spiritual power traditionally attributed to it, allows it to circulate in that inimical space. I also show that such resilience has been aided by the blurriness and weakness of the regulatory system as well as the great inadequacy and inaccessibility of the biomedical system.
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