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Mandalay evoked memories of a glorious precolonial past before Burma turned more outward and commercial and its capital was moved downstream. In this division were some of the old royal centers: Mandalay, Amarapura, and Pagan, as well as the old British hill station, Maymyo, where colonialists vacationed and where U (formerly General) Ne Win maintained a summer home.

In the early 1980s the prestige center of the country was still Mandalay, despite Rangoon's status as the nation's capital. The division stretched almost 300 kilometers north and south, from the rare gem mines in the north at Mogok to Pyinmana on the Sittang River to the south. To the west it was bounded by the Irrawaddy River and to the east by Shan State. At its center was the Kyaukse area, historically important for its rice production, using ancient irrigation systems that supported many Burmese royal centers.

Despite the bid of those at the Kaba Aye Pagoda complex at Rangoon to assume the leadership role for the sangha (Buddhist monkhood), the monasteries at Mandalay continued to retain traditional respect as centers of scholarship. The secular university at Mandalay played a similar role within the state-controlled education system. Whether creating images of the Buddha at Mandalay or fashioning fine lacquerware at Myinkaba near Pagan, traditional artists in Mandalay Division were thought to be the best. Upper Burma in these cases assumed a role of superiority over Lower Burma, which was seen as tainted more by Western ways under a longer British rule than was imposed upon the northern divisions.

Although the dry crops of Upper Burma were usually successfully produced and harvested, the area was not able to support itself with enough rice and had to import from the more productive southern divisions. Thus the rivalry continued between these mutually dependent areas, each having something the other needed, and such ancient tensions between various sections of Burmese society were part of the spice of life in Burma. When the British took over all of Myanmar in 1886 the monarchy collapsed and the British moved the capital city from Mandalay to Yangon (Rangoon).

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