Culture as History: Nick Joaquin’s provocative essay on Filipino identity

“Unconscious anthology”—I have not encountered a more beautiful phrase to concisely describe the richness of society, and the heritage of its individuals.

A tall, modern building under construction, viewed through an old doorway in Manila's Fort Santiago.

Culture as History, a 1988 essay by National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin, employs two massive words in its brief title, only linked by a provocative conjunction. Entire lifetimes and university departments are devoted to these topics, so Joaquin must have thought his essay’s particular subject important enough to warrant a short but dense title. And it is indeed significant, at least for his target audience, Filipinos. In this essay, the author deals with popular beliefs about the birth of Filipino culture, and does so with much wit and wisdom.

It was published only about a decade before the 21st century, a circumstance that led me to think about Joaquin’s insights from a present-day perspective. But before that, a review is in order.

The essay: crucial points and select quotes

Culture as History is one continuous piece of prose, but thematically I see it as having four parts.

In the first one, relatively independent from the rest of the essay, Joaquin introduces his inspirations—the intellectuals Marshall McLuhan and Oswald Spengler—and discusses the relationship between literacy and culture. The “modern notion” of illiteracy as ignorance is debunked: if the illiterate peoples of the past were indeed ignorant, how come they were able to build magnificent churches and other cultural wonders which we, today, cherish as national treasures? (It is, after all, the toiling of the masses that actually built these structures, not the plans of the colonial masters.)

As if to challenge ideas of modern-culture superiority, Joaquin notes how literate culture is subservient to the faculty of vision, how it is often limited to the spaces of museums, theaters, and galleries; he contrasts this with multi-sensory “folk” culture, which is comprised of everyday experience. At another point, Joaquin shares McLuhan’s idea of a “New Illiteracy” brought by the “era of electronics—TV, tape, transistor.” (Today, we have the Internet, where the verbal—instant messaging—sometimes gives way to the visual—Instagram and video chats.)

Towards the end of the first part the author takes on the titular concept of cultural history. Drawing from McLuhan, Joaquin contends that history as it is popularly understood today, which is in terms of events, dates, or personalities, is lacking, and that the alternative is a history focused on the introduction of tools (that is, changes in material culture) and how these objects reshape the lives of societies. This leads to the essay’s second part, where Joaquin argues for a new history of the Filipino people, using the viewpoint of cultural history. Some controversial statements are made. For instance:

“[Filipinos should see] 1521 and 1565 not as the time of the coming of the West to our land but as the time of the coming into our culture of certain tools (wheel, plow, cement, road, bridge,…,etc.)”

Most notably, Joaquin claims that the Filipino identity, especially its comprising sense of community, emerged not in the 19th century with the Ilustrados, but much earlier, in the 16th and 17th centuries, which is when the peoples of the archipelago were irreversibly changed by the arrival of Western tools and technologies brought by the Spaniards. The idea is that it was not the imagination of a few patriots that enabled a sense of solidarity or community or nation, but the much more widespread experience of a people adjusting to new ways of life.

(Although, if I may add, if it was not Rizal and his compatriots’ invention, the Filipino nation should at least be grateful for their courageous expression of it.)

The third thematic section of Culture as History talks about a ‘cultural soul’, or the existence of an immutable core of a culture’s properties. This is a rather weak idea, built mostly upon rhetoric (pathos) and mentions of ‘destiny’, and recalls progressive views of history. Applied to Filipino cultural history, Joaquin says that the Filipino soul was born through the people’s encounter with Western technology, and that, once born, it could be superficially altered but not fundamentally changed.

“…the Filipino, because he was created in the 16th and 17th centuries by a tool-forged fusion of tribes from Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao; Spanish and Chinese mestizos; etc., and molded into a form by a geography only from then on existing as a political unit, cannot be tracked farther back than that fusion and that form—as no individual existence can be traced farther back than the moment of conception, which determined that what was to be born would be this person and no other.”

Joaquin even distinguishes between Spanish and American colonization as such: “[the] Spanish advent…produced the Filipino” while the Americans merely “helped us to become more aware of this Filipinoness.”

The final, and most substantial, part of the essay deals with the controversy of the archipelago’s Westernization versus its “Asianizing”. Here Joaquin addresses unnamed proponents of the idea that the Filipino soul was ‘corrupted’ and diverted from its ‘Asian destiny’ when the Spaniards arrived. To this, Joaquin bluntly replies:

“If it be true indeed that we were Westernized at the cost of our Asian soul, then the blame must fall, not on the West, but on Asia.”

After this ensues, quite entertainingly, narrations and conjectures as to why the country was not “Asianized” in the first place, when the archipelago was there all along, for centuries so near to lands which were successfully influenced by the great Asian cultures: Korea, Formosa/Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, etc. The Philippine archipelago was present there in the crossfire of the militant spread of Hinduism, Islam and other faiths, but it barely had as much as a scratch.

(Joaquin knows that Islam arrived arrived in the islands in the 14th century, but notes that its spread was so slow that after two centuries and by the time of Miguel López de Legazpi’s arrival it was still limited to Sulu and the southern fringes of Mindanao; at that rate, he calculated, the country would only have been completely converted by the 21st century!)

Effectively, the archipelago was “ignored” by its “indifferent” neighbors. Viewed this way, in a rather playful analogy, Joaquin imagines Asia as the Wicked Stepmother, our regional neighbors as the favored daughters, Philippines itself as Cinderella and the West as “a rather erratic Fairy Godmother”. If it were not for Western interest, invasion and intervention, Joaquin imagines that the Philippine archipelago would have plodded a stale destiny and ended up like the underdeveloped Pacific islands in Oceania.

Anticipating counter-claims that the islands were already quite Asian before its Western colonization, Joaquin challenges some popularly-held notions of the status of ‘Philippine’ society at the time of Spanish contact.

One, he expresses great doubt that pre-Western Filipinos were a seafaring people who were in routine contact and exposure to our Asian neighbors. Inter-island travellers, perhaps, but not seafaring: here, culture as history proves its worth, because if it is true that in ancient history Filipinos sailed the high seas, how come there is a lack of living cultural artifacts as evidence? Joaquin says that great books could be burned, but memories of it cannot be erased in a people; many ancient Greeks plays have been lost, but the dramatists who wrote them and the titles and number of their works are still known, thanks to oral traditions. What does it say about the Filipino past that our epics and myths have for their settings only dry land, and rivers at most, but never the open sea? We have a Dayang Makiling of the mountain but not a lady of the sea—the sirena does not count, being apparently of Western origin.

Two, Joaquin says that the ancient porcelain wares that Filipino museums and archaeologists treasure so much do not prove the wide reach of pre-Western Filipinos into the rest of Asia; but on the contrary it shows how people in the archipelago were at the mercy of the foreign traders who bothered to travel to Philippine shores.

“[The porcelain shows] lack of technology on our part and, on the part of the Chinese, an exploitation of that technological ignorance…we should be so ashamed of them…our first obsession with the ‘imported’…”

Three, Joaquin invokes common sense and says that:

“It just doesn’t seem possible that we went to China and saw their roads and then came back and went on using jungle trails…”

He makes the same observation for other Asian technologies that, if the pre-Western Filipino indeed travelled much to his neighbors, should have been imported to the islands, but were not.

Four, Asian maps of the Philippines were incredibly inaccurate or lacking, even by the 16th century. It is such a strong argument against the significance of the archipelago’s place in pre-16th century Asia that Joaquin felt moved to modify the infamous historiographical statement:

“Even for Asia, the Philippines was ‘discovered’ in 1521.”

The next points of Joaquin’s essay serve to temper his earlier attacks on Asia and the West’s places in our history (lest he be accused of actually favoring our Western heritage over our Asian side; he does not, as he makes clear later on). For all its ignorance of the Philippines before Spanish conquest, the Asians played catch-up afterwards. We were, so to speak, “Asianized” even as we were being Westernized. The Chinese immigrated in huge numbers to the archipelago under Spanish watch, introducing their cuisine to our kitchens. (Although the fact that we call Chinese dishes by Hispanic names—pancit guisado, asado, and many others—demonstrates again, via culture as history, that Philippine cuisine only acquired Chinese tastes after Spanish conquest.)

Also, Filipino traits, which to this day are considered cultural baggages slowing down our progress as a society, and which are usually blamed to our Asian heritage, may in fact be attributed as much to our Westernization.

“Confusion is compounded by the qualities usually cited as ‘typically’ Asian…Greek fatalism…Celtic languor and sloth…intense Teutonic blood and clan ties…Latin touchiness and vendetta…”

Finally, Joaquin suggests that rather than bring blame upon this or that historical did or didn’t, we should abandon the what-ifs and be at peace with our past, and even take pride in our hybrid heritage. The nation’s Westernization and “Asianizing” were two processes that eventually worked together to create this unique culture, the Pearl of the Orient Seas, a people that carries the living treasures of many ages from many lands. As Joaquin puts it,

“Shouldn’t we rather recognize that each person is a sort of unconscious anthology of all the epochs of man; and that he may at times be moving simultaneously among different epochs?”

“Unconscious anthology”—I have not encountered a more beautiful phrase to concisely describe the richness of society, and the heritage of its individuals.

A tall, modern building under construction, viewed through an old doorway in Manila's Fort Santiago.
Technologies play a critical part in the construction of culture.

Culture as history unfolding today

Philippines under new technologies

Joaquin’s essay touches our nation’s timeline only up until the American occupation, and only barely so. The most obvious direction for expanding on his thoughts would therefore be the current state of Filipino culture, specifically in how it is being shaped by new technologies.

Perhaps the most significant phenomenon affecting culture in all nations beginning in the 20th century would be globalization. This trend, which was brought about by advancements in transportation, communication and trade, is enabled by parallel advances in technology. (Some would say that globalization started far earlier with far simpler technologies, such as during the Roman Empire’s expansion which brought roads to many new territories; but it’s clear that in scope and reach, globalization took a massive leap forward only in the 20th century.) For many people in the early 21st century, however, the term technology has come to nearly exclusively denote information technology. And perhaps justly so; while the other technologies involved in globalization are worthy of a closer look, it is information technology that is most dynamic and seems to have caused the most disruption in culture.

There are two sides to this new ubiquitous technology of the Internet and computing devices. On one hand, in its capability for defying geography and breaking boundaries, technology has enabled communities spanning across countries and tied together by specific interests. It can even be said that the Internet has already spawned its own cultures, with its users bound together by a common experience. This experience takes the form of the specialized knowledge required to use the Internet (especially in its earlier days, when it was much less ‘user-friendly’), such as expertise with computer software and hardware, some technical and social jargon (‘LOL’, ‘BRB’), and even the accidental ‘rituals’ such as listening to the peculiar tones emitted by dial-up modems.

For Filipinos, who in the physical world are experiencing a kind of diaspora as OFWs (Overseas Filipino Workers), contemporary technologies has allowed us to maintain ties that in earlier centuries would have been difficult to keep.

On the other hand, there are other kinds of boundaries that have sprung up in the ‘cyberspace’ that the new technologies built. The ease of creating communities around specific interests has also meant a tendency to be too absorbed in these particular communities; the seemingly boundless freedom to unite with those who are similar to ourselves, have also reduced our exposure to those who are unlike or disagree with us. We are seeing the benefit and harm of these circumstances: we see those who aspire for democracy in the Middle-Eastern nations finding peers through the Internet during the Arab Spring of 2011; at the same time, the destructive flames of extremism embodied by ISIS and similar groups have also propagated through these contemporary technologies.

The visual and aural forms that make up these new media also support the natural boundaries of languages. Languages unite their speakers, while excluding those who don’t speak them. (While advances have been made in fast and automatic translations of text on the Internet, allowing users of various tongues to understand each other at a basic, transactional and utilitarian level, the state of the technology is still insufficient for meaningful cultural exchange.) These online language barriers have created the ironic phenomenon of globally-available but only locally-popular Internet ‘sensations’. An example in the Philippines is 2015’s AlDub love team, which, while it has so thoroughly captivated Filipino audiences that it inspired them to break social media activity records, is very much limited to those who understand its language. Even if effort is spent on translating the franchise’s TV shows and other media appearances, such that it can be functionally understood by speakers of a much more widespread language as, say, English, it is highly doubtful that the appeal can be carried over. In short, much of it, as they say, will be lost in translation.

It should be clear that Internet phenomena like this, where the experience is intense but the reach is limited by language, is abundant. I recently looked at Twitter’s year-end report on top 2015 hashtags, and found many topics written in unfamiliar characters: experiences that have enchanted Koreans or Argentinians or Germans, but which the English-speaking world, often assumed to be dominant on the information superhighway, knows nothing about. These experiences impart collective memories to their audiences; and these memories generate the sense of solidarity so crucial to the unity of a culture.

The usual alarm raised against globalization is its tendency to homogenize cultures, to erode and eventually destroy specifics and localities in favor of globally dominant ‘strains’. What our description of localized Internet phenomena shows, however, is the often-overlooked counter-tendency, within globalization, of magnifying local cultures. Although individual mobility has weakened the tight construction of societies, delineations along cultural lines continue to be powerful at the community and larger levels, despite globalization.

Physical space and boundaries continue to be important. The technologies of the 21st century, although they will always threaten to diminish the Filipino identity, seems poised instead to empower its further development: and time will tell if this new chapter in our culture will pass on to become new chapters in history as well.

The Moro Problem

While Nick Joaquin’s essay sheds some light into the future of Filipino society by providing a local context to the material-culture-as-history idea first popularized by McLuhan and Spengler, his assertion that the Filipino culture was born in the 16th and 17th centuries clashes with the present “Moro problem”.

The decades-old conflict that the Moro South continues to suffer has often been traced to their difficulty identifying with the rest of Christian (Westernized) Philippines. It is a cultural-historical divide: the Moro people did not have the experience of adapting to Western tools and technologies that the Spaniards brought, and therefore never shared in the solidarity of the other ‘tribes’ of the country. This divide is precisely what prompted some nationalists to search for an ancient, unifying, pre-Christian, pre-Muslim national identity—a culture which, if it can still be found, Joaquin might deem irrelevant, a futile what-if in the face of the Filipino culture that has taken root in most of the rest of the archipelago.

However, even if Joaquin’s stand clashes with efforts to find a more-encompassing notion of Filipino history, it is not incompatible with the latest steps on the road to peace. The proposed Bangsamoro sub-state, to be established with the delayed Bangsamoro Basic Law, is perhaps an acknowledgment of the cultural differences of the Moro region from the rest of the Filipino nation. From such a perspective, it seems only just if the people’s right to self-determination will be addressed by a measure of independence from the Filipino nation at large.


Joaquin, N. (2004). Culture as history. In Culture and history (pp. 3-53). Pasig City: Anvil Publishing. (Original work published 1988)

1 thought on “Culture as History: Nick Joaquin’s provocative essay on Filipino identity”

  1. Maybe it is time to stop judging cultures as authentic or not, superior or inferior, but to deem success for a race of peoples on how flexible they are in assimilating new cultures, ideas and technologies into their own evolving cultures. If so, then filipinos are the most successful peoples in the world. And it is being borne out by the OFW phenomenon.

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