Book review: Asian Place, Philippino Nation: A Global Intellectual History of the Philippine Revolution, 1887-1912 by Nicole CuUnjieng Aboitiz

In Asian Place, Filipino Nation: A Global Intellectual History of the Philippine Revolution, 1887-1912, Nicole CuUnjieng Aboitiz offers a cross-country examination of the Philippine revolution that reconnects it to the histories of Southeast and East Asia. One of the potential benefits that Asian place, Filipino nation could bring is a revision of the way the history of the 1898 revolution is taught to young Filipino students. While an educational strategy in the Philippines might focus on how the nation appeared in the context of the archipelago vis-à-vis the Spanish colonizers, the question of how one can introduce the dissemination of ideas and resources beyond the assigned territorial limits must be confronted, writing Nicolas vitug.

This book review is published by the LSE South East Asia Blog and LSE Review of Books as part of a collaborative series focusing on topical and important social science books from and about South East Asia.

Asian Place, Filipino Nation: A comprehensive intellectual history of the Philippine revolution, 1887-1912. Nicole CuUnjieng Aboitiz. Columbia University Press. 2020.

Asian place, Filipino nation presents a view of the history of the Philippines not often seen, in my opinion. I come from the perspective of one who has been educated on Philippine history since childhood. In my opinion, the focus was on the Spanish colonization, the possible American takeover and the Philippine sovereignty that followed. Discussions about the nation continue to center on our postcolonial situation based on this framing – and perhaps the loudest voices against neocolonial forces would be those associated with the important contributions of the National Democrats.

The author of this book, Nicole CuUnjieng Aboitiz, proceeds in a way that is not as linear as I remember, and that opens up space for new avenues of decolonization. His is a transnational approach, calling for deepening specific aspects and actors not focused on a single nation. In doing so, CuUnjieng Aboitiz creates a new big contrapuntal image, in which the Philippine revolution of 1898 is seen as the birth of a nation within an Asian community. place – a term coined by CuUnjieng Aboitiz to refer to the location of networked decolonizing relationships at the turn of the 20th century.

The approach adopted by the author is that of archival research from various locations. One could associate such reading with the knowledge of a local community. However, what CuUnjieng Aboitiz does is work from the perspective of a geographic region, and thus establish links between the nations of East and Southeast Asia through what could be a turning into local studies. I believe that, for academics like myself who are interested in studying local culture, it opens up new ways of understanding, and perhaps possibilities for communicating, local knowledge with academics from other cultures.

Image Credit: Photo cropped by Hitoshi Namura on Unsplash

A Filipino reading this book would probably know some of the actors in the Filipino revolution. There is the Propaganda Movement, in which José Rizal, Marcelo del Pilar and Mariano Ponce are associated, which is said to be a central figure in the Pan-Asian movement. Their attempts to call for reforms of the Spanish government through various forms of writing would be recalled in this book, although the emphasis is on the aspect of creating an impression of race. This is an important turning point because of its relevance to how relationships with other Asians would be forged.

While the immediate recall of the Philippine revolution would focus on the fight against the Spaniards, and later against the Americans after the Treaty of Paris, Asian place, Filipino nation is trained on how help was sought from alliances developed in Asia. One of the main thrusts of this book is the relationship with Japanese players, as Japan was seen as a force that rose up against the imperial movements of the United States through the Meiji Restoration.

One of the most interesting details of the book concerns the sense of paranoia of the Spanish colonizers over the way in which the actors of the revolution such as Andres Bonifacio asked for help from Japan. This is very much linked to the way in which José Rizal wanted to enable those in the Philippine islands to acquire an education outside the archipelago. CuUnjieng Aboitiz interestingly mentions that some Japanese cities such as Yokohama were hubs for revolutionary action, prompting opinions that Spain should put its representative in the East Asian country on alert.

Other players in the Asian market were also mentioned. From the Philippines, it would be Mariano Ponce, who was given a diplomatic role in the revolutionary government of Emilio Aguinaldo. Ponce was able to forge relationships with the Japanese, but perhaps the most famous friend he would have made was Sun-Yat-sen, who is associated with China and Taiwan. On the other hand, the Dong Du (Go East) movement in Vietnam would also encourage studies in Japan in order to promote decolonization.

One of the potential benefits that Asian place, Filipino nation could bring is a revision of the way the history of the 1898 revolution is taught to young Filipino students. While an educational strategy in the Philippines might focus on how the nation appeared in the context of the archipelago vis-à-vis the Spanish colonizers, the question of how one can introduce the dissemination of ideas and resources beyond the assigned territorial limits must be confronted. At a time when global flows have been established as important elements of critical and cultural discussions, it is hoped that the idea can be translated for learners at secondary and even primary levels.

Another potential benefit that Asian place, Filipino nation could have been the expanding toolbox of perspectives on how liberation, in the most inclusive sense, can be achieved. The fundamental shift towards local identification and solidarities within the place could be explored further in tandem with analyzes that focus on the class struggle. Taken together, this can be the start of designing a range of approaches in which greater social equity could be achieved.

It is my personal hope that studies of world history such as this book might serve the purpose of benefiting nations in practical ways outside the realm of academic discussion. Ultimately, an academic may find themselves at the crossroads of a research topic and consider that something transnational might be the way to go due to its popularity and timeliness. However, what one might want to consider is that the human experience is something that is understood by an attentive gaze which is even more incisive than looking at the local.

Perhaps it is fair to say that academics can do more to find meaningful applications of transnational research findings in specific situations. What prompts me to say something that could be so bold is the COVID-19 pandemic we are all facing right now. What could be more transnational and so personal at the same time?

Anything that can be done to alleviate people’s practical concerns – which includes advocating for greater freedom from neocolonial and neoliberal forces – is certainly hoped for. While experts in fields other than historical study and global issues will be needed to achieve such a vision, CuUnjieng Aboitiz provides a very articulate and sought-after starting point.

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Note: This article gives the author’s point of view, not the position of the USAPP – American Politics and Policy, or the London School of Economics.

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About the Examiner

Niccolo Rocamora VitugUniversity of Santo Tomas, Silliman University
Niccolo Rocamora Vitug, alumnus of the Silliman National Writers Workshop in Dumaguete City, Philippines, obtained an MA in Literary and Cultural Studies from Ateneo de Manila University. He currently teaches at the University of Santo Tomas and Silliman University, while completing his doctorate in music at the University of the Philippines.


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