Foreword to The Three-Cornered Sun

(This is a Foreword commissioned by Exploding Galaxies, the publishers of the 2023 edition of The Three-Cornered Sun, by Lynda Ty-Casper.)

The Three-Cornered Sun

History, Personified: Testimony of the Imagination

Before the insurrection, it was rumored in Tondo that around six in the evening people would see the apparition of a woman whose head was crowned by serpents; everyone interpreted this vision to mean that the fatal hour was approaching. Another report had it that in Biak-na-bato a woman had given birth to a child dressed in a general’s uniform—which meant that arms had been landed. These tales and apparitions over-excite the people’s imagination, which soon drops the supposedly hidden meaning and gets lost in pure fantasy. Someone has written that the Spanish conquest robbed the subdued peoples of their original poetic imagination and impoverished their souls. A time always comes when the spirit of a race is reborn and impatiently seeks to know life. The very earth nourishes it with fresh vigor. Today the Spaniards have not only peoples to contend with but also, and above all, the phantoms of the past, nature awakened from slumber, legends descending from the mountains, the dead rising from their graves. And that is why the soldier, overwhelmed by his task, fights indifferently while the insurgents go into battle with such courage that they actually have been observed, rushing, bolo in hand, across firing lines and returning to camp bloody but alive.

—André Bellessort, One Week in the Philippines (November 1897), translated by E. Aguilar Cruz 

This is a novel set in the confrontation between Filipinos and Spaniards that we now classify as the first phase of the Philippine Revolution. But it is more accurately a story that explores how the revolution was itself a confrontation between Filipinos. Three broad categories are considered: the traditional ruling families known as the principalía, the educated, cosmopolitan, politically liberal and reformist scholars known as ilustrados, and an embryo urban professional class whose political radicalization found expression and direction in the Katipunan. All three would find themselves at cross-purposes over the question of reform or revolution, what kind of national authority should emerge in the wake of revolution, and what sacrifices should be demanded, and from whom, and what was supposed to be gained as a result by the revolutionaries. These confrontations take place in three acts, called books: first, against the background of the  final countdown to martyrdom of José Rizal, preeminent example of the ilustrados (Book 1); second, during the premature start of Philippine Revolution of 1896-97 under the foremost example of that radical urban professional, Andrés Bonifacio (Book 2); and third, against the backdrop of the reassertion of traditional dominance and control by the principalía, exemplified by Emilio Aguinaldo who toppled Bonifacio (Book 3).

It’s interesting that Franz Arcellana, reviewing this novel in 1979, found it necessary and relevant to state the obvious: that Linda Ty-Casper herself considers this book a historical novel, adding that not many historical novels were being written and not too many of them were being read at the time. He explained that “The writing and reading of fiction drawn from history has never been fashionable: in terms of effort of writing, it has always been more difficult to do; as reading, it requires a basic and prior knowledge.”1

Perhaps the author took a cue from Arcellana when she herself, in “Literature: A Flesh Made of Fugitive Suns,” from 1980, declared, “Literature is not the place, however, in which to learn history, but to understand it. The reader who knows history enriches literature with his knowledge. His is the additional pleasure of discovering how it shaped the story, how typical of the period and culture the characters are.” But what should it do? In the same essay she asserts that “literature’s primary purpose is not to preserve the past; but it performs an outstanding service by freeing the past from its time and giving it a duration for both present and future to experience again and again. Merely because the past is irrecoverable does not make it lost or useless.”2

So the reader is free to charge ahead and read—enjoying, savoring—this novel, free of the encumbrances of the study of the past; but can also, just as well, ponder the past as preface, prelude—introduction—to the tales told in its pages. My own response to the given task of introducing this novel, was to review not just the era in which it was set, but what preceded it.

In 1812, or eighty-four years before the events portrayed in this book, the Political Constitution of the Spanish Monarchy, more commonly as the Cadiz Constitution, was promulgated. It proposed an entirely new vision for Spain and its empire: henceforth, the colonies would be provinces, and colonial subjects would be citizens. It was both antidote to, and the result of, the Napoleonic invasion of Spain and the removal of its ruling Bourbon dynasty: both of which were rejected and resisted by Spaniards and the colonies they controlled. Two years later, by 1814, two things came to an end. First, the Galleon Trade and the introduction of non-Spanish commercial houses in the Philippines. Manila for the three centuries of the galleon trade had been the place of exchange where silk and other goods from China were exchanged for Spanish silver from the Americas and from Japan, as well. The profits were substantial enough to maintain the trade—four ships a year—for centuries but not enough to attract long-term migration from either Spain or the New World, the majority of Spaniards being members of the clergy belonging to religious orders that grew immensely landed and wealthy.

That brief liberal period in Spain ended when Ferdinand VII revoked the Cadiz Constitution, beginning his transformation from el Deseado, the Desired, to el Rey Felón, the Criminal King: and by the 1820s, revolution had swept through Latin America. A decade later, in 1833, the last bastions of Spanish royalism fell. In the Americas, only Cuba and Puerto Rico remained of the empire; in Asia, the Spanish East Indies (composed of the Philippines, the Marianas, and the Carolines, ruled from Manila) was all that was left. Ironically it was after the umbilical cord to the Americas was cut in 1814, and direct rule from Madrid (which was anxious to make the colony profitable) was established, that the seeds for unrest and revolution were planted in Manila. By 1880 a radical transformation of the Philippine economy, and with it governance and even social relations, had taken place. These can be clustered into five broad changes.

First, as a consequence of the end of the galleon trade, the loss of the Americas, and fitful efforts to liberalize the economy, the Philippine economy was almost entirely dominated by Britain. Mechanization, advances in transportation and communication, the rise of modern banking, all accompanied the growing integration of the Philippine economy into the globalization of the nineteenth century. And so the Basque intellectual Miguel de Unamuno, writing of Rizal, noted he was more Lutheran than Catholic:3 a remarkable observation. An overlooked aspect of the ilustrado critique of Spain’s shambolic colonial record is that Spain had stifled entrepreneurship, persecuted innovation, fostered corruption and made inefficiency endemic. It hadn’t even encouraged, much less allowed to flourish, Philippine exports to Spain, in contrast to Britain’s advertising the products of its colonies in London: a comparison fostered not only by the exposure of ilustrado Filipinos to Europe, but the experience of the families of the ilustrados with the British merchant houses in the Philippines.

Second, another effect of these economic changes was the rise of agricultural exports (including coffee and, most significantly, sugar) gained in importance, resulting, on the one hand, in the end of rice self-sufficiency. Rice surpluses and rice deficits became a fact of life.

Third: It made possible the creation and consolidation of vast estates—haciendas—which created a new category of the peasantry: tenant farmers, while dispossessing peasants who then migrated to the cities. At the same time the labor needs for these estates and other enterprises led to the reexamination of restrictive policies towards Chinese migration, which grew exponentially starting in 1850  so that by the 1880s, over 10,000 Chinese migrants, ostensibly for agricultural work but more often than not, settling in Manila or engaging in the retail trade. The influx of settlers, whether permanent or temporary, rapidly grew what had up to this point been a small subset of Philippine society: the mestizos.

Was the mestizo an honorary white, a Spaniard, a Sangley, or Chinese, or Indio, and who were the Indios, anyway, in this collection of islands known as Filipinas? Were they Filipinos? But those were originally Spaniards born in the Philippines, the insulares in contrast to the peninsulares, those born in metropolitan Spain: so then, rather than be a second-class Spaniard, was the Filipino not, more properly, a first-class indio? Until the indios themselves engaged in the cultural appropriation of the term, Filipino. Rizal himself would assert that this appropriation took place in the watershed year, for his generation, of 1871, when the Filipino priests Gomez, Burgos, and Zamora were executed in the aftermath of the failed Cavite Mutiny; the inquisition that followed despoiled indios and erstwhile Filipinos alike: solidarity in adversity.

This appropriation was, arguably, a manifestation of social self-confidence born of both prosperity and exposure to global business and markets, and of social insecurity, born of the dismantling of centuries-old relationships and means of ownership. The creation of a centrally regulated system of land ownership meant communal ownership and subsistence production—the systems that preceded Spanish rule—couldn’t survive these changes, while confronting society with new and alien legal systems and principles. This was the tension that could unite ilustrados and ordinary Filipinos: the humiliation of the Mercados (Rizal’s family could strike a chord with dispossessed peasants eking out transient workers’ lives in Manila’s slums from whose aspirational ranks the Katipunan recruited not the masses, but men and women of modest means and midlevel occupations) would have been felt keenly by a less prominent but still above-average family of modest means—and the peasantry, too.

Fourth: Education reforms in the 1860s and 1870s resulted in the massive expansion of basic and secondary education while instituting, for the first time, a policy of encouraging the teaching of Spanish as a common language. The result was the creation of the ilustrados themselves: educated Filipinos, many of whom were economically privileged as beneficiaries of the booming trade with the world, who considered themselves natives of the intellectual and even political milieu of metropolitan Spain and Enlightenment Europe. Thus the ilustrados of the nineteenth century were created out of this and found themselves embroiled in fighting the intellectual battles of the eighteenth century: The ilustrados behind the Propaganda Movement reserved their greatest venom against the Catholic religious orders with their vast estates and ignorant friars: a battle being waged with equal fervor in Spain itself.

Fifth: The traditional Filipino elite, descendants of the rulers with whom Spain had originally allied during its conquest of the Philippines, who were known at time as the principalía, found themselves dissatisfied with reforms being instituted by Spain: Madrid-ordered reforms eroded the privileges of the traditional elite, which found the municipal duties they traditionally discharged increase in scale while diminishing in profit and prestige—municipal and barrio officials, for example, were now personally responsible for funding any shortfalls in their assessed quota of tax collections.



In 1895, the Cuban Revolution began and in 1896, that of the Philippines: it has often been claimed that our revolution marked the last of the colonial revolts within the Spanish Empire; but that, to my mind, is to miss half the story and half the point of the events portrayed in this book.

The opening scenes of this book take place against the vivid backdrop of late nineteenth-century Manila, a city itself only really thirty years old at the time this book begins. On June 3, 1863, when José Rizal was about to turn two years old, and five months before Andrés Bonifacio was born, an earthquake leveled Manila. The Governor-General’s palace in Intramuros ended up in ruins, and the Spanish Governor-General sought temporary quarters in his summer home by the Pasig River. Thirty-three years later, this temporary situation had become permanent, and the Posesión de Malacañan had transformed into Malacañan Palace, the grandeur of its name camouflaging its reality as a rather ramshackle mansion. It was to this place that Rizal was summoned in 1887 to provide the Governor-General with a copy of his novel Noli Me Tangere: he could only find a dirty copy to give. He would have more hostile meetings with another Governor-General, culminating in his exile to Dapitan in 1892.

This book begins in the feverish weeks prior to the start of the Philippine Revolution, as Rizal languished on board ship in Manila Bay, waiting for permission to leave for Cuba, where he’d volunteered as a doctor for the Spanish forces quelling the Cuban Revolution. As Rizal can’t quite leave, a Filipino arrives from a long exile where Rizal had been, and was about to go, again: Spain; it is no coincidence that  Rizal had his Simoun (or Simon)  while Linda Ty-Casper, has Simeon: both are actually the same name. The reader of Rizal will find other characters and even scenes, besides, in which Ty-Casper re-renders, or at least echoes, Rizal. But if Rizal ennobles them (the mestizos) even in their Hamlet-like agonizing over what to do (as he, Rizal, himself did), both authors have their characters wrestle with the “conflict of social class” but Ty-Casper not only condemns them but, as the novel will show, deeply implicates them in the self-destruction of the Revolution.

It seems to me more difficult for Filipinos to capture, in English, the florid courtesies and ponderous rhetoric of both Spanish and old Tagalog, while it is perhaps easier to capture the meandering dissimulation of Spanish when rendered in Tagalog; for this reason, the Filipino writer in English who manages to capture the essence of both languages in English, is remarkable: because it requires an intensive immersion not just in the language, but the thought processes they convey. It helps to understand how and why Ty-Casper was able to do this. This novel has history as the armature that supports its fictions.

We should bear in mind that Linda Ty-Casper wrote her novel The Three-Corned Sun precisely at the point when the Propaganda Movement, the Philippine Revolution, and the Filipino-American War had just about permanently receded from living memory. Writing from 1963 to 1974, she was as far from the Revolution of 1896–97 as we are, today, from World War II. We are as far removed by time and forgetting from the generation that lived through, and was formed by World War II  (incidentally, the generation to which Ty-Casper herself belongs) as Ty-Casper’s generation was from that which lived through the defeat and departure of Spain and the conquest by America. Ty-Casper had, however, experienced the revolution much as many of us have experienced World War II: vicariously.  She dedicated the novel to her maternal grandmother, Gabriela Paz Viardo de Velasquez (1871–1953), “whose memory of the Revolution of 1896 is the touchstone of this novel.” This novel, by its very existence, addresses, in as imaginative a way as is humanly possible, a deficiency in Philippine history, which is the utter absence in many instances, of an historical record to begin with. By relying on that most ancient form, oral history, this novel, then, retains the immediacy of her grandmother’s tales, but universalized. In this novel we read—and we must assume, this reflects the memories of the participants as to what mattered—not a catalog of fixed dates but rather the swift tide of events washing over at first, a capital filled both with humid improbabilities and decadent absurdities, in an onrush of modernity suffocating in a stranglehold of cynicism, cruelty, caprice, and prejudice petering out in the hinterlands.

As an artifact of both the author’s times and those of her grandmother, the first part of this book is the swan song of a central preoccupation of the Spanish era up to the decades of the author’s own youth, when the Filipinoness of the Spanish mestizo—the apex of society—was debated. Today, the question is essentially settled because that category is nearly culturally and socially extinct due to migration. Undeservedly little-known for his probing and trenchant study of Rizal, the late Teodoro M. Locsin once summarized the Filipino response to Spanish rule as demanding that one “constantly … prepare a face to meet the faces that they met,” which he said in scientific terms was “protective coloration.” Of one mestizo leader, Locsin once wrote this description: “in him there were two elements, the white and the brown, with the white despising the brown and the brown hating the white,  who had made himself the leader of a similarly confused people.”4 Other hybrids remain controversial, and the echoes of old prejudices—Rizal himself crossed out a Spanish bureaucrat’s categorizing him as a mestizo Sangley (Chinese mestizo), writing, instead, Indio natural.


We have lost the penchant for allegory in our mania for postmodernist games. Juan Luna could paint Spain and the Philippines as two women, one in Spanish gold and red, the other, in a baro’t saya of blue, white, and Ty-Casper could paint word-pictures with as much verve as the propagandists because whether by means of pictures or word-pictures, the vocabulary of imagery remained the same. There is one remarkable scene, in that most extinct of settings, a bullfight, in Manila:

The air was crusted with the damp smell of animals dragging their tongues, heavy with unslaked thirst. Their tails were worn banners. Dropping hindquarters, a lion crouched to spring, only to roll back against rusted bars. Fur streaked and matted, large eyes fly-infested, the lioness brushed aside the cub born upon arrival in Manila, and bared her teeth to the crowd she could not reach. Unclaimed, the cub rolled and lay on spilled water, breathing fast, shallow breaths. 

Which ends in this arresting image after a crucial failed confrontation in the arena:

But from the lion’s cages against the lower exit, there came the smell of fresh blood. The lioness, in panic, had destroyed her cub. 

The language and imagery are of truly Tropical Baroque splendor in Book 1 of this novel. In Book 2, I believe there is more of the authentic voice of a revolutionary generation captured not just in the dialogue but in the description of events. It’s interesting to see how that history—that testimony, given by a grandmother to her writer-granddaughter—reflects the consensus that existed among those who actually lived through, and fought in, what historians have come to categorize as the first phase of the Revolution against Spain. It’s a consensus that surviving Katipuneros literally tried to make concrete through the construction of a monument that now stands beside Vinzons Hall in the University of the Philippines, Diliman.

Before the Philippine government built the Bonifacio Monument in 1933, the surviving members of the Katipunan took it upon themselves to build a monument to a lost cause. Inaugurated on September 3, 1911, it bore the inscription “Homenaje del Pueblo Filipino a los Héroes del ’96” and the date “26 Agosto 1896.” Historian Jim Richardson mentions two important things about this: first, the date commemorates the first skirmish with Spanish troops (not the date on which it was decided to launch the Revolution or when cedulas were torn up); second, it didn’t mark any particular site, but was located in the broad vicinity of a place which already had a name based on actual practice and ratified by widespread use: “The name ‘Balintawak’ was often used as shorthand to denote the general area to the east of Caloocan poblacio?n, and the ‘Cry’  had become popularly known as the ‘Cry of Balintawak’ even before the monument was erected.”5

This monument, moved to Diliman when the construction of a highway was due to displace it, doesn’t portray Andrés Bonifacio with bolo and banner but instead, a generic Katipunero. Edged aside, too, was the consensus of those who inconveniently happened to have lived through the Revolution. For them, what mattered wasn’t a ritual proclamation, but rather, the actual moment of revolution: the first armed confrontation between Filipinos and Spaniards.

It is this that the novel adopts as significant; Book Two begins with Cristobal at Balintawak, in a sentence pregnant with meaning:

He could hear the men moving about, reciting the Supremo’s manifestos as though litanies to ward off the devil. The week before they had torn their cedulas without which they could not enter the city; and a kind of desperation turned all their thoughts collectively to the joint attack on Manila that morning, the last Sunday of August. 

Nick Joaquin, who visited the actual area, described this location as “lonely, obscure, isolated, and very hard to find. It’s in an ‘interior’ reached by no street; you have to use a footpath. And the place itself is pure provincial countryside: giant thick-boughed mango and tamarind and santol trees keep guard over the marker, which is always in shadow, and one guesses that this was deep woods in those days.”6 Joaquin wrote this when the area, once part of Spanish-era Caloocan, had become part of modern-day Quezon City; but it was still possible then, to savor not just the geography but the landscape of the past.

We are separated from the revolutionary era not just by time, language, mentality, and a lack of primary sources but also by the actual eradication of what can be called the landscape of memory of the past—making terra firma not only incognita but nullius to us today: not merely undiscovered country but literally land that belongs to no one (anymore).

But to return to the author’s own point—in her dedication, Ty-Casper asserts that “characters of fiction reenact history, the main protagonist”—it is in Book 3 that she demonstrates that “literature’s primary purpose is not to preserve the past; but it performs an outstanding service by freeing the past from its time and giving it a duration for both present and future to experience again and again.”7

As the novel reaches its dismal because nearly-nihilistic end, there is this weary bit of dialogue:

“You have accepted then?”

“When you’re offered land, exemption from forced labor, the right to settle in any part of the world under the mother country’s control? What would you say? At Aliaga, lured by promises of these and a specially struck medal, volunteers by the hundreds came out against us. Including Katipuneros. The same thing in the Ilocos, Bicol and in Cagayan and Visayas. Soon the fighting will be among ourselves.”

The call-and-response of generations of shattered idealists trying to find comfort from other members of the cause. Unity is ever-fragmentary; solidarity, predictably, is transient; the crab tramples its fellows out of self-interest—but also, out of self-preservation; how can there be any other, higher, law? If Book 1 was a recapturing, of a lost world, Book 2 a retelling, of private testimony, then in Book 3 comes, at last, the commingling of the personal and collective, the capturing of a received past, in an eternal, because recreated, present: the constantly refreshed of the present-day reader.

This book was written when a way of looking and experiencing the world—the ways of both the nineteenth century and the centuries before it—still existed and hadn’t yet gone extinct; some of its beliefs and prejudices, ideals and disappointments, the rhythm and vocabulary of its languages, are captured here, gleaned from tales told to the author by a member of that lost generation. Whether Brothers Grimm or monkish or anthropologist-transcription of barely remembered ancient songs, there are echoes here garbled by time itself, and the retelling and reimagination and reinterpretation by both author and reader, of what that once upon a time grandmother, her for all times novelist granddaughter, and you the fortunate reader of these pages, can never fail to recognize as undeniable truths.


Manuel L. Quezon III


  1. Francisco Arcellana, “Triangulating the Salmon-Colored Sphere,” Philippine Studies 30, no. 2 (1982): 288–90,
  2. Linda Ty-Casper, “Literature: A Flesh Made of Fugitive Suns,” Philippine Studies 28, no. 1 (1980): 59–73,
  3. Miguel de Unamuno, “Rizal: The Tagalog Hamlet,” Salamanca, 19 and 20, V, 1907,
  4. Teodoro M. Tocsin, “Constitution Day,” Philippines Free Press, February 7, 1953,
  5. Jim Richardson, “Notes on the ‘Cry’ of August 1896,” in Katipunan: Documents and Studies, revised August 2021,
  6. Nick Joaquin, “The Eve of St Bartholomew,” [1963] in A Question of Heroes (Makati: Ayala Museum, 1977), 91.
  7. Ty-Casper, “Literature: A Flesh Made of Fugitive Suns,” 65.

The Three-Cornered Sun












Manuel L. Quezon III.

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