What is the ‘bayan’?

by xiaochua

November 9, 2019


WHAT is the bayan? Beauty queen Malka Shaver recently asked me this very important question.

For many years we thought that before the coming of the Spaniards, the barangay was the basic political unit of society, headed by the datu and named after our ancient boat. This was reinforced by William Henry Scott who entitled his classic, singular volume on the ancient Filipinos as barangay.

Even before Damon Woods said the barangay as a political unit was a Spanish invention since it was absent in the original accounts of the Spaniards about our ancestors (but the word was used by the translators of Blair and Robertson, in one such account by Father Alcina), Filipino historians Zeus Salazar, the father of the Pantayong Pananaw school of thought and the New Filipino Historiography, and Mary Jane Rodriguez-Tatel already questioned this. They said that the barangay was only a clan or a family unit, and was basically an economic one, not political. For more than two decades now they have been pointing out to us that the “bayan,” “banua” or “ili” (Ilocano) was the basic political unit of the ancient Filipinos, not the “barangay.”

So, what is the bayan?

Sociologist Clemen Aquino synthesized the writings of the Pantayong Pananaw scholars in defining the bayan in her famous essay “Mula sa Kinaroroonan: Kapwa, Kapatiran, at Bayan sa Agham Panlipunan.” Aquino demonstrated how Salazar pointed to our Austronesian origins from 5,000 years ago to say that people in this archipelago had more or less the same concept of the political unit, looking at the various words used to represent it, which Rodriguez-Tatel listed in her master’s thesis: Bayan, banua or ili. In sum, Salazar said the concept had to do with having permanent settlements or “pamahayan,” but for the Tagalog, it also meant the people living in it, similar to “balei” in Panggasinense and “balen” in Pampanga (which according to Kapampangan-Tarlac scholar Rodrigo Sicat came from “balayen”—balay, bahay, bahayan—place of houses — bayan).

Salazar said the “banua” of Bicol, Visayas and Mindanao is the most widespread of these concepts and is the original Austronesian word, that is why in Polynesia they have the “vanua” (as in Vanuatu). The Ilocano “ili” though was a settlement that was in the context of war, therefore it had to transfer from time to time; eventually, the high places to where the bayan had to evacuate in times of war and calamities were called “ilihan.”

Dr. Carlos Tatel, my first university instructor in history, illustrated to us in our class in 2001 that when the barangay (clan units) within an area (at the ilawud, or seashore, or the ilaya, near the mountains) wanted to create a stronger community, their respectve datu performed the ritual “sandugo” (from “isang dugo” or “one blood”) and formed the bayan and chose their leader, a lakan, sultan or a rajah. Therefore, the formation of the community was based on the idea of the kapatiran (we are brothers and sisters). In the Visayas, sandugo is translated as “pag-aanghod,” which literally means caring for your little brother, or “manghod,” which is more special.

Eventually, during the Spanish period, the pueblo would still be referred to as the bayan in general, but it would also mean the center of the pueblo (“Papunta kami sa bayan”).

Poet Francisco Balagtas, in his veiled criticism of the Spanish regime, “Sa loob at labas ng bayan kong sawi,” expanded the concept of bayan to refer to the whole archipelago under colonial Spain. That is why when Andres Bonifacio, the president of the First National Revolutionary Government, imagined the Filipino nation not just as a political nation-state as the ilustrados had learned from the West, but basically adopted the sandugo as a ritual in the Katipunan to go back to the concept of “kapatiran” — we are brothers and we have one mother, ang ating “Inang Bayan.” So, it was not enough to have the state, each part of the bayan must have kabutihang loob for treat each one as brothers and sisters. Only then can we have kaginhawaan, or the good life, and then real kalayaan.

In addition, Bonifacio referred to his government as “Haring Bayan,” which was misunderstood by Emilio Aguinaldo as Bonifacio making himself the King of the Nation when in fact, the “hari,” or powerful, was not one man but the bayan itself, therefore a democracy. Bonifacio’s concept of the nation was hijacked of course when the elites eliminated him and replaced it with an elite democracy. The second part of this column will discuss how Filipino society was divided and gave birth to another concept of the bayan as the non-Westernized non-elitist people in the country.

So, to summarize, the bayan transformed from a community of houses and the people in that community eventually to the nation and the people.