Bianwen, Farrell and Tinian


The name Kamehameha is well known in Hawaii, officially remembered this week for leading the alii aimuko rule the islands for three centuries bearing the name, until Kalakaua replaced them. U.S. Marines put an end to the royalty as the U.S. Navy determined that Pearl Harbor would make for an excellent coaling station, and imperial America salivated for real estate under Pacific coconuts and points beyond.

Among the Austronesians in Palau to the Micronesians across the equator north and the Polynesians-Melanesians south, to Chile’s Easter Island, stratified society prevailed. Slaves and servants were at the bottom, an educated force was in the middle, and a royal family at the head; the upper class Chamorrii were over the Matao and the Atcha’ot of the middle, and the lower matachang class served the Marianas. U.S. republican and democratic ways were historically not friendly to royal bloodlines, thus the kneejerk American response to ending Liliuokalani’s rule in Hawaii.

On the mainland by Pacific west, Zhongwen dynasties lasted for three millennia, terminating with the Qing that emerged from the Manchus but confronted by the democratic impulse of the 20th century, eventually ending the dynastic rule of those who thought of themselves as mandated by heaven. 

Blood identity was not strict since DNA tests were not yet in place. A childless, or male-deficient, ruling family sometimes adopted one from outside the direct bloodline to wield the royal scepter, for the continuity of the clan name was more important than bloodline purity and integrity even if external blood line managed to seep into the flow.

But early in the development of the Chinese literary tradition, combined text for story telling and pictorial representation in a vernacular style rather than the royal Mandarin of the court came in vogue. The Dunhuang bianwen manuscript was an early example of this vernacular tradition though the form died out by the Song Dynasty. The form translated and transmitted Buddhist doctrines from revered Sanskrit Sutras to popular literature.

Bianwen with the pictorial representation of the bianxiang popularized beliefs and doctrine as the form related to oral and visual public performances. The stories were preserved in written form, and the ways in which they were told influenced secular storytelling for a long time.

This is a long intro to Don Farrell’s record (check out Micronesian Productions) on historiography. We used his tome on NMI History in our PSS Social Studies class circa 2003-2008 and found it to be full, more than enough for a two-semester sitting. Farrell went on to revise the authoritative volume with Part I from Ancient Times through the Spanish Era, and Part II to start with the journey of the NMI since the 20th Century to the present.

Meanwhile, we were feted with a brief History of Tinian when we attended a Tinian symposium Farrell organized in 2010, graced by various scholars and other academicians. 

Farrell’s books are meant to instruct, not to decorate shelves in inertia, and since most of our learning is 80 percent by sight, he is pedagogically astute to liberally sprinkle lots of pictorial representations and photos in his text, reminiscent of China’s transformative texts of the bianwen style. 

The Tinian, A Brief History, 2012 edition, is an example of photos complementing text, from the cover of latte stones to the detailed island map at the back, and the subject that covers the history of Japanese occupation of the island when sugar temporarily deposed German technology that included the wrenching clash of the Banzai warriors opposing invading grunts in 1944. The pictures are graphically instructive along with the texts translated into Nihon’s kanji script.

In literary traditions, texts are abstracted into words and numbers utilized by the left side of the brain, but graphic form dominates the right side. A simplistic division of cerebral savvy distinguishes between the analytic and synthesizing functions of the brain, and academe often has bias for words over the practical power of graphics.

Farrell’s Tinian enlarges our familiarity of the island more than just the abstract reputation of where Paul Tibbets and his crew on Enola Gay picked up the load delivered over Hiroshima. We visited with the historian one Monday in 2010 in his “two dug hole” on the ground by Able Park on the north end of the island. The prolific writer, in his elements, was a bearded presence.

We actually might have crossed paths in Guam when I served the Community United Methodist Church where the late Marcia Hartsock of the 17th Legislature and Jose Dizon, Carl Gutierrez first running mate for the Governor’s Office, were members. Don was aide to Gutierrez 1982-86, and my sojourn in Guam was 1983-84. We did not cross paths then, but now we have through his books on the Marianas.

Bianwen, the text and pictorial representation of China was what got us to this reflection on Farrell and his book, Tinian. Pick up Farrell’s brief histories of Saipan, Guam, and Rota, and one meets a learned but approachable matao on his islands!

Jaime R. Vergara | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Jaime Vergara previously taught at SVES in the CNMI. A peripatetic pedagogue, he last taught in China but makes Honolulu, Shenyang, and Saipan home. He can be reached at

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