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Reflections on A Repurposed Fortress and Sun Tzu’s Art of War

By VICKY VELOSO-BARRERA, The Philippine STAR Published Sep 23, 2023 5:00 am

Accepting an invitation to speak about my books at this year’s Dia de Manila brought me serendipitously to a slice of Intramuros that I’d never seen before. Known as the Revellin de Recoletos, this is a mini fortress right outside the walled city. 

Not that I’m well versed in all the interesting nooks and crannies of Intramuros. It is ever-evolving so every time I visit there is something new to explore, and this being Intramuros you are transported to a time and place you think you know but have never actually experienced.

My friend, tour guide/writer/historian/foodie Anson Yu, explained that the Revellin de Recoletos was “built in 1771 to provide additional support between two major forts, Baluarte de San Andres and Baluarte de Dilao. 

Gnarled roots

“Because it was built in the 1700s after the British invasion of 1762, it got its name from the Recoletos Church, which used to stand where the Manila Bulletin building now stands.”

Like much of Intramuros, the Revellin is characterized by arched entrances, thick stone walls, many worn and moss-covered, big old trees with gnarled roots, old stone statues and all of this contributing to that sense of antiquity.

The fortress was renamed Aurora Garden in honor of former First Lady Aurora Quezon

“During the 1940s it was turned into Aurora Garden, after First Lady Aurora Quezon,” relates Anson. “It was heavily damaged during World War II and only [underwent restoration] in 1969 and then [again] in 1986.” 

Today the Revellin is better known as Escuela Taller. During the Dia de Manila celebrations, I was able to visit the workshops all housed within the ancient stone walls. Befittingly, what I saw the students working on was related to the rehabilitation of old churches—wood carving and other skills needed for structures damaged by earthquakes or the elements.

This pocket of Intramuros may be opened to the public in the future; for now only for supporters of Escuela Taller

“Escuela Taller was founded in Spain in the 1980s as a training ground for skilled workers for heritage, preservation and conservation work,” Anson explains. “It was brought to Manila in 2009 and found a home at the Revellin de Recoletos.

“Among the skills taught there are wood working such as carpentry, painting, stone masonry, plumbing and electrical wiring.”

Mossy steps to the rampart of the fortress

He adds, “At one point they even offered embroidery but they discontinued it after one year. Oh, yes, they also teach metalworks like welding.”

Students are recruited or invited to join either by the local barangay or the DSWD representative.

It currently survives on funding from private individuals and corporations as it is now independent from its Spanish and Latin American counterpart.

Old stone chambers are now used to teach church restoration skills

“If people want to help or donate they can directly contact the Escuela Taller,” says Anson. “And yes, we are operating from grants, donations, and also earnings from consultancy services on heritage conservation projects. For donations, Philip Paraan or Foom Cabilla can be approached.”

From a former fortress now put to good use as a school, we now go to another aspect of war—how to plan one, according to renowned military strategist Sun Tzu.

War or the threat of it is what causes fortresses like the Revellin de Recoletos to be built in the first place. 

Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is a classic that has been used by armies and businesses in dealing with their foes or rivals. Though written 2500 years ago at a time when China was undergoing internal wars fought by seven states, each for the control and expansion of their territories, it is as relevant today as it was back then. To leaf through its pages is to feel writing that is uncannily alive.

It's unsettling to read admonitions that apply with such precision to your immediate situation, whatever that may be.

A stone marker for the school

Just take the opening lines of Chapter 1: War is a game of deception.

“Sun Tzu said: War is an important matter to a state, it is a way to death or life, a road to its rise or fall, one must not neglect to consider.

“One must consider these five factors, then observe, analyze, compare, gather additional information: first is governance, second is weather, third is terrain, fourth is general, fifth is discipline.”

A stone grinder and the appeal of moss

Such common sense! Yet by failing to consider these factors armies and states fall.

In the light of the protracted Ukraine war and the tensions between China and Taiwan, the opening quote of Chapter 2 is so apropos: “A protracted war that is beneficial to a state is unheard of.”

Teresita Ang-See, editor of Sining ng Pakikidigma ni Sun Tzu (Kaisa Para sa Kaunluran Inc, 2023) opened a copy to the very page containing this and wryly commented, “If the [Mainland] Chinese are reading this, they will not invade Taiwan. They will just harass or annoy her.”

Likewise the protracted war in Ukraine has served no good purpose and has even made life difficult for far-flung countries like ours, as shortages in flour, gas and oil have been felt worldwide. 

Tessy further explains that she and her team tweaked the English translation to make it reflect the original Chinese thought more closely. “The [other translation] used the word ‘secret’, for instance, when ‘hidden’ is closer to the meaning,” she says.

Rereading this book has been an eye opener, and in this version I see Sun Tzu’s words as applicable to business and even the businesses of everyday life.

A truly worthwhile read, you can pick up your copy of Sining ng Pakikidigma from Bahay Tsinoy and while you’re in the area, drop by Papakape in Fort Santiago for a unique coffee experience. Should the Manila Cathedral and San Agustin churches stir your soul, say a prayer for world leaders to put an end to unnecessary war, and leave a donation at Escuela Taller to keep the skills of church restoration alive.