Sulu-China connection

HRM Sultan Esmail Kiram II, titular head of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo. Although stripped of political powers, the sultanate still commands patronage, influence and respect from its constituency in the Philippines and Malaysia. The royalists while divided in allegiance through the various claimants, their advocacy remains similar - the return to (constitutional) monarchy as a form of governance in the Moro homelands, the recognition of the propriety rights of the Sulu royal family over North Borneo (roughly the Malaysian State of Sabah) and the right of its citizens to settle and work anywhere in the realm.
In June 2005, I went to Jolo (Sulu) to visit a project in Talipao. Aboard the 18-seater SEAIR flight from Zamboanga City were four Chinese fellows – three males and a female. I know the lady because she is the popular Teresita Ang, who has become a face of the Chinese community in the media.

When we reached the tarmac, there were an unusual number of people around. From afar I recognized a royal umbrella, underneath was Dr. Shakirullah Bahjin, a claimant to the Sulu throne from the Bahjin (Patikul) branch and a rival of the Kiram family. I forgot about this incident until I was back in the city and realized who these fellows really were.

Today while surfing the net I came across Yvonne Chua's post "Historic Reunion" in the PCIJ blog. The three Chinese fellows accompanied by Ms Ang were An Jin Tian, An Yan Chun and Wen Hai Jun - 17th and 18th generations of Wendulu and Andulu, in turn descendants of Sulu Sultan Paduka Batara who died in China around 600 years ago.

What was this Sulu Sultan doing in China? Jojo Malig in his blog "Pre-European Philippines and China" quoted E. P. Patanne's work ". The Philippines in the 6th to 16th Centuries" that this contact between Imperial China and Nanhai (South China islands?) started as early as the Tang dynasty (618-906 AD). In Chapter XI, page 154, of Patanne’s book, "Sulu featured prominently in the annals of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), being among the first country in the Nanhai to send a tribute mission to China in 1370, two years after the founding of the Ming dynasty; then again in 1372. Sulu continued to send tribute missions to China in 1416, 1420, 1421, 1423 1424.”

According to Chinese annals the visit was an act of paying tribute to Ming Emperor Yong Le, China being the Middle Kingdom and the center of the world or it was a state visit, according to Sulu oral traditions. Either way, the Sulu royal entourage was received by the emperor very warmly in the Forbidden City. One source , quoting the Ming Annal, describes the visit - the Sulu royal entourage arrived in the Imperial Court numbering more than 340 persons. After presenting to the Emperor their tribute, which consist of a letter with gold characters inscribed, pearls, precious stones, tortoise shells, and other articles of value. The Sulu chieftains (together with the Sulu sultan were the rulers of Tawi-Tawi and North Borneo) were confirmed as rulers of their kingdoms and were each presented with seal, a commission, a complete court dress, a cap, a girdle, a horse with trappings, and insignias of their ranks and titles. Within the Forbidden City, Emperor Yong Le ordered that they be provided with quarters and attendants at their disposal. They stayed in Peking for around one month.

When it was time to go home, Emperor Yong Le again showered them with gifts: girdle adorned with precious stones, a hundred taels of gold, 2,000 taels of silver, 10,000 taels in paper money, 200 pieces of plain silk, 2,000 strings of cash (small money denomination), a robe embroidered with golden snakes, another embroidered with dragons, and a third embroidered with kilins, a mythical Chinese beast resembling a unicorn.

On their way home through the grand canal, Paduka Batara fell ill and eventually passed away in Shadong on October 23 1417, according to Teresita Ang. His wife, sons An-Tu-Luk (Antulu) and Wun-Ha-La (Wenhala), and few of his retinues decided to stay behind to take care of his tomb. His eldest son and most of the entourage continue their journey back home.

According to the same source that described the exchange of gifts, during the Ching period (1644-1911A.D.), the reigning Sultan of Sulu, Mahmud Badr-ud Din, sent an envoy in June 1733 to Emperor Yong Cheng with a memorial expressing his gratitude for the kind treatment his ancestor Paduka had received during his visit to China 300 years earlier. It also conveyed his request for the tombs of Paduka’s descendants to be repaired while his descendants who were still alive are bestowed with proper pensions. The emperor referred the matter to his minister of protocol who, after a period of study, recommended that the sultan’s requests be granted. The emperor then issued an order to the authorities concerned to locate the positions of all the monuments, temples, and honorary gateways connecting Paduka’s tomb and those of these descendants that needed to be repaired. Also, a representative for each of the and Wun families was elected to take charge of the sacrificial rites for their ancestors, and bestowed crowns and belts. Henceforth, the practice of sacrificial rites by both families became an official rule observed traditionally in the Celestial Kingdom.

Teresita Ang wrote, the Sulu visitors left behind were treated as royalty. The emperor ordered that while in Shandong, they be given 15.8 hectares of farmland, without taxes or tribute requirements, as well as a monthly supply of food and clothing. Three Chinese Muslim families (Hui Hui?) of Xia, Ma and Cheng to serve the Sultans family as personal servants. The areas surrounding the sultans tomb became a thriving community called the Pei Ying village, or the northern camp, referring to the village north of the tomb. When they died years later, the sultans wife and his two sons were buried near the sultans tomb.

However these days, their fortune and fate have change drastically. The An and Wen families, descended from Sulu royalty, are poor peasants, raising goats and cows and planting corn and vegetables as their main occupation. Still, they take pride in their belief in Islam and in the thought that they are descended from a noble family from Nan Hai (South China Sea) kingdom, from Sulu Sultans who were the earliest envoys that build the bridge of friendship and good relations between China and the Philippines.

As we celebrate decades of contemporary Philippines-Chinese diplomatic relations, let us not forget this piece of history. Let us not forget that Sulu then made us proud of who we were... Civilized people, with stable government, thriving economy that is globally oriented and whose leaders were hobnobbing and engaging in diplomacy with Chinese Emperors long before Magellan set foot in the shore of Mactan; with a civilization that was way ahead of the rest of the world for centuries. Centuries before the Conquestadores labeled as barbaric, uncivilized and pirates. This fact is worthy of inclusion in our history books. This is worthy of study by our children in schools and universities. This is our collective heritage.

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