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Thursday, 14 March 2013

Sulu history and the Chinese

Did you know that the Sulu people could have been Chinese nationals 250 years ago?

Sulu political relations and cooperation with China dated back to the Yuan dynasty (1278-1368). The Sulu missions convinced the Chinese to view Sulu as an equal of Malacca.

Since only foreign countries tributary to the Chinese court were allowed to enter Chinese ports, many countries or principalities in Malaysia sent tribute. Among these was Sulu. Sulu appears in Chinese sources as early as the Yuan dynasty (1278-1368), and a lengthy account of a tributary mission in 1417 from Sulu to the celestial court is recorded in the Ming Annals. Book 325 of the "History of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1643) of China," as abstracted by Groeneveldt, speaks of the Kings (Sultans) of Sulu as attacking Puni (Borneo) in 1368.

Trade with Sulu rule, European powers and the Japanese brought about the massive amounts of silver. Beginning in 1405, Emperor Yong Lo entrusted his favored eunuch Chinese Muslim named Zheng He as the admiral for a gigantic new fleet of ships designated for international tributary missions.

China’s First National Historical Archive, located in the Forbidden City of Beijing, preserves a very significant document presented by the Sultan of Sulu to the Qing emperor in the 18th century.  Dated August 1743, it is Sultan Mohammed Amirudin’s appeal to Emperor Qian Long to include the territory and inhabitants of Sulu as part of China. The document was translated into the Chinese classic language.

Qing Shi Lu, the historical annals of the Qing Dynasty, recorded the event in 1754.  It said that Qian Long denied the sultan’s request, although he did it diplomatically.

Had the emperor granted the request, then the history of Sulu would have been rewritten. (Najeeb Saleeby records in A History of Sulu "[Sultan Amirudin’s], that "Amirudin’s name is foremost in the memory of the Sulus partly because of his able administration and partly [because] he is the grandfather of all the present principal datus of Sulus." Sulu occupies a unique role in Philippine history. The island is the primary spot where Islam began to propagate. When the Spanish conquistadors colonized the Philippine Islands in 1565, they failed to take over Sulu until 1876.

Sulu also had unique relations with China. It had a rich tributary relationship with China since the early 1400s. Most of us are familiar with the story of Sultan Paduka Batara, who died in 1417 in Dezhou, Shandong province, on his way home to Sulu. This was the sultan’s first tribute mission. His heirs were left in China and are now well into their 21st generation.

At present, the special royal tomb of the sultan, which has two gates, is a huge compound with a mosque and impressive stone statues of horses, lions, grooms, rams, generals, and tortoise. 

The Chinese government has proclaimed the tomb to be under the state protection in January 1988 for its valuable and symbolic recognition of friendship between the Philippines and China.   “The Chinese local and national governments have alloted Sultan Batara’s Shrine a total of  one billion Chinese yuan or equivalent to seven billion pesos for the development, rehabilitation, renovation and construction of new buildings of the Muslim villages of the descendants of  Sultan Batara. The project is on-going and expected to finish in two or three 3 years, Tawasil said after the trip.

What we are unfamiliar with are the two "mosts" that Sulu boasts. First, it has the longest tributary relationship with China. Second, it sent the most numerous missions to China.   In all, 16 tribute missions journeyed to China, covering two dynasties and spanning 346 years—from 1417 in the Ming Dynasty to 1763 in the Qing Dynasty.

Other islands had sent tribute missions much earlier, such as Butuan in 1003, but these were few and lasted only a short time. The Butuan missions ended in 1011. More often than not, tribute missions to China were discontinued when the places were colonized by the Spaniards. That Sulu was able to continue its relations with China apparently has something to do with its independence from the Spaniards.  It had been acting as a sovereign state.

From this detail, we can surmise that China had no territorial ambitions toward the Philippine Islands.  Imagine, the Sultan of Sulu had voluntarily offered his territory as well as its people to China, and yet China refused the offer. Compared with the Spaniards and Americans who waged war from tens of thousands of miles away in order to occupy and conquer the Philippines, China was such a good neighbor.

Unfortunately, this historical fact is not well known among Filipinos, even in academic and historical circles.  The close relationship between Sulu and China can also be gleaned from the 420 documents compiled in Volume 2 of The Philippines: A Collection of Archives on the Relations Between China and Southeast Asian Countries in the Qing Dynasty. Of these, 73 documents contain materials about Sulu.  

Descendants of Chinese migrants are still in Sulu citing the current governor of Sulu Abdusakur M. Tan, who has a Chinese bloodline.

In barter trading, it is between Tausugs, Chinese, and Malaysians.

“There are only two types of foreigners who went to Sulu who did not wage war against the Moros – it is the Chinese and the Arabs,” Loong said, adding that “the Chinese entered Sulu through business ventures.” (Aileen A. Alam)

Souces and references:  BO GON JUAN; Neldy, Aileen Alam

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