The Lost Story of the Sulu Sultan in Ming China

In recent years, there has been a confrontational animosity between the Philippines and China over the waters of the West Philippine Sea (“South China Sea”). It seems that such political and territorial conflict have drawn back deep-seated resentment of Filipinos towards Chinese making it like an “us against them” mentality. There is a long history of Filipino-Chinese relations even way before the first generation Chinese immigrants settled in the country and even before the Spanish and Americans came into the picture.

It is more than 600 years ago when Sulu Sultan Paduka Pahala visited the Ming court of Yongle Emperor (Zhu De) in 1417. Together with his family and his loyal Tausug officials, retinue and slaves, they sailed through the same waters that is claimed by both countries today. During this time, the Ming has just established their rule after driving out the Mongols from China. It was also during this time when China has reestablished its influence outside its borders with ships from Zheng He reaching India, the Middle East and even Africa. The visit of the Sultan is a perfect time to reestablish good trading relations with the Chinese. In exchange for silk, porcelain, and exquisite products from the Chinese, the Sulu Sultanate gave extravagant tribute of spices, pearls, and other exotic tropical products not found in the great cities of Nanjing, Kaifeng, Beijing and Guangzhou.

According to Ming chronicles and Sulu oral histories based from the grand vizier Datu Albi Julkarnain, “the Eastern King of Sulu (Buansa and Jolo) Paduka Pahala (or Paduka Batara), the Western King of Mahalachii (Pangaturan) Maharajah and King of Mountain Kalabating (Dungon, Tawi-Tawi) called Paduka Prabu, brought their families and their chiefs, altogether more than 350 persons, to China carrying their tributes to the Emperor.”

The Sultan’s state visit was accorded with lavish ceremonies culminated with the exchange of gifts. They were billeted in luxury accommodation and were entertained by servants befitting that of royalty. It is not known but it is widely believed that on October 8, 1417, the Sultan contracted a mysterious disease in the middle of his trip along the Grand Canal and died at Dezhou. The emperor has commissioned artisans and sculptors to build a tomb for the deceased Sultan, which still stands today.

It was a royal funeral even “formal for a Chinese king” and he was even accorded with an honorable name “Gong Ding.” In the epitaph, the Yongle Emperor wrote:

“Now then, the King, brilliant and sagacious, gentle and honest, especially outstanding and naturally talented, as a sincere act of true respect for the Way of Heaven, did not shrink from a voyage of many tens of thousands of miles to lead his familial household in person, together with his tribute officers and fellow countrymen, to cross the sea routes in a spirit of loyal obedience.”

The tomb (苏禄国东王墓, Su Lu Wang Mu) is located at Beiyingcun, Decheng, Dezhou, Shandong, China. A Chinese-style portrait of the late Sultan with his sons will great you at the entrance. The path leading to the tomb is decorated with the same features as that of a royal burial place for a Chinese prince. It was filled with stone tablets, royal monuments and sculptures of sheep, horse, and human.

Interestingly, there was a 1987 Chinese-Filipino film “Hari sa Hari, Lahi sa Lahi” directed by Lili Chou and Eddie Romero and starred by Vic Vargas as Paduka Pahala and Gang Wang as Wang Hsing Gang. It is unfortunate that it is not easy to find a copy of the whole film anymore.

The story needs to be told and should be in our history books. If the Chinese made a film about this extraordinary historical figure then maybe our television stations that keeps churning telenovelas and fantaseryes should consider doing a remake of “Hari sa Hari, Lahi sa Lahi.”

It is just extraordinary for a leader of a small island nation gets the honor and respect from the most powerful man at that time. The Middle Kingdom is opening its doors to welcome the visitors from Sulu does not happen all the time in history. China has been in constant conflict with various dynastic rise and collapse, foreign invasions and territorial expansions yet never in our country’s history that one of our own is praised and respected with a historical marker in his own memory.

So what happened after Paduka Pahala died? Eldest son, Rakiah Baginda, accompanies his mother back to Sulu to succeed his father as Sultan. The late Sultan’s second wife Gemuning (or Kamulin) remained with her two younger sons to guard the tomb and observe the three-year mourning rites. As respect to the family left behind, the Yongle Emperor has made sure that the family is well provided with accommodations and pensions. Although Gemuning returned to Sulu in 1424, she returned to China and never went back to the homeland. A Teochew gazette in the 18th century described what happened to the two sons:

“His second son Wenhali and third son Antulu and some 18 followers stayed to tend the tomb. At that time, they could not mix with the Chinese because of their language, but the Muslims all took them in, and led their children and grandchildren to practice their Muslim customs, so they adopted their faith . . Now there are 56 households of them, scattered in the northern and western , and they intermarry with the Muslim people.”

It is believed that when Gemuning and her two sons died, their remains were buried in the same mausoleum that housed their father’s tomb. Oral traditions suggested that his descendants who remained in China were eventually absorbed into the Hui ethnic group and became Chinese subjects by the 9th year of the Kangxi Empire in 1731. Apparently taken from their forefathers’ names, the surnames An and Wen became common in over 3,700 modern-day 20th generation descendants in Dezhou and across China.

Descendants of the Chinese and Filipino line of the Sultan have started to reconnect of their shared history, why both our countries as well? There is no need to draw battle lines and confront each other on things we don’t agree, both countries should bridge the gap of misunderstanding and build trust and respect on what we share in common.

Originally published at Istoryadista on May 8, 2018.

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Historian, blogger, genealogist, copywriter & video game geek. Check out my bio at bio.link/jpcanonigo.

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J.P. Canonigo

Historian, blogger, genealogist, copywriter & video game geek. Check out my bio at bio.link/jpcanonigo.