Starweek Magazine

Commemorating 600 years of a royal voyage

Teresita Ang See - The Philippine Star
Commemorating 600 years of a royal voyage

An Yan Chun, An Jin Tian and Wen Hai Jun pose beside the tomb of the first sultan of Sulu Rajah Baginda at Bud Datu (right) during their historic visit to Sulu, their lao jia (ancestral home), in 2005. At the time this photo was taken in 1981, An Qing Shan and Wen Shou Lin were the oldest living descendants of the Sulu Sultan at 81 and 77 years, respectively (left).

MANILA, Philippines — Throughout history, the Filipino and the Chinese peoples have been bound together by an intertwining fate and destiny. Being neighboring countries, events in one country impact the other and significantly affect both peoples. This was evident in ancient times, and even more so in modern and contemporary times.

In pre-Hispanic times, ancient Chinese maps, dynastic annals, provincial and municipal gazettes, customs records that mention islands in the Philippines are solid proof of our friendly trade and cultural relations and exchanges with China, long before the Spanish conquest of the Philippines. 

Other artifacts like coins, ornaments and implements, unearthed all over the country, remain the most accurate and valuable sources of our country’s rich and colorful pre-Hispanic history. Porcelain wares dating from the ninth century were excavated in all parts of the country, from as far north as Batanes to as far south as Tawi-Tawi. 

The Selden Map of China, rediscovered in 2008 and reposited at the Bodleian Library of Oxford University in England, showcased the extensive knowledge of Chinese traders of the islands in the Philippines. 

The Song Annals mentioned the first trade mission to Guangzhou in 982 and the earliest tribute mission of the Kingdom of Butuan to China in 1003. These are concrete albeit silent evidence of the depth and breadth of relations between the early Filipinos and the Chinese, likewise showcasing the Philippines’ highly civilized status long before the Europeans started exploring alternate routes to the Moluccas and finally chanced upon our islands, which they named Las Islas Filipinas after King Philip of Spain.

Of the stories of trade exchanges and tribute missions during pre-Hispanic times, what catches Filipinos’ and Chinese’s imagination most is the story of the royal visit of Paduka Batara, the Sultan of Sulu, to Ming Emperor Yong Le (Zhu Di) in Beijing, China in 1417. Unfortunately, the Sultan was taken ill and died in Dezhou, Shandong, China on his way back to Sulu. 

Sultan Paduka Batara was given an elaborate imperial burial in China. His second and third sons remained in China to tend to their father’s tomb, following the dictates of ancestor worship. They intermarried with the local Chinese and today, 21 generations of descendants of the Sulu Sultan, numbering about 3,700 and scattered all over China, are still accorded recognition as such. 



The Sultan’s tomb in Dezhou is now a heritage park. Though not the first tomb of a foreign ruler, Batara’s is the only tomb in China where descendants stayed on as keepers of the royal tomb.

In 2005, the Chinese descendants of the Sultan, represented by the oldest 17th generation An Jin Tian and his son An Yan Chun, descended from the second son Andulu, and Wen Hai Jun, descended from the third son Wenhalla (both 18th generation), made a return visit to their homeland in Jolo for the first time after 588 years. 

This year, 2017, the Philippines and China commemorate the 600th anniversary of the historic China visit of the Sulu Sultan with a series of activities. It is truly remarkable that 600 years after the visit, this visible and solid evidence of the ties that bind the Philippines and China remains strong and flourishing. The saga of the Sultan of Sulu in China is a story of enduring friendship, beyond borders and beyond time.

Our early Filipino ancestors were boat builders who produced sophisticated seafaring vessels able to cross the South Seas to reach China. They also knew enough about weather conditions to sail from the Philippines before the southwest monsoon churns the turbulent seas and to come home before wintertime when the mild northeast monsoon prevails.

In 1417, 104 years before Magellan sighted the Philippines, volume 325 of the Ming Annals documented how the Sulu Sultan and his retinue paid tribute to Ming Emperor Yong Le in Beijing. 

The description in vol. 325 reads:

 “In 1417, Sultan Paduka Batara, with a retinue of 340 wives, ministers and retainers, sailed across the South Seas to the Chinese capital of Beijing, and presented to Ming Emperor Yong Le a memorial inscribed in gold, and such tributes as pearls, precious stones and tortoise shells. They registered with the Minister of Rites on Sept. 12, 1417* as Sultan Paduka Batara of the East Country, Maharajah Kolamanting of the West Country and Paduka Prabhu.”

On the 10th day, they were presented to the Emperor and received royal seals and investment as princes of the realm. After 27 days of a very cordial visit, the Sultan’s retinue prepared to go home. 

Before they took their leave on Oct. 8, 1417*, the Emperor gifted them richly with chinaware, court costumes, pennants or ceremonial insignia (symbol of the Emperor’s protection and acknowledgment), caparisoned horses, 200 bolts of silk, hundreds of thousands of copper coins and enough gold and silver to cover the expenses of the trip and still have some profit. 

They proceeded down the Grand Canal accompanied by military escorts.

Unfortunately, sailing halfway through the Grand Canal, at the government hostel in Dezhou, Shandong, the Sultan fell ill and died on Oct. 22. Apparently weakened by the long voyage from the South Seas to Beijing and the rigors of the imperial visit, the Sultan could not endure the climate change and succumbed to the northern “autumn fever.”

Upon hearing the news, the Ming Emperor was grief-stricken. He ordered an imperial burial for the Sultan. Imperial ministers arrived to construct a tomb with memorial arch and gateway, perform the Confucian sacrifices for a reigning monarch and erect a memorial tablet which names him “Reverent and Steadfast.” 

The Emperor also gave his blessings to the Sultan’s eldest son Dumahan to succeed his father’s sultanate. Because of the dictum of ancestor worship and filial piety, the Sultan’s wife Kamulin, second son Andulu, third son Wenhalla and 10 followers stayed behind to tend the tomb. They were given accommodation and pension to observe the three-year mourning rites.

The Emperor further ordered that while in Shandong, the family be given farmlands (238 mu), without taxes or tribute requirements, as well as monthly supply of food and clothing. The three Muslim families of Xia, Ma and Chen in Shandong were ordered to move to Dezhou to serve the Sultan’s family as personal servants and to till the land for them. 

Thus, the Sultan’s descendants lived like royalty in Dezhou for centuries, and this explains why after the three-year mandatory mourning period was over, they did not return home to Sulu. 

Following the Sultan’s death, in 1420, the Western King sent a tribute mission. In 1421, the Eastern King’s mother sent her late son’s younger brother, Paduka Suli, to pay a visit again to the Imperial court. Paduka Suli left his mark in Chinese history when he gifted the Emperor with a precious giant Sulu pearl weighing seven liang (approximately 220 grams or 7.8 ounces). He spent two years in China visiting his nephews. 

In 1423, Paduka Batara’s wife Kamulin returned home to visit relatives. She was escorted with a royal send off and generous gifts. The following year, 1424, she returned with another Sulu tribute mission to China and stayed permanently in Dezhou with her two sons.

The Sultan died on Oct. 22, 1417* and was buried immediately in Dezhou in accordance with the Muslim faith. Stricken with grief, Ming Emperor Yong Le ordered an imperial burial for the Sultan. A stone marker was erected and installed on Nov. 11* and the royal tomb was completed on Nov. 21, 1417*.

The Emperor’s memorial tribute was inscribed the following year, September 1418.

The memorial reads:

“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 praiseworthy spirit of loyal obedience.”

However, the ravages of weather and wars had left the royal tomb and its surroundings in ruins. Big floods from the overflowing Grand Canal ravaged the village and the tomb several times. This happened twice in modern times, 1823 and 1917. After formal diplomatic relations between the Philippines and China were established in 1975, the tomb was resurrected and repaired as a testament to enduring friendship. 

On Jan. 13, 1988, the Sultan’s tomb was designated as a national major protected heritage site by the State Council and funds were allotted to renovate the surroundings. The area was expanded into a heritage park in 2002 and a tall arch, with the words “The Royal Tomb of the King of Sulu,” was erected as entrance to the heritage park. 

From 2014 to 2016, special envoy to China Ambassador Carlos Chan donated a total of RMB3.3 million for renovations of the tomb, the Dezhou Museum of Sulu culture, the Muslim mosque and re-landscaping of the areas surrounding it. The park stands as a silent sentinel that eloquently proclaims the importance of the centuries-old enduring Philippines-China relations.

The author is founding president of Kaisa Para Sa Kaunlaran and author of the monograph “The Ties That Bind: The Saga of the Sultan of Sulu in China.”

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