Chow: The long lost friendship between a Sulu king and the emperor of China

The Great Wall: Chinoy Corner

A SULU King named Paduka Pahala was probably the first diplomat who sailed from the Philippines to Imperial China in 1417. Their delegation made a strong impression on the Chinese emperor and made him the most important guest during that time. When Paduka died, he never got back to Sulu; immense sorrow was felt by the Ming dynasty emperor and decided to build a monument for him.

An estimated 20 percent of Filipinos today trace their ancestry to China, a unique ethnic group we call the Chinoys. While it is common in Filipino society to see our Chinoy brothers and sisters, there’s this unique ethnic group in China whose roots are from the Philippines, specifically in Sulu Province - the direct descendants of Paduka Pahala.

Pahala sailed across seas with stopovers in Brunei, Cambodia, Vietnam and Guangzhou. It was believed that he was with 324 members of his delegation with two of his wives, three children, and high ranking officials.

Pahala’s visit was recorded in the 325th chapter of Ming Annals. It reads “in 1417, Sultan Paduka Batara (Pahala), with a retinue of 340 wives, ministers, and retainers, sailed across the South Seas to the Chinese capital of Beijing and presented to emperor Yongle a memorial inscribed in gold, and such tributes as pearls, precious stones, and tortoise shells. They registered with the Minister of Rites on September 12, 1417, as Sultan Paduka Batara (Pahala) of the East Country, Maharajah Kolaminting of the West Country, and Paduka Prabhu.”

Yongle, one of China’s most famous emperors, made a grandiose welcome to the Sulu King in the 72 hectare-forbidden city. Thousands of his guards, royal court, and concubines welcomed him where they also presented gifts.

The world’s biggest courtyard, heavily guarded palace and halls once witnessed a Filipino king visiting Asia’s largest empire 600 years ago. If only the bricks and adobes can speak, they may well recount how lavish and special the visit was.

After 27 days in China, Pahara and his delegation planned to sail back to Sulu, but he contracted an unknown disease and eventually died. His family and officers stayed in China and never went home.

Upon learning of the death of his new friend, Yongle (Zhudi) immediately commissioned artisans and sculptors to build a tomb for the deceased monarch, which still stands today. It was not an ordinary tomb - the emperor bestowed an imperial burial and tombstone. Pahala also got a portrait where he’s sitting in a dragon throne wearing the emperor’s clothes with two of his wives in the background.

Emperor Yongle presented Bei Ying in Dezhou, Shandong Province, a village where Pahala’s family can live. Eventually, intermarriages with the Hui people happened and Pahara now has over 6,000 direct descendants living in China. Islam flourished within Pahala’s extending descendants after his death, with this, they built a mosque near his tombstone being maintained until this day.

In 2002, the Chinese government declared Bei Ying - Royal Tomb of the King of Sulu Museum, a heritage site with a marker which states “This monument of protection was erected by the People's Government of Shandong Province.”

When the Ming dynasty collapsed, all privileges given to Pahala’s family were scrapped off; thus, some of his relatives and descendants moved away from his village. Pahala’s living descendants carry the Chinese family names An and Wen.

In 1987, the Filipino-Chinese epic historical drama Hari sa Hari, Lahi sa Lahi premiered. It was directed by National Artist for Cinema Eddie Romero, Hsiao Lang and Chou Lili starring Vic Vargas and Wang Hsing Gang about Paduka Pahala’s visit to the Chinese empire.

Kaisa Para sa Kaunlaran Foundation organized a trip for Pahala’s descendants in 2005 to go back to Sulu. They were welcomed by then-president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in Manila upon arrival. A grandiose welcome ceremony was also held in Sulu to reciprocate the gesture made by Yongle to Pahala 600 years ago in Beijing.

This story between Paduka Pahala and Yongle isn’t known to us Filipinos, this might spark criticism at a time where we have a spat between our two countries, but let us remember history as we set forward. We should understand history as it is integral in a good understanding. This allows people to create and to change upon a secure foundation. None of these can be undertaken properly without understanding the context and starting points.


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