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Pirates of the Visayas in China

While there are many references to the Philippines in ancient Chinese records, only a handful are available in English, all reproduced, wholly or partly, in the first chapter of “The Chinese Community in the Philippines” by Chen Ching-Ho (Tokyo, 1968). Surely, the Heritage Center in Intramuros headed by Tessie Ang See or the Ricardo Leong Center for Chinese Studies at Ateneo de Manila University can undertake the necessary research and translations to fill the gaps in our early history. The standoff between the Philippines and China in the disputed Spratly Islands led me to two 10th-century references to the Philippines: the first a description of some islands made by an envoy from Brunei in China, and the second a reference to traders from Ma-I arriving in Canton in 982 A.D. carrying goods and treasures for trade.

What surprised me was a 12th-century account of pirates from the Visayas that attacked what is now part of southern Taiwan:

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“Nearby is the country of P’i-she-yeh (Visayas). Their language is unintelligible, and they go naked and lead so primitive a life that is almost subhuman. Once during the Ch’un-lui era (1174-89), a chief of the country, at the head of several hundred of his men, suddenly came to Shui-ao, Wei-t-ou and other villages of Ch’uan-chou and wantonly committed slaughter and pillage.

“They showed a passion for iron vessels, spoons, and chopsticks. People would escape from their hands by shutting the door; then they would tear [these] off and take away the door knobs. When a spoon or a pair of chopsticks was thrown to them, they would stop to pick it up. When they saw an iron-clad cavalryman, they would rush forward to peel off his armor, showing no remorse even if their heads were lopped off left and right. In combat they employed javelins, to which was tied a rope more than a hundred feet long, for they valued the iron spearhead so highly that they could not let it be lost. They do not sail in a boat, but make a raft by tying bamboo canes together. When in danger they carry the raft on their shoulders down to the water and row away on it.”

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These Visayan pirates are believed to have taken the sea route from the Philippines to China via Taiwan, unlike the 10th-century traders who went to Canton via Brunei. Fascinating are the old names given to the islands: P’i-she-yeh (Visayas), Ma-i or Ma-yi or Mait (Mindoro), Babuyan, Pu-li-lu (Manila), Li-yin (Zambales), Tung-liu (?), Hsin-li-han (?), and what was known as “The Three Islands” namely: Chia-ma-yen (Calamian), Pa-lao-you (Palawan) and Pa-chi-nung (Busuanga).

However, not all references to the islands and their people were negative or derogatory. In the 13th-century Chu fan chih (Description of Various Barbarians) by Chau Ju-kua (now respelled as Zhao Rugua), Mait is described as a country with over a thousand families living beside a creek, a place where “bronze images of gods, of unknown origin, [were] scattered about in the grassy wilderness.” He wrote, “Pirates seldom come to this country,” but didn’t explain whether this was due to the number of people, the island’s defenses, or maybe there was nothing worthy of a pirate attack.

Most significant was an observation that our ancestors were very, very honest:

“When trading ships enter the anchorage, they stop in front of the official’s place, for that is the place for bartering of the country. After a ship has been boarded, the natives mix freely with the ship’s folk. The chiefs are in the habit of using white umbrellas, for which reason the traders offer them as gifts.

“The custom of the trade is for the savage traders to assemble in crowds and carry the goods away with them in baskets; and, even if one cannot at first know them, and can but slowly distinguish the men who remove the goods, there will yet be no loss. The savage traders will after this carry these goods on to other islands for barter, and, as a rule, it takes them as much as eight or nine months till they return, when they repay the traders on shipboard with what they have obtained for the goods. Some, however, do not return within the proper term, for which reason vessels trading with Mait are the latest in reaching home.

“The products of the country consist of yellow wax, cotton, pearls, tortoise shell, medicinal betel nuts and yu-ta cloth; and the foreign traders barter for these porcelain, trade-gold; iron censers, lead, colored glass beads, and iron needles.”

Honesty was something described not only by Chinese traders but by the early Spanish settlers, too. In one account, our ancestors were described as hard-nosed businessmen who were careful with transactions that involved gold, such that you could give a Pinoy lots to drink and, though tipsy or even drunk, he would not make a mistake weighing gold on his scale.

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One of the ways in which to come to an understanding is to see things from the perspective of another, the viewpoint of a rival. When diplomats reference the historic ties between the Philippines and China, they go beyond the establishment of diplomatic relations between our countries; they go back a millennium to these early Chinese accounts of the pre-Spanish Philippines.

History can thus be a bridge or a wall between nations.

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TAGS: Ateneo de Manila University, Bajo de Masinloc, China, panatag shoal, Scarborough Shoal, Spratly Islands, West Philippine Sea, Zambales
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