In the year 1417, more than a century before the Spaniards first invaded the Philippines, three sultans from Sulu, accompanied by more than 300 people, visited China to pay tribute to Ming Emperor Zhu Di (also known as Yongle). One of the sultans, Paduka Pahala (Battara when transliterated into Chinese), fell ill and died on the way home. He was buried in Shandong province and some of his family stayed on to care for his grave, adopting Chinese surnames. Some 600 years later, in 2005, several of his descendants were able to visit the Philippines.
In 1987, a joint Filipino-Chinese team produced a movie, “Hari sa Hari, Lahi sa Lahi,” about that trip. I never saw the film, learning about it only while doing research for today’s column, one which I started out doing with some ambivalence.
But I felt I cannot be silent about President Duterte’s trip—and large entourage of, last I heard, some 400—to China. More than a state visit, the trip may very well mark a turning point in our foreign policy.
I do not expect anything as earthshaking as a complete about-face on the part of the United States, but there will be much political theater, including Mr. Duterte’s fiery ad-libs. The President and his team will try to deal their cards (wisely I hope) with two superpowers, knowing very well that the United States will be watching like the mother of a rebellious teenager, very worried and yet so occupied with other matters, mainly the presidential elections.
To play those cards well, we need to be able to improve on our China-watching. I mean learning to read what’s going on in China, and to decipher political statements and mass media coverage of the Philippines, the region and the world. Ultimately, it’s reading China and its historical experiences, and what all this means for the future of the Philippines.
As an administrator in UP, our country’s national university, I worry that we are not training enough independent foreign policy advisers. We have allowed our views of China, if not the world, to be shaped by American and European “scholars” and journalists, many of whom do not even speak the languages of the regions they claim expertise in, or rely on “parachute visits” of a few days each time, to do their reports.
In contrast, China is watching the Philippines. I’ve seen Chinese books—not translations but original work by Chinese scholars—on various topics about the Philippines, all the way up to our Catholic churches’ architecture. And once, during a visit to China, I watched a television documentary with the most amazing details about the Japanese military and the Philippines . . . not dating to World War II but about the current situation in the West Philippine Sea.
Sure, there is an element of surveillance here, but I do not see military aggression as China’s goal. China has enough of a responsibility caring for an almost 1.4 billion population without taking on another 100 million Filipinos who are going to be quite an unruly bunch. If anything—and I’m writing this tongue in cheek—they should be more practical, like the Americans were, tapping into our resources without having to take responsibility for governing us.
If I might be less cynical, beyond Chinese interest in our natural resources and trade, there is, too, a genuine interest in people-to-people ties. Besides trade, the Chinese are fast becoming among our leading country of tourists; and while they remind me of insensitive Japanese and Taiwanese in the 1970s, the Chinese tend to keep to the casinos, malls and beaches, nowhere coming close to the raw sexual tourism we saw with the Japanese and, let’s not forget, the American military on R&R (rest and recreation).
In conversations with Chinese professors in Xiamen University, I am always amazed at their familiarity with our history, and these are not social scientists or people claiming expertise on the Philippines. They would mention the 15th century visit of the Sulu sultan, and name our presidents, accompanied by frank opinions about them. They revere the Marcoses, including Imelda, for establishing diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China in the 1970s. They love Cory Aquino, mainly because she took time to visit her ancestral home in Fujian province, the place where her grandfather came from. They have much less affection for Cory’s son, our last president, who they view as anti-Chinese and subservient to the United States.
China-watching must include an understanding of Chinese political theater, one that is not limited to state visits. On Monday, the day before Duterte’s China visit, China sent two astronauts into space for a 30-day stay in their space station Tiangong (“Heavenly Palace”). More than a scientific expedition, it was political theater, with one of the astronauts shouting out, “We are ready! Please give instructions!” in front of dozens of Chinese ethnic minorities, before being brought to the launch site where they did get official instructions: “Explore (outer space) more deeply, and more broadly.” The theater was intended as much for local as for international consumption.
I could not help but think of a similar backdrop to the Sulu sultans’ visit in the 15th century. In 1405, Yongle sent out a fleet of ships under Admiral Zheng He (1371-1433). There were 28,000 crew members in 317 ships, the largest ones, called bao chuan or treasure ships, 120 meters long, with four tiers or “floors” for crew. The expeditions called on various ports in southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean and out to the horn of Africa, giving out gifts and receiving goods in return. There were to be six more of these expeditions—no military invasions here, just establishing a Chinese presence, documenting strange lands and peoples, and testing the Chinese navy’s power to navigate. The manned space expedition last Monday bears similarities to Zheng’s naval fleets, the thrust in the 21st century to demonstrate Chinese presence in outer space, and its capabilities in science.
Although none of Zheng’s expeditions came to our archipelago, they did stop by Java and Malacca, and I have no doubt stories reached our islands about the spectacular Chinese fleet. That may have been one reason the sultans decided to visit China in 1417, after Zheng had already led four expeditions.
It wasn’t just Zheng’s huge fleets. Since at least the ninth century, Chinese traders had been coming to our islands, so often and in such large numbers that they were called Sangley, possibly from the Hokkien (a dialect in Fujian province) “siong lai,” those who frequently visit.
Look at how distorted our sense of history is. Most Filipinos go through school never learning about those naval expeditions and the centuries of trade relations we had with the Chinese. Instead, we are made to memorize: “Magellan discovered the Philippines on March 16, 1521.”
Sure. Magellan left Spain with five ships described by a Portuguese diplomat who had watched their departure as “very old ships, battered and tattered.” Three ships made it to the Philippines. And only 18 of the original crew of 263 returned to Spain, the others deserting; or dying from malnutrition and illness, shipboard mutinies, and from battles with the unfriendly natives of Mactan.
Let’s learn to watch China, and the world.
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.