(Reprinted from Tsinoy: The Story of the Chinese in Philippine Life, published by Kaisa Para sa Kaunlaran, Inc.)
Centuries before the Europeans started their search for an alternate route to the Spice Islands or the Moluccas, Chinese merchants already had harmonious trade and tribute relations with the islands at the far end of Southeast Asia.
The Chinese were a literary people who took special interest in noting down foreign lands and curious customs. Dynastic annals, travel accounts, customs records and ancient maps depicting Luzon, Mindanao, Visayas, Sulu, Pangasinan, Ilocos, Maguindanao, Cebu and Panay, among others, show the depth and breadth of relations between the Chinese and the natives of these islands.
Chao Ju Kua, a Chinese superintendent of trade and an earned customs inspector, wrote vivid descriptions of places such as Ma-I, San-su, Pisho-ye, Papuyan, Pulilu, which are identified to be islands in the Philippines.
His accounts were complied and published into a book, Zhu Fan Zhi, in 1225.
Other early Chinese accounts that mentioned various islands in the Philippines are Wang Dayan’s Dao-I Chi Lue (Barbarians of the Isles) and Tong Xi Yang Kao (East-West Ocean Examination).
Chinese navigational maps from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties include the "Map of Observing the World," "Complete Map of All Nations" and "Maps of the Islands in the Pacific Ocean." Many of these early maps contained illustrations of major islands like Lu-song, Min-ta-lao, Ma-yi, San-Su and Sulu in the Philippines (before it was so named by the Spaniards).
For example, the "Complete Map of the Four Seas"—which was included in the 1781 Atlas of Maps for Observing Foreign Countries—described Ok-tong Island as a big island and a busy port between Cebu and Panay. Further research of ancient Philippine maps reveal the Ok-tong is actually Ogtong, one of the five major ports in the Philippines, which later became the capital of Panay.
Travel was not limited to the Chinese coming to the Philippines. Dynastic annals and other historical records tell of two-way trade exchanges. The earliest mention of Ma-I is in the Song Shi (History of Song) in 971 AD. The earliest travel of Filipinos to China is also recorded in Song Shi in 982 AD when people of Ba-i (now Laguna) went to Canton (now Guangzhou) to trade. Chinese goods like gold, silver, lead, tin, silk, and porcelain were exchanged for native goods like aromatics, rhinoceros horn, coral, pearls, tortoise shells, sea turtle leather and hardwood. Trading was done through ships that traveled across established and profitable sea routes.
A tributary bond eventually developed between the sultans and rajahs of the various kingdoms in the Philippines and the Chinese emperor through centuries of trade and support. Stories of these friendships are told and retold in Chinese records as the Chinese continued their sojourns to the Islands.
At least 10 rajahs and sultans sent tribute missions to China from the 11th to 15th century. The first mission was from King Qiling of Butuan in 1003, followed by other missions in 1004, 1007 and 1011. The Ming annals also mentioned several tribute embassies, such as Luzon tributes in 1417, 1420, 1421, 1423 and 1424.
Early Chinese accounts of the Philippines
These maps, dynastic annals, travel accounts and other early records, as well as the wealth of artifacts unearthed all over the country, stand as mute evidence of the extensive and intensive trading and tributary relations between the Chinese and early Filipinos.
The traders also became cultural brokers who introduced a wealth of knowledge and technology to the local people. A peaceful and harmonious relationship strengthened as the two peoples grew to become friends and even family. Their stories and sagas continue to be written to this day.
Chinese jars, vases, ceramics and coins of the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907) have been excavated in various parts if the country, especially in coastal settlements. Panay, Pangasinan, Rizal, Sulu, Butuan, Cagayan, Laguna, Batangas and Santa Ana, Manila, are among the sites that have yielded significant finds.
The trade wares were brought to the Philippines either directly by Chinese traders or indirectly by Arab and Indian traders who dominated Southeast Asia’s maritime trade before the 10th century.
The traders followed the trade winds, heading south before the northeast monsoon and returning home with the southwest monsoon. The Chinese had an advantage over the Arabs and the Indians because of their early discovery of the south-pointing needle—the earliest version of the mariner’s compass—their possession of navigational maps, their extensive knowledge of their trading partners, and their sturdier and bigger junks designed to survive turbulent typhoons in the open seas.
Trade with the Chinese was carried out wholesale. Merchandise loaded in junks were controlled by the flow of trade from the Pasig River, receiving goods from foreign traders and passing them on to people in the provinces through the tributaries of the Pasig and other river systems. The Chinese farmed out their goods to native traders on credit. In turn, the natives brought the goods inland and came back after weeks—even months—with native products for exchange.
Some Chinese traders settled and intermarried with natives. They built better houses and taught their families technology like bringing water down from the mountains and better ways of living. The Chinese realized that it was economically advantageous to promote the well-being of their communities whose welfare had a district effect on the prosperity or decline of their own commercial activities.
Their efforts at developing their communities, including the extension of credit, allowed the Chinese to prosper in the Philippines. The early Chinese influence during this period is largely economic; apparently they did not interfere with native political institutions. In language, almost all words in Malayan languages that can be traced to Chinese sources are either economic or commercial in origin.
None of the trading ships came on a warlike mission, and those that eventually settled in the Philippine Islands were accepted as part of native communities. The natives adopted desirable Chinese customs and traditions; the settlers, desirable native customs and traditions.