It begins from a nation's perspective, a vantage point where one's "worlding" and it's many manifestations are made. Territories and boundaries are set to either demarcate limits or to go beyond these limits and expand to see if a neighboring party will yield or resist.
Such is the story of modern nation-states such as China and the Philippines. The ongoing territorial dispute between the two is manifest on how both render their respective claims in a sea of contentions: a vast body of water that China calls the "South China Sea", in which the Philippines asserts its claim on a small but no less valuable territory, one that the Philippines calls its own as it named the area "West Philippine Sea."
The sea, with its porous boundaries, is now being marked with borders in attempts to assert territorial integrity and, in the case of China and the Philippines, in an exercise of historical imagination.
As someone from Sulu, the sea has always determined for my people the shape of our communities and even our consciousness. The sea’s porous boundaries determine the limitless possibilities of creation, re-recreation, and even the re-imagination of a concrete past and a homogenous identity. The legitimacy of a community's claim's is malleable, with an expanse of space and resources meant to be shared.
To concretize something that is permeable, expansive, and unpredictable as the sea is poses a danger for it can dissolve established communities and forged partnerships. It can spawn uncontrollable but powerful movements such as piracy that will ravage routes and safe spaces. History shows us how the China of old was once a veritable partner of a smaller empire known as the Sulu Sultanate.
The sea has always been inseparable from the universe of the Sulu and its inhabitants, with the waters as important as the islands that bear the many names we call home. For the Tausugs and other groups in the Sulu archipelago, the sea is the world where coalitions and wars are shaped by unpredictability, where life and death are shaped somewhere between tranquility and violence. It is these same waters that have connected us to the rest of the world. We ventured to distant lands through these waters, and have established relationships with other peoples both in mainland and archipelagic Southeast Asia.
For hundreds of years, Chinese and Sulu merchants were trading actively and were in mutual cooperation, as Chinese authorities from the mainland recognized the Sultanate as an important trading partner. Centuries-old engagements and trading have resulted in inter-marriages between Mindanaoans and Chinese merchants. Proof of these relationships and interactions are the thousands of residents in the province of Shandong, China who all trace their roots to the southern Philippines, specifically to the Tausugs of Sulu.
Historical records both in China and in the Philippines declare that many of these Chinese nationals share a lineage with the Moros, including descendants of a Moro royalty that is seldom mentioned in the annals of mainstream Philippine history – a Sultan from an old and powerful family, along with his sons and their companions.
Six centuries ago, the spirit of exploration motivated a Tausug chieftain named Paduka Batara, then King of East Sulu and ruler of one of three royal houses of Mindanao, to visit the emperor of China during the Ming Dynasty. Batara’s journey to mainland Asia is an odyssey worthy of countless retelling, a shared past from which young Filipinos, Moros, and Chinese can all learn.
Known for their close ties to the sea as "people of the current", Batara set sail for China together with a fleet of 340 of his people. With them came the king of Mahalachii Maharajah in the west and a queen known as Paduka Prabu from the land of Kalabating. Together, the group stayed in China as guests of Emperor Zhu Di for almost a month.
As they were preparing to return to the Sulu, however, Batara fell ill and eventually died on September 13, 1417 in the town of Dezshou in Shandong. Emperor Zhu Di, upon learning of his friend’s death within his territory, ordered that Batara be given the funeral honor of an emperor. A tomb was constructed especially to house Batara's remains, one that still exists today and is now regarded as a local tourist spot.
The rest of Batara’s party – including the heir to his throne identified as Rakiah Baginda – returned to East Sulu after the king’s burial. Meanwhile, his two other sons, Paduka Wenhala and Paduka Andulu, remained in Shandong with their mother and 18 followers. All of the late king’s descendants who chose to remain in or eventually return to Shandong were granted Chinese citizenship by the emperor during the Qing Dynasty in the 18th century. The surnames of these royal descendants were shortened to An and Wen.
In June 2005, three of King Batara’s descendants who lived in China were given the opportunity to visit Sulu for the first time. A report written by Zamboanga-based journalist Rey Luis Banagudos identified the three visitors as An Jin Tian, An Yan Chun, and Wen Hai Jun. The visit of the three was among the activities for the commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between the Philippines and the Peoples Republic of China. Accompanied by leaders of Kaisa, a Chinese-Filipino organization based in Metro Manila, the three were given honors in Zamboanga City and Jolo in Sulu.
The past rulers of Sulu and China have lived a reality that is worth revisiting: a shared community that is far from the stasis of homogenous identities, concrete boundaries, and a rigid, linear historical narration of a nation’s past. What we can learn from these two nations from the old and forgotten world before the West introduced the modern nation-state is that the power, friendships, nations, wars, and even communities have porous boundaries that can either be perpetually shared or constantly negotiated.
Amir Mawallil is a member of the Young Moro Professionals Network, the country's biggest organization of Muslim professionals
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.