Looking Back at the Time When Ancient Visayans Terrorized China
There was a time in the history of the world when the Chinese trembled when they heard the word Pi-she-yeh (Visayas), referring to the country and people of the eponymous region in the Philippines. Whenever word reached them of an incoming attack from Pi-she-yeh, they immediately retreated.
And they were right to be afraid.
A Chinese government official named Chau Ju-Kua was the first to document the Visayans as “ferocious raiders of China’s Fukien coast” who were thought to come from the islands south of Taiwan. At first, the Chinese thought the raiders were barbarians from Taiwan, but wondered whether they could be foreigners because they looked different and spoke a different language.
In the 12th century, ancient Filipinos had earned a status of notoriety as masters of the sea and expert raiders. Their appearance on any shore was an ominous sign of impending catastrophe: Balanghay ships from the Visayas would carry hordes of ancient tattooed warriors known as Pintados, who would ransack and pillage every house in sight.
But why would the ancient Visayans resort to piracy when their own country was endowed with riches such as gold and silver?
According to ancient Chinese records, they were only after one thing only China produced so well and in exquisite quality—iron. Anything that was made of iron was taken away: from armor to door knobs, and jars to chopsticks.
Historian Ambeth Ocampo shares an ancient Chinese text from the 12th century describing the people of Pi-she-yeh:
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 at 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 did not sail in a boat, but made a raft by tying bamboo canes together. When in danger they carried the raft on their shoulders down to the water and rowed away on it.
The Visayan raids on China during the 12th century occurred frequently, according to China’s Chu-fan-chi, a book which loosely translates to “A Description of the Barbaric People”. In this book, the fearsome warriors from the Visayas are frequently mentioned. Such raids focused on the southern part of Taiwan (Formosa). Friedrich Hirth and William Rockhill’s 1911 translation of the Chu-fan-chi offer a footnote describing the Visayan raids on China.
“During the period A.D. 1174-1190 these raids on the Fukien coast were of frequent occurrence. The Pi-she-yeh were consequently established along the southwestern coast of Formosa at that time, but it seems probable that they were of Philippine origin.
This belief is further strengthened by the statement of (Zhao Rugua) in the preceding chapter that the people of Liu-k’iu, the Formosans immediately to the north of the Pi-she-yeh, had regular trade relations with the Philippines (San-sii).
It must be noted that the raiders came to China on rafts, not in boats as they would have done had they come directly from the Philippines.”
The balanghay mothership was a scary sight on the coast.
A point of interest in Hirth and Rockhill’s footnote is the mention of rafts, not boats, as the mode of transportation used by the raiders.
Columnist Jobers Bersales challenges this and suggests the ancient Visayans used the balanghay, especially since it was impossible for rafts to carry all the iron taken from China. The balanghay predates the 12th century raids by over a thousand years, and were formidable and impressive vessels at the time. In 2013, a balanghay mothership was unearthed in Butuan, providing further evidence of the Filipino ancestors’ mastery of the seas. The mothership was 25 meters long—even larger than today’s 16-wheeler container trucks.
We can hypothesize that such ships were used by the Visayan raiders during their onslaught of the Chinese inhabitants of Formosa. From the coast, the sight of five or more of these vessels on the horizon would've sent a cold shiver down anyone’s spine, knowing that each vessel and its escort of flotillas carriednhundreds of battle-hardened Visayan Pintados.
The last Visayan raids occurred in the 14th century.
We can only look back on a portion of history when the Philippines was feared by China. Everything changed when the Spaniards invaded, and nearly all the datus of the Visayas capitulated to the Spanish Crown.
The last Visayan raids on China were mentioned in a 14th century account of Wang Ta-yuan, a Chinese explorer who managed to witness the everyday life of the Visayans in the Philippines. Ocampo shares the translated text:
“The Visayas live in a remote land in the eastern sea, where the hills are flat and deserted and the fields are little tilled. There is not much planting. The climate is scorching hot. The natives are fond of pillaging.
The males and the females both tie their hair in a topknot, tattoo their bodies here and there with ink, and wrap their heads with a piece of red silk to which a piece of yellow cloth is tied to make a tail. Their country has no chief, and the land produces nothing.
At times they prepare dry provisions, row in a small boat, go to other barbarians, lie in ambush in wild mountains and remote valleys where no man lives, capture fish-catchers and fuel-collectors whom they happen to meet, and bring home and sell the prisoners to other countries, in which transactions they get two ounces of gold apiece.
Men of that country make their living by this custom from generation to generation, for which reason the people of the eastern sea, upon hearing the name of Visaya, are all terrified and flee.”
History’s irony seems to be a taunt and a challenge for Filipinos: Remember your heritage and where you came from. They may have been called barbarians, pirates, and uncivilized people, but looking back at history, the same things could be said of all the colonizers.
Our pre-colonial ancestors were masters of the sea who struck fear in the hearts of their superpower neighbors. In the face of our corroding credibility in the West Philippine Sea, perhaps a fraction of spunk in the spirit of our ancestors is what we need.