The Story Behind This Ancient Sulu Sultan's 600-Year-Old Tomb in China

The tomb of the mysterious monarch can be found in Dezhou to this day.

There's a lot to be said about the tensions between China and the Philippines right now, especially when it comes to territorial disputes and alleged instances of racism. But faithful Sino-Filipino relations have long been a trademark of our collective peoples for centuries, stretching back to pre-colonial Philippines.

In Binondo, after all, stands the first and oldest Chinatown, founded on a phenomenon of interactions and inter-relationships. Numbers from the Senate back in 2013 also show that there are roughly 22.8 million Filipinos of Chinese descent living in the Philippines.

In today's China, there also happens to be a distinct ethnic group whose lineage can be traced back to the Sulu province. These are the descendants of Sultan Paduka Batara, who is the first king of the Philippines to have his own tomb in China.

A shot of the actual portrait of Sultan Paduka Batara (pronounced Pahala in China) at the heritage site in Dezhou. 

Photo by YouTube/CGTN.

Pronounced as Sultan Paduka Pahala by the Chinese, the sultan was a ruler of one of the three kingdoms of Sulu. During the early 15th century, the Sultanate of Sulu was a Sunni Islamic state in the archipelago that was represented by Eastern King of Sulu (now Buansa and Jolo) Paduka Batara, Western King of Mahalachii (now Pangaturan) Maharajah Kolaminting, and King of Mountain Kalabating (now Dungon, Tawi-Tawi) Paduka Prabhu.

These three were said to have led a mission across the seas toward Beijing, passing through the regions of Brunei, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Guangzhou back in 1417. The visit was even recorded in the 325th chapter of Ming records. In the chapter, Paduka Batara was said to have brought 340 wives, ministers, and retainers. His group officially registered with the Minister of Rites on September 12, 1417.

The Eastern Sulu Sultan also brought with him tributes like pearls, hawksbill shell, precious stones, and tortoise shells, as well as a gold-inscribed memorial that was given to the Yongle Emperor of China, Zhu Di. The third emperor of the Ming dynasty  prepared a grand welcoming for the Sulu king in the newly minted and heavily guarded "Forbidden City" of Beijing.

The three kings were considered state guests and were honored as such. In the 27 days the crew spent in Beijing, the Yongle Emperor exchanged caprisoned horses, patterned silk, copper coins, and more with them before planning for a trip back to Sulu. Sultan Batara and the emperor had also developed quite a friendship.

As fate would have it, by October, Sultan Pahala caught an unknown disease upon his arrival at Dezhou in the Shandong Province that would eventually lead to his demise. When Emperor Zhu Di learned about this, he called on artisans and sculptors to build a monument for the sultan.

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The Sulu monarch was so respected by the emperor that he received an imperial burial and tombstone with the Yongle Emperor's inscription. Pahala was given the posthumous title "Gong Ding Wang," which translates to "respectful and peaceful prince."

Pahala's family and chiefs never left China and settled in the Bei Ying neighborhood in Dezhou. His sons remained for the rest of their days, and were deemed part of the Hui Nationality (Chinese-Muslims). Ming officials had also bestowed special privileges upon Paduka Batara's descendants and the attendants of the sultan's tomb.

Caretakers, for instance, were given roughly 39 acres of farmland and were given life-long tax exemptions. They were also paid for their services.

Records show that the descendants of Padura Batara were considered royal family members in Dezhou. For about three centuries, they were recognized as such before becoming classified as full citizens in 1733 during the Qing Dynasty. Their privileges, in turn, were nullified. Descendants were then blessed with the Chinese names of "Wen" and "An."

There was even a Filipino-Chinese epic historical play based on the story that was released in 1987. Hari sa Hari, Lahi sa Lahi was directed by National Artist for Cinema Eddie Romero, Hsiao Lang, and Chou Lili, with the script focusing on the sultan's journey toward Imperial China and how it initiated Chinese-Filipino diplomacy.

Photo by Screenshot/Hari sa hari, lahi sa lahi.

Today, there are said to be more than 6,000 direct descendants of the sultan living in China. A mosque would also be built near Batara's tombstone. The Chinese government would eventually declare Bei Ying and the Royal Tomb of the King of Sulu Museum a heritage site in 2002, as a project that was spearheaded by the People's Government of Shandong Province.

In 2005, the Sulu king's descendants made their way to the Philippines through an initiative by the Kaisa Para sa Kaunlaran Foundation. They were welcomed by then-President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.

It's easy to get lost in the narratives that surround China and the Philippines today. But as with most lessons in history, knowing how two cultures, and all these stories in between, can co-exist and co-develop gives us a better idea of our current relations amidst the turmoil. While the story of Sultan Paduka Batara may be just a lost footnote in Sino-Filipino relations, it's still a precedent that would be symbolic of the centuries-old association our two countries have long nurtured.



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Bryle B. Suralta
Assistant Section Editor
Bryle B. Suralta is the assistant section editor of Esquire Philippines.
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