Commentary: Pre-colonial Philippines and the Middle Kingdom

IN 2012, He Jia, a news anchor from China Central Television (CCTV) committed a mortifying gaffe during the tense moments of the Philippine-China conflict over the ownership of the Scarborough Shoal, one of the disputed features in the South China Sea.

Slipping from He’s tongue was an incendiary statement: The Philippines, she said, “is China’s inherent territory, and the Philippines belongs to Chinese sovereignty. This is an indisputable fact.”

For good reason, this blunder enraged Filipinos. Because the Filipino national identity is deeply rooted in the struggle against centuries of colonial rule, any speech or deed evocative of foreign invasion inevitably awakens anti-colonial sentiments.

The blunder may be a manifestation of China’s own ultra-nationalist nostalgia for the glory of their imperial past, when some of the pre-colonial Philippine polities had tributary relations with the Middle Kingdom. Those were glory days of Imperial China dashed by the arrival in Southeast Asia of the European powers.

During the research phase of my master’s thesis on the South China Sea conflict, I was able to read early historical writings and primary sources covering the Philippines from the beginning of its colonization.

One of the things that caught my attention is this passage in Volume 3 of the The Modern Part of An Univerfal Hiftory: From the Earlieft Accounts to the Prefent Time (sic).

Published between 1747 and1768, An Univerfal Hiftory is a 65-volume opus of British and Scottish historians. It was one of the first attempts to link the history of Western Europe with the rest of the world.

In its account of the history of the activities of the Spanish Empire in the East Indies, An Univerfal Hiftory referred to an interesting debate held in the early 17th century in the Councils of the Spanish monarchy regarding the Philippines. It was a story of messianic pride trumping material interests.

The Councils of the Spanish monarchy contemplated giving up the Philippines because of the constant uprising of the Chinese in Manila and the failed conquest of the Dutch-held Moluccas initiated by the Spanish governor of the Philippines. The Council pondered whether it was better to leave the Philippines and let it be occupied by another power (perhaps by the Dutch or Portuguese) or be returned into “the hands of the Chinese.”

The Italians and Flemish representatives to the Council argued that keeping the Philippines was not worth it. Material consideration failed to persuade the King, who reasoned against the proposal of leaving the Philippines, because doing so, he believed “would abandon the Philippines to idolatry.”

An Univerfal Hiftory narrated the events as follows (I have modernized the English used in this passage):

“These frequent miscarriages begetting continual complaints and never-ceasing demands from the Philippines, it was debated in the councils of the Philip the Third, as it had been in those of Philip the Second, whether it might not be for the advantage of the Spanish monarchy to quit the Philippines entirely, and leave them to be occupied by any other nation, or to return again into the hands of their old masters the Chinese.

The Italians and Flemings were of opinion, that those islands should be relinquished as unprofitable and burdensome to the crown of Spain. The old Spanish counselors argued strenuously for their being retained under a reformed administration. The king himself declared that he would not abandon the Philippines, because, since they came into his possession, there had been a half a million of souls converted to the Christian religion; that if the silver of New Spain was employed to protect those new converts, it could not be better bestowed; that to quit these provinces, was to abandon vast countries and many nations to idolatry; and that, after having wasted so many millions in opposing heresy…”

This passage refers to “the Chinese” as the “old masters” of the Philippines. It’s not clear whether it refers to the Chinese who settled in the Philippines, particularly in Luzon, which outnumbered the Spaniards, or to Imperial China itself.

Indeed, a lot of pre-colonial Philippine states were tributary of China. This, however, doesn’t mean that these polities were “territories” of China.

Territory, as we understand it today, is a misleading term to apply in this historical context. Our current concept of territoriality belongs to a different historical period. It is a product of the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, of the rediscovery of Ptolemy’s geographical methods and the application of these methods to the colonies of European powers. Conflating the modern concept of territoriality with tributary practice—and even with colonialism—is misguided and anachronistic.

The most that can be said about that time is that some, if not all, of the pre-colonial Philippine states were within the sphere of influence of the Chinese Empire and were deeply connected to the Middle Kingdom by virtue of a significant number of Chinese merchants who had settled and established trading ports in the different islands in pre-colonial Philippines.

(Published in The Manila Times on 2 January 2018)

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