The search for early Chinese traders


CEBUANO archaeologist Jojo Bersales measures the coordinates of an artifact in site before removing it for cleaning and identification. Contributed Photos

CEBU CITY—The Philippines is quite out of the way unlike other maritime countries in Southeast Asia. It also has smaller communities than Malaysia and Indonesia.

But due to their business acumen and perseverance in selling their goods and bringing whatever useful raw materials back to their kingdom, the Chinese braved the seas and started trading with our forebears.

As early as 1144 A.D., the Chinese already had names for the entire archipelago—Mayi—and certain islands like Pai-P’u-yen for the Babuyan Islands, Liu-hsin for Luzon and Pa-lao-yu for Palawan.

According to experts of Southeast Asian history, it was not the Chinese who first traded with Filipinos but the other way around.

O.W. Wolters said some Filipinos sailed 800 miles across the seas to bring pearls which the Chinese greatly valued at their trading post in Funan in ancient Vietnam around 300 A.D.

The story may be true but the trading could not have lasted long enough as what the Chinese have done to this day.

The late historian William Henry Scott opined that although Chinese goods abound in the Visayas in the 16th century, he doubted that the traders themselves came.

Humabon, Cebu’s ruler in 1521, ate from porcelain wares based on the account of Antonio Pigafetta, chronicler of Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan. For Scott, this did not prove that the Chinese were indeed in Cebu then simply because the Spaniards didn’t mention them.

Years later and despite the report received by the Spaniards that eight men from the Magellan expedition were sold to the Chinese, Scott remained unconvinced of their presence simply because the Spaniards only heard of it and did not actually see the Chinese.

For Scott, the Chinese only came, at least, in the Visayas in 1569 when Miguel Lopez de Legazpi captured a Chinese vessel and its crew somewhere off Panay Island.

It could be true but it could also be that the Chinese were in the Visayas in 1521 but were just elsewhere among the many islands. The Spaniards were also not that many to observe the whole Visayan Sea.

A RESTORED very rare blue-and-white Ming dynasty ewer is similar to that recovered by the underwater archaeologist Franck Goddio at Lena Shoal Shipwreck off Busuanga Island. Archaeologists say the recovery of such kind of porcelain ware speaks volumes of the trade that took place in Cebu even before the Spaniards arrived in the country.

It could be true that some of the porcelain ware recovered in many parts of Cebu, for instance, which date back to the Sung and the early Ming dynasties, were brought by other traders such as the Annamese and the Siamese.

But it was also possible that a majority of these were brought by the Chinese themselves.

Just because the Spaniards didn’t see them until 1569 didn’t mean that they had not been trading with the Filipinos, the Visayans in particular. What should be taken into account are the many years that the Spaniards were not in the Philippines.

For Edgar Wickberg, it was only when the Spaniards started the galleon trade that Chinese migration to the Philippines occurred. This happened when the Chinese saw the opportunity to export Chinese goods to Mexico. Silk and luxury goods were brought to Mexico and Mexican silver were brought back by the galleons as payment.

In both deals, the Spaniards gained as middlemen. In 1603, or 32 years after the founding of Manila, 20,000 Chinese were already residing there, compared to just 1,000 Spaniards.

Accounts of the presence of Chinese traders in the Philippines before 1569 may be found in Chinese archives and just waiting to be uncovered. But for now, the abundance of porcelain ware used as grave goods by our ancestors may indicate that they had been in the country for a long time.

The recovery of many Chinese porcelain ware in Cebu, being an ancient place, could show that the Chinese traded with Cebuanos even as early as the 12th century.

In the present downtown area, archaeologists Karl Hutterer and Rosa C.P. Tenazas unearthed burial sites that yielded Yuan and early Ming wares, together with other Southeast Asian ware.

Another site in Fort San Pedro in 1973 yielded Ming dynasty ware.

Archaeologists also found more porcelain items during the construction of the multibillion-peso tunnel that connects to the South Coastal Road in 2008. Some of the items were identified by archaeologist Jojo Bersales as Zhangzhou-type.

It is possible that some had been accidentally unearthed or looted by antique hunters in the same vicinity.

For sure, trading was not only confined to Cebu City since certain blue and white wares were recovered in other towns even outside Metro Cebu.

On Bantayan Island in northern Cebu, blue-and-white porcelain ware were still being washed out to the shore in a coastal village, especially after heavy rain.

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  • Francis

    So you are implying that Chinese discovered the Philippines? Philippines part of China? as these commy Chinese are claiming the whole West Philippine Sea as theirs because of history. Your article doesnt make sense and should not be published after all.

    • Terzeus Dominguez

       no. the author was merely stating that we have had a civilization way before the spaniards came and that we had and are still having trade relations with the chinese.
      also, this article has nothing to do with the south china sea/west philippine sea fiasco. there is no mention of it either. this is just a report that items of good historical value were unearthed in certain areas.
      please, please, please don’t make any conclusion that it always involves that fiasco if the article states china, even just once.
      also, the author alleged that it wasn’t the chinese who came here but rather we initiated the trade first.

    • Harry

      No reasons to be afraid of the truth. The truth is that many of us may be descendants of Chinese bastards.


    THE Chins ruled Asia once upon a time.

  • 2011Empoy1120

    …beware with this kind of article. Propaganda is on the works and has started. Hope critical thinkers will refute and unmasked this kind of soft warfare disguished as simple historical facts….What’s next? We, filipinos, were used to be chinese tribe occupying the ancient, far away islands of China (now Philippines)? Its so unusual nowadays that there’s a lot of chinese related activities both cultural and commercial are going on around the philippines….Gising mga Kababayan!

    • Guest

      You are correct to assess this ‘find’ as some dubious attempts by Beijing and their local undertakers to prove; first to its masses (in China) and secondly, to garner support of pro-China adventurers in other South -east Asian countries. 

      Why the sudden interest in dinging up? And who would authenticate ‘these finds’?
      I suppose Christie’s of London will have the first shot to see these ‘fakes’. And to their dismay, may find them fakes. As such painted Chinese ‘utensils’, almost sold, were found fraudulent repainted, several years back.

    • Islaslolo

      Is this paranoia or xenophobia or both?

      • 2011Empoy1120

        ….and how can you explain this sudden deluge of this type of articles? Isn’t the timing coincidental? We have on-going territorial disputes with them and we’re not talking just an island (case like Japan is fighting for) but the whole West Philippine Sea. This is an issue that will be with us for the next 50 years or more? God knows how long it will be fought by Filipino leaders in the future.Don’t trivialized this issue as our giant neighbor is so determined to get more energy sources from wherever that maybe in order to stay powerful.  Most Filipno critical thinkers were not born yesterday….Our ancestors have been sleeping for so long, kaya nga naimbento ang kasabihang..” Ayun si Tatang, tulog-tulog sa pansitan! “. It’s better for us now to learn vigilant than to be sorry and wake up one day that we cannot go fishing anymore without visa…..

  • koolkid_inthehouse

    They trade goods only.  They didn’t occupy. If they occupied, the Chinese should have fought the Spaniards instead of Lapulapu. 

  • Mario E Gutierrez

    Just who are doing this search for early Chinese traders? And, the rationale for this article…. Have there been a similar search for early Roman traders in Greece or Arab warriors in Spain recently? What interest is it for the average reader to know about ancient artifacts and his (the writer’s) story? Spanish story? Chinese story? What about the Filipino story now, today? And his struggles against the high and the mighty within and beyond our borders…. Will the Inquirer please publish the academic credentials of the writer and previous articles he authored.

    • Islaslolo

      Here we go again. Why question the academic credentials of the author of the article? Does it really matter or is it the message and its veracity, not just for this article but for everything we read and listen to, that is actually of importance.

      When I was in college, I enjoyed – even to this day, I still do – reading NVM Gonzales but did I ever ask if he finished college? And there is a person who sometimes write in the Inquirer and flaunts his PhD Economics degree from Harvard but some of what he said smacked of intellectual dishonesty.

    • Bantayanon

      By highlighting the Chinks, the author might be pro-Chink. Go and click the name and it might help you in your conclusion.

  • kismaytami

    It is only me who’s noticing the proliferation these irrelevant news about chinks here, chinks there, and chinks everywhere?

    • Islaslolo

      Broaden your mind, my dear.

  • Islaslolo

    There is definitely contact between China and the Philippines for a long time since the Spaniards came and colonized us. It is evident in our dialects, culture and cuisine. Tagalog, Pangasinan and Kampampangan, three dialects or languages I am familiar with, contains many Chinese words and our culture and cooking are imbued with Chinese influence as well.

  • Terzeus Dominguez

    why are most of you so paranoid?

  • joboni96

    most probably non-intsik traders
    including bisayans

    trace gold in tsina
    a lot came from the philippines

    including former gold hoard of
    imperialist u.s.

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