With China and her island province Taiwan wading with utter belligerence within our watery borders, perhaps it is worth our while to think of times—now long, long gone—when for a decade the reverse was true: we breached China’s borders and more than that, we pillaged her coastal villages! That is, if we go by the historian Efren Isorena’s research tracing more scientific evidence on the possible raiding ventures of Visayans along the China coast between A.D. 1174 and 1190.
Writing in the “Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society,” one of two scholarly journals of the University of San Carlos Press, Isorena challenges historical antecedents that the raiders of the Fujian coast of China during the narrow period of less than 20 years in the 12th century came from Formosa (today’s Taiwan). In fact, they were from the Visayas.
It was the traveling government bureaucrat Chau Ju-Kua who first wrote of a certain group of “ferocious raiders of China’s Fukien coast” which he called the “Pi-sho-ye,” believed to have lived on the southern part of Formosa. A 1273 work written by Ma Tuan Lin and translated by the Marquis D’Hervey de Saint-Denys also indicated that the Pi-sho-ye raiders were from the southern portion of Formosa but that they spoke a different language and had an entirely different appearance (presumably when compared to the inhabitants of Formosa). In 1887, however, the linguist Terrien de Lecouperie posited the notion for the first time that Pi-sho-ye referred to nothing else than the Visayas.
How did Chau Ju kua and Ma Tuan Lin mistake the raiders as settlers living in southern Formosa? Isorena thinks that chroniclers mistook the route taken by the Visayan raiders, passing through southern Fomosa on the Kuroshio Current, as their location. Besides, contemporary accounts state that the Pi-sho-ye raiders’ bodies were covered with tattoos, the very description made also by early Spanish explorers who called the Visayans “Pintados” because of their tattoos which were painfully applied on parts of their bodies and faces only through bravery and success in warfare.
Isorena also uses language to show that of all the peoples south of Taiwan, it is only the Visayans who have a long tradition of going out of their comfort zones to raid, expressed in the word “mangayaw” or “pangayaw” which literally mean to go raiding. In fact, today when fisherfolk in the Visayas go on long journeys to fish, they still use the word “pangayaw” to describe such sojourning or seasonal migration. Such tradition of raiding would have involved not just going up north to pillage coastal areas but also down south. As late as 1623, we learn from Fray Rodrigo de Aganduru Moriz a record of the repentance of Visayans stating that before they were converted to Christianity, they were raiding Mindanao “where they took many captives, and terrified them” but that with the coming of the Spaniards, the opposite was now happening: the Visayans were the ones being raided from Mindanao.
But why raid China and what type of boats and which routes were used? Isorena posits that the raiding may have had to do with a resource that the Chinese already knew how to produce with precision: iron. For the type of boat, one need not look further than the evidence provided by the discovery of boats called “balangay” (or “balanghai,” but pronounced with a silent “h”, as spelled by Magellan’s Italian chronicler Antonio Pigafetta), some dating to around A.D. 100 or about a thousand years prior to the raids. The route was a simple straightforward affair, made possible, according to Isorena, by the northward current that begins east of Samar and moves toward Japan, which the Japanese refer to as the “kuroshio,” the black current because of the cobalt blue color of the sea in this current. This current then veers northwest to the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and Batanes and then straight for Fujian, on the southeastern coast of China, due to the northwest monsoon winds.
It was most possibly at Catanduanes (or Katandungan)—which got its name from the Visayas “katadlungan” or “katadulngon”, meaning a reference point for a straight route”—that the raiders made a way-station of sorts, especially since this is a point straight from Taiwan when sailing southward between 124 and 125 degrees on the return route.
Thus did the raids return successfully and enter the history books. With Isorena possibly putting a clearer face of the Pi-sho-ye, let us stand proud in the knowledge that despite our meek and cowardly attitude in the face of a giant ravaging our tiny border islets, we too once stood taller than the military might that we face today. The tiny rat always frightens the giant elephant, doesn’t it?