“Guarding the royal tomb and passing on the late king’s deep ties with China is our calling,” said An Jing, a museum guide at the Sulu Culture Museum in Dezhou City, Shandong province. More than just a job, sharing the history and culture of Sulu in China is also a personal responsibility for An. She is a 19th generation descendant of the East King of the Sulu Sultanate, a kingdom once located in the Sulu archipelago of modern-day Philippines. In Sulu today, descendants of the East King regularly face conflict, like territorial disputes. Meanwhile in China, their distant relatives lead different lives. For over 600 years, An’s family in Dezhou, has safeguarded the tomb of the late king. The documentary Sulu and China sheds light on this little-known Filipino royal clan that has taken root in China.
How did the descendants of Sulu royalty end up settling down in China? According to the documentary, this was the result of an unfortunate tragedy.
In the early 15th century, during a trip to China to see the Yongle Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, the East King of Sulu passed away from ill health on his journey back home to Sulu. While his eldest son returned to Sulu to succeed him as the new king, his remaining two sons and their families stayed behind in China, where the king was laid to rest. Subsequent intermarriages with Chinese Muslims created generations of Muslim tomb guards who now populate an entire village, known today as Beiyingcun. These descendants adopted the Chinese last names “Wen” and “An.”
Today, there are over 5,000 descendants of the East King of Sulu scattered around China, many of whom have lost contact with their roots. But those in Beiyingcun are proud ambassadors of their royal ancestry and ready guardians of an ancient tomb — albeit that of a bygone relative from a foreign land. They are also trying to restore broken links in their vast royal family, in an attempt to retrace their bloodline and complete their family tree.
Sulu and China documents their passions, beliefs, and most importantly, their self identity. When asked to describe their unique status, descendants of the Sulu King offered a range of responses: “Chinese,” “Muslim,” “Hui People,” and “Chinese Filipino Muslim.”
Sulu and China may tell the story of an obscure royal clan, but it is also a meditation on the complex concept of identity.
In partnership with Real Image Media Collection.