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The Visayan Pirates Who Raided The Song Dynasty China

Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his favorite topics.

The Visayans, as illustrated in the Boxer Codex.

The Visayans, as illustrated in the Boxer Codex.

In today’s situation, the South China Sea is besieged by a superpower, as a way to flex its military might. But centuries ago, it was very different. That superpower was raided by a band of mysterious pirates that came from a Southeast Asian country. Or should we say, from a collection of Southeast Asian kingdoms. You probably guessed that it pertains to the Philippines, though back then it was yet to become a nation. In the precolonial period before the arrival of Spain, Philippines existed as a nameless collection of islands, populated by scattered territories. And warrior tradition runs high in these societies, and one of them were the ancient Visayans.

They were the first to encounter the Spanish, and were described as painted due to the tattoos decorating their bodies. They also practiced body modifications and wore bejeweled costumes. The Spanish also described the Visayan’s unique form of watercrafts, suggesting proficiency in seamanship.

Meanwhile, in that same time period, the Song Dynasty China was faced with their own crisis, and in this case, piracy. This class of pirates inspired both fears, and intrigued as how a Song Dynasty official described them. Initially, their origins were a mystery, but recent findings suggested that they were the same class of people that the Spanish met later in that period.

The Visayans.

Song Dynasty China

The Song Emperor Taizu

The Song Emperor Taizu

Again, it all happened between the years of 1174 AD to 1189 AD south of Song Dynasty China, a place which is now part of Southern Taiwan. The south-eastern shores of China were faced with raids by a band of pirates. A scholar, going by the name of Chau Ju-Kua described them as having unintelligible language, and went naked in their raids. They sailed in foldable bamboo rafts, which enabled them to make quick escapes by lifting them up and swimming off. He referred to these men as Pi-She-Ye.

Initially, it was thought that the raiders described by Chau were from Formosa (Taiwan), as what scholar Efren Isorena noted, as the name he used, Pi-She-ye was similar to Pa-Ze-he, the people originating from the Pepo of the Taihoku Plain in Formosa. But further research by Isorena revealed that it was a misinterpretation of Chau’s account. Instead, Chau wrote that they “failed to make a landing in Formosa and had to proceed straight to the coast of Fukien.” In short, the Pi-She-ye raiders never came from Formosa. Plus, the raiding culture of these pirates did not correlate with the Formosan tribes, as they never fought or visited in Chinese coast, as researcher such as Laufer mention.

But who were these Asian raiders?

As what the clues pointed out, translations of Chau’s work further give more descriptions. According to Isorena, it was noted that the Pi-She-ye were covered with tribal tattoo, while raids occurred in certain times of the year, where the Pacific current begins from western coast of Central America and flows towards the Philippines and split into two streams. Remarkably, one of these streams travelled from Samar, to Formosa and beyond to Yokohama Japan. Tracing the direction of the streams gave clues to the place of origin of the pirates.

Lastly, A French Sinologist named Terrien de Lacouperie directly linked the word Pi-she-ye to a word Filipinos are too familiar with. Visaya.

With that said, the pirates that terrorized the part of Song Dynasty China was the precolonial Visayan pintados, as the physical description indicated.

Relationships with the Visayans

Depiction of the precolonial trade with the Chinese.

Depiction of the precolonial trade with the Chinese.

Chau-Ju-Kua recorded his accounts of the Visayan raiders in his book Chu-fan-chi, which translates to A Description of the Barbaric People. The book also offers a glimpse on how the pirates operated, their savage tendencies (at least according to him), and the damage they caused. He also described their attachments to iron implements, being the prime loot in their raids. Chau quotes:

“They showed a passion for iron vessels, spoons, and chopsticks. People would escape from their hands by shutting the door; then they would tear [these] off and take away the door knobs. When a spoon or a pair of chopsticks was thrown to them, they would stop to pick it up. When they saw an iron-clad cavalryman, they would rush forward to peel off his armor, showing no remorse even if their heads were lopped off left and right. In combat they employed javelins, to which was tied a rope more than a hundred feet long, for they valued the iron spearhead so highly that they could not let it be lost. They do not sail in a boat, but make a raft by tying bamboo canes together. When in danger they carry the raft on their shoulders down to the water and row away on it.”

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From his accounts, we get a picture of Pintados with spear, disembarking from rafts and basically pillaging the places they targeted. Their methods are brutal and ruthless, and Chau presented them as primitive and uncivilized. Nevertheless, Chau’s description of our precolonial countrymen wasn’t always derogatory. Do note that China and the precolonial Philippines were also trading partners back then, and the ancient Filipinos were admired. Again, he quoted that:

“When trading ships enter the anchorage, they stop in front of the official’s place, for that is the place for bartering of the country. After a ship has been boarded, the natives mix freely with the ship’s folk. The chiefs are in the habit of using white umbrellas, for which reason the traders offer them as gifts.

“The custom of the trade is for the savage traders to assemble in crowds and carry the goods away with them in baskets; and, even if one cannot at first know them, and can but slowly distinguish the men who remove the goods, there will yet be no loss. The savage traders will after this carry these goods on to other islands for barter, and, as a rule, it takes them as much as eight or nine months till they return, when they repay the traders on shipboard with what they have obtained for the goods. Some, however, do not return within the proper term, for which reason vessels trading with Mait are the latest in reaching home.

“The products of the country consist of yellow wax, cotton, pearls, tortoise shell, medicinal betel nuts and yu-ta cloth; and the foreign traders barter for these porcelain, trade-gold; iron censers, lead, colored glass beads, and iron needles.”

This was a far outcry from the harsh rant Chau gave to the Visayan raiders. But one might wonder what motivated these ancient Filipino pirates to stage such a daring attack to a well-established superpower?

Warrior Tradition of Raiding

A precolonial sword Kampilan.

A precolonial sword Kampilan.

Being a trading partner never stopped the Visayans from raiding the coast of Song Dynasty China. Warrior spirit runs high among the ancient Filipinos, and winning raids will earn one respects and prestige. In fact, all over the precolonial Philippines, there is a traditional raid Kayaw, which means “Head Hunting Expedition,” and the ancient Visayans had a related term Mangayaw, which means to “conduct slave raiding.”

Aside from pride and prestige, raiding is a way of collecting resources. And this explains why the Visayans sought iron in their raids. The Philippines is already rich with resources, but iron was hard to come by, and the easier way was to sail elsewhere and get it by force. Iron is such a precious commodity that iron tipped javelins used by the Visayan pirates were attached to ropes, so it could be retrieved after being thrown, as noted by historian Ambeth Ocampo.

The Watercraft

A reconstruction of the Balangay.

A reconstruction of the Balangay.

But perhaps, it was the raiding vessels that enabled the Visayan pirates to sail into the edges of Song Dynasty China. Chao described them as coming to shore in collapsible bamboo rafts fastened with cloths and lash rugs. But it would be impossible to cross the high seas, or haul the loots in rafts alone. Instead, rafts were just the landing crafts, as the mothership Balangay awaits in the distance.

The Balangay vessel design is simple, but effective. It was a proven seagoing precolonial vessel, thus providing the Visayan raiders a means to sail across the South China sea. In 2013, a large 25-meter Balangay was discovered in Butuan, large enough to transport fully armed men and their loots.


The practice of piracy eventually went into decline as the Datus submitted to the Spanish crown, though it never disappeared completely. In fact, up until the 17th century, the Spanish colonizers still had to deal with pirate attacks themselves.

In the end, Chau’s accounts gave us a contrasting image of the precolonial Filipinos. On one side, they are honest when doing businesses, but their brutality was exposed through their daring attacks on a superpower, armed with Balangay, their rafts and javelins. Piracy is always considered a criminal act, but given the situation today, we cannot blame the modern Filipinos for their fascinations on these ancient raiders. Because in this age where the economic zones are infested by Chinese incursions, people longed for the honesty, and the audacity of the ancient Visayans.


  1. Ocampo, Ambeth (26 April, 2012), "Pirates of the Visayas in China".
  2. Wagner, B.B. (26 June, 2020) "Did Visayan Raiders Plunder the Coast of the Song Dynasty?" Ancient Origins.
  3. Limos, Mario Alvaro (31 March, 2020), "Looking Back at the Time When Ancient Visayans Terrorized China", Esquire.


Mamerto Adan (author) from Cabuyao on September 29, 2021:

And thanks for dropping by!

Cynthia from Philippines on September 28, 2021:

I love your article. Thank you for sharing

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