The coast of the Visayas islands, Philippines, today.               Source: attiarndt / Adobe Stock

Did Visayan Raiders Plunder the Coast of the Song Dynasty?


Roughly between the Song Dynasty years of 1174 AD to 1189 AD there were little-known accounts of ferocious tattooed bandits that terrorized the south-eastern shores and islands of China. As the Song Dynasty scholar Chau Ju-Kua wrote:

 '….Their language was unintelligible, and they went naked on their raids[…]They do not sail in junks or boats, but in lash bamboo rafts which can be folded up like screens[…]When hard pressed, they can lift up and escape by swimming off with them[…]They are the Pi-She-Ye…' (Chau Ju-Kua)

Chau Ju-Kua was a well-educated Song dynasty official appointed as the Royal Port inspector of Foreign trade in Fukien (south-eastern coast of China, modern-day province of Fujian). His descriptions carried fear and intrigue, as he wrote the tales of such tattooed people raising havoc to the south-eastern trade ports off the coast of Tsuan-Chou, Fukien. According to the scholar Efren B. Isorena, Chau Ju-Kua was the first scholar to mention that the raiders may have originated from southern Formosa island (Taiwan). Additionally, Isorena believed that these pirates originated from Formosa island because of the name Chau used, Pi-Sho-ye, which was phonetically similar to the agricultural people known as Pa-Ze-he.  These people originated from the Pepo people of the Taihoku Plain of Formosa.

Most researchers obsessed with the name that Chau had chosen rather than looking for other clues about the origins of the mysterious pirates. However, in Isorena's further exploration of Chau's work, he revealed that this might have been a misinterpretation, and that, instead, Chau was suggesting these mysterious pirates came from the Pescadores islands. Chau wrote, they 'failed to make a landing in Formosa and had to proceed straight to the coast of Fukien' (Isorena, 2004). In other accounts by Song Dynasty historian Ma Taun lin, the assumption was also that the Pi-she-ye pirates came from Formosa island. However, this was mere speculation, and there remains little to no actual Chinese evidence that proves this. Therefore the mystery: who exactly were the Pi-she-ye, and if Chau Ju Kua's accounts were true, how could these seafaring village people hold such threatening power over the Song Dynasty?

Visayan karakoa from Historia de las islas e indios de Bisayas (1668) by Francisco Ignacio Alcina. (Public Domain)

Visayan karakoa from Historia de las islas e indios de Bisayas (1668) by Francisco Ignacio Alcina. (Public Domain )

Speculations About the Pirates that Raided the Song Chinese

Though there have been many differing accounts over the years, modern scholars believe that the mysterious Pi-She-Ye of the 12 th century AD was, in fact, a Visayan. This belief was based on further research of the Pi-She-Ye accounts beginning in 1907. Researchers such as Laufer believed that though the name itself may have been associated with the Formosan tribes, it didn’t correlate with the Formosa peoples at the time, who 'never visited the Chinese coast, nor had clashed with them' (Isorena, 2004). In other scholarly accounts, significant evidence suggests that the Pi-Sho-Ye were the Visayans, a large ethnolinguistic group native to several islands of the Philippines. However, the questions of how their vessels could make it to Chinese shores during that period, as well as the raider's motives, deserve further exploration.

Modern scholars turned their focus to the Visayans of the Philippines because of the abundance of cultural and anthropological data collected over the last two hundred years. This is especially true when one studies the indigenous populations of Formosa, especially between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries AD. As Isorena notes, '…And while the northern coast of Luzon had been known to be infested by Chinese and Japanese pirates […] none was known to be called Pi-Sho-ye…’ (Isorena 2004).

In other research by Isorena, he discusses cultural indicators such as the Pi-Sho-Ye’s unique head-to-toe tribal tattoos, based on translations from Chau Ju-Jua's work. If these tattoos were correct, then this depiction would correlate with the Filipino practice of ' Pintados,' meaning 'painted' (where the skin is pricked with sharp pieces of iron lined with black powder). The Spaniards, who explored this region much later, noted that this practice was widespread on the islands of Samar, Leyte, Cebu, and Panay.

Pintados of the Visayas (Leyte or Samar) (Boxer Codex / Public domain)

Pintados of the Visayas (Leyte or Samar) (Boxer Codex / Public domain )

Another clue was the use of bamboo rafts fastened and thatched together with cloth straps, or lashed-lugged, thereby joining planks and sections of bamboo (pins and dowels were also used). The accounts from Song dynasty scholars Chau and Ma describe a particular watercraft design called the 'Balangay' that was used by the indigenous people of the Philippines until the Spanish colonial era. Even then, the Spaniards noted the remarkable success and simplicity of these elusive crafts when Filipino pirates evaded Spanish patrols in the 16 th and 17 th centuries AD.

Balangay boat in the waters of Manila Bay with large Philippine flag (Fung360 / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Balangay boat in the waters of Manila Bay with large Philippine flag (Fung360 / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

The Balangay vessel design was a very rustic and simple ship that was able to navigate both rivers and deep-sea waters. Balangay watercraft would have been perfect for navigating the South China Sea. Additionally, given its design, these watercraft would be fairly adaptable to transporting any loot the pirates acquired. Furthermore, these raids occurred at a certain time of the year, as Isorena reveals in his research. The Pacific currents that begin from the western coast of Central America, travel towards the Philippines and then split into two streams. One stream 'flowed parallel to the length of the eastern Philippines starting from Samar island and even beyond Formosa and continuing to Yokohama Japan' (Isorena, 2004). This stream would have given the Filipino pirates, in their Balangay vessels, the ability to quickly venture north to the shores of southeast China and beyond, and circle back to where they started.

The North Pacific Gyre, a clockwise-swirling vortex of ocean currents comprising most of the northern Pacific Ocean (Public domain)

The North Pacific Gyre, a clockwise-swirling vortex of ocean currents comprising most of the northern Pacific Ocean ( Public domain )

With the currents favoring the Philippines, the vessels based on a traditional Filipino design, and the raiders covered from head to toe with black ink tattoos, the evidence convincingly suggests that the Pi-sho-ye were indeed the Visayas of the Philippines.  However, if this was the case, what was their motive?

The Cultural Motive for Raiding

With the observations made by Isorena and a few other researchers, the evidence becomes very convincing that these pirates were Visayan raiders. Given the location, the currents, the ancient descriptions, and watercraft, there is no doubt. However, the motives for why the Visayans would wish to raid are controversial. Given the relationship between the Philippines and the ancient imperial Chinese from the Song, Yuan, Ming, and finally, Ching dynasties, followed by the Spanish colonial occupation, all accounts point to the Filipinos, especially the Visayans. With the modern perspectives brought by Isorena and several other contemporary scholars, it may be possible to find an objective understanding as to the cultural motive for the raiding.

First off, Isorena mentions, 'The linguistic, archaeological, and historical evidence indicate a strong tradition of raiding… called Kayaw, among Filipino groups from Luzon to Mindanango…" (Isorena, 2004). As Isorena further describes, the meaning for Kayaw was translated to 'head hunting expedition' while with the Visayas, it's the dialectic related word 'Mangayaw,' meant 'to conduct slave-raiding.' Visayan warriors who succeeded in either Kayaw or Mangayaw in their communities were respected for their great prowess and power. This act was not only socially acceptable but encouraged: all young Visayan men wanted to go on raids.

Other scholars, however, explained the raids a way of gathering key resources. In one article by Limos, he discussed the possible motives for the Visayans’ raids despite the fact that the Philippines themselves, along with many other islands in that region, contained immense riches in gold, silver, and other resources. In Limos's opinion, the raids had to do with the acquisition of good quality iron. Iron was a very difficult resource to come by, especially for the Visayan people. Another account by the researcher Ocampo confirms the Visayans’ desire for good quality iron as a worthwhile treasure to raid for. This included iron vessels, chopsticks, spoons, iron doorknobs, and even the armor from Chinese soldiers. Ocampo continues that iron was so precious to the Visayans that even their iron-tipped javelins were attached to 100-foot (30-meter) ropes so they could be retrieved after being thrown.

The potential for climbing in Visayan social status, as well as gaining riches in iron trinkets and loot, a current creating speedy travel and return, is compelling evidence that the Pi-sho-ye were indeed the Visayan. So how was it that these crafty tattooed raiders were able to infiltrate and terrorize the Song Empire of China?

Troubling the Song Dynasty

The Song dynasty was famous for several achievements, such as reviving Confucian teachings , experimenting with paper currency , opening their borders and ports to trade, and the exchange of international ideas. They were also under constant threat of foreign invasion. To the north, they faced great enemies such as the Xi Xia, the Liao, Jin, and eventually the Mongols, who finally ended the dynasty. Unlike other famous Chinese dynasties such as the Tang and the Ming, who were known to have immense military might, most of the Song army was considered insignificant. Due to this fact, the Song made more of an effort in diplomacy and trade to deal with outside threats. Another distinction that separated the Song from other Chinese empires was their policy in tributary activities: the Song asked for almost none. This was strategic in both the political and economic arena since it aided in foreign taxing of goods and trade that brought in significantly more revenue than tribute would have done. The average import tariff rate during the Song era was about 10%. The tax revenue of the central government ranged from 1.5% to 20%." (Chan 2008)

According to historian Kenneth Chen, "Foreign trade flourished in the Song Dynasty. Maritime imports […] were mainly luxury items such as pearls, ivory, horns, perfumes, medicines, spices, and many others. The Song Dynasty exported mainly manufactured products, such as metal goods, porcelain, lacquerware, silk, copper coins, and iron." (Chan 2008)

Song Dynasty Ancient Ship of Quanzhou Bay (meckleychina / CC BY 2.0)

Song Dynasty Ancient Ship of Quanzhou Bay (meckleychina / CC BY 2.0 )

With all the international trade and prosperity brought to the Song dynasty, maritime shipbuilding technologies developed, which allowed for larger vessels to be built at a significantly faster rate. With these vessels and the further expansion of trade into Java and the Philippines, as well as word spreading regarding the weakness of the Song military, Song dynasty trade ships probably presented desirable targets to the local Visayan raiders of the region. And so, given the immense trading networks, limited interference of military, and every port filled with cargo, houses, and adornments made of good quality Chinese iron, Visayan raiders on fast-moving adaptable Balangay boats saw many opportunities for invasion and looting.

Closing Thoughts

With evidence from contemporary and ancient scholars regarding the actions of the Pi-sho-ye, a better picture begins to form of resilient and resourceful Visayan raiders looking for fame and fortune. Even after the fall of the Song, during the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, the threat of piracy in the Philippines and beyond remained a concern. This fear carried on into the Ming dynasty who constructed the largest ships to ever sail in the ancient world. These vessels were known as seven-mast treasure ships, which held a crew of a thousand people and carried a hundred Chinese cannons, rapid arrows, and Chinese grenade launchers. All these precautions were taken to guard against the possible threat of Visayan raiders on tiny bamboo watercraft.

These legends of the mysterious tattooed men would not only be in the archives of Song Dynasty writers, but also in the seventeenth century accounts by the Spaniards who had to deal with them on a daily basis. It should be noted that even during the period of Spanish colonization, Spanish ships were being raided and attacked for their wealth, iron, and trinkets by Visayans on Balangay .

Top image: The coast of the Visayas islands, Philippines, today.               Source: attiarndt / Adobe Stock

By B.B. Wagner


Chan, Kenneth S., 2008. "Foreign Trade, Commercial Policies, and the Political Economy of the Song and Ming Dynasties of China." Australian Economic History Review (1): 68-90.

Churchill, William. 1913. "Reviewed works: Chau Ju-Kus: His work on the Chinese and Arab Trade in the 12th and 13th centuries entitled Chu-Fan-Chi by Freidrich Hirth, W.W. Rockhill, and Chau Ju-Kua." Bulletin fo American Geographical Society 45 (4): 298-299.

Isorena, Efren, B., 2004. "Visayan Raiders of the China Coast, 1174- 1190 AD." Philippine Quarterly of Culture and Society 32 (2): 73-95.

Limos, Mario Alvaro. 2020. Looking back at the Time When Ancient Visayans Terrorized China. 31 May.

Ocampo, Ambeth, R., 2012. Pirates of the Visayas in China. 26 April.

Turnbill, Stephen. 2012. Pirates of the far East: 811-1639. Bloomberg Publishing.

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