Was My Ancestor A 13th Century Chinese Warlord?

Here’s an update on some exciting happenings over here.  First, the least exciting bit: Thanks to those who have sent in their orders of my first book – The Greenland Seal Hunter (http://www.marshallcavendish.com/marshallcavendish/genref/sg/catalogue/general_title/travel/9812328904.xml ).  Keep them coming… Christmas is near – the books are ideal for those with friends into traveling to unusual places.  Let me know if you would like to order more of my book. 


My next journey will be on the early hours of Christmas Day, to Hainan Island in southern China.  Only slightly smaller than Taiwan, Hainan is a province first settled by Han Chinese two thousand years ago and today is home to 8 million people including 1 million members of the Li and Miao ethnic minority tribes.  Hainan is also a tropical island with gorgeous beaches in the south which hosted Miss World 2004 this week.


More importantly, my father was born here in 1938 in Tai-jia village, and brought to Singapore when he was two, on a little boat full of refugees fleeing the Japanese invasion.  They encountered pirates and had to take shelter in a protected bay on the Mainland, before proceeding on a long and dangerous voyage to then British ruled Singapore.  In short, it was a treacherous journey not very different from the Vietnamese boat people of the 1970s and the Afghans on their rickety boats to Australia.


For me, this coming trip is a journey to my ancestral village and past.  It is a journey that I have long contemplated – I have been to 20 Chinese provinces (out of 30) and yet never been to Hainan.  There is an element of excitement as well as fear, not to mention some embarrassment over the fact that I can hardly speak the Hainanese dialect.


Coincidentally, the past month had seen the dissolution of Nam-Li, my father’s clan association for immigrants from the village of Tai-jia in Hainan Island, after 70 years of existence.  For the knowledge of those not from Singapore, the clan association is basically a community group set up by immigrants from a specific locality, to provide mutual assistance and local contacts.  Singapore is an immigrant society where 76% of the population are ethnic Chinese whose forefathers emigrated here in the 19th century and early 20th century.  The clan associations have for a long time provided a link between the new immigrants with their clansmen from the old homeland.  However, with time, the children of the immigrants have become citizens of a new country as memories and affinity with the old country faded away.  As clan associations fell into irrelevance and memberships and funds dwindled, they are being dissolved and assigned to mere historical memory. 


By a stroke of luck, I have managed to salvage interesting material from Nam-Li’s premises, before everything else went to the junkyard.  I have donated most of these to the National Archives and would donate the rest after my own research.  Over the past few weeks after working hours, I found myself embarking on an exciting though unexpected process of self-discovery. 


Among the old dusty volumes of association records, I found what appeared to be family records that traced my family roots in Tai-Jia Village to a Chen Gong-chen, imperial scholar who moved to Hainan Island from Mainland China, in 1241 after he was appointed Chief Magistrate of Wen-chang county in the final years of the Song Dynasty (960-1279).  As Mongol armies closed in from the North, crushing the Song empire, defeated Song armies and refugees rushing onto boats and fled to Hainan Island, the southernmost outpost and last stand of the Chinese empire. 


At this point, Chen assumed supreme power as the Hainan Military Governor to organize resistance to the Mongol invasion.  The records were not clear of what exactly happened.  There were hints of chaotic times, political dilemma and difficult decisions.  As it transpired, the Mongols offered a deal.  In exchange for peace with Mongol sovereignty, Chen would be made supreme governor of Hainan and admiral of the South Seas.  Chen accepted the offer.


Shocking discovery – not just the fact that I could trace my roots to the 13th century, but also whether my ancestor, Chen Gong-chen, was a traitor to China, or a pragmatist who had to save the many people under his protection.  Let’s put this in the context of the era – the Mongols had conquered most parts of the known world – most of China except Hainan, Korea, Central Asia, Middle East, Russia and were besieging Krakow and Budapest.  (Marco Polo had just reached Dadu, capital of the Mongols and met Kublai Khan.)  The eight-year old Zhao Bing, last Song emperor, strapped himself to the back of prime minister Lu Xiufu, who jumped into the sea off the cliff near Hong Kong when they were surrounded by Mongol forces, thus the end of the Song royal family.  Chen, commander of the last Chinese forces, had to decide whether to continue an almost certainly futile resistance against the world’s most powerful empire even after the demise of the royal family, or to secure the safety of the many thousands of refugees who have reached this final edge and remnant of China.


Chen ruled Hainan on behalf of the Mongols who soon demanded for a test of his loyalty by ordering an invasion of Champa, a Hindu kingdom in what is today central Vietnam.  Chen succeeded in conquering Champa and went on to participate in the invasion of Annam, the Vietnamese kingdom around Hanoi.  For his contributions, Chen was awarded many titles.  His son succeeded him as governor and went on to crush a tribal rebellion of the Li people in Hainan.  Six generations later, in the 15th century, a descendant of Chen’s son founded the village of Tai-jia, where my father was born five hundred years later.


Amazing facts – there are still a lot of questions and many mysteries.  There is a lot from those material that I do not fully understand.  For me, an exciting process of self-discovery has begun and I wonder what more I would discover.  To be honest, I smell a good story, perhaps material for a new book.


Oh, dear friends, wish me luck!



Wee Cheng