Brunei's Sultan Abdul Majid and Chinese Emperor Yongle

I wrote this article when I was in Nanjing in July 2016 when I had the opportunity to visit Sultan Abdul Majid's Makam (Tomb) for the second time (the first time was in 2010). This article was published in my column The Golden Legacy on The Brunei Times on 7 August 2016.


Sultan Abdul Majid's Tomb or Makam when he died in China in 1408 built by Emperor Yongle. (Photo by Dr. Sophiana Chua)

The Pathway leading to Sultan Abdul Majid's Tomb built by Emperor Yongle in 1408. (Photo by Dr. Sophiana Chua)

This house the ancient tortoise which carried the tablet describing the tomb built by Emperor Yongle in 1408. (Photo by Dr. Sophiana Chua)

Brunei's Sultan Abdul Majid and Chinese Emperor Yongle
by Rozan Yunos

ON MAY 12, 1958 villagers of Yinxi at Yu Hua Tai District in Nanjing, China discovered a tomb in a nearby forest. Nanjing was a historic city with many artefacts left throughout the ages that at first the find did not arouse much attention.

It was not until much later that experts found that the tomb belonged to a king called “Ma Je Ne Ka Na from the Kingdom of Poli” who died while visiting China in 1408.

It seemed that in August of the sixth year of the reign of Yongle of the Ming Dynasty (1408), that the King visited China with a delegation of 150 people including his wife, brothers, sons and entourage. Unfortunately, he fell ill in Nanjing, where the Emperor ordered his imperial doctors to treat and take good care of him. The King was buried on Shizi Hill outside the Andemen with the burial rites normally offered to kings.

Today that king has been identified as Sultan Abdul Majid Hassan from Brunei and listed in the official royal genealogy as the successor to Sultan Muhammad, the first sultan and predecessor to Sultan Ahmad, the second Sultan.

According to history, Poli was one of the ancient names of Brunei and had regular contacts with China. According to Chinese records, in 1370, Shen Chi, a magistrate and Zhang Jingshi, an Imperial Supervisor from Fujian Province went to Brunei.

In 1371, Yisima, an envoy from Brunei visited China. This visit was followed by another group of envoys from Brunei in 1394, an envoy named Alibochen in 1405 and another group of envoys in 1406 before the visit by the King himself in 1408.

Friendly exchanges between the two nations have a long history dating back over 2,000 years ago. As early as China’s Western Han Dynasty, the two countries have already exchanged trade in goods. In China’s Tang Dynasty, official exchanges between the governments of the two countries started. With the advancement of navigation technology in China’s Song and Yuan Dynasties, exchanges of envoys and commercial ships became more frequent between the two countries.

In fact according to Chinese records of the Liang Dynasty, Tang Dynasty and Song Dynasty, Brunei had been sending her envoys to China and had also been receiving envoys from China. The earliest records stated that in the years 517AD, 521AD and 631AD, Brunei had sent her envoys to China. In 977AD, China sent her envoys to Brunei.

Sultan Abdul Majid Hassan paid a call on Emperor Yongle, six years after he had taken over the reign of the Ming Dynasty. Was the visit necessary? For that we need to study the then reigning Emperor Yongle.

According to Charles Hucker writing about the Emperor for the Britannia Encyclopaedia, Emperor Yongle, born as Zhu Di in 1360 was the third emperor of the the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644). One of his best known achievements was to move the capital from Nanjing to Beijing. It was Zhu Di’s father, the Hongwu Emperor who rose from a poor orphan of peasant origin who rebelled against the Mongol rulers of the Yuan dynasty to establish the new Ming Dynasty. The Hongwu Emperor sired 26 princes of which Zhu Di was one.

It was in 1368 that Hongwu inaugurated the new Ming dynasty, with its capital at Nanjing. He drove the last Mongol emperor out of Beijing and then beyond the Great Wall and the Gobi.

Zhu Di was designated Prince of Yan (an ancient name for the Beijing region). As he grew to manhood during the next decade, the new Ming empire was stabilised with an elaborate governmental apparatus. His natural leadership qualities clearly outshone those of his many brothers.

At the age of 20, Zhu Di with his older half brother, the Prince of Jin were given joint command of patrolling expeditions beyond the Great Wall. By 1393 they assumed full supervisory control over defence forces of the whole central sector of the northern frontier.

When the heir apparent died in 1392, Emperor Hongwu complied by tradition by appointing the dead crown prince’s son Zhu Junwen, 15 years old as the new heir.

However Zhu Di considered himself the de facto head of the imperial clan and expected to be treated deferentially by his nephew. But the new young Emperor Junwen instituted a series of reforms by taking regional power from the princes and Zhu Di found himself isolated and endangered. By 1399, Zhu Di rose in rebellion.

The central government at Nanjing underestimated Zhu Di’s strength and failed to muster its manpower and matériel effectively. By 1402 Zhu Di’s forces broke through the imperial armies and were admitted into the walled capital by court defectors in July 1402. Four days after the fall of Nanjing, the Prince of Yan took the throne himself, although he did not formally begin his rule until 1403. He took the reign name “Yongle” (“Perpetual Happiness”).

The Junwen emperor had disappeared and until today, no-one knows what had happened to him.

Zhu Di retained the one reform policy of Emperor Junwen that remained in effect was that, princely powers must be curtailed. Hence, the surviving frontier princes were transferred from their fiefs into central and south China and were deprived of all governmental authority.

From the Yongle period on, imperial princes were no more than salaried nobilities who socially and ceremonially adorned the cities to which they were assigned and in which they were effectively confined. No subsequent Ming emperor was seriously threatened by a princely uprising.

Zhu Di built a strong and effective administration, and during his reign China settled into the generally stable political and socioeconomic patterns that were to characterise the remainder of the dynasty.

His government sponsored the compilation and publication of Confucian and Neo-Confucian Classics, and it most notably sponsored the preparation in manuscript form of a monumental compendium of literature called Yongle dadian(“The Great Canon of the Yongle Era”) in more than 11,000 volumes, which preserved many works that would otherwise have been lost.

In the early years of his reign, Zhu Di was fascinated by the regions beyond China’s southern borders, partly due to rumours that the Jianwen emperor had escaped overseas. In 1403 he sent out three fleets to proclaim his accession throughout Southeast Asia as far as Java and southern India.

More vigorously than any other ruler in Chinese history, he sought recognition from faraway potentates in these regions. Throughout his reign “tributary” missions regularly traveled to China from overseas. Thus the visit of Sultan Abdul Majid Hassan to China was in 1408.

Most renowned of the Yongle emperor’s many ocean admirals was Zheng He, who led grand armadas on great voyages between 1405 and 1433. Zheng He visited countries as far away as the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the east coast of Africa almost as far south as Zanzibar, and from all the states that he visited, he brought home envoys bearing tribute to acknowledge the Yongle emperor’s overlordship.

With the military might of the Ming Dynasty, many kingdoms around the region must have paid tributes to the Emperor. Brunei maintained its relationship with China and according to the Chinese records, in 1415, Xiawang described as the King of Brunei sent 29 envoys to China. His uncle, Mamu (Mahmud?) visited China in 1417 as well as another two uncles, Zuxumayi (Ismail?) in 1421 and Shanaruoye in 1425.

In an article written by Carrie C Brown entitled Two Ming Texts Concerning King Manajechiana of Po’ni’ which was published in the Brunei Museum Journal (1974), she referred to two documents recorded in Ming Dynasty sources.

Of particular interest is the second text in which it was written an inscription which the Yongle Emperor composed for the “State Mountain in Po’ni”. According to Brown, this was a mark of high favour, and only four countries shared this honour. These countries were Japan, Malacca, Poni and Cochin. However this stone tablet and the table have yet to be located. It would indeed be interesting if it was ever found.

The Brunei Times


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