Xu-Shi Yin’e: Friendship Envoy of the Maritime Silk Road

By staff reporter VERENA MENZEL

IN the coming years, construction of China’s “Belt and Road” Initiatives, proposed by Chinese President Xi Jinping during his 2013 tour of Central Asia, will proceed at full throttle. The aim is to revive the historic trade route; but in fact, the bond of the Silk Road was never really broken. Traces left by merchants from past centuries still remain in several places in China to this day. One is in the southeastern Chinese coastal city of Quanzhou. There lives a woman who bears the legacy of the Silk Road and whose fate is closely connected with the historic trade route.

I meet Xu-Shi Yin’e whilst enjoying a cup of black Ceylon tea at a tea shop on a busy shopping street owned by her friend Huang Yongjiang. At first glance, Xu-Shi Yin’e appears shy. With her hair neatly pinned up, she wears a flower-patterned summer dress, a fine white cardigan and a pair of snow-white ballerinas. The 51-year-old looks fragile at first glance, almost reminiscent of a timid schoolgirl. But she became animated and bubbly as she told her story. She has given many interviews over the past few years, but talked only to me about a secret that her family has closely guarded for centuries.

Ancestor Mysteries

During her childhood, Xu-Shi Yin’e learned from her grandmother that the family’s ancestors were not from China but another distant land. Xu-Shi Yin’e recalls how she tried many times to decipher the cryptic genealogical inscriptions in her family shrine, which were written in a foreign language. At that time, the young girl did not think much about it. She lived in a city where different cultures were constantly coming together and where the multicultural history of the Silk Road was showcased.

Centuries ago, many foreign merchants liked the metropolis – with its mild climate, business opportunities, harmonious society, and multicultural atmosphere – so much that they stayed. Some married locals and settled permanently. Many descendants of these dealers still live in the city. Strong Muslim influences are particularly apparent in Quanzhou today, telling of this glorious past.

But Xu-Shi Yin’e’s ancestors were anything but simple merchants. When she was 16 years old, her father revealed to her a secret that the family had concealed for generations. He enjoined her never to reveal it, not even to her husband.

In Xu-Shi Yin’e’s veins flows blue blood. She and her family are the descendants of the Sri Lankan royal family. One of her ancestors, the heir to the throne of Ceylon (today’s Sri Lanka), came to the imperial Ming Dynasty court (1368-1644) 500 years ago with a delegation headed by the famous Chinese navigator Zheng He as an envoy on the long and arduous sea route to China. While he was in the Chinese empire, his father died unexpectedly in his distant homeland. His return had become unthinkable and so the prince decided to stay in Quanzhou, then the No.1 port of the East. He later fell in love with an Arab female noble and localized his family name to Shi, the first character of the Chinese translation of his name. The Shi line continued for hundreds of years. But the 14th generation of the family produced no male heir, and a local man named Xu married into the family, so the clan adopted the compound surname Xu-Shi.

After his death, the Prince of Ceylon was buried in Quanzhou and for centuries his descendants guarded not only his tomb, but also the secret of the true origin of the family. Xu-Shi Yin’e would have continued this clandestine tradition had it not been for a large-scale renovation plan of Quanzhou. In 1996, local media reported a major archaeological discovery in the city: the grave of a prince of ancient Ceylon. Two years later, the old tomb appeared again in the media, however, this time in the context of an urban redevelopment project that was planned to be carried out on the site of the grave. “I couldn’t stand by and watch as the inheritance of my ancestors fell victim to the bulldozers,” said Xu-Shi Yin’e. After much deliberation, she decided to break the promise to her father and make public the family’s true identity in order to save history from destruction. Since then, the 51-year-old has been in the spotlight.

Seeking Roots

After experts verified the historical evidence she presented, Xu-Shi Yin’e received many invitations for interviews and numerous calls from Sri Lanka. In 2000, a panel from Sri Lanka traveled to Quanzhou to carry out a first-hand investigation. Two years later, Xu-Shi Yin’e was officially invited to the land of her ancestors and was received with royal honors.

In Sri Lanka, Xu-Shi Yin’e visited the National Museum, which exhibits a large number of Chinese cultural relics, including gold and silver articles, coins, silks, bronze censers, and candelabra given by Zheng He to a local monastery, as well as a stele commemorating his donation in the Chinese, Tamil, and Persian languages. Besides, the museum boasts many Chinese porcelain items of different ages, some of which were made in Dehua County, Quanzhou. These cultural relics not only confirmed that Quanzhou was an important port on the Maritime Silk Road, but also that it witnessed a long history of friendly exchanges between China and Sri Lanka.

To continue this traditional friendship, Xu-Shi Yin’e presented to the museum a white-ware statue of the Goddess of Mercy made in Dehua. Further on her trip, she was feted by Jiang Qinzheng, the Chinese ambassador to Sri Lanka, and was encouraged to continue her support for China-Sri Lanka friendship.

During her visit to Kandy, a cultural hub of Sri Lanka, the mayor held a tree planting ceremony for Xu-Shi Yin’e in Peradeniya Royal Botanical Gardens, one of the best tropical plant gardens in the world, to commemorate the prince who made such an outstanding contribution to Sri Lanka-China friendship.

During the 10-day trip to her ancestral land, Xu-Shi Yin’e realized that the local government and people cherished and attached great importance to their friendship with China, and hoped to develop it further.

Envoy of Friendship

Xu-Shi Yin’e leads an ordinary life, not much different from that of many citizens in Quanzhou. She runs a small antique shop, whose name, Xilan Studio, is a homophone of Ceylon. But all the while, she endeavors to play an active part in China-Sri Lanka activities.

In 2010, she was received by Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister, D. M. Jayaratne, during the pavilion opening ceremony at the Shanghai World Expo. In 2012, she was invited to a banquet to celebrate the 64th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s independence and the 55th anniversary of diplomatic relations between China and Sri Lanka. In 2013, she attended the founding conference of the Sri Lanka-China Cultural Exchange Association. In 2014, in Quanzhou she received Ranjith Uyangoda, Sri Lankan ambassador to China.

The Silk Road is not confined to the history books for Xu-Shi Yin’e; it is a living page of her family history. Over the centuries, the Shi lost their mother tongue and Sinhalese facial features, but Xu-Shi Yin’e still senses her Sri Lankan roots. She has inherited a staunch Buddhist faith, a sunny disposition, and a love for black Ceylon tea. Even though her family has been away from their ancestral home for more than five centuries, they remain closely connected with it.

“I hope that the old ties between the two countries will become much more intense in the future,” she said. “Today, the routes between China and Sri Lanka are much closer than in the past and it would be a shame not to make full use of this.”

In 2008, Xu-Shi Yin’e met Huang Yongjiang, whose company maintains close economic relations with Sri Lanka. Huang imports black Ceylon tea from Sri Lanka and not only brings with it a piece of Sri Lankan culture to Quanzhou and China, but also strengthens the economic relations between the two countries in the new era.

“I hope that the old Silk Road and trade between our two countries in the future will continue to flourish,” said Xu-Shi Yin’e. “People in my old home will not only benefit economically, it will also bring our two peoples even closer.”

Huang learned of the descendant of Sri Lankan royalty during the media frenzy. “He said he wanted to get to know me,” Xu-Shi Yin’e said when recalling that first call from Huang. Today, the two not only share their love of strong Ceylon tea, but also a close friendship.

Even though the modes of transport along the Silk Road are vastly different today and allow people to reach other countries in a matter of hours, rather than weeks and months, the fact remains: The new Silk Road is like the old one; it combines not only different economies, but above all different peoples, their cultures, past, and future.