Every afternoon 55-year-old Xu-Shi Yin’e sits in a gallery on Tumen Street in the coastal city of Quanzhou, east China’s Fujian Province, receiving admirers from both China and Sri Lanka like a monarch.
She is one of the 19th generation descendants of the Ceylon prince who traveled to China in the 15th century. The royal family once ruled Ceylon, the then kingdom of the South Asian country of Sri Lanka.
In her art saloon, Xu-Shi keeps specialties and artifacts from Sri Lanka, such as black tea, a sari, and brightly colored elephant sculptures, as well as pictures of her meeting with Sri Lankan leaders and politicians.
She opened the gallery in July, as she had so many visitors that the former antique shop was no longer able to accommodate them.
With elaborate patterns and vibrant colors on the gallery’s arched facade, it stands out from the neighborhood shops.
As quiet as Xu-Shi seems, she becomes exuberant when talking about her Sri Lankan ancestry.
Her family maintained a low-profile life keeping their royal status secret for generations.
The family can be traced back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) when the Prince of Ceylon visited China as an emissary in the year 1459.
“But on his return trip, he fell in love with the mountains and waters of Quanzhou and resolved to stay,” said Xu-shi, pointing at a paragraph on the family tree.
Fu Enfeng, director of the archaeology department of Quanzhou Maritime Museum, said Quanzhou is one of the ports of departure on ancient Maritime Silk Road, linking China with the rest of the world. It was likened to the Port of Alexandria by the 13th century traveler Marco Polo.
In Quanzhou, the prince married a woman of Persian origin. He was given the name Shi by the Chinese emperor and settled down like a common citizen. Since then, no one knew his whereabouts back in Sri Lanka.
The family runs a thin line. For generations, there was only one son. Changes happened during the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) when a man surnamed Xu married into the Shi family as there were no sons, changing the family name to Xu-Shi.
Like many locals, members of the family migrated overseas for better opportunities in the early 20th century. In 1970, Xu-Shi’s parents moved to Hong Kong with her three brothers, and by then her grandfather had built a substantial construction business in the Philippines.
The young girl was left in Quanzhou under the care of her great-grandmother, without any knowledge of her family’s hidden history.
“My grandma was always mumbling that our ancestors came from afar by sea,” she said. But her father only told her one thing: the graveyard of the family is in Shijiakeng, or “pit of Shi family,” in Qingyuan Mountain on the outskirts of Quanzhou.
Her grandmother, for fear of being accused of “having illicit foreign relations,” burned all the family tree records to avoid any possible trouble during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), which made it harder for the family to retrieve their history.
In 1983, Xu-Shi married a Chinese historian and they ran an artifact and antique shop in downtown Quanzhou.
In 1986, the Sri Lankan government requested the Chinese government trace the lost family of the Sri Lankan prince. The task was assigned to Quanzhou Maritime Museum.
After a decade-long search, Liu Zhicheng, an archeologist with the museum, finally located him in Shijiakeng, the Shi family graveyard in which he found tombstones with inscriptions saying that the remains were of the descendants of a Sri Lankan prince.
Liu and his colleagues carried 25 tombstones to a museum warehouse for protection and further study and published an article in a local newspaper, which came as quite a shock to historians and archeologists in China.
Xu-Shi said it was not until she read the article in the newspaper that she learned the true lineage of her family.
She reported to her father immediately, but the family chose not to disclose their identity after a long deliberation.
In 1998, when she heard some villagers had begun to bulldoze the graveyard to open up an orchard, she became anxious and turned to the local media for exposure.
A reporter with the Quanzhou Evening Newspaper published the family story, in which Xu-Shi was called “Ceylon Princess” for the first time.
Xu-Shi said had it not been for the risk of damage to the ancient tomb, which is a serious offense in Chinese customs, she might have kept her identity a secret.
Now Shijiakeng has been preserved as a historical relic site by the Quanzhou municipal government.
Sri Lankan historians were informed of the royal descendant and corroborated to trace evidence linking her to the royal family.
In 2002, Xu-Shi was invited to Sri Lanka and received with royal etiquette.
“I burst into tears the moment I set foot on Sri Lankan soil. It feels like I have realized the dream of coming home on behalf of my family’s ancestors,” she said.
The family has long forgotten their mother tongue, and their Sinhalese facial features have faded after intermarriages with other ethnic groups, but it did not stop the Sri Lankan people from loving their long lost princess.
A blue Sri Lankan sari gives her the appearance of a princess. Xu-Shi and her husband were astonished when a woman knelt down to touch their feet, a distinctive way of showing adoration and blessing in the country.
In 2010, she was received by D. M. Jayaratne, then prime minister of Sri Lanka, at the Shanghai Expo.
Xu-Shi said so far, she has made six visits to Sri Lanka, and each time she was accorded a ceremonial welcome by Sri Lanka’s government in the etiquette of a princess.
Media exposure has changed her life, but Xu-Shi said she has accepted her role as a civic ambassador.
She is frequently invited to attend cultural and diplomatic events and deliver speeches about China-Sri Lanka relations. Many Sri Lankans take long trips to visit her.
On Feb. 4, she was invited to attend the 70th anniversary of Sri Lanka’s Independence Day celebration held by the Sri Lanka Consolate in Shanghai.
Lakshitha Ratnayake, Consul General of Sri Lanka in Shanghai, told Xinhua that Xu-Shi is the China-owned Ceylon Princess, and her presence to the event showed the ancient relationship and the strength of that relationship between Sri Lanka and China.
Wearing a fitted black dress and a pair of beige flats with a knot on top, Xu-Shi always keeps her hair neatly slicked back when meeting with visitors.
The devout Buddhist follows the routine of saying prayers for her family every morning. After a day’s work, she returns home to prepare dinner for the whole family.
She said things about Sri Lanka always touch her heartstrings.
“China and Sri Lanka are both my home. But except for the duties, I want an ordinary life just like the prince 600 years ago,” she said. Enditem