Foreign relations of imperial China
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Imperial China had a long tradition of foreign relations. From the Qin Dynasty until the Qing Dynasty, the culture of China had an impact upon neighboring and distant countries, while gradually being transformed by outside influences as well.
In premodern times, the theory of foreign relations of China held that the Chinese Empire was the Celestial Dynasty, the center of world civilization, with the Emperor of China being the leader of the civilized world. This view saw China as equivalent to All under heaven. All other states were considered to be tributaries, under the suzerain rule of China. Some were direct vassals. Theoretically, the lands around the imperial capital were regarded as "five zones of submission", - the circular areas differentiated according to the strength of the benevolent influence from the Son of Heaven.
Unsurprisingly, there were a few periods when Chinese foreign relations could sometimes take on isolationist tones, because of the view that the rest of the world was poor and backwards and had little to offer.
Nevertheless, China was, from very early history, a center of trade. Many of China's interactions with the outside world came via the Silk Road. This included, during the 2nd century AD, contact with representatives of the Roman Empire, and during the 13th century, contact with Venetian traveler Marco Polo.
Chinese foreign policy was often aimed at containing the threat of so-called "barbarian" invaders (such as the Xiongnu, Mongols, and Jurchen) from the north. This could be done by military means, such as an active offense (campaigns into the north) or a more passive defense (as exemplified by the Great Wall of China). The Chinese also arranged marriage alliances known as heqin, or "peace marriage."
Qin Dynasty 
Although many kings of the Shang and Zhou dynasties ruled beforehand, in 221 BC, the ruler of the State of Qin, Qin Shi Huang, was the first to conquer the different nations of the Zhou Confederation, as well as other non-sinicized states. He was able to transform these different states into a relatively unified and uniform empire, the Qin Dynasty. Under his leadership and a society modelled around strict adherence to the Legalist philosophy, his once backwater western frontier state conquered all of the rivaling Warring States in ancient China. The Chinese domain was also extended into Inner Mongolia and Manchuria to the north, and with naval expeditions sent to the south, the indigenous Baiyue of modern-day Guangdong and northern Vietnam (the latter called Jiaozhi, and then Annam during the Tang Dynasty) were also quelled and brought under Chinese rule.
Han Dynasty 
The period of the Han Dynasty (202 BC–220 AD) was a groundbreaking era in the history of Imperial China's foreign relations. During the long reign of Emperor Wu of Han (r. 141–87 BC), the travels of Chinese ambassador Zhang Qian opened up China's relations with many different Asian territories for the first time. While traveling to the Western Regions in order to seek out an alliance with the Yuezhi against the Xiongnu, Zhang was imprisoned by the Xiongnu for many years, but he brought back detailed reports of lands that had been previously unknown to the Chinese. This included details of his travels to the Greek-Hellenized kingdoms of Fergana (Dayuan) and the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom (Daxia), as well as reports of Anxi (Persian Empire of Parthia), Tiaozhi (Mesopotamia), Shendu (India), and the Wusun Central Asian nomads. After his travels, the famous land trading route of the Silk Road leading from China to the Roman Empire was established. Emperor Wu was also known for his conquests and successful campaigns against the Xiongnu. He warred against the Kingdom of Wiman Joseon in order to establish the Four Commanderies of Han in Manchuria, one of which was established in northern Korea, the Lelang Commandery. By 111 BC, Emperor Wu reconquered northern Vietnam. It had been under the Nanyue Kingdom's rule since the Qin naval officer Zhao Tuo had broken ties with mainland rule in the fall of Qin and establishment of Han.
Yet Chinese trading missions to follow were not limited to travelling across land and terrain. During the 2nd century BC, the Chinese had sailed past Southeast Asia and into the Indian Ocean, reaching India and Sri Lanka by sea before the Romans. This sea route became well traveled not only by merchants and diplomats, but also Chinese religious missionaries in search of further Indian Buddhist texts to translate from Sanskrit to Chinese. In AD 148, the Parthian prince known as An Shigao was the first to translate Buddhist scriptures into Chinese. There were many other Buddhist missionaries as well, including Yuezhi missionaries and Kushan Buddhist missionaries from northern India who introduced Buddhism to China. The Emperor Ming of Han establishing the White Horse Temple in the 1st century AD is demarcated by the 6th-century Chinese writer Yang Xuanzhi as the official introduction of Buddhism to China. Also by the 1st century AD, the Chinese made sea contacts with Yayoi period Japan, inhabited by what the Chinese termed as the Wa people. By the 1st century, the Chinese also established relations with the Kingdom of Funan, centered in what is now Cambodia, but stretched partly into Burma, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.
The Han general Ban Chao (AD 32-102) reconquered the states in the Western Regions (modern day Tarim Basin in Xinjiang) after pushing the Xiongnu out of the region. This included the kingdoms of Kashgar, Loulan, and Khotan, which were returned to Chinese control. He also sent his emissary Gan Ying even further in order to reach Rome (Daqin). Gan Ying perhaps made it as far as the Black Sea and Roman-era Syria, but turned back. He did however bring back reports of the Roman Empire, and there is evidence that subsequent Roman embassies to China took place.
The first diplomatic contact between China and the West occurred with the expansion of the Roman Empire in the Middle-East during the 2nd century, the Romans gained the capability to develop shipping and trade in the Indian Ocean. The first group of people claiming to be an embassy of Romans to China is recorded in 166, sixty years after the expeditions to the west of the Chinese general Ban Chao. It came to Emperor Huan of Han China, "from Antun (Emperor Antoninus Pius), king of Daqin (Rome)". Although, as Antoninus Pius died in 161, leaving the empire to his adoptive son Marcus Aurelius (Antoninus), the convoy arrived in 166, and the both Emperor being "Antonius" the confusion arises about who sent the embassy.
Period of Disunity 
Although introduced during the Han Dynasty, the chaotic, divisionary Period of Disunity (220-589) saw a flourishing of Buddhism and travels to foreign regions inspired by Buddhist missionaries. There were Indian monks such as Kumarajiva (344-413) from Kucha who traveled to China in order to translate Sanskrit-language texts into Chinese. There were also many Chinese who traveled abroad in order to obtain and translate Buddhist sutras into Chinese, such as the Chinese monk Faxian (337-422), who in his old age traveled to Sri Lanka, India, and Nepal. From China, Buddhism entered Korea by 372. It was first practiced in the northern state of Goguryeo, and would eventually develop into distinctive Korean Buddhism. As recorded in the Nihon Shoki, Buddhism in Japan was introduced by 552 with a religious mission sent by Seong of Baekje, ruler of one of the three Korean kingdoms.
Three Kingdoms 
The Three Kingdoms (220-280) was a period of Chinese history consumed by incessant warfare amongst a triad of rival claimants to the Han legacy. The triple schism of China into three warring states made engaging in costly conflict a necessity, so they could not heavily commit themselves to issues and concerns of traveling abroad. The Kingdom of Shu Han in the west conquered the Hmong people to the southwest, then known as the Nanman. There was another recorded Roman embassy to China that visited the court of Cao Rui (226-239) in the northern state of Cao Wei, most likely sent by Alexander Severus. Another Roman embassy was recorded in 284, most likely sent by Carus; this was the last Sino-Roman contact recorded by the Chinese.
Jin Dynasty 
The Jin Dynasty was established in 265 (after conquering Shu Han) by the noble Sima family that had once served the state of Cao Wei, and conquered the kingdom of Eastern Wu in 280, thus ending the Three Kingdoms era. However, the state was weakened and left vulnerable with the War of the Eight Princes from 291 to 306. This allowed for sinicized Xiongnu nomads to capture both of China's historical capitals at Luoyang and Chang'an, forcing the remnants of the Jin court to flee south to Jiankang (Nanjing). The Xiongnu then established rule in the north under the Han Zhao kingdom. The Jin Dynasty period saw a continuing flourishing of Buddhism and Buddhist travel.
Southern and Northern Dynasties 
The Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589) period was a period consumed by warfare like the Three Kingdoms before it, yet this period saw the flourishing of Buddhist sites along the Silk Road like never before. This includes Buddhist sites such as the Yungang Grottoes, the Longmen Grottoes, and the Mogao Caves.
Sui Dynasty 
Emperor Wen of Sui ruled in northern China since 581, and conquered the Chen Dynasty in the south by 589, hence reunifying China under the Sui Dynasty (581–618). He and his successor Emperor Yang of Sui initiated several military campaigns.
Northern Vietnam was retaken by conquest, while there was a temporary occupation of the Champa Kingdom in southern Vietnam. They launched unsuccessful campaigns against the northern Korean kingdom of Goguryeo during the Three Kingdoms of Korea, depleting not only troops but ultimately much of the government's revenue.
Prince Shōtoku made his queen Suiko call herself Empress, and claimed an equal footing with the Chinese Emperor who regarded himself as the only Emperor in the world at that time. Thus Shōtoku broke with Chinese principle that a non-Chinese sovereign was only allowed to call himself king but not emperor.
Emperor Yang of Sui thought of this Japanese behavior as 'insolent', because it opposed his ethnocentrism of China world view, but finally, he had to accept it and send an embassy to Japan to answer a salute in the next year as he had to avoid conflict with Japan to prepare the conquest of Goguryeo .
After that the Japanese sovereign's messages to China began with the words "I, the Emperor of the land of the Rising Sun, salute you, the Emperor of the land of the sunset." (日出處天子致書日沒處天子無恙云云)
Tang Dynasty 
The Tang Dynasty (618-907) represents another high point for the Middle Kingdom in terms of its military might, conquest and establishment of vassals and tributaries, foreign trade, and its central political position and preeminent cultural status in East Asia.
One of the most ambitious rulers of the dynasty was Emperor Taizong of Tang (r. 626-649). He initiated several significant war campaigns in Chinese history, most of them against powerful Turkic groups of Central Asia. This includes campaigns against Eastern Tujue, Tuyuhun, Tufan, the Xiyu states of the Tarim Basin, and the Xueyantuo. In a formidable alliance with the Korean Silla Kingdom, a combined Tang-Silla fleet made a decisive victory over the Korean Baekje Kingdom and her Yamato Japanese allies in the naval Battle of Baekgang in 663. Emperor Taizong also invaded the Goguryeo Kingdom in an effort to help their Silla Kingdom ally crush its rival kingdom of Goguryeo to the north. Taizong's other intention in invading northern Korea was to secure territory of Lelang Commandery, an old Chinese commandery in northern Korea that had been lost since the Goguryeo Kingdom captured it from the Jin Dynasty in the 313. However, Goguryeo's territory fell into the hands of Silla, not the Tang Dynasty.
Chinese trade relations during the Tang was extended further west to the Arabian Peninsula, East Africa, and Egypt. Many contemporary writers from foreign countries described Chinese ships, Chinese goods brought to foreign ports, as well as Chinese seaports. Amongst the Chinese authors, the writer Duan Chengshi (died 863) described trade in East African Somalia and between 785 and 805 the Chinese geographer Jia Dan described lighthouses that were erected in the Persian Gulf, confirmed later by Muslim writers al-Mas'udi and al-Muqaddasi. The introduction of Islam in China began during the reign of Emperor Gaozong of Tang (r. 649–683), with missionaries such as Sa'd ibn Abi Waqqas, a maternal uncle to the Prophet Muhammad. The seaport at Guangzhou in southern China became one of the largest seaports in the world, hosting foreign travelers throughout maritime Asia. The Tang Chinese capital city of Chang'an became well known as a multicultural metropolis filled with foreign travelers, dignitaries, merchants, emissaries, and missionaries. Chinese Buddhist monks such as Xuanzang (died 664) continued to travel abroad to places like India in order to gain wisdom, collect Buddhist relics, and translate additional sutras into Chinese.
Although the reign of Emperor Xuanzong of Tang (r. 712–756) is seen as the zenith point of the Tang Dynasty, it was during the last years of his reign that one of the most destructive rebellions in Chinese history occurred. The Tang Chinese had recruited many Central Asian Turks into their armed forces. One of these was An Lushan (703–757), a Sogdian-Turk who became a military commander and personal favorite of Xuanzong's concubine Yang Guifei. He instigated the An Lushan Rebellion, which caused the deaths of millions of people, cost the Tang Dynasty their Central Asian possessions, and allowed the Tibetans to invade China and temporarily occupy the capital at Chang'an. The dynasty recovered under Emperor Xianzong of Tang (805-820) but it never achieved its former martial and political strength. The unintended effect of the rebellion, however, was the loosening of government restrictions on trade. Although the 9th century was politically turbulent, the economy of China actually continued to thrive, bolstered still by foreign trade. The Japanese were sending embassies to Tang China as late as 894, which was finally halted by Emperor Uda by the persuasion of Sugawara no Michizane.
Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms 
The Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (907-960) period was an age of division and Chinese civil war between the unified Tang and Song dynasties. It is notable for the introduction of Greek Fire (or a formula similar to the original) from Chinese contacts in Arabia. Greek Fire was then applied to the new Chinese invention of the double-piston pump flamethrower, used in battle during the eras of the Five Dynasties and Song Dynasty.
Song Dynasty 
During the Northern Song period (960-1279), the Chinese emperors were forced to accept the Khitan Khaghan, ruler of the Manchurian-based Liao Dynasty, as their equals. When the Jurchens toppled the Liao Dynasty in a rebellion aided by the Song Dynasty, they then turned against Song and conquered northern China as far south as the Huai River.
The Southern Song (1127–1279) court was then forced to acknowledge the rulers of the Jurchen Jin Dynasty as their superiors. The Mongols conquered the Jin Dynasty in 1234 with aid given by the Song, yet the Song Dynasty was also conquered by 1279.
With powerful sinicized kingdoms to its north such as the Tangut-led Western Xia, the Song Dynasty Chinese were forced to engage in skillful diplomacy. The famous statesmen and scientists Shen Kuo (1031–1095) and Su Song (1020–1101) were both sent as Song ambassadors to the Liao Dynasty in order to settle border disputes. Shen Kuo asserted Song China's rightful borders in the north by dredging up old archived court documents and signed agreements between the Song and Liao dynasties. Su Song asserted Song China's rightful borders in a similar way, only he used his extensive knowledge of cartography and maps to solve a heated border dispute.
Chinese maritime trade increased dramatically during the Song period, with the bustling seaport at Quanzhou taking the lead. Maritime trade abroad was augmented by a booming shipbuilding industry in medieval Fujian province. It was also enhanced by an economic revolution in Song China and the presence of many wealthy, willing investors of maritime trade missions. There were several notable diplomatic missions sent to China from foreign countries during the Song Dynasty. This included the embassy of Al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah of Fatimid Egypt to the court of Emperor Zhenzong of Song in 1008, as well as the embassy of Kulothunga Chola I of the Indian Chola Dynasty to the court of Emperor Shenzong of Song in 1077.
Although the golden age of Chinese Buddhism ended during the Tang Dynasty, there were still influential Chinese Buddhist monks. This included the Zen Buddhist monk Wuzhun Shifan (1178–1249), who taught Japanese disciples such as Enni Ben'en (1201–1280). After returning to Japan from China, the latter contributed to the spread of Zen teaching in Japan and aided in the establishment of Tōfuku-ji.
Yuan Dynasty 
The Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) of China was the easternmost part of the vast Mongol Empire (stretching from East Asia to Eastern Europe), which became politically separated into four khanates beginning with the succession war in 1260. The Mongol leaders Genghis Khan, Ögedei Khan, Möngke Khan, and Hulagu Khan were able to conquer the Tangut Western Xia and the Jurchen Jin Dynasty in northern China, as well as invaded Korea under the Goryeo Dynasty, turning it into a vassal state that was ruled indirectly. The Mongols withdrew after Korean monarchs agreed to move its capital back to the mainland from Ganghwa Island.
It was the Mongol leader Kublai Khan who finally conquered the Southern Song Dynasty in 1279. Kublai was an ambitious leader who used Korean, Chinese, and Mongol troops to invade Japan on two separate occasions, yet both campaigns were ultimately failures.
The Yuan Dynasty Chinese and Mongols continued the maritime trading legacy of the Tang and Song dynasties. The Yuan Dynasty ship captain known as Wang Dayuan (fl. 1328-1339) was the first from China to travel by sea through the Mediterranean upon his visit to Morocco in North Africa. One of the diplomatic highlights of this period was the Chinese embassy to the Cambodian Khmer Empire under Indravarman III, led by the envoy Zhou Daguan (1266–1346) from the years 1296 to 1297. In his report to the Yuan court, Zhou Daguan described places such as Angkor Wat and everyday life of the Khmer Empire. It was during the early years of Kublai Khan's reign that Marco Polo (1254–1324) visited China, presumably as far as the previous Song capital at Hangzhou, which he described with a great deal of admiration for its scenic beauty.
Ming Dynasty 
The Ming, after the Han and T'ang, was another high point in China's power. The first emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), the Hongwu Emperor (r. 1368–1398), was the head of the Red Turban Rebellion when he routed the rival rebel Chinese leaders and then forced the Mongol leaders of the Yuan Dynasty to flee north, back into the Mongolian steppe. The Ming Dynasty made a string of conflicts with the Mongols thereafter, some of which were successful, and others of which were not. An example of the latter would be the Tumu Crisis in 1449, where the Zhengtong Emperor was captured by the Mongols and not released until a year later.
The Hongwu Emperor allowed foreign envoys to visit the capitals at Nanjing and Beijing, but enacted strict legal prohibitions of private maritime trade by Chinese merchants wishing to travel abroad. After the death of Timur, who intended to invade China, the relations between the Yongle Emperor's China and Shakhrukh's state in Persia and Transoxania state considerably improved. Both the Chinese envoy to Samarkand and Herat, Chen Cheng, and his opposite party, Ghiyāth al-dīn Naqqāsh, left detailed accounts of their visits to each other's country.
The greatest diplomatic highlights of the Ming period were the enormous maritime tributary missions and expeditions of the admiral Zheng He (1371–1433), a favored eunuch commander of the Yongle Emperor (r. 1402-1424). Zheng He's missions docked at ports throughout much of the Asian world, including those in Borneo, the Malay state of the Malacca Sultanate, Sri Lanka, India, Persia, Arabia, and East Africa. Meanwhile, the Chinese under Yongle invaded northern Vietnam in 1402, and remained there until 1428, when Lê Lợi led a successful native rebellion against the Chinese occupiers.
Large tributary missions such as these were halted after Zheng He, with periods of isolationism in the Ming, coupled with the need to defend China's large eastern coastal areas against marauding Japanese pirates. Although it was severely limited by the state, trade was overall not forbidden. After 1578, it was completely liberalized. Upon their arrival in the early 16th century, the Portuguese traded with the Chinese at Tuen Mun, despite some hostilities exchanged between both sides. The Ming Chinese also traded avidly with the Spanish, sending numerous Chinese trade ships annually to the Philippines in order to sell them Chinese goods in exchange for mita-mined silver from the New World colonies of Spain. There was so much Spanish silver entering China that the Spanish minted silver currency became commonplace in Ming China. The Ming Chinese attempted to convert the silver currency back to copper currency, but the economic damage was done.
Meanwhile, the Chinese under the Wanli Emperor (r. 1572–1620) became engaged in a somewhat costly war defending Korea against Japan. The Japanese regent Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537–1598) and his predecessor Oda Nobunaga (1534–1582) brought about the prosperous Azuchi-Momoyama period in feudal Japan, putting an end to the turbulent era of the Sengoku period. However, the Japanese staged an enormous invasion of Korea from 1592 to 1598. The aim of the Japanese was to ultimately invade prosperous Ming China, but in order to do so it would need to use the Korean Peninsula as a staging ground between the Sea of Japan and the Yellow Sea. Although initially successful, Toyotomi's efforts were sullied with the naval victories of the Joseon admiral Yi Sun-sin (1545–1598). Throughout the war, though, the Ming Chinese suffered significant casualties, and had spent a great deal of revenue sending troops on land into Korea and bolstering the Korean navy in battles such as the Battle of Noryang Point.
The decline of Ming China's economy by inflation was made worse by crop failure, famine, sudden plague, and agrarian rebellion led by those such as Li Zicheng (1606–1644), the Ming Dynasty fell in 1644. The Ming general Wu Sangui (1612–1678) was going to side with the rebels under Li, but felt betrayed when one of his concubines was taken by Li, and so allowed the Manchus under the Shunzhi Emperor (1638–1661) to enter a northern pass and invade northern China from their base in Manchuria.
The first Jesuit missionaries to visit China did so during the Ming Dynasty. The most prominent one was the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552–1610). Matteo is famous in China and the West for many reasons. He was the first to translate the Chinese classic texts into a Western language (Latin), and the first to translate the name of the most prominent Chinese philosopher Kong Fuzi as Confucius. Along with another Jesuit father, he was the first European to enter the Forbidden City of Beijing, during the reign of the Wanli Emperor. Matteo Ricci and his baptized Chinese colleague, the mathematician, astronomer, and agronomist Xu Guangqi (1562–1633), were the first to translate the ancient Greek mathematical treatise of Euclid's Elements into Chinese.
Qing Dynasty 
One issue facing Western embassies to China was the act of prostration known as the kowtow. Western diplomats understood that kowtowing meant accepting the superiority of the Emperor of China over their own monarchs, an act which they found unacceptable.
In 1665, Russian explorers met the Manchus in what is today northeastern China. Using the common language of Latin, which the Chinese knew from Jesuit missionaries, the Chinese emperor, Kangxi, and Russian tsar, Peter I, negotiated the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689, which delineated the borders between Russia and China, some of which exists to this day.
Russia was not dealt with through the Ministry of Tributary Affairs, but rather through the same ministry as the problematic Mongols, which served to acknowledge Russia's status as a nontributary nation. From then on, the Chinese worldview of all other nations as tributaries began to unravel.
Neither the Europeans nor the Chinese could have known that a Dutch embassy would turn out to be the last occasion in which any European appeared before the Chinese Court within the context of traditional Chinese imperial foreign relations.
Representing Dutch and Dutch East India Company interests, Isaac Titsingh traveled to Beijing in 1794-96 for celebrations marking the sixtieth anniversary of the Qianlong Emperor's reign. The Titsingh delegation also included the Dutch-American Andreas Everardus van Braam Houckgeest, whose detailed description of this embassy to the Chinese court was soon after published in the U.S. and Europe. Titsingh's French translator, Chrétien-Louis-Joseph de Guignes published his own account of the Titsingh mission in 1808. Voyage a Pékin, Manille et l'Ile de France provided an alternate perspective and a counterpoint to other reports which were then circulating. Titsingh himself died before he could publish his version of events.
The Chinese world view changed very little during the Qing Dynasty as China's sinocentric perspectives continued to be informed and reinforced by deliberate policies and practices designed to minimize any evidence of its growing weakness and West's evolving power. After the Titsingh mission, no further non-Asian ambassadors were allowed even to approach the Qing capital until the consequences of the First and Second Opium Wars changed everything.
See also 
- Imperial Chinese tributary system
- List of tributaries of imperial China
- List of recipients of tribute from China
- Adoption of Chinese literary culture
- Zongli Yamen
- Portraits of Periodical Offering
- Sino-Roman relations
- China-Iran relations
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