Imperial Chinese tributary system

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The Imperial tributary system of China was the network of trade and foreign relations between China and China's "tributaries" whose ideals in one form or another, for millennia, drove much of East Asian affairs. Chinese suzerainty over East Asia, governed and enforced through the Imperial tributary system, not only "deeply influenced the culture of the peripheral countries but also drew them into a China-centered, or "sino-centric", international order."[1] The Imperial tributary system shaped foreign policy and trade for over 2,000 years of Imperial China's dominance of the region, and thus played a huge role in the History of Asia, and the History of East Asia in particular.[2] Recently, some scholars have argued that it is misleading to think of a millennial tribute "system," rather than a loose set of expectations and precedents and they suggest that the system only flourished in the late Ming and early Qing dynasties.[3]

The system[edit]

The traditional Chinese international structure was different from many other systems developed in other parts of the world. First, it was premised on the belief that China was the cultural center of the world and that many foreigners were "less civilized" or "barbarians." Second, since the Chinese state was considered the center of all humankind, most other foreign rulers were expected to recognize the prominence of the Chinese court.[4] In the Qing period, countries wanting to trade with China had to send “tribute” missions that legitimized China's superiority and suzerainty (via the ritual of ke-tou (kow-tow), which consisted of three kneelings, each involving three prostrations before the emperor and in return they could trade for a specified number of days at border points designated by Beijing.[4]

Since Asian states wanting to trade with China continued to pay regular tribute to the Chinese court, there was little reason for the Chinese to doubt their predominance in the world order. Even the Europeans, who had first entered the Chinese waters as early as the sixteenth century, had submitted to trade within the highly restrictive Chinese system.[4] By conforming to the conditions imposed on them and by accepting their inferior position, the westerners strengthened the Chinese belief in the preeminence of the Middle Kingdom and in the tributary system of foreign relations.[5]

The Imperial Tributary system began its development during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE)[6] with hostage exchanges accepted as the norm.[7] Hostages continued to be used until the Tang dynasty (618–907). Both Confucianism and the Mandate of Heaven provided the ideological foundations for the tribute system. Emperor Han Wudi (r. 141 – 87 BCE) played a critical role in the formation of the system.[8] The tributary system showed cultural inferiority on part of the tributary state, and a show of reverence for the recipient of the tribute.[9]

Neighboring tributary states[edit]

Kingdoms along China's North-Western Frontier often struggled with the Imperial tributary system, and Beijing's rejection of tribute missions, and the lavish gifts and benefits gained, exacerbated, then helped soothe, the drawn-out and complex conflicts now known as the Ming-Turpan Border Wars.

Mansur then abandoned large-scale military expeditions, though he continued to sanction raids on China to attain his objectives. Instead he offered tribute, occasionally dispatching a dozen or more embassies a year. He was apparently eager to obtain the Chinese gifts granted to foreign embassies, and therefore limited his incursions.[10]

Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet, although outside China proper, were considered within the pale, and Beijing had the right to post agents and armed forces there. Korea, the Ryukyu Islands, Annam (present-day Vietnam), Siam (Thailand), Burma (new name Myanmar), and Nepal were “tributary states,” which sent regular tribute missions.[4]

The Ming dynasty declined to intervene under the isolationist and anti interventionist Hongwu Emperor when the Vietnamese attacked Champa, giving only a rebuke.[11] The Chinese again did not intervene in the 1471 Vietnamese invasion of Champa when Vietnam destroyed Champa. Both Vietnam and Champa were tributary states.

The investiture of rulers of tributary nations with titles by Chinese envoys was part of the system.[12]

Warfare between tributary states was arbitrated by the Chinese emperor. Malacca and Vietnam were both tributaries to China. Malacca sent envoys to China again in 1481 to inform the Chinese that while going back to Malacca in 1469 from a trip to China, the Vietnamese attacked them, castrating the young and enslaving them. The Malaccans reported that Vietnam was in control of Champa and also that the Vietnamese sought to conquer Malacca, but the Malaccans did not fight back due to lack of permission from the Chinese to engage in war. The Chinese Emperor scolded them, ordering the Malaccans to strike back with violent force if the Vietnamese attacked.[13]

The Ryukyu Kingdom was a tributary state to the Ming dynasty then the Qing dynasty. It was annexed by Japan, which caused a dispute between China and Japan. Li Hongzhang told Ulysses S. Grant that the Ryukyu had paid tribute to China for hundreds of years, and the Chinese reserved certain trade rights for them in an amicable and beneficial relationship, which Li claimed they preferred to being annexed and taken over by the Japanese.[14]

Entering into the tribute system was a requirement for foreign countries wishing to enter into trading relations with China.[15][16]

During the Nguyễn Dynasty (1802–1945), Vietnam's rulers copied the Imperial Chinese system, declaring themselves Emperors on the Chinese Confucian model and attempting to create a Vietnamese Imperial tributary system.[17]

The tributary system remained as the primary instrument of diplomatic exchange throughout the Imperial era until the final Qing dynasty fell and China became a republic in 1912.[18]


  1. ^ Vohra 1999, p. 22
  2. ^ Warren I. Cohen. East Asia at the Center : Four Thousand Years of Engagement with the World. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. ISBN 0231101082
  3. ^ John E. Wills. Past and Present in China's Foreign Policy: From "Tribute System" to "Peaceful Rise". (Portland, ME: MerwinAsia, 2010. ISBN 9781878282873.
  4. ^ a b c d Vohra 1999, p. 23
  5. ^ Vohra 1999, p. 24
  6. ^ Yu 1967, p. 36
  7. ^ Sima & Watson 1993, p. 84.
  8. ^ Hussain 2004, p. 84
  9. ^ Smits 1999, p. 35
  10. ^ Rossabi 1976
  11. ^ Edward L. Dreyer (1982). Early Ming China: a political history, 1355-1435. Stanford University Press. p. 117. ISBN 0-8047-1105-4. Retrieved 2010-11-28. 
  12. ^ Shih-shan Henry Tsai (1996). The eunuchs in the Ming dynasty (illustrated ed.). SUNY Press. p. 151. ISBN 0-7914-2687-4. Retrieved 2010-06-28. 
  13. ^ Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland. Straits Branch, Reinhold Rost (1887). Miscellaneous papers relating to Indo-China: reprinted for the Straits Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society from Dalrymple's "Oriental Repertory," and the "Asiatic Researches" and "Journal" of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, Volume 1. Trübner & Co. p. 252. Retrieved 2011-01-09. 
  14. ^ Ulysses Simpson Grant, John Y. Simon, Ulysses S. Grant Association (2008). John Y. Simon, ed. The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant: October 1, 1878-September 30, 1880 (illustrated ed.). SIU Press. p. 165. ISBN 0-8093-2775-9. Retrieved 2011-01-11. 
  15. ^ Barbara Bennett Peterson (2000). Barbara Bennett Peterson, ed. Notable women of China: Shang dynasty to the early twentieth century (illustrated ed.). M.E. Sharpe. p. 289. ISBN 0-7656-0504-X. Retrieved June 20, 2011. 
  16. ^ Kuan-Hsing Chen (2007). Kuan-Hsing Chen, Beng Huat Chua, ed. The Inter-Asia cultural studies reader. Psychology Press. p. 94. ISBN 0-415-43134-4. Retrieved June 20, 2011. 
  17. ^ Alexander Woodside (1971). Vietnam and the Chinese model: a comparative study of Vietnamese and Chinese government in the first half of the nineteenth century (reprint, illustrated ed.). Harvard Univ Asia Center. p. 234. ISBN 0-674-93721-X. Retrieved June 20, 2011. 
  18. ^ Britannica 2010, p. 222


Further reading[edit]

  • Warren I. Cohen. East Asia at the Center : Four Thousand Years of Engagement with the World. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. ISBN 0231101082.
  • John E. Wills. Past and Present in China's Foreign Policy: From "Tribute System" to "Peaceful Rise". (Portland, ME: MerwinAsia, 2010. ISBN 9781878282873.