Imperial Chinese tributary system

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The Imperial Chinese tributary system (Chinese: 朝貢體系) was the network of trade and foreign relations between China and its tributaries, which helped to shape much of East Asian affairs. Contrary to other tribute systems around the world, the Chinese tributary system consisted almost entirely of mutually-beneficial economic relationships,[1] and member states of the system were politically autonomous and, in almost all cases, independent as well.[2] Through the tribute system, which facilitated frequent economic and cultural exchange, the various dynasties of Imperial China "deeply influenced the culture of the peripheral countries and also drew them into a China-centered, or "sino-centric", international order."[3] The Imperial tributary system shaped foreign policy and trade for over 2000 years of Imperial China's economic and cultural dominance of the region, and thus played a huge role in the History of Asia, and the History of East Asia in particular.[4] 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; they suggest that the system flourished only in the late Ming and early Qing dynasties.[5]


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 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.[6] In the Qing period, countries wanting to trade with China had to send "tribute" missions that acknowledged China's cultural superiority and nominal suzerainty by the ritual of ke-tou, or kow-tow, which consisted of three kneelings, each involving three prostrations before the emperor. In return, they could trade for a specified number of days at border points designated by Beijing.[6]

Since neighboring Asian states were required to pay tribute to establish economic relations with the Chinese court, there was little reason for the Chinese to doubt their predominance in the world order. Even the Europeans, who first entered the Chinese waters as early as the 16th century, had submitted to trade within the highly restrictive Chinese system.[6] By conforming to the conditions imposed on them and by accepting their nominally "inferior" position, the Westerners strengthened the Chinese belief in the preeminence of the Middle Kingdom and in the tributary system of foreign relations.[7]

The system traces its roots to the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE)[8] with hostage exchanges accepted as the norm.[9] Hostages continued to be used until the Tang dynasty (618–907). 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.[10]

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, and 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.[11]

Mongolia, Xinjiang, and Tibet, although outside China Proper, were still considered within Chinese jurisdiction, and Beijing had the right to post agents and armed forces there. Korea, the Ryukyu Islands, Annam (present-day Vietnam), Siam (Thailand), Burma (Myanmar), and Nepal were “tributary states,” which sent regular tribute missions.[6]

The Ming dynasty declined to intervene under the isolationist and anti-interventionist Hongwu Emperor when the Vietnamese attacked Champa, giving only a rebuke.[12] 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.[13]

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 because of a 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.[14]

The Ryukyu Kingdom was a tributary state to the Ming dynasty then the Qing dynasty. It was attacked by Japan in 1609 and became a vassal state of the Satsuma clan, but it was allowed to continue its existing tributary relation with China to allow for indirect Japanese trade with China. Efforts were made to obscure Satsuma's domination of Ryukyu from the Chinese Court to ensure the continuation of trade and diplomacy, since China refused to conduct formal relations or trade with Japan at the time.

Thailand was always subordinate to China as a vassal or a tributary state since the Sui dynasty until the Taiping Rebellion of the late Qing dynasty in the mid-19th century.[15] The Sukhothai Kingdom established official relations with the Yuan dynasty during the reign of King Ram Khamhaeng.[16] Wei Yuan, the 19th century Chinese scholar, considered Thailand to be the strongest and most loyal of China's Southeast Asian tributaries, citing the time when Thailand offered to directly attack Japan to divert the Japanese in their planned invasions of Korea and the Asian mainland, as well as other acts of loyalty to the Ming dynasty.[17] Thailand was welcoming and open to Chinese immigrants, who dominated commerce and trade, and achieved high positions in the government.[18]

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.[19]

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.[20]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Eisenman, Joshua; Heginbotham, Eric; Mitchell, Derek (2007). China and the Developing World: Beijing's Strategy for the Twenty-First Century. M.E. Sharpe. p. 9. Retrieved May 28, 2015.  "While flawed, the tributary system offered mutual benefit from both economic and security standpoints to the tributary states and China alike. Tributary states received trade benefits and, in some cases, security guarantees"
  2. ^ Zhang, Yongjin; Buzan, Barry (Spring 2012). "The tributary system as international society in theory and practice". The Chinese Journal of International Politics. Oxford Journals. 5 (1): 3–36. doi:10.1093/cjip/pos001. Participants and aspiring participants in Pax Sinica, nevertheless, remained sovereign entities, to the extent that they retained their autonomy and independence in conducting their domestic and ‘foreign’ affairs. 
  3. ^ Vohra 1999, p. 22
  4. ^ Warren I. Cohen. East Asia at the Center : Four Thousand Years of Engagement with the World. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000. ISBN 0231101082
  5. ^ John E. Wills. Past and Present in China's Foreign Policy: From "Tribute System" to "Peaceful Rise". (Portland, ME: merwinAsia, 2010. ISBN 9781878282873.
  6. ^ a b c d Vohra 1999, p. 23
  7. ^ Vohra 1999, p. 24
  8. ^ Yu 1967, p. 36
  9. ^ Sima & Watson 1993, p. 84.
  10. ^ Hussain 2004, p. 84
  11. ^ Rossabi 1976
  12. ^ 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. 
  13. ^ 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. 
  14. ^ 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. 
  15. ^ Gambe, Annabelle R. Overseas Chinese Entrepreneurship and Capitalist Development in Southeast Asia. LIT Verlag Münster. p. 99. ISBN 9783825843861. Retrieved 19 July 2016. 
  16. ^ Chinvanno, Anuson. Thailand’s Policies towards China, 1949–54. Springer. p. 24. ISBN 9781349124305. Retrieved 19 July 2016. 
  17. ^ Leonard, Jane Kate. Wei Yuan and China's Rediscovery of the Maritime World. Harvard Univ Asia Center. pp. 137–138. ISBN 9780674948556. Retrieved 19 July 2016. 
  18. ^ Gambe, Annabelle R. Overseas Chinese Entrepreneurship and Capitalist Development in Southeast Asia. LIT Verlag Münster. p. 100–101. ISBN 9783825843861. Retrieved 19 July 2016. 
  19. ^ 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. 
  20. ^ Britannica 2010, p. 222


Further reading[edit]