The tribute system, also known as the “kowtow system,” was a crucial feature of Chinese foreign relations during the imperial era. This system involved a network of political, economic, and cultural exchanges between China and other countries in East Asia, with the Chinese emperor at the centre of the system. In this article, we will explore the origins, evolution, and significance of the tribute system in imperial China.
What is the tribute system?-Imperial Chinese tributary system
China’s position as the regional superpower was bolstered by its tribute system, a network of diplomatic ties, and commercial exchanges during the imperial era. Foreign countries were expected to recognise China’s cultural and political superiority and pay tribute to the emperor in exchange for protection and patronage. The political, economic, and cultural climate of the region were all profoundly affected by this system, which persisted for centuries.
China’s tribute system has its roots in the early dynastic periods, when emperors asserted their divine right to rule by claiming the “Mandate of Heaven” over the entire world. A hierarchical worldview was developed as a result of this ideology, with China at the centre and a series of concentric circles of barbarian peoples surrounding it. According to this worldview, the emperor was the only legitimate head of state, and all other nations owed him tribute as a sign of respect and obedience.
The tribute system underwent a period of increased formalisation and structure during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). In order to show their reverence and submission to the Emperor, foreign envoys were expected to kowtow. This custom became central to the tribute system and was widely viewed as a means of bolstering China’s status and power. A tributary state system was also established by the Tang, with countries like Korea, Japan, and Vietnam among its subjects.
The tribute system evolved over time, becoming more intricate and nuanced. A system of “outer” and “inner” tributary states was established by the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), with the “outer” states obligated to pay tribute every three years and the “inner” states obligated to pay tribute annually. The Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) perfected the system by creating a hierarchical tribute relationship between the different states and introducing a system of imperial gifts in which the emperor would send valuable goods to the tributary states as a sign of his benevolence.
The tribute system served several crucial purposes. Primarily, it assisted in reiterating China’s status as the region’s preeminent power and establishing the emperor’s authority over neighbouring states. In addition to ensuring that China received valuable goods and resources from its neighbours in exchange for its protection and patronage, the tribute system also gave China a means of controlling trade and economic relations with its rivals.
Culturally and symbolically, the tribute system was also significant. China has asserted its cultural superiority and spread its cultural influence throughout the region by demanding homage from other countries in the form of the kowtow. More peace and cooperation were able to flourish as a result of the system’s role in forging a shared cultural identity among East Asian nations.
The tribute system had its advantages, but it also had its drawbacks. One reason is that the system was built on a foundation of unequal power dynamics, with China hegemonizing over smaller and weaker states. The tributary states were expected to provide valuable goods and resources to China in exchange for the emperor’s protection and patronage, which could be expensive.
The political, economic, and cultural landscape of East Asia was heavily influenced over centuries by the tribute system, despite its limitations. The cultural, political, and economic ties that exist between China and its neighbours in the region are all remnants of the tribute system.
What empires used the tribute system?
The tribute system was used by several empires throughout history, but it is most closely associated with Imperial China. Under the tribute system, foreign states were required to pay tribute to the Chinese emperor in exchange for protection and patronage and to acknowledge China’s cultural and political superiority.
The tribute system was first formalised during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), and it continued to be used in various forms throughout subsequent dynasties, including the Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing. During these periods, China established a network of tributary states, including Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and several Central Asian states.
Other empires also used tribute systems to maintain diplomatic and economic relationships with neighboring states. For example, the Aztecs in pre-Columbian Mexico had a tribute system in which subject states paid tribute in the form of food, textiles, and other goods. The Inca Empire in South America had a similar system, in which conquered peoples were required to pay tribute in the form of labor and goods.
In Europe, the Roman Empire also had a tribute system in which conquered peoples were required to pay tribute in exchange for protection and peace. The Byzantine Empire also maintained a tribute system, in which neighboring states paid tribute to the emperor in exchange for military protection and access to trade routes.
Here are some examples of the tribute system in history:
Assyrian Empire: The Assyrian Empire, which existed from the 9th to the 7th century BCE, is one of the earliest examples of a tribute system in history. The Assyrians conquered neighboring states and demanded tribute in the form of valuable goods, such as gold, silver, and precious stones. In exchange for paying tribute, the tributary states were granted protection by the Assyrian army.
Persian Empire: The Persian Empire, which existed from the 6th to the 4th century BCE, also operated a tribute system. The Persians conquered neighboring states and required them to pay tribute in the form of food, livestock, and other valuable goods. The tribute system helped to fund the Persian military and maintain control over the empire’s vast territory.
Roman Empire: The Roman Empire, which existed from the 1st century BCE to the 5th century CE, also used a tribute system to maintain control over its territories. Conquered peoples were required to pay tribute to Rome in the form of money, food, and other goods. In exchange, the Romans provided protection and access to Roman markets.
Aztec Empire: The Aztec Empire, which existed from the 14th to the 16th century CE, also had a tribute system. The Aztecs conquered neighboring peoples and required them to pay tribute in the form of food, textiles, and other goods. The tribute system helped to fund the Aztec military and maintain control over the empire’s vast territory.
Ming Dynasty: In China, the tribute system was a central component of the Ming Dynasty’s foreign relations strategy. The Ming Dynasty required neighboring states to pay tribute in the form of valuable goods, such as silk, tea, and porcelain. In exchange, the tributary states were granted access to Chinese markets and cultural exchange with China.
Overall, while the tribute system was most closely associated with Imperial China, it was a common feature of many empires throughout history as a means of maintaining diplomatic and economic relations with neighbouring states.
How did the tribute system work?
The tribute system was a complex system of diplomatic relationships and economic exchanges that operated in imperial China from the Tang Dynasty (618–907) through to the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912). The system had several components and mechanisms that worked together to reinforce China’s position as the dominant power in East Asia and to establish the emperor’s authority over other countries in the region.
Here is a summary of how the tribute system worked:
Tribute: Foreign states were required to pay tribute to the Chinese emperor in the form of valuable goods, such as silk, tea, porcelain, and precious metals. Tribut was seen as a sign of loyalty and submission to the emperor and was often accompanied by diplomatic missions.
Kowtow: Foreign emissaries were required to perform the kowtow, a ritual prostration before the emperor, as a sign of their respect and submission. This ritual was seen as a way of reinforcing China’s dominance and prestige.
Imperial Gifts: In return for paying tribute, the tributary states received gifts from the emperor. These gifts could include valuable goods, such as silk, jade, or gold, or they could be symbolic gestures, such as a scroll or plaque bearing the emperor’s imperial seal.
Diplomatic Missions: tributary states were required to send regular diplomatic missions to the imperial court in China to reaffirm their allegiance and to exchange gifts and messages. These missions provided an opportunity for the Chinese emperor to assert his authority and reinforce the tributary relationship.
Trade: The tribute system also facilitated trade between China and its tributary states. Tributary states were given access to Chinese markets and were able to trade with Chinese merchants. This trade was tightly controlled by the Chinese government and was often conducted through designated trading ports.
Overall, the tribute system was a mechanism for China to assert its cultural and political superiority over neighboring states and to control economic relationships with its tributary states. While the system was not without its flaws and limitations, it played a critical role in shaping the political, economic, and cultural landscape of East Asia for centuries.
Significance of the Tribute System
The tribute system was a critical component of China’s foreign relations for over a millennium, and its impact can still be felt today. Here are some of the key implications of the tribute system:
Imperial Control: The tribute system allowed the Chinese imperial court to establish a framework for diplomatic and economic relations with neighboring states. By requiring foreign states to pay tribute and perform the kowtow, the Chinese emperors were able to assert their authority and establish their cultural and political dominance over the region.
Trade: The tribute system facilitated trade between China and its tributary states. By controlling access to Chinese markets and regulating trade routes, the Chinese government was able to maintain a monopoly on certain goods, such as silk, tea, and porcelain. At the same time, the tribute system provided a mechanism for neighbouring states to access these coveted goods and to participate in regional trade networks.
Cultural Influence: The tribute system also served as a means of spreading Chinese culture and civilization to neighboring states. As part of the tribute missions, foreign emissaries were often exposed to Chinese language, art, literature, and philosophy. This helped to create a shared cultural sphere across East Asia and contributed to the spread of Chinese culture throughout the region.
Regional Stability: The tribute system helped to maintain a degree of stability and order in East Asia by establishing a framework for diplomatic and economic relations. While the system was not without its flaws, it provided a mechanism for resolving conflicts and establishing norms of behavior between different states.
Legacy: The tribute system left a lasting legacy on the political and cultural landscape of East Asia. Even today, some East Asian nations continue to use elements of the tribute system in their diplomatic relations with China. Moreover, the cultural and linguistic ties created by the tribute system continue to shape the region, providing a shared history and cultural heritage that bind East Asian nations together.
Overall, the tribute system was a complex and multifaceted mechanism that played a critical role in shaping the political, economic, and cultural landscape of East Asia for centuries. While its legacy is still debated by scholars, it is clear that the tribute system had a profound impact on the region and its history.
Chinese tribute system in history
The Chinese tribute system has a long and complex history dating back to ancient times. The system was formalized during the Han Dynasty and continued to be used by subsequent dynasties until the late 19th century. The tribute system was a key component of China’s foreign relations strategy and involved requiring neighboring states to pay tribute to the Chinese emperor in exchange for access to Chinese markets, protection, and cultural exchange. The system helped to establish China’s dominance over the region, facilitated trade and cultural exchange, and contributed to the formation of a shared cultural sphere in East Asia.
The origins of the tribute system can be traced back to ancient times, when powerful states demanded tribute from weaker neighbouring states in exchange for protection and other benefits. This system was based on the idea of a hierarchical relationship between states, with the more powerful state at the top and the weaker states at the bottom.
In China, the tribute system began to take shape during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), when the Han emperors began to demand tribute from neighbouring states as a way to solidify their control over the region. The Han also established a system of embassies, which were sent to neighbouring states to collect tribute and establish diplomatic relations.
The tribute system was further developed during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE), when the Chinese emperor formalised the system and established a set of rules and protocols governing the exchange of tribute. Under the Tang, the tribute system became an integral part of China’s foreign relations strategy, and the Chinese empire expanded its influence over neighbouring states through a combination of military force and diplomacy.
Over time, the tribute system evolved to become more complex, with more emphasis placed on cultural exchange and trade. The Ming Dynasty (1368–1644 CE) in particular placed a great deal of emphasis on cultural exchange and established a system of tributary envoys who were sent to China to pay tribute and learn about Chinese culture.
While the tribute system has its roots in ancient times, it continued to be used in China and other parts of the world until the modern era. Today, the legacy of the tribute system can still be seen in the cultural and economic ties that exist between China and other countries in the region.
Origins of the Tribute System
The prototype of the tribute system was the ancient Chinese (mainland) system of jurisdiction and service, in which the monarch (or king) of the Central Plains was the co-ruler of both the inner and outer regions (“Son of Heaven”). The monarch directly administered the “inner region” (central area) of the kingdom, and the rulers of the areas that were outside the direct jurisdiction of the monarch in the “outer region” (peripheral area) were enfeoffed by the Central Plains dynasty to govern those areas, with the inner and outer regions mutually protecting each other. This formed the concept of a world co-ruler with “All-under-Heaven” (Tianxia). In the process of historical development and cultural dissemination, the central “inner region” jurisdictional area continually expanded, many “outer region” areas gradually became part of the “inner region” after accepting the social organisation and ideological cultural concepts of the “inner region”, and new “outer region” areas continued to form. The continuous transformation between the inner and outer regions became the so-called “distinction between the Chinese and the barbarians”.
Evolution of the Tribute System
As early as the Shang Dynasty in China, rulers had established the concept of “nei fu” and “wai fu,” or “inner and outer service.” In this system, the monarch of the central Chinese kingdom was the common ruler of both the “nei fu,” or central region, which was directly governed, and the “wai fu,” or peripheral regions, which were ruled by local rulers who were recognised by the central Chinese kingdom. According to “Da Yu Mo” in “The Book of Documents,” all regions within the “Nine Provinces” were also responsible for paying tribute.
After the Zhou Dynasty replaced the Shang Dynasty, they further refined the system and developed the concepts of “wu fu,” “liu fu,” and “jiu fu.” In particular, the “Da Xing Ren” in the “Zhou Li” detailed the tribute periods and types of tribute items for each service and also introduced the concept of the “Fan Guo,” or “barbarian nations,” for the first time, attempting to extend this system to regions beyond the central Chinese kingdom’s control.
The Shang Dynasty’s “nei fu” and “wai fu” systems had a strong primitive tribal military alliance colour, while the Zhou Dynasty systematised and idealised it by establishing the concept that “under heaven, all within the four seas are his subjects,” attempting to make it a criterion for the known world. However, due to the Zhou Dynasty’s use of the system of enfeoffment and its later fall into the chaos of the warring states period, this system remained mostly on paper.
The concept of “belonging to a country” was introduced during the Warring States period, as seen in the Qin Weapon Inscription with the term “shu bang.”
The tribute system evolved over time as China’s relations with neighbouring states changed and new rulers came to power. During the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), tribute was mainly paid in the form of goods and services, such as valuable metals, exotic animals, and skilled craftsmen. Tribute missions were also sent to the Han court to pay homage and request an audience with the emperor.
Under the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE), the tribute system became more formalised, with a set of rules and protocols governing the exchange of tribute. Tributary states were required to send missions to the Tang court on a regular basis, and the Chinese emperor would reciprocate with gifts of equal or greater value.
During the Song Dynasty (960–1279 CE), the tribute system became more focused on cultural exchange and diplomacy, with the Chinese court seeking to establish friendly relations with neighbouring states through the exchange of art, literature, and knowledge. The Song also established a system of maritime trade, which allowed tribute to be transported by sea to and from neighbouring states.
In the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), the tribute system became more elaborate, with a system of tributary envoys who were sent to China to pay tribute and learn about Chinese culture. The Ming also established a system of maritime trade, which helped expand China’s influence in Southeast Asia.
Despite its evolution over time, the tribute system remained an important part of China’s foreign relations strategy until the 19th century, when it was replaced by more modern diplomatic practices. Today, the legacy of the tribute system can still be seen in the cultural and economic ties that exist between China and other countries in the region.
When was the tribute system established?
The origins of the tribute system can be traced back to the Xia and Shang dynasties in ancient China, when rulers established the inner and outer garments system, which later evolved into the inner and outer territories system. The Zhou dynasty further refined the system, developing the concepts of five garments, six garments, and nine garments, and establishing detailed regulations on tribute periods and types of tribute items. This means that the tribute system was established in ancient China over 3,000 years ago, but it underwent significant changes and refinements throughout the centuries until it evolved into the tribute system we know today.
Who created the tribute system?
The tribute system with written records can be traced back to the time of Emperor Yao. The details can be found in “Shang Shu – Yu Gong”. Emperor Yao commanded Yu to control the flooding, and after thirteen years, the task was completed. The empire was divided into nine provinces based on the terrain, and the tribute items and levels were established according to the land’s fertility, special products, and elevation.
The tribute system in China was not created by a single individual but rather evolved over time through various political and cultural developments. The earliest form of the tribute system can be traced back to the Xia and Shang dynasties, where the rulers established an inner and outer garment system. This system evolved into the inner and outer territories system during the Zhou dynasty, and the concept of tribute was further developed and refined during the Han dynasty. However, it was during the Ming dynasty that the tribute system reached its peak, with a well-established system of tribute relations with various neighbouring states and countries. Therefore, the tribute system was not created by a single individual but rather developed over centuries through the contributions of various dynasties and rulers in China.
What was the tribute system in Han Dynasty China?
The tribute system during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) in China was an organised system of relationships between the Han court and foreign states. The system was based on the concept of Tianxia, or “All Under Heaven,” which referred to the idea of the Han Empire being the centre of the world and all other states existing on the periphery.
Under the tribute system, foreign states could request to enter into a relationship with the Han Empire and become a vassal state. If accepted, they were required to send tributes of valuable goods and produce, such as silk, exotic animals, and rare metals, to the Han court on a regular basis. In exchange, the Han court would grant them imperial recognition and protection, as well as gifts and trade benefits.
The tributary states were also required to send envoys to the Han court on a regular basis to perform the kowtow, a gesture of submission, and present their tributes. This ritual emphasised the hierarchical nature of the relationship between the Han court and the tributary states, with the Han court being superior and the tributary states being inferior.
After Han Wu Di defeated the Xiongnu and opened up the Western Regions, the tribute system centered around the Central Plains dynasty of China was formally established because there were no opponents in the known world that could resist it. In this period of the tribute system, the Central Plains regime and other countries mainly had a “bestowal” relationship, where foreign countries needed to actively acknowledge the Central Plains regime’s co-sovereign status and rely on the central government’s bestowal to obtain the legitimacy of their rule. The central government often directly conferred titles such as “King of Han Wei Nu”, “King of Nan Yue Wu”, “King of Shule”, etc. on various regional regimes. Each vassal state had different obligations to the central government, such as tribute payments and providing military forces.
Later, the term “subject state” was used to avoid the taboo of Liu Bang, the founder of the Han Dynasty. According to the Records of the Grand Historian, in the autumn of the second year of Yuan Shou (121 BC), “the Kunxie King of the Xiongnu killed the Xiutu King and brought more than 40,000 people to surrender, setting up five vassal states to govern them.” Yan Shigu, the commentator of the Records of the Grand Historian, commented that “the term ‘subject state’ refers to preserving the name of the state while being subject to the Han dynasty, hence the term ‘subject state’.” The Book of Later Han also stated in its “List of Officials” that “a subject state is a jurisdiction that is set up in remote counties, separated from the district, and given the name of the district if the jurisdiction is small.” It can be seen that the “subject state” was an administrative system set up by the central dynasty to accommodate the surrendered border ethnic groups and was at the same level as the district. From the second year of Han Wu Di’s reign (121 BC) to the end of the Han Dynasty, there were subject states set up in various border counties of the northern, western, and eastern three borders, such as Ding’an, Tianshui, Shangjun, Xihe, Wuyuan, Jincheng, Beidi, Jianwei, Guanghan, Shu Jun, Zhangye, Juyan, and Liaodong. Large subject states had five or six cities, while small ones had only one or two. In large counties, remote counties were set up as subject states, such as the Guanghan Subject State, which was established by the Northern Border Protector General, and the Shu Jun Subject State, which was established by the Western Border Protector General, while in small counties, the subject state was set up within the county and did not have a separate name. For example, the Kucha Subject State existed only as a county named Shangjun.
Subject states had officials such as captains, lieutenants, marquises, and thousand-man commanders and were also divided into nine languages. There were also officials such as the subject state chief historian, subject state chief garrison officer, and subject state chief household officer. The positions were filled by Han people or minority leaders of groups such as the Xiongnu, Qiang, and Yi. The captain of the subject state had a rank comparable to that of the Western Regions Protector General, with a salary of two thousand stones, and was directly subordinate to the central government. Their authority over their people and military forces was equivalent to that of a prefect. Subject-state officials were in charge of the subject-state army and were called subject-state riders, or subject-state Hu riders.
The tribute system during the Han Dynasty was an effective way for the Han court to establish and maintain diplomatic relationships with foreign states while also enhancing the empire’s wealth and prestige through the acquisition of valuable tributes. It also helped to reinforce the idea of the Han Empire being the centre of the world and the superior power, as all tributary states were required to recognise the Han Empire as their superior.
What was the tribute system in Sui dynasty China?
During the Sui Dynasty (581-618), the tribute system was a political and economic institution that emphasized the relationships between the central government and the peripheral areas. The Sui Dynasty used the tribute system to expand their territories and control over various ethnic groups in the region. The system required neighboring states to pay tribute to the Sui Dynasty and recognize its authority as the dominant power. The central government in the Sui Dynasty would provide support to these neighboring states in return for their loyalty and tribute. This support could include military protection, trade opportunities, and cultural exchanges. The tribute system was crucial for maintaining stability and order within the empire and expanding its reach beyond its borders. It continued to be a significant part of China’s foreign policy during the subsequent Tang Dynasty.
What was the tribute system in Tang Dynasty China?
The tribute system during the Tang Dynasty (618–907) was a system of foreign relations in which neighbouring countries and kingdoms acknowledged the supremacy of the Tang Emperor and paid tribute to the imperial court in Chang’an, the capital of the Tang Dynasty. The tribute system was based on the ideas of hierarchy and reciprocity, with the Tang Emperor at the top, followed by other states that were ranked based on their degree of civilization and political power.
Under this system, foreign countries would send tribute missions to the Tang court, which consisted of valuable goods, exotic animals, and other items of cultural or religious significance. In return, the Tang Emperor would grant these countries permission to trade with China and provide them with military and economic protection. The tribute system was seen as a way to maintain peaceful relations with neighbouring states as well as to demonstrate the power and prestige of the Tang Dynasty to the rest of the world.
The Tang Dynasty also established a system of diplomatic missions, with ambassadors being sent to foreign countries to negotiate treaties and establish relations. The most famous of these diplomatic missions was the envoy sent by the Tang Emperor Taizong to the western Turks, which resulted in the establishment of the Silk Road, an important trade route connecting China to the Middle East and Europe. The Tang Dynasty’s tribute system was a major factor in the spread of Chinese culture and influence throughout East Asia, as many countries in the region adopted aspects of Chinese civilization, such as Confucianism, Buddhism, and the Chinese writing system.
In 291 AD, the Eight Princes’ War broke out in the Western Jin Dynasty, leading to the collapse of the central dynasty in China and the influx of many nomadic tribes into the heartland of the Han ethnic group. The original system of enfeoffment collapsed as a result. It was not until 589 AD, when the Sui Dynasty reunified China, that the tribute system was restored. However, with the collapse of the Tang Dynasty, subsequent dynasties such as the Song and Yuan arose, and the entire tribute system once again fell into chaos.
During this period, multiple political powers often simultaneously claimed to be the legitimate rulers of China and demanded tribute from surrounding countries. Smaller countries often paid tribute to multiple larger countries, and some even accepted tribute while simultaneously paying tribute to larger powers. This resulted in a complex web-like tribute system during this period. Even during the height of Tang Dynasty power, Japan and Bohai sought to become secondary tribute centres,and even referred to each other’s envoys as “tribute envoys.”
At the same time, the central Chinese government often adopted the “jimi” policy to replace the original system of enfeoffment. The main feature of this policy was that the enfeoffment was no longer just a royal title but an official position equivalent to a direct official, such as the Southern Song Dynasty’s Shun Emperor bestowing the title of “Grand General of the East” on the king of Baekje and the title of “Grand General of An Dong” on Japan. Starting from Tang Taizong’s reign, various local leaders were also commonly enfeoffed with official positions, and “jimi” prefectures and counties were established. For example, Bohai was enfeoffed as the “Grand Governor of Huhanzhou,” while Shule was enfeoffed as the “Governor of Shule.”
It is worth noting that there were three types of jimi systems during the Tang Dynasty. One type was the Jimi prefectures and counties established in areas where Tang Dynasty military power was prevalent, with their leaders inheriting their positions from tribal chiefs. These areas had internal autonomy and made symbolic tribute but were responsible for some duties, such as loyalty to the central government, not annexing other jimi units and inland prefectures and counties, and providing troops as required. In fact, the central government regarded them as part of its territory, and official documents used the term “imperial decree.” The second type was the so-called “inner vassal states,” such as Bohai, Shule, Nanzhao, and Khitan, which were generally regarded as governors or county princes and had their own territorial scope. However, the legitimacy of their leaders’ rule came from the central government’s endorsement, and they could not act independently. The central government regarded them as subjects, and official documents used the term “emperor’s inquiry.” The third type was the so-called “enemy states” and “isolated countries,” such as Tubo, Khwarezm, and Japan. Although they may have been enfeoffed, they were mostly recognised in recognition of the actual situation. The legitimacy of their leaders’ rule did not depend on the central government’s endorsement, and the central government’s official documents mostly used the term “emperor’s respect.”
What was the tribute system in Song Dynasty China?
During the Song dynasty (960–1279), the tribute system in China continued to play an important role in foreign relations. The main purpose of the tribute system was to maintain the superiority of the Chinese emperor and establish a hierarchical relationship between China and other countries.
Under the Song dynasty, the tribute system became more formalised and complex. The system was divided into two categories: “inner” and “outer” tributaries. The “inner” tributaries were countries that were considered to be under the direct control of the Song dynasty, and their rulers were required to present tribute to the emperor on a regular basis. These included countries such as Korea, Annam (Vietnam), and Tibet.
The “outer” tributaries were countries that were located further away from China, and their rulers were required to send tributary missions to China periodically to express their allegiance to the emperor. These countries included places such as Japan, the Khitan Liao dynasty in northern China, and the Western Xia dynasty in northwest China.
The tribute system also involved trade relations. Countries that presented tribute to China were granted access to the Chinese market, and they were allowed to trade with Chinese merchants on favourable terms. The tribute system also served as a means of diplomacy, as the Chinese court would often send envoys to foreign countries to establish or maintain friendly relations.
After the Song Dynasty, the control over the first type of the “jimi” system, which was the jimi states or counties under the military control of the central government, was further strengthened. In addition to tribal leaders, supervisory officials appointed by the central government were also dispatched to exercise control. This system evolved into the tusi system during the Yuan Dynasty, effectively incorporating these areas into the territory of the central government.
Overall, the tribute system during the Song dynasty played an important role in shaping China’s relations with other countries in East Asia, and it helped to maintain China’s status as a dominant regional power.
What was the tribute system in Ming dynasty China?
In 1368, the Ming Dynasty was established, and in 1371, Ming Taizu Zhu Yuanzhang specifically designated 15 countries, including Korea, Japan, Ryukyu, Annam, Champa, Siam, Cambodia, Sulu, the Western Ocean, Zhua, Penang, Baihua, Sanfoqi, and Boni, as “not to be conquered.” This was written into the “Ancestral Instructions,” warning future generations not to invade these barbarian countries unless provoked. He also established the principle of “thick tribute and thin return.” Thus, the tribute system was finally established as the prevailing international relations system in the East. In this system, the Chinese central government became the centre of the universe, and all tribute countries recognised this central status, becoming foreign vassals of the central government.
In the early 15th century, with the powerful treasure fleet of Zheng He cruising the Indian Ocean and the Yongle Emperor Zhu Di’s sweeping of Mongol forces in the north, the tribute system reached its peak. Under the “coercion” and “thick tribute and thin return” policies of the Ming Dynasty’s land and sea forces, the number of countries and tribes that paid tribute to the Ming government reached 65 at one point. At the same time, Japan demanded tribute from Ryukyu and Korea, Korea demanded tribute from the Jurchen, and Vietnam demanded tribute from Champa and Nan Zhang, forming several secondary tribute centers.
During this period, in addition to the countries that had direct contact with the Ming Dynasty, such as Korea, Vietnam, and Burma, other countries gradually evolved into a trading relationship with the Ming Dynasty under the “thick tribute and thin return” policy. Especially in the middle and late Ming Dynasty, the maritime ban policy made tribute almost the only means for these countries to conduct trade with China. The most famous example of this was the Kanhe trade between China and Japan.
The tribute system during the Ming dynasty in China was similar to that of the previous dynasties. It was a hierarchical system in which foreign states and tribes acknowledged the supremacy of the Ming emperor and presented tribute to him regularly in exchange for diplomatic recognition and economic benefits. The Ming government placed great emphasis on the tribute system and invested significant resources to maintain it.
Foreign states that wished to participate in the tribute system had to send envoys to the Ming court to pay tribute and perform the kowtow ritual, which symbolized submission to the emperor. In return, the Ming court would grant them titles and rewards, such as the permission to trade with China and the right to use the imperial calendar. The tribute missions also provided opportunities for cultural exchange, as foreign envoys would bring gifts, exotic animals, and rare goods to the Ming court, while Chinese officials would introduce them to the culture, technology, and arts of China.
However, the Ming dynasty also faced challenges in maintaining the tribute system. Some foreign states refused to recognise the Ming emperor’s authority and resisted paying tribute, leading to military conflicts and diplomatic tensions. In addition, the rising maritime trade and piracy disrupted the tribute system and enabled foreign merchants to bypass China’s official channels of trade. Nevertheless, the tribute system remained an essential aspect of Ming China’s foreign relations and cultural identity.
What was the tribute system in Qing dynasty China?
In 1644, the Qing Dynasty established its rule over mainland China and maintained the tribute system inherited from the Ming Dynasty, requiring all countries to return their imperial envoys to the Ming Dynasty and receive new envoys from the Qing Dynasty. The Qing government clearly divided the management of relations with neighboring tribes into two departments: the Lifan Yuan (the Office of Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs) and the Ministry of Rites. The Lifan Yuan was responsible for managing affairs with regions such as Mongolia and Tibet, while the Ministry of Rites was responsible for managing affairs with foreign countries such as Korea, Japan, and Russia.
The tribute system in the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) was a continuation of the system established by previous dynasties, which recognised China as the central power and other countries as tributaries. The Qing government continued to send imperial envoys to neighbouring states, accepting tribute and gifts in return. The system was a way for China to assert its dominance in the region and maintain political and economic influence over its neighbours. However, the Qing government also made some modifications to the tribute system, such as allowing more trade and commerce with other countries, which led to increased contact and exchange with the outside world. In general, the Qing dynasty used the tribute system as a way to maintain diplomatic relations with other countries while reinforcing China’s position as the dominant power in East Asia.
Why was the tribute system important?
The tribute system was important in Chinese history because it served as a framework for diplomatic relations and trade between China and neighboring states. It allowed China to assert its cultural and political superiority as the centre of the civilised world while also providing a means for these neighbouring states to establish peaceful relations and obtain access to Chinese goods and knowledge. The system also helped to maintain a degree of political stability and security along China’s borders by creating a sense of obligation and loyalty among the tribute-paying states. Additionally, the tribute system provided a means for the Chinese government to gather information about foreign lands and peoples, which could be used to further the country’s military, economic, and cultural interests. Overall, the tribute system played a significant role in shaping China’s relationship with its neighbours and exerting its influence on the wider world.
When was the tribute system end?
With the outbreak of the Sino-French War and the First Sino-Japanese War and the signing of the Treaty of Tientsin and the Treaty of Shimonoseki, the last remaining members of the tribute system, Vietnam and Korea, also broke away from this system, leading to the complete collapse of the tribute system.
The tribute system in China was officially ended in 1912, with the fall of the Qing Dynasty and the establishment of the Republic of China. The new government abolished the practice of paying tribute to the Chinese emperor, and China began to adopt a more modern approach to diplomacy and international relations. However, it’s worth noting that the tribute system had already begun to decline in the late 19th century due to the growing influence of Western powers in China and their demands for equal treatment in diplomatic relations.
Why did the tributary system end?
In 1648, with the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia, the treaty system gradually became the main international exchange system among European countries. At the same time, the colonial system became the dominant system for European countries in their interactions with other small tribes. As European countries gradually came into direct contact with the East, conflicts began to arise between these different systems of international relations. In 1653, the Russian Tsar sent envoys, demanding that the Qing emperor submit to his rule and become a Russian colony. This demand was naturally rejected, and after a long period of armed conflict and diplomatic struggles, both sides began to recognise each other’s strengths. Finally, in 1689, the two countries signed the Treaty of Nerchinsk in accordance with European international law and subsequently signed the Treaty of Kyakhta and the Treaty of Blandyush in 1727 and 1728, respectively, essentially establishing equal status between the two countries.
At the same time, European powers gradually eroded the small countries around China, leading to a significant reduction in the number of members in the tribute system. In the mid-Qing Dynasty, there were only seven tribute countries: Korea, Vietnam, Nan-Zhang, Myanmar, Sulu, Siam, and Ryukyu. However, this did not undermine the foundation of the tribute system. Therefore, it was not until 1793, when British envoy George Macartney officially visited China, that the treaty system and the tribute system had a comprehensive collision. Macartney’s demands for mutual envoy exchanges and the signing of a trade treaty were all rejected by Emperor Qianlong on the grounds of “not changing established customs”.
The tributary system ended due to a combination of factors, including the decline of the Chinese imperial system and the rise of Western imperialism, which challenged China’s traditional dominance in the region. The Opium Wars in the mid-19th century exposed China’s weakness and forced it to sign unequal treaties with Western powers, undermining China’s traditional tributary relationships with neighboring countries. The defeat in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895 further eroded China’s international status and influence, leading to the eventual collapse of the tributary system. Additionally, the concept of sovereignty and the rise of nation-states in the 19th century also challenged the idea of unequal tributary relationships.
tribute system definition world history
The tribute system, also known as the Chinese tributary system, was a diplomatic and economic system established in ancient China that involved the exchange of gifts and goods between China and foreign states. Under this system, China was recognised as the “Middle Kingdom,” and foreign states were expected to acknowledge China’s supremacy by sending tribute missions to the Chinese emperor, in return for which China would bestow gifts upon them. The system was used to establish peaceful relations between China and neighbouring states and was a key element of Chinese foreign policy from the Tang dynasty to the Qing dynasty. The tribute system played a significant role in the economic and cultural exchanges between China and other countries and contributed to the spread of Chinese culture and influence throughout East Asia.
What assumptions underlie the tribute system?
The tribute system was built on the assumption that China was the superior civilization and that foreign states, particularly those in East Asia, recognised China’s superior status and paid tribute as a sign of their subservience and loyalty. It also assumed that China had the authority to regulate trade and diplomacy with foreign nations and that it was responsible for maintaining regional peace and stability. Additionally, the tribute system was based on the belief that China was a self-sufficient and self-contained civilization with little need or desire for goods or knowledge from outside its borders. These assumptions were challenged over time, particularly with the rise of European imperialism and the increasing demands of foreign powers for trade and diplomatic relations on equal terms.
Zheng He and the tribute system
Zheng He was a Chinese explorer who led a series of voyages during the early 15th century, during the Ming Dynasty. The voyages were intended to expand China’s trade and diplomatic relationships, and as part of this, Zheng He led expeditions to Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and East Africa.
The tribute system was an important part of Zheng He’s voyages. In many of the places he visited, Zheng He would present gifts to local rulers and request that they recognise the authority of the Ming Dynasty and send tributary missions to China. These missions would typically involve the presentation of gifts and the performance of rituals to show submission to the Ming Dynasty.
Zheng He’s voyages helped to reinforce China’s dominant position in the region and expand its influence through the tribute system. His expeditions also helped establish trade relationships that benefited China’s economy. However, it is worth noting that Zheng He’s voyages were not solely focused on the tribute system, and he also engaged in diplomatic activities and exploration.
The Tributary System and the Silk Road
The Tributary System and the Silk Road were both important in facilitating trade and cultural exchange between China and other parts of the world, but they were not the same thing.
The Silk Road was a network of trade routes that connected China with the Mediterranean world, including Central Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. It was established during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) and flourished during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE). The Silk Road was named after the trade in silk, which was highly prized in the West, but it also facilitated the exchange of other goods, such as spices, tea, and porcelain, as well as ideas, religions, and technologies.
The tributary system, on the other hand, was a diplomatic and political framework that governed China’s relations with neighbouring states, especially in East and Southeast Asia. Under the Tributary System, foreign states would send tributary missions to China, bearing gifts and paying homage to the Chinese emperor as a sign of their submission and loyalty. In return, China would grant them gifts and trade privileges, as well as protection and recognition as legitimate states.
While the Silk Road facilitated trade and cultural exchange on a more equal basis, the Tributary System reinforced China’s hierarchical and centralized power and served as a means of extending its influence and authority over neighboring states. However, both the Silk Road and the tributary system played important roles in shaping China’s relationships with other parts of the world and contributed to its economic, cultural, and political development.
How did the Aztec tribute system work?
The Aztec tribute system was a method used by the Aztec Empire to control and expand its influence over neighboring regions. The system required conquered peoples to pay tribute, or taxes, to the Aztec Empire. Tribute could include a wide variety of goods and services, including food, cloth, gold, and human captives for sacrifice.
The amount of tribute owed by each region was determined by the Aztec ruler, who would send officials to collect it on a regular basis. Tribute was often collected in a highly ritualized manner, with officials dressing in ceremonial garb and performing dances and speeches to emphasize the power of the Aztec Empire.
In exchange for paying tribute, the Aztecs would provide protection to their subjects and allow them to participate in trade networks that spanned the empire. Additionally, the Aztecs would sometimes grant certain privileges to regions that were particularly valuable, such as allowing them to maintain their own rulers or exempting them from certain types of tribute.
Overall, the tribute system played an important role in the Aztec Empire’s ability to expand and maintain its power over a large region of Mesoamerica. However, it also created significant resentment and resistance among conquered peoples, ultimately contributing to the empire’s downfall in the face of Spanish conquest.
Vassal state vs. tributary state
A vassal state and a tributary state are both types of states that are politically subordinate to a more powerful state. However, there are some differences between the two:
A vassal state is a state that is under the control of a more powerful state, known as the suzerain. In a vassal relationship, the vassal state owes military and/or financial obligations to the suzerain, and the suzerain has the right to demand tribute or taxes from the vassal state. The vassal state is typically allowed to retain its own ruler, laws, and customs, but it is not fully independent.
A tributary state, on the other hand, is a state that pays tribute to a more powerful state in exchange for protection or other benefits. The tributary state is typically allowed to retain its own ruler, laws, and customs, and it is considered to be more independent than a vassal state. The tribute paid by the tributary state can take many forms, such as valuable goods, military support, or diplomatic recognition.
In general, the difference between a vassal state and a tributary state is that a vassal state is more directly controlled by the suzerain, while a tributary state is more independent but still acknowledges the superiority of the more powerful state.
Chinese tribute system vs. Aztec tribute system
The Chinese tribute system and the Aztec tribute system were two distinct systems of tribute with different practices and purposes.
The Chinese tribute system was a complex set of diplomatic and trade relations between China and neighbouring states in East Asia. The system was built on the concept of a hierarchical relationship, where China was the center of the world and other states were required to acknowledge China’s superiority through regular tributary missions. The tributary missions were intended to demonstrate the subordination of the tributary state to China and to secure diplomatic and economic benefits from China. In return, China granted the tributary states trading privileges, access to Chinese knowledge and technology, and protection from external threats.
On the other hand, the Aztec tribute system was a form of taxation imposed on conquered peoples in Mesoamerica by the Aztec Empire. The system required the conquered peoples to provide goods, labor, and military service to the Aztecs, as well as to pay tribute in the form of precious metals, textiles, and other luxury goods. The tribute system served to consolidate Aztec power and wealth and create a centralised political system that allowed the Aztecs to govern their vast empire.
In summary, while both the Chinese tribute system and the Aztec tribute system involved the payment of tribute, they were different in purpose, structure, and outcome. The Chinese tribute system was a diplomatic and economic system designed to maintain the hierarchical relationship between China and its neighbors, while the Aztec tribute system was a form of taxation and consolidation of power over conquered peoples.
Tribute system vs. Colonial system
The tribute system and colonial system were both forms of imperialist control, but they had some significant differences.
The tribute system was a traditional system of diplomatic relations between China and neighboring states in East Asia. It was based on the idea that China was the centre of the world, and other states paid tribute to the Chinese emperor as a sign of their submission and respect. Tribute could take the form of gifts, products, or even people, but it was not intended to extract resources or profit from the tributary states. Instead, the Chinese saw the tribute system as a way to maintain political order and cultural harmony in the region.
On the other hand, the colonial system was a more aggressive form of imperialist control, in which European powers sought to extract resources, labor, and wealth from colonized territories in the Americas, Africa, and Asia. Colonies were often established through military conquest, and the colonizers used violence, coercion, and exploitation to maintain their power. Colonized people were often forced to labor in mines, plantations, or factories, and their lands and resources were expropriated for the benefit of the colonizers.
In short, while both the tribute system and colonial system were forms of imperialist control, the tribute system was a more consensual and culturally-based system of diplomacy, while the colonial system was a more extractive and coercive system of domination.
tribute system vs. treaty system
The tribute system and treaty system were two different systems of international relations.
The tribute system was a traditional Chinese foreign policy system that aimed to establish and maintain hierarchical relationships between China and other states. The system was based on the concepts of the “Son of Heaven” and the “Barbarians,”, where China was considered the centre of the world and other states were viewed as subordinate to China. Foreign states paid tribute as a symbol of their submission to China’s authority and to establish diplomatic relations.
On the other hand, the treaty system is a system of international relations that emerged in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. It is based on the principle of sovereign equality among states, where each state has the right to independence, territorial integrity, and the ability to conduct its own affairs without interference from other states. Treaties are negotiated agreements between two or more sovereign states that establish legally binding obligations and rights for the parties involved.
In summary, the tribute system was based on hierarchical relationships, while the treaty system was based on sovereign equality among states.
The regime that once paid tribute to the Central Plains dynasty
Ou Lạc (Au Lac) Vạn Xuân (Van Xuan) Dai Viet, Dai Cuu, Dai Vu (Wu dynasty, Dinh dynasty, Pre-Le dynasty, Ly dynasty, Tran dynasty, Ho dynasty, Post-Le dynasty, Mac dynasty) Đại Nam (Nguyen dynasty) Linyi (before Tang dynasty), Champa (after Song dynasty)
Baekje Silla Later Goguryeo Later Baekje Goryeo Joseon dynasty
The tribute system was a defining feature of China’s foreign relations during the imperial era, and it played a critical role in shaping the political, economic, and cultural landscape of East Asia. While the system was not without its flaws and limitations, it helped to establish a sense of order and stability in the region and helped to reinforce China’s position as the dominant power in East Asia. Today, the legacy of the tribute system can still be seen in the cultural, political, and economic ties that bind China and its neighbours in the region.
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