The Tributary System: Is It Still a Valid Theoretical Model For The Explanation of Chinese Foreign Relations?


At the beginning of my research, I had in mind a certain structuralist framework for looking at the Ming and Qing societies where the tributary system model played an important role in organizing and conducting international affairs. The information I gathered supported my view that the Chinese society functioned as a closed system in which certain cultural notions, such as Confucianism, Legalism, neo-Confucianism, Mandate of Heaven, etc., formed the ideological outlook of the society, and that this ideological outlook was reproduced and dispersed within different segments of society through certain social and political institutions. Among these institutions, I had chosen the tributary system as one of the most prominent institutions that further enforced the legitimacy of the Chinese state both within its own borders and also, across other foreign countries engaging in various relations with China. Within this framework, the fall of the Qing dynasty seemed to be drastically influenced by its loss of legitimacy due to the failure in its foreign relations and tributary system. However, as I further delved into the topic I realized that I was wrong. 

Recent literature complicates and problematizes the concept of the “tributary system” on different axes. The concept is considered as a scientific model that aims to explain past phenomena, particularly the endurance of an assumed harmony during the Ming and early Qing reign. In addition, it is used in International Relations theories in order to make predictions about the policies of the PRC today. I will present my understanding of the issue by first providing some background information about certain cultural concepts in the study of Chinese history that are used to render the concept “tributary system” meaningful and intelligible. Then I will focus on the emergence and development of the tribute-paying and gift-giving practices by presenting a brief historical account. Then based on these two, I will present John King Fairbanks account of the tributary system and the most fierce accounts against his views that argue for how Fairbanks account have problematic ideological biases and provide counter-examples falsifying the assumptions of his theory and the coherence of the tribute practices as a system in general. I will finally evaluate the tributary system as a scientific model and ask whether if it is useful or not, for explanatory or predictive purposes as it is supposed to serve today. I will divide my investigation into four sections in the described order and briefly summarize my conclusions at the bottom.

The Conceptual Framework Lending The Tributary System its Meaning and Significance

Martin Stuart Fox traces the roots of the idea that “one could learn from the past” back to the cosmological views of the period, particularly to Shang Di as the divine entity upon which social organization relied upon, and also to record-keeping practices during the Shang period (2003, 9). During the Zhou period, the idea of Heaven (Tian) was identified with the divine entity Shang Di and together imbricated the ideas of divination and historical transmission as providers and protectors of the social order and harmony together. The Zhou kings introduced the idea of the mandate of Heaven, claiming to be the Sons of Heaven (Tianzi). In order to legitimize their rule, Zhou kings presented the last Shang kings as morally corrupt and weak (ibid.). Thus they as morally superior in the moral order of the universe became the legitimate rulers of the Chinese land and supported their claims through historical accounts. This also gave birth to the idea of ‘dynastic circle’, which refers to the idea that the heroic conducts of the founders of dynasties are followed by a constant deterioration process until with the last emperor as the weakest and most corrupt the dynasty ends and is replaced by another (Fox, 2003, 11). The idea that history repeats itself also promotes one to look back in history to find answers to current problems. There is no historical progress in this conceptual and cultural framework, but only good and bad moral examples in history. The idea of dynastic cycles and moral lessons from history are central in Chinese political philosophy as well as in the contemporary discourse of PRC. Peter Perdue argues that these ancient ideas are used to give an explanation and prediction about the foreign policies of PRC today (2015). Their policies are interpreted as if the Chinese are looking back in history to make decisions about the future. In a sense, their past and future behaviors are explained through an essentialist framework that sets certain cultural concepts as central and peculiar to the Chinese character since the time being. I will put more emphasis on this point later on.

There is also a second cultural essentialist account that plays an important role in the contemporary explanations of Chinese foreign policy that claims the Chinese state aims for peace in its foreign relations rather than the force due to its historically pacifist world-view that puts more emphasis on inner harmony and cultural assimilation rather than warfare. At the root of this idea lies the notion that the marriage of Confucianism and Legalism has been central to Chinese thought after neo-Confucianist scholars and was celebrated as the fundamental state policy for centuries to come. I will give a brief survey of some of the notions that add up to form the foreign policy discourses of China even today. Confucius (Kungfuzi) lived in an era of social and political turmoil and aimed to establish moral and social order through his teaching. He looked into the moral example of the great Zhou Kings (looking back in history to take moral lessons) and advocated a social hierarchy where each person knew and accepted his or her place in the hierarchy and acted accordingly. Those at the top of the hierarchy were also the moral examples to be inspired from or in order words morality emanated from them to the outer circles in the hierarchy. There was no divine deity at the top of the hierarchy and thus it was “up to human beings to construct a human order” (Fox, 18). Ritual (Li) was central to the sustenance of the social order. For each person, there was a set of behaviors that they were expected to show towards their inferiors and superiors. This idea also has functions in explaining the insistence on the ritualistic aspects of the tributary system that are going to be elaborated in the following sections. I will show that even though tributary practices varied in their reception, practice, and aims the emphasis on the ritual remained in place, especially through the example of Russia and through Legalism, the prominent ideology during Qin and Yuan dynasties. Legalism and Confucianism drew a sharp contrast in their consideration of the imperial subjects. In Confucianism, subjects could be educated into behaving in a way that would enforce social organization. Legalism rather aimed to rule its subjects through reward and punishment under severe laws. Taking lessons from past events was not the case in this framework. Each and every situation that required an action to be taken was considered in their own particularity and practicality. The concept of war as elaborated on by Mencius and other followers of Confucius is also significant for the purpose of this paper. Confucian thinkers made a distinction between two types of war, an aggressive war (Bing) and a punitive war (Zheng) (Fox, 15). The punitive war did not aim for “conquest or booty, but rather to re-establish universal acceptance of the moral authority of the Son of Heaven” (ibid.). This idea provided justification not only for punitive wars during the Ming and Qing dynasties but even in the case of several contemporary examples -e.g. PRC’s war of border against Vietnam in 1979 was presented as a war of “punishment” on Vietnam by China (Fox, 16)

These ideas together provided a framework that rendered culturally essentialist approaches to Chinese social organization and foreign policy possible. The tributary system model, proposed in 1942 by John Fairbank plays an important role in this picture because it represents the tribute practices as a coherent whole that functions as one of the main sources of state legitimation and the general organization of foreign relations between China and other countries in a peculiarly “Chinese” and “peaceful” manner (or at least aiming for peace and harmony).

Historical Roots and Development of The Tributary System

Although some historians, including most prominently J. Fairbank, have argued that the roots of the tribute system can be traced back all the way to the Zhou period in the 8th century BCE, this idea has been challenged on many fronts. For the purposes of brevity, I will simply point out that it is almost impossible to pinpoint a well-established institution whereby the exchange of tribute was carried out systematically and on a regular basis in the Zhou period. Furthermore, the lack of primary sources from the era makes it difficult to conclude whether the primitive form of gift exchange between the Zhou court and aristocrats of China and/or the barbarian nations outside the boundaries of this realm were tied to a form of ideology and served as a justifying philosophy as the system would be in the subsequent centuries. Therefore, calling the Zhou the progenitors of this system risks anachronism and a possible over-stretch. 

Nicola Di Cosmo, on the other hand, shows in his book Ancient China and Its Enemies, that the tribute system can be, and should be, seen as having started in the period when the Han dynasty of the 2nd century BCE was conducting its wars against the tribes of the north (2002). The (so-called) Xiongnu were united in this period under a confederation and had become a formidable force to be reckoned with. As a result, the Han dynasty resorted to an official policy of appeasement under the name ho-ch’in which ultimately morphed into the tribute system in the fullest sense of the term. According to the former policy of appeasement, the Han dynasty, acting from a position of military inferiority, sent various gifts and even Chinese princesses to the Xiongnu of the north, and in exchange received a similar treatment. As soon as the tribal confederation was weakened and fractured due to internecine warfare, the Han turned the tables and proposed to continue the policy of gift exchange, but now they were on a much stronger footing than before. This is the account provided by Cosmo in his highly acclaimed book, and it seems to be the best-evidenced narrative of the emergence of the tribute system.

Throughout centuries, the tribute system was highly organized and shrouded in an elaborate veil of ideology and Confucian philosophy. The world itself in its entirety was China’s manifest destiny, if we may take recourse to an American analogy and the Son of Heaven, sitting on his throne in the middle of the Middle Kingdom was seen as the utmost example of virtue, whose duty it was to emanate this divine virtue to all corners of the world. In terms of a much-exploited simile, the realm was envisioned like a pond and the virtue emanating from the Son of Heaven like the ripple effect, traversing the surface of the pond in concentric circles of ever-decreasing vigor. Therefore, the farther the nation to the center, the weaker the civilizing effects of its culture. Consequently, the world was seen as comprising of the civilized center of the Middle Kingdom, the inner barbarians, who were under the yoke of the Chinese culture and within the domains of the Chinese political order, and finally the outer barbarians, whose savage nature was an obstacle in their way to accept and appreciate the Chinese world order, but given time and enough cultural exchange, the Chinese rulers were most assured of the notion that even the outer barbarians would one day become civilized subjects of the Chinese emperor. At this point the tribute system acquires a very forceful ideology, that is, if the enemies of China cannot be subdued in the shadow of the sword, they can be culturally manipulated and assimilated into the Chinese culture, a forgone conclusion of which was the idea that they would eventually accept Chinese hegemony. We shall talk about the ideological underpinnings of the tribute system later in the essay with special emphasis on the western powers who entered the radar of the late Ming and early Qing China.

Let’s briefly overview the tribute system in the Ming period before moving on to the Qing and the application of the system under their rule. It can safely be said that the tribute system reached its apex under the Yongle Emperor who, in an effort to bolster China’s perception by her foreign tributaries, establish new relationships with new powers, and to extend China’s trading network over the Pacific and the Indian Oceans, fitted out the largest and the most impressive fleet ever assembled, and sent his trusted admiral Zheng He on seven voyages to distant lands. During his journeys, Zheng He brought gifts from China to foreign courts, e.g. Calcutta, Arabia, Somali; invited foreign rulers from the tributary states of China to the Ming court, some of whom complied and visited Beijing; involved himself into the domestic affairs of a number of states; adjudicated in cases of border disputes, etc. All in all, Zheng He was clearly out to impress China’s neighbors and establish formal tribute relationships with those countries. Although He’s mission was a huge success and achieved to demonstrate China’s indubitable cultural and military superiority to any and all beholder, after the death of the Yongle Emperor, the voyages were stopped by the new court, and China’s foreign relations suffered from a disinterested administration. As a result, in the subsequent decades, places like Borneo, the Philippines, and Malacca islands dropped from the list of tributaries of China. As the Chinese cultural dominance in the larger far East diminished and waned, in its stead came the influx of Westerners, slowly reaching the shores of China in early Qing.

John Fairbanks’ Account of The Tributary System

In Fairbank’s account, the tributary system is interpreted as a mechanism unique and peculiar to China. China is taken as an isolated and harmonious state having full assurance in its cultural superiority over foreign states. The previous practices of paying ritual tribute and performing koutou in front of the emperor are considered to be elaborated and enforced by new institutions and regulations during the Ming period. That is how the tributary system emerges not a group of diverse ritualistic gift-giving practices but a fundamental organizing principle. According to Fairbank, the tributary system reflects the peculiar Chinese attitude and practices with foreign countries “from virtually the dawn of Chinese civilization until the confrontation with the West in the nineteenth century” (Hevia, 2009, 71). Fairbank tackles the question of why the Chinese state bothered to construct and participate in such a symbolic practice. He indicates that the Chinese imperial treasury did not gain much from the tributes. The gifts given by the imperial court were much more valuable than the tribute gifts taken. As an explanation for this unequal exchange being so desirable to the Chinese state, he argues that the Chinese state bolstered its legitimacy through the tributary system by justifying the Mandate of Heaven. In his words as quoted by Hevia, “If the rest of the mankind did not acknowledge his rule, how long could he expect China to do so? Tribute had prestige value in the government of China, where prestige was an all-important tool of government” (2009, 71). This implies a dualism in the Sino-foreign relations, where the foreign states by participating in the tributary system acquired valuable gifts and after the Ming inclusion the right to trade with China; the imperial court achieved prestige in the eyes of its subjects by reinforcing its ideology. In an agrarian society where trade and merchants were not considered much worthy (considering that they were at the bottom of the social ladder), and also in the framework a state ideology that placed China at the center of civilization and its ruler as the righteous and superior over all other subjects in a hierarchical order (mandate of heaven), diplomacy and trade became possible through the tributary system by being merged into each other. This is how Fairbank constructed his account of the tributary system as a theoretical model.

There are three main challenges against the idea of a tributary system in the contemporary literature: the ideological embeddedness of the tributary model, the assumptions of the theoretical model being unrealistic (namely the Sino-centric views that dictate Chinese superiority, the peculiarity of the Chinese tributary system as opposed to other pre-modern tribute practices, etc.) and the tribute practices in China being inconsistent and incoherent rendering it impossible to consider them as one whole body of the tributary system. The tributary system model first emerged in the 1930s, according to Hevia as a way of interpreting the causes of the 19th Century Sino-Western conflict not as “simply a result of Western imperialism and expansive capitalism,” but as a “product of the peculiar nature of traditional Chinese foreign relations.” (2009, 70) This sort of essentialism was based on the idea that there are certain characteristics peculiar to the Chinese state and society that also allowed for the following argument: “A peaceful system of international relations governed East Asia in the past, up to about 1800, because China dominated its neighbors by cultural superiority, not by military force… only the aggressive impact of foreign imperialism in the nineteenth century upset this enduring structure, inaugurating China’s century and a half of humiliation… a new rising China will once again dominate East Asia by virtue of its economic attractions and cultural soft power,” as presented by William Callahan in Peter Perdue’s article (2015, 1003). According to Perdue, this account of Chinese history is used to justify PRC’s ideological representation as a ‘peaceful hegemony’ justifying some of its aggressive actions as of kind of punitive war -for example, the Vietnam border war in 1979 discussed in section one. It also overlooks some of PRC’s aggressions, for example in the South Sea island disputes. Perdue compares PRC’s foreign policies to Legalism rather than an assimilationist foreign policy as assumed by some scholars. Borrowing William Callahan’s term, this cultural essentialism I have represented so far is referred to as the ‘Chinese-style international relations theory in International Relations (2013, 1003). Perdue argues that the ‘peaceful rise’ theorists approach the ‘tributary system’ concept as a way of dealing with foreign relations in a harmonious and hierarchical way. Of course, Fairbanks own intentions may not be in accordance with the Chinese-style international relations theorists, however, his model provides a convenient basis for them to explain and predict PRC’s foreign policies and paves the way for the justification for them.

There are several false assumptions at play in the tributary system model. I will provide more examples in the next section. However, Perdue shows quite easily that for the Chinese state warfare was not uncommon. There were 3,756 wars fought between 770 BC to 1912 AD, according to the statistics of The Chinese Academy of Military Science. The essentially peaceful and harmonious character of the Chinese foreign relations apparently added up to 1.4 wars fought per year (2015, 1005). Perdue also notes that no Qing official ever used the term tributary system and quotes Mark Manchall’s essay in The Chinese World Order,” edited by Fairbanks. Mancall admitted that the concept of “tribute system” was a western construction for descriptive purposes while also noting that “the Confucian scholar-bureaucrat did not conceive of a tribute system as an institutional complex complete within itself or distinct from the other institutions of Confucian society” (1005). So, Perdue comments that there is a concept, the ‘tributary system’ for which there is no object corresponding to it that is understandable neither in Chinese nor in western terms (ibid.). This is a philosophical argument I will not dwell on in this essay, but it has a point. The tributary concept was artificially made up for conceptual purposes by Western scholars in the first place. It did not refer to a system of practices and meanings until it was made. 

Another false assumption was the uncontested acceptance of the tributary system among the Chinese policy-making elites, foreign countries, and the Chinese subjects themselves. This undermines the belief in the existence of a coherent and consistent system of tribute. The next section will provide several examples in support of these contestations against Fairbank’s model, however, I think that Fairbank’s account is not totally impractical or useless in terms of its explanatory power. His account is still the best explanation available of why ritual persists even though there is no monetary gain on behalf of the Chinese state.

The Practicality of the Tributary System Model

Although the Tribute System as an explanatory and predictive model has been vociferously contested by a growing number of academics, this is not to deny the fact that a complex web of relations between China and her neighbors did exist, and that it was primarily initiated and carried out in the form of gift exchange. In order to be able to understand how this relationship worked and what it entailed, we need to keep in mind that it was not a one-way stream and that both of the parties involved in this bilateral relationship were affected by it. Much attention has been given to China’s role in and perception of the Tribute System, but any study of this subject should start its query by asking how those states which came into contact with China saw its position in this transaction. Moreover, we should also keep in mind that the Tribute System and the practices that had evolved around it were by no means monochrome in their nature and implications. Some states came into contact with China and accepted her suzerainty through the tributes exchanged, merely in order to be able to trade with this gigantic realm. On another level, some states, and especially China’s neighbors in the North, were interested in engaging in a tribute relationship with China more likely in order to have their sovereignty over their realm and subjects ratified and legitimized by the Chinese political recognition. In short, the tribute system was a multi-faceted institution, which carried with it political, economic, and ideological baggage for China as well as the tribute-giving country. Let us analyze specific examples from the Qing era to better understand the realities behind this system, and the many forms it could take.

Traditionally, as articulated above, the Tribute System was enveloped within an ideology of cultural and political superiority on the part of the Chinese. Thus, as Hsü has argued, although the Qing dynasty was weakened by rampant corruption and economic decay, the empire still sought to perpetuate the ideology that China had to be the superior partner in any form of communication with a foreign state, and tribute exchange was seen to be the confirmation of such a notion (1990). However, things quickly began to change when China came into contact with the Western European world. The first serious interaction between China and a European power occurred when the Russian Empire began to encroach into the steppes of Central Asia in the late 17th century. Russian expansionism in the region coincided with local rebellions from the Qing rule, and the emperor of China had to give in to the demands made by the Russians or risk war. The Treaty of Nerchinsk was signed in the year 1689, whereby China recognized Russian hegemony over the lands beyond Argun and Amur rivers. Later conflicts necessitated a renewal of the treaty under the name The Treaty of Kiahkta in 1727, whereby Russia was allowed to trade with China, open an embassy in Peking, and become a regular tributary state with the right to send caravans with no more than 200 men every three years (Hsü, 1990). The abovementioned treaties are clear indications that the Tribute System did not necessarily operate in a black and white fashion, always implying Chinese superiority and dominance, in the face of foreign weakness and submission. Three Russians were treated as equals during the negotiations and her sovereignty over her subjects and realm was recognized by the Qing emperor. This is a clear deviation from the conventional Chinese notion of supreme hegemony and world domination.

The fact that the Russian delegation accepted to koutou, and in exchange asked the Chinese delegation to conform to the courtly etiquette of St Petersburg, a demand to which the Chinese complied, shows that no ritual or imperial ideology was strong enough to get in the way of political expediency. Although Hsü notes that no such privilege was given to any one of China’s tributaries in any time of its history, from the exchanges we possess between the Ming court and that of Timur, it is evident that in the face of military inferiority, the Chinese were complacent and rational partners in international relations. Furthermore, when Russia demanded that her tribute bearing convoys be received well by the Chinese and accorded due diligence, it would be absurd to think of her as submitting to the Chinese yoke or accepting China’s political/cultural superiority. Instead, what Russia was asking for access to the goods that she would receive in return for her tributary delegation. All in all, the idea that China only engaged in tributary relationships with her neighbors in order to indicate her superiority and as a part of her expansionist foreign policy does not stand in the face of the treaties concluded with Russia.

Another dimension of the tribute system is visible from the point of view of China’s immediate neighbors, such as Vietnam and Korea. With these countries, China had a very long-established tribute relationship. Let us look at the situation in Korea. The royal court in Korea was expected to send tributes to the Qing court annually, and they received very favorable treatment from the Chinese. Each year, an embassy of at least 300 men were assembled in Seoul, they were fitted with a cargo full of the local products (fang-wu) that the Korean peninsula was known for, and set out for Peking, some 750 kilometers away (at least a 40 days’ journey) (Hsü, 1990). Overall, such an enterprise was exorbitantly costly, and a constant drain on the Korean royal budget. Hsü estimates that an average tribute exchange cost the Korean government about 100,000 taels per year, and this expenditure peaked in the early 19th century with an estimated cost of 230,000 taels per journey, that is to say, one-sixth of the Korean royal budget (ibid.). Likewise, the Chinese had a keen eye on the political affairs in their small neighbor and had set up an embassy in the capital of Korea, namely Residence of the Celestial Envoy (Tian Shi Kuan). This building housed the Chinese mission in Korea, the role of which was to recognize Korean kings upon their ascent to the throne.

So, in a way, the Chinese embassy in Korea acted as a mechanism for legitimizing the rule of the royal family by Chinese imperial investiture. Again, Hsü makes the calculation that the Residence in Seoul cost the Qing government 320,000 taels for every investiture ceremony (ibid.). This costly scenario seems understandable within the context of the Ming dynasty China, as the Korean royal family, and the aristocratic elite of the peninsula saw the Ming emperors as their political and cultural overlords. The Ming was seen as the savior of cosmic order after they expelled the Mongolians from the affairs of China and Korea. This is clearly indicated in the usage of vocabulary that the Koreans deployed to define their relationship with China and Japan respectively. For China, their relationship was termed as sadae, that is to say serving the great, as opposed to the term they used for their relationship with Japan; kyorin, that is neighborly intercourse. On top of that, they were romanticized and idealized as the true representatives of Confucian principles. But, the Manchu of the Qing were not held in such high regard; they were uncouth barbarians in the eyes of the Koreans. Therefore, they refrained from calibrating their calendar with that of the Qing, and still referred to the last Ming emperor when denoting dates (Perdue, 2015).

Furthermore, according to one Korean aristocrat/diplomat to China, the name Qing was something a good Korean wanted to avoid ever hearing. Such a demeaning attitude, nonetheless, did not preclude the Koreans from continuing their tributary relationship with the Qing. This should alert us to the fact that the tributary relationship between Korea and China was not one of equal standing and understanding. The Korean royal dynasty had to pay lip-service to the Qing emperor, or whoever was sitting on the Chinese throne for that matter and had to kowtow before him so that their legitimacy as the rulers of the peninsula was acknowledged by the Chinese emperor, and by extension by their subject feudal lords. Also, the lack of any other means of trade forced the Koreans to China as the only source of their trade income. In short, whereas the Chinese court maintained the costly tribute relationship with Korea on the basis of ideology and convention, and obtained no practical benefit, the Koreans saw the whole situation from a very pragmatic and realistic lens; without the Chinese overlordship the Korean royal family was prey to the internecine warfare, and Korea as a whole ran the risk of being excluded from Chinese trade.

In fine, as I have tried to demonstrate, the tribute system, as it was established millennia previously and continued under the Qing rule of Chine, was not a uniform practice, and showed inconsistencies among its various applications. Depending on the viewpoint, as more than one party was involved in this bilateral relationship and depending on the relative military strength of the tribute state, the practice and the ideology behind it could exhibit strong variations, and bend and adapt as the situation warranted. As a result, it seems a bit too reductionist to view the Chinese as a monolithic body in their adaptability and throughout their history. Such an outlook is bound to reduce the Chinese to a caricature. The tribute system, although heavily influenced by the ideology and philosophy surrounding it, did evolve and adapt according to the necessities of the time.

M. Filiz Güner – TUIC ACADEMY


Fox, M., S. (2003). A Brief History of China and Southeast Asia: Trade, Tribute and Influence. Allen & Unwin: Australia.

Di Cosmo, N. (2002). Ancient China and Its Enemies. Oxford University Press. Hsü, Immanuel C. (1990) The Rise of Modern China. Oxford Press: New York.

Hevia, L., J. (2009). Tribute, Asymmetry, and Imperial Formations: Rethinking Relations of Power in East Asia. The Journal of American-East Asian Relations.

Perdue, P., C. (2015) The Tenacious Tributary System. Journal of Contemporary China, 24(96), 1002-1014, DOI: 10.1080/10670564.2015.1030949

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