Tribute System

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Tribute System

The tribute system is the common Western name for a set of highly regulated, ritualized exchanges that occurred between the imperial court in China's capital and leaders of other Asian societies. The tribute givers came from polities that were independent in the management of their day-to-day affairs, but acknowledged—at least in theory—the ultimate authority of the Chinese emperor. In theory, though often not in practice, these exchanges were the necessary precondition for other commercial and political relations.


The system lasted for many centuries, though not without change, and included a vast array of polities, from nearby states in present-day Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, and Burma to island kingdoms ranging from the Ryukyus all the way to Java, and several Central Asian kingdoms. Indigenous minority communities within contemporary China were also included within the same system, even though they were entirely surrounded by Chinese territory and much more under the regular control of the empire than these other states. At first, the rulers of the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1912) sought to include Western trade within this framework as well, though this was never very successful: it became an increasing source of tension during the late eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, and Europeans eventually forced the Qing to move to a system based on the formal equality of nations and a separation of trade and diplomacy along Western lines. Western resentment at this "archaic" and "despotic" system, which helped to justify attacks on China during the first and second Opium Wars (1839–1842; 1857–1858) left a long shadow across historical accounts of it, leading to numerous misconceptions.

Firstly, although the basic elements of licensed trade conducted in the context of ceremonies of subordination can be found as far back as the reign of Han Wudi (156–87 b.c.e.), it was not an unbroken tradition. The misconception is the idea that the tribute system defined an enduring and inflexible attitude to foreign affairs, in which non-chinese were "barbarians" to be "managed" by granting selective access to the "favor" of trade with China. In fact they often handled foreign affairs in other ways, including some that involved treating foreigners as equals, and some that sought to encourage rather than restrict trade. And except for roughly a century during the Ming period (c. 1425–1550), it was never the fundamental matrix for all of China's foreign trade and foreign relations. In some periods it disappeared entirely.

Secondly, although "tribute" usually suggests the extraction of an economic surplus, tributaries coming to Beijing (or earlier capitals) received gifts in return, which often exceeded in economic value the ones that they brought. (In the case of Central Asian tribes being paid not to raid China's borders, the imbalance in favor of the tribute giver could be very large.) The political symbolism was generally more important than the economic value of the gifts. Tributary kingdoms often brought natural products that were special to their realm—rare plants or animals for the imperial collection, for instance, which buttressed the emperor's claim to rule "all under heaven." The gifts conferred in return were typically things associated with advanced civilization and the right to rule: books, embroidered silk suitable for court robes, scepters, and so on. Through these gifts, emperors confirmed the authority of these more local rulers (and their own right to be arbiters of who ruled), provided them with valuable items to distribute to their followers, and helped to set elite styles for a significant portion of East and Southeast Asia. Chinese luxuries enjoyed by tribute missions as they traveled to court also served this function. In theory, the lesser and greater sovereigns also were pledging mutual aid with these exchanges, and the Chinese did sometimes—though not consistently—see the relationship as one that obligated them to send military aid to threatened tributaries. (The Ryukyu island kingdom hedged its bets for many years by secretly sending tribute missions both to China and to Satsuma, Japan.)

In addition, official exchanges were generally accompanied by unofficial exchanges between the retinues of these visitors and Chinese merchants in the capital area, and those unofficial exchanges often were several times more valuable than the official exchanges. Although this commerce, too, was regulated, with volumes sometimes limited and particular items proscribed, prices seem to have generally floated freely. And once a foreign state was admitted as a tributary, it was generally allowed to send some ships, for purely commercial purposes, in the intervals between tribute missions; as the cumulative scale of these unofficial exchanges rose over the centuries, it increasingly dwarfed the tribute trade per se. Chinese sovereigns regulated the frequency of the tribute missions, and often sought to limit these other voyages as well, but not consistently or with consistent effect. For long periods, most foreign commerce escaped the tribute framework. Moreover, because tribute missions were often quite lucrative for the tributary, Chinese rulers sometimes used the system not to try to restrict other commerce but to stimulate it. In the late eighteenth century, for instance, Qing officials granted more frequent tribute audience to Siam as a reward for the rice it exported "privately" to the southern province of Guangdong, which had turned increasingly to cash crops and often had a grain deficit. Finally, once back home, many tributaries denied that their missions entailed political subordination to the current ruler of China: eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Vietnamese kings, for instance, contrasted their loyalty to the ideal of a just and wise Chinese suzerain with what they took to be the reality of a decadent Qing court that was now far less "orthodox" in its Confucianism than they were.


Despite this flexibility—which has led historians to question whether one should really speak of a "tribute system" at all—the Westerners who arrived in increasing numbers after 1500 eventually chafed at the assertion of Chinese superiority in these exchanges. The Portuguese essentially accepted the tribute framework for the sake of the profitable trade it allowed them, but later Western arrivals were more obstinate. Beginning in the late eighteenth century, Britain in particular pressed for a formal acknowledgment of diplomatic equality, an exchange of ambassadors, the right of British subjects to be tried by their own peers and their own law if disputes arose while in China, and a lifting of various restrictions on the time, place, and manner of foreign trade. This resulted in two diplomatic missions, one led by Lord George Macartney in 1793 and one by Lord William Pitt Amherst in 1816—neither one of which achieved its principal aims. Eventually, many English and other European merchants and politicians became convinced that it was necessary to "humble" China militarily to force it into Western-style trade and diplomacy, and that this would result in a huge growth of East-West commerce. The political aims of breaking the tribute system were achieved through the two Opium Wars of the nineteenth century, leading to treaties in which Europeans gained greater access to China, an exchange of ambassadors, the end of ritual obeisance, and extraterritoriality for their subjects (along with de facto legalization of opium imports). For the most part, however, the anticipated boom in trade (and conversions to Christianity) did not occur.

Recently, scholars have argued that despite being dismantled in the nineteenth century, the tribute system had a lasting impact on the structure of East Asian trade, including modern industrialization. In Japan in particular, early textile factories often aimed particularly at the Chinese market, concentrating on styles and types of cloth that had often circulated through tribute trade in the past. More generally, the spread of various common tastes throughout East Asia created a market in which East Asian producers had a significant competitive advantage; this had been achieved partly through the spread of prestigious model goods in tribute trade. And in the early twentieth century, many Japanese seem to have envisioned Japan's emerging sphere of economic and political influence (including the wartime "Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere") partly as a resuscitation of a "tribute system" they believed had once provided the framework for order, trade, and cultural enlightenment throughout the region—this time with Japan rather than China at the center. As in the Western myth of a rigid and stultifying "tribute system," this Japanese vision exaggerated the comprehensiveness and fixedness of tribute relations; but even without such exaggerations, its impact on the region's development was considerable.

SEE ALSO Books; Bullion (Specie); Burma; Canton System; China; East India Company, British; East India Company, Dutch; East India Company, Other; Empire, British; Empire, Dutch; Empire, Japanese; Empire, Ming; Empire, Portuguese; Empire, Qing; Gold and Silver; Imperialism; Japan;Rice;Thailand;Silk;Spices and the Spice Trade;Tea;Textiles;Travelers and Travel;Vietnam;Zheng Family.


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Fairbank, John K., ed. The Chinese World Order. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968.

Hevia, James. Cherishing Men From Afar. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995.

Takeshi, Hamashita. "The Tribute Trade System and Modern Asia." Memoirs of the Research Department of the TMyM Bunko 46 (1988): 7–25.

Viraphol, Sarasin. Tribute and Profit: Sino-Siamese Trade, 1652–1853. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977.

Wills, John E., Jr. Embassies and Illusions: Dutch and Portuguese Envoys to K'ang-his, 1666–1687. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Kenneth Pomeranz