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Chinese Tributary System | Overview, History & Practice

Instructor: Joseph Cataliotti

Joe Cataliotti holds a Master of Arts degree in World History from Northeastern University. He earned a B.A. in History and Political Science from the same university and wrote his senior thesis on the history of radical right-wing movements in the United States.

Study the tribute system of China. Discover when the tributary system began, how it functioned, why the tribute system ended, and participating tributary states. Updated: 05/25/2023

What was the Tribute System in China?

The Chinese tributary system refers to a means of relations between the Chinese empires of old and their smaller, weaker neighbors. In a tributary system, a tributary state pays tribute to a more power powerful state, in this case, China. While the term was initially coined by Western scholars, particularly John King Fairbank and Teng Ssu-Yu (who, while Chinese, lived in the United States), it accurately describes a system that defined East Asian relations for centuries, since the rise of civilization in the region to the collapse of the last Chinese empire in the late 1800s.

In this system, ambassadors gave gifts and respect to the Chinese emperor.

Painting of a man bowing and giving a white horse to a sitting Chinese emperor

Chinese Tributary System History and Practice

The Chinese tributary system served to create order in the relationship between sovereign kingdoms and principalities in East Asia. In exchange for recognizing the authority of China, other sovereign states gained greater autonomy and freedom to determine their own course in other affairs.

Confucianism, which was the dominant Chinese philosophy for many centuries, argued that society should be organized on hierarchical lines, with the emperor filling the role of the father of all peoples. China imagined the Chinese emperor as being the preeminent and supreme person on Earth; similar to European emperors, the Chinese emperor framed himself as ruling on behalf of God or Heaven.

In the ideal form of the system for China, foreign emissaries from Korea, Japan, Vietnam, or Mongolia came to the court of the Chinese emperor and recognized his authority. This was usually accompanied by the giving of gifts, including sums of gold and silver.

However, this did not work so well in practice. China was frequently divided by internal civil wars between rival warlords and at times even emperors; this disrupted and divided the tributary system. Furthermore, China was not always the dominant state. On occasion, empires of northern Asia defeated China in wars and reversed the tributary relationship by forcing whatever Chinese empire existed at the time to pay tribute to them. In extreme circumstances, foreign empires even conquered China, seizing control of the tributary relationship. The Mongol and Manchu states, for example, seized control of China at different times and forged the Yuan and Qing Dynasties, respectively.

Tributary System Rituals

China, for much of its existence, was a deeply ritualistic society. The formal giving of tribute to the Chinese emperor therefore had a carefully organized ritual, known as kowtowing. In kowtowing, emissaries from foreign countries would bow deeply to the Chinese emperor. If one refused to kowtow to the emperor, as emissaries from powerful foreign countries did on occasion, it was a symbol that the country viewed itself as an equal and perhaps even a rival to China.

Decline of the Tribute System

The tribute system continued to be the defining factor of East Asian relations for many centuries. As mentioned, at times the tributary system was disrupted or even hijacked by new empires, but it nevertheless persisted. This changed when China entered a plummeting decline in the 19th century.

In 1793, Britain sent a diplomat by the name of George Macartney, armed with gifts, to China. His mission was to convince the Qing Empire (which ruled China) to open its ports to British trade. At the time, China was a net exporter of goods and products; Britain aimed to balance its trade by selling its wares to the Chinese people. While the Netherlands and Portugal had gained access to China by performing the kowtow to the Chinese emperors, Britain was reluctant to do so. After extensive negotiations, Macartney agreed to simply genuflect. The mission was a failure; China rejected Macartney's request.

While it may be interpreted as simply one of many incidents in British diplomatic history, the Macartney Mission marked the beginning of a new era for China. After its failure, Britain opted to make up for its trade deficit by illicit means: smuggling opium, a highly addictive drug, into China. Drug addiction proliferated soon afterward. When China attempted to block Britain, war erupted in 1839: the First Opium War. Britain, with its superior military technology, completely defeated China. The Second Opium War saw similar results. These Opium Wars, together with other military conflicts, eliminated China as a regional power; instead, European imperial powers gained control of the Chinese economy and Chinese ports, while Japan soon invaded border areas. The tributary system completely reversed. Eventually, China crumbled into civil strife.

While China today is again a major world power with trade relationships across the planet, the tributary relationship has not been recreated.

Tributary States and China

Over the centuries, the various Chinese empires extracted tribute from neighboring countries. These included:

  • Korea, which paid tribute to China frequently over the centuries and at times was even conquered by China
  • Japan, which on occasion paid tribute to powerful Chinese empires, but not frequently
  • Thailand, which paid tribute to China for much of its existence
  • Vietnam, which paid tribute to China for centuries and was at times invaded by China
  • The Ryukyu Kingdom (a small island state) paid tribute to China during its existence

However, at times declining Chinese empires were forced to pay tribute to foreign states. These included:

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Frequently Asked Questions

How did the tributary system work?

In the tributary system, weaker states paid gifts (including gold or silver) to the emperor. They also sent ambassadors who kowtowed to the emperor, recognizing his superiority.

What was the tributary system of ancient China?

The tributary system of ancient China refers to a system where weaker states paid China tribute. Tributes took the form of gifts and recognition of the emperor's superiority.

How long did the Chinese tribute system last?

The Chinese tributary system lasted for multiple millennia. It started with the beginnings of Chinese civilization and ended when China crumbled in the 1800s.

What were China's tribute states?

China extracted tribute often from Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam. However, China also had to pay tribute in turn to the powerful northern empires which occasionally arose.

What was the purpose of the tribute system?

The purpose of the tributary system was to organize international relations to have China at the top. China extracted gifts and respect from weaker states, granting it greater power.

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