The Tribute System

Yongjin Zhang

in Chinese Studies

ISBN: 9780199920082
Published online April 2013 | | DOI:
The Tribute System

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  • East Asian Studies
  • Asian History
  • East Asian Philosophy
  • East Asian Religions


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The tribute system (chaogong tizhi 朝贡体制) is a widely used term in the studies of traditional Chinese foreign relations. It is generally accepted that the tribute system embodied a set of institutions and social and diplomatic norms that dominated China’s relations with the non-Chinese world for two millennia, until the system’s collapse toward the end of the 19th century. The origins of the tribute system and the ideas, values, and beliefs underlying its construction and operation are often traced back to ancient China as an Axial Age civilization. There is also broad agreement that a tribute system of a sort existed and operated to regulate China’s trade and diplomacy with its neighbors at least as far back as the Han dynasty (206 bce–220 ce). There is little dispute that the demise of the tribute system was brought about by the introduction of the treaty system in China’s international relations after the Opium War in 1840, with the conclusion of the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842. It is a matter of intense debate how stable and uniform the tribute system was throughout China’s tumultuous dynastic histories and whether its existence was highly precarious, with occasional breakdowns and constant reconfigurations. There are clear contradictions in the enduring Chinese discourse and varied practices of the tribute system. The precise meaning of the tribute system is equally hotly contested. It is sometimes said to have principally served the instrumental purpose of managing China’s trade with its neighbors and of instigating frontier pacification. It is also claimed to have been constitutive of a Sinocentric Chinese world order in historical East Asia. It is not clear, however, whether those participating in the Chinese world order actually accept the civilizational assumptions embedded in the tribute system and the Sinocentric conception of superiority and inferiority in their relationship. The centrality and usefulness of the tribute system model as an overarching analytical and explanatory framework in understanding traditional China’s foreign relations have therefore been a subject of controversy. More-recent contributions highlight the historically and culturally contingent nature of the tribute system. While the existing literature has been dominated until recently by contributions from historians, contemporaneous interest from scholars of international relations in the subject has expanded the field of inquiry and has enriched the relevant scholarship. Some works listed here reflect this particular dimension of recent scholarship.

Article.  8422 words. 

Subjects: East Asian Studies ; Asian History ; East Asian Philosophy ; East Asian Religions

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