History of International Relations Textbook

China and East Asia

For much of its history, China was the all-dominant country in East Asia and international relations in this part of the world were more than anything organized by the Chinese and on Chinese terms. China itself was an empire, meaning that the country contained a multitude of different ethnic groups, but the international system of which China was the center concerned the external relations of the empire – its relations with the rest of East Asia. In order to describe these relations the metaphor of a “solar system” is sometimes used. Here China is the sun around which other and far smaller political entities, located at increasing distances from the center, are circulating in their respective orbits. Some historians use the term “suzerainty,” referring to a relationship in which “a dominant state has control over the international affairs of a subservient state while the latter retains domestic autonomy.”

At the same time there was a great difference in the way the Chinese dealt with neighbors to the north and west of the country and neighbors to the south and the east. The former relations were organized according to what we will call the “overland system,” and the latter relations according to the “tribute system.” The people to the north and the west constituted permanent threats. They were nomads who grazed their animals on the enormous steppes of inner Asia, but despite their economic and technological backwardness, they had access to the most advanced military technology of the day – fast horses – and in addition they were highly skilled archers. Since the terrain was flat and since there were few natural obstacles in their way, it was easy for the nomads to raid Chinese farming communities. Occasionally they made it all the way to the capital itself. The imperial authorities always struggled with how best to respond to these threats, mixing defensive and offensive strategies, without ever finding a satisfactory solution. As a result, China was periodically invaded and two major dynasties were founded by tribes from the steppes – the Yuan, 1271-1368, which was of Mongol origin, and the last imperial dynasty, the Qing, 1644-1911, which was Manchu.

As far as China’s relations with countries to the east and the south were concerned, they were far easier to manage. Since the Himalayas effectively blocked any invasion from the south, there were no military threats and communications took place across the ocean. From Korea, Japan and states throughout Southeast Asia the Chinese emperors demanded tributes. The foreigners were required to make the journey to the Chinese capital at regular intervals and present gifts to the emperor. In this way the Chinese were confirmed in their view of themselves. They really were the “Middle Kingdom” to which people from the whole world paid tribute.

The Warring States period

Chinese people are fond of saying that their country has the longest continuous history of any still existing country, yet the subject of this history – “China,” “the Middle Kingdom”– has itself varied considerably over time. What we mean by “Chinese people” is also less than clear. People who historically have lived in what today is the People’s Republic of China represent many hundreds of different ethnic groups. Even within the largest of these – the Han people – a number of mutually incomprehensible languages have been spoken. It was only in the latter part of the nineteenth century that it became possible to talk about a Chinese “nation,” understood as a community of people which encompassed most of the country.

What made a person Chinese, and what brought a sense of unity to the Chinese people, was not state power but instead more than anything a shared set of rituals and seasonal celebrations. These rituals go way back in time. The first rulers – the Shang dynasty, 1600-1046 BCE – engaged in human sacrifice and ancestor worship. And they were the first to use characters – divinations inscribed on so called “oracle bones” – as a means of writing. While human sacrifice soon ceased, ancestor worship and the unique Chinese form of writing have survived to this day. During the following dynasty, the Zhou, 1050-777 BCE, the kings became more powerful and the territory they controlled increased dramatically. The Zhou kings regarded themselves as “Sons of Heaven” who had been given a “Mandate of Heaven” to rule the country. This mandate could be revoked, however, by any rebels who could demonstrate that they were powerful enough to take over the state. A successful uprising was proof that Heaven had withdrawn its favors and instead bestowed them on the rebels.

Towards the end of the Zhou dynasty, political power began to fragment as regional leaders who had been given land by the kings asserted their independence. Eventually seven separate states emerged. They were constantly at war with each other. Not surprisingly, this time has been referred to as the “Warring States period,” 475-221 BCE. During the Warring States period, China was not a country as much as an international system in its own right. The seven independent states engaged in traditional forms of power politics: they forged alliances, made treaties and fought battles, and they took turns in the position as the most powerful state in the system. The armies were enormous, counting up to perhaps 1,000,000 men, and it was said that some 100,000 soldiers might die in a single battle. Not surprisingly, the Warring States period is a favorite of twenty-first-century costume dramas on Chinese TV. Eventually one of the states, Qin, emerged on top. The question for the smaller states was how to react to Qin’s ascendancy. The topic was much discussed by philosophers and military strategists at the time. [Read more: “Sunzi and modern management techniques”]

Since this was a bleak time of insecurity and war, it is surprising to learn that the Warring States period also was a time of great economic progress. Military competition, it seems, helped spur innovation. The imperative for all seven states, as the popular dictum put it, was to “enrich the nation and to strengthen the army.” This was first of all the case as far as military hardware was concerned, with new forms of swords, crossbows and chariots being invented. In addition, each state became far better organized and administrated. Taxes were collected more efficiently, the independent power of the nobility was suppressed, and a new class of bureaucrats took over the running of state affairs and organized their work according to formal procedures. A powerful state required a powerful economy, and to this end farming techniques were developed and major irrigation projects undertaken. The amount of cast iron produced by China already in the fifth century BCE would not be rivaled by the rest of the world until the middle of the eighteenth century – over two thousand years later. Economic markets developed as well, with coins being used to pay for goods from all over China but also from distant lands far beyond, including Manchuria, Korea and even India.

The intellectual developments of the period were at least as impressive. The Warring States period was known as the age of the “Hundred Schools.” This was the time when all major Chinese systems of thought first came to be established. Eventually nine of these schools dominated over the others, a group which included Confucianism, Legalism, Daoism and Mohism. These teachings were propagated by scholars who wandered from one court to the other, looking for a ruler who could be interested in their ideas. Those who were successful found themselves jobs as advisers and courtiers. Since there were many states, and multiple centers of competing power, even unorthodox ideas would be given a sympathetic hearing somewhere.

Alliances could be made but also broken; ostensibly friendly countries could be attacked without warning; peace negotiations could serve as a pretext for starting another war

Kongzi, 551-479 BCE – better known outside of China as “Confucius” – is the most famous of these wandering scholars. Born in the state of Lu in what today is the Shandong province – the peninsula which juts out in the direction of Korea – Kongzi rose from lowly jobs as a cow-herder and clerk to become an adviser to the king of Lu himself. Yet eventually political intrigues forced him to leave the court and this was when his life as a peripatetic teacher began. Kongzi’s philosophy emphasized the importance of personal conduct and he insisted that the virtue of the rulers was more important than the formal rules by which the state was governed. Moral conduct, as Kongzi saw it, is above all a matter of maintaining the obligations implied by our social relationships. Society in the end consists of nothing but hierarchical pairs – between father and son, husband and wife, older and younger brother, ruler and subject, and between friends. The inferior party in each pair should submit to the power and will of the superior, but the superior has the duty to care for the inferior and to look after his or her welfare. A well-ordered society is a society in which these duties are faithfully carried out. [Read more:Kongzi and his institutes”]

Daoism is a philosophy associated with Laozi, a contemporary of Kongzi’s. Laozi is the author of the Daodejing, a text of aphorisms and assorted wisdom. Yet there is little historical evidence for the actual existence of a person by that name and the teachings are for that reason best regarded as a compilation of texts produced by others. Dao, “the way,” does not only provide you with religious wisdom but also hands-on advice for how to live a successful life. Daoist monks emphasized the spiritual dimensions of human existence and sought to communicate with the spirits of nature. In addition, Daoism has had an impact on politics too. Its spiritualism and disdain for formal rules have been an inspiration for political movements which have risen up against the political authorities of the day.

But it was the Legalists who were to have the most direct impact on practical politics. Legalism is the school of political philosophy which the Chinese know as fajia. And the law was indeed important to them but only as a tool of statecraft. The Legalists assumed that all people act only in their self-interest and that they follow no moral codes which do not benefit themselves. It is consequently only the law and its enforcement which can keep people in line and guarantee peace and order in society. The law must therefore be clear enough for everyone to understand it, and the punishments which it requires must be harsh enough to make sure that everyone obeys. In the end, it was only the state and its survival that mattered to the Legalists. The ruler was free to act in whichever way he chose as long as it benefited the state. This applied not least to matters of foreign policy. Alliances could be made but also broken; ostensibly friendly countries could be attacked without warning; peace negotiations could serve as a pretext for starting another war, and so on.

Qin Shi Huang, often referred to as “the First Emperor,” 220-210 BCE, came to power on the back of advice such as this. He suppressed the rivaling states and united the country, and standardized weights and measures, the Chinese language, and even the width of roads and of the axles of carts. In an attempt to restart Chinese history, and to do it on his own terms, he ordered all classical texts to be burned and had Confucian scholars buried alive. [Read more: “The necropolis of the First Emperor”] Despite the Legalists’ ruthless advice, or perhaps because of it, the Qin dynasty only lasted fifteen years. After Qin Shi Huang’s death, the country soon descended into another round of wars. Yet the many philosophical schools of this early period – Confucianism and Legalism in particular – would continue to play an important role throughout Chinese history. [Read more: “Chairman Mao and the Legalists”]

To think about:

  • How should we describe the earliest Chinese states?
  • Why was the Warring States Period such a culturally dynamic period in Chinese history?
  • How did the First Emperor come to power?

The development of the Chinese state

During the subsequent two thousand years, the leaders of the Chinese state would all be referred to as “emperors” and the country itself referred to as an “empire.” Yet since one dynasty continuously was replaced by another, there is little continuity in Chinese history and the struggles for political power resulted in both revolutions and prolonged periods of wars. Much of the time competing dynasties ruled separate parts of the country, and several of the dynasties were not Chinese at all but established by foreign invaders. Despite this political diversity, there is a striking continuity when it comes to cultural values. Most emperors embraced Confucian ideals and were active participants in the various rituals which Chinese culture prescribed – including ancestor worship and offerings to Heaven at various times of the day, month and year. The emperors saw themselves as “Sons of Heaven” who ruled by virtue of the mandate that Heaven had given them. In addition, a large and rule-bound bureaucracy helped to provide a sense of continuity from one dynasty to the next. For our purposes, there is no reason to discuss every dynasty, but we can briefly mention the most important ones – Han, Tang, Song, Ming and Qing – with a focus on China’s relations to the rest of the world.

Nomadic peoples would continue to make trouble for Chinese farmers and for the Chinese state for much of the subsequent two thousand years.

The rulers of the Han dynasty, 206 BCE-220, were far more successful than the Qin when it came to maintaining themselves in power. The Han dynasty lasted for well over four hundred years. While the First Emperor may have established many of the imperial institutions, it was during Han that the same institutions were consolidated and developed. The Han state organized a proper bureaucracy run by a professional class of administrators whose salaries were paid for by taxes on key commodities such as salt. In a sharp break with the cynical doctrines of the Qin, the Han emperors made Confucianism into the official philosophy of the state. All administrators were supposed to read the Confucian classics and to serve the people with virtue and benevolence. The emperor was placed at the head of the administrative system, but in practice his power was constrained by court conferences where his advisers made decisions by consensus. The Han state took charge of society and organized economic activities, including the building of roads and canals; large state monopolies were established for the production and sale of salt, iron and liquor. The coins minted by the Han helped expand trade and they made it possible to pay taxes in cash rather than in kind. Han-era coins, with their distinctive square holes at the center through which they could be strung together, were to remain the standard means of payment until the Tang dynasty, three hundred years later. Not surprisingly, Chinese to this day refer to themselves as hanren, “Han people.”

Speaking of trade, it was during Han that the caravan routes first were developed which connected China with Central Asia, India, and the world beyond.[Read more:Sogdian letters”] Although the Roman Empire and Han dynasty China had no direct connections with each other, the goods traded along these routes did. It was now that Chinese silk became a fashionable item among Roman elites and Roman glassware ended up in China. This trading network is often referred to as the “Silk Road,” although that term is a nineteenth-century invention by a German scholar. Besides, many more items than silk were traded and there was never only just one road. The caravan routes brought foreign people and ideas to China too, such as Buddhism which has its origin in India. Central Asia was not only a site of trade but also of military engagements. The Han state was continuously harassed by a confederation of nomadic peoples known as the Xiongnu.[Read more:The Xiongnu confederation”]. Nomadic peoples would continue to make trouble for Chinese farmers and for the Chinese state for much of the subsequent two thousand years.

The Tang dynasty, 618-907, is perhaps best remembered today for its cultural achievements. It was during Tang that arts like calligraphy and landscape painting first were developed, and when writers like Li Bai and Du Fu composed the poems which all subsequent generations of Chinese schoolchildren have been made to recite. Economically the country was thriving. China-wide markets in land, labor and natural resources were developed, and many technical innovations took place, including paper-making and woodblock printing. There was extensive mining and manufacturing of cast iron and even steel, and trade was brisk along the caravan routes. Well-fed and prosperous, China’s population grew quickly, counting some fifty million people. It was during Tang that the system of entrance examinations was conclusively established. In order to get a job as a government official you were required to pass a demanding test on Confucian philosophy and on the classics of Chinese literature. Since the imperial bureaucracy was the main road to social and economic success, the country’s elite effectively came to be selected through these examinations. It was no longer enough to come from an aristocratic family or to have money.

Tang dynasty China exercised a strong cultural influence over all countries with which it came into contact. This was for example the time when Japan, Korea and Vietnam adopted a Chinese-style writing system and when Confucian philosophy and Chinese arts spread far and wide. During Tang it was very fashionable to be Chinese. At the same time, the Tang dynasty was wide open to the rest of the world, with foreign goods, fashions and ideas entering China along the caravan routes. [Read more: “Journey to the West”] Through renewed contacts with India, Buddhism was further developed and indigenous Chinese sects such as Chan – what the Japanese were to call “Zen” – were established. Chinese people dressed in foreign clothing and Chinese men married women from Central Asia. The Tang dynasty was a cosmopolitan empire where people from all over the world would mingle – Persian and Jewish traders, Arabic scholars and travelers, conjurers from Syria and acrobats from Bactria.

The Song dynasty, 960-1279, was another period of economic prosperity and cultural flourishing. A number of important technological inventions were made at this time, including gunpowder and the compass. Making creative use of the invention of paper-making technology, the Song were the first to issue bank notes. Paper money helped spur trade, although it also caused inflation. This was when large manufacturing industries were established which produced consumer items for a market which included the whole of China. The economic changes provided ordinary people with new opportunities. Poor people could rise in the world and rich people could become richer still. Often members of the new affluent middle class would establish themselves as patrons of the arts. Scholars and connoisseurs of culture would gather in gardens and private retreats to view works of art or to recite poetry and drink tea, and there were lively, if more plebeian, entertainment quarters in all major cities. During the Song dynasty, literacy increased, books became readily available, and the study of the sciences, mathematics and philosophy made great strides.

In military terms, the Song emperors were far less successful. Like all Chinese dynasties they were menaced by tribes attacking them from the north, in this case above all by the Jurchen, a people from whom the Manchus would later claim their descent. In 1127, the Jurchen captured the Song capital of Kaifeng and forced the emperor to retire. In an audacious move, the Song elite relocated their court to the southern city of Hangzhou, just west of present-day Shanghai. Although they had lost much of their territory, and the move was a source of embarrassment, the economy continued to develop. China’s population doubled in size during Song, above all since farming expanded and since new species of rice came to be used. The Song strengthened their navy and built ships that could travel to Southeast Asia and trade with the islands of what today is Indonesia. They strengthened their army too, and began using gunpowder as a weapon. Yet the military setbacks continued. The Song dynasty came to a final end in 1279 when the Mongols under Kublai Khan overran Hangzhou, deposed the emperor and established a new dynasty, the Yuan, 1271-1368. [Read more: “The Mongol khanates”]

Despite their spectacular success as conquerors, the Yuan dynasty lasted less than one hundred years and in 1368 the Mongols were replaced by the Ming, a dynasty once again led by Chinese people. The Ming dynasty lasted until 1644. The Ming dynasty too enjoyed economic success. There was now a China-wide market for consumer goods such as fabrics and foodstuffs, as well as for prestige items like porcelain and furniture. Since many of these items were produced in large series, many objects from the Ming period, such as vases and tea cups, are still with us today, fetching high prices at auctions around the world. During Ming gardens became a fashionable setting for social and cultural life. In Hangzhou and in the neighboring city of Suzhou, rich merchants competed ferociously with each other in establishing and extending their gardens. Meanwhile the Chinese state returned to its Confucian roots after the Mongolian interruption. Administrators were once again selected in terms of their knowledge of the Confucian classics.

During the Ming dynasty relations with the rest of the world were rather more complicated than during the Yuan. The Ming rulers had little knowledge of the steppe and little appreciation for trade. Or rather, the Ming dynasty was a time when the issue of foreign trade was hotly contested between various court factions. The group most strongly in favor of trade were the eunuchs, the emasculated courtiers who made up the staff of the imperial palace. The most successful trader among them was Zheng He, 1371-1433. He brought thousands of vessels with him on no fewer than seven far-flung journeys of exploration and trade which took them to Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, and even to the east coast of Africa. [Read more: “A giraffe in Beijing”] Yet soon after Zheng He returned from these journeys, foreign travel was banned and all ocean-going ships destroyed. The Confucians at court, in their wisdom, decided that foreign contacts on this scale were too disruptive of the Chinese way of life. Although the policy on foreign trade would continue to fluctuate in response to various power struggles, China increasingly closed itself off from the rest of the world. Not coincidentally perhaps, extensive work on the structures known as the “Great Wall of China” took place at this time. [Read more: “The Great Wall of China does not exist”]

The Qing dynasty, 1644-1912, which replaced the Ming was the last imperial dynasty. It was established by the Manchu tribes which overran Beijing in 1644, and who, in subsequent decades, proceeded to conquer the rest of the country. In contrast to the Mongols, the Qing emperors adopted many institutions from their predecessors such as the bureaucracy and the entrance examinations, and also many customs, such as the elaborate rituals which the emperors were required to perform. Yet the Qing were at the same time intensely proud of their Manchu heritage. Manchu princes were taught how to ride a horse and shoot arrows, and at the imperial court in Beijing visitors were often treated to displays of equestrian arts or, in the winter, to skating competitions. The Qing rulers were Confucians in the ceremonial sense of all emperors, but they were at the same time great patrons of Buddhist temples, especially of the form of Buddhism practiced in Tibet.

Two of the Qing emperors had particularly long and successful reigns. Emperor Kangxi ruled for sixty-one years, between 1661 and 1722, and his grandson, Emperor Qianlong, ruled for almost as long, from 1735 to 1796. These hundred-plus years were a time of great military expansion. This was when Taiwan was incorporated into the empire, together with vast areas to the north and the west, including much of Mongolia, Tibet and Xinjiang. [Read more:Chinese pirates in Taiwan”] The Chinese made wars, if less successfully, in Vietnam and Burma as well, and stopped the Russians from advancing southward from Siberia. [Read more: Treaties with the Russians”] Even if the state treasury suffered as a result of these extensive campaigns, the economy of the country as a whole was thriving. Both Kangxi and Qianlong were patrons of scholarship and the arts. Kangxi’s name is associated with a great character dictionary which helped standardize the Chinese language. On Qianlong’s orders a great anthology of all Chinese books was compiled – containing some 3,450 works in 36,000 volumes. [Read more:Yuanmingyuan – a Disneyland for one person”] Yet the Qing policies on foreign trade closely mirrored those of the Ming. During Qing too there were prohibitions and control. [Read more:George Macartney at Qianlong’s court”]

To think about:

  • What is “the Mandate of Heaven”? How do you gain and lose it?
  • In what ways are the different dynasties described in the text similar to each other? In what ways are they different?
  • How can you describe the bureaucracy of the Chinese empire?

The overland system

The Chinese government, we said, organized foreign relations in two distinct ways depending on the degree of threat posed by the foreigners they confronted. Political entities to the south and the east of China never posed serious challenges since the land borders here were well protected. Political entities to the north and the west were an entirely different matter. Here land was only sparsely populated, the borders diffuse and impossible to conclusively secure. The result was an international system which took two quite distinct forms. Perhaps we could talk about the “overland” and the “tribute” system respectively. Although there was a considerable overlap between the two – in particular, many of the overland states were also tribute bearers – the systems were nevertheless governed by quite different institutions, rules and norms.

It is easy to explain the attraction which China held for the peoples on the steppes. They were predominantly pastoralists who followed their herds – of goats, sheep and horses – to where they could find pasture. Nomads are always potentially on the move, and since they never stay long enough in one place, they cannot accumulate many resources. The Chinese, by contrast, were overwhelmingly farmers and some were city-dwellers, meaning that they lived sedentary lives and stayed put in one place. Every Chinese family had a home, be it ever so humble, where they gathered possessions which they were prepared to defend with their lives. And of course some Chinese families were very wealthy indeed. To the nomads this constituted an obvious temptation. The nomads were interested in all kinds of resources as long as they were portable – gold and silver, animals, and women and children who could be turned into slaves.

It was always difficult for the Chinese to defend themselves against these threats. The steppes were easily crossed by the nomads on their swift horses, but they were far more difficult for the Chinese armies to cross on foot. Deserts like the Gobi and the Taklamakan constituted obstacles for both parties, but they were far more likely to keep the Chinese in than the nomads out. The borders which separated China and the peoples of the steppes were difficult not only to defend but even to define. Besides the peoples of the steppes were very ferocious warriors. Although they initially at least had little by means of military technology, and made few inventions of their own, they had access to the best horses in the world. On the back of a horse, they could cover large distances very quickly and attack an enemy at full speed, wielding their spikes and firing off arrows with high precision. The perennial question for the Chinese was how best to deal with enemies such as these. The most obvious option was to pursue a defensive strategy, and this is what the Chinese did for much of their history. One way to do this was to build walls. [Read more: “The Great Wall does not exist”]

The Chinese built fortified towns on the steppe, moved convicts there and encouraged ordinary people to migrate to the frontier.

Impressive as these physical structures no doubt were, a defensive strategy never worked all that well. The Mongols soon learned how to besiege a city using catapults and various ingenious siege engines. For that reason it was better for the Chinese to go on the offense, and this is what the emperors did on numerous occasions. Already the first Han emperor undertook large military campaigns and these campaigns continued during his successors. The Chinese built fortified towns on the steppe, moved convicts there and encouraged ordinary people to migrate to the frontier. Yet these settlements, as the nomads saw it, provided only another target which they could attack. The nomads were infuriatingly difficult to defeat. They simply retreated across the steppe and would outrun, or ambush, any Chinese soldiers that came in pursuit of them. If the Chinese managed to hold on to the territory they laid claims to, the nomads could be pushed further and further away, yet this only meant that they would return on some other occasion to raid and pillage.

If defense was impossible and offense difficult, the question was what to do. The option which the imperial court eventually arrived at was to engage the peoples of the steppes in various ad hocarrangements designed to give them a stake in the system. By establishing common institutions there was a chance that the nomads gradually would come to see things China’s way. The most obvious option was to conclude a treaty. This was a strategy which the Chinese tried in relation to the Russians. [Read more: “Treaties with the Russians”] Another strategy, used in relation to Tibetans and Mongols in particular, was to incorporate elements of the foreign culture into the practices of the Chinese state. Thus Tibetan-style Buddhism was a common point of reference during the Qing dynasty and Mongolian references could be found everywhere. For example: the Qing emperors constructed a to-scale replica of the Potala palace in Lhasa at their summer retreat, and they established Tibetan temples in Beijing to which high-ranking Buddhist monks were invited. Whenever such cultural measures were unlikely to work, the Chinese government tried more hands-on tactics. They would, for example, give away imperial princesses as wives or consorts to the rulers on the steppes in order to bring their respective families closer together; or they would engage in elaborate gift exchanges in order to establish relationships of mutual dependence; or, in cases where the emperors were particularly desperate, they would even place themselves in the subordinate position of tribute bearers to the foreigners. [Read more: “Khotan to the Khotanese!”]

To think about:

  • Which states were included in the overland system?
  • Why did the Chinese empire have such problems dealing with them?
  • What solutions did the Chinese empire come up with?

The tribute system

In addition to these rather cynical methods, the imperial authorities relied on ritual means to pacify the foreigners. These rituals applied to all foreign relations, but they became particularly important in relation to foreigners to the south and the east of the country. Despite the official Confucian doctrine which said that China was self-sufficient in all things, many Southeast Asian merchants discovered the Chinese to be interested not only in spices and hardwoods but also in specialty items such as rhinoceros horns and ivory. And there was of course no end to the things which the foreigners might buy from the Chinese. During the Ming dynasty much of this commerce was rather informally organized, but during Qing the city of Guangzhou, known as “Canton,” in the south, became the one port through which all trade had to take place.

Since there was no way for foreigners to enter China except as tribute bearers, tribute bearers were what all foreigners who showed up in China became. This included foreign merchants. Trade was considered a lowly occupation in China and merchants were, officially at least, regarded as an inferior social class. While farmers toiled in the fields, Confucian scholars pointed out, merchants got rich without breaking a sweat. Lacking an economic rationale for the activity, the imperial authorities instead interpreted foreign trade in cultural terms. China, they argued, was the most sophisticated country in the world and by comparison everyone else was a “barbarian.” Barbarians, however, were not to be feared as much as pitied, and the fact that they had showed up at China’s doorsteps proved that they were willing to learn from the Chinese. As such they were to be treated benevolently. By showing up in China, and by submitting themselves to the rules prescribed by the tribute system, the foreigners assumed their designated place in the Chinese world order.

In each case the emperor spent far more on the gifts he gave the foreigners in return. This was one of the ways in which the emperor showed his benevolence.

A detailed protocol regulated these visits. Each mission was not to exceed one hundred men, of whom only twenty were allowed to proceed to the capital while the rest remained at the border. On their way to Beijing, each delegation was fed, housed and transported at the emperor’s expense; and once they arrived they stayed in the official “Residence for Tributary Envoys,” where they were given a statutory amount of silver, rice and other foodstuffs. Both coming and going they were accompanied by imperial troops who both protected them and controlled their movements. The foreign visitors were debriefed by court officials who inquired about the conditions obtaining in their respective countries. The gifts which they brought along, the rules stipulated, were to consist of “products native to each land.” Often these were quite humble items – the representatives of a monastic community in Tibet, for example, might only give a few bottles of yak milk. And in each case the emperor spent far more on the gifts he gave the foreigners in return. This was one of the ways in which the emperor showed his benevolence.

The highlight of the mission was the audience with the emperor. On the chosen day, the visitors were woken up as early as 3 a.m. and taken to the imperial palace where they spent hours waiting, sipping tea and eating sweetmeats. At long last, they were accompanied into a large hall where many other delegations already had assembled. There were other foreign envoys, but also delegations from all over China and state officials of various ranks. Then the emperor appeared and all the visiting delegations were required to perform a ketou – a “kowtow” – to symbolize their respect and their submission. [Read more:George Macartney at Qianlong’s court”] The emperor graciously accepted their tributes, spoke kindly to them and gave gifts in return. Then the delegations exited the hall one by one, again while kowtowing. The audience was thereby concluded. During the following days, the delegations were given more gifts and repeatedly wined and dined, even if the emperor himself no longer made an appearance. Then the foreigners were quite unceremoniously told that it was time for them to leave. They were accompanied back to the port where they had entered the country and reminded that they should come back again in the stipulated number of years.

During the Ming dynasty there were altogether 123 states which participated in these ceremonies, although many of the entities in question showed up only once and some of the more obscure names on the list may indeed have been fictional. During Qing the records became more accurate with a core group of states regularly undertaking missions: Korea, Siam, the Ryukyu islands, Annam, Sulu, Burma, Laos, Turfan, but also the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. The Europeans were represented by their respective trading companies.[Read more:De Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie”] In general, the closer the country was located in relation to China, the more often it had to present itself at the imperial court. The Koreans were put on a three-year cycle and they were thereby the most frequent visitors. Since they had to travel so far, the Europeans were supposed to show up only every seventh year, but these regulations were in practice never followed. All in all, the Portuguese only made four visits to the imperial court, the Dutch also four, and the British three. The Russians showed up as well , altogether some twelve times, but since they were a part of the overland system – they came from the north after all – particular rules applied to them.

One may wonder why the foreigners agreed to submit themselves to these exacting requirements. The answer is that it was the only way to make sure that they could continue to trade with the Chinese. Playing along with the imperial rituals, the envoys who went to Beijing would sometimes find ways to buy and sell things on the sly, but more importantly, their compatriots who remained at the border would set up temporary markets where trade would be brisk for a few weeks. The profits earned in this fashion were more than sufficient to justify the trouble of the journey. Once they had showed up in Beijing, moreover, their countrymen who regularly traded in the city of Guangzhou in the south would be free to pursue their activities as before. In addition, there were political gains to be made. Whenever a new king ascended the throne of a state that was a member of the tribute system, he would send an envoy to China. If the envoy was granted an audience, the authority of the ruler who sent him was impossible to dispute. He was, after all, recognized by the emperor of China himself. Returning home, the diplomat would bring the emperor’s official seal with him as a sign of his new status.

The tribute system was unquestionably hierarchical. It was China that dictated the terms and no one else was in a position to influence the logic that constituted the system. The rituals all emphasized submission to the imperial throne, yet the relationship entailed obligations on both sides. Just like a dutiful son, the foreign visitor should be obedient and respectful, and just as a virtuous father, the emperor should care about those who enjoyed his benevolence. Politically speaking, the imperial center controlled the periphery only in the loosest possible sense. Most obviously, the imperial authorities laid no claims to interfere with the independence of states that came to visit them. [Read more:Chinese pirates in Taiwan”] Moreover, if a state decided not to show up, there was not all that much that the Chinese authorities could do. As long as the foreigners were not making trouble, the imperial authorities much preferred to leave them alone. The units of the system were hierarchically ordered but at the same time quite free to govern themselves.

To think about:

  • Which states were included in the tribute system?
  • Give a brief description of how the tribute system worked?
  • Why did so many different states agree to come to China? In what ways did the system benefit China?

A Japanese international system?

The inhabitants of the islands of Japan maintained a close relationship to the Asian mainland once the first contacts were established with China in the fifth century of the Common Era. At the time Japan was a poor country of fishermen and farmers, and the political authorities that existed above the level of the village are perhaps better described as chieftains rather than as kings. It is unclear how the Japanese first came into contact with China, but it is easy to imagine that Japanese fishermen were washed up somewhere on the shores of the Asian mainland after a storm. When they made it back to Japan, they had amazing stories to tell about all the wonders they had seen. Hearing such tales, the local rulers dispatched better organized delegations and soon the Japanese embarked on regular study-visits. Eventually the Japanese imported an entire culture from China, including arts and technology, religion and a writing system, political and social thought and associated political and social institutions. The Japanese often changed these imports to fit their own needs, and many of the changes were radical enough, but Japanese society was nevertheless profoundly altered as a result of the interaction. Yet Japan was a tribute-bearing state, and an official member of the China-run international system, only for a few hundred years. Once the Mongols tried, and failed, to invade the country at the end of the thirteenth century, relations could not continue as before. [Read more: “Kamikaze”] The Japanese did not want anything to do with an aggressive and expansionist China. Although informal commercial contacts continued and thrived, no more official delegations were dispatched to the Chinese court. The imported Chinese culture continued to evolve, but in a distinctly Japanese fashion.

Among the institutions borrowed from China was that of an emperor, yet the emperor of Japan was nowhere near as powerful as his Chinese counterpart. Instead, real power in the country was in the hands of various local and regional leaders who had a strong and largely independent position in relation to each other. Japan was decentralized, with many different centers vying for political power. There was, for example, a fundamental tension between the leaders who controlled the Kanto region, where today’s Tokyo is situated, and the leaders who controlled the Kansai region, the area around today’s Osaka and Kyoto. During the Kamakura period, 1185-1333, power was taken over by military leaders, the shoguns, who had Kanto as their center. The emperor, residing in Kansai, was a figurehead, a symbolic leader, and for most of the country’s history he was more or less ignored. An emperor in the sixteenth century even had to sell his own calligraphy in order to pay his household expenses. Yet the power of the shogun was quite limited as well. This was particularly the case during the Sengoku period, 1467-1573, which was Japan’s own version of China’s Warring States period. The Sengoku period was a time of lawlessness, heroism and political intrigue with vast armies of samurai pitted against each other. [Read more: “The samurai in fact and fiction”]

The Tokugawa family controlled the largest of these regions and also the largest cities, but over something like three quarters of the han they had no direct influence.

The Sengoku period ended in the year 1600 after the Battle of Sekigahara when one of the military leaders, Tokugawa Ieyasu, decisively defeated the others. This inaugurated the Tokugawa period, 1600-1868 – also known as the “Edo period” – which brought peace to the country but also economic development and great social and cultural change. In the 1630s, the Tokugawa rulers banned foreign trade and limited contacts with the rest of the world. Foreign missionaries were expelled, Japanese people were banned from building ocean-going ships, and Japanese people abroad were not allowed to return home. Japan was a sakoku, a “closed country,” and trade was limited to a few ships per year which entered at the only accessible port, Nagasaki in the far south. According to the official rhetoric, Japan was self-sufficient and its people should not waste their precious silver on luxury items from abroad. Yet unofficial contacts of various kinds continued, not least silk trade with merchants in Korea and the Ryukyu islands. [Read more:The Ryukyu islands as the center of the world”]

Although Japan was now pacified – historians often talk about a Pax Tokugawa, the “Tokugawa peace” – the country was not a unified whole. Instead various regional rulers, known as the daimyo, continued to affirm their independence, each one ruling a region, or han, of their own. The number of han varied over time but for most of the Tokugawa period there were at least 250 of them. The Tokugawa family controlled the largest of these regions and also the largest cities, but over something like three quarters of the han they had no direct influence. The daimyo raised their own taxes, had their own armies, police forces, legal and educational systems, and they pursued independent social and economic policies. In fact, each han even had its own currency, and at the end of the Tokugawa period there were hundreds of separate forms of exchange in circulation. While the shoguns in Edo reserved the right to put down peasant rebellions wherever they occurred, their military power was restricted by the fact that they could not tax people outside of their own lands.

The question is how best to characterize Japan during this period. The most obvious answer is to see Japan as an ordinary state, yet this description is surely incomplete. The Tokugawa government was not fully sovereign since it did not have full control over the country’s territory and it had no foreign policy. Perhaps Japan is better described as a compound made up of mini-states, or perhaps we can think of it as an international system – a mini-system – in its own right. If we see Japan as an international system made up of independent units, we need to explain why it was so peaceful. One reason was a small set of regulations which applied equally to the country as a whole, involving, for example, restrictions on military installations. Yet the most spectacular feature of the Tokugawa system was the institution of sankin-kōtai, “alternate attendance,” according to which the daimyo were required to spend every second year in Edo, where the shogun was able to keep a close watch on them. Moreover, during the year they spent at home, taking care of the business of their respective hans, they were required to leave their wives and children in Edo, where they effectively would serve as the shogun’s hostages. If a daimyo in some way misbehaved, it was easy for the shogun to seek retribution on his family.[Read more: “Processions through Japan”]

To think about:

  • Can Tokugawa Japan really be described as an “international system”?
  • Describe relations between the shogun, the emperor and the daimyos.
  • What were the features of the sankin kotai system?

Read more:

  • Barfield, Thomas J. The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China, 221 B.C. to AD 1757. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 1992.
  • Crossley, Pamela. A Translucent Mirror: History and Identity in Qing Imperial Ideology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
  • Elliott, Mark C. Emperor Qianlong: Son of Heaven, Man of the World. London: Longman, 2009.
  • Huang, Ray. 1587, A Year of no Significance: The Ming Dynasty in Decline. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982.
  • Jansen, Marius B. The Making of Modern Japan. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2002.
  • Johnston, Alastair Iain. Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.
  • Kang, David C. East Asia Before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.
  • Perdue, Peter C. China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2010.
  • Toby, Ronald P. State and Diplomacy in Early Modern Japan: Asia in the Development of the Tokugawa Bakufu. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991.
  • Waldron, Arthur A. The Great Wall of China: From History to Myth. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.


  • 475-221 BCE. The Warring States period. Warfare between seven separate states. Many schools of Chinese philosophy established.
  • 221 BCE. Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor, establishes the Qin dynasty. Lasts only 15 years.
  • 206 BCE – 220 CE. The Han dynasty, established by Liu Bang.
  • 618 – 907. The Tang dynasty, with Xi’an as its capital.
  • 629. The monk Xuanzang starts his journey to India.
  • 960. The Song dynasty is established.
  • 1127. The Song moves their court to Hangzhou.
  • 1279. The Mongols overrun the Song and establish the Yuan dynasty.
  • 1368. The Ming dynasty is established.
  • 1405. Zheng He embarks on his first voyage to Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean.
  • 1414. A giraffe arrives in Beijing from Melinda on the coast of East Africa.
  • 1600. The Battle of Sekigahara. The Tokugawa shogunate is established.
  • 1633. First legislation which restricts Japanese intercourse with the rest of the world.
  • 1644 – 1912. The Qing dynasty, established by Manchu armies which invade China.
  • 1868. The Meiji Restoration. The Tokugawa shogunate falls and the Japanese emperor is restored.

Short dictionary

  • bushi, Japanese. Collective term for Japanese martial arts and the ethical code of the samurai.
  • daimyo, Japanese. Literally, “big name.” Title given to the rulers of Japan’s semi-autonomous pro vinces during the Tokugawa period.
  • dao, Chinese. Literally, “the way.” Collected wisdom regarding morality, longevity and prosperity associated with Daoism.
  • fajia, Chinese. “Legalism,” one of the main schools of Chinese political philosophy, developed during the Warring States period. The Legalists advocated ruthless and authoritarian policies.
  • han, Japanese. Semi-autonomous province during the Tokugawa period. Ruled by a daimyo.
  • hanren, Chinese. Name for the Chinese people. Named after the Han dynasty.
  • ketou, Mandarin Chinese, from the Cantonese kautau. “Kowtow.” Ceremonial Chinese greeting. “Three prostrations and nine knockings of the head.”
  • Pax Tokugawa, Latin. “The Tokugawa peace.” Term used by historians for the pacification of Japan which took place during the Tokugawa period.
  • ronin, Japanese. “Masterless samurai,” a samurai working for himself or for any master ready to employ him. Ronin are commonly featured in samurai movies.
  • sakoku, Japanese. Literally, “closed country.” The severe restrictions on intercourse with foreign countries imposed by the Tokugawa shoguns, 1633-1853.
  • sankin-kōtai, Japanese. “System of alternate attendance.” The system whereby daimyos were required to spend every second year in Edo, the Tokugawa capital.
  • shogun, Japanese. Military leader and de facto ruler of Japan during the Tokugawa period.