China and East Asia

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 shown 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.

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 too, 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 ketone — a “kowtow” — to symbolize their respect and their submission. 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. 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 they wanted 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 shown 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. 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.