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Different Perceptions of Tributary System and Its Level of Autonomy
Tributary system is the conduct of foreign relations of the Chinese empires. By
evaluating the tributary system, we can understand Chinaâ??s relations with its neighboring
countries. The tributary system was based on Sino-centricism and Confucian culturalism. The
Chinese contended that they were the center of the world in terms of advanced civilization and
culture. China regarded themselves as the civilized (å?) and all its neighboring countries as the
barbarians(å¤·). By separating level of the civilization, China appealed its neighboring states to
side with China and conclude themselves within the culturally superior boundary by advertising
Notably, Chinese term of barbarians, å¤·, was not perceived as particularly humiliating by
those who those within the imaginary boundaries. It simply referred to people that was not Han
Chinese and people who had no knowledge of Confucianism. It seems that there is no status
difference but the level of civilization. Its seemingly amiable attitude toward the barbarians did
not come from Chinaâ??s benevolence but from the pride and arrogance which deeply rooted in the
Sino-centric ideology. For the Chinese ruling class, the å¤· were generally ignored in addressing
Chinaâ??s foreign relations. From Chinaâ??s perspective of the world, they only recognized countries
that were concluded within the boundary. The China government believed that China and its
tributary states made up the entire world. Its recognition of world was rather limited. As Mattero
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Ricci, an Italian priest who travelled to China in the mid sixteen centuries, stated that Chinaâ??s
disdain to the barbarians and rest of the world made China had no geopolitical concept of the
Moreover, by admitting into the boundary, the tributary states needed to send annual
tribute missions to China. Moreover, they needed to acknowledge their inferiority to China and
Chinaâ??s dominate role even within this so called â??superiorâ? boundary. The tributary system
seemingly contradicted to the preconditions of a state, independence. It raises questions such as,
why did Chinaâ??s neighboring states join the system? Did they admit their role proactively or they
were threatened by China militarily? What were the motivations? And in terms of autonomy,
what was the level of autonomy of the tributary states? Did China ever directly intervene politics
in the tributary states?
This paper will evaluate tributary system from multiple perspectives and address the level
of autonomy given to the tributary states.
It is normally economically, culturally and politically motivated. Both China and tribute
states sought to use the practice of the culturalism to their own advantage.
China had the economic hegemony in Asia and even around the world when China was
in a period of great prosperity. According to Angus Maddison, China had an average 990 dollars
GDP per capita from 618-1922 AD which made up roughly 52 percent of the world GDP.
Tributary system often followed with Chinaâ??s open market for trade. For the tributary states,
trading with China was favorable. Moreover, after the tributary states sent tribute missions to
China, the Chinese government often gave returning gifts back to the tributary states which
worth much more. However, reports have shown that the international trade between China and
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its neighboring countries was always imbalanced. xx argues that China, in most of the case,
carried a significant economic burden in trading with its tributary states.
Culturally, tributary states often send scholars to China. Study Confucianism as statecraft.
(more literature and reasoning needed)
Politically, courts of tributary states often use the system to consolidate the legitimacy of
their regime and their ruling status. When concluded into the Confucian ideological boundary,
the rulers in the tribute states no longer had the legitimacy to call themselves â??emperorâ?(å¤©å,
tianzi, the son of the heaven) , they were only legitimized to call themselves â??kingâ?(ç??, wang)
and they needed recognition of the Chinese emperor. In China, the ruler needed to practice a set
of rituals to call to the heaven for recognition of its legitimacy to rule the country. However, in
contrast, rulers in the tributary system needed to send missions to China and gain legitimacy to
consolidating its ruling status, as the Chinese emperors often stated that they were the
representative of the heaven.
Variational Tributary System
Based on the motivations of tributary states, many of the western scholars such as
(Fairbank; David Shambaugh; Sanuel Huntington) believed that the tributary system was rather
flexible and amiable to the tribute states. But I believed that they developed their concepts
heavily based on Chinese sources. I disagree with their assessment and would argue that
tributary system needs to be assessed within different historical contexts and in different cases.
The imperial Chinese government sometimes wield military power to force its
neighboring countries to compromise. Moreover, the bilateral foreign relations between China
and one tributary state could variate extraordinarily in different period.
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In the next section, I will assess two extreme cases of China in dealing with foreign
relations with its neighboring countries. First, I will evaluate the foreign relation between China
during the Ming period and Vietnam during Annam period to demonstrate how China wielded
military power. And I will evaluate the foreign relations between China and Korea in different
time, (Yuan-Goryeo and Ming-Choson) to illustrate how tributary system was variational in
different historical context.
Case of Vietnam
I need to read more literatures about the relations between Ming and Annam. Iâ??m not
confident with my arguments and evidence right now.
Case of Korea
Yuan and Goryeo
During the Mongol conquest and the Yuan Dynasty, Goryeo was under control by the
Mongols. The Goryeo monarchy had little choice but to accept Mongol overlordship. Even
though, Goryeo maintained a semblance of independence by holding onto its monarchy and
government might be considered a fortunate outcome of its defeat. But the Mongols took Goryeo
as a military backyard. It forced Goryeo to provide manpower and expertise to accelerate
Mongolsâ?? expansion. Mongols set up institutions in Goryeo to reinforce their suzerainty.
Culturally, Goryeo was impacted by the spread of Mongolsâ?? influence, from language, food,
hairstyle, and even household and marrying custom.
Ming and Choson
The relationship between the Ming Dynasty and Joseon was flexible and on a solid term
as both countries were established during and after the expulsion of the Mongols and both
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countries were formed based on â??Neo-Confucianismâ?. The diplomatic relations were regulated
on a healthy term. But both China and tribute states sought to use the practice of the culturalism
to their own advantage. I would argue that the foreign relation was culturally and politically
Politically, Ming was established before the downfall of Goryeo. However, as stated
above, Goryeo was long oppressed and colonialized by the Mongols. The Goryeo society had
many lingering practices of Mongol culture. Goryeo also worshiped Buddhism and its statecraft
and politics often combined with religion values. Goryeo society and its ideology did not meet
with that of Ming which founded by expelling the Mongols. When Taejo of Joseon, YI Seonggye launched his military coup toward the Goryeo, Ming government did not adopt political
measures toward to revolution. I argue that the indifference of Ming government was political
motivated, as Goryeo was long overruled by the Mongols and culturally and politically highly
influenced by the Mongols. And Joseonâ??s statecraft and diplomatic policies matched more with
Mingâ??s ideology. Moreover, from Chosonâ??s perspective, the court was just founded by a military
coup. There was an urgent political need to consolidate the legitimacy of its regime and its ruling
status. And as a Neo-Confucian state, the best way out there was to build political ties with Ming
in terms of tributary system.
Culturally, I would argue that Choson was subtly assimilated by the Confucian
culturalism which forced Choson maintained a good relationship with Ming. In early mid
Choson period, the court started to follow the Sadaejuui (ì?¬ë??ì£¼ì?, äº?å¤§ä¸»ä¹?) in dealing with
foreign relations. According to Armstrong, Sadaejuui was a Confucian idea which constituted
with an attitude of subservience with political realism that followed with recognition of greater
power. By accepted tributary system and its place in Sino-centric world order, Choson was also
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supposed to practice Confucianism as its culture and statecraft. Koreaâ??s adoption of Sadaejuui is
an instance that demonstrates Chinaâ??s culturalism lied in the tributary system and its assimilation
Moreover, the Ming government felt it was important to put Choson under political
dominance. Ming wanted a keen pursuit of the geopolitical benefits which was defending the
capital and the vast northeastern territory. It led to another nature of the tributary system. Ming
government clearly carried a severe economic burden in trading with Choson. Its incentive was
to sacrifice economic benefit but in return of border and national security.
In comparing the Sino-Korean relations in between Yuan-Goryeo and Ming-Choson, the
tributary system was also used differently. These were the factors that may influence the level of
healthy relation and the level of autonomy between China and its tribute states.
Ethnicity of the dynasty ruling China: As mentioned in the very first section, the Hua and
Yi difference not only referred to the difference in level of civilization but also in ethnicity. Yi
was often referred to non-Han Chinese. And many of the non-Han Chinese who ruled China also
adopted the tributary system in dealing with foreign relations, such as Yuan and Qing. But as we
assessed, these non-Han Chinese rulers often had more radical and aggressive diplomatic
approach to Korea. Because when they took over the Chinese land, they were once regarded as
the barbarians both by the former Chinese dynasty and Korea. So, there were always a dispute
between the new rising non-Han Chinese empire and Korea of whoâ??s the civilized. Therefore, the
Chinese government had a more tendency and political need to military suppressed Korea in
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maintaining national and boarder security. After Ming was took over by the Manchus, Choson
showed a great disdain when faced the Qing government and refused to admitted Qingâ??s
superiority. Moreover, the Choson government even wanted to start its own tributary system and
absorb the Qing. As the Choson government believed that it was they were superior.
Similarities in statecraft ideology. When comparing Mongol-Goryeo relations and MingChoson relations, the difference in diplomatic relations originates from the ideologies held by
each country. In Mongol and Goryeo period, the Yuan government was founded in greatly
expanding military influence. Yuanâ??s foreign relations with Goryeo was also developed based on
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