An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

The Tribute System

Mar 26, 2021 © Ulrich Theobald

Tributes (chaogong 朝貢) constituted an important means of diplomatic relationship between China and other states and polities, and in the early ages between the kingdoms of the Xia 夏 (21th-17th cent. BCE), Shang 商 (17th-11th cent. BCE), and Zhou 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE) dynasties and various regional rulers. Other means of diplomacy were "alliance by marriage" (heqin 和親), border markets (hushi 互市), for instance, the famous tea-horse trade, and diplomatic missions (jiaopin 交聘).

The word gong 貢 was also used with the meaning of field tax.

The tribute system in traditional China emerged from the concept that the culture of the Central Plain (Zhongyuan 中原) was superior to the cultures surrounding it. China as the "Kingdom of the Centre" (Zhongguo 中國) with the mythological tribes Hua 華 and Xia 夏 was thus a cultural and economic master over the "barbarians of the four regions" (si yi 四夷, fan 蕃 or 番), which were categorized as "barbarians" of the north (Di 狄 or Hu 胡), the south (Man 蠻 or Miao 苗), the east (Yi 夷), and the west (Rong 戎). The desire of culturally inferior tribes to approach and learn from "China" made tributary relations quasi necessary. The foreign barbarian tribes delivered presents to the Chinese state, which in turn used this constellation to dominate the barbarians, keep them at distance, and to create alliances with them. Presenting tribute was an expression of accepting not just the cultural, but also the political suzerainty of China. The acceptance of Chinese suzerainty entailed the accommodation to certain cultural phenomena, like clothing, customs, social values of Confucianism or the Chinese script or written language. From the Chinese viewpoint, "barbarians" were thus "transformed" (hua 化) into "humans".

The tribute system served for 2,000 years as a means of controlling political entities which could not be conquered and integrated into the Chinese empire. It was an instrument of self-defence against the northern steppe federations (Fairbank & Teng 1941: 137), or - in the case of the many native tribes of southwest China - a way to control them without interfering too much into internal policy or to conquer the territory. China's experience of the threat by steppe peoples led to a system of integrating them by the tribute system in order to acculturate and absorb the barbarians, as far as possible. China herself was from the beginnings a multi-ethnic state, in which ethnicity and "nation" did not play a role, but instead the paradigm of cultural achievements, as "supernationalist sanctions derived from the Confucian world order" (Fairbank 1953: 24). The tribute system was a means of neutralizing barbarians by "sinicizing" or "sinifying" them. Chinese superiority over the surrounding "barbarians" might perhaps not be expressed in military means, but in wealth and cultural achievements.

The Chinese concept of world order made a clear distinction between "us" and "them", and only allowed other states to enter relations with China by way of the tribute system. Foreign states were thus not allowed to negotiate with China on terms of equality (even if the regional states of the Zhou period did in fact negotiate on equal terms), but always in a constellation of one suzerain and many vassal states (or one patron and his clients). Foreign rulers and their successors were therefore formally invested by the emperors of China, as if they were just noblemen within the confines of the Middle Kingdom. Handing over patent and seal made foreign rulers part of a wider network of political relations and allowed China to "rule" indirectly over other states and tribes (see jimi system 羈縻). In this system, foreign chieftains were appointed "pacification commissioners" or given other semi-military titles. The chieftains in turn ruled on behalf of the Chinese dynasties, used Chinese official seals and accepted the Chinese calendar as a symbol of imperial power. Investiture of a local ruler by the emperor of China enhanced his prestige among the local nobility. The indirect Chinese rule over native tribes in the southwest was in the course of the 18th century given up (see gaitu guiliu 改土歸流), and their territories colonized.

The reciprocal system of social relationships in Confucianism meant that if the tribute states were complacent, submissive and reverent (as a son was towards his father, a wife to her husband, or a student to his teacher), the emperor of China would be benign and compassionate. He therefore might provide support to one of his vassals if its state was threatened by others. Yet his meant also that the Chinese empire had the right to settle disputes or punish disobedient tributary states. In the sociological and political context of Confucianism, the sovereign was a model of virtue which had to be imitated by his subjects, and thus also by barbarians. A bountiful Chinese emperor therefore used to "cherish the men from afar" (huairou yuanren 懷柔遠人). The Chinese emperor himself, being the Son of Heaven, had similar duties to his physical fathers (see ancestral veneration) and towards Heaven as his "spiritual" father.

Diplomatic relations also led to military alliances, like the Uyghurs (Ch. Huihe 回紇), whose leaders were officials accepted and instated by the Tang 唐 (618-907) court, and in turn supported the Tang dynasty against rebels and insurgents like An Lushan 安祿山 (703-757). In order to reward the Uyghurs for their support, the Tang started the silk-horse trade (juan-ma maoyi 絹馬貿易).

The gifts of the Chinese rulers to their vassals often surpassed the value of the tributes, and had thus a more symbolic function than an economic one. It might justified to conclude that China bribed the barbarians to keep peace (Rossabi 1983: 3), and that the submission of barbarians was actually bought and paid for (Fairbank & Teng 1941: 141). Moreover, the Chinese government bore all expenses for the diplomatic missions.

Even the tribute missions were asked to deliver rare and precious objects, the Chinese side hold that it did not profit from the tributes because China was self-sufficient and nothing essential could be obtained from foreigners. Apart from strange and exotic things, the Chinese side was not really interested in beliefs and politics and showed scant concern for developing true proficiency in foreign affairs (Rossabi 1983: 3).

Apart from the political connotation, diplomatic missions also had cultural and economic significance. Returning to their homelands, foreign missions took with them objects and ideas of Chinese culture, purchased Chinese goods, and presented interesting commodities from their native lands on Chinese markets. Trade and tribute were thus "cognate aspects of a single system of foreign relations" (Fairbank & Teng 1941: 140).

Apart from receiving foreign envoys, the Chinese state also sent embassies abroad, for instance, Zhang Qian 張騫 (d. 114 BCE) who was sent out to Central Asia in search for allies against the steppe federation of the Xiongnu 匈奴, or Lu Jia 陸賈 (d. 170), who was dispatched to the autonomous state of Nanyue 南越 in southern China. During the Tang period, envoys abroad were called rufanshi 入番使 "commissioners entering barbarian [lands]", and during the Song period 宋 (960-1279) guoxinshi 國信使 "commissioners entrusted by the state". A general Chinese word for diplomatic envoy was qianshi 遣使.

Early times

During the Western Zhou period 西周 (11th cent.-770 BCE), the delivery of tributes was part of investiture ceremonies during which the king of Zhou 周 (11th cent.-221 BCE) invested regional rulers or formally confirmed the succession of one of them. The regional rulers normally presented (nagong 納貢, tonggong 通貢) to the king of the "central government" in Zongzhou 宗周 (close to Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi) and later in Chengzhou 成周 (Luoyang 洛陽, Henan) local products (gongpin 貢品) which could not be easily obtained in the domain of the Zhou rulers. The chapter Yugong 禹貢 in the Classic Shangshu 尚書 "Book of Documents" describes which products originated in what province of the Zhou empire. In return, the Zhou kings presented the regional rulers with lavish gifts (huici 回賜) like precious bronze vessels bearing an inscription reporting the ceremony of investiture and listing the king's presents of clothes, insignia, weapons or chariots.

Han to Tang

With the foundation of the empire by the Qin 秦 (221-206 BCE) and Han 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) dynasties, these formal ceremonies became obsolete, and "tributary" goods were taken to the capital cities by means of trade. The tributary system was shifted to a different level of relationship, namely that of China with independent polities which accepted in some way the suzerainty of China, for instance, the city states of the Tarim Basin, the Korean states Koguryŏ 高句麗, Paekche 百濟, and Silla 新羅, Dian 滇 in today's Yunnan province, the Shan states 撣 and Yelang 夜郎, the steppe tribes of the Xiongnu 匈奴 and Wusun 烏孫, countries in the far west like Dayuan 大宛, Daqin 大秦, or polities from the northeast like the Wuhuan 烏桓 and the Mohe 靺鞨, and even the tribes of Japan (Wonu 倭奴). In 166 CE, a party of merchants even presented a forged public letter allegedly written by the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Jesuit Fathers observed this custom still in the 16th century, when Rome had long ceased to exist.

The official dynastic histories provide descriptions of foreign countries not just because the readers might be interested in such matters, but also because the Chinese state had diplomatic relations with them which made these states part of the political system of China. The Northern Wei 北魏 (386-534) empire received a mission from India who had travelled all the way through the Pamir Range and Central Asia. They brought with them horses, lions, camels, wild animals, elephants and rhinos, as well as a wide range of precious stones, metals, tortoiseshell, woolen fabric, "golden felt" with gold threads, and many things more, like Buddhist sutras, and parties of Buddhist monks who would instruct Chinese novices. As successors of the Xiongnu, the Rouran 柔然 dominated the northern steppe, and were to be dealt with by the tribute system.

The Han dynasty had created a state office in charge of guests and interpreters to guide the foreign guests. Han-period sources mention no less than 36 states (Fairbank & Teng 1941: 144). With the refinement of diplomatic procedures, the Tang dynasty introduced the office of the secretary in charge of guests (zhuke langzhong 主客郎中) coming from the forty countries that had official contact with China. Envoys were given official token which allowed them to travel faster and under protection. The embassies were given certain time spans allowing them to travel to the court in Chang'an 長安 (today's Xi'an 西安, Shaanxi). Lodging of guest and the intricate ceremonies at the court were organized by the Court of Dependencies (honglusi 鴻臚寺). During their stay in the capital, ambassadors were questioned, and the court could thus gather information on foreign countries and their political strategies. The geographer Jia Dan 賈耽 (730-805), for instance, obtained much information on foreign countries in interviews with guests. The Tang court had also compiled some dictionaries, as can be learnt from ancient book catalogues (Schafer 1963: 28). Merchants accompanied the "politicians" among the diplomatic mission to the prescribed frontier markets or the capital, where they were allowed to sell and buy for a period of several days.

During the Tang period 唐 (618-907), diplomatic relationship was maintained with the kingdom of Tibet (Tubo 吐蕃), the state of Nanzhao 南詔 (and later Dali 大理) in Yunnan, the country of Dashi 大食, which was a common term for Persians and Arabs, and various states of the Soghdiana in Central Asia. Apart from Korea and Japan, the Tang had intensive contacts with the Gök Türks (Tujue 突厥) and their successors, the Uyghurs (Huihe 回紇).

Foreign countries profited enormously by the trade. In all important cities, colonies of foreigners were residing, and brought with them their religious creeds like Nestorianism, Manichaeism or Mazdaism. Caravan routes led to Central and West Asia and India, running through the oasis cities of Dunhuang 敦煌, Turfan (Tulufan 吐魯番), Hami 哈密 and Khotan (Yutian 于闐). Naval routes crossed the sea to the Korean states and Japan or the state of Bohai 渤海 (Korean reading Parhae) in the far northeast, while southern routes went into Southeast Asia, India, and Persia and even the port of Sīrāf close to Basra (modern Irak). Chinese merchandise went abroad, and merchants travelled on the ships of foreign "argosies" (Schafer 1963: 12). Guangzhou 廣州 (today in Guangdong) gained importance as an overseas trade port. Apart from the famous Silk Road in the northwest, there was an overland route through Sichuan and Yunnan running through Zomia (van Schendel 2005) and ending in Bengal. The Chinese upper class imported men (slaves, dwarfs, musicians and dancers), domestic and wild animals, furs and feathers, plants, woods, foods, aromatics, drugs, textiles, pigments, minerals, jewels, metals, books and various secular and religious objects. They developed a taste for foreign clothes, dishes, literature and arts, like songs from Khotan, a city famous for its musicians.

The Tang court maintained strict policy of seclusion of foreigners in their own quarters, and forbade intermarriage (Schafer 1963: 22). There were certain limits on the export of Chinese silks and the import of foreign goods. However, the taste of the nobility for luxury goods contrasted with a political programme of keeping foreigners or "barbarians" at distance. On certain occasions, the policy of segregation went so far that pogroms brokt out like one in Yangzhou 揚州 against Persians and Arabs (Schafer 1963: 23).

Diplomatic missions between China and powerful states can be seen as on an equal base. There were, for instance, diplomatic missions every two years between Tang China and the kingdom of Tibet. Some of the legates used to stay for years in the capital city of the counterpart, and were thus forerunners of modern diplomats. There was a cultural range of occasions when befriended states sent visits, for instance, when a ruler or an heir apparent died, on a ruler's birthday, when requesting support, concluding alliances, sending monks or imperial brides.

Song period

Certain developments during the Tang period had demonstrated that the superiority of China's political and military power was not permanent. In 751, the Arabs invaded Central Asia, the state of Nanzhao in today's Yunnan pushed back Tang armies, the various states of Korea and Vietnam several times expelled the Chinese, and the kingdom of Tibet and the federation of the Türks and later the Uyghurs resisted Chinese power. This was particularly visible during that 10th century, when China herself was split between successive Five Dynasties 五代 (907-960) in the north and about Ten States 十國 (902~979) in the south. The Kitans in the northern steppe capitalized from this situation and demanded tributes from several of the Five Dynasties and even interfered into their succession. The Later Jin 後晉 (936-946) was willing not just to send thousands of bolts of silk and tea to the north, but also to cede land to them, and thus accepted the Kitan khan as a superior by giving him the title "Paternal Emperor" (fu huangdi 父皇帝). In return, the Later Jin received horses which were important for military affairs. The state of Wu-Yue 吳越 (907-978) in the southeast established diplomatic relations with Korea and Japan and likewise sent tributes to the Kitans. This attitude profited Wu-Yue enormously and made it the wealthiest one of the many states on Chinese soil during that time (Worthy 1983).

A novel situation emerged during the Song period 宋 (960-1279), when north and northwest China were occupied by states which claimed equal status with the Song, namely the Kitan Liao 遼 (907-1125) state, the Tangutan Western Xia 西夏 (1038-1227) state, and later the Jurchen Jin 金 (1115-1234) state. China was not any more superior to other states, but "among equals" (Rossabi 1983). The Song therefore determined strict and complex rules for diplomatic procedure with prescribed audiences with the emperor, the empress and the heir apparent in fixed places and banquets held according to determined rules (Fairbank & Teng 1941: 147). Foreign states had first to announce a mission and ask for permission. The number of participants was restricted, as was the frequency (chaoqi 貢期) of missions and the wealth of tributes. The reason for these restrictions was simply cost for board and lodging, the organisation of security and banquets, as well as the market activities carried out during the visits. The Kitans and Jurchens imitated the complex Chinese system of diplomatic reception.

The Song utilised a rhetoric as a "lesser empire" (Wang 1983) against the Kitans and delivered them annually tributes of 200,000 bolts of silk and 100,000 taels/liang of silver after the treaty of Chanyuan 澶淵 in 1005. Emperor Gaozong 宋高宗 (r. 1127-1162) of the Southern Song dynasty 南宋 (1127-1279) accepted the suzerainty of the Jin empire, and was thus even by the "barbarian" empire of Jin invested as emperor of the Song (Bao 1998). At the same time Song China engaged vividly in foreign trade with its enemies in the north and even maintained a favourable balance of trade with the Jurchens (Rossabi 1983: 8). The Song also traded overseas with Southeast Asian countries, and Chinese merchants gradually replaced the Arab domination of the South China Sea. Around the year 1000, the Chinese state created a monopoly over the overseas foreign trade and founded the superindendancy of merchant shipping (shibosi 市舶司) in Guangzhou.

On the one hand, the Yuan dynasty 元 (1279-1368), founded by the Mongols, inherited the Chinese imperial system and received embassies from the Uyghurs, the Tanguts, Korea, Annam, Champa, Dali, the "gold-teeth people" (jinchi 金齒) of Yunnan and Laos, and from Fulang 拂郎 or Fulin 拂菻 (i.e. Syria?), but on the other hand, practiced - at least in the early, conquest phase - a deviating policy of "all or nothing" which means they did not accept the method of indirect rule, but requested total submission. Only when this policy failed, as in the case of the invasions of Japan, or successful resistance as in Southeast Asia, they went over to the traditional Chinese mode.

Apart from the superindendancy of merchant shipping in Guangzhou, there were similar institutions in Quanzhou 泉州, Fujian (in Europe known by the Arab designation Zaytun), Wenzhou 溫州, Ningbo 寧波 (at that time Qingyuan 慶元), Hangzhou 杭州 and Ganbu 澉浦 in Zhejiang, as well as Shanghai. Foreign tradesmen were confined to these ports, and trade was only possible through government-owned warehouses. The trade was supervised by officials directly responsible to the central government, for instance, by delivering the levied tariffs of 30 per cent ad valorem (Fairbank 1953: 46). It can be seen that the restriction to a fix number of ports and the strict control of trade by state authorities was not an invention of late imperial China, but a thousand-years old institution.

Ming period

During the Ming period, the number of tribute states was enlarged considerably by way of overseas trade into Southeast Asia, the Indian coast, and even East Africa. Overseas diplomatic trade was called gongbo maoyi 貢舶貿易 and was enforced during the seven famous voyages of Zheng He 鄭和 (1371-1433 or 1435), who was the first - and only - Chinese official who travelled abroad over such a long distance. Official descriptions of the countries he visited are found in the books Xingcha shenglan 星槎勝覽, Yinya shenglan 瀛涯勝覽, Xiyang chaogong dianlu 西洋朝貢典錄 and Shuyu zhouzi lu 殊域周咨錄. A map called Zhenghe hanghai tu 鄭和航海圖 is part of the military book Wubeizhi 武備志. Mainly for reasons of cost, the missions ended in 1433, but Southeast Asian states contacted during that period continued to be listed, even if they ceased to present tributes after 1460 (Fairbank & Teng 1941: 155). After 1460, the focus of diplomatic relations clearly shifted from Southeast Asia to the states, polities and tribes of the northwest, mainly to Hami and Turfan, the funnels of the Central Asian caravan trade. Nonetheless, lists of tributary or vassal states of China retained these countries far into the 18th century.

Ryūkyū 琉球 and Chosŏn 朝鮮 were allowed to deliver tributes every second or third year, while Japanese diplomatic missions were only allowed once in seven or ten years. Annam, Zhenla (Cambodia), Champa, Java, and Siam visited China every third year, and the closer ones among the Central Asian states every fifth.

The average time diplomatic missions spent in the imperial capital was three to five days, with the exception of Chosŏn and Ryūkyū whose diplomats could stay as long as they wished (Hong 1998). They were hosted by the Ministry of Rites (libu 禮部), which was responsible for "guest rites" (binli 賓禮, see five rites). The delivering of tributes was closely tied to intricate ceremonies, the most notorious of which was the ninefold prostration with "knocking the head" (ketou 磕頭 or koutou 叩頭) against the earth, known in the West as the kowtow or kotow. It was famously refused by Lord Macarntey in 1793, while Dutch ambassadors of the same period performed it (Fairbank xxx). The embassy took residence in the Interpreters and Translators Institute (huitong siyi guan 會同四譯館). With the exception of certain aboriginal border tribes the embassies of which understodd the supervision of the Ministry of War (bingbu 兵部), all others were under the management of the Bureau of Receptions (zhuke qinglisi 主客清吏司) of the Ministry of Rites (libu 禮部). From the Ming period on, missions had to present a seal of the imperial court before being allowed to enter "Chinese" territory. Only a restricted number of persons was granted entrance to Beijing, while the rest of the party had to stay in the suburbs.

The voyages of Zheng He in the early 15th century had served the purpose to bring the flourishing private junk trade into the tribute system of the Ming empire. The attempt was given up after Emperor Chengzu's 明成祖 (r. 1402-1424) death.

Jesuit missionaries like Matteo Ricci (Ch. Li Madou 利瑪竇, 1552-1610) provided the Ming court with world maps and informed them about Europe and the wider world, but their knowledge fell into oblivion or was eventually ignored during the early and high Qing periods. There was "utter and indiscriminate confusion" (Fairbank 1953: 12) not just about states of Southeast Asia and the Indian coast (designations and locations), but all the more about European countries. The old term Folangji 佛朗機 "Franks" referred to Portugal, Spain, France, or Italy, while Spain might also be termed Gansila 干絲臘 (for Castile), and Italy was the location of the Holy See, which also sent missions. The nature of the Jesuit mission itself was a complex matter, because the Fathers hailed from various countries and spoke other languages that their native ones, but served the Pope. Northern Europeans were often referred to as hongmaoyi 紅毛衣 "red-haired barbarians", without clearly distinguishing between English, Dutch, or Swedish persons. European ships came from the South China Sea, and European countries therefore appear in lists in-midst of polities on the Malay Peninsula or the Indian coast. Ming-period sources therefore discerned between the "Lesser Western Sea (Xiao Xiyang 小西洋, the Indian Ocean), and the "Larger Western Sea" (Da Xiyang 大西洋, the Atlantic Ocean).

The first official European embassy in 1521 came from Portugal (which traded in China since 1514), and only few other states sent their diplomats to Beijing in the coming 250 years, namely the Netherlands, Russia, the Holy See, and Great Britain, but all of them after the demise of the Ming. No less than 150 self-styled "rulers" were trading with China in 1502 (Fairbank 1953: 32), and it was well known to the Jesuit Father Bento de Góis (1562-1607) that foreign merchants used to forge public letters in the name of kings in order to obtain trade rights. The Ming dynasty founded superintendencies (tijusi allowing foreign trade in Guangzhou, Quanzhou, Mingzhou 明州 (i.e. Ningbo), but only Guangzhou remained after 1522 because the infestation of the East China Sea by Wokou pirates 倭寇 forced the Ming state to shut down ports and closely supervise the coast line. Thereafter, much of European trade was controlled by the Portuguese, who had a settlement since 1557 in Macao (Aomen 澳門), and regularly traded in Guangzhou since 1578.

Table 1. Tribute states of the Ming empire
東南夷 Eastern and Southern Barbarians
朝鮮國 Chaoxian Chosŏn (Korea)
日本國 Riben Japan
琉球國 Liuqiu Ryūkyū
安南國 Annan Annam (northern Vietnam)
真臘國 Zhenla Cambodia
暹羅國 Xianluo Siam (Thailand)
占城國 Zhancheng Champa (southern Vietnam)
爪哇國 Zhuawa Java (old Shepo 闍婆)
彭亨國 Pengheng Pahang (east coast of Malay peninsula)
百花國 Baihua ? (Coromandel coast of India)
三佛齊國 Sanfoqi Srivijaya, i.e. Palembang
浡泥國 Boni Brunei
須文達那國 Xuwendana Samudra (eastern coast of Sumatra)
蘇門答剌國 Sumendala Samudra, perhaps Aceh (northern tip of Sumatra)
西洋瑣里國 Xiyang Suoli Chola "in the Western Ocean" (southeast India)
瑣里國 Suoli Chola, idem or close-by
覽邦國 Lanbang ? (island group east of Singapore)
淡巴國 Danba ? (= Langyaxiu 狼牙脩, i.e. Lankasuka, northern Malay peninsula)
蘇祿國 Sulu Sulu Archipelago
古里國 Guli Calicut (southwest coast of India)
滿剌加國 Manlajia Malacca (southwest coast of Malay peninsula)
娑羅國 (=婆羅) Shaluo (s.l. Poluo) Borneo
阿魯國 Alu Aru (northeast coast of Sumatra)
小葛蘭國 Xiaogelan Quilon (southwestern tip of India)
榜葛剌國 Banggela Bengal
錫蘭山國 Xilanshan Ceylon (Sri Lanka)
召納撲兒國 Zhaonapu'er Jaunpur (close to Benares)
拂麻國 (=拂菻) Fuma (s.l. Fulin) Syria ("Fulin" is a multiple distortion of the word "Rum")
柯枝國 Kezhi Cochin (southwest India)
麻林國 Malin Melinde (east coast of Africa near Mombasa)
呂宋國 Lüsong Luzon (Philippines)
碟里國 * Dieli ?
日羅夏治國 * Riluoxiazhi ?
合貓里國 * Hemaoli Marinduque (southeast of Luzon, Philippines)
古里班卒國 * Gulibangzu Pansur (west coast of Sumatra)
打回國 * Dahui ?
忽魯謨斯國 (忽魯母思) * Hulumosi (Hulumusi) Hormuz (Persian Gulf)
甘把里國 (甘巴里) * Ganbali Coyampadi (southeast coast of India)
加異勒國 Jiayile Cail (southeast India)
祖法兒國 (左法兒) * Zufa'er (Zuofa) Dhofar, Ẓufār (south Arabia)
溜山國 * Liushan Maldive Islands
阿哇國 * Awa Awa (Myanmar)
南巫里國 * Nanwuli Lambri (northern part of Sumatra)
急蘭丹國 * Jilandan Kelantan (east coast Malay peninsula)
奇剌尼國 * Qilani ?
夏剌比國 * Xialabi Arabia?
窟察尼國 * Kuchani ?
烏涉剌踢國 * Wushelati ?
阿丹國 * Adan ʿAden (Jemen)
魯密國 * Lumi Rum, "Rome" (Asia Minor)
彭加那國 * Pengjiana Bengal
捨剌齊國 * Shelaqi Shūlistān? (Persia)
八可意國 * Bakeyi ?
坎巴夷替國 * Kanbayiti Coyampadi (southeast coast of India)
黑葛達國 * Heigeda ? "Black"
白葛達 * Baigeda ? "White"
剌撒 * Lasa ? Arabia or Somali coast of Africa
不剌哇 * Bulawa Barawa (east coast of Africa, close to Mogadishu)
木骨都束 * Mugudusu Mogadishu (east coast of Africa)
喃渤利 * Nanboli Lambri (northern part of Sumatra)
千里達 * Qianlida ? (near Maldive Islands)
沙里灣泥 * Shaliwanni Cananore (southeast coast of India)
北狄 Northern Barbarians
迤北小王子 Yibei xiao wangzi "The lesser lord(s) of the wide north"
瓦剌三王 Wala san wang The three lords of the Oyirads
順義王 Shunyi Wang Prince Shunyi, the leader of the Tartars (Dada 韃靼, i.e. Mongols)
朶顏衛 Duoyan wei Garrison of Duoyuan (today in Inner Mongolia)
福餘衛 Fuyu wei Garrison of Fuyu (today in Heilongjiang)
泰寧衛 Taining wei Garrison of Taining (today in Jilin)
東北夷 Northeastern Barbarians
海西 Haixi Jurchens of Haixi
建州 Jianzhou Jurchens of Jianzhou
西戎 Western Barbarians
哈密 Hami Hami (today in Xinjiang)
畏兀兒 Weiwu'er various Uyghurs
安定衛 Anding wei Garrison of Anding (Gansu)
罕東衛 Handong wei Garrison of Handong (close to Dunhuang, Gansu)
赤斤蒙古 Chijin Menggu Čikin Mongols (close to Yumen 玉門, Gansu)
曲先衛 Quxian wei Garrison of Quxian (Gansu)
哈烈 * Halie Herāt (Afghanistan)
哈三 * Hasan ?
哈烈兒 * Halie'er ?
沙的蠻 * Sha di man "barbarians of the desert"?
哈失哈兒 * Hashiha'er Kašgar (today in Xinjiang)
哈的蘭 * Hadilan Khotelan? (north of Badakhshān)
賽蘭 * Sailan Sayram (Kazakhstan)
掃蘭 * Saolan same as Sayram?
亦力把力 (別失八里) * Yilibali (Bieshibali) Kulja (Yining 伊寧, today in Xinjiang)
乜克力 * Miekeli, Niekeli ? (east of Hami)
把丹沙 * Badansha Badakhshān (Afghanistan)
把力黑 * Balihei Balkh (Afghanistan)
俺力麻 * Anlima Almalik (today in Xinjiang)
脫忽麻 * Tuohuma Tokmak (Uzbekistan)
察力失 * Chalishi Chalish (western Xinjiang)
幹失 * Ganshi ?
卜哈剌 * Buhala Bukhara (Uzbekistan)
怕剌 * Pala Balkh (Afghanistan)
失剌思 * Shiladi Shīrāz (Persia)
你沙兀兒 * Nishawu'er Nīshāpūr (Persia)
克失迷兒 * Keshimi'er Kashmir
帖必力思 * Tiebilisi Tabrīz (Persia)
果撒思 * Guosasi ?
火壇 * Huotan Khojend (Kokand)
火占 * Huozhan idem
苦先 * Kuxian Kuča (todayin Xinjiang)
沙六海牙 * Shaliuhaiya Shāhrokhia (near Khojend)
牙昔 * Yaxi ? (Aksu, today in Xinjiang)
牙兒干 * Ya'ergan Yarkant (today in Xinjiang)
戎 * Rong ?
白 * Bai ?
兀倫 * Wulun ?
阿速 * Asu Alans (Caucasus)
阿端 * Aduan ? (Khotan, today in Xinjiang)
耶思成 * Yesicheng ?
坤城 * Kuncheng Kundūz? (Afghanistan)
捨黑 * Shehei ? (Arabia)
擺音 * Baiyin ?
克癿 * Keqie ?
土魯番 Tulufan Turfan (today in Xinjiang)
火州 Huozhou Karakhodjo (east of Turfan)
柳陳城 Liuchen Liuchen (east of Karakhodjo)
撒馬兒罕 Sama'erhan Samarkand (Uzbekistan)
魯迷 Lumi Rum, "Rome"
天方國 Tianfang Mecca
默德那國 Modena Medīna
于闐國 Yutian Khotan
日落國 * Riluo ? "Sunset Country"
八答黑商 * Badaheishang Badākhshan (Afghanistan)
俺都淮 * Anduhei Andkhoy (west of Bukhara)
亦思弗罕 * Yisifuhan Isfahān (Persia)
黑婁 * Heilou Khorāzān (Persia)
額即癿 * Ejiqie ?
哈辛 * Haxin ?
烏思藏 Wusi-Zang Üs-Tsang (Tibet)
長河西,魚通,寧遠 等 處 places in Eastern Tibet
朶甘思 Duogansi mDo Khams, Dokham (Kham and Amdo)
董卜韓胡 Dongbuhan Hu Maogong (Lesser Jinchuan, today Sichuan)
Order and names according to the revised Wanli-period version of the statutes Da-Ming huidian 大明會典, ch. 105-108 (Xuxiu siku quanshu 續修四庫全書 edition). Countries marked with an asterisk * are not specified as to the nature of their tributes, but are just listed. Identification according to Fairbank & Teng 1941. Further, mostly unified, names are found in the official dynastic history Mingshi 明史, ch. 208-220.

Qing period

The Qing dynasty 清 (1644-1911), founded by the Manchus, created in 1638 the Court of Colonial Affairs (lifanyuan 理藩院), an institution specialized to deal with the Mongols and control them. The Court allowed a maximum of supervision and control with a minimum of irritation (airbank & Teng 1941: 160). This was achieved by granting rich emoluments to the Mongolian nobility to purchase their loyalty. A first-class prince (ǰasaɣ), for instance, received grants of 2,000 tael/liang and 25 bolts of fine silk annually, while tayiǰi (Ch. taiji 台吉) and tabunang (Ch. tabunang 塔布囊) were given 100 tael and 4 bolts (Fairbank & Teng 1941: 161), plus allowances during their stay in Beijing. The tributes requested from the Mongol tribes were nominally cheap, but the Mongols contributed heavily for the many Qing wars, e.g. by supplying the Manchu army with horses.

The Qing obtained a few new tributary states, like the Sultanate of Kokand (Ch. Huohan 浩罕), the Kazakhs or Russia, and these countries were embedded into the tribute system so well that from 1700 on the tributes from the northwest are barely mentioned in sources. Russia was the only Western state that was allowed to maintain a permanent residence in Beijing, from 1721, even if it was only defined as missionary, and not political. The most important ambassador was Archimandrite Palladij, Pjotr I. Kafarov (1817-1878).

Even if regular turns of visits were determined in imperial regulations, tributary states had to ask for permission to send a tribute mission. This was also true for visits to congratulate, to express condolence, or to obtain a patent of investiture (cegao 冊告). The Qing introduced the rule that direct contact between foreigners and the imperial court was not allowed. Each communication had to pass the provincial governors (xunfu 巡撫) or the governors-general (zongdu 總督, by the Europeans called "viceroys") in the coastal provinces, mainly Guangdong and Fujian. The missions were not to be larger than 100 persons, including high-standing personnel and retainers. Only twenty officers were allowed to enter the capital, while the others had to stay in the suburbs. As to ships, no more than three were allowed, with crews of 100 per vessel. Offenders against these rules were to be deported or pulled back. On the other hand, the Chinese government also took care for the funeral in case an emissary died while being in Beijing or on Chinese soil. Emissaries were received at the coastal or border town, and escorted with rider tallies (kanhe 勘合) to Beijing and back.

The Emperor in Beijing (or alternatively in his summer residence in Jehol/Rehe 熱河) received the ambassadors, clothed in their native costumes, in the Taihe Hall 太和殿 of the Forbidden City, where they performed the kotow, but were then allowed to sit and served tea. The tribute objects were directly cashiered by the Imperial Household Department (neiwufu 内務府) and other institutions directly under the court.

The Qing allowed foreign merchants to sell their commodities either in Beijing in markets at the Residence for Tributary Envoys held as long as they stayed in Beijing, namely 3-5 days, but without limit for Ryūkyū and Korea. Alternatively, some states were allowed to trade on seasonal markets in fixed places. For Koreans, the border market was in Shengjing 盛京 (Shenyang 瀋陽, Liaoning); for people from Tibet or the southwest, in Zhongjiang 中江 close to Chengdu 成都, Sichuan; and for northwesterners in Huining 會寧 close to Lanzhou 蘭州, Ningxia; there was also a seasonal market in Qingyuan 慶源 (today's Zhaoxian 趙縣, Hebei). For overseas countries, the market was in Guangzhou (Western name Canton), where specialized, commissioned and licensed "hong" merchant guilds (known as Cohong or gonghang 公行) took over the economic transactions. The authorities strictly controlled the market activities, not just to profit from the turnover tax, but also to protect the emperor's guest against usury (Fairbank & Teng 1941: 167).

When shipped from the border entries to Beijing, the wares were freed from tariffs. Some goods were prohibited to sell (history books, certain types of satin, weapons, saltpetre, official costumes), or to bring out of China (beams, nails, oil, hemp needed for shipbuilding, or to take passengers with them, barring castaways; rice only for provision; weapons only for necessary defence against pirates). It was not allowed "to linger in China" longer than allowed or to travel along other routes than those determined as the official ones. Even the rescuing and escorting back of Chinese "citizens" having suffered shipwreck or being cast away, was subject to strict regulation.

The European countries were subject to the rules for tributary mission, for instance. Portugal had obtained a "quarantine place" by leasing permanently the peninsula of Macao (Aomen). The East India Company and other foreigners used this procedure and fitted themselves in the prevailing tribute system that allowed them to trade - under the defined restrictions - in Guangzhou and to wait for return in Macao. Even after the First Opium war, foreign merchants were restricted to the Factories on the island of Shamien (Shamian 沙面) at the gates of Guangzhou, and not allowed to enter the city until 1858. The Treaty of Nanking from 1842 allowed them residence in one of the five treaty ports or leaving the cities within a frame of one day's travel.

Holland or the Netherlands enjoyed a special status. The first Dutch mission of Pieter van Goyer and Jacob van Keyser was received in Beijing in 1656, and the first Portuguese one with Manuel de Saldanha in 1670. In total, the Chinese court did not receive many Western embassies before the opening of the treaty ports in 1842, and newcomers like Sweden or the United States did never send tribute missions at all. The Qing therefore introduced a category of its own, consisting of nations engaging in commerce, but not sending tributes (hushi zhuguo 互市諸國).

Table 2. European embassies to China between 1500 and 1800
1520-21 Tomé Pires (PT)
1656 Pieter van Goyer, Jacob van Keyser (NL)
1656 Fyodor Isakovich Baykov (RUS)
1665? Pieter van Hoorn (NL)
1670 Emmanuel de Saldanha (PT)
1676 Nikolai Gavrilovich Spathari (RUS)
1678 Bento Pereyra de Faria (PT)
1689 Fjodor Alexejevich Golovin (RUS)
1693-94 Eberhard Isbrand Ides (RUS)
1705 Charles-Thomas Maillard de Tournon (Holy See)
1720 Carlo Ambrogio Mezzabarba (Holy See)
1720-21 Lev Vassilievich Izmailov (RUS)
1725 Gotthard a Santa Maria (i.e. Emeric Plaskowitz), Ildefonso a Nativitate (Holy See)
1726-27 Sava Lukich Vladislavich-Raguzinsky (RUS)
1727 Alexandre Metello de Sousa e Menezes (PT)
1753 Francisco Xavier de Alsis Pacheco e Sampaio (PT)
1767 Ivan Ivanovich Kropotov (RUS)
1793 George Macartney (GB)
1795 Isaac Tithsing, Andreas Everardus van Braam Houckgeest (NL)
1805-06 Yurii Alexandrovich Golovkin (RUS)
1816 William Amherst (GB)

In Chinese sources like the richly illustrated Zhitongtu 職貢圖, European countries are listed alongside southeast Asian states of the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian Archipelago, while nations having arrived later were separated from these. Moreover, among the Southeast Asian countries, many had ceased to deliver tributes to China since around 1450. The lists of tribute countries used in the 18th century were either outdated or far from reflecting real locations and the economic and political importance of countries.

Quite interesting is the observation that at the height of Qing power, in the late 18th century, there was less tributary activity from the Southeast than it was half a century later, when power of the Qing state began to wane. One reason to explain this phenomenon is that the tribute system was much more than the Chinese way of diplomacy. It was a way of international trade. With the intensification of international trade, the tribute system came under stress and was tested in its limits. Foreign states, represented by private merchants or licensed companies like the British East India Company (EIC) or the Dutch Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC), or later the private English traders, requested higher trade volumes than it was possible in the tribute system. This can be seen in the case of Ryūkyū, which was an entrepôt of international Japanese trade, or the Philippines, where private Chinese overseas merchants organised the trade between mainland China and the islands, which were again connected with the New World across the Pacific. The private junk trade had likewise grown immensely since the Yuan period, notwithstanding the long-term danger of piracy in the East and South China Sea and the official sea ban (haijin 海禁) between 1661-1684. The number of merchants engaging in overseas trade was considerable, but the Confucian disdain for merchants and the generally anti-commercial nature of the Confucian state ignored these developments. Rather than support Chinese merchants abroad, the court was therefore inclined to forbid international trade altogether.

With the lifting of the sea ban in 1684, the Qing initiated a multiport trade system with several overseas customs, namely the Jiangnan Customs (Jiang haiguan 江海關) in Shanghai, the Zhejiang Customs (Zhe haiguan 浙海關) in Ningbo, the Fujian Customs (Min haiguan 閩海關) in Fuzhou 福州 and Xiamen 廈門, and the Guangdong Customs (Yue haiguan 粤海關) in Guangzhou. The latter was directly subordinated to the Imperial Household Department. From 1760 on, all overseas trade was restricted to Guangzhou, and the infamous Canton system was created.

The "tragic Chinese ignorance of the West" (Fairbank & Teng 1941: 190) and of the emerging of global trade was partially brought about by the feeling that the tribute system allowed the Chinese court to receive foreign goods in the necessary quantities, while everything else – involving expansion of trade – was deemed unnecessary.

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