UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


Chinese Tributary States

Territory GainedLost
Annam BC 111AD 968
Korea 9181896
Siam 10011809
Burma 11061885
Cochin China17741853
Nepal 17911912
The traditional pattern of relations between the "Middle Kingdom" and its neighboring "barbarians" was a hierarchical and unequal tributary system. More than just a relationship between two states, China and the tribute-bearing country, it also at times encompassed satellite tributary relationships – at various points, Vietnam required tribute from Laos. The Chinese tributary system dated to the Han dynasty (202 BC–220 AD) China’s overseas tributaries were listed in Imperieal Qing Chinese documents in a standard order: Korea, the Liuqiu Islands, Annam (Vietnam), Siam, Sulu, Laos, Burma, and the Great Western Sea (Da Xiyang).

The relationships between China and the other nations and tribes named were always, to an Oriental mind, definite and well understood. Embassies reached Peking from each of the smaller states at each New Year, bringing presents and the felicitations of the season to the emperor. They were imperially entertained by him, and on their return home were the bearers of return gifts to their rulers, which gifts were always as much more valuable than those which they brought, as the emperor was greater in power and wealth than their lords. When the Chinese Government has had occasion to describe her attitude and relationship towards any of the neighboring states, precisely the same word and phrase is used which is employed to indicate the relative positions of two brothers, the elder and the younger. Recalling the fact that the entire theory and basis of government in China is to be found in the patriarchal, or parental, system, in which the elder brother has a certain authority over, and responsibility for, the younger, it ceases to be difficult to understand the tie which connected China with her surrounding and less powerful neighbors.

The formal tributary system perpetuated the emperors’ view of China as the center of the universe to which all other polities were naturally subservient, as well as providing China a means of regulating the flow of foreign goods across the imperial borders, for identifying the most advantageous trade partners. For the tributary states, formal tributary status, ceremonially bestowed by the Chinese court, produced favored trade status at Chinese ports, regular visits by Chinese merchants to a ruler’s home port, and possession of imperial regalia that enhanced the tributary ruler’s political status.

Status as a tributary state was formalistic and did not neccessarily imply strong political control. China's relationship to vassal or tributary states was fundamentally different from the relationship in modern international law in which a sovereign or suzerain state requires the actual right of protection over a subject state or protectorate. At times it was no more than the theoretical relation of a subject state to a theoretical world empire. The relationship between China and its tributary states was largely economic, confined to an exchange of goods with the Chinese merchants enjoying the upper hand. Chinese traders sold processed goods while buying raw forest and marine products. Chinese merchants could invariably fetch their desired price since there were neither indigenous nor foreign competitors who offered similar commodities at all.

At other times the relationship was a bit more energetic. In the early 15th Century, a king in Sri Lanka, Wijayo-Bahu, called A-lee-koo-naewurh or A-liet-k'u-nai-r by the Chinese, enticed the Chinese delegation into the interior of his country and then wanted to extort gold and silks from him, while he sent soldiers to attack the Chinese fleet. But Ching-Ho, the famous Chinese commander, won a complete victory over the ruler of the Rayigama kingdom. In the 6th month of the year 1411 Ching-Ho brought the king a prisoner to the capital, along with a quantity of spoil. The emperor did not decapitate the King, but gave him permission to return to his country. In 1411 the captives were liberated and returned by the Chinese to Ceylon, one of the captured chiefs, named Seay-panae-na, being made the Emperor's viceroy on condition of paying a tribute to China.

There was never any attempt to be precise about what tributary status meant, and the Chinese were probably wise to leave the question vague. China's interpretation of "tribute" was essentially unpractical. So long as her own advantage could be promoted, she regarded as a token of vassalage the presents periodically carried to her Court from neighbouring States, but so soon as there arose any question of discharging a suzerain's duties, she classed these offerings as an insignificant interchange of neighborly courtesy.

A white jade sceptre was conferred by the Emperors of China on feudal princes as a token of both vassalage and investiture, accompanied by a corresponding Imperial Letter. The feudal lords were vassals of the Emperor of China; their Principalities were tributary States, held by them as fiefs at the will and pleasure of "the One Sovereign-Lord of tho World".

The tie which bound these states to their suzerain was of the loosest description. China accepted their homage with calm superiority, but conceived herself to be under no reciprocal obligation. Such was the attitude which China still maintained when foreign nations first began to come into contact with these tributary states. She did not recognise that the position of suzerain involved responsibilities as well as rights, and to this non-perception are to be attributed all the vagaries of her diplomacy and the complications in which she became involved.

China Tributary States The tribute system was established in the Han dynasty, with the first tributary missions probably arriving in China around the 1st century BC. Notices of foreign countries, dating from the second century BC, are inserted at the end of Chinese histories of their various dynasties. Arabia and the Arabs are called Ta-shi, or Ta-hi, they and their country are well described in the history of the T'ang dynasty (618— 907 AD). An account of Mahomed is found in the annals of the Sui dynasty. In the year 651 AD the king of Ta-shi, supposed to be the Emir Al-mumenin [not a proper name, but the title Prince of the Believers], sent an envoy to the Chinese court. This would have been Othman. The title was first given to Omar, the third descendant of the prophet, who had declined, like his predecessor, Abubeker, the more presumptuous title of khalif. Again, in 713 AD, an Arabian envoy brought a horse as a present, but the proud Mahometan refused to bend the knee before the "Son of Heaven," when it appears a scene occurred similar to that with Lord Amherst in 1816.

Dai Viet had been tributary since gaining independence from China in the 10th century. Champa sought a close tributary connection for economic and political reasons. The Kingdom of Funan sent tributary missions to China as as early as the 3rd century. Later, the Khmer empire and various Tai and Laotian Kingdoms also pursued tributary relations. The Burmese kingdoms of Pagan, Toungoo and Konbaung dispatched sporadic missions. The trading states of Srivijaya, Brunei, Luzon, Sulu and Melaka all sought tributary connections, while the powerful Empire of Majapahit, though wary of its vassals’ contact with China, regularly dispatched its own envoys to the Ming Court. The eastern maritime trade route via Taiwan and Luzon (i.e., northern Philippines) was abandoned in the late 1420s.

In the 13th century the Burmese-Mon kingdom of Pagan was defeated by the Mongols. The Toungoo and Konbaung dynasties established powerful kingdoms, but Ming China did not recognize these powerful rulers as kings, and successive Burmese rulers showed little interest in establishing close tributary relations with China. After the Konbaung dynasty was established in 1752, it pursued an aggressive state-building policy to bring periphery vassals and tributaries under its direct control. A few of the independent chieftains bordering between China and Burma paid tributes to both countries, and as Konbaung tightened its control, some of these chieftains turned to China for help. Between 1765 and 1770 China sent four expeditions, the first three ended in China’s defeat, and the fourth in a truce. Only in 1790 were tributary relations between the two countries were restored.

Min Shu noted that " ... after the Ming court moved the capital from Nanjing to Beijing in 1421 and the imperial treasury gradually weakened, China lost the interest in expanding its tributary contact with Southeast Asia. In the decades after private trade was legalized in 1567, only Dai Viet and the Tai kingdom of Ayutthaya continued to dispatch tributary missions to China. The last Chinese imperial dynasty of Qing inherited many Ming practices of the tribute system, particularly in dealing with Southeast Asia. The only difference was that the Qing dynasty no longer used tributary trade to promote its overseas influences. Except for an early ban on private trade, tributary trade was gradually replaced by private trade in the late 17th and early 18th century. Still, Southeast Asian countries sent regular tributes to the Qing court."

Mongolia, Corea, Cochin China, Siam, Burmah and Thibet were all tributary to China, and sent ambassadors to Pekin to acknowledge their dependence. Thus China was completely surrounded by a chain of smaller tributary states, and this fact helped to establish the belief that the emperor of China was emperor of the whole world. In later times Cochin China, Siam, Burmah either wholly or practically threw off their allegiance, and no longer paid tribute. They rarely (some of them even never) sent ambassadors with presents to Pekin. This as a natural consequence attracted attention and commenced to prejudice the belief in the emperor of China as ruler of the world; and yet this belief was a part apparently of the Chinese nature, and almost a necessity to the tranquillity of that country, and to the stability of the throne.

By the later part of the 18th Century the Chinese government could contemplate with satisfaction the almost complete recovery of the whole extensive dominions which had at any time owned the imperial sway. The regions directly administered by the officers of the emperor extended from the borders of Siberia on the north to Annam and Burma on the south, and from the Pacific Ocean on the east to Kashgar and Yarkand on the west. But even that did not complete the tale, for outside these boundaries there was a fringe of tributary nations which still kept up the ancient forms of allegiance, and which more or less acknowledged the dominion of the central kingdom.

The Manchu Emperor of China claimed to be "the Great Exalted Monarch and Highpriest of the Great Ching Empire of the World," claiming, as an actual political right, the absolute sovereignty of the whole Earth. Every human being and every corner of the habitable Earth were subject to "the One Solitary Man," who governed the World. Styled "The One Man of the Earth", in his humility he was also styled "the Lonely One", or "the Solitary Man".

It was laid down in the authoritative work on the Rites of the Manchu Dynasty, as the first principle of the Rites of the Dynasty respecting Tribute that, "the barbarian States of the four quarters of the globe having submitted themselves to the influence of (Chinese) civilisation ", i.e. having become tributary, "all barbarian States of the four quarters of the globe are entailed States". Hence, the Imperial Commissioner Lin, in his notorious letter to the Queen of England, speaks of "her honorable State " — England — as one of the "entailed — i. e. tributary—States"; and reminds Her Majesty of "the power of the Heavenly Dynasty — of the Ta-Ching, to whom the whole Earth is subject — to order both China and the barbarian World "; and of "the Heavenly Dynasty's means to keep in subjection its ten-thousand States therefore advising the Queen, "by yielding respectful and true obedience, to evince her clear sense of Heaven's Ordinances." In a remarkable Essay on Russia, full of information, — although the author is inclined to think that the Russian people must have derived their origin from cannibals,— published by the ex-Cabinet-Minister Chi-Kiin-Tsau, reads: "The Ta-Ching having succeeded to the Empire, they are in possession of all the habitable Earth, and there is no corner within or beyond the seas, which is not subject to them."

The Government of China in the 17th or 18th century was no doubt sincerely unable to understand what there was offensive to European powers in its pretensions. The etiquette concerning the reception of tribute-bearers was thus fixed at a time when the tributary princes were for the most part of Chinese nationality, and the alien ambassadors only represented really barbarous tribes. The etiquette established for such receptions is as old as the Chow Li, and until European ambassadors understood in what character they were supposed to approach the Chinese Court, they could not explain clearly and convincingly in what particulars the supposition was erroneous. And, at the same time, till the Europeans had explained their own view of their own position, China could not be expected to understand in what respects the modern foreigners from the West differed from the tributaries and barbarians of antiquity, and from the dangerous barbarian neighbors of recent history.

The belief that the emperor of China ruled the world, so earnestly propagated by the Chinese officials, found additional support from the fact of European ambassadors being sent to Pekin; these being understood by the people to be sent like the ambassadors of the tributary states already mentioned to pay respect and do homage to the Chinese emperor. It was further supported by the fact that no Chinese ambassador had to go to any foreign court.

It is well known that Lord Macartney, whose Embassy to China took place in the 58th year of the reign of Chien-Lung, was received by that Emperor as "a messenger bearing tribute". The next embassy was sent in 1795, under Isaac Tilsingh and A. E. von Braun. They resolved to avoid the errors which had caused the failure of the British embassy under Lord Macartney; he had refused to perform the kotow; they were ready even to improve on the methods of the preceding Dutch embassies, and to make whatever recognition of suzerainty the Chinese might demand. Their mission has been characterised by a sober historian in the following terms: "They were brought to the capital like malefactors, treated when there like beggars, and then sent back to Canton like mountebanks to perform the three-times-three prostration at all times and before everything their conductors saw fit." Their mission was without result, other than to confirm the Chinese in their belief that theirs was the civilisation to which all people must conform, and theirs the empire before which all the nations of the world must bow.

Most of China's subsequent misfortunes were in connection with one or other of these tributary states. The principal tributary nations then were Korea, Luchiu, Annam, Burma, and Nepal. In 1658 the Grand Lama was allowed to do homage at Peking, the Chinese emperor having acquired, through the accession of the Mantchu reigning house, a curious sort of protectorate over the established church of Tatary. In the same year the last recognised scions of the Ming Dynasty were put to death, and the lamas, who had been expelled under the later Chinese emperors, applied for leave to return and resume possession of their foundations. The young emperor fell under the influence of these sectaries. Nepal, an independent State on the southern slope of the Himalayas, tributary to China since 1791.

The dynastic records enumerated several others, including even England, but these were more or less accidental. The Chinese affect to treat all countries as tributary that have once sent an ambassador to their court. In their fantastic court calendar, Portugal, Spain, Holland, England, are all tributaries. Lord Macartney's mission of 1793 was described as bringing tribute. An English account of China published in 1795, shortly after Macartney's mission of 1793, ennumerated the states tributary to China as the Kingdom of Corea, the Kingdom of Tonking, Cochin China, the Kingdom of Thibet, the Country or Kingdom of Ha-mi, and the Isles of Lieou-Kieou.

The official list of the tributaries to the Chinese empire was given in the Ta-tsing Hwei-tien, the Institutes of the Empire. As therein declared, Korea sent envoys once in four years, Loochow twice in three years, Annam once in two years, Laos once in ten years, Siam once in three years, Sulu once in five years. The envoys from Holland came by way of the Bogue in Kwangtung; the period was indeterminate [in 1655 it was settled at once in eight years]; the embassy may consist of one or two envoys, one attache, one secretary, and others not exceeding one hundred in number, of whom not exceeding twenty may proceed to Peking. The envoys from Burma came by way of Tengyueh in Yunnan, once in ten years; the embassy was not to consist of more than one hundred persons, of whom not exceeding twenty may proceed to Peking. The envoys of Portugal, Italy and England came by way of the Bogue at no stated interval; each embassy may have three ships, with not exceeding one hundred men in each; only twenty-two may proceed to Peking, the rest remaining at Canton. The Pope sent a legate, Cardinal Tournon, who was received in audience 31 December 1705, and a second legate, Cardinal Mezzobarba, arrived in Peking 15 December 1720.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 24-11-2014 19:00:34 ZULU