Rethinking the Tribute System:
Broadening the Conceptual Horizon of Historical East Asian Politics
A notable feature of the study of historical East Asian politics is its absence of rigorous systemic theories explaining relationships between imperial China and its neighbours and how they worked. Long pre-eminent in this field of the tribute system and its central importance to organizing our thinking about historical East Asian politics. But what is the tribute system as it is used by these various scholars? How useful are their tribute-system perspectives and models in shedding light on historical East Asian politics? In this article I critically evaluate the venerable literature on the tribute system in an attempt to clarify the concepts and broaden the main themes of traditional China’s foreign relations and the larger political dynamics between China and its neighbours. I write from a political-science perspective, but engage extensively in predominantly historical scholarship on the subject.
Except for a few notable exceptions in recent years, the ‘international relations’ of historical East Asia has been almost exclusively an historian’s domain. East Asian diplomatic history saw a remarkable period of intellectual creativity from the 1930s to the 1960s, thanks chiefly to the pioneering work of John King Fairbank, after which historians’ interest waned, to the extent that the area became unfashionable and underpopulated. Research during the 30-year classic era on China’s foreign relations produced important insights and laid foundations for understanding historical East Asian politics. But analytical confusion and the empirical omissions are evident in this body of research. In the 1980s, historians started re-examining Fairbank’s tribute system and Chinese world order framework, exposing hidden assumptions and bringing to light new historical evidence that contradicts existing interpretations. But although this research critiques Fairbank, it does not in general try to replace his tribute system model with any new explanatory frameworks.
Political scientists, and particularly international relations (IR) scholars, should take a keen interest in historical East Asian politics. It is just as fertile a field for theoretical innovations as European history has been for developing modern IR theories. But although its theory-building potential is recognized, relatively few scholars have entered the field armed with in-depth historical and theoretical research. Any research that has been carried out on the subject often relies on secondary sources, which impedes...
The Tribute System: Three Views
Associating the tribute system with traditional China’s foreign relations has become standard practice since the 19th century, when it was first proposed that China’s peculiar notions of foreign relations constituted one of the underlying causes of its failure to deal adequately with the Western challenges. The unique institutional and textual complex of which traditional Chinese foreign policy was composed was hence lumped together and referred to as the tribute system. But it was not until Fairbank’s immensely influential elaboration on it, from the 1940s through the 1960s, that the tribute system became the main organizing concept of the study of East Asian diplomatic history. But although Fairbank’s model is the most well-known, it is not the only conceptualization of the tribute system. There are broadly three different but interrelated views of the tribute system in the relevant scholarly literature.
The First View
It is appropriate to begin with Fairbank’s interpretive model, since it has influenced a generation of scholars and still serves as a basic reference point for discussion of traditional China’s foreign relations. Although after years of criticisms its influence has waned, any scholar writing about the tribute system would still find it necessary to grapple with Fairbank’s arguments. A thorough evaluation of the model is therefore essential to assess the utility of the tribute-system perspective toward understanding historical East Asian politics. This I do in the two main sections after a brief outline of the model’s main features.
Fairbank and Teng viewed the tribute system as the medium for Chinese international relations and diplomacy and a scheme of things entire the mechanism by which barbarous non-Chinese regions were given their place in the all-embracing Chinese political and ethical scheme of things. Having set out this definition, Fairbank developed a model in later writing that conceived of an East Asian order of tributary relations that centred on China – the Chinese world order as it has been called.
The model is built on the assumption of sinocentrism – the notion of supposed Chinese centrality and superiority. Sinocentrism led the Chinese to devise a scheme that demanded foreign acknowledgment of their superiority. From this assumption, it is argued that China’s relations with other states were hierarchic and nonegalitarian, like the Chinese society itself. The historical East Asian order was unified and centralized in theory by the universal preeminence of the Son of Heaven. It was not organized by a division of territories among sovereigns of equal status but rather by the subordination of all local authorities to the central and awe-inspiring power of the emperor. The hierarchy of the relations was predicated on Chinese superiority and suzerainty vis-à-vis foreign states’ inferiority and submission. Respect for this hierarchy and acknowledgement of Chinese superiority were absolute requirements for opening relations with China. Thus, outside countries, if they were to have contact with China at all, were expected and when possible obliged to do so as tributaries.
The Model and the Early Ming
The tribute system, whether viewed as China’s bureaucratic management of foreign relations or as an institution for interstate relations, reached its acme of sophistication and expansion during the Ming dynasty, particularly under the Hongwu (1368-1398) and Yongle (1403-1424) emperor. It therefore makes good sense to see how Fairbank’s model works against events in the early Ming period. From a political-science standpoint, this period is an easy test for Fairbanks’ model. Failure here throws its general validity into question. In this section I use examples from Sino-Korean, Sino-Japanese, and Sino-Mongol relations during the Hongwu and Yongle reigns to evaluate the model’s empirical validity. I ask three questions: How useful is the Sinocentric assumption when matched with this period of Chinese primacy? How closely does the model capture the modes of interaction among China and its neighbours? And how well does it capture their underlying motivations, strategies and aims implicit in policies towards one another, and which constitute the essence of East Asian politics during this period?
Sinocentrism is a useful assumption for periods when China was unified and strong, such as the early Ming. Early Ming emperors generally enacted a superior role when receiving foreign rulers which they expected them to acknowledge by accepting tributary status. There are, however, notable exceptions. Joseph Fletcher long ago cited the example of the Yongle emperor’s letter in 1418 to the ruler of the Timurid Empire in which he addressed him as a fellow monarch, in effect renouncing his claim to superiority.
The example shows that sinocentrism did not inhibit Chinese rulers from adopting pragmatic policies for practical objectives. Even under conditions of Chinese primacy, therefore, it is not necessarily true to say that ‘Outside countries, if they were to have contact with China at all, were expected and when possible obliged to do so as tributaries’. The rigid set of Chinese attitudes toward foreigners that the model stipulates makes no allowance for this pragmatism. Implicit in this flaw is the failure to take into account that imperial China, like every other state, also had to deal with a variety of security problems that might affect its survival. Under certain circumstance, therefore, pragmatism superseded sinocertrism. China could not be expected to ensure security at all times while maintaining its self-assumed superiority without exhibiting flexibility and pragmatism in its foreign policy, as did the early Ming.
The model posits that foreign rulers who wanted to establish relations with China could only do so as China’s tributaries, and describes in detail the ritual practices it claims were integral to tributary relations. But is this an accurate description of East Asian politics in the early Ming?
This description might apply to Sino-Korean relations, but takes no account of major aspects of Sino-Japanese and Sino-Mongol relations. There were long periods during which neither the Japanese nor the Mongols agreed to pay tribute to the Ming. The shogun Yoshimochi isolated Japan from China from 1411 to 1424. Four decades earlier Prince Kanenaga had executed Chinese envoys, and challenged sinocentrism in a letter to the Hongwu emperor. During the Hongwu period the Mongolian royal house rejected Ming tributary offers, and in the Yongle reign Mahmud, chieftain of the Oirat Mongols and Arughtai, chieftain of the Eastern Mongols conformed intermittently and for opportunistic reasons to tributary status. Neither the Japanese nor the Mongols were participant in the early Ming tribute system for ny length of time.
It might be said that this discrepancy in the Ming tribute system as described in the model does it no harm, the logic being that the rejection of tributary status by the Japanese and the Mongols signifies that they had no relations with China. Such a defence might be justified on the premise that all foreign were official and sanctioned by Chinese rulers. But this explanation strips the model of much of its interpretive value, bearing in mind that even at the times when Japanese and the Mongols stayed away from the early Ming tribute system, they nonetheless maintained – often the more interesting – aspects of interactions with Ming China. Can we not say, for example, that Yoshimochi’s letter to Yongle in 1418, denying responsibility for Japanese piracy, is an example of interaction between Japan and China, or that Kanenaga’s execution of Chinese envoys and his defiant letters to the Ming court do not imply larger Sino-Japanese relations, or indeed that Mongol resistance against and challenging of Ming China, often characterized by wars, are emblematic of Sino-Mongol relations during the early Ming?
The relations between China and other countries must be conceived of as broadly beyond those of a tributary nature, because not all international relations in historical East Asia were tributary. Fairbank would certainly not deny this fact, but this, and many others’, focus on tribute gives the impression that tributary relations were ubiquitous and important to an extent that excluded all other aspects of foreign relations. As such, the model overlooks a large and important facet of the political dynamics of China’s foreign relations, because the tribute system was by no means the only medium or institution of interstate relations, much less a scheme of things entire. As Wills puts it, the tribute system was not at all of traditional Chinese foreign relations, and may not be the best key to a comprehensive understanding of these relations. The Western literature on early Sino-Western relations may have given excessive emphasis to tribute embassies.
The early Ming tribute system, from the standpoint of China’s foreign relations mechanism or institution, encompassed only Sino-Korean relations and a small part of Sino-Japanese and Sino-Mongol relations. Much of the interesting interaction between China and its neighbours occurred outside of it. How then can one claim that between 1368 and 1842 China’s foreign political, economic, and cultural relations were conducted in a world ordered by, and experienced through, the tribute system?
It is the model’s interpretive power that is most open to question. It proposes that Chinese rulers constructed hierarachic relations with foreign countries for reasons of prestige and political defence, and foreign rulers paid tribute to China because they desired trade and profit. Ideology constituting a main component of their foreign relationships, Chinese rulers relied chiefly on Confucian culture and the rule of virtue to win foreigners over. Foreign rulers, meanwhile, acceded to Chinese demands and observed prescribed rituals, presumably because of their desire for trade.
But this article is about to show that early Ming rulers frequently demanded tributary relations for reasons other than but as important as prestige and legitimation, namely those of security on the frontier. Also, that foreign rulers paid tribute to China for purpose beyond trade that ranged from survival, legitimacy, economic profits and military protection at one end of the scale to its use as a stepping stone to hegemony on the other, and moreover that Chinese rulers did not rely exclusively on Confucianism to expand influence, but used both ‘hard power’ and ‘soft power’ to obtain compliance from other states. Foreign rulers, meanwhile, did not always meekly observe Chinese regulations, and at times violated these norms in pursuit of self-interested objectives. The model is thus incapable of capturing the multiplicity of the relations between China and its neighbours.
To understand historical East Asian politics, one must have an idea of the motives, aims, and strategies underlying the relations between China and other polities. The model cites Chinese motives as mainly comprising prestige, Chinese aims as mainly those of defense, and persuasion as the main Chinese strategy. But there have been variances in all three. Consider the example of Ming China’s relations with Korea, the country usually regarded as China’s model tributary.
In January 1369, the Hongwu emperor dispatched an envoy to Korea to initiate tributary relations. Having just forcibly seized power from the Yuan, his most urgent task was to establish the legitimacy of his ascendancy. Hongwu’s main concern, therefore, was to exact overt symbolic acknowledgement from foreign rulers of China’s cosmological centrality and affirmation of the legitimacy of his succession to the dynastic authority. Tributary relations of this kind imposed no control over Korea’s internal affairs but did signify China’s intent to have the upper hand in deciding Korea’s China policies.
Although legitimation was the main motivation behind his first mission, Hongwu also had security concern in Manchuria. Not pacified until 1387, it was a strategic region where, due to the presence of the Mongols and the Jurchens on its borders, Korea also had substantial security concerns. Between 1369 and 1371, Hongwu tried to persuade the Koreans – by dispatching envoys, evoking historical precedents, and bestowing gifts – to submit to his authority. After the Korean campaign between 1370 and 1371 in Liaodong, the Ming emperor began to perceive its neighbor as a security threat and to adopt more decisive measures to compel Koryo court compliance, including blackmail. In 1374, for example, Hongwu reduced the frequency of Korean missions to China to once every three years, perhaps in an attempt to gain Korean concession and cooperation in maintaining its security in the northeast. He also withheld the investiture of Yi Song-gye (King T’aeio, r. 1392-98), founder of the new Choson Dynasty in Korea in an attempt to exact his guarantee of Ming security on the northeast border. He in effect demanded proof of total fealty from Korea.
The Hongwu emperor thus employed the strategies of persuasion and blackmail in his dealings with Korea. Almost three decades later, the Yongle emperor tried similar inducements. He allowed Korean envoys detained in Nanjing during the Hongwu reign to return, bestowed lavish gifts and even proposed intermarriage between the two dynastic houses. As regards relations with Mongols, both Ming emperors waged frequent military campaigns against them, notably Yongle, who personally led five expeditions on the Mongolian steppe. The variety of strategies that early Ming emperor employed, therefore, contrasts shapely with the rigidity and unitary nature of Chinese foreign policy implied in Fairbank’s model.
The model talks of foreign rulers’ motives as being mainly those of trade and of their strategies as mainly accommodation. But the motives of Korean, Japanese, and Mongol rulers during the early Ming actually ranged from survival, autonomy and economic profit to hegemony on the steppe; and their strategic responses to China alternated between accommodation (when they paid tribute) and resistance (when they refused to establish official tributary relations).
Accommodation was by no means Korea’s sole response to early Ming China overtures. Korean rulers resisted Chinese demands when they perceived them as excessive or as potentially undermining their core interests, particularly those of security. For example, Korean rulers balked at Hongwu’s repeated requests to sell horses to the Ming army, perhaps for reasons of preserving their own horse supply for use in possible future conflicts with the Ming in Manchuria. Korea also challenged Ming China when it perceived the latter’s demands as impinging on its crucial interests of survival and independence. One example is the preemptive strike that Korea launched against the Ming in 1388, in the belief that Emperor Hongwu had designs on Korean territory and was planning an invasion. During the Yongle reign Korea also waged a spirited challenge against Chinese penetration into Jurchen lands, which was a sphere of Korean influence vital to its security interests.
The Mongols, on the other hand, exploited their intermittent tributary relations with the Ming to the hilt, motivated by economic profit, political prestige and military protection. They did their utmost to take advantage of the Ming in efforts to enrich, strengthen and protect themselves while at the same time pursuing the self-interested goals of destroying rival tribes and establishing hegemony on the steppe. Profits was thus the decisive motivation behind Mongol missions to the Ming court. It is notable that after their defeat in wars with the Ming during the Yongle reign, the Mongols came directly to the Ming court to present tribute. A better explanation for this than the desire for political and economic benefits in addition to ensuring survival after defeat is hard to find.
The Mongols directly challenge the Ming by competing with it politically and militarily. Strengthened after exploiting the benefits of paying tribute to the Ming, the Mongols tried to expand their power at Ming expense. Mahmud began to challenge the Ming in 1413 and Arughtai allowed raids on the Ming frontier from 1422 to 1424. These leaders thus challenged Ming dominance of the region because it presented an obstacle to their intended Mongol hegemony over the steppe.
Fairbank’s model does not capture these various motives and strategies in the relations between China and its neighbors because its focus is on the ritualistic aspects of the tributary relations. But Fairbank of course recognized the complexity of these relations. As Millward points out, Fairbank indirectly acknowledged in various places, especially in his ‘aims and means’ table, that Qing relations with Inner Asia involved something other than the tribute system. But although he identified among the various type of relations, including military conquest, administrative control, diplomatic manipulation and cultural-ideological attraction, only the latter fits within his model. Fairbank did not take the next step of reformulating the model on the basis of these complexities. And although he points out that the Chinese world order was a unified concept only at the Chinese end and only on the normative level, as an ideal pattern, he did not explore the implication of his own caveat.
Mancall also remark on the extraordinary variety of Chinese political strategies. But he attributes these variations to the genius of the tribute system. One must ask, however, where the genius came from in the first place. The genius of specific tribute system in history is indeed something to be explained. The tendency to attribute each variant in relations between China and other countries to a monolithic and omnipotent tribute system impedes, rather than facilitates, further enquiry into historical East Asian politics.
Tribute and the accompanying rituals are almost the exclusive focus of Fairbank’s model. But does it capture the variant meaning of tribute? If the moral value of tribute and the material value of trade are all that the model has to say on this question, then it will again fail this critical test. Chinese rulers demanded tributary relations for the purpose of domestic political legitimation as well as security on the frontier. The type of tribute varied with the tribute-bearer. Tribute embassies did not always imply submission to the Chinese emperor and neither can they all be explained by the trade motive.
Beyond the Tribute System
The many problems discussed above suggest the need at least to move beyond the original framework established by Fairbank. Although many scholars have been doing this for some time, their critiques, although insightful about the inadequacies of the model, do not suggest abandoning the tribute system as an analytical category. Only James Hevia has set out to bypass it and construct his own analysis from a postmodern perspective. But recent writings on the tribute system do suggest the need to deconstruct the tribute system as a monolithic entity. Perdue, for example, observes that this system was constantly under challenge, breaking down, being reconfigured and rebuilt. It was never stable, fixed, nor uniform. In regard to some regions, like Korea, relations were fairly stable; elsewhere, particularly in the northwest, wide fluctuations occurred. This clearly implies the need to deconstruct the tribute system and explain this varied degrees of stability in China’s foreign relations.
Every tribute system has its own content and specificity. Taking the Han as the first historical period in which the tribute system began to take shape, the system can only have evolved according to the dynasty’s changing characterics, and reflect the changes in China’s relations with other countries. There cannot have been one single, unchanging tribute system throughout Chinese history. The ritual practices accompanying tribute missions themselves indeed changed, because different dynasties each had their specific tributary regulations. One thus needs to recognize the evolutionary aspect of the tribute system as an historical institution, one that was determined by past traditions as well as by contemporary conditions that Chinese rulers perceived and confronted. The Han tribute system, for example, must be acknowledged as different form that of the Ming and Qing. These tribute systems should be differentiated according to historical realities, bearing in mind that the changing power realities, motives, and aims underlying the relations between China and other countries at different period of time.
The institution of the tribute system, therefore, is the dependent variable to be explained. Using it as an independent variable in an institutionalist explanation entails showing how China and its neighbours responded to the constraints and incentives such an institution created, and how the dynamics of path dependence carried their interactions along. But if in the final analysis it was China’s material and cultural resources that created these constraints and incentives, an institutionalist account based on the tribute system seems superfluous. If Chinese rulers constructed the tribute system and if foreign rulers participated in such a system because of respective preexisting interests, then there is no need to use the tribute system to explain why their interactions followed an institutionalized pattern. We need only to explain the origins of their interests and how they gave rise to patterns of interaction. The tribute system then appears as a by-product of these interests and actions, that is, something explainable by them. If the underlying interests and strategies of China and its neighbor change, so also do the content and characteristics of the tribute system, as by-products of strategic interaction. This is indeed apparent in East Asian history and is what this article partly tries to show.
But there is a deeper problem when discussing the tribute system and its influence on historical East Asian politics. explaining the tribute system in a particular historical period hardly explains the entire sphere of East Asian politics of that period. As earlier pointed out, the tribute system, if viewed as an institution, is one among several in East Asian history. An analysis framed around the tribute system, therefore, is necessarily incomplete when taking into account the larger political dynamics between China and its neighbours. This is obvious from the early Ming examples discussed. Although certain strategies used by Ming China and its neighbor, such as persuasion, can be seen from a tribute-system perspective, others, such as war, blackmail, balking, and challenging do not fall so neatly into the tribute-system framework. Of course, no scholar has ever claimed that the tribute system is everything in East Asian international relations. But overemphasis on it has nevertheless slighted the importance of other institutions and political dynamics.
These two points raise the need to develop concepts and frameworks that explain both the tributary and non-tributary aspects of historical East Asian politics. for example, we need to move beyond traditional concepts such as hierarchy to understand China’s foreign relations. As Wang Gungwu pointed out a long time ago: Traditional Chinese dealings with non-Chinese peoples are often described as having been based on hierarchical system. This I believe to be inadequate for understanding the tribute system. More important is the principle of superiority together with that of security or inviolability. From this, it should become clear that Chinese institutions were not as inflexible as they have often been made out to be by students of 19th century history.
Moving beyond the tribute system paradigm, one can raise a number of questions derived from the preceding discussions. How useful is sinocentrism as an analytical assumption for foreign policy-making in imperial China? What other assumption do we need? Why was Chinese foreign policy characterized by rigidity at certain times and by pragmatism and flexibility at others? How can one explain the extraordinary range of variants in motives, strategies and degrees of stability in China’s foreign relations? What were the motives and strategies underlying other countries’ relations with China? In what sense can one say that a hierarchy between China and these countries was established? What was the significance of tribute presentation and its associated ritual practices? What lay behind tribute and ritual? Finally, and more generally, what were the patterns of interaction between China and its neighbor?
Satisfactory answers to these questions constitutes a big step forward towards identifying the multiplicity of relations between China and its neighbors, and to broadening our conceptual horizon of historical East Asian politics. once this multiplicity is shown, the inadequacy of tribute-system-centred model will become apparent.
From a political-science perspective, we need more enduring concepts about international politics than the supposedly omnipotent tribute system. As earlier emphasized, the tribute system itself needs to be explained through more fundamental concepts that lead to deeper levels of explanations of historical East Asian politics. these concepts, whether time-honoured ones such as power, security and culture, or entirely new ones not yet developed, should be relevant to the understanding of both tributary and non-tributary politics between China and its neighbours, and able to cross the analytical divide created by the tribute system paradigm. From a tribute-system perspective, we need also to construct a contemporary framework of non-tributary relations between China and its neighbours. A model that is able to account for both the tributary and non-tributary aspects of China’s foreign relations is obviously superior to one that can only account for one.
Based upon the preceding discussions, I shall suggest the rudiments of one such framework as the starting point of a major tributary politics puzzles. The tribute system might simultaneously be seen at two levels. At one level it was a discourse or rhetoric on Chinese centrality and superiority. Such sinocentric discourse remained a near constant throughout all imperial Chinese dynasties. Chinese rulers used the language of sinocentrism, even at times when other polities physically challenged the empire, to conceal altered power relations. Prasenjit Duara characterized the Chinese attempt to cover alternative views of world order with the rhetoric of universalism as China’s defensive strategy. The analytical task here is to explain the constancy of the sinocentric rhetoric.
At another level, the tribute system might be seen as a pattern of interaction in the relations between China and its neighbours. But in contrast to the tribute system as an imperial discourse, that as a pattern of foreign relations displays great historical variances. They are apparent in the contrast in foreign relation approaches during the strong Tang dynasty and in the succeeding, weaker Song Dynasty. Variances are also conspicuous in foreign relations patterns during the equally strong early Ming and early Qing periods. The analytical task here is to explain variances in the tribute system on the level of its function as a pattern of foreign relations. The tribute system puzzle, therefore, consists of explaining why the discourse remained a constant but its behavioural manifestations displayed variances. It presents the analytical challenge of devising a framework that can account for both rhetorical constancy and behavioural change.
One way to begin constructing such a framework is to point two motivations for Chinese rulers: legitimacy and security. The legitimacy motive derives from Chinese rulers’ self-prescribed identity as the Son of Heaven, which was further informed by the Chinese conception of tianxia (literally, ‘all under heaven’) and the historical tradition of perceiving China as the universal empire encompassing this tianxia. The need for legitimation compelled Chinese rulers to seek tribute from foreign rulers to demonstrate their status as the Son of Heaven. This explains why sinocentric rhetoric remained a constant historically, varying in emphasis across tme periods according to the need to affirm legitimacy. The legitimacy motive also explains the rhetorical constancy irrespective of the power realities at a given moment, because the need for legitimacy was constant whether China was weak or strong.
But the legitimacy motive tells us little about how a sinocentric China might behave, other than it would promote a Chinese superiority discourse. Would the legitimacy need based on sinocentrism lead to an offensive strategy of conquest to subdue all those unwilling to aknowledge Chinese superiority, or instead to a mentality of self-delusion and gratification, indifference, or even isolation? By itself, sinocentric legitimacy is indeterminate on these issues; we need at least the security motive as an additional motivational assumption, and to combine these two assumptions with situational variables to obtain more behavioural implications. The security motive is based on the assumption that the Chinese empire, just like any other state, must worry about its physical security, be it the threat throughout its history of nomadic invasions from the north or Japanese piracy during the Ming period.
Behavior implications can be deduced when the security motive is coupled with China’s material conditions at any given movement. A strong China (such as the early Ming) made a response to security threats different from that of a weak China (such as the Song). In addition to promoting the normal tributary discourse, the early Ming also expected tributes from foreign rulers, and resorted to blackmail if the request was rejected. It had strategies at its disposal, ranging from outright conquest to subtle persuasion, with which to challenge security threats in Manchuria, Mongolia, and the east coast. The Southern Song, in contrast, could do little in addition to tributary discourse as face-saving rhetoric other than to offer its tribute to the Jin to ensure survival. The different material conditions – or structure of international politics – thus help to explain the varied strategies that China employed toward its neighbours in the interests of guaranteeing security.
By positing two motivations for Chinese rulers and deducing their behavioural implications under the material conditions of a given period, the framework can help to explain both the constancy of and change in tributary politics on the Chinese side. Similar reasoning and positing of appropriate motivations can be applied to deducing the behavioural pattern of the rulers of China’s neighbours. A systemic framework showing the patterns of interaction between China and its neighbours and their underlying motivations and strategies can then be developed. Moreover, such a framework, by taking into account the security as well as the legitimacy motive, can explain aspects of historical East Asian politics that were not tributary. This is both one way of conceptualizing historical East Asian politics and an alternative to the tribute system paradigm, which I have given no more than a sketchy outline. Other framework must surely be possible when major analytical puzzles are tackled and rigorous analysis applied.
The purpose of this article has been to examine the extant scholarly research on the tribute system and ask how much light tribute-system-centred perspectives can shed on historical East Asian politics. three ways in which the term tribute system has been used in the relevant literature – as the bureaucratic management of foreign relations on the Chinese side; as an international society institution from the English school perspective; and as the medium for China’s foreign relations as developed in Fairbank’s interpretive model – have been identified. I have focused on Fairbank’s model and evaluated it as an heuristic device for further thinking about a number of conceptual and empirical issues relevant to our understanding of historical East Asian politics.
The Fairbank model is problematic for a number of reasons. It is internally flawed and also incapable of interpreting major events in East Asian history. It tries to account for certain long continuities in the relations between China and its neighbours, but does not consider equally impressive variations and changes in these relations. The utility of the model is limited, and we have to agree with Wills that we could not keep in focus all aspects of the Chinese diplomatic tradition, all sources of conflict, if we began by calling all of the Chinese diplomatic tradition the tribute system. One might add that the model is even less useful when dealing with regional politics as a whole, since it is heavily biased towards China.
Fairbank, it must be emphasized, recognized various anomalies and offered caveats regarding his framework. He did not, however, systematically refine his model according to these anomalies. It is clear that the model, as Fairbank puts it, is a preliminary framework, laying out certain central ideas and themes for possible further development. It is not my intention to oversimplify or caricature it, but rather to identify its inadequacies and suggest ways of moving beyond this preliminary stage of conceptualizing historical East Asian politics. My central concern is that of how IR scholars can produce better theoretical and empirical work on historical East Asian politics by critically drawing on the foundation so prominently laid by Fairbank and others. we need, at least in the field of historical East Asian politics, a fruitful dialogue between political scientists and historians.
What of the idea of the tribute system then? Wills suggests that, it would be conceptually clearer if the term tribute system tribute system were used only for this systematic complex of bureaucratic regulation developed around AD 1400. This conception of the tribute system might be too restrictive. But scholars need at least to make clear which tribute system is being discussed. It makes little sense even to speak of the whole Ming tribute system or whole Qing tribute system, since we know that early Ming foreign policy differed from that of the mid-late Ming, as did early Qing foreign policy differed from that of the mid-late Qing. The term ‘tribute system’ can still be useful descriptive shorthand, so long as we make clear what is meant by it. To avoid essentialization, however, we must take the tribute system of a historical period as the object, rather than the unit, of analysis. The most important task is to explain the various historical manifestations of the tribute system by developing another set of conceptual frameworks. Enquiry into historical East Asian politics cannot stop at the tribute system.
But taking a historical tribute system as the object of analysis for understanding the relations between China and other countries during a specific period is also inadequate, because it ignores the relations outside of normal tributary politics. It is possible to describe and analyse the relations between China and its neighbours without adhering to tribute system language. The term tribute system is a western invention devised no later than the nineteenth century and translated back into Chinese as chaogong tixi. The term chao and gong do appear in Chinese historical sources, but the Chinese had no conception of it as a system as such. The tributes system is a modern intellectual construct that we refine or abandon, depending on the intellectual payoffs that can be generated. The important point is that one can talk about tributary relations without feeling simultaneously obliged to stick to the tribute system. The analytical task is to understand what actually lay behind these relations. It also functions as an important reminder that the actual ‘international system’ of historical East Asian politics is much broader than the tribute system. Since Fairbank’s tribute system paradigm is problematic, and since the tribute system, however conceived, is only a part of the whole picture of historical East Asian politics, we should work on developing new conceptualizations that can remedy some of the problems discussed in this article. Ultimately, we may ask a question similar to that Hevia has posed: if the tribute system is removed, what do the relations between China and other countries look like? Discussions about East Asian international relations have too long and too often come down to discussions about the tribute system. It is time to think about ways to move beyond the paradigm.