Monday, January 29, 2007

China's Tributary System

I'm reading a book called "East Asia at the Center: Four Thousand Years of Engagement with the World" for another class and it mentioned the tributary system we talked about in class last week. It was interesting because the author had the following to say about the Chinese tributary system:

"It was during these years [Han Dynasty period] that the Chinese developed practices for managing foreign affairs traditionally referred to as the tributary system, a system of enormous political important to Chinese ruling elites and of great economic importance to those regimes that accepted tributary status. Under the system, non-Chinese--"barbarian"--states accepted a nominally subordinate place in the Chinese imperial order. They demonstrated this subordination by sending missions to the Chinese court and paying homage to the Chinese ruler to whom they presented acceptable gifts. Usually they left hostages, presumably members of their ruling families. In return they received gifts from the emperor, often more valuable than those they submitted, and opportunities for private trade...To the barbarians, ritual submission was a price they grudgingly paid in exchange for Chinese bribes and access to trade. Yu Ying-shih, the leading authority on Han foreign relations, argues that the tribute system was a net loss to China at the state level, although individual Chinese profited (25)."

"The Chinese received acknowledgement of their superiority, at least nominal, and assurances of the vassal states' good behavior. The tribute bearers obtained insurances against Chinese aggression, the possibility of protection against other enemies, access to Chinese goods, and a significant profit through the exchange of presents itself (60)."

When one thinks of "tributary system" an unequal and rather rapacious relationship comes to mind, but it is interesting to see that the Chinese version of a tributary system was quite the opposite. In this light, as Professor Larsen said, it was smart for the Koreans to send tribute to the Chinese-- as it was economically and politically advantageous--and didn't quite mean subservience.

1 comment:

Sean said...

In addition, I believe the Chinese would often send gifts to the Koreans as well. In this way, the tributary system also functioned as a quasi barter system in which the two nations traded goods. Of course, I would assume that the Chinese received the better end of the deal due to its superior position, but isn't that usually the case in most trade relations?