In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section The Tribute System

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Primary Sources
  • Traditional Chinese Worldview

Chinese Studies The Tribute System
Yongjin Zhang
  • LAST REVIEWED: 08 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920082-0069


The tribute system (chaogong tizhi 朝贡体制) is a widely used term in the studies of traditional Chinese foreign relations. It is generally accepted that the tribute system embodied a set of institutions and social and diplomatic norms that dominated China’s relations with the non-Chinese world for two millennia, until the system’s collapse toward the end of the 19th century. The origins of the tribute system and the ideas, values, and beliefs underlying its construction and operation are often traced back to ancient China as an Axial Age civilization. There is also broad agreement that a tribute system of a sort existed and operated to regulate China’s trade and diplomacy with its neighbors at least as far back as the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE). There is little dispute that the demise of the tribute system was brought about by the introduction of the treaty system in China’s international relations after the Opium War in 1840, with the conclusion of the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842. It is a matter of intense debate how stable and uniform the tribute system was throughout China’s tumultuous dynastic histories and whether its existence was highly precarious, with occasional breakdowns and constant reconfigurations. There are clear contradictions in the enduring Chinese discourse and varied practices of the tribute system. The precise meaning of the tribute system is equally hotly contested. It is sometimes said to have principally served the instrumental purpose of managing China’s trade with its neighbors and of instigating frontier pacification. It is also claimed to have been constitutive of a Sinocentric Chinese world order in historical East Asia. It is not clear, however, whether those participating in the Chinese world order actually accept the civilizational assumptions embedded in the tribute system and the Sinocentric conception of superiority and inferiority in their relationship. The centrality and usefulness of the tribute system model as an overarching analytical and explanatory framework in understanding traditional China’s foreign relations have therefore been a subject of controversy. More-recent contributions highlight the historically and culturally contingent nature of the tribute system. While the existing literature has been dominated until recently by contributions from historians, contemporaneous interest from scholars of international relations in the subject has expanded the field of inquiry and has enriched the relevant scholarship. Some works listed here reflect this particular dimension of recent scholarship.

General Overviews

The number of published works that discuss the tribute system in a general fashion is relatively limited. The most influential is Fairbank 1968, which contains fourteen essays discussing varied practices of the tribute system in China’s handling of its relations with its neighbors. The most systematic and comprehensive overview of the evolution and operation of the tribute system from the pre-Qin period to the end of the Qing dynasty is provided in Li 2004, which also outlines in some detail central institutions of the tribute system, such as the investiture and diplomatic rituals. Cohen 2000 is perhaps the most lucid, sweeping historical narrative about the changing East Asian international order for four millennia and also an alternative view both to Fairbank and Li. Chen 2007 contains essays that discuss a diverse range of topics about ideas and institutions of traditional Chinese foreign relations, and it is particularly useful for gaining a glimpse of current research on the tribute system in China. He 1998 is a brief but well-rounded discussion of the historical Chinese world order as an international system in East Asia. Kang 2010 focuses on the operation of the tribute system among China and three Sinic states—namely, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam—and offers a non-Sinocentric perspective on the tribute system. Zhang 2009 contains criticism of the conceptual deficiency of the tribute system with regard to understanding traditional China’s international relations. Zhang and Buzan 2012 deals with the integration of historical studies of the tribute system into the theorization of international relations.

  • Chen Shangsheng 陈尚胜, ed. Zhongguo chuantong duiwai guanxi de sixiang zhidu yu zhengce (中国传统对外关系的思想制度与政策). Jinan, China: Shandong daxue chubanshe, 2007.

    A collection of twenty-two essays from conference presentations. Topics covered range from the theoretical origin of the tribute system to the Qianlong emperor’s foreign policy, and also to Sino-Vietnamese relations.

  • Cohen, Warren I. East Asia at the Center: Four Thousand Years of Engagement with the World. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

    Offers a regional rather than Sinocentric perspective on the history of international relations in East Asia and can be used as a textbook. The first nine chapters cover the period from ancient China to the end of the Qing dynasty.

  • Fairbank, John King, ed. The Chinese World Order: Traditional China’s Foreign Relations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968.

    Pioneering work that defines the field, which conceptualizes the tribute system as consisting of a Chinese world order. It provides both an innovative analytical framework and substantive discussions of how the tribute system operates to regulate China’s relationship with its neighbors as well as the Dutch, primarily in the Ming-Qing period.

  • He Fangchuan “Huayi zhixu lun” (华夷秩序论). Beijing daxue xuebao: Zhexue shehui kexue ban 北京大学学报—哲学社会科学版 35.6 (1998): 30–45.

    Looks at “Pax Sinica” as a unique Sinocentric international system in East Asian history and traces the inclusiveness and exclusiveness of this system throughout China’s dynastic histories.

  • Kang, David C. East Asia before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

    Takes an explicitly international-relations-related approach, focuses on the intense interactions between China and the Sinic states between 1400 and 1900, and is rich in interpretation rather than historical details.

  • Li Yunquan 李云泉. Chaogong zhidu shi lun: Zhongguo gudai duiwai guanxi tizhi yanjiu (朝贡制度史论: 中国古代对外关系体制研究). Beijing: Xinhua chubanshe, 2004.

    Follows a chronological order, with methodical examinations of the evolution of the tribute system in China’s dynastic histories, and provides a critical comparison of institutional practices of the tribute system between the Ming and the Qing.

  • Zhang Feng. “Rethinking the ‘Tribute System’: Broadening the Conceptual Horizon of Historical East Asian Politics.” Chinese Journal of International Politics 2.4 (2009): 545–574.

    Offers a number of strong critiques of the prevailing conceptualization of the tribute system as inadequate and limiting in studying traditional international relations in East Asia.

  • Zhang, Yongjin, and Barry Buzan. “The Tributary System as International Society in Theory and Practice.” Chinese Journal of International Politics 5.1 (2012): 3–36.

    DOI: 10.1093/cjip/pos001

    Engages in social analysis of the construction and constitution of the tributary system either as a particular historical social structure in East Asia, or as a particular set of institutional and discursive practices that define, govern, and regulate the so-called Pax Sinica.

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