The tributary system was a network of loose international relations focused on China which facilitated trade and foreign relations by acknowledging China's predominant role in East Asia. It involved multiple relationships of trade, military force, diplomacy and ritual. The other nations had to send an envoy to China on schedule, who would kowtow to the Emperor as a form of tribute, and acknowledge his superiority and precedence. The other countries followed China's formal ritual in order to keep the peace with the more powerful neighbor. At home they did not accept China's claims of hierarchy and subordination. Political actors within the tributary system were largely autonomous and in almost all cases, virtually independent. Although generally applied to all Chinese polities, this system only existed in the late Ming and early to middle Qing dynasties.
The "tribute system" as a term is strictly speaking, a Western invention. There was no equivalent term in the Chinese lexicon to describe what would be considered the "tribute system" today, nor was it envisioned as an institution or system. John King Fairbank and Teng Ssu-yu created the "tribute system" theory in a series of articles in the early 1940s to describe "a set of ideas and practices developed and perpetuated by the rulers of China over many centuries." The Fairbank model presents the tribute system as an extension of the hierarchic and nonegalitarian Confucian social order. The more Confucian the actors, the more likely they were to participate in the tributary system.
The "tribute system" is often associated with a "Confucian world order", under which neighboring states complied and participated in the "tribute system" to secure guarantees of peace, investiture, and trading opportunities, One member acknowledged another's position as superior, and the superior would bestow investiture upon them in the form of a crown, official seal, and formal robes, to confirm them as king. The practice of investing non-Chinese neighbors had been practiced since ancient times as a concrete expression of the loose reign policy. The rulers of Joseon in particular sought to legitimate their rule through reference to Chinese symbolic authority. On the opposite side of the tributary relationship spectrum was Japan, whose leaders could hurt their own legitimacy by identifying with Chinese authority. In these politically tricky situations, sometimes a false king was set up to receive investiture for the purposes of tribute trade.
In practice, the tribute system only became formalized during the early years of the Ming dynasty. The "tribute" entailed a foreign court sending envoys and exotic products to the Chinese emperor. The emperor then gave the envoys gifts in return and permitted them to trade in China. Presenting tribute involved theatrical subordination but usually not political subordination. The political sacrifice of participating actors was simply "symbolic obeisance". Actors within the "tribute system" were virtually autonomous and carried out their own agendas despite sending tribute, as was the case with Japan, Korea, Ryukyu, and Vietnam. Chinese influence on tributary states was almost always non-interventionist in nature. For example, when the Hongwu Emperor learned that the Vietnamese attacked Champa, he only rebuked them, and did not intervene in the 1471 Vietnamese invasion of Champa, which resulted in the destruction of that country. Both Vietnam and Champa were tributary states. When the Malacca sultanate sent envoys to China in 1481 to inform them that while returning to Malacca in 1469 from a trip to China, the Vietnamese had attacked them, castrating the young and enslaving them, China still did not interfere with affairs in Vietnam. The Malaccans reported that Vietnam was in control of Champa and also that the Vietnamese sought to conquer Malacca, but the Malaccans did not fight back because of a lack of permission from the Chinese to engage in war. The Ming emperor scolded them, ordering the Malaccans to strike back with violent force if the Vietnamese attacked.
According to a 2018 study in the Journal of Conflict Resolution covering Vietnam-China relations from 1365 to 1841, "the Vietnamese court explicitly recognized its unequal status in its relations with China through a number of institutions and norms." Due to their participation in the tributary system, Vietnamese rulers behaved as though China was not a threat and paid very little military attention to it. Rather, Vietnamese leaders were clearly more concerned with quelling chronic domestic instability and managing relations with kingdoms to their south and west."
Nor were states that sent tribute forced to mimic Chinese institutions, for example in cases such as the Inner Asians, who basically ignored the trappings of Chinese government. Instead they manipulated Chinese tribute practices for their own financial benefit. The gifts doled out by the Ming emperor and the trade permits granted were of greater value than the tribute itself, so tribute states sent as many tribute missions as they could. In 1372, the Hongwu Emperor restricted tribute missions from Joseon and six other countries to just one every three years. The Ryukyu Kingdom was not included in this list, and sent 57 tribute missions from 1372 to 1398, an average of two tribute missions per year. Since geographical density and proximity was not an issue, regions with multiple kings such as the Sultanate of Sulu benefited immensely from this exchange. This also caused odd situations such as the Turpan Khanate simultaneously raiding Ming territory and offering tribute at the same time because they were eager to obtain the emperor's gifts, which were given in the hope that it might stop the raiding.
Manchu tributary system
The Manchus invaded Joseon (Korea) and forced it to become a tributary in 1636, due to Joseon's continued support and loyalty to Ming, and then conquered China to establish the Qing dynasty. However, the Manchus, whose ancestors had been subordinate to Korean kingdoms, were viewed as barbarians by the Korean court, which, regarding itself as the new "Confucian ideological center" in place of Ming, continued to use the Ming calendar in defiance of Qing, despite sending tribute missions. Meanwhile, Japan avoided direct contact with Qing China and instead manipulated embassies from neighboring Joseon and Ryukyu to make it falsely appear as though they came to pay tribute.
The Ming founder Hongwu Emperor adopted a maritime prohibition policy and issued tallies to "tribute-bearing" embassies for missions. Missions were subject to limits on the number of persons and items allowed.
In 1404, Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu accepted the Chinese title "King of Japan" while not being the Emperor of Japan. The Shogun was the de facto ruler of Japan. The Emperor of Japan was a weak, powerless figurehead during the feudal shogunate periods of Japan, and was at the mercy of the Shogun. For a brief period until Yoshimitsu's death in 1408, Japan was an official tributary of the Ming dynasty. This relationship ended in 1549 when Japan, unlike Korea, chose to end its recognition of China's regional hegemony and cancel any further tribute missions. Yoshimitsu was the first and only Japanese ruler in the early modern period to accept a Chinese title. Membership in the tributary system was a prerequisite for any economic exchange with China; in exiting the system, Japan relinquished its trade relationship with China. Under the rule of the Wanli Emperor, Ming China quickly interpreted the Japanese invasions of Korea (1592–1598) as a challenge and threat to the Imperial Chinese tributary system. 
Thailand was always subordinate to China as a vassal or a tributary state since the Sui dynasty until the Taiping Rebellion of the late Qing dynasty in the mid-19th century. The Sukhothai Kingdom established official relations with the Yuan dynasty during the reign of King Ram Khamhaeng. Wei Yuan, the 19th century Chinese scholar, considered Thailand to be the strongest and most loyal of China's Southeast Asian tributaries, citing the time when Thailand offered to directly attack Japan to divert the Japanese in their planned invasions of Korea and the Asian mainland, as well as other acts of loyalty to the Ming dynasty. Thailand was welcoming and open to Chinese immigrants, who dominated commerce and trade, and achieved high positions in the government.
During the Nguyễn Dynasty (1802–1945), Vietnam's rulers copied the Imperial Chinese system, declaring themselves Emperors on the Chinese Confucian model and attempting to create a Vietnamese Imperial tributary system.
- Emperor of China
- List of recipients of tribute from China
- List of tributaries of China
- Ming dynasty
- Tian (Heaven) / Shangdi (God)
- Tributary state
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