East Asia before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute

East Asia before the West

Author(s): David C. Kang

ISBN:          978--0-231-15318-8

Publisher: Columbia University Press

Year:          2010

Price:         $22.00

Reviewed by Songchuan Chen, Assistant Professor, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

David C. Kang synthesizes research on the tributary system of East Asia that governed inter-state relations in the region for five centuries before Westphalian concepts became the new norm in the second half of the nineteenth century. The main argument is that the tributary system underpinned relatively long periods of stability for the region among major participating states, namely China, Korea, Vietnam and Japan. Kang provides a fresh overview of the history of East Asian inter-state relations and this in turn forms a vantage point for rethinking the Westphalian system.

The tributary system was a Sino-centric world system that acknowledged ‘China’, be it the Ming (1368-1644) or Qing (1644-1911) dynasty, as the hegemon of the ‘world’. Through elaborate rituals that involved sending tributary missions to Chinese courts and receiving embassies from China, participating countries established inter-state relations with China. China was at the centre of this system and on the top of the hierarchical order. The frequency with which each country was permitted to send tributary embassies to China signified how close they were to the Chinese state. Participating countries also sent tributary missions to each other according to their perceived hierarchical relations.

China, as the ‘older brother’, could be called upon to quell a domestic rebellion, to drive off a foreign invasion or to reclaim the rights of a dynasty when it was overthrown. The system created a mutual acknowledgement of sovereignty—albeit in a hierarchical relationship. China needed tributary embassies from surrounding polities to acknowledge its superiority in order to make the Chinese emperors’ claims to possess the mandate of heaven complete. The Yongle Emperor (1360-1424), when he sent Admiral Zheng He (1371–1433) to Southeast Asia to exhort these states to send tributary missions to China, was desperately in need of tributaries to acknowledge his legitimacy because he had seized the throne by force.

The subordinate state’s legitimacy could likewise be enhanced if it were recognized by China. China, Korea and Vietnam were the states that most seriously participated in these reciprocal political relations, while the roles of others such as Japan, Siam and Nepal tended to be ambiguous.

Tribute was a form of submission and at the same time a signifier of peaceful engagement. It acknowledged the differences in the strength of the states. China was not simply perceived as a military hegemon but rather was understood as a state possessing ‘cultural superiority’. Korea and Vietnam were major players in acknowledging China’s cultural superiority. Kang argues that this was mostly sincere and genuine admiration and ‘voluntary emulation’ (p. 33). Their governing structures closely followed the Chinese system and they both introduced Confucianism-based civil service examinations to select talent for government, which more than anything else made the two countries Confucian. The Japanese also vigorously participated in emulating China until the fourteenth century, resulting most visibly in Chinese characters becoming part of their writing system. In this cultural hierarchy, countries and cultures other than the Chinese were regarded as inferior, if not barbaric, by the three major participants. Perceived cultural superiority was an essential part of tributary relations, but in reality the cultural claim was an articulation of the economic and military power that China possessed.

Trade was an important driver that kept this tributary system alive. Participating countries were allowed to bring along a trading entourage who would be left in the designated entry port, such as Japan’s in Ningbo, to conduct trade while the embassy went to Beijing for its mission. At times China would pay ten times the market price for the goods that arrived in this manner. Tributary missions would also receive presents far exceeding the value of what they presented to the Chinese court. Privileges of regular trade in a port or frontier market were also established through tributary missions. For this reason, countries often sent missions more often than the designated frequency. Korea was allowed once a year, but in actuality often came three times a year during the Qing dynasty. Kang quotes various studies and argues that while trade was an important motivation, the tributary system was not, as previously argued, principally about trade.

At its center, the tributary system was a relationship between China and its surrounding countries. Other political units also conducted bilateral relations in the manner of tributary relations. The most important case that Kang is able to provide is between Korea and Japan. The two countries sent tributary to each other depending on their relative strength. At times, a tributary mission actually meant a peace mission when the two sides perceived their relations as equal. There is anecdotal evidence of Japan and Korea receiving and demanding interactions with other nations, such as Siam, in the manner of tributary relations. Other than these, China remained the major player of this system.

Kang argues that the tributary system of inter-state relations brought long-lasting stability to the four major participant countries (China, Korea, Vietnam and Japan, the Sinicized states). There were only two wars between them from 1368—the founding of the Ming dynasty—to 1841, when the First Opium War ended. War is defined here as ‘a minimum of 1,000 battle deaths’ (p. 86). In terms of conflicts (including border skirmishes and pirate raids), in this period China had in total 326 with its neighbors, of which only twelve (3.57 percent) involved the Sinicized states. The rest of China’s conflicts were with its northern and western neighbors (p. 90). Thus, in comparison, China’s relations with its northern and western tribal neighbors who did not participate in the tributary relations, such as Mongolia, were rather unstable.

In the conclusion, Kang reflects on the future of a China that is once again rising to a dominant position. There seems no clear lesson to be drawn for understanding the future from the time when China was able to dictate terms of interaction. After the expansion of the West in Asia and the rest of the world, values and norms have significantly changed. China, as a member of the family of nations, is in the twentieth century largely playing its role according to Westphalian norms. Yes, the centuries-old perception of ‘cultural superiority’ is still alive. The future seems unpredictable in this light. But there is a lesson: the history and future of interaction in East Asia should be understood according to its own terms, not from the perspective afforded by the historical experiences of Western expansion. China’s rise opens a new hermeneutic horizon for historiography and International Relations.

The book mainly focuses on the East Asian countries. It does not cover the whole of tributary relations. The tributary relations of Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet and other Southeast Asian countries with China are either missing or not much detailed. The inclusion would have provided a more complete picture of the extent of China’s historical relations with its neighbors, and put tributary system in a broader context.

It should also be noted that there was far more non-state interaction than official contact in the region during this period. The two systems of interaction ran in parallel and at times converged. Between the states, there were more periods of non-interaction than there were of contact through either tributary relations or conflict.

Although this is not primary source research, Kang has provided a useful synthesis that puts the nation-state system of the modern world into historical context, thus contributing depth and context to the discipline of International Relations. The book will be extremely useful for understanding historical state relations in East Asia that have been largely ignored, especially in International Relations theory, or simply understood as a system replaced by Westphalian norms.

Suggested citation:

Songchuan Chen. Review of “East Asia before the West: Five centuries of trade and tribute” by David C. Kang, East asian Integration Studies,