Book Title: China’s Hegemony Book Subtitle: Four Hundred Years of East Asian Domination Book Author(s): JI-YOUNG LEE Published by: Columbia University Press. (2017) Stable URL:

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W hat exactly is a “tribute system”? How is the tribute system related to the concept of hegemony in Asian in- ternational relations (IR)? Although many scholars

believe that the tribute system is the key to understanding the early modern East Asian international order, few have attempted to elucidate empirically just how the tribute system is linked to Chinese hege- mony. To understand the varying degrees of receptivity to Chinese he- gemony, we must first investigate the specific rules of the game and what compliance looked like in early modern East Asia.

This chapter begins by providing a review of the tribute system and pointing out the literature’s general neglect of the role played by less powerful East Asian states in the tribute system. I then present a practice-oriented approach to the tribute system, thus shedding light on the social aspects of the tribute system. In so doing, I draw on the writings of Chinese and Korean tributary envoys. It is through such richly descriptive empirical details that we can grasp the nature of hierarchical relations between China and its neighboring states and understand the social context of actors’ compliance. The chapter concludes by addressing some questions of research design and the selection of case studies presented in this book.

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28 Understanding the Tribute System


The introduction discussed the emerging theoretical debate between liberal-constructivists and realists regarding the tribute system. Be- yond the field of IR, how have historians explained the notion of the tribute system? Curiously, perhaps with the notable exception of]ohn King Fairbank’s “Chinese world order,”1 little work has directly focused on the tribute system. However, this is not to say that scholars have ig- nored the concept. Across the subfields of history, economic sociology, and political science, there are roughly six different, but not mutually exclusive, “lenses” through which they interpret what the tribute sys- tem was and how it worked: (1) the Fairbankian model of Sinocentric hierarchy, (2) the New Qing perspective, (3) the transnational economic history school, (4) China’s borderlands studies perspective, (5) the in- vestiture model, and (6) the tianxia system.

The first half of this chapter surveys the literature associated with these six lenses in an effort to answer three questions: First, what is the tribute system? Second, how is it linked to the notion of the inter- national order? Third, why did actors comply (or refuse to comply) with the tribute system in early modern Asia? Although most scholars offer only partial answers to these questions, they have created useful build- ing blocks to use to consider the workings of the tribute system for this study. Across these lenses, such concepts and words as “tribute,” “inves- titure,” “the ideology of civilized versus barbarian distinction,” and the “ji mi (loose rein) policy” emerge as key components of the tribute sys- tem. Overall, scholarship has shifted toward problematizing a mono- lithic, static view of the tribute system, acknowledging that its work- ings varied across time and space. Despite an increasing awareness about Sinocentrism in the study of the tribute system, however, there is still a tendency to interpret the tribute system as China’s strategy and/ or a projection of its power or culture, relying heavily on Chinese sources.

The Fairbankian Model Versus the New Qing Perspective

The term tribute system is a Western invention. There was no Chinese word for what scholars consider the tribute system today, nor did East

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Understanding the Tribute System 29

Asian contemporaries recognize it as a distinct institution or a “system.”2 The concept was developed in the postwar United States by historian john King Fairbank to refer to “a set of ideas and practices developed and perpetuated by the rulers of China over many centu- ries.”3 To Fairbank, the international order was an extension of the Confucian hierarchic and nonegalitarian social order of China; the more the culture-based theory of Chinese superiority was accepted by actors in the periphery, the more likely they were to participate in the tribute system.4 His culture-based graded hierarchy model categorizes China’s neighbors into three zones based on the extent to which they accepted Chinese Confucian culture as well as their geographic prox- imity to China. Fairbank singled out Korea, Vietnam, Japan, and Ryukyu as having resided in the Chinese cultural area, an area influenced by the civilization of ancient China. These societies formed the Sinic zone, followed by the Inner Asian zone and the Outer zone (the latter even- tually comprising Japan, other states in Southeast and South Asia, and Europe).

In the Fairbankian model, it is noteworthy that Japan was catego- rized as part of the Sinic zone and was eventually moved to the Outer zone, whereas Korea remained part of the Sinic zone during the Qing period. According to this model, because the Chinese world order was “sustained by a heavy stress on ideological orthodoxy,”5 hierar- chy was a function of education and indoctrination in the Confucian classics. But it is therefore a puzzle that japan’s active indoctrination in the Confucian classics during the Tokugawa period coincided with its refusal to accept hierarchical relations with China during the Qing period.6 Fairbank’s theory of hierarchy cannot explain these contrast- ing trajectories between Korea and Japan, because it rests on a dualism between culturalist and materialist views of the tribute system. He argues that, for China, the biggest incentive behind the tribute system was the symbolic prestige value of tribute, which enabled China to avoid “the dangers inherent in foreign relations on terms of equality.”7 For China’s neighboring states, compliance with the system was motivated by trade opportunities with China. Therefore, the compliance of Chi- na’s neighbors depended on a rationalist logic of the pursuit of wealth and technology, although variations in hierarchy rested on culture.

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30 Understanding the Tribute System

The New Qing history challenges Fairbank’s culture-based hierar- chy model by criticizing several assumptions that underlie his Sino- centric interpretation of the tribute system. 8 Rather than denying the existence of the tribute system itself,9 the New Qing’s critiques focus on two main planks. First, no one “real Chinese” culture and identity was associated with imperial China. The New Qing history questions the Fairbankian model’s validity by asking, who was China? To put it another way, the term China as a country cannot be tied to a single Chinese Confucian culture or identity.10 Second and relatedly, the no- tion of a monolithic tribute system cannot adequately explain the historically contingent nature of social interactions associated with the tribute practices across time and space. According to Pamela Kyle Crossley and other New Qing historians, the ways in which the rulers of the Qing empire constructed political authority were remarkably different from how the rulers of the previous Ming empire constructed authority. The Qing emperors presented themselves not just as the tra- ditional Chinese Confucian persona of authority as “Son of Heaven,” as Fairbank posited. Rather, in order to raise their legitimacy and au- thority in the eyes of different ethnicities and cultures within the em- pire, they posed also as a Cakravartin (“wheel-turning king”) to the Buddhist Tibetans and as a Khan to the nomadic Mongols.U In other words, the rulers of the Qing empire strategically assumed multiple identities and employed different symbols of power in different socie- ties in order to facilitate domination of those societies.

As noted by New Qing historians and other critics, Fairbank’s trib- ute system model has limitations because of its simplistic, one-sided Chinese perspective on international relations. Although I acknowledge its weaknesses, I argue that it is a mistake to dismiss Fairbank’s insights completely. For example, the New Qing historiography is more appli- cable to the Inner Asian dynamic. The Qing empire continued more or less similar tribute practices toward its East Asian neighbors as the Ming. In East Asia, the Confucian world view of placing China at the cen- ter, as embedded and repeated through tribute practices, was a power- ful mechanism of coercion as well as one of consent. This is not because the Confucian culture led its neighbors to behave deferentially to Chi- nese authority, as Fairbank, Kang, and some advocates of Asia’s “long

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peace” thesis seem to suggest, but because Confucian culture was part of a taken-for-granted practice in the social dynamics of China’s neigh- boring states themselves, perpetuated because of their own domestic political conditions. In order to explain variations with regard to participation in the tribute system, I modify Fairbank’s model by highlighting the need to filter its emphasis on culture by considering domestic politics while incorporating insights by New Qing histori- ans regarding actors’ use of culture and identity for strategic purposes.

The Borderlands Studies Lens

In Chinese historical scholarship, the area of research called “border- lands (bianjiang) studies”12 is relevant to the concept of the tribute system, because it speaks to the long-running question of the “place of culturally or racially non-Han peoples in Chinese history.”13 From this body of research, one can interpret the tribute system as an outgrowth of a method by which ancient China, the center, managed its relations with the peoples at the borderlands, the non-Han groups. For the pur- pose of this book, this lens does not provide a direct explanation for China’s relations with East Asian neighboring states outside its empire, but it does explain the Chinese side approach to the tribute system. Of particular importance is imperial China’s employment of loose rein policies, literally meaning “bridle and halter (checking by pulling and pushing),”14 which explains at least in part why Chinese hegemony did not rest on physical domination over other neighboring states. At the same time, when China felt threatened, as in the late Ming period, its opportunistic behavior and strategic thinking were often associated with the yi yi fa yi (IV-~ WU ~. the use of barbarians to fight other bar- barians), requesting its tributaries to fight against its own enemies.15

This perspective focuses on the relations between the center and borderlands within the current boundaries of today’s People’s Repub- lic of China rather than on East Asia per se. According to Ma Dazheng and Liu Ti, the term bianjiang (:11~1 , borderlands) as a political concept has historically referred to regions located outside the direct control and governance of the political center. From a strategic point of view, the borderlands represent the front line of the Chinese state in terms of

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32 Understanding the Tribute System

its defense and security.16 In English, biaryiang can be translated both as “border” and as “frontier,” which respectively refer to “a zone in which two or more states meet-and where a distinct society emerges” and “a zone without clear boundaries, where cultures meet, overlap,

and compete.”17

In ancient China, the traditional ideology of the “civilized versus

barbarian distinction”(*~) framed the debate on whether the “civi- lized” (the center) should try to govern the “barbarians”-a debate that was in effect an early form of today’s borderlands studies.18 Ma and Liu explain that the “barbarian versus civilization” distinction was

determined culturally rather than ethnically, and that the goal of making the distinction was to protect “the Chinese cultural tradition symbolizing the civilization.”19

More specifically, there are three kinds of strategic thinking in ancient China’s approach toward the borderlands. The first is to prevent

the “civilized center” from becoming “barbarian.” The second is to transform “barbarian” peoples into culturally “civilized” peoples, based on three methods: (1) the use of force to establish stability in the borderlands; (2) the use of feudal lords to defeat the barbarians when the Chinese emperor did not have enough military power; and (3) the use of barbarians to fight other barbarians (yi yi fa yi). According to Ma and Liu, the strategy of yi yi fa yi involves learning the strengths of the barbarians in order to defeat them, as well as recruiting the

more Sinicized barbarians to defeat the less Sinicized ones. This method of yi yi fa yi is a more sophisticated form than attacking bar- barians by using barbarians or letting barbarians fight while China, the center, did nothing. 20

The third type of strategic thinking about ancient China is more

closely associated with the concept of the tribute system as it was prac- ticed in East Asia, under which imperial China pursued a laissez-faire

policy toward neighboring non-Han foreign countries (waiguo). 21

According to Ma et al., the loose rein policy is superior to other strate-

gies because of its careful consideration of specific contexts in which governance was to take place. Loose rein has the following three mean-

ings: (1) to avoid the termination of relationships between China and its borderlands peoples; (2) to govern the borderlands in a manner

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Understanding the Tribute System 33

tailored to the specific times, geography, and people, depending on how similar they were to the center; and (3) to realize the long-term goal of having the borderlands submit to China by providing food and shelter to the people and soldiers in the borderlands. 22

Running parallel to this tradition is the study of borderlands in their own right rather than as a concept relative to the center.23 According to Peter Perdue, the research from New Qing historians is one such example, given its emphasis on a “Manchu center” as opposed to the Manchu assimilation into a majority Han culture.24 Han-gyu Kim’s work represents a similar trend in tribute system scholarship. Kim argues that even while China’s neighbors and the borderlands paid tribute to and received investiture from the more powerful China, they formed their own world of diplomacy, treating themselves as the center vis-a- vis other polities employing the loose rein strategy.25

The Investiture Model Lens

When it comes to the tribute system, Japanese scholars have largely taken two different approaches toward the history of East Asia: using the investiture model and using the transnational economic history perspective. 26 The investiture model focuses on the ancient period, whereas the transnational economic history perspective focuses on the early modern period. Sadao Nishijima, who sought to understand Japa- nese history in the larger Asian context, pioneered a study on ancient East Asia (“t1~ JR7/7), which he argued comprised China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam and constituted a complete world of its own. Inter- national order was sustained through the practice of investiture-that is, the Chinese emperor’s granting of the imperial patent of appointment (the title “king”) to the newly ascended ruler of neighboring polities. Somewhat akin to Fairbank’s notion of a Sinocentric hierarchical order, actors in ancient East Asia were connected through their adoption of four common features of Chinese civilization: the Chinese writing sys- tem, Confucianism, Buddhism, and Chinese administrative and penal codes. 27

Perhaps not surprisingly, Nishijima’s thesis came under criticism similar to that of the Fairbankian model, for being Sinocentric. 28 In

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response, Toshikazu Hori argued that one must consider the prefer- ences of China’s neighboring polities in order to understand the work- ings of ancient East Asia. Ancient China’s policy toward its non-Chinese neighbors was basically the loose rein policy; the practice of investi- ture was a concrete expression of the loose rein policy, a method of in- directly checking neighbors.29 Other polities’ tributes and gestures of subordination were of great importance to the Chinese, especially in terms of the emperor’s authority.30 Hori’s work provides insight into the early modern period because it incorporates the needs of other partici- pants as being integral to the functioning of the tribute system. Schol- arship on the investiture model since Nishijima has moved toward decentralizing East Asia from China, showing how China’s neighbors’ internal conditions and the rivalries between the states mattered. In this book, I build on this insight of considering both China and other actors and argue that actors’ participation in tribute practices was based on domestic legitimation strategies vis-a-vis their domestic enemies.

Korean historians also subscribe to the investiture model, and they have demonstrated the centrality of investiture practice in the over- all maintenance of hierarchy.31 Mostly focusing on the context of Sino-Korean diplomatic history, Korean historians help us understand the notion of the tribute system itself, as they provide in-depth empirical details about its microfoundations of the tribute system. The longevity of Sino-Korean relations enables us to trace changes in the workings of the tribute system over two millennia. Korean historical scholarship challenges three prevailing notions in the literature about the functioning of the tribute system. First, although Fairbank and others view trading profits with China as the primary motive for less powerful actors to send tribute missions, for Korea, economic consider- ations were minimal at best. Second, Chae-sok Sim’s detailed research on investiture shows that the tribute system was not incompatible with the use of force. Under a multistate system in tenth- and eleventh- century Northeast Asia (before the Mongols established the Yuan em- pire), the act of granting and receiving titles was a mechanism by which actors maintained the balance of power in the system.32 In a multistate, anarchic system, Korea switched sides and received inves-

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titure in accordance with the power distribution, a different dynamic than occurred during the later Ming and Qing periods.33

Third, in response to debates in IR over whether the tribute system is linked to the peacefulness and benignity of the Chinese hegemonic order, this body of literature tells us that such a dichotomy is not warranted. Rather, the tribute system was about the use of Chinese Confucian culture for strategic purposes. For example, in line with David Kang’s emphasis on culture, Han-gyu Kim emphasizes the ef- fect of what IR scholars call socialization in Sino-Korean tributary relations.34 At the same time, supporting the conclusion similar to johnston’s cultural realism, Sung-born Kye’s survey of China’s requests for Korean troops highlights that the Ming empire was not always peaceful. The Ming empire requested Korean troops to bolster its mil- itary, and in so doing, it employed coercive diplomacy opportunisti- cally in order to extract the resources. 35

The Transnational Economic History Lens

Tribute missions did not just exchange gifts (goods) between rulers. They also accompanied licensed traders to conduct commercial trans- actions at designated locations. 36 Takeshi Hamashita, employing the transnational economic history perspective, argues that “lucrative trade was the lubricant for the tribute system defining regional politi- cal, economic, and cultural intercourse.”37 He considers tribute missions’ major port calls and sea routes a maritime regime that linked China, Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia in an extensive trade network, or a “tribute trade” system. Sociologist Giovanni Arrighi’s research suggests the tribute system as an example of hegemonic stability in IR, because imperial China, as hegemon, provided economic stability for the entire international system. Arrighi argues that the near absence of system- wide military competition and territorial expansion in the agriculturally based Chinese empire starkly differentiates it from the European inter- state system. 38 From a slightly different angle, ]i-na Kang views the tribute system as a venue for technological transfer from China to sec- ondary powers, which could use new technology to catch up with the leading economy in a relatively cost-effective manner.39

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36 Understanding the Tribute System

Overall, the transnational economic history lens shows that early modern East Asia formed a hegemony under imperial China’s rules, money, and technology, leading to stability. In particular, Hamashita’s analysis breaks free from a state-centric view and brings domestic groups into a big picture of the East Asian system. Arrighi’s andJi-na Kang’s arguments broadly support the idea of benign hegemonic sta- bility in IR. But this lens suffers from the problem of ignoring other East Asian actors and their motivations. Historical evidence suggests that to understand why there were varying degrees of participation in the tribute system, one must consider the political dimension of the tribute trade system in conjunction with geopolitical circumstances. For example, according to Sun, the Ming empire’s occupation of Vietnam facilitated the Ming transfer of military technology, which worked to Vietnam’s advantage against Champa while strengthening Vietnam’s autonomy vis-a-vis the Ming.40 Perdue reminds us that “trade was only one of several factors driving the system as a whole. Military-geopolitical considerations including diplomacy, power and perception of outsiders constantly shaped the scope of commercial networks.”41 The empirical chapters of this book explain why, despite the potential of trading profits, Japan refused to send tribute missions to the Qing. During the Ming period, Japan was sometimes eager to send tribute missions but refused at other times, and trade was hardly the main driver of Korea’s practice of sending tribute mis- sions throughout the Ming and Qing periods.

The Tianxia System Lens

One cannot discuss the tribute system without addressing its under- lying ideology, which originated in ancient China. Tinyang Zhao argues that tianxia (JCT, loosely translated as “all under Heaven”) refers simul- taneously to the following three elements: (1) as a geographical notion, all the lands in which humanity resides; (2) as a psychological notion, the hearts and minds of all the peoples of the world; and (3) as an institutional notion, the political and cultural view that the entire world is one big family. Zhao’s work has drawn much attention inside and outside China as a result of his advocacy of using Chinese values

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and culture to address the broad global challenges that the world faces today. He argues that the tianxia paradigm is a superior alternative to the Western worldview that underpinned Pax Britannica and Pax Americana. The Western philosophy, established to supply the ideologi- cal basis for sovereign nation-states, cannot provide a frame of thought that views the entire world as is and instead imposes the interests of one state on others as universal. Zhao contrasts Western philosophy with the theory of tianxia, which is based on the Chinese cultural tradi- tion of not rejecting others while endeavoring to transform them to form a unified wholeY

In recent years, a notable trend has been to approach the tribute sys- tem as a window into the Chinese vision of the future of the interna- tional orderY Responses to this line of argument, which seeks to find a source of inspiration for today’s problems in ancient Chinese thought, are varied. Zhao’s work is that of political philosophy rather than a his- torical account or a causal argument about the tribute system. He states that, in Chinese history, the theory of tianxia was not practiced as it was supposed to be-that is, it was imperfectly implemented. David Kang credits the inclusiveness of East Asian religious traditions, includ- ing the tianxia notion, for having a positive effect on regional stability, as evidenced by a lack of religious wars in Asian history.44 To William Callahan, however, Zhao’s idealized notion of tianxia is problematic because of its “cavalier reading of classical Chinese texts and its odd use of contemporary social theory’s vocabulary of ethnic relations in a way that promotes ‘conversion’ rather than ‘conquest.’ “45 Callahan con- cludes that Zhao’s work can be a harbinger of China’s attempt to create a new hegemony in Asia.

Yan Xuetong’s study of ancient Chinese thinkers (Guanzi, Laozi, Con- fucius, Mencius, Mozi, Xunzi, and Hafeizi in the pre-Qing era) and his comparison of their theories of interstate politics lead him to argue the opposite.46 He argues that the tribute system is “obsolete” because the idea of sovereign equality is firmly established in the contemporary world,47 but international peace can be accomplished by upholding hierarchical norms. His logic is that the norm of equality cannot gen- erate equity because power disparity is a fact of international life. To prevent conflict, it is better to embrace hierarchical norms, based on

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38 Understanding the Tribute System

which large states like China should take on more responsibilities than smaller powers and operate under different security norms.


Two major conclusions emerge from this survey of the scholarly liter- ature. First, there is a general sense that the tribute system is key for understanding hegemony and international politics in historical East Asia. Scholars tend to understand the tribute system as an organizing principle, the rules of the game, China’s strategy, or political and eco- nomic institutions that supported a hierarchical international struc- ture in which China played the role of hegemon. Different strands of research highlight different mechanisms through which the tribute system is linked to the notion of hegemony, including the ideology of the “civilized versus barbarian distinction” (the Fairbankian model and the tianxia system), China’s strategy of the loose rein (borderlands stud- ies, and the investiture model to some degree), and the tribute trade regime (transnational economic history).

Second, regarding the debate between liberal-constructivist and realist arguments about East Asia IR history, the broad picture of the tribute system demonstrates that the Sinocentric tribute system was not based on physical domination exerted by force. It is equally wrong, however, to characterize the tribute system as an exercise of the kind of soft power that made the use of force beside the point. This sort of misleading dualism is common among historians, not just among IR scholars. As ]ames Hevia aptly points out, most discussions of the trib- ute system assume a similarly binary view that separates culture from reason, symbol from reality, tribute from trade, ritual from diplomacy, and ideology from pragmatism.48 Existing explanations, although increasingly acknowledging the contingent nature of the tribute system, tend to analyze the tribute system as a one-way projection of Chinese strategy or culture, glossing over why neighboring powers sometimes participated in it and sometimes did not. In sum, scholarship in pur- suit of an answer to the question of why actors complied with and par- ticipated in the tribute system remains underdeveloped, with few if

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any rigorous studies comparing the workings of the tribute system from the perspective of China’s neighboring powers.


As a step toward presenting my practice-oriented approach to the trib- ute system, I turn now to textual analysis of the writings of those who actually participated in tribute practices-tributary envoys. To avoid the common problem in the study of the tribute system of relying largely on Chinese sources, I analyzed official reports and personal essays written both by Korean envoys and by Chinese envoys about their tributary missions. Despite having much to tell us about the workings of the tribute system, these writings have thus far been largely ignored by historians and IR scholars, especially those from the West.49 By exploring these reports and essays, I was able to compare how con- temporaries made sense of what Fairbank calls the “Chinese world order” and to see if the tribute system was in fact a “cloak for trade” for non-Chinese participants, as is claimed by many historians.50 In this section, I do not seek to build a lawlike theory of Chinese hegemony per se. I do not claim that an analysis of Chinese and Korean tribu- tary envoys’ texts exhaustively covers the array of processes, work- ings, or meanings pertaining to the tribute system. My goal here is simply to “understand” participants’ modes of thought, thus illumi- nating the nature of authority relations between China and its East Asian neighbor.

I use an interpretive method to grasp a vivid sense of the notion of authority in the eyes of early modern contemporaries.51 I illustrate a detailed picture of the tributary envoys’ actual experiences in search of evidence for “cognitive-symbolic structures in what the practitioners are saying and doing.”52 Because the authors candidly narrated their inner thoughts about China, personal essays by Korean envoys, such as the one by Pak Chi-won, are an excellent source for helping a researcher understand historical worldviews shared among early modern East

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Asians, including the “civilized versus barbarian distinction,” a his- torical view that identified the Chinese with “the civilized” while all the non-Chinese were considered “the barbarians.” In the next section, I abstract away from these empirical details and propose a practice- oriented conceptualization of the tribute system, on the basis of which I make cross-comparisons of actors’ varied responses to Chinese hege- monic authority. 53

Selecting which texts to analyze can be daunting. Chinese envoys made 186 visits to Korea during the Ming period, 54 fewer than one a year on average. But Korean envoys made three or four regular visits a year to China’s capital. Fortunately, Korean and Chinese historians have compiled the most widely read and important documents into pub- lished volumes. For Korean sources, I focused on eleven texts of what is collectively known as the Yi5nhaengnok; 55 for Chinese sources, I fo- cused on ten texts from the Shi Chaoxian lu. 56 Both sources contain not just official reports to the ruler but personal essays, drawings, and po- ems. These texts are a reasonable representation of Korean and Chi- nese envoys’ experiences as agents of tribute practices during the Ming and High Qing periods. Most of the men selected as envoys were Con- fucian scholar-bureaucrats. Following the principle in traditional Asian diplomacy of”no diplomacy between subjects (A !l.~?’rx),” they were not career diplomats but were appointed for a specific visit, with the primary mission being the delivery of letters between heads of state. 57

Choson Korea’s missions to China were led by a chief delegate, a dep- uty delegate, and a scribe, known as the “three envoys (samsa),” who were carefully selected from among high-ranking Confucian scholar- bureaucrats. 58 Beginning with Emperor Yongle’s reign, the Ming, too, began sending well-respected Confucian scholar-bureaucrats as envoys to Korea, including Ni Qian, Zhang Ning, Gong Yongqing, and Zhu Zhifan, the writers of documents selected for this book. 59 Therefore, it is arguable that the texts produced by Chinese and Korean tributary envoys provide the researcher with a narrow but important window into the perceptions and views of ruling elites of the two societies at that time. The dates of the texts are close enough to compare Korean and Chinese responses to given international circumstances, as they

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were written at different points throughout the Ming and Qing periods under investigation. 60

When we consider the nature of the relationship between a Korean king and a Chinese envoy, it becomes clear that authority was not a product of rational calculations removed from a specific context. Rather, authority arose from the actors’ notion that defiance was off the table in a given social and cultural context. It was in the context of the Confucian ethic or the notion of social propriety called li (if) that Chinese envoys sometimes were able to coerce the king of Korea into changing his course of action, claiming that the king’s actions were “not in accordance with li” or “contrary to li.”61 Take, for example, Ming envoy Jiang Yueguang’s 1626 delegation to Korea, just before the offi- cial collapse of Ming China in 1644.62 If Korean compliance behaviors were a function of relative material power vis-a-vis China, this is the time one might expect a change in Korea’s previously high level of compliance. When the Korean king was planning to wear mourning clothes-because of the passing of a royal family member-to the ac- ceptance ceremony of the Ming imperial edict, Jiang asserted that the king had to change into a formal costume. He countered the Korean king’s explanation of the need for upholding his filial duty, claiming that the king should give priority to his role as a subject of the emperor before his loyalty to his family. Upon Jiang’s threat that he “would not open the edict from the emperor” unless his requests were met, the king changed his costume.63

The primary intent of Chinese envoys’ visits was to establish, main- tain, and manage a tributary relationship with a country on behalf of the Chinese emperor.64 Regardless of the ranks of Chinese envoys within their own government, once in a foreign country they were treated as “Heavenly Envoys” (Jdt) embodying the authority of the Chinese emperor.65 Letters and edicts they carried from the Chinese emperor were delivered through elaborate ceremonies designed to pub- licly demonstrate the higher level of authority of the Chinese emperor vis-a-vis the king of the receiving country. The Ming carefully selected as envoys to Korea well-respected top Confucian scholars whose schol- arship was well regarded among Korean scholar-bureaucrats. Just

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before envoy Zhang Ning’s departure to Korea, the Ming emperor Yongle said, “I hear that the Choson King Yi Yu read Confucian clas- sics”66 and raised his envoy’s rank. Gong Yongqing wrote that the court always selected well-regarded Confucian scholars as envoys to Korea and Vietnam.67

Imperial China sought to legitimate its superior identity by display- ing the compliance of other actors in the public eye.68 Throughout en- voys’ visits, symbolic demonstrations of hierarchical patterns of social relations were pervasive in details such as seating arrangements and the positions of envoys and government officials at ceremonies and banquets. It was for this reason that Chinese envoys on missions to Korea paid great attention to performing rituals correctly and to mak- ing sure their hosts adhered to these rituals. In the words of Ming envoy Jiang Yueguang, his mission was “to civilize a tributary state through the Confucian ritual (!i) relying on the solemn authority of the emperor and to embrace [Korea] through virtue.” 69 Gong Yongqing urged his fellow Chinese envoys to be mindful of proprieties when it came to receiving, opening, and reading an imperial edict as well as when paying a visit to the shrine of Confucius. He outlined eight types of protocols in a foreign country, including a tea ceremony held by the king, a meeting with the king, a meeting with government officials, royal banquets and receptions hosted by the king or the crown prince, and a farewell by the king?0

Once in the capital of China, foreign envoys were required to par- ticipate in court ceremonies as mandated by Confucian rites li. Perhaps one of the most perplexing parts of the tribute system in the eyes of modern scholars is the “kowtow.” Korean envoy Ch’oe Tok-chung elab- orated on what this ceremony entailed.71 Before meeting with the emperor, Chinese officials and foreign envoys had to gather together and go through a rehearsal ceremony. On the day of the assembly, once the emperor appeared in view, Chinese officials and foreign envoys moved to designated positions. Guided by a Ministry of Rites official, foreign envoys performed five bows and three sets of kneeling and bows. The Chinese officials completed their performances before the emperor, and foreign envoys were then instructed to kneel. The Minis- try of Rites official announced, “Choson envoys are seeking an audi-

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Understanding the Tribute System 43

ence.” The number of envoys, their titles, and their names were an- nounced. Afterward, the envoys performed their kneeling and bows three times and waited to hear the emperor while in a kneeling posi- tion. The emperor instructed the Ministry of Rites official to “provide them with drinks and meals.”72 The envoys again performed three sets of kneeling and bows before departing.

Fairbank notes that the kowtow was “the rite above all others which left no doubt, least of all in the mind of the performer, as to who was the superior and who the inferior in status.”73 Although it is difficult to know the emotions and cognitive processes that went on in those Korean envoys’ minds when they saw the emperor, their writings con- vey their understanding that being given an audience with the emperor was a special occasion. Ha Gok stated, “We saw the emperor at a close distance, my joy knew no limit.”74 Hong Ik-han wrote, “There was not a single person who dares to speak or make mistakes out of fear and respect.”75 Cho observed that the officials at the congratulatory cere- mony for the winter solstice walked backward in the presence of the emperor because no one dared turn his back on the emperor. He felt “deeply disappointed” when his delegation was ordered to position itself outside the Meridian Gate for the ceremony.76

Most Chinese envoys wrote that their visits confirmed that Korean ceremonies, costumes, music, and customs had become “Sinicized,” or “like those of China” “due to the great benevolence of the Chinese em- peror.”77 Ming envoy Jiang Yueguang noted that the Korean custom was civilized and had matured to the point where “even those who were servants and those whose job is to wheel a wagon understood poems, boasted about their sentences, and all knew Chinese poems.”78 Ni Qian wrote: “Although Koreans are barbarians, it is as if they are no longer barbarians.”79 Many Chinese envoys concluded that although Korea was a “barbarian in the East,” it represented the “success story” of the transformation of a barbarian people into a high level of civilization. 80

Two seemingly contrasting threads of thought can be found in the Korean envoys’ personal essays. During their visits to China, the envoys almost invariably noted and criticized individual Chinese officials’ cor- ruption; they often had to offer Chinese bureaucrats a bribe “to get things done.” Prince Inp’yong, who visited the Qing empire several

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44 Understanding the Tribute System

times, wrote, “I cannot count how many times I visited the country, but Qing officials’ extortion is getting worse every time.”81 Ha Gok, who declared that “his joy knew no limit” at seeing the Ming emperor, com- plained about a Ming official who demanded a bribe, noting that the Ming officials’ “arrogance has reached an extreme.”82

At the same time as they expressed such sentiments, however, the Korean envoys regarded the Ming empire as morally superior.83 Korean official Ch’oe Pu’s conversation with a Ming official is telling in this re- gard. The Ming official asked, “Is the ruler of your country also called the emperor?” Ch’oe answered, “There cannot be two Suns in Heaven, how can there be two emperors? Our king only serves the Great Ming with utmost sincerity.”84 When Ch’oe’s boat was adrift in waters near ]eju Island, he said to himself, “If our vessel could dock in China, China is the country of our parent.”85 Pak Chi-won wrote, “The Ming is China. That is because the Ming is the country that first recognized our coun- try.”86 The Korean Confucian scholar-officials shared the view that

the Ming is the country of our brother …. What do I mean by the country of our brother? It refers to China. In other words, it is the country that successive courts and kings [of Korea] had been indebted to …. When the Ming Chinese envoys came to visit us, all of us, be they children or housewives, had been treating them as “Heavenly Envoys” and served the Son of Heaven every day for the past 400 yearsY

According to Ch’oe Pu, Korea had become “one family” with the Ming empire, sending tribute without interruption.88

In the eyes of contemporary Korean ruling elites, the authority that the Ming emperor held was beyond that as the head of a state per se but was based on their subscription to the collective belief that the Ming occupied the place of”Son of Heaven” in the specific early mod- ern East Asian world view resting on the “civilized versus barbarian dis- tinction.” In other words, the specific social and cultural context of early modern East Asia enabled the Ming emperor to embody Confu- cian moral authority. Using the title “king of Korea” in state letters, which was a way of accepting Chinese hegemony, clearly was not sim-

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Understanding the Tribute System 45

ply a matter of Korea bandwagoning with the most powerful state, de- void of the symbolic authority of the Chinese emperor. During the Ming period, all but one of the Choson kings received investiture from the Ming emperor (and the one king who did not receive it requested it but was refused by the Ming). 89 There is no evidence that Koreans debated whether to receive investiture from the Ming emperor every time a new king came to the throne-the idea of not sending tribute-bearing missions and not receiving the title “king” from the Chinese emperor was outside the norm within Choson Korea.90

But what if China as a country was no longer identified with that Confucian moral authority of li? We can compare Korean envoys’ re- sponses to the Ming empire with their responses to the Qing. Under the Qing rulers, who had long been regarded as “barbarians,” tribute prac- tices became humiliating drudgery to Korean envoys. When Korean envoys were ordered to attend the coronation of the first Qing emperor, in February 1636, they “strongly resisted” the command, resulting in beatings and imprisonment. When the Manchus forced Na Tok-hyon to carry a letter that called the Manchu ruler the emperor, Na threw it away near the border so he would not have to deliver it to the Korean king.91 Most Korean envoys believed that the identity of the Chinese Ming emperor had been fixed as “the Son of Heaven,” a moral author- ity, and these envoys thought the barbarian Manchus had defeated and replaced the Ming as the Son of Heaven by using brute force.

If compliance with tribute practices was a function of China’s material power and the fear of Chinese aggression, Korea should have complied more with the Manchu Qing than with the Ming by the early seventeenth century. But this was clearly not the case. After having been invaded by the rising Qing for the second time, in 1636, Choson Korea was forced to sever its tributary relationship with the Ming and began sending tribute-bearing missions to the Qing. However, in the minds of most Korean officials and intellectuals, “barbarian” Manchus’ claim of the position of the “Son of Heaven” was an attack to the socially acceptable practice of early modern East Asia that rested on the “civi- lized versus barbarian” dichotomy. Such violations of the socially ac- ceptable actions provoked disapproval and resistance on the part of Korea.92 Korea complied with the Qing’s hegemonic authority by

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46 Understanding the Tribute System

sending tribute missions and receiving the title, but the Qing enjoyed far less authority than the Ming, particularly in the early Qing period.93

Measuring how much authority is being exerted at a given time is far from easy,94 but we do have some evidence to help us gauge the change in the level of authority between the Ming and Qing periods. During the Ming period, Korean kings occasionally sent additional tribute-bearing missions to the Ming to show appreciation, offer con- gratulations to newly enthroned emperors, pay respects to recently deceased members of the imperial family, or make special requests.95

The decisions to send these missions were voluntary and were inspired by the Korean kings’ domestic political calculations.96 Korean kings who sought extra domestic legitimacy still turned to the symbolic au- thority of the deceased Ming emperors while setting up their shrines and performing memorial services in the eyes of domestic political constituencies.97 By contrast, although Korea participated in the tribute system under the Qing, it kept its interactions to a minimum, lacking domestic political benefits from sending such additional missions.

Korea’s contrasting responses to the Ming and Qing are clear when we read the diaries by Korean envoys to the Qing empire, which dis- play the contempt that Korean ruling elites had for the Qing. When asked about their travels to China under the Qing empire, Korean en- voys answered by saying, “There really was nothing much to see.”98 One commented, “What would I expect from the barbarians when they are no different from dogs and pigs? … Since the beginning of human affairs, one has not seen the Son of Heaven whose head is shaven [a practice of the Manchus].”99 When the Qing emperor ordered the Korean delegation to meet with a Tibetan priest, they complained among themselves, saying, “What a habit of the barbarians! If it were the Ming, they would have never done this to us.”100

Fairbank is right in arguing that the underlying ideology of the tribute system was indeed “a natural expression of Chinese cultural egocentricity.”101 But such hegemonic ideas “do not float freely.”102 It was these practices-sending and receiving envoys, exchanging gifts, and receiving and granting Chinese titles-that reinforced and gave the tianxia idea concrete expressions of authority at the system level. At the same time, the concept of authority is tied to other actors’ understand-

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Understanding the Tribute System 4 7

ing of their place in the hierarchy of the larger social and ideational structure of the “civilized versus barbarian distinction,” which mani- festly shaped interactions between imperial China and its neighbor.103


Direct observations by contemporary participants in the tribute system provide a more sociological perspective. In this book, the term tribute system refers to a set of diplomatic practices in pre- nineteenth-century East Asia that involved “tribute” (chaogong, ~AJt) and/or “investiture” (cefeng, -lllt#). Indeed, if there is one ontological reality that scholars agree on, it is that East Asian states and polities shared certain practices in their conduct of relations with one another. Unlike today’s diplomatic practice, where ambassadors and equivalents are accredited to another state, in early modern East Asia, diplomacy was conducted through regular exchanges of envoys/04 a practice that dates to the Han empire (206 B.C.-A.D. 220).105 In a given social relation- ship, the meaning of A sending (as opposed to receiving) tribute to B signified that A acknowledged B’s position to be superior to that of A. For example, even in the multistate system of the tenth and eleventh centuries, in postwar situations, the defeated side was expected to send tribute to the victor as a sign of submission and to use the victor’s cal- endar instead of its own.106 After B received tribute from A, B usually granted an official title to A that ranked below B’s.107

This book proposes that we consider a practice-oriented approach and suggests two observations for a better understanding of the work- ings of the tribute system. First, tribute practices structured how actors conducted relations not just with China but also with one another, even when the actors did not have a direct tributary relationship with China. Second, tribute practices refer to a reservoir of Confucian cultural scripts constituting a hierarchical order while regulating actors’ socially acceptable behaviors in the conduct of diplomacy.

In the Chinese hegemonic order, the Chinese Confucian mode of hierarchical social relations was dominant and sustained itself through

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48 Understanding the Tribute System

actors’ repeated performances of tribute practices. By the early mod- ern period, China was always on the side of receiving tribute from and granting investiture to other East Asian actors, never the other way around. If A had a tributary relationship with imperial China, especially by receiving investiture, the relationship became an acknowledgment of Chinese symbolic authority over A. More specifically, compliance with Chinese hegemony took the following concrete forms. East Asian actors:

• paid tribute to and received return gifts from the Chinese emperor (gift exchange);

• used the Chinese calendar instead of their own; • received the title of”king” from the emperor (investiture); and • called themselves a shin (subject) of the Chinese emperor in state


In the Chinese Confucian mode of social relations, when A used B’s cal- endar, A was publicly acknowledging its subordinate status to 8.109

According to David Lake, symbolic obeisance-“public, often collective displays of submission that acknowledge and affirm the authority of the ruler”-can be a good measure of compliance with authorityY0 He further observes:

Symbolic obeisance, in fact, legitimates and strengthens a ruler by reinforcing the beliefs of other subordinates that the performer also respects the authority of the ruler …. Symbolic obeisance deters challenges to authority by demonstrating to subordinates that other subordinates support the ruler. Importantly, to the extent that states engage in symbolic obeisance we can infer that at least some por- tion of their broader pattern of compliance is a product of their res- pect for authority.111

In early modern East Asia, in and through social interactions of sym- bolic obeisance-that is, tribute practices-Koreans repeatedly recog- nized imperial China as a superior in social structure while making concrete the authority of the Chinese emperor in the Asian hierarchy.

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Understanding the Tribute System 49

Thus, it was actors’ performance of tribute practices that confirmed China’s identity as hegemon, based on the shared meaning of tribute practices. Chinese hegemonic order emerged through a process of ac- quiring a hierarchical pattern of social interactions, grounded in the specific rules of the tribute system, during which imperial China was recognized as superior. Therefore, in the specific social context of early modern East Asia, the notion of Chinese hegemony should be distin- guished from the concept of hegemony developed under the Westpha- lian states in the European setting, in which the primary security dynamic and relational patterns were checks and balances among actors who recognized each other as sovereign equals.112 In other words, in my conception of the tribute system, hierarchy is based not on China’s presocial attributes such as power or culture (acquired before its interactions with its neighbors) but in and through China’s social rela- tions with other actors. China emerged as hegemon through the repeti- tion of tribute practices. In this framework, other actors cannot be disregarded as mere recipients of China’s incentives; the Chinese em- pire needed other actors in order for China to become a hegemon in the first place.

Furthermore, tribute practices sustained a hegemonic order-that is, “an order in which one mode of legitimacy is dominant,” to use Mlada Bukovansky’s definition.113 As a dominant mode of legitimacy, tribute practices delimited actors’ socially acceptable behaviors in the conduct of interstate relations. The boundaries of the socially accept- able specific to the East Asian early modern context include the following:

• First, no “barbarian” could be the Son of Heaven, or hegemon; only the Chinese emperor could. Even the most independent East Asian states-Japan, Korea, and Vietnam-viewed themselves as “barbarians” because they were not Han Chinese.U4 Only the Chinese empire and its rulers represented the “civilized.” Chinese rulers therefore were eligible to grant a legitimate status to other “barbarian” rulers. It was important that tribute practices be performed in ways that clearly demarcated the distinction be- tween the “civilized” and the “barbarians.”

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so Understanding the Tribute System

• Second, tribute was not a form of economic exploitation. Paying tribute was an act of recognition of imperial China’s superior sta- tus; it was not intended to be a profit-seeking activity.

• Third, the Chinese emperor’s granting of the title “king”-the investiture practice-signified imperial China’s respect for the political autonomy of the receiving country as well as an under- standing between the countries about no first aggression; it was an act of imperial China’s recognition of other actors’ status in the East Asian states system that took the form of recognizing a leader of the receiving country as a legitimate ruler.

Further clarification about what the tribute system was and was not is warranted. For example, the thirteenth-century Mongol rulers of the Yuan empire used practices involving tribute and investiture, but they used them as instruments of physical domination. Consider some Mongol practices of the Yuan empire, as illustrated by Henthorn:

Although Koryo [Korea] was familiar enough with the ancient sys- tem of tribute and hostages, the Mongols were a new experience and their demands were of a different character than Koryo had previously encountered. For the Mongols regarded everything and everyone in a conquered nation as absolute chattels, a concept which differs considerably from the Chinese-oriented system with which Koryo was accustomed. The demands seemed endless: goods, hos- tages, transplanting of farming families, armies of men, ships, etc.115

The Yuan empire treated tribute as akin to taxes, and it controlled the domestic and external politics of its tributaries through the in- vestiture of successive Koryo Korean kings. Historians view this type of practice not as a tribute system but as imperialism.116 The boundaries established by the tribute system were, of course, not immutable either. The case studies of this book show the conditions under which imperial China and other actors violated and acted outside these boundaries, which corresponded with disruptions to Chinese hegemonic stability.

The taken-for-granted performances of tribute practices by China’s neighbors signified the stabilization of hierarchical patterns in social

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Understanding the Tribute System 51

interactions.117 David Kang regards early modern East Asian hierarchy in terms of “a rank order based on a particular attribute,”118 in which China as a hegemon had cultural influence and thus authority over other Asian actors. I share Kang’s and Fairbank’s emphasis on the centrality of Chinese Confucian culture in shaping a hierarchical order. As shown already in the accounts of Korean envoys, there is no question that Chinese Confucian culture-epitomized in the “civilized versus bar- barian distinction” ideology-formed the basis for Chinese hegemonic authority. However, I do not share Kang’s and Fairbank’s view that Chinese Confucian culture caused other actors to comply with tribute practices. Rather, I argue that it was Chinese ideological and sym- bolic resonance combined with domestic political needs that did this. Chinese cultural resonance is the reason that causal factors related to domestic politics had effects on producing compliance.119 To un- derstand the relationship between the tribute system and Chinese hegemony, one must examine what these tribute practices did in terms of other actors’ accomplishment of their goals, as opposed to what the Confucian classics taught, the normative content of Chinese Confucianism.


The specific character of Chinese hegemonic order is related to impe- rial China’s symbolic domination, which was exerted by drawing the boundaries of what was socially legitimate in East Asian international relations. This notion does not deny the role of Chinese material power but regards cultural resources as an integral part of power politics.120

From their inception, tribute practices, by “acting out” the “civilized versus barbarian” ideology,121 were designed to impose Chinese iden- tity as being morally superior to all other identities while translating the Chinese mode of social relations into the international order. In day-to-day international politics, the notion of Chinese hegemony and authority was reinforced by practices of the tribute system that estab- lished hierarchical patterns of social interaction rather than through imperial China’s relative power vis-a-vis its neighbors.

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52 Understanding the Tribute System

The hegemonic power that imperial China held in day-to-day inter- national politics rested on the fact that China’s ways of thinking about how social relations should be organized in the international realm became the reality of”this is how international politics is done.” There- fore, Chinese hegemonic ideas defined the dominant mode of interna- tionallegitimacy, “the universe of the thinkable.”122 Tribute practices structured how actors conducted relations with one another, even when the actors did not accept Chinese political authority over them. For ex- ample, the Chinese emperor wrote a letter treating Timur who built an empire of his own in Inner Asia as a vassal, which enraged Timur, but the two states continued to engage in the practice of gift exchange and the listing of tributes nonetheless.123 In Southeast Asia, Burma successfully resisted an invasion by the Qing empire but continued to send tributary missions;124 Vietnam fiercely opposed Chinese political interference but accepted investiture from the Chinese emperor.125

The practices of gift exchange and investiture became the norm that delineated what was socially possible in the world of East Asian di- plomacy. Perhaps one of the most striking examples of how tribute practices assumed the “self-evident and undisputed”126 quality of de- fining the socially possible is Japanese general Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s plan to build a Japan-centered order through the tribute practices of gift exchange and investiture. Hideyoshi, rejoicing over the success of his army’s invasion of Korea in an attempt to conquer the Ming empire in the late sixteenth century, revealed his vision to move the Japanese em- peror to China’s capital; to turn Korea, Ryukyu, Luzon (the Philip- pines), and Taiwan into Japan’s tributary states; and to have one of his three sons invested as the ruler ofKorea.127 The succeeding Tokugawa Japan created a miniature tributary order, presenting the arrival of Korean and Ryukyuan envoys as if they were coming to pay tribute.128

Korean kings, too, reproduced tribute practices in their dealings with the Jurchens and the people of the Ryukyus to construct a “Korean world order.”129 When Japan and Korea presented themselves as supe- rior in relations with other peoples, they received tribute from the latter while engaging in the granting of official titles of their own governments. Thus, the practices of gift exchange and investiture were not always

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Understanding the Tribute System 53

Sinocentric and not owned by China per se, but they became the norm in the conduct of diplomacy throughout the region.

However, the idea of Korea paying tribute to the emperor of]apan- an equal to Korea-was taboo in the social world of early modern Asia. Hideyoshi’s letter to the Korean king asserting that ‘japan is the coun- try of the gods” was a socially empty self-proclamation that was not only unrecognized by others but also considered an attack on the pre- vailing worldview at that time, thereby reconfirming the Korean no- tion that Japan was a country of uncivilized barbarians who did not know the universal order of human affairs.U0


Based on a practice-oriented approach to the tribute system, the re- mainder of this book seeks to explain why actors sent tribute missions when they did whereas others did not, and why they did so at certain times and not at others. The strongest candidates for comparisons are Korea,Japan, and Vietnam.131 Of these candidates, a strong case can be made for a cross-national comparison between Korea’s and Japan’s respective responses to imperial China based on their remarkably contrasting trajectories during the Ming and High Qing periods. As described in the introduction, after a brief moment in the early fif- teenth century, in which both Japan and Korea were official tributaries of the Ming empire, Korea continued to exhibit a consistently high level of compliance, whereas Japan shifted away and defied Chinese hegemonic authority. For example, throughout the 500-year Choson period, every ruler of Korea except two received investiture as the king of Korea from imperial China; in Japan, only Ashikaga Yoshimitsu re- ceived investiture as the king of]apan during the same time period.132

Korea and Japan thus showed stable, albeit remarkably contrasting, patterns of compliance. On the basis of this cross-national comparison, I also compare variations over time, testing my hypotheses against all the instances of major fluctuations within Japan and Korea in terms of

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54 Understanding the Tribute System

their patterns of compliance throughout the Ming and High Qing periods, which cover more than four centuries in East Asian history.

Why Korea-China relations? The Korean case is justified in light of early modern Chinese contemporaries’ perceptions that Korea was one of the most important “success stories” of its loose rein policies.133

Scholars may disagree that Korea’s tributary relations with China can be considered “the model tributary relationship” or “the most repre- sentative case,” given that the bilateral ties between the two were longer and stronger than those between China and any other state. However, few historians would dispute that the Korea-China pair pro- vides the most important analytical window into our understanding of the tribute system and the East Asian dynamic. Korea’s participation in the tribute system dates to the beginning of the Three Kingdoms period between the fourth and seventh centuries. Successive Korean states continued regular tribute practices without cessation vis-a-vis the Chinese empires until after the zenith of the Qing empire in the nineteenth century. Furthermore, in terms of the realist-liberal de- bate in East Asia IR history, the Korean case is a “most likely” case for standard neorealist theories of bandwagoning, because of its geo- graphic proximity and relative weakness despite its independent sta- tus vis-a-vis China (unlike Vietnam, which was under direct Chinese occupation for twenty years during the Ming period).134 If my causal argument of domestic legitimation is convincing here in the Korean case, especially when applied to the Ming and Qing empires, the logic is likely to be generalizable to other cases.

Why Japan-China relations? I choose Japan over Vietnam for two reasons. One has to do with testing the prevailing argument by Kang, Fairbank, and others that the tribute system rested primarily on Chinese cultural prominence. Unlike Japan and Korea, Vietnam was influenced by Southeast Asian culture as well as Chinese Confucian culture.135 The second reason is that Japan offers a better contrast with Korea’s patterns of compliance than Vietnam does. A comparison be- tween Japan and Korea thus makes it possible to see what other causal factors led to such differences in the dependent variable.

Therefore, at the macro level, I compare the broadly contrasting tra- jectories in Korea-China and Japan-China relations in terms of their

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Understanding the Tribute System 55

levels of participation in and compliance with tribute practices. At the micro level, I identify and compare variations over time within japan and Korea, focusing on historical moments of major fluctuations in Korea’s and japan’s responses to Chinese hegemonic authority. In fact, there were remarkable variations over time within japan and Korea. In making comparisons, I am able to hold gaps in national power levels and geographic proximities vis-a-vis China more or less constant-for example, if Korean responses fluctuated despite Korea being continu- ally vulnerable to neighboring China’s power, that would dispute the power arguments. I use a structured and focused comparison and process-tracing methods across a total of six cases in the empirical chapters 3, 4, and 5. Consequently, although I do not conduct an in-depth investigation of the Vietnam case, using the process-tracing method enables us to see if compliance levels were indeed determined by the domestic politics considerations as hypothesized rather than by other factors.

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