How Ancient China Regarded the World

What lessons can be drawn from how the ancient Chinese Empire conducted its foreign policy?

October 21, 2001

What lessons can be drawn from how the ancient Chinese Empire conducted its foreign policy?

Ancient Chinese claimed to hold a Mandate of Heaven, according to which they had a valid claim to preside over everyone else by virtue of their unequivocal political, cultural and moral authority.

Originally, this high degree of self-confidence had perhaps been justified in some fashion by the relatively high level of ancient Chinese civilization and its sophisticated political organization.

This was certainly true in comparison with the peoples surrounding it.

For at least in antiquity, China’s neighbors were in most cases unsettled tribes. Many were nomads, rather than sedentary farmers like the Chinese. Those tribes’ culture was not well developed.

For example, few had written scripts of their own — and their political organization was unstable enough that none could describe itself as a state.

Han China (206 B.C.- A.D. 220) established an ideal formula for dealing with outsiders that became known to historians as the “tributary system.”

This was in effect a bundle of practices intended to symbolize outsiders’ submission to Chinese overlordship.

Its most important features were as follows. First, the tributary ruler — or his representative — had to go to China to pay homage.

In particular, the envoy had to prostrate himself before the Chinese emperor — in ritual acknowledgment of his own vassal status.

Second, the tributary state had to send a significant hostage — such as its crown prince — to the Chinese court. Third, the tributary state had to send gifts of native goods, always described as the payment of tribute, to the Chinese emperor.

The system functioned reciprocally. In return for the tributary’s symbolic submission, China guaranteed its security, although actual military intervention tended to depend on China’s stake in the tributary’s stability.

China also bestowed extravagant gifts, together with elaborate honors and titles. These gifts were intended to buy off the tributary. Although often cripplingly expensive, they still cost less than raising and maintaining a standing army that could actually compel submission.

Finally, the foreigners were permitted to engage in carefully controlled trade for a few days — before being conducted back to the frontier and sent on their way.

This formula was, however, optimistic, in character. Although China claimed that the ritual homage and the offering of local goods demonstrated submission to Chinese political overlordship, the “tributary” did not necessarily see it that way.

Rather, for tributary states the entire process primarily represented a peaceful way to acquire essential Chinese goods — without having to steal them in border raids. The question of relative status did not much concern them.

Quite to the contrary. In some cases, recognition by the Chinese emperor — which the Chinese themselves viewed as submission — may have enhanced a leader’s prestige in local disputes.

Moreover, the tributary framework was flawed due to a fundamental paradox. For it functioned properly only when others acquiesced in it — or when they at least agreed not openly to dispute the Chinese version.

Such acquiescence was possible only when China was strong enough to compel compliance. When — as frequently happened — this was not the case, China simply adapted to reality.

Indeed, Chinese leaders were well aware from early times that their empire and its environs formed only a small part of the civilized world and that other comparable cultures existed.

Many of the preconditions of China’s assumed superiority over its neighbors simply withered away over time.

Particularly after the fall of the Han in 220 A.D., China itself often was politically divided into a number of small states. None of them had sufficient power to demand deference from any other.

Moreover, although it claimed that foreigners longed to revolve in China’s political and cultural orbit, the reality suggested otherwise. This was not least because the surrounding states were becoming much stronger and more stable — with highly literate elites whom it was no longer feasible for China to patronize.

In short, while the ideals embodied in the tributary system have endured down to the present century, China has necessarily, and often, departed from that ideal since very early times.

That is, China’s approach to relations with other states and civilizations has been highly pragmatic, whatever its theoretical underpinnings — and however firmly it may have asserted its superiority in public.

Adapted from “The Sextants of Beijing” by Joanna Waley-Cohen. Copyright © 1999 by Joanna Waley-Cohen. Used by permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Joanna Waley-Cohen is a professor of history at New York University.