Having finished going through reviews of books & articles I read for my exam field in Pacific Islands history, we now finally come around to the China readings. I promise we’ll get to Japan before too much longer.
For now, we begin with a summary / synthesis / response to a pair of articles on the so-called “Chinese World Order” and “tribute system” of traditional East Asian international trade relations.
*Schottenhammer, Angela. “Empire and Periphery? The Qing Empire’s Relations with Japan and the Ryūkyūs (1644–c. 1800), a Comparison.” The Medieval History Journal 16, no. 1 (April 1, 2013): 139–96.
*Zhang, Feng. “Rethinking the ‘Tribute System’: Broadening the Conceptual Horizon of Historical East Asian Politics.” The Chinese Journal of International Politics 2, no. 4 (December 21, 2009): 545–74.
The East China Sea, where so much of this tribute trade was centered. As seen on a map at Pearl Harbor.
These two articles by Zhang Feng and Angela Schottenhammer are only two, chosen admittedly somewhat arbitrarily, from the body of recent scholarship on the so-called Sinocentric world order and tribute system. However, after reading them, they seem to present a good cross-section representation of the discourse. Further, Zhang and Schottenhammer draw extensively on a handful of other significant recent works on the subject, giving a sense of the key arguments and ideas of James Hevia, John Wills, Peter Perdue, Guo Yinjing (see book chapter), Cheng Wei-chung, Wang Gungwu, and Zheng Yongnian, among others.
Zhang summarizes and critiques the scholarship on the “tribute system” which has developed largely out of the work of John K. Fairbank, and essays published by a handful of other scholars in the landmark 1968 volume Chinese World Order, edited by Fairbank and published by Harvard University Press. Zhang emphasizes that the “tribute system” is first and foremost “a Western invention for descriptive purposes,” an analytical tool that even Fairbank himself thought should be revisited and revised in each generation. He explains that only since the 1980s have scholars begun to critique this model, “exposing hidden assumptions and bringing to light new historical evidence that contradicts existing interpretations.” Yet, even as more recent scholarship of the 2000s and 2010s (including numerous conference proceedings & edited volumes edited by Schottenhammer) has continued to explore the history of pre-modern / early modern East Asian foreign relations, few of these critiques have disproven or significantly revised Fairbank’s model, or offered satisfactory alternative models. Zhang admits he is guilty of the same, and writes that “Only James Hevia has set out to bypass it and construct his own analysis from a postmodern perspective.” In practice, however, I would counter that Hevia does not actually significantly depart from the tribute system model, but merely builds upon it, elucidating the conceptual and ritual (logistical) workings somewhat more deeply, and offering additional or alternative language for talking about it. His idea that the emperor “initiates” and the foreign envoy “completes” a ritual action, or ritual relationship, for example, while thought-provoking and evocative, does not substantially alter our fundamental notion that the Chinese emperor takes a superior position, requiring ritual submission from envoys from foreign lands if they wish to enter into formal relations. I expect I will cover Hevia’s book in greater detail in a future blog post.
Zhang, too, admits that the tributary/investiture relationship, and the Confucian/cosmological rhetoric and ritual practices associated with it, was “a prominent feature of historical East Asian politics,” but suggests that “overemphasis on it over the years has created biases in conceptual and empirical enquiries.” As we continue, endlessly, to struggle with the legacies of Orientalism, this is something we must take very seriously – to be guilty of perpetuating or reifying the artificial construction of a conceptual “Asia” that differs from reality is essentially the very crime which Said railed against. At its core, Zhang’s argument is simply that which dominates scholars’ outlooks and methodology today more broadly, regardless of chronological or geographic specialty (and quite rightfully so): the world is complicated, and no single model is sufficient to explain everything; it is imperative to acknowledge complexity, nuance, and difference. The tribute system, Sinocentric attitudes, and so forth, are not the beginning and end of East Asian attitudes or practices of foreign relations, but merely one of a number of institutions operating within the region.
Zhang devotes the majority of his article to summarizing Fairbank’s model, and offering critiques. Fairbank and Teng Ssu-Yu, in that 1968 volume, describe the system as “the medium for Chinese international relations and diplomacy” and “a scheme of things entire … the mechanism by which barbarous non-Chinese regions were given their place in the all-embracing Chinese political, and therefore ethical, scheme of things.” It was based on an extension of China’s internal hierarchies, with the Son of Heaven at the center, and at the peak of the hierarchy, and all others subordinate to the central, awe-inspiring, person of the emperor, from whom virtue and civilization emanated. “Respect for this hierarchy and acknowledgment of Chinese superiority were absolute requirements for opening relations with China.” China’s participation in the system was motivated chiefly by prestige, and that of foreign countries chiefly by desire for trade, according to this traditional interpretation. This model connects into Confucian and cosmological notions of the Son of Heaven as the source of all civilization and virtue, and the idea that foreign envoys come to pay homage and tribute in recognition of the Emperor’s virtue, which has extended even so far as their corner of the world. “Non-Chinese rulers participated in the Chinese world order by observing the appropriate forms and ceremonies (禮) in their contact with the Son of Heaven.”
A Chinese investiture ship, and to the left, Chinese investiture envoys being welcomed at Naha harbor, in a scroll owned by the University of Hawaii Library. Investiture was a crucial part of the so-called tribute system.
Zhang describes two alternate views of the system, but ultimately goes on to critique all three. His “Second View” (Fairbank’s model itself being the first) focuses on examining the rules and procedures of the Chinese system, while the “Third View” takes the tribute system and ideas of Sinocentrism as an “institution,” well-established and widely understood and agreed upon throughout the region. Zhang categorizes these things apart, but really they seem all just facets of the same thing, and with other facets, other approaches, possible – including the idea still popular among too many scholars that all ritual is merely symbolic, and can be (or must be) ignored, in order to examine the “real” underlying political motivations.
All of these interpretations, Zhang points out, run the risks of:
- being terribly Sinocentric, focusing only on Chinese perceptions, attitudes, and constructions, to the detriment of an examination of what other polities thought of the system, and of their participation within it,
- reifying a view of the system as fixed, as static and unchanging across the centuries, and finally
- reifying the centrality of the “tribute system” and failing to recognize or incorporate other aspects of foreign relations attitudes, practices and developments. Further, these last two problems also tie into the risk of assuming the preeminence of the rigid structures and ideological beliefs of the system, denying the Chinese rulers agency and rationality, thinking them blinded or restricted by ideology or tradition, and thus overlooking or ignoring the pragmatism and flexibility with which the Court very often was able to act.
- focusing too much on the forms, on the granting of royal seals and patents, the receiving of tributary goods, the performance of obeisances, and so forth, leaving the reader (or the scholar herself) wondering if the Chinese were capable of thinking, or doing, anything beyond just “going through the motions” of practicing the formalities.
- ignoring relations that take place outside of the tribute system. Are military conflicts not “relations”? Are official communications between courts (or pretenders) outside of the tribute system – such as Yongle’s commands that the Ashikaga do something about the wakō, the Ashikaga’s response that they have no power to do so, and no responsibility over those independent non-state actors, and Prince Kanenaga’s execution of Ming ambassadors, not count as “relations,” or at least incidents in the history of foreign interactions?
- taking Sinocentrism and the tribute system as givens, without questioning, problematizing, or investigating their actual meanings and functions. Zhang quotes John Wills as writing: “Sinocentrism might be the wrong place to begin the analysis of Chinese foreign policy, because it short-circuits the necessity of paying attention to all the evidence, to all institutions and patterns of action…” Scholars such as Angela Schottenhammer have done much to begin to complicate this picture, giving wonderfully vibrant and nuanced descriptions of the complex and very busy scene of the world of East Asian (and Southeast Asia) maritime trade.
Meanwhile, Adam Bohnet, who I will also talk about in a future blog post, is but one of a number of scholars whose work on Chosŏn Korea helps unpack and illuminate the meanings and functioning of “Sinocentrism.” In an article on “Ming Loyalism and Foreign Lineages,” Bohnet examines how the Chosŏn Court deployed its loyalty to the Ming to bolster its own legitimacy, and how the court’s views and treatment of the descendants of Ming subjects resident in Korea changed over the course of the 18th century. As David Kang emphasizes, the system was never about Chinese political domination or control over tributary countries, and indeed China did not interfere at all in the domestic policies of Korea or Ryukyu, let alone Japan. Rather, it was always about cultural superiority, and more than that, centrality.
“Confucianism is thus a set of ideas based on ancient Chinese classic philosophical texts about the proper ways by which government and society were to be organized,” and Korean elites “saw their relationship to China as more than a political arrangement; it was a confirmation of their membership in Confucian civilization.”
Thus, following on Kang’s argument, we begin to get a sense that it wasn’t so much “Chinese” culture as an arbitrary choice in a cultural relativist world of equal options that was considered “superior,” so much as a recognition of Confucianism as the most enlightened, civilized, proper, and successful guide to ethics and governance there was. This gives additional force to the idea of the performance of membership in Confucian civilization. A comparison to court fashions in Europe seems apt, though it is not one Kang or Zhang address. While French language, court protocols, fashion, and so forth were for a time employed throughout much of Europe, as French culture was seen to be the peak of cultural refinement, this was at its core merely an aesthetic, cultural, fashion choice – France had no more claim to being “civilized,” let alone the source of civilization, than England or any of the Italian city-states. Chinese culture, however, from calligraphy and painting to music and language, to court costume, ranks, offices, and protocols, were all intimately tied into the ideas of Confucian government, Confucian society, and the arts of the refined Confucian gentleman. Thus, again, the emulation of Chinese, in particular Ming, norms in fashion and the arts was, arguably, perhaps, not merely a culturally arbitrary choice – e.g. to think that this style hat is somehow more culturally superior, more civilized, than that style of hat – but, rather, it is tied into a demonstration of the performance of Confucian civilization, as manifested in its most mature, fully-developed, form in the Ming Dynasty Court.
There’s nothing like the main hall of Shuri castle, seat of the Ryukyu Kingdom, for an example of a court demonstrating its membership in high (Ming Confucian) civilization.
Returning to Zhang’s argument, one weakness in his assertions about the complexity of Chinese foreign relations is, ironically, an element of Sinocentrism on his part. One prominent element of his argument for the complexity of Chinese foreign relations is that relations with nomadic peoples (e.g. Jurchens, Mongols, Manchus) and peoples & polities to the west (e.g. Uyghurs and Tibet) followed different patterns from the “tribute system,” and that thus there are multiple other institutions at play. From the Chinese Studies or History of China point of view, this is a very valuable and valid point. However, from the maritime East Asia point of view, and in particular for studies of Korean and Ryukyuan history, the nomads and Tibet are irrelevant. Korea and Ryukyu were the two most loyal tributaries to Ming & Qing China, and the two treated the most highly, the most beneficially, by China. The tribute system, or whatever we want to call it, however we want to envision it, along with the notion of Confucian (and Chinese, especially Ming, cultural) centrality, were fundamental to both Sino-Korean and Sino-Ryukyuan relations in this period. Schottenhammer’s essay lends support to this critique of Zhang’s otherwise important arguments, as she opens by saying “analysing Qing China’s relations with her neighbours, a distinction between her continental and maritime border space is evident.” While the Qing were vigilant towards threats from the continental border regions to the north and west, and often treated these regions with military force, “maritime space was viewed differently, but as we want to show, not simply as a distant periphery nor as frontier as it is often claimed.”
Zhang ends by reiterating that 朝貢體系 (cháogòng tǐxì) is a translation of the English “tribute system” – it is a neologism in Chinese, and so however the Chinese may have thought of this at the time, the “tribute system” as a model remains a Western construct. The chief task at hand, Zhang proposes, is to try to understand what lay behind these tributary relations, and to try to get a broader, and more nuanced, complex, picture of the full range of China’s foreign relations.
In summary, he critiques the Sinocentric tribute system model quite roundly, and well-deservedly, it would seem. It is important to keep in mind these critiques, and in the post-modern fashion, to keep in mind nuance and complexity – nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Motivations and means are myriad and multifarious. But Zhang does not dismiss the model entirely, in the end. He merely suggests that it needs to be taken as one element among many, and as less of a starting point than has generally been the case in scholarship up until now. We can keep the model, but we need to work around it, continuing to look for nuance and complexity, other models or institutions working alongside it (or at cross-purposes), and other viewpoints – we need to pay closer attention to the motivations, attitudes, and perceptions of other countries, and not just of China.
Schottenhammer may be doing more or less exactly what Zhang advocates. The Sinocentric model is not entirely mistaken, it is not entirely false, and so it cannot be thrown out altogether. In her essay “Empire and Periphery?” Schottenhammer focuses on the changing attitudes of mid-Qing emperors, as circumstances change, and in accordance with practical concerns, concluding that “Chinese ruling elites … were flexible enough to overcome traditional concepts and Sino-centric attitudes if they really considered it necessary.” When China was (or seemed, looked, felt) strong, there was less need to worry about dangers from outside; when China was less firm on its feet, Chinese rulers were not delusional, and absolutely took in real information about the outside world – albeit, information sometimes colored by traditional Sinocentric rhetoric (e.g. when the Tokugawa bakufu had no intentions of invading China, and pirates were few, Qing agents reported to their court that Japan was a small, weak, barbarian island country on the peripheries). Schottenhammer also closely examines motivations by foreign countries.
Perhaps the problem is simply in where one is looking. When Schottenhammer and Zhang allege that the field of scholarship is too focused on a Sinocentric perspective, are they speaking only of scholarship in Chinese Studies? I have no doubt that the field of Chinese History is largely focused on China, and, to be sure, works on the whole region could afford to be less Sinocentric in their analysis. I think Schottenhammer does a decent job of being less Sinocentric in her work. But, if one looks at the Japan Studies scholarship, and Korea Studies scholarship, there is no doubt that the interests, motivations, attitudes of non-Chinese courts *are* being examined and taken into account. Robert Hellyer’s book is just one of many that considers Japanese attitudes on foreign relations deeply; Greg Smits’ offers similarly for Ryukyu, albeit more in the intellectual history vein than economic/diplomatic policy.
So, what is the answer? What is the new framework? Maybe it’s just not time yet (still). Work on this topic has only just begun to really grow in the last decade or so, and so maybe someday, maybe soon, someone will be able to better synthesize the work of Zhang, Hevia, Schottenhammer, Oba Osamu, Smits, Hellyer, James Lewis, and all the rest, to come up with something new from which to work. But in the meantime, I think it’s going to continue to be a multitude of voices, a complex of different bits and pieces, and we just have to work within that…
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