What was the function of the ancient tributary system? Did the tributary system make China suffer?

Today, the interesting editor of history will bring you the function of the ancient tributary system . I hope it can help everyone.


The tributary system is a unique international relationship system invented by the Chinese. It has been practiced in China for thousands of years, from the Zhou Dynasty to the Ming and Qing Dynasties.

Although there are changes in the process, in general, the central dynasty "seals rewards" to the vassal states , that is, countries such as Vietnam and North Korea, and the vassal states "call the tribute to the vassal".

This is the tributary system.


All the history books we can see are basically negative attitudes towards the tributary system, generally for two reasons:

First, when foreigners come to China, they feel that China treats other countries too unequally. Can't everyone sit down and talk well, why do you have to kneel to the Chinese emperor ? Why do I send a gift, you have to call it a "tribute" from the bottom up? Why do you have to call something back What about the "reward" from the top down? It feels like China is bullying the small ones.

Secondly, the Chinese do not understand it, and feel that the tributary system is a set of lavish gifts. It is the dynasty that protects its own face and hesitates to be the head of injustice. Tributes from abroad come with tributes, but the dynasties often give them more rewards. Therefore, it puts a lot of pressure on the Chinese government's finances, and it is hard to lose face and suffer.

If foreigners don't like this system and Chinese people don't like it, then we can't explain why the tributary system can last so long.


For thousands of years, individual emperors will inevitably have vanity, but it is difficult to imagine that the Chinese government is under tremendous financial pressure and insisted on this system for thousands of years just for the sake of vanity.

Still, can you say that the emperor is stupid, but every minister under him is stupid? You can say that an emperor and the civil and military officials of the Manchu dynasty are stupid, but so many emperors and leaders in all dynasties are stupid ?

The tributary system can exist for a long time, and each Central Plains dynasty will start after taking office, indicating that China can benefit from it.

Today we come to re-examine the tributary system and count this account again.


Let's calculate the economic account first. Is China losing money?

Tribute trade is definitely not cost-effective, because less tribute and more rewards.

But you think, trade is human instinct. How can such a large China trade with its vassal states, that is, the entire East Asian trade circle, be confined to such a small amount of trade as "tribute rewards"?

Tributary trade is important, but in terms of share, it is actually just the tip of the iceberg.

The tributary trade did suffer a little, but its role was to maintain peace in the East Asian world and then compensate it back dozens of times through other forms of trade.

In the early days of reform and opening up, Western countries assisted us, and now we assist Africa, the same reasoning. On the surface, it seems like a loss, but in fact, by doing other business, you can earn a lot.


The Pictures of the Coming Kingdoms during the Qianlong Period

Especially in southern China, in the 1830s and 1990s, during the Emperor Qianlong , trade tariffs contributed one-sixth of Fujian's provincial tax and nearly three-quarters of Guangdong's local tax revenue. This is only officially recognized trade, not including private trade.

You see, economically, the tributary system actually has more advantages than disadvantages.


OK, let's calculate the political account again.

In a broad sense, there have been two systems of international relations in the world.

One is the "tribute system" of the Chinese civilization we are talking about today; the other is the "Westphalian system".

What is this latter system?

After the brutal "Thirty Years War" in Europe ended in 1648, the participating parties signed a series of treaties. This treaty system is the Westphalian system. It establishes several principles, that is, all countries, regardless of size, are equal, respect each other's territorial sovereignty, and so on.

Today's international relations still follow these basic principles.


European countries sign peace treaties

It seems to people today that nations, regardless of size, are equal, which is perfectly logical. The tributary system is based on national inequality. It seems that it really lags behind and should be eliminated.

But if we look deeper into history, we will find that the problem is not so simple.

The main goal of an international system is to maintain peace.

But hundreds of years after the establishment of the Westphalian system, European and American wars have not stopped.

From 1300-1850, there were at least 46 wars between Britain and France; Sweden, now a well-known neutral country, also participated in 32 wars during this period.



In fact, it is rooted in the principles of the Westphalian system-equality and mutual respect for sovereignty and territory.

The so-called equality is that there is no boss, and no one is convinced.

The so-called mutual respect for sovereignty means that everyone's power boundary is clear.

If I want to take advantage of you, there is no room for trading and forbearance under the table, I can only fight directly to grab your territory.

So you see, in practice, the beautiful principle on the file often turns into a robber logic when you turn your face.

The peace treaty is in fact a piece of waste paper without the strength to back it up.


In contrast, East Asia under the contemporary tributary system started from the establishment of the Ming Dynasty in 1368 and the dissolution of the tributary system in 1841.

For almost 500 years, there have been only two wars between East Asian countries.

In 1407, China sent troops to fight against Vietnam; in 1592, Japan's Toyotomi Hideyoshi attacked North Korea, and China sent troops to protect.

In addition, long-term peace has been maintained among East Asian countries such as China, North Korea, Vietnam, and Japan.


Why is unequal international relations easy to make peace?

Because inequality means that there is a recognized authority on arbitration contradictions.

In rural China, older and prestigious elderly people will play a role in resolving contradictions in the village. Zhang San and Zhang Si caused conflicts in the fields, and the solution was either to fight each other or to find an old village chief to be fair.

Obviously, with the old village chief, the conflicts in the village will be reduced a lot, otherwise the only way for everyone to solve the problem will be fighting.


What's the problem, let the village chief come out and comment

Back to the international system.

If you measure by peacekeeping, you will find that the tributary system is much better and more effective.

The reason people advocate equality between nations is mainly concerned that if international relations are unequal, large nations will bully small nations.

But in history, not only did it not bully vassal states, but it also provided security protection.

As long as they recognize China's sovereign state and accept the book, China will not even interfere in their internal affairs, let alone have the interest to rob their territory and occupy their country.

Of course, there is no longer a tributary system in the world today, and it is impossible to restore the tributary system again. But when we observe international politics, don't forget that these two basic logics still work.

In today's international politics, the principle of equality of the Westphalian system is superficially followed.

But in essence, there are variants of the tributary system in many areas-there is a dominated country in one area, other small countries recognize its status, and it is responsible for protecting regional security and taking care of small country interests. Although there is no such thing as "tribute", but the essence is one thing.

For example, North and South America led by the United States, Oceania led by Australia, and Central Asia led by Russia.


The United States operates Latin America as its own "back garden"

There are no central states in the Middle East and Africa, so that conflicts can only be resolved by force, and peaceful development becomes extremely difficult. And even if the world ’s police intervene, it will not help. After all, your sphere of influence is not there, and your influence is limited.

When the central state of a region declines, the entire region will fall into turmoil. After the defeat of the Qing dynasty in the Opium War, all the neighboring countries became colonies , and there was no peace at all.

In the future, East and Southeast Asia will return to the "tributary system" centered on China two hundred years ago, which is the result of historical development.

Of course, this does not mean that China will bully others . From a practical point of view, recognizing the status of the elder brother in China will actually ensure peace in the entire region.

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