Tianxia and the Tributary System in Ming Dynasty International Relations and Beyond
By Sam Gruenler
The original uploader was 敢為天下先 at Chinese Wikipedia. [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/
The future of the world depends on China. Most theorists, commentators, and layfolk believe that in the near future, China will grow to a level of power rivaling that of the United States, an outcome that would flip the existing international system on its head. Currently, states exist in a unipolar system, meaning that the U.S. is the only great power. If China continues to rise, it's plausible for the system to become bipolar, but it's anyone's guess as to if, when, or how that will happen. To search for clues on the future of China in the international system, one may look to China's past, in particular a period in which it was powerful: the Ming dynasty. During this era, China was the hegemon of East Asia, meaning that it was easily the most powerful state in the system. Historians often characterize the international order during this period as a tributary system where China enforced superiority over the rest of the East Asian states, and international relations scholars give many interpretations of just how this system functioned. Contrary to the realist perspective emphasizing power, the most useful explanation comes from a constructivist perspective, in particular one that emphasizes the Chinese concept of tianxia, which loosely translates to English as "all under heaven" or more precisely as "sphere below the sky." Tianxia helps to both explain the Ming dynasty tribute system and give valuable perspective and insight into Chinese international relations in the modern era.
Tianxia originates in ancient China and has long influenced the Chinese worldview as a moral ideal. According to Zhao Tinyang, a respected Chinese philosopher of the current era, tianxia refers to three ideas simultaneously: a geographic notion of all the lands of the earth; a trickier, psychological notion about the commonality of the hearts of all the people of the earth; and the political notion that the world is all one institutional entity (Feng 109). This idea of tianxia has been a useful concept throughout China's history to refer to the lands and peoples of a nation that has fragmented and reformed itself many times.
Ideas evolve, and tianxia is no exception. The tianxia of the Ming Dynasty differs somewhat from tianxia in earlier and later periods, and though the main idea stays constant—the fact that it's a concept of "all under heaven" never changes, and neither do the notions that comprise it—what changes is its application in Chinese society. Ming dynasty tianxia has much to do with the tributary system but has other characteristics as well. As a political concept, Ming dynasty tianxia emphasizes "social ethical order," as Junping Liu notes in his chapter on the evolution of tianxia (Liu and Huang, 532). This hints at the idea that the goal of China during the Ming dynasty was to establish a social-ethical norm in China and extend it throughout the Chinese sphere of influence. More importantly, however, a critical aspect of tianxia throughout history is the emphasis of inclusiveness over exclusiveness, and this manifests itself during the Ming dynasty as including other East Asian societies into the Chinese moral discourse. As the translation "all under heaven" and its three notions implies, tianxia encouraged thinking of the world as one entity meant to be united under this moral umbrella. China believed they must be the ones to unite the world due to their claim of moral superiority, often a feature of periods of Chinses strength, including the Ming dynasty. This belief of moral superiority and mentality of inclusiveness influences the Chinese worldview significantly.
Tianxia shaped the formation of the Central Kingdom Mentality, or the view that China is in the center of the earth and all other societies are peripheral. Ancient Chinese philosophy, especially Confucianism, values hierarchies, so the conceptualization of the Central Kingdom Mentality fittingly takes this form, though best visualized as an arrangement of concentric circles. At the center is the Emperor, of course, then the imperial family and imperial court, followed by other regional officials, then common citizens, tributary states, and finally barbarians. "Barbarians" referred to any societies outside of the Chinese sphere, so when Europeans first made contact with China, the Chinese considered them barbarians. Jesuit missionaries to China from the 16th century onwards had to prove their scientific and technical expertise to the Chinese authorities in order to be regarded as more than barbarians. In fact, when Lord Macartney visits China at the end of the 18th century to establish a British embassy and deliver a letter from King George III, the Chinese Qianlong emperor made it clear that China would essentially treat the British as a vassal nation, showing the historical perseverance of this attitude towards foreigners (Hevia, "Convergence" 187-189). This view of outsiders and overall hierarchy gave order to Chinese internal affairs and informed the Chinese state's view of the external world throughout its history.
This hierarchy influenced the Chinese conception of the international order through the tribute system. For China, the period of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) was a period of prosperity and strength. As the most dominant state in East Asia, China had what is known as "regional hegemony," or the condition of being the most powerful state in a regional system, in this case East Asia. Thus, East Asia during this time period took the shape of a Chinese-dominated hegemonic order which manifested itself through the tribute system. In simple terms, the way this system worked during the Ming dynasty is that China sent envoys to other East Asian states, such as Korea, Japan, and Champa, asking for tribute, and these states engaged in a relationship with China by sending gifts to the Chinese emperor and performing koutou (prostrating oneself before the emperor and touching one's forehead to the ground three times; Hevia 70), thus conforming to the Chinese system and making themselves a "tribute state" (Lee 18-19). This relationship would then facilitate trade and foreign relations between China and the tribute state, and many relationships like this comprised the tribute system. To perpetuate the existence of this system, China established rules of the game, or norms and rules for state behavior within the tribute system, further expressing Chinese dominance of the international system of East Asia.
There are competing theories as to what primarily explains seemingly abnormal state behavior in the tribute system and overall international order of East Asia during the Ming dynasty, and these theories essentially run along the lines of modern theories of international relations. The structural realist, or neorealist, school of thought emphasizes the role of military power and security in the interactions between states, and thus the realist explanation of the tribute system focuses on these topics.
Neorealists theorize that the primary goal of all states is to survive, and the way states ensure their survival is through gaining power, which gives them security. Due to this focus on power and security, structural realism emphasizes military or economic means as catalysts for state behavior, as opposed to social or cultural factors. According to prominent realist John Mearsheimer, "Structural realist theories ignore cultural differences among states as well as differences in regime type, mainly because the international system creates the same basic incentives for all great powers" (Mearsheimer 78). These incentives are, of course, to pursue survival through power. Furthermore, there are two primary structural realist sects: offensive realism and defensive realism. Defensive realists believe that states will pursue just enough power to survive and no more, while offensive realists believe that states will attempt to become as powerful as possible with the goal of hegemony, which, according to offensive realists, is the only way for a state to truly ensure its survival. This paper will focus on an offensive realist explanation of Ming China's behavior of continued expansion as the East Asian hegemon, which plays out as an application of realist logic to the historical case of Ming China.
Offensive realism, according to scholars like Wang Yuan-kang, author of "Managing Regional Hegemony in Historical Asia: The Case of Early Ming China," predicts that China's overwhelming military, economic, and technological dominance over their contemporary societies will lead them to expand, and they do so in the early fifteenth century. The tribute system was already in place at this point, so China was in the business of enforcing it, which they do in Vietnam. This expedition, which began as one of punishment for breaking tributary rules, ended up transforming into an all-out conquest and led to the occupation of Vietnam in the year 1407, though China withdrew twenty years later (Yuan-kang 142-143). This expansionary spirit is further shown through the voyages of Zheng He, which began in 1405 and lasted for around thirty years. The intent of these voyages was twofold: to showcase Chinese military dominance and to expand the Chinese sphere of influence. These voyages were largely peaceful, comprised of visits to foreign countries across the sea in which the Chinese delegation would attempt to establish diplomatic and trade relationships by drawing each country into the tribute system. This involved imposing their superiority onto these foreign nations, which was almost always accomplished through their awe-inspiring display of naval power. Otherwise, Zheng He would resort to force, which he did three times (Yuan-kang 144). Once the nation accepted Chinese superiority, they would be incorporated into the tribute system, beginning a relationship of tribute and trade. By the end of these voyages, the Chinese sphere of influence had spread across Southeast Asia and, to a lesser extent, the Indian Ocean, and the tribute system had grown greatly, thus validating the first realist prediction.
The second claim made by realists is that the tribute system relied upon military force to function and that it wouldn't have worked if it wasn't backed by the Ming dynasty's military dominance. This claim is also supported by Zheng He's voyages because although they were predominantly peaceful, the Ming fleet had military capability backed by roughly 27,000 soldiers (showing China's awareness of the necessity of military power) which was used in three separate instances. On each occasion, China used military power to assert its superiority and have its way with the less powerful society. For example, in 1415, the Ming fleet destroyed an uprising against a Chinese-backed king in northern Sumatra and had the leader of the uprising publicly executed (Yuan-kang 145). Perhaps more importantly, China threatened that it would retaliate with naval force against any state which defied its authority. Thus, China was only able to establish the tribute system and dominate so effectively because they had the military power to crush any defiance.
Furthermore, Ma Guang, author of "Tributary Ceremony and National Security: A Reassessment of Wokou Diplomacy between China and Japan during the Early Ming Dynasty," argues that the primary concern of both China and tributary states was national security, not trade or moral superiority. To illustrate this contention, Guang examines the influence of the Wokuo (Japanese pirates) on relations between Japan and China in the late fourteenth century (Guang, 46-49). The Wokuo, as pirates, posed a serious threat to China's national security and, to a lesser extent, economic interests. Japan seems to have been unable, or unwilling, to keep this group in check, which, combined with Japan's disrespect for tribute customs, strained relations between the two nations. Eventually, the coastal Wokuo raids became such a threat to national security (China's main concern, according to realists) that the inability of Japan to suppress the group led to animosity between Japan and China. Ultimately, the Hongwu emperor cut off relations with Japan in 1381, though had the Japanese been able to keep the Wokuo in check, diplomatic relations likely would have continued. Guang's example shows how the main factor China based its international strategy on was national security because the emperor was willing to sacrifice every other aspect of good tributary relations with Japan for a statement on security, thus conforming to a realist perspective of international relations.
This realist view is tempting, but it glosses over some finer historical points and fails to consider cultural and social factors that influenced relations during this period. An alternative, which incorporates some of these issues, is constructivism. The constructivist theory of international relations builds on the notion that reality is socially constructed, and while there are many competing ideas of what constructivism is, the central thesis "is that academic debate, no less than political, emerges in historically and culturally specific circumstances" (Fierke 178). Thus, constructivism takes a more case-by-case approach to the study of international relations and emphasizes cultural and social factors which may shape the ideas and identities of states while acknowledging military and economic realities. In other words, constructivists agree with realists that states have interests and often act in self-interest, but those interests are formed from their ideas, identities, and unique social position rather than the structure of the international system. A constructivist analysis of the Ming dynasty international politics differs from the realist explanation in this way, and ultimately proves more powerful as it unfolds as a historical investigation into Ming-era international politics.
The tribute system worked because of two realities: China was motivated to create the tribute system, and tributary states were motivated to enter and conform to the tribute system. The first reality—China's motivation—is explained by the concept of tianxia. First, one must understand that moral concepts and ideas such as this are deeply rooted in the Chinese tradition. Tianxia wasn't just a passing fad, it was part of the identity of China as a whole and the identity of every Chinese individual. So, it's unavoidable that tianxia would influence the Chinese international mindset, and the way it does this is through the inclusiveness it promotes. China wanted to expand its sphere of influence due to the deeply seated ideal of an international system united as one entity, fulfilling the concept of "all under heaven." It is with this goal in mind that China sends Zheng He on his voyages in the early fourteenth century: they wanted to include more and more nations into the tribute system. This mindset also explains the rest of the expansion China does during the Ming dynasty and even why the tribute system was created in the first place. The Chinese, believing they were morally superior and thus morally driven to fulfill tianxia, established and expanded the tributary system as a method of incorporating all under heaven. This behavior conforms to constructivist expectations in that it was the tianxia-driven Chinese identity that determined imperial policy.
The motivation of future tribute states to join the tribute system is more complex. On a shallow level, it seems that they simply were eager to trade with China and thus gladly accepted Chinese superiority, or that they were merely coerced to join by China's military. Yet a more accurate explanation of motives lies deeper. Ji-Young Lee, in her work China's Hegemony: Four Hundred Years of East Asian Domination, constructs a complex (and difficult to summarize) theory based upon the social-cultural influence of China in East Asia and China's role as a more benevolent hegemon, which both expose aspects of the international situation during this period that realism cannot explain. First, China's rich history of philosophical and spiritual development led to a sort of cultural authority during the Ming dynasty that other states in the region either respected, like Korea, or scorned, like Japan (Lee 14-15). This then influenced the relations between China and these other states. In Korea, leaders would make efforts to have good relations with the Chinese, because the Korean people respected China's culture. Leaders seen as aligned with China enjoyed higher popularity. Thus, recognition by China was a major predictor of legitimacy for Korean leaders. This helped lead to what's known as the "model tributary relationship," China and Korea's relationship during the Ming and Qing dynasties. The opposite is true of Japan, meaning alignment with China did not lead to popularity among Japanese leaders, which led to a theme of poor relations over time.
Furthermore, although relations were not always ideal between China and surrounding nations, Ming hegemony was characterized by a somewhat limited use of force in East Asia, which could be explained by the conflict-discouraging role of the Confucian-Mencian values ingrained in China's identity and promoted by China during this period. China's establishment of a social-ethical order based upon this identity prioritized peaceful interaction and the use of norm-creating power rather than coercive power in the region. And again, though China did desire to be recognized as superior, the Chinese felt a strong moral push from the idea of tianxia towards these international policies of inclusion rather than either domination or exclusion. A flaw with realism is that it doesn't explain less power-motivated policies such as these; thus, a lot of the value of this theory derives from explaining historical realities that realism overlooks. Another example showing this is that realism cannot explain the link between China's recognition and the legitimacy of political leaders in other cultures. Theories based on the social-cultural approach of constructivism are appealing in this way.
Though the Ming dynasty emphasized the more moral ideals of inclusiveness and ethical order, it did use military force to act on its interests, but these instances were motivated by Chinese ideas, like tianxia. For example, China's invasion of Vietnam that realists would use as an example of a power-based drive to expand was actually motivated by the idea of tianxia. The conquest was lucrative in the sense that China plundered a vast amount of goods and resources, but greed was not the motivation for the expedition. The Yongle Emperor, who ruled China at the time of this venture, states his true motive, saying: "I am for the welfare of all the people under heaven. How can I be war-mongering and covet the wealth of the land and people! But the rebellious criminals cannot go unpunished; the poor people cannot be unassisted" (Ming shi lu, Taizong 80, cited by Wang 142). First, as noted previously, the attack was meant to punish the Vietnamese for violating the rules of the tribute system. Second, the Emperor explicitly states the influence that tianxia, all under heaven, has on his worldview. This is proof that tianxia helped form Chinese foreign policy during this period. While it is possible that the Emperor is using moral discourse to mask his true motivation, the mere mention of tianxia proves the sway this concept had over the ideal Chinese conception of the world. Third, assuming at least some truthfulness by the Emperor, he explains the effect of the tianxia concept on his policy—namely, that it does not allow him to be "war-mongering" or greedy. This example exposes a flaw with the offensive realist perspective on this period: by assuming that all states have an unquenchable thirst for power regardless of the social or ideological identity of the state in question, realism fails to accurately characterize and analyze Ming China, as the Emperor Yongle's quote shows that the realist assumption does not apply to him. Therefore, by grossly mispredicting the mindset of Ming China's leader, structural realism does not effectively capture the international political mindset of Ming dynasty China or the Ming-era international system of East Asia.
The inaccuracy exposed by the Emperor Yongle's quote and the inability of realism to explain the link between China's recognition and the legitimacy of political leaders in other cultures, among other historical realities overlooked by realism (as detailed previously in this essay), bring to light a deeper flaw within realist methodology: by treating states as "black boxes" in that differences between states are seen as insignificant (Mearsheimer 78), realist analysis boils down to a relatively simple use of structural realist logic to explain what happens in a given case. Obviously, this logic is constant, so realist methodology appears to leave historical investigation out of the equation, which has become a problem in the case of the Emperor Yongle's quote. This history-blindness of realism develops into an even greater issue when one considers the origin and identity of structural realism.
A compounding flaw with the structural realist interpretation is that it's a modernistic, West-centered view. While there are non-Western realist scholars and the theory of realism arguably dates back to Thucydides and Machiavelli, the vast majority of structural realist scholarship focuses on and originates in the modern West. Since realism has been shown to largely leave history out of the picture, this foundational bias towards the West leaves realism open to the criticism that it generalizes Western patterns across time and space. James L. Hevia of the University of Chicago articulates a similar viewpoint in his article entitled "Tribute, Asymmetry, and Imperial Formations: Rethinking Relations of Power in East Asia." Hevia argues that using realism to theorize about historical China is essentially projecting theories of the present onto the past and therefore is not effective because it fails to appreciate nuances of the time period (Hevia 75-78). This means that realism simply imposes modern, Western logic upon historical cases without accounting for any historical intricacies, a defect which cripples realism as anything more than just a theory that can explain elements of the modern international system.
Constructivism, while also a theory of the present, does not fall victim to this flaw. By emphasizing the importance of social and cultural factors within the case in question, constructivism necessarily takes history into account, and the main idea upon which the constructivist argument articulated in this essay builds is tianxia, an idea rooted in ancient China. This makes constructivism adaptable across time periods, unlike realism, meaning it both provides the superior explanation of Ming China and is the more powerful paradigm overall.
Tianxia is useful as part of a constructivist theory applied to the tribute system in Ming China, but it's also useful in a modern context. The reason for this has to do with the fact that China today is exhibiting some parallels to Ming China. First, present-day China has sung the praises of this period of their history, having stated at the 2008 Beijing Olympics that the early Ming dynasty was "what China really was like" (Lee 19). Second, modern China is on the rise, as shown by their growing economic, military, and political power. Third, China seems to be using this power to build what appears to be a modern-day version of the tributary system throughout Asia.
To illustrate this, it is helpful to establish the current international system of Asia. Although China is expanding its regional presence, the United States is still dominant in the Asian region, as no other state can challenge its power, even projected across the Pacific. Some East Asian states, like Japan and South Korea, support this American dominance, whereas China seems to be building a coalition to challenge it, which is where the tribute system comes in. China has poured an extraordinary amount of money into smaller, developing Asian nations and transnational projects. The most important of these projects is what's officially known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) but also known, especially in the West, as the One Belt One Road (OBOR) project. This initiative involves international infrastructure development and national investment across Asia and parts of Europe and Africa and seems to have the goal of promoting international trade, harkening back to the days of the great Eurasian Silk Road and the Indian Ocean trading network. It combines land-based routes ("belts") and sea routes ("roads") to build a massive international network, centered on China, spanning over 68 countries with 65% of the global population and 40% of the world's GDP—not quite all under heaven, but impressively close.
Given the scope and historical context of the effort, many commentators see the initiative as a move by China to become a greater global power, and the parallels between it and the tribute system are obvious. In addition to creating a medium for trade, as the tribute system did, it involves vast investment in individual Asian nations. This is where the argument theorizing a Chinese attempt to climb the global ladder becomes especially powerful. The infrastructure development alone helps Central Asian and Middle Eastern nations, yet China goes even further to invest heavily in domestic sectors such as power grid and real estate development and education in these nations. Notably, China achieves a lot of this through low-interest loans which must be paid back eventually. As the bigger picture comes into focus, it seems plausible that China is increasing the dependence of Asian nations upon itself and is almost bribing these nations to support it in future international matters. In other words, China is building a vast sphere of influence, as it did during the Ming dynasty in the 14th and 15th centuries.
Though China's strategy has immense implications for the world's future, it's worth noting that it's not as if the modern world has never seen a strategy like the BRI. America has done something similar with its status as the world's only great power. While there hasn't been an American infrastructure or investment initiative with quite the scope of the BRI, America has done much to ensure the spread of Western, especially American, values around the globe: human rights, the rule of law, and economic liberalization have all become international norms thanks to the U.S. The idea of influencing the whole world, while deeply rooted in Chinese culture through the concept of tianxia, is not limited to China.
In sum, the Ming dynasty, a period of Chinese regional hegemony, was characterized by the existence of the tribute system as the form of international order during the period. This system was based upon relationships between China and less powerful East Asian states where the smaller states sent tribute to the Ming emperor and accepted Chinese superiority in order to be included in the Chinese sphere. The international relations theories of realism and constructivism have competing explanations of this system. Realism, a theory based on states' need for power, predicts Chinese expansion and states that the system would not have been able to function without the backing of the dominant Chinese military. Yet this theory fails to explain critical historical nuances of the situation, such as the link between Chinese recognition and political legitimacy in other cultures, like Korea and Japan, and fundamentally misinterprets the motives of the Yongle Emperor in his military expeditions. A constructivist theory based on social and cultural factors of the historical period is superior to this realist interpretation due to its focus on the historical factors that shaped the situation. One such factor, the idea of tianxia or "all under heaven," captures the Chinese worldview and from there explains the Ming motivation to build the tribute system and behave the way it did in the international system. Ultimately, constructivism builds from the ground up, starting with elements of history like tianxia, whereas realism comes from a modern context outside the situation and fails to appreciate the relevance of these historical nuances. These aspects are even useful today, as a historical context is valuable in the discussion of China's new Belt and Road Initiative. This project seems to be informed by tianxia, showing the modern relevance of the idea, and it parallels the tribute system in several ways, notably that it solidifies and expands China's sphere of influence. An endeavor of the size and scope of the BRI has serious ramifications for the current and future international order, as it may signify a Chinese attempt to sit atop the international pecking order once more by finally uniting all under heaven.