Issue: 2016: Vol. 15, No. 2

China Rules the World?

Article Author(s)

John Garver

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John W. Garver is Professor Emeritus in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is a member of the editorial boards of the journals China Quarterly, Journal of Contemporary China, and the Journal of American-East Asian Relations, and a member of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. He is the author of eleven books and over one-hundred articles dealing with China’s foreign relations. His books include: China’s Quest: A History of the ... 
2016: Vol. 15, No. 2
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The photo depicts Prime Minister Manmohan Singh meeting President Hu Jintao in 2006, and is from TV footage from Times Now in India.  This photo is used in the cover art for the book Are We Deceiving Ourselves Again? Lessons the Chinese taught Pandit Nehru but which we refused to learn, by Arun Shourie (New Delhi: ASA Publications, Rupa & Co., 2008).

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A panel on the traditional East Asian tributary system at the annual convention of the Association of Asian Studies in Seattle in early April produced a fascinating discussion on the subject of whether China really ever ruled the world, or at least the East Asian portion of the world that China’s pre-modern emperors understood to be the world. This arcane debate touches on the self-identity of rising China. Many of China’s “citizen intellectuals” who now opine in print and online about China’s mission in the emerging world order argue that China must once again become the dominant power in the world, replacing the United States in that role and dispensing a morality superior to the conflict-prone individualistic materialism peddled by the United States. Since the notion that China in fact “ruled the world” for several millennia constitutes a key premise of this new Chinese nationalist hubris, it is important to ask: Did China ever really once dominate East Asia as the idea of the traditional pre-modern tributary system maintains? Close examination of that proposition suggests that the answer is “no,” it did not.

The idea of a “tributary system” ordering relations for two millennia between China’s successive imperial dynastic states (Han, Tang, Song, Ming, Qing, etc.) and other states in East Asian, Central Asian and Southeast Asian was developed by Western scholars after World War II. Harvard Professor John King Fairbank was a pioneer in formulating the tributary system model. The “East Asian tributary system” became the standard model of Western sinology, and several generations of scholars delved into aspects of this system. Papers presented at the Seattle conference continued this effort by investigating the operation of the tributary system during the Qing-French confrontation over Vietnam in 1884 and during the Qing-Meiji confrontation over Chosen (Korea) in 1894.

The tributary system supposedly worked like this:  China’s emperor, the Son of Heaven, claimed – and to a significant degree exercised universal authority over (similar to the Pope in Medieval Europe)  – all kings and potentates ruling civilized lands and lands aspiring to become civilized. Rulers of other lands recognized China’s superior ways and voluntarily entered into subordinate relations with China’s Son of Heaven in order to gain his sage advice and practical help. China’s imperial states typically had superior economic wealth and military power, but it was superior virtue – reflected in China’s prosperous and orderly society – that really distinguished China’s Son of Heaven from other powerful rulers. The ideal relation between China’s emperor and foreign rulers was analogous to the relation between a wise and benevolent father and a dutiful son: obedient submission in exchange for benevolent treatment.

The standard model laid out several key modalities of the tributary relation. China’s Son of Heaven invested foreign kings, conferring symbols of celestial authority that were handy in guarding against coups, usurpations, and rebellions. The Son of Heaven also supplied a calendar that accurately reflected the agricultural cycle and predicted celestial events (eclipses, comets, and such), powerfully demonstrating the Son of Heaven’s close relation with the cosmos. “Gifts” were also exchanged between the Son of Heaven and the foreign ruler. In theory the foreign ruler’s gifts were tribute to the Son of Heaven in recognition of the latter’s august supremacy. But since benevolence toward “obedient” subordinates was required of the Son of Heaven, Chinese gifts to the foreign ruler typically far outweighed in value the foreign gifts to China. This can be seen as a way of buying the foreign ruler’s “obedience,” but was, in any case, often less expensive than war and more effective than building great walls. In exchange for “obedience” to imperial Chinese “instructions,” the foreign potentate ruled their lands with little Chinese interference and with broad Chinese support. Given China’s wealth and power, foreign rulers often found these handy things to have, in dealing with rebellions or foreign invasion, for example.

Many of China’s contemporary “citizen intellectuals” commenting in the space for discourse created by the government’s declaration of China’s “peaceful rise” and “dream” of  “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” assert that China must work to establish a modern variant of the traditional tributary system, perhaps in Asia and perhaps over the whole world, replacing the United States as global hegemon. 1 China’s rapidly growing power and influence suggest, to these citizen intellectuals, that the time has come for China to restore its historically normal place – per the tributary system – as leading global power.

A number of considerations indicate that the notion of many centuries of Chinese domination of its known world via the tributary system is, in fact, a scholarly simplification that became a myth.

First of all, “barbarian” states were often more powerful that China’s imperial states.  This was especially the case with the horse-riding states that emerged to China’s north and whose highly mobile armies of mounted archers were often able to ride circles, quite literally, around Chinese armies. In dealing with these militarily potent “barbarian” states, China’s imperial rulers often resorted to extremely generous “gifts” to stave off worse fates. China would try to frame this payoff of blackmail within the framework of the tribute system. But if that failed, China would pay up while still writing the records dutifully reporting that the foreign potentate obediently kowtowed before China’s Son of Heaven. The tributary system in these cases became a framework not for China’s hegemony, but its weakness.

Major East Asian states refused to accept ritual subordination to China. Japan and Russia were the most important of these. Except for a brief period in the early 15th century, Japan’s imperial court adamantly refused to agree that China’s ruler was superior to Japan’s. 2 Japan’s ruler, like China’s, was a “celestial emperor” not a mere “king,” Japan’s royal court insisted.  Japan’s lese majeste made direct communication between China and Japan’s rulers virtually impossible. Relevant here, however, is the reality that Japan did not live under Chinese hegemony via the tributary system. It refused.

Regarding Russia, arrival of Russian adventurers in the 17th century to lands north of what is today China’s northeast led to decades of low-grade conflict between Qing China and Romanov Russian forces. That conflict ended in1659 when the two states concluded a treaty delineating their mutual boundary. Drafted by Jesuit priests in service to the Qing court and written in Latin, the Treaty of Nerchensk embodied European notions of equality of sovereign states – both of which are ideas antithetical to the tributary system’s hierarchy and universal rule. Most important, the treaty led to a de facto military alliance against the Mongol states still dominating much of Central Asia lying between the Qing and Romanov realms. While Chinese scribes and historians certainly did their best to fit Qing ties with Romanov Russia into the tributary mold, the reality was that an aggressive and powerful Russian state was China’s equal, and did not pay tribute to or kowtow before the Son of Heaven.

During the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty (1279-1368 CE) the modalities of the tribute system were adapted to aggressive imperialism. The great Mongol khans ruling – also, as the Sons of Heaven – typically began new conquests with demands for ritual subordination via the tributary system. If and when those solicitations were rejected, powerful Yuan armies and fleets followed.  This was certainly hegemony, although the additional descriptor “Chinese” may not apply.   More to our point, the tributary system of the Yuan dynasty did not involve voluntary submission out of recognition of superior civilization. Nor did it involve loose and indirect Chinese rule; Mongol rule was heavy and harsh.

The notion of voluntary subordination to China’s Son of Heaven out of recognition of China’s superior civilization – a notion popular with many contemporary Chinese nationalists – does not comport well with the more messy realities of Asia’s history.  Even countries like Korea and Vietnam that drew deeply on China’s civilization had complex feelings about their tributary relation with China. The relationship had many advantages, including avoidance of wars with China for “disobedience” to its wishes. But a close relation with China also required periodic defense against bouts of Chinese aggressiveness. Vietnam, especially, survived as an independent state in China’s civilizational orbit by developing a political culture centered on the idea that they were NOT Chinese and would resist Chinese attempts to make them so.

Then there were the seaborne European maritime powers. The arrival of Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and English merchant ships in the western Pacific in the 16th and 17th centuries plugged East Asia into an emerging global economy. With new designs, European ships could sail the wild Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, delivering much sought-after East Asian goods to European markets. These merchant powers chaffed at the restrictions of the tributary system which Ming and Qing governments imposed on this trade. Ultimately, in the 19th century, those Western grievances would lead to wars toppling the tribute system in favor of free trade.   But even while the Ming and Qing states were healthy, Chinese control over this dynamic East Asian maritime trade began and ended at water’s edge. China’s imperial states were, with a very few exceptions, continental land powers. 3 Chinese naval fleets generally operated in coastal waters. Ming and Qing China simply did not exercise hegemony over the seas of the Western Pacific, let alone the Oceanic highways beyond. Rather, those maritime lines of communication were dominated by powers other than China.

On close examination the standard model of the East Asian tributary system depicting long centuries of Chinese dominance is a crude simplification of a far more complex reality. It may work fairly well in understanding China’s ties with a small set of countries (Korea, Vietnam, and Siam), but set in a larger, fuller context must be seen as one piece of a more diverse, Rube Goldberg-like “system.”

It may well be that all academic theories are simplifications of sorts. But when some Chinese nationalists today envision China restoring the long-lost golden age of a China-centric hierarchical state order in Asia or the world, with China delivering greater security, prosperity, and order than the United States, they are turning an academic simplification into a myth. It would be unfortunate if China’s rise in the 21st century were guided by a myth about its pre-20th century role in East Asia.

  1. Official sources carefully eschew such bold ideas. The idea that ordinary Chinese citizens seize upon policies laid out by the Party center to comment in print and in cyberspace and within a fairly wide range on centrally approved policies is one of the key ideas scholars of contemporary China use to understand political discourse in contemporary China.
  2. The early 15th century exception came during a period of Chinese navalism, exemplified by Admiral Cheng He’s bold expeditions into the Indian Ocean. Cheng He’s naval expeditions came only about 125 years after the nearly successful Mongol invasion of Japan defeated only by the “divine wind” that shattered the Mongol invasion fleet.
  3. The notable exceptions were the Yuan and the early Ming periods.