Port Cities and Trading Networks in China, Japan and Southeast Asia, 13th–21st Century
Chapter 6: Tributary Trade and Unofficial Trade
TRIBUTARY TRADE The tributary trade system governed Chinese foreign relations from the 7th to the 19th century, that is from the Tang to the Qing Dynasties. The aim was supposedly to set up a hierarchical order that corresponded to the eminently Confucian ‘reign of virtue’. Its principle was based on the distinction between the Middle Empire and the Barbarian states. This distinction did not, however, necessarily engender an international order that was entirely subordinate to China. The masters of Korea, Japan and Vietnam were also qualified as sovereigns, as opposed to less powerful neighbours, and were invested as loyal tributary supporters. All official trade was formally of a tributary order, for any foreign country whose subjects wished to trade with China had to pay a tribute. Generally, trade missions or accredited traders officially accompanied the delegation. They were temporarily authorised to conclude commercial transactions in different parts of the capital. Other merchants could receive licences to do the same in the ports or at different border posts. Indian, Muslim and European traders, as well as overseas Chinese traders, were part of this system. This contributed to increased trade relations secured through tributary links between maritime zones, which were the theatre of large-scale migrations. Tributary trade was, in short, tolerated by private trade. Its catchment area, its purpose, and the volume of its flows often depended on political inclinations, rather than on economic considerations. This system clearly established Chinese suzerainty by imposing a twosided series of conditions. On the one hand,...
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