Find this publication at:
Oxford University Press
Published in Chinese Journal of International Politics, 2(4) 2009: 597-626.
A notable feature of the study of historical East Asian politics is its absence of rigorous systemic theories explaining relationships between imperial China and its neighbours and how they worked. Long pre-eminent in this field is the idea of the ‘tribute system’ and its central importance to organizing our thinking about historical East Asian politics. But what is the ‘tribute system’ as it is used by these various scholars? How useful are their tribute-system perspectives and models in shedding light on historical East Asian politics? In this article I critically evaluate the venerable literature on the ‘tribute system’ in an attempt to clarify the concepts and broaden the main themes of traditional China’s foreign relations and the larger political dynamics between China and its neighbours. I write from a political-science perspective, but engage extensively in predominantly historical scholarship on the subject.