The usual picture I have of tribute to the Chinese emperor, is that tributaries were dispatched to present their tribute to the court, that is in China.

But it seems there were exceptions to this rule, at least during Zheng He’s voyages. Wikipedia states:

Over the next three decades he [Zheng He] conducted seven of these voyages on behalf of the emperor, trading and collecting tribute in the eastern Pacific and Indian Oceans.

Was collecting tribute instead of receiving it in China something unusual, or did it simply escape my attention? Or is it simply a short form of saying “he transported dignitaries to China, so as to allow them to pay tribute”?

The article explains that the voyages violated the first Ming emperors instructions, but I think that might only be because of their high cost. Information on this last point should be in “Huangming zuxun and Zheng He's Voyages to the Western Oceans”, which is not available through our university library.

  • 1
    I suppose it depends on what you mean by tribute. Your original understanding is strictly correct: the "tribute" of the 朝貢 system, by definition, has to be delivered to the Emperor in China. In Zheng He's voyages, he is recorded to have returned with envoys who rendered the tributes officially. Of course, it also seems eminently likely that the locals would've given him and his fleets gifts on the spot during his voyages, which could be appropriately termed tribute in English too.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Oct 12, 2019 at 21:13
  • @Semaphore thank you! I mean exactly the 朝貢 „tribute“.
    – Ludi
    Commented Oct 12, 2019 at 21:15
  • 1
    Okay, I see what you're asking now. I am certain it is highly uncommon, even if you count cases where an envoy returns with a Chinese expedition (as opposed to giving the tribute to the expedition for transport), so I suggest simply asking for more examples. I have edited the title accordingly, but feel free to revert if it doesn't fit your needs.
    – Semaphore
    Commented Oct 12, 2019 at 21:43
  • @Ludi - Are you still looking for an answer here? Am also referring to your comments in Kentaro’s answer. In essence, China have not always been recipient of tributes. They paid them as well, and not just to Xiongnu but also to Jin during 11-12th century (Song dynasty) and others. Not sure if this info fits what you’re looking for.
    – J Asia
    Commented Oct 20, 2020 at 2:24
  • @JAsia Originally, I was asking about whether Zheng He was unique in that he collected tribute, instead of the Emperor receiving it. Tribute PAYED by the Chinese is also very interesting. I know it existed, but don’t know more and it would be worthwhile to find out, whether it had ritual characteristics that differentiated it from the tribute to the Emperor. Perhaps you open a question and answer it?
    – Ludi
    Commented Oct 20, 2020 at 8:21

1 Answer 1


Good question. So,

What is 朝貢("Tributary" system)?

Firstly you have to understand that (from the Wiki)

The "tribute system" as a term is strictly speaking, a Western invention. There was no equivalent term in the Chinese lexicon to describe what would be considered the "tribute system" today, nor was it envisioned as an institution or system. John King Fairbank created the "tribute system" theory in postwar United States to describe "a set of ideas and practices developed and perpetuated by the rulers of China over many centuries."

"So-called" "Tributary system of China" was, actually the trade mission that benefited both China and the country who made a "tribute". As the same Wiki says,

The tribute system also functioned as international trade with China and could be profitable to tributary members, as was the case with Korea. Thus, there was an economic incentive to be a member of the tributary system.[31]

So your question,

The usual picture I have of tribute to the Chinese emperor, is that tributaries were dispatched to present their tribute to the court, that is in China.

would be, I am sorry, off the point, since there is even a Wiki list of countries that received the "re-tributers" (my own word).

According to the list, there was a country that received the "re-tributers", from the Wiki,

Xiongnu in 200 BCE-138 BCE: the Xiongnu repelled the invading army of the Western Han Dynasty, advanced into the territory of China, and besieged its capital. The Chinese Emperor recognized the Great Wall as the border of the two states and was obliged to pay annual tribute (silk, liquor, rice) to the Xiongnu.1

So it dates back to long before Tang dynasty, and Japan was under the Tributary system of China for long time, through at least as far as I know from the beginning of the 7th century to the late 18th century, as the Wiki says,

Membership in the tributary system was a prerequisite for any economic exchange with China; in exiting the system, Japan relinquished its trade relationship with China.[15] Under the rule of the Wanli Emperor, Ming China quickly interpreted the Japanese invasions of Korea (1592–1598) as a challenge and threat to the Imperial Chinese tributary system. [16]

So the so-called "Tributary system" was based on the economic exchange, based on the power of China, which benefited both countries under the system.

I think even the Wiki information is very weak (probably the language barrier is too high).

  • Many good points! So the re-tribute should be no problem. At least according to our professor, the Chinese emperor always repaid the tribute with equally precious tribute. But (according to her) the transmission of the tribute was accompanied by kotau in front of the emperor. Now, the Xiongnu point you’ve raised is important. The question is, should we even include it in the same framework? I assume it involved no kotau. Wikipedia writes:... continued
    – Ludi
    Commented Oct 13, 2019 at 8:18
  • continuing... „ Kingdoms along China's North-Western Frontier often struggled to enter the Imperial tributary system. Beijing often rejected tribute missions, and then lavished gifts and benefits to help soothe the drawn-out and complex conflicts“.“ Hence, it appears, we should not frame every gift as part of the tributary system.
    – Ludi
    Commented Oct 13, 2019 at 8:21
  • @Ludi Actually, this is not a good answer. I would like to update using English wiki, but the quality of the English is not so good so that it would be hard. By the way, what is Kotau?
    – user12387
    Commented Oct 13, 2019 at 17:24
  • You are too modest! Kotau is one of the many words Westerners used for what Chinese call 磕頭 or 叩頭。Another western spelling is kowtow.
    – Ludi
    Commented Oct 14, 2019 at 19:23

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.