The Chinese Tributary System: The Guide to Globalization
The Chinese Tributary System was by far in a way China's biggest asset for managing foreign, political relationships. China was able to leverage themselves against other empires in a non-violent way by asking for and paying out precious goods all with the idea of establishing a mutual respect. For this reason, I have chosen a Japanese screen named "Gift Bearers at the Chinese Court." Painted by Kano Eitoku sometime between 1543 and 1590, it shows a number of tributes offering gifts at the Chinese Court. Perhaps this screen was given to a Chinese emperor in the form of tribute: Why else would a Japanese painter paint a Chinese court? There are a number of symbols present in this painting which all allude to the complexity of the Chinese Tributary System. The Tributary System demonstrates cross-culturalization via the spread of precious goods and artwork, the spread of Chinese politics, religion, and ideals, and the spread of military technology and resources; the Tributary System proved to be a tremendous advantage to China and their tributes.
When observing this painting, your eye does not first go to background, but in the far left background appears a ship with what I assume are either traders or explorers. They could be Portuguese or other European traders, perhaps even merchants from Southeast Asia or India. If the painter had painted sails on the ship, we would have a better clue as to where the ship came from; however, based on the prominent stern on the back of the boat, I will assume that it is a Chinese boat coming into port. The most successful and well-known Chinese explorer was Zheng He. Although he died before this screen was completed, his explorations helped shape the Tributary System in China: "Despite their commercial overtones, Zheng He's voyages were mere extensions of the Ming Empire's Tributary System, a system not based on profit." 4 This statement embodies the Chinese Tributary System well in so far as the Chinese did not set up the Tributary System as a way to make money, but as a way to initiate political connections with other empires via the exchange of goods not for profit or money; it established cross-cultural relationships. Zheng He and the Yongle Emperor soon realized that trade and tribute were synonymous and invited ambassadors from foreign countries to board his ships.6 This accomplished two things: it brought new political influence to China and demonstrated Chinese wealth and prestige (these ships often carried gold, silver, silk, and other valuables). 6 Another proof that Zheng He's conquests were tributary missions was that he sometimes brought back goods that demonstrated another culture but had no real value. For example, Zheng He brought back a giraffe to the Yongle Emperor for the purpose of demonstrating that his ships were capable of transporting such a large animal, but mainly for the purpose of sharing African culture with the Chinese people. 6 This encompasses the Tributary System well because it is validating China’s rich cultural power. Although it is not documented and based on the essence of the Tributary System, in return for that giraffe, it can be assumed that the Yongle Emperor bestowed a very generous gift upon the African people.
The Tributary System, however, involved much more than the spread of fine goods and gifts. The bridge in the foreground shows men carrying items in their arms and into the Chinese courtyard. The bridge in this painting is very symbolic. Empires were never forced to abide by the Tributary System, but many wanted to reap the benefits associated with it: "It wasn't exploitation: the expense of entertaining missions in Beijing was not inconsiderable, and the value of goods bestowed by the Emperor on the visit envoys was supposed to be higher than that of the gifts he received.” 1 Tributes, therefore, had to adopt the Confucian...
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