Modernity and tradition in China: The ‘tribute system’, and the absurdity of sinophobia

Sep 3, 2022
Selective focus of Chinese flag in world map. China country location and sovereignty concept.
Image: iStock

In many ways, the impact of modernity in China is balanced by traditional patterns. In foreign relations, the modern notion of sovereignty is central, but the traditional thinking behind what historians call “the tribute system” still explains some of what China does and its attitude to the world and its neighbourhood.

A crucial point of the Chinese tribute system was that China did not interfere in the internal affairs of tribute states, nor did it send troops there. Despite traditional Sinophobia in Australia and elsewhere, the idea of the “yellow peril” is total nonsense, but even more ahistorical when we add concepts from the tribute system.

In many ways the foreign policy of the contemporary world derives from the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), which ended the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). Its core concepts included that of national self-determination, meaning that each prince or ruler could decide what went on in his (or occasionally her) own territory. The related idea of national sovereignty and the gradual tightening of border demarcations flowed from the Treaty.

Meanwhile, China’s “tribute system” reached its height in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and first half of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). It then declined, being in effect more or less inoperative by the end of the nineteenth century. Its main idea was that the Chinese emperor received “tribute” from tributary states, which were mostly defined only loosely. China rarely sent troops to the tributary states and did not interfere in their internal affairs.

The system was hierarchical, not egalitarian. China held primacy in terms of status. Representatives carried out rituals to show their deference, among the most important being the ketou (“knock the head”), usually Romanised as kowtow, which involved kneeling down so that the head touched the ground. The tribute system involved trading in commodities and ideas, diplomacy and rituals, with political actors under this system being autonomous and mainly independent.

The trouble with the sovereignty system that flowed from the Treaty of Westphalia was that it was designed by Europeans for Europeans. Europeans did not necessarily feel they needed to apply it outside Europe. By the time of the Treaty, European powers were already spreading conquest to other continents. Spain, the Netherlands, France and Britain, later joined by the United States, were keen to conquer and colonise the world. They may have wanted to observe sovereignty in Europe but had no intention of allowing the same rights to other parts of the world, certainly not to their colonies.

China’s tribute system might have been able to coexist with the Westphalian model, but the reverse was not true. So when Britain and other countries started impinging on China, conflict was inevitable. The West assumed that they could force their religion and ideas on others, but not the other way around. The method whereby the West forced its model on China was military pressure and a series of “unequal treaties”, so-called because the West was in effect telling China what to do, it was imposing conditions and ideas on China, not negotiating over them. Naturally enough, the Chinese regarded this as extremely humiliating.

As is so often the case, the Europeans unfairly accused China of doing what they were doing themselves. A German painting of 1895, by Hermann Knackfuss (1848-1915), who worked on the basis of a draft by Kaiser Wilhelm II, shows the Archangel Michael pointing to a Buddha sitting in the east. He stands at the head of female warriors representing the main countries of Europe. The title of the picture is “Die gelbe Gefahr” (“The yellow peril”).

The irony of the date 1895 is astounding. Among a whole series of facts, we may note that in response to the 1900 Boxer Uprising only five years later, eight mostly European powers united for the only time in history (usually they were at each others’ throats) to invade and pillage China’s capital. It seems reasonable to ask “who was a peril to whom?” Having brought China to its knees, the powers imposed a humiliating protocol. Among other factors, this protocol demanded that China must pay a huge indemnity. What that means, in simple language, is that China had to pay for the privilege of being invaded!!! Is it any wonder that Chinese feel humiliated to this day?

Nowadays, the Chinese are very keen on the doctrine of state sovereignty. They demand state sovereignty for China and the right to determine what goes on within their own borders. They also recognise the same rights for other states. It is worth noting that this practice is in line not only with the Westphalian but also the tribute system.

In the same way, China only very rarely sends troops outside its borders for war and virtually never for conquest. In contemporary times, it has not initiated a war since 1979, when it imposed a very short punitive war against Vietnam. But let’s note that in that war, Chinese troops made no attempt to seize the Vietnamese capital or change its government.

This is in sharp contrast to American behaviour. Some scholars have developed the idea of the “American tributary system”. But it is very different from the essentially peaceful Chinese counterpart. It designates the system of alliances and partnerships (tributaries) through which the United States attempts to control the world. Unlike China, it sends its troops constantly to control the state ideologies of other countries and their system of government. It claims to be equal, but in fact it is based on domination and the maintenance of hegemony. (See also Alex Lo in Pearls & Irritations, 30 August 2022).

What has happened is that the system of sovereignty that followed the Treaty of Westphalia has turned into one of domination by the West. The essence of this system is that the West will hang on to its hegemony at all costs and, at the same time, blame China as the threat, when in fact the real threat is the other way around. I personally doubt very much the United States will maintain hegemony for long, but that is a topic for a different exploration.

An Australia Institute survey published on 30 August 2022 revealed the results of two polls of about 1000 adults each, one from Australia, the other from Taiwan. These show the fear of China still very real, and much more serious in Australia than Taiwan. Nearly one in ten Australians think that China will attack Australia “soon”, whereas in Taiwan only about one in twenty people think that China will attack soon.

What I get from this survey is that Sinophobia and the revived “yellow peril” idea is alive and well in Australia, and getting worse. Allan Behm, Director of the Australia Institute’s International & Security Affairs program, was dead right when he commented: “The results show popular opinion is detached from geopolitical and geostrategic reality. The results support the case for a reset in the Australia-China relationship and the manner in which we hold this important national conversation. Such a reset should be based on facts and the national interest rather than fear peddling.”

True, as an ethnic group the Chinese have spread over much of the world. But they have done so with peaceful purposes in mind. For example, they carry on commerce and enter the professions, usually making useful or even outstanding contributions. The traditional picture of hordes of “yellow” people bent on conquest of Australia or anywhere else is not supported by the historical record. In fact, Sinophobia and the idea of the “yellow peril” are not only racist and insulting, but utterly ridiculous.

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