China’s ancient tributary system not only served the vanity of the dynasty but had multiple political implications, closely tied to the dynasty’s national security. The Song dynasty’s [960-1279] notion of security followed an overall policy of guarding the dynasty against external threats, surrounding barbarian nations, and maintaining domestic order. The stability and eventual collapse of the tributary system were closely tied to the domestic security of the Song dynasty and to the security of all the countries that participated in the system. The system constituted a dynamic and interactive security community.
Throughout the history of East Asia, various polities in modern-day Korea, Japan, and Vietnam accepted investitures bestowed by the Chinese royal court. Many of these states also established their own vassal structures based on this tributary system. In light of this, it would be more accurate to describe the traditional international order of East Asia as a system of investitures and tributes, an “investiture-tribute system.” The significance of this system is the royal court being revered by its tributaries, which acknowledge it as the superior power. Looking at the vassal relationship between the Ming [1368-1644] and Qing [1644-1911] courts and the states of Joseon 朝鮮, Ryukyu 琉球, and Vietnam under various names, it is clear that the tributary system was a basic mechanism that facilitated bilateral trade, cultural exchange, border control, and judicial cooperation. Moreover, when vassal states encountered threats to their national security, the Chinese government assisted them with diplomatic and military resources befitting its position as the imperial court. Yet, although the tributary system enabled a relationship in which the royal court enjoyed a position of superiority and its vassal states an inferior one, none of the vassal states formed an alliance that revolved around the Chinese empire. Hence, in the near-modern period, the system struggled to contend with both the great world powers that made use of the treaty system and the expansion of Japan in East Asia.
This article is not concerned with the history of aesthetics but, rather, is an exercise in intellectual history. “Illustrations of Tributary States” [Zhigong tu 職貢圖] as a type of art reveals a Chinese tradition of artistic representations of foreign emissaries paying tribute at the imperial court. This tradition is usually seen as going back to the “Illustrations of Tributary States,” painted by Emperor Yuan in the Liang dynasty 梁元帝 [r. 552-554] in the first half of the sixth century. This series of paintings not only had a lasting influence on aesthetic history but also gave rise to a highly distinctive intellectual tradition in the development of Chinese thought: images of foreign emissaries were used to convey the Celestial Empire’s sense of pride and self-confidence, with representations of strange customs from foreign countries serving as a foil for the image of China as a radiant universal empire at the center of the world. The tradition of “Illustrations of Tributary States” was still very much alive during the time of the Song dynasty [960-1279], when China had to compete with equally powerful neighboring states, the empire’s territory had been significantly diminished, and the Chinese population had become ethnically more homogeneous. In this article, the “Illustrations of the Tributary States of the Myriad Regions” [Wanfang zhigong tu 萬方職貢圖] attributed to Li Gonglin 李公麟 [ca. 1049-1106] and created during the period between the Xining 熙寧 [1068-1077] and Yuanfeng 元豐 [1078-1085] reigns of the Shenzong emperor 神宗 [r. 1067-1085] of the Song dynasty, is used as a case study for investigating the actual tributary relations between the Northern Song [960-1127] state and its neighboring countries. In doing so, I demonstrate that while certain parts of the “Illustrations of the Tributary States of the Myriad Regions” are historically accurate, a considerable portion of the content is the combined product of historical remembrance and the imagination of empire. In the international environment of the Song empire, China was captivated by the dream of being a universal empire envied by its “barbarian” neighbors. Particularly worth emphasizing is the fact that the artistic tradition of painting “Illustrations of Tributary States” as well as the accompanying idea of China as a universal empire continued well into the Qing [1644-1911] period, reflecting the historical longevity and lasting influence of the traditional conception of the relationship between China and the world.