China and the Eighteenth Century World
From the Tributary System to Global Trade
Qing Dynasty China (Yellow) with Tributary States (Green)
Map of the Qing Empire
Foreign Relations
The Tributary System
The Qing state had no Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Relations with non-Chinese peoples were instead conducted by a variety of bureaus and agencies that, in different ways, implied or stated the cultural inferiority and geographical marginality of foreigners, while also defending the state against them. (SMC, 115)
Living quarters for those on tributary missions to Beijing
Interaction with non-Chinese peoples in Korea and on the southern crescent of China’s coastal land frontiers, in countries such as Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Ryukyu Islands, was supervised by officials in the Ministry of Rituals. Some of these countries, such as Korea, Vietnam, and the Ryukus — and formerly Japan — shared many of the basic values of Chinese culture, such as a Chinese-style calendrical system, some form of script adapted from Chinese models, similar types of food and dress, the practice of Confucianism and Buddhism, and the outlines of Chinese bureaucratic organization. Others, such as Burma and Thailand, had developed in their own ways, often under the influence of Indian culture and religion, and were more distant in cultural terms. By freighting its international relations with the weight of custom and symbol prescribed by this ministry, China tried to control these states without excessive military expenditures.
People from various nations on tributary missions in Beijing
Emissaries from these countries were expected to make a formal acknowledgment of China’s cultural and political prestige by employing a language of humility in diplomatic documents and by making the ritual prostrations (kowtow) before the Chinese emperor in royal audiences. In return these countries were allowed to conduct a controlled volume of trade with China, mainly through special delegations, termed “tribute missions” by the Chinese, which the countries were permitted to send on a fixed annual schedule to Peking. After ritual gifts had been offered to the emperor, both the diplomatic personnel and the merchants accompanying these embassies to Peking were allowed to trade, although all of them had to live in hostels managed by the Ministry of Rituals and had to leave China with their goods at the end of each stipulated visit. (SMC, 116)
Man performing the kowtow (full prostration)
The Ming and Qing “established specific regulations per contact regarding the frequency of tribute missions and the number of people who could attend each mission.” For example, sixteenth-century Choson Korea was allowed annual missions and during the Choson dynasty sent an average of three to seven tribute missions to China every year. Vietnam was initially allowed annual missions in the fifteenth century, which eventually became one every three years; Japan was allowed one mission every ten years. ... In practice, however, this was flexible, and some states managed to avoid or modify the number of missions they were allowed to send. ....
Japanese (and other nations) offering tribute to China
During the one and a half centuries that Ashikaga Japan was a formal tributary of the Ming, the Shogun sent a total of 20 embassies with accompanying personnel numbering in the hundreds. The Shogunal representatives were staffed by an official ambassador of the Shogun, and included other court officials as well as the occasional domain representative. The missions engaged in tally trade, returned captured pirates, and exchanged news about each country. Yet the Japanese had a visceral resistance to the subordinating rituals required by the formal tributary conditions that China laid down, and internal criticism along those lines forced the Ashikaga shoguns to discontinue tribute relations after 150 years. (East Asia Before the West, 59-61)
Modified Flag of Imperial Japan

What were the pros and cons of the "Tributary System"?

Qing dynasty icon with sun beginning to set
British East India Company Logo
The British East India Company, founded in 1600 and granted a monopoly of East Indian trade by the British government, was now rising rapidly from a small operation to a position of global significance as it attracted sizable new investments and started to conquer territories in the subcontinent of India. During the Qianlong reign, its directors began to chafe at Qing restrictions, as did the British government itself. ...
Map showing British East India Territory in India
Map of European Trade Routes, c. 1750
Map of Guangdong (Canton) province Guangzhou (Canton) city
Old map of Guangzhou (Canton city) showing the location of the original "factories"
The Thirteen Factories of Canton (Guangzhou)
Map of the Thirteen Factories in Canton
British Trader in Canton, 1858
Canton Hong Merchant Howqua, c. 1830
All European trade was restricted to Canton [a.k.a. Guangzhou] after 1760, and foreigners were forbidden residence there except during the trading season, which ran each year from October to March. The Europeans now had to deal exclusively with the licensed Chinese Hong merchants — of whom there were normally around ten — despite the indulgence of many in sharp business practices and the considerable number who went bankrupt by overextending their resources. Westerners could communicate their grievances or petitions only to these Hong merchants, who in turn forwarded any written materials to the Hoppo, the court-appointed trade official. ... The Hoppo, if he chose, might then communicate with the provincial governor or with Peking; or he might, on a myriad grounds of procedure or impropriety, refuse to forward the documents at all.
Crate of Tea
Canton Tea Factory
"Tea Phrensy" 1785
British "Tea"
Icon of the British East India Company
The production of silk
Canton Silk Factory
Icon of the British East India Company
"Dragon" kiln where the porcelain was made

Canton Porcelain Factory
Porcelain Punch Bowl, 1778
It was a complex and exasperating system, far from the kind of diplomatic and commercial equality among nations that Western powers were beginning to take for granted. Tensions on both sides increased after the 1770s as British traders in particular, worried by the trade deficits that forced them to offer hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth of silver bullion each year in exchange for Chinese silks, porcelains, and teas, began to ship opium grown in India to southern Chinese ports and to exchange it there for Chinese manufactures and produce. The stakes became higher each year as the passion for tea drinking grew in both Britain and America: by 1800, the East India Company was buying over 23 million pounds of China tea at a cost of 3.6 million [or approximately $320 million in contemporary currency]. (SMC, 118-120)
Trade Imbalance
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Lord Macartney Arriving in Tianjin in 1793
Lord Macartney as he appeared before QianlongIt was near the end of Qianlong’s reign that the British East India Company, acting in agreement with King George II’s government, decided to try to rectify the situation in a direction they believed was consonant with the new dignity of Britain as a world power. They selected as their emissary to China Lord George Macartney, a politically well-connected peer from Northern Ireland who had had diplomatic experience at the court of Russia’s Catherine the Great. Macartney had also gained practical experience as governor of Grenada in the Caribbean and administrator of the region of Madras in eastern India. The Brisith embassy traveled in a man-of-war of sixty-six guns, with two support vessels, each loaded with expensive gifts designed to show the finest aspects of British manufacturing technology. Macartney was accompanied by a retinue of almost 100, including scientists, artists, guards, valets, and Chinese language teachers from the Catholic college in Naples.
       Leaving London in September 1792, Macartney’s ships touched briefly at Canton in June 1793, but were allowed to proceed directly to Tianjin and land there since they claimed to be saluting Qianlong on his eightieth birthday. Once ashore, the embassy was escorted to Peking with much pomp but with the official status of “tribute emissaries.” Macartney managed to persist in his refusal to prostrate himself full-length on the ground before the emperor in the ritual kowtow, agreeing instead to kneel on one knee and make a series of bows. This compromise satisfied the Qing, and Macartney was courteously received in September 1793 by Heshen and by the emperor at the northern summer palace of Rehe (Jehol).
(SMC, 120)
Lord Macartney kneeling before Qianlong
Macartney’s Audience
The order and regularity in serving and removing the dinner was wonderfully exact, and every function of the ceremony performed with such silence and solemnity as in some measure to resemble the celebration of a religious mystery. ... The materials and distribution of the furniture within at once displayed grandeur and elegance. The tapestry, the curtains, the carpets, the lanterns, the fringes, the tassels were disposed with such harmony, the colours so artfully varied, and the light and shades so judiciously managed, that the whole assemblage filled the eye with delight, and diffused over the mind a pleasing serenity and repose undisturbed by glitter or affected embellishments. The commanding feature of the ceremony was the calm dignity, that sober pomp of Asiatic greatness, which European refinements have not yet attained. ... Thus, then, have I seen ‘King Solomon in all his glory’.  I use this expression, as the scene recalled perfectly to my memory a puppet show of that name which I recollect to have seen in my childhood, and which made so strong an impression on my mind that I then thought it a true representation of the highest pitch of human greatness and felicity.” (DC, 84)
Portrait of King George III

Portrait of Qianlong in his old age
Edict to King George III
September, 1793
You, O King from afar, have yearned after the blessings of our civilization, and in your eagerness to come into touch with our converting influence have sent an Embassy across the sea bearing a memorial. I have already taken note of your respectful spirit of submission, have treated your mission with extreme favour and loaded it with gifts, besides issuing a mandate to you, O King, and honouring you with the bestowal of valuable presents. Thus has my indulgence been manifested. ...
  1. Your Ambassador requests facilities for ships of your nation to call at Ningpo, Chusan, Tientsin, and other places for purposes of trade. ... For the future, as in the past, I decree that your request is refused and that you shall be limited to Macao.
  2. The request that your merchants may establish a repository in the capital of my Empire for the storing and sale of your produce, in accordance with the precedent granted to Russia, is even more impracticable than the last. ... This request is also refused.
  3. Your request for a small island near Chusan, where your merchants may reside and goods be warehoused ... is a flagrant violation of the usage of my Empire and cannot possibly be entertained.
  4. [With regard to your request] for a small site in the vicinity of Canton city, where your barbarian merchants may lodge or, alternatively, that there be no longer any restrictions over their movements at Macao ... it is best that the regulations now in force should continue unchanged.
  5. Regarding your request for remission or reduction of duties on merchandise discharged by your British barbarian merchants at Macao and distributed throughout the interior, there is a regular tariff in force for barbarian merchants goods, which applies equally to all European nations. ...
  6. As to your request that your ships shall pay the duties leviable by tariff, there are regular rules in force at the Canton Custom house respecting the amounts payable, and since I have refused your request to be allowed to trade at other ports, this duty will naturally continue to be paid at Canton as heretofore.
  7. Regarding your nation’s worship of the Lord of Heaven ... sage Emperors and wise rulers have bestowed on China a moral system and inculcated a code, which from time immemorial has been religiously observed by the myriads of my subjects. ... The distinction between Chinese and barbarian is most strict, and your Ambassador’s request that barbarians shall be given full liberty to disseminate their religion is utterly unreasonable.
It may be, O King, that the the above proposals have been wantonly made by your Ambassador on his own responsibility or peradventure you yourself are ignorant of our dynastic regulations and had no intention of transgressing them when you expressed these wild ideas and hopes. I have ever shown the greatest condescension to the tribute missions of all States which sincerely yearn after the blessings of civilization, so as to manifest my kindly indulgence. I have even gone out of my way to grant any requests which were in any way consistent with Chinese usage. Above all, upon you, who live in a remote and inaccessible region, far across the spaces of ocean, but who have shown your submissive loyalty by sending this tribute mission, I have heaped benefits far in excess of those accorded to other nations. But the demands presented by your Embassy are not only a contravention of dynastic tradition, but would be utterly unproductive of good result to yourself, besides being quite impracticable. ... Tremblingly obey and show no negligence! A special mandate! (DC, 90-3)
Caricature of Lord Macartney's meeting with Qianlong, 1793
Swaying the wide world, I have but one aim in view, namely, to maintain a perfect governance and to fulfill the duties of the State; strange and costly objects do not interest me. If I have commanded that the tribute offerings sent by you, O King, are to be accepted, this was solely in consideration for the spirit which prompted you to dispatch them from afar. Our dynasty’s majestic virtue has penetrated unto every country under Heaven, and Kings of nations have offered their costly tribute by land and sea. As your Ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures. (DC, 89)
The entire venture had cost the East India Company a small fortune, for which the company had received no return. (SMC, 123)
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