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The nature and linkages of China's tributary system under the Ming and Qing dynasties

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The current landscape of Global History literature appears dominated by a rather asymmetrical dichotomy between Eurocentric analyses of the cumulative emergence of the West and global history which reduces the significance of this transition by blending it into very long-term perspectives. This ‘synecdoche syndrome’ – whereby a part and the whole are often equated and compared – belies the real nature of human history, which, up to the XIX century at least, was grounded in the presence of a plurality of coexisting world-systems. Each of these systems revolved around a multilayered cultural, economic and political relationship between centre(s) and peripheries. It is through both a synchronic and diachronic comparative study of such systems that the theory of structural systemic transformations may be refined. This essay contributes to this endeavour by offering an exploration of what can be considered as the architrave of the pre-modern East Asian world, namely the tributary system established by the Chinese Empire. The complex set of policies that regulated the implementation and supported that system represent the most consistent world-system in human history, spanning two millennia despite several systemic breakdowns. The achievement was rendered possible by a foreign policy which will be interpreted here as a peculiar form of ethnocentric centripetal hegemony. Especially during the Ming and Qing dynasties, China’s interaction with weaker political units of the East Asian world was geared toward a form of power which aimed at maintaining systemic stability as a function of the Empire’s survival. In this context tribute performed a threefold role in keeping internal and external threats under check: it enhanced the ideological legitimacy of the Emperor’s rule of ‘All Under Heaven’, it strengthened his military credibility by guaranteeing the flow of military resources, and it offered the state an economic channel thorough which to pursue appeasement policies. The versatility of the system permitted China to adjust its foreign relations within several, diverse theatres of action. Interpretations envisaging too monolithic dynastic cycles should therefore be tempered by an understanding of the Empire’s hegemonic posture as standing – at the same time, but in relation to different systemic units – at various points on a spectrum running from systemic stabilization to systemic breakdown. Utter failure only featured when the ideological underpinnings of the system were eventually undermined.

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