Long Live the Tributary System! The Future of Studying East Asian Foreign Relations
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Long Live the Tributary System!
The Future of Studying East Asian Foreign Relations

international relations, Westphalian system, Sinocentric world order 中華世界秩序, IR turn in history, David Kang, East Asia before the West, China’s rise, hegemony, Sino-speak, imperialism

Almost a half century has passed since the publication of John King Fairbank’s edited volume, The Chinese World Order.1 Since then, the tributary system has come to serve as something of a synecdoche for pre-1900 East Asian international relations. Briefly, the “institutional and textual complex” known as the tributary system describes the practices, norms, and structures of East Asian foreign relations.2 As an aspirational “Chinese world order,” this hierarchical system cohered around the premise that China represented the apical center of civilization. The tributary system became a professional and canonical object of enquiry through Fairbank’s work during the mid-twentieth century, but it has older origins.3 The tributary [End Page 1] system as we know it was born in the moment of its imperial destruction—in the global harmonization of Westphalian norms, when “modern” diplomatic practices and ideas of sovereignty replaced preexisting East Asian regimes of international relations.4 In terms of its contemporary scholarly relevance, the tributary system’s capacity to inspire research outside of History and Area Studies no doubt makes it one of the field’s most famous exports. Yet, the very community of specialists that has given birth to it has also consistently exhibited an uneasy relationship with the tributary system. An object of critique from the moment of inception, a public and dissatisfied fine-tuning has characterized most of its existence; even its most well-known iteration, such as Fairbank’s Chinese World Order, is framed as a corrective response to enduring and persistent problems in tributary system literature.5

A flawed yet powerfully resonant paradigm, acceptance of the tributary system’s existence has been given most grudgingly. As recently as 2009, James Hevia remarked (in another introduction to a special issue) that their project had been motivated by John Wills Jr.’s observation that the “‘tribute system’ was a wreck” and one could wonder “if there was anything to be salvaged from it.”6 Optimistically and somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I would like to start this HJAS special issue by “officially” declaring that the tributary system is not dead. Long live the tributary system! In fact, recent signs of life suggest a flourishing return far beyond the mere whispers of new perennial shoots. But readers need not fear, this special issue offers insights for both those [End Page 2] who are dismayed as well as those who are thrilled by the tributary system’s putative resurrection.

But which tributary system’s health am I cheekily exalting in this essay? This question is tricky because the tributary system possesses multiple, contested, and overlapping dimensions. Some scholars posit the tributary system as (a) a historical, lived experience, (b) a research category of analysis, (c) an explanatory theory that organizes historical phenomena, and sometimes (d) a theoretical model that may have predictive applications. Hence, critical discourse first requires a determination of which tributary system is in play, as a scholar’s estimation of its historical accuracy and viability may not match that same scholar’s assessment of its power as an International Relations (IR) model. Some tributary systems never died and were never in danger of being ignominiously retired as an outdated topic.7 Disambiguating the congeries of tributary systems not only facilitates clear scholarly communication it also ensures efficacious critique that can travel across disciplinary spaces to audiences with variable concerns.

The stakes in reappraising early modern East Asian international relations are not the same today as they were when John Wills led the first wave of revisionist scholarship on the Sinocentric world order. The past decade has witnessed a significant and transformative resurgence of interest in premodern foreign relations and the tributary system. This new “IR turn” has been driven primarily by scholars outside of History and early modern Area Studies.8 The IR turn’s interpretive scope has accommodated an enormous range of questions, including recent scholarship on the “American tributary system” as well as a...