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Ambassadors from the Island of Immortals

China-Japan Relations in the Han-Tang Period

Zhenping Wang

Publication Year: 2005

Using recent archaeological findings and little-known archival material, Wang Zhenping introduces readers to the world of ancient Japan as it was evolving toward a centralized state. Competing Japanese tribal leaders engaged in "ambassador diplomacy" and actively sought Chinese support and recognition to strengthen their positions at home and to exert military influence on southern Korea. They requested, among other things, the bestowal of Chinese insignia: official titles, gold seals, and bronze mirrors. Successive Chinese courts used the bestowal (or denial) of the insignia to conduct geopolitics in East Asia. Wang explains in detail the rigorous criteria of the Chinese and Japanese courts in the selection of diplomats and how the two prepared for missions abroad. He journeys with a party of Japanese diplomats from their tearful farewell party to hardship on the high seas to their arrival amidst the splendors of Yangzhou and Changan and the Sui-Tang court. The depiction of these colorful events is combined with a sophisticated analysis of premodern diplomacy using the key concept of mutual self-interest and a discussion of two major modes of diplomatic communication: court reception and the exchange of state letters. Wang reveals how the parties involved conveyed diplomatic messages by making, accepting, or rejecting court ceremonial arrangements. Challenging the traditional view of China’s tributary system, he argues that it was not a unilateral tool of hegemony but rather a game of interest and power in which multiple partners modified the rules depending on changing historical circumstances.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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pp. vii

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Series Editor’s Preface

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pp. ix-x

About twenty years ago, a European scholar of the Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864), which ravaged large parts of China and caused the deaths of many millions, mentioned to me that no sooner was the University of Washington project aimed at translating most of the extant Taiping documents completed than research on the rebellion dried up...

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pp. xi-xiii

I also wish to extend my special thanks both to Marion Levy, chairman of the Department of East Asian Studies, and David Redman, associate dean of the graduate school of Princeton University. They gave special consideration to my application, granted me a full scholarship...

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pp. 1-5

This book is an “inner history” of official relations between Japan and China from the second century B.C. to the tenth century A.D. In it I use archaeological findings and accounts in Chinese and Japanese official chronicles to build a body of knowledge about ancient Japan, which was evolving from a loose confederation of tribes into a...

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1. The Islands of Immortals

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pp. 7-16

Ancient Japan is an island of magic plants, animals, and immortals in Chinese legends. Jade greens, golden vegetables, and peaches grow on the ground, and mulberry trees of more than one thousand meters rise from the blue seas. These trees bear one-inch fruits, which are part of the diet of the immortals, who have shining golden bodies and fly like birds. As if they were two lovers embracing...

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2. Chinese Insignia in East Asian Politics

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pp. 17-32

During the early spring of 1784, Jin Heiei, a farmer from Shikanoshima, northern Kyūshū, was digging a ditch when his pickaxe hit something solid in the field. It was the top of an underground chamber, in which he found a gold seal with a snake knob. A cube with sides measuring 2.4 centimeters and weighing 109 grams, the seal bore a five-character inscription in three lines that...

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3. The Messenger of the Emperor

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pp. 33-65

The mission of a messenger was to represent his ruler in seeking the best possible results from the mission with regard to his court’s interests.1 He either handled domestic issues or dealt with international affairs. But Chinese rulers did not differentiate between these two types of messengers. In their thinking there was no clear-cut line between internal and...

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4. The Voyage to China

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pp. 66-85

The detailed reports that Japanese diplomats filed on their return vividly recounted the hardships, dangers, and tragedies that they and their deceased colleagues had experienced. This information induced the court to make necessary arrangements and provide equipment for its mission of 834 in the hope of minimizing the risks to the...

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5. The Journey to Changan

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pp. 86-102

As soon as a Japanese ambassador came ashore in China, he sought to contact local Chinese authorities to inform them of his arrival, to request supplies of daily necessities for his subordinates, and to apply for permission to use the Tang official transportation system to travel to the capital...

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6. Diplomacy in the Tang Capital

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pp. 103-138

A Japanese mission usually spent some two months on the road before reaching the Changle relay station in the suburbs east of Changan.1 The station was the starting point of two major roads, one leading to the eastern capital, Luoyang, the other to modern Hubei and Hunan provinces. The Changle station was also the site where official welcome and farewell ceremonies were conducted...

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7. Weight and Nuances in State Letters

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pp. 139-179

During the third month of 608, Emperor Yang (r. 605–618) arrived at his audience hall in a good mood to receive ambassadors from Paekche, Japan,1 Chitu (on the Malaysian peninsula), and Jialuoshe (in western Thailand).2 Emperor Yang, the second ruler of the Sui dynasty (581–618), considered the ambassadors’ visits to be the initial...

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8. Information Gathering

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pp. 180-201

Gathering information was a crucial task for a Japanese ambassador dispatched to China. For centuries, Japan’s overseas intelligence work focused on volatile situations in Korea and on China’s intention toward the region. An active player in Korea, Japan maintained a foothold in Mimana, had a close ally in Paekche, and considered southern Korea its sphere of influence. Furthermore, China and Korea were...

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9. Acquiring Foreign Talent

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pp. 202-215

Information in books contributes to a country’s development only when people absorb it and use it to serve their needs. Often capable people are more efficient than books for transmitting information, knowledge, and skills from one country to another. Although the Wo rulers of third-century Japan aspired to be the overlords of Korean states...

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10. The Multipolar Nature of the International System in Asia

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pp. 216-228

Chinese rulers saw the whole world as coming under their jurisdiction. “Under the wide heaven,” one Chinese saying goes, “all is the King’s land. Within the sea-boundaries of the land, all are the King’s servants.”1 This world was unipolar, with China at the center and the neighboring countries at the peripheries. When they wanted to contact China...

Appendix 1: A Chronology of China-Japan Relations from the First to the Ninth Centuries

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pp. 229-232

Appendix 2: The Letter to the Surveillance Commissioner at Fuzhou Drafted for the Ambassador

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pp. 233-235

Appendix 3: Components of Japanese State Letters

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pp. 237-238


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pp. 239


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pp. 241-326


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pp. 327-341


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pp. 343-374


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pp. 375-387

E-ISBN-13: 9780824861391
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824828714

Publication Year: 2005