Model of a Ryukyuan tribute ship (shinkôsen) at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum
  • Japanese/Chinese: 貢 (mitsugi / gòng)

"Tribute" refers to gifts, whether in the form of coin or precious metals, or that of goods such as rice, silk, aromatic woods, or horses, presented from one polity to another in acknowledgment of the superiority and suzerainty of the latter. Trade between China and most other polities, for the most part, for many centuries, formally and officially only took place in this manner. Giving tribute to the Chinese Court was an essential prerequisite for engaging in trade; once tribute was presented to be given to the Emperor, ships were permitted to trade or barter a considerable portion of their cargo, or to have it bartered for them by the local Chinese port official, as "private business."

Examples of tributary relationships can be seen especially in the relationship between Ming China and Muromachi period Japan (see kangô bôeki), and took place as well between the Kingdom of Ryûkyû and certain outlying islands, such as the Miyako Islands or Yaeyama Islands, which were not controlled directly, but which might be considered tributaries of the Kingdom.

Ming China

The Sinocentric world order and system of tributary relations was, in theory, in place from as early as the Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE) until the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), but was strongest in the early Ming Dynasty, i.e. from 1368 until sometime around 1550. As Angela Schottenhammer explains, prior to the Ming dynasty, the Sino-centric worldview and tribute system were more a claim than a reality, and after the 1550s or so, Chinese maritime/economic power weakened.[1]

Ming China regarded Korea and Ryûkyû as its first and second most important tributaries, respectively, followed by Japan, Burma, and Annam,[2] and categorized all of its tributary states into six categories:

  • (1) The first category included 18 East and Southeast Asian polities, including Korea, Japan, Ryûkyû, Annam, Champa, Cambodia, Thailand, and Java.
  • (2) The second category included the remaining Southeast Asian polities, especially island polities such as those in the modern-day Philippines, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka.
  • (3) & (4) The third and fourth categories included Jurchens, Tatars, and other tribal peoples to the north.
  • (5) & (6) The fifth and sixth categories included tribal peoples and other groups to the west.[3]

While Korea, Ryûkyû, and Vietnam formed the core of the Sinocentric tribute network, and along with Japan the countries within the region of strongest Chinese cultural influence, the Chinese tribute trade also had significant impacts on a half-dozen or so Southeast Asian polities. The ports of Thang-long in Vietnam, Aceh (Sumatra), Bantam (Java), and Makassar (Sulawesi), along with the Siamese royal capital of Ayutthaya, were all sizable communities of at least 100,000 inhabitants each, and all were vibrantly multi-cultural, multi-ethnic ports, highly active in the regional maritime trade. Through the impact of the Chinese trade, along with other factors, all of these areas saw considerable commercialization and monetization of their local economies in the 15th-17th centuries. The most rapid growth came circa 1570-1630, coinciding with the peak of Japanese maritime activity in the region, and of high seas competition between the Dutch, English, Spanish, and Portuguese.[4]

Tribute missions were permitted on a regular, but limited schedule, thus limiting all official (legal) trade as well. For the most part, Korea and Ryûkyû were permitted to send missions once every two years; at times, for various political reasons, this was changed to once every three years. Similarly, Muromachi Japan was permitted, at times, to send missions only once every ten years; Japan sent 17 missions over a nearly 150-year period from 1404 to 1547 under the kangô bôeki system.[5] The tribute system was managed by a Maritime Trade Office, or shibosi (市舶司); originally there was only one such office, but before long shibosi offices were established in the major ports of Fuzhou, Quanzhou, Ningpo and Guangzhou.[3] While in 1372 the Hongwu Emperor limited tribute embassies from all countries to being dispatched only once every three years, an exception was made for Ryûkyû. The various Ryukyuan kings were told in 1382 that they were permitted to send as many tributary embassies as they wished; further, they were not limited to particular ports (as embassies from other countries were), were permitted to authorize their own embassies, and were provided with ocean-going vessels and personnel to effect the successful organization and transportation of the tribute missions. Some 57 embassies were dispatched from Ryûkyû between 1372 and 1398, an average of two per year.[6] Even after embassies from Ryûkyû were restricted to one a year in 1440, and then to one every other year, Ryûkyû remained one of the most active tributaries.[7] In total, tribute missions from Ryûkyû appear in the Ming shi (Official History of Ming) 171 times, nearly doubly as often as the 89 missions from Korea, and far outnumbering tribute missions from any other polity.[8] Gregory Smits suggests that this rather generous treatment was extended to Ryûkyû in an effort to reduce wakô activity by making legitimate trade more appealing than smuggling or piracy, and at the same time to make Ryûkyû an active transshipment hub bringing Japanese and Southeast Asian products into Chinese markets despite the Ming ban on direct (Chinese) trade with such regions.[6] Though restrictions were eventually imposed upon Ryûkyû, bringing it more in line with Ming/Qing treatment of Korea and other tributaries, Ryûkyû remained an active tributary into the 1870s.

Foreign ships were required to send a certain portion of their cargoes as tribute, and a portion of their personnel as envoys, to the Imperial capital, though the remainder of the cargo could be sold privately, that is, independently, for profit, by the foreigners, or by the Chinese port officials on the foreigners' behalf. The Ming court paid for travel expenses, often providing horses and ships, but limited missions to 150 people.

Korea generally sent gold, silver, skins (especially leopard and sea otter), brushes, paper, ginseng, and silks, woven mats, and other kinds of textiles. Items such as cattle, horses, cotton, grain, pepper, materials for making weapons and gunpowder (e.g. sulphur), as well as human slaves, young girls, and eunuchs, were often requested by the Ming Court. In return, Korea obtained a variety of goods including silks, jades, medicinal products, musical instruments, books, and dragon robes.[9]

Tributary missions typically brought a considerable volume of goods, especially local products, to offer to the Chinese emperor as tribute, receiving a great volume of gifts in return; they were then, typically, in addition, permitted to engage in private trade, both in Beijing, and in other ports along their way home. Both the gifts "bestowed" upon the foreigners in gifts, and the private trade, could be quite lucrative. Private trade conducted in conjunction with a tribute mission often yielded two or three times the normal market price. In this way, tribute trade was able to serve as the only official trade with China. Still, unofficial trade was rampant throughout the period, and at times, the Ming Court even relaxed its policies, in recognition of the great demand for trade. Beginning in 1509, the emperor allowed ships from tributary states to trade at Guangzhou, even outside of their designated years. From 1567, Chinese merchants engaged in trade in Southeast Asian ports could operate in a particular port in Fujian province opened that year to such business.[10]

Qing China

After the fall of the Ming, the Manchus lost no time in establishing policies and regulations for tributary relations. The Qing Court essentially continued the tributary relations of the Ming period, maintaining or putting into place procedures for receiving tribute ships and storing their cargoes, banning goods of strategic importance from leaving the country, and setting regulations for the size of incoming tribute missions.[11] Though the total volume of goods obtained by China through this tribute trade is generally said to have been too small to have interested the Qing Court as an economic incentive (and, the missions were quite expensive to receive, especially when gifts bestowed upon the tributary envoys are considered), continued tributary relations with Korea and Ryûkyû in particular seem to have been regarded as quite important as proof of Chinese superiority and centrality, and of Qing legitimacy.[12]

Qing received tribute from Korea annually, from Ryûkyû once every two years, from Siam every three years, Annam every four years, and from Laos and Burma once in a decade. Though all of these tributary relationships had de facto ended by the mid-to-late 19th century,[13] an 1899 document still lists all of those polities as tributaries.[14] Official documents presented to the Qing Court were generally written in Chinese in the tributary country, and then translated into the Manchu language, and presented to the Court in both languages.[8]

Korea sent at least 435 missions to Qing China between 1637 and 1881, bringing goods such as deer and leopard skins, ox horns, gold, silver, tea, paper, various types of textiles, and rice, along with goods obtained from Southeast Asia or elsewhere, such as sappanwood, pepper, and swords and knives.[9]

On the eve of the Opium War, in 1839, the Qing Court ordered tribute missions from Burma, Siam, and Ryûkyû reduced to only once every four years; Ryûkyû protested, however, and insisted on sending tribute more often than that. While they couched their protest in the language of loyalty and filiality to China as the superior civilizational center, and simply by arguing precedent and tradition, Ryûkyû presumably was chiefly interested in the trade benefits that came from maintaining connections with China, and the necessity of those trade relations for appeasing Satsuma han.[15]


Japan is rarely discussed as requesting, or exacting, tribute out of neighboring polities in the way that China did; this is presumably largely because most of those neighboring polities, including Korea and Ryûkyû, were already Chinese tributaries. The Japanese did try, however, in some periods, to craft a Japan-centric world order after the Chinese model, and to exact tribute from others, presenting an image of itself to the world as a nation to which others pay tribute.

In the Yamato period, and into the Nara period, Japan did in fact receive tribute from outlying regions, such as from the Ryukyuan islands of Tanegashima, the Amami Islands, Tokunoshima, and Yakushima since at least 616 if not earlier,[16] and from the Hayato, a people of southern Kyushu outside of the boundaries of the Yamato state. Korea sent tribute to Japan as well, in this early period; we have the example of Kim Chhyun-chhyu, who gifted a peacock and a parrot to the court in 647. Polities based in the Japanese archipelago may have paid tribute to Korean or Chinese polities in ancient times as well, such as in the case of the state of Na, which is said to have sent tribute to Han Dynasty China in the year 57. Scholars such as Richard von Glahn identify the treatment of foreign merchants by the Heian court as resembling tribute trade; Chinese, Korean, and other foreign merchants were provided housing at that time at the Kôrokan, a lavish guesthouse in Hakata overseen by the Dazaifu, and were forbidden from traveling deeper into Japanese territory. They delivered a certain amount of goods ("tribute") which was taken by Dazaifu officials to Heian-kyô, and then afterwards were permitted to engage in trade locally in Hakata, at prices negotiated with the court, much like tributary missions to China both at that time and in later centuries.[17]

Japan also received tribute from Ryûkyû, Korea, the Dutch and the Ainu during the Edo Period. These took the forms of formal missions to Edo performed by Ryukyuan and Korean envoys on the occasion of the accession of a new shogun, or of a new king of Ryûkyû or Korea; Ainu chiefs met with the lords of the Matsumae clan on occasion, though it has been argued that the Ainu did not perceive these meetings to be acts of subordination, nor the gifts they brought to be "tribute" per se. Still, the Ainu of Sakhalin are said to have paid tribute to the samurai Takeda Nobuhiro and his descendants for a time, beginning in 1475. Similarly, representatives of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) made journeys to Edo on occasion, but they too are not likely to have seen these journeys, and gift-exchanges with the shogun, as acts of subordination or as payment of tribute. Tribute or taxes were also paid by Ryûkyû to Satsuma han.

Of course, the term "tribute" is also sometimes used to refer to gifts given by samurai lords to those to whom they formally submit. Particularly in the Sengoku Period, when daimyô defeated other clans and took them as new subordinates, they often received gifts, or "tribute."


The Kingdom of Ryûkyû actively engaged in tributary relations with China for nearly the entire period of its existence; however, the kingdom also received tribute from outlying islands within the Ryukyuan archipelago. Even before the formal establishment of "kingdoms" on Okinawa, the island was receiving tribute from the nearby islands of Iheyajima, Kumejima, and the Kerama Islands, beginning in 1264, and from the Amami Islands beginning in 1266.

Prior to the unification of Okinawa Island and the establishment of the Kingdom, China received tribute from three separate Okinawan polities. Chûzan, the kingdom which controlled the central areas of the island, conquered the other two kingdoms in 1419-1429. In the intervening time, Chûzan sent 52 missions to China beginning in 1372, Nanzan sent nineteen, beginning in 1380, and Hokuzan sent nine beginning in 1383, all of them vying as well for official recognition from the Ming Court as the only rightful king of Okinawa. For about a hundred years, until 1474, China placed no restrictions on the frequency of Ryukyuan tribute missions - the Okinawan kingdoms were the only ones to enjoy such a privilege.[18]

From 1474 onward, the Ming court placed restrictions on the size and frequency of Ryûkyû's tribute missions. For the next four hundred years, the kingdom generally sent tribute once every two years, though the pattern changed at times along with shifts in Chinese politics. After repeated Ryukyuan petitions, the Ming allowed the kingdom to send missions annually beginning in 1507, but required the kingdom to return to sending missions only every two years beginning in 1521.[19] Similarly, in the wake of the 1609 invasion of Ryûkyû by forces from Satsuma han, Beijing restricted Ryûkyû's missions to coming once every ten years; however, from 1633 the kingdom was once again permitted to send missions every other year.[20] Special missions were sent following the investiture of a new king of Ryûkyû, to express gratitude for imperial grace (C: 謝恩, xiè'ēn), and following the accession of a new emperor to the Chinese throne, to offer congratulations (C: 慶賀, qìnghè).[21]

Tribute was sent in a variety of forms, including Ryukyuan horses, sulphur, salt, lacquerwares, sword-polishing stones, and cowhides, and Southeast Asian goods including sappanwood, frankincense, other aromatic woods & incenses, pepper, rhino horn, and other animal products. Ryukyuan ships sent to China were known as shinkôsen (進貢船, "tribute ships"); trading ships accompanying the embassy vessels were known as sekkôsen (接貢船).[22] While hosting Chinese envoys was quite expensive for the kingdom, the interaction was beneficial for the kingdom, which generally received more in gifts from China than it gave in tribute.[23]

For a time, the Ryûkyû Kingdom also sent tribute to the Ashikaga shogunate once every three or four years. Tribute and trade goods carried by these ships included Chinese copper coins, wine, nanban silks, aloe, sappanwood, and other scented and medicinal products, many of them obtained from Southeast Asian ports or from Iberian traders.[19]

Meanwhile, tribute from Ryûkyû was often demanded by the Shimazu clan of Satsuma province, who laid claims to the islands since the 12th century. The Shimazu were officially named "Lords of the Twelve Southern Islands" by the Kamakura shogunate in 1206, and were granted the islands by the Ashikaga shogunate in 1441;[19] however, Ryûkyû was never informed of this, and no tribute was paid to Satsuma, nor any actual direct Japanese dominion exerted in the islands, until after the 1609 invasion of Ryûkyû by that same samurai clan.

Following the outbreak of the Ônin War, Ryukyuan tribute missions to the shogunate gradually disappeared, and Sakai merchants jumped to fill in the gap, sending their own ships to Ryûkyû. Losing profits, and control over the trade, in 1471, the shogunate sent an order to the Shimazu indicating that from henceforward, merchants traveling to Ryûkyû would be required to hold shogunate-issued licenses. The export of copper coins was especially singled-out as prohibited. The Shimazu were then allowed to be the ones to notify the island kingdom of these new policies; that Ryûkyû then got the impression that it was the Shimazu - and not the shogunate - which issued licenses, and which held monopolistic control over the Japan-Ryûkyû trade, is indicated by a 1559 letter from a Naha official to a Shimazu retainer noting that only merchants with Shimazu permits were permitted to trade at Naha.[19]

Following the Satsuma invasion of Ryûkyû in 1609, the kingdom's tributary relationship with China continued. That Ryûkyû was a source of Chinese goods was one of the chief reasons Satsuma wished to maintain control over the kingdom, but at the same time, the relationship with China was treasured by the kingdom, as the need to have Ryûkyû remain nominally independent so that relations with China could continue protected the kingdom from outright annexation by Satsuma. The kingdom was obliged to transfer much of the goods obtained in China to Satsuma, though they also borrowed silver, copper, tin, and other goods from Satsuma to use as tribute goods to bring to China. Ryukyuan envoys were also an important source of intelligence on Chinese political, social, and military goings-on for the Japanese; for this reason, the sekkôsen were sometimes also known as saukikibune (左右聞船), or "ships which listen in all directions."[24]

The Kingdom of Ryûkyû, based on Okinawa Island, received ships from the other islands at the port of Tomari, where warehouses stood for storing tribute goods from those islands. The Tomari satonushi, the chief port official, oversaw in particular the reception of tribute payments and missions from the Amami Islands. Tribute from these outlying islands was sent in a variety of forms; for example, the Miyako and Yaeyama Islands, which had originally begun sending tribute in 1390, were permitted to send part of their tribute in the form of jôfu textiles beginning in 1659. From 1758 onwards, the Yaeyama Islands were asked to send sea cucumbers, as well, as tribute goods, supplementing the marine products that the kingdom could send as tribute items, in turn, to China, in exchange for bullion and other valuable products. A tsunami devastated the area in 1771, killing an estimated 10,000 people in the Miyako and Yaeyama Islands; it took decades for these island communities - in terms of population, economy, etc. - to recover.[25]

Of course, exacting tribute from the outlying islands did not always go smoothly; there were, at times, revolts and rebellions, such as that of Oyake Akahachi on Ishigaki Island in 1500, though most of these rebellions were eventually suppressed by royal kingdom forces from Okinawa Island, or those from other islands loyal to the center and acting in its service.

It was one such tribute ship from the Miyako Islands, on its way back from having delivered tribute at Tomari on Okinawa, that became shipwrecked in 1871 on Taiwan, leading to the so-called Taiwan Incident of 1871 in which the majority of the Miyakoan sailors were killed by Taiwanese aborigines, spurring an international incident in which China and Japan nearly came to all-out war over the question of who held responsibility over Taiwan, and over the Ryûkyûs.

Despite Ryûkyû's tributary relationship with China being a subordinate relationship, Ryukyuans felt strongly about their strong ties to China, and in the 1870s in particular, when the kingdom's links to China, and indeed the kingdom's very existence, were threatened, many royal officials and political activists, including Rin Seikô and others, took action in support of maintaining (or resuming) tributary relations. The final tribute mission was dispatched in 1875, and within the same year, Tokyo rebuked Ryûkyû han for doing so, and ended tributary/investiture relations.[26] Though in the end China took little action to block Japan's overthrow of the Ryûkyû Kingdom and annexation of the islands as Okinawa prefecture, Beijing did issue formal complaints in the late 1870s against Japanese efforts to put an end to the sending of tribute, to no end. The 1875 mission proved to be the last one, and in 1879 Japan completed the overthrow of the kingdom, and annexation of its land.


Korea was consistently considered the most important, or highest status, tributary to China throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties. The Koryo Dynasty entered into tributary relations with the Ming almost immediately following the Ming's founding in 1368. However, Koryo, and the Choson dynasty which followed it, continued to pay tribute to the Mongols/Yuan Dynasty until 1387. Choson also received tribute from the Jurchens from the 1390s until 1404 or 1405, when the Ming forced the Jurchens to pay tribute only to China.[27]


  • Schottenhammer, Angela. "The East Asian maritime world, 1400-1800: Its fabrics of power and dynamics of exchanges - China and her neighbors." in Schottenhammer (ed.) The East Asian maritime world, 1400-1800: Its fabrics of power and dynamics of exchanges. Harrassowitz Verlag, 2007. pp1-83.
  • Schottenhammer, Angela. “Empire and Periphery? The Qing Empire’s Relations with Japan and the Ryūkyūs (1644–c. 1800), a Comparison.” The Medieval History Journal 16, no. 1 (April 1, 2013), 139-196.
  1. Schottenhammer, "East Asian Maritime World," 7-8.
  2. Schottenhammer, "Empire and Periphery?," 175n97.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Schottenhammer, "East Asian Maritime World," 14.
  4. Kang, David C. “Hierarchy in Asian International Relations: 1300-1900.” Asian Security 1, no. 1 (2005): 59.
  5. Kang, David C. “Hierarchy and Legitimacy in International Systems: The Tribute System in Early Modern East Asia.” Security Studies 19, no. 4 (2010): 604.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Gregory Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, University of Hawaii Press (2019), 65.
  7. Smits, Maritime Ryukyu, 68.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Gallery labels, "Kuninda - Ryûkyû to Chûgoku no kakehashi," special exhibit, Okinawa Prefectural Museum, Sept 2014.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Schottenhammer, "East Asian Maritime World," 55-56.
  10. Lloyd Eastman, Family, Fields, and Ancestors: Constancy and Change in China's Social and Economic History, 1550-1949, Oxford University Press (1988), 123-124.
  11. Schottenhammer, "East Asian Maritime World," 26.
  12. Schottenhammer, "Empire and Periphery?", 188.
  13. Siam in 1852, Burma in 1874, Ryûkyû in 1875, and Vietnam in 1882. Anthony Reid, "Introduction," in Reid & Zheng Yangwen (eds.), Negotiating Asymmetry: China's Place in Asia (NUS Press, 2009), 17.
  14. Schottenhammer, "East Asian Maritime World," 31.
  15. Schottenhammer, "Empire and Periphery?," 180.
  16. Yokoyama Manabu 横山学, Ryûkyû koku shisetsu torai no kenkyû 琉球国使節渡来の研究, Tokyo: Yoshikawa kôbunkan (1987), 51.
  17. Richard von Glahn, "The Ningbo-Hakata Merchant Network and the Reorientation of East Asian Maritime Trade, 1150-1350," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 74:2 (2014), 266.
  18. Akamine Mamoru, Lina Terrell (trans.), Robert Huey (ed.), The Ryukyu Kingdom: Cornerstone of East Asia, University of Hawaii Press (2017), 6.
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 19.3 Tanaka Takeo, "Japan's Relations with Overseas Countries," in John Whitney Hall and Toyoda Takeshi (eds.) Japan in the Muromachi Age, Cornell University East Asia Program (2001), 159-178.; Akamine, 100.
  20. Akamine, 100-101.
  21. Schottenhammer, "Empire and Periphery?", 176.
  22. This term was also used for Ryukyuan officials traveling to Fuzhou to meet investiture envoys, to then travel with them back to Ryûkyû. As the Court granted Ryûkyû tax exemptions for trade performed by these sekkôsen (C: jiē gòng chuán), they were used as trading vessels at that time as well. Schottenhammer, "Empire and Periphery?," 176, 181. The practice of sending sekkôsen in the intervening years to retrieve the previous year's envoys (and, incidentally, to engage in trade) was permitted by the Qing Court beginning in 1678. Akamine, 74.
  23. Gregory Smits, "Ryukyu and its Geo-cultural Context," presentation at Parades & Processions Joint Event, University of Hawaii at Manoa, 10 Feb 2013.
  24. Akamine, 77-78.
  25. Robert Hellyer, Defining Engagement, Harvard University Press (2009), 96-97.
  26. Schottenhammer, “Empire and Periphery?,” 175.
  27. Joshua van Lieu, "The Tributary System and the Persistence of Late Victorian Knowledge," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 77:1 (2017), 83.