A hierarchical Sinocentric model of international relations, dominated by China, prevailed in East Asia until the weakening of the Qing Dynasty and the encroachment of European and Japanese imperialists in the second half of the nineteenth century. China stood at the center of the system and regarded itself as the only civilization in the world; the emperor of China (huangdi) was regarded as the only legitimate emperor of the entire world. Surrounding countries—including Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Annam, Cambodia, Siam, Malacca and Sri Lanka—were regarded as barbarians and vassals of China, offering tribute (朝貢) to the emperor of China and receiving titles and privileges in return.
The central position was not always held by the same ethnic group; peoples from the north, such as the Xianbei, Jurchens, and Manchus, took their place at the center with varying degrees of success. The Sinocentric tribute system provided Northeast and Southeast Asia with a political and economic framework for international trade. Missions from tributary states were issued special trading licenses and allowed to conduct trade with China, both in the capital and at land frontiers and specified ports, using silver currency based on China’s prices.
Because of its massive size and ethnic diversity, China always needed an ideology which could unify its peoples and give tham a national identity. Sinocentrism was invented and used as a political ideology to achieve domestic unity and justify domination over neighboring countries. During the twentieth century, Sinocentrism was replaced with Chinese nationalism (zhonghua minzu), a concept representing China as a nation which originated in a “cradle of civilization” in the Yellow River Basin and interacted with various ethnic groups over the centuries, yet retained its cultural character. This concept was promoted by the Chinese Communist Party in an effort to unite people with different ethnic backgrounds and strong local ties into a cohesive and powerful Chinese nation. Cultural Sinocentrism refers to the tendency to regard neighboring countries as mere cultural offshoots of China, and to deny the uniqueness or validity of surrounding countries as separate cultures.
The Sinocentric system was a hierarchical model of international relations, dominated by China, that prevailed in East Asia until the weakening of the Qing Dynasty and the encroachment of European and Japanese imperialists in the second half of the nineteenth century. At the center of the system stood China, ruled by the dynasty that had presumably gained the Mandate of Heaven. This Celestial Empire (神州, Shénzhōu), distinguished by its Confucian codes of morality and propriety, regarded itself as the only civilization in the world; the emperor of China (huangdi) was regarded as the only legitimate emperor of the entire world (lands all under heaven or 天下, tianxia).
Surrounding countries such as Japan, Korea, and Vietnam were regarded as vassals of China, and relations between the Chinese Empire and these peoples were interpreted as tributary relationships under which these countries offered tribute (朝貢) to the emperor of China and received titles and privileges in return. Only China had an emperor, or huangdi (皇帝), who was the “Son of Heaven” and had divine qualities; rulers of other countries were given lesser titles such as king or Wang (王). Peoples from states outside of China were regarded as “barbarians.”
Identification of the heartland and the legitimacy of dynastic succession were both essential aspects of Sinocentrism. Originally the center was synonymous with the North China Plain, an area that was expanded through invasion and conquest over many centuries. Sinocentrism, unlike Han chauvinism ( 大漢族主義), did not necessarily have a racial basis in Han Chinese ethnicity. Successive peoples from the north, such as the Xianbei, Jurchens, and Manchus, took their place at the center with varying degrees of success. The Xianbei empires during the Southern and Northern Dynasties, for example, regarded the Han Chinese regimes of southern China as "barbarians" because they refused to submit to Xianbei rule. Similarly, the Manchu Qing Dynasty regarded the initial wave of European incursions during the mid-nineteenth century as "barbarians."
Outside the center were several concentric circles. Local ethnic minorities were not regarded as foreign countries, but were governed by their own leaders (土司, tusi), subject to recognition by the emperor, and were exempt from the Chinese bureaucratic system. Outside this circle were the tributary states, which offered tribute (朝貢) to the emperor of China and over which China exercised suzerainty.
Under the Ming Dynasty, when the tribute system entered its peak, these states were classified into a number of groups. The southeastern barbarians included some of the major states of East Asia and Southeast Asia, such as Korea, Japan, the Ryūkyū Kingdom, Annam, Cambodia, Vietnam, Siam, Champa, and Java. A second group of southeastern barbarians was made up of countries such as Sulu, Malacca, and Sri Lanka, many of which are modern independent states. In addition, there were northern barbarians, northeastern barbarians, and two large categories of western barbarians (from Shanxi, west of Lanzhou, and modern-day Xinjiang), none of which have survived into modern times as separate states. The system was complicated by the fact that some tributary states had their own tributaries. Laos was a tributary of Vietnam and the Ryūkyū Kingdom paid tribute to both China and Japan.
Beyond the circle of tributary states were countries which were involved in a trading relationship with China. The Portuguese, for instance, were allowed to trade with China from leased territory in Macau but did not officially enter the tributary system.
While Sinocentrism is usually identified as a political structure of international relationships, it possessed an important economic aspect. The Sinocentric tribute system provided Northeast and Southeast Asia with a political and economic framework for international trade. Countries wishing to trade with China were required to submit to a suzerain-vassal relationship with the Chinese sovereign. After official investiture (冊封) of a national ruler, missions from that country were allowed to come to China to pay tribute (貢物) to the Chinese emperor. In exchange, tributary missions were presented with return bestowals (回賜), such as gifts, titles and official tokens of recognition. Special trading licenses were issued to merchants accompanying these missions to China, and trade was also permitted at land frontiers and specified ports. This Sinocentric trade was based on the use of silver as a currency, with prices set by reference to Chinese prices.
The cultural and economic centrality of China was recognized throughout Asia, and most countries submitted to the Sinocentric model, in order to enjoy the benefits of political recognition and trade with China. However, the attitudes of the various tributary nations towards China varied according to their political strength and physical distance from China. While they received many elements of culture—such as the Chinese written language, Confucianism, and Buddhism—from China, at various times tributary nations asserted their autonomy and attempted to deliberately exclude Chinese influence. Some people in countries such as South Korea, Japan, Indonesia and Vietnam still harbor a historical resentment towards China.
The Japanese are described in China’s Book of Han (漢書, 汉书), completed in 111 C.E. and covering the period of Chinese history from 206 B.C.E. to 25 C.E., as “the people of Wo, who are divided into more than one hundred states, and who bring tribute at fixed intervals.” The Book of Later Han (後漢書, 后汉书, Hou Hanshu), composed in the fifth century by Fan Ye and covering the Eastern Han period from 25 to 220 C.E., relates that in 57 C.E. the “state of Nu in Wo” sent emissaries to the Later Han court, and received a gold seal from the emperor.
In the seventh century, however, Shotoku Taishi (574-622), prince regent of Japan, antagonized the emperor of China by sending him a letter starting with the words: "The emperor of the land where the sun rises sends a letter to the emperor of the land where the sun sets to ask if you are healthy?" (日出處天子致書日沒處天子無恙云云). Soon after this, under the Taika Reforms, the Japanese court reformed its administrative apparatus and system of land distribution to resemble the Chinese system, initiating a prolonged period of Chinese influence on all aspects of Japanese culture.
Japan experienced alternating periods of interaction with China, during which Chinese influence on Japanese culture was strong, and periods of isolation during which a heightened sense of Japanese cultural superiority developed. In the late thirteenth century, when two attempted Mongol invasions were thwarted with the help of typhoons, called “kamikaze” (divine wind, 神風), Japan acquired a strong national identity.
The Jinnōshōtōki (神皇正統記, "Chronicle of the Direct Descent of the Divine Sovereigns"), written between 1339 and 1343 by Kitabatake Chikafusa, emphasized the divine descent of the imperial line and Japan’s spiritual supremacy over China and India. In 1401, during the Muromachi period (室町時代), the shogun Yoshimitsu (足利義満), desiring trade with China, restarted the lapsed tribute system, and Japan again received cultural influences from China, such as Zen Buddhism.
During the Tokugawa era, centering on the study of kokugaku (国学, “native studies”), a movement emerged to reconstruct and recover the authentic native roots of Japanese culture, particularly Shinto, and exclude later elements borrowed from China. During the early Edo period, neo-Confucianist Yamaga Soko asserted that Japan was superior to China in its application of Confucianism and more deserving of the name "Chūgoku. Later scholars picked up this theme, notably Aizawa Seishisai in his political tract Shinron (新論, "New Theses") in 1825.
As a rival of China for political and economic dominance of East Asia, Japan has remained critical of Sinocentrism, and more recently, of Chinese nationalism (zhonghua minzu, 中華). Japanese scholars have been active crticis of what they term Chūka shisō (中華思想), loosely meaning "zhonghua ideology." After Japan defeated China in the First (1894-1895) and Second Sino-Japanese Wars (1937-1945), the Japanese insisted for several decades on using the name Shina (支那) for China, based on the Western word "China," in preference to the name Chūgoku (中国, "Central Country") advocated by the Chinese themselves. One of the enduring perceptions among Sinologists in Japan is that general depopulation and the incursion of races from the north during the period of the Three Kingdoms (三国) led to the virtual replacement of the original Chinese race by non-Chinese.
Vietnam was under Chinese rule for approximately one thousand years before gaining independence in the tenth century. In subsequent centuries the Vietnamese drove out Chinese invaders on a number of occasions, and conflict with China may be seen as one of the major themes of Vietnamese history. However, Vietnam was heavily Sinicized, using Classical Chinese as its official literary language and adopting most aspects of Chinese culture, including the administrative system, architecture, philosophy, religion, and literature of China.
Vietnam persistently identified itself as the "Kingdom of the South" in relation to China in the north, as represented in this line from a poem (in Chinese) by General Lý Thường Kiệt （李常傑）(1019–1105): "Over mountains and rivers of the South reigns the Emperor of the South.（南國山河南帝居）"
The name "Việt" itself is cognate with Yue (越), referring to peoples of Southern China who were largely conquered by the North under the Qin Dynasty. The Vietnamese are considered as belonging to the Yue. The current name of the country, Vietnam, is derived from Nam Việt (南越), meaning Southern Yue, the name of a post-Qin kingdom covering southern China and northern Vietnam. The Chinese, who were unwilling to recognize Vietnam as a successor to the Southern Yue state, altered this to Việt Nam (越南 South of Yue).
Unlike East Asian states, which communicated in written Chinese, Myanmar (Burma) used a different written language in communication with China. While China consistently regarded Myanmar as a vassal, Myanma records indicate that Myanmar considered itself as China's equal. The Burmese interpreted Myanmar as the "younger brother" and China as the "elder brother."
The most famous official encounter between Sinocentrism and the self-assertion of Europeans was the celebrated Macartney Embassy (the Macartney Mission) of 1792–1793, which sought to establish a permanent British presence in Peking and open up trade relations. The account of the Chinese emperor’s rejection of British overtures and the British refusal to kowtow to the emperor of China became legend. In response to the British request that the Chinese recognize Macartney as ambassador, the emperor wrote:
The Celestial Empire, ruling all within the four seas, simply concentrates on carrying out the affairs of Government properly...We have never valued ingenious articles, nor do we have the slightest need of your country's manufactures, therefore O King, as regards to your request to send someone to remain at the capital, which it is not in harmony with the regulations of the Celestial Empire—we also feel very much that it is of no advantage to your country.
In 1842 the British defeated Chinese forces in the First Opium War, and the Qing authorities signed the Treaty of Nanjing, agreeing to open several low-tariff trade ports to Britain, yielding Hong Kong to Britain, and allowing British missionaries to work in China.
Following the British, one Western power after another imposed "unequal treaties" on China, including provisions of extraterritoriality that excluded Europeans from the jurisdiction of local laws. The defeat of the Imperial army by a small Anglo-French military force during the Second Opium War, coupled with the flight (and subsequent death) of the emperor and the burning of the Summer Palace was a shocking blow to the once powerful Qing Dynasty. The Treaty of Tianjin (1858), ratified in October 1860, guaranteed freedom of religion in China, legalized the opium trade and granted England additional territory in Kowloon.
These two treaties marked the end of Sinocentrism as a system of international relations in Asia, and the adoption of the Westphalian system in which every state was regarded as a sovereign nation on an equal legal standing with all other states.
A traditional Sinocentric attitude was evident in the Chinese reaction when the Jesuit Matteo Ricci published the first map of the world in Chinese in 1584, at the request of the governor of Chao-k'ing, who printed copies for his friends:
Lately Matteo Ricci utilized some false teachings to fool people, and scholars unanimously believed him...take for example the position of China on the map. He puts it not in the center but slightly to the West and inclined to the north. This is altogether far from the truth, for China should be in the center of the world, which we can prove by the single fact that we can see the North Star resting at the zenith of the heaven at midnight. How can China be treated like a small unimportant country, and placed slightly to the north as in this map?
In a cultural sense, Sinocentrism refers to a tendency to regard neighboring countries as mere cultural offshoots of China. A Sinocentric view of East Asia is justified to some extent by the fact that China has a far longer history than neighboring countries, and that these countries borrowed heavily from the Chinese model at an early stage in their historical development. However, cultural Sinocentrism often goes beyond this to deny the uniqueness or validity of surrounding countries as separate cultures. Some Sinocentrists claim that aspects of Chinese culture which were borrowed from the West (古已有之) actually go back to Chinese antecedents, or that some aspects of Western culture were originally borrowed from China.
In a famous attack on Sinocentrism and its associated beliefs, The True Story of Ah Q (1921) by Lu Xun, the character Ah Q is a satirized representation of the national character, believing that everyone different from himself is inferior and a barbarian, and interpreting humiliations and defeats as "spiritual victories."
Sinocentrism is not synonymous with Chinese nationalism (zhonghua minzu). The successive dynasties of China were Sinocentric in the sense that they regarded Chinese civilization to be universal in its reach and application. Chinese nationalism, in contrast, is a more modern concept focused primarily on the idea of a unified, cohesive, and powerful Chinese nation, as one of the nations of the world.
The period between the end of the First Opium War and the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 was known as the “century of humiliation” (bainian guochi). The capitulation of the Qin government to foreign powers, the unequal treaties, and the Treaty of Versailles, which gave Chinese territory taken by the Germans during World War I to the Japanese, roused public sentiment against the government and led eventually to the rise of the Nationalist Party and then the Chinese Communist Party.
Faced with the challenge of uniting an ethnically diverse population, whose citizens traditionally identified themselves with local kinship associations, into a strong independent nation, the Chinese Communist Party began to promote the concept of “Chinese nationalism” (zhonghua minzu). China was represented as a nation which had originated in a “cradle of civilization” in the Yellow River Basin and had interacted with various ethnic groups over the centuries, yet retained its cultural character. Archeological evidence of the multiple origins of the Chinese people was suppressed. The concept was reinforced by appeals to anti-imperialist sentiments in the context of the Cold War, political rivalry with the Soviet Union during the 1960s, and the involvement of the United States and its European allies in wars in Vietnam and Korea.
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