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Diplomats as vassals: The Tang dynasty (618–907 CE)

Published on 27 March 2012
Updated on 03 April 2024
Diplo Wisdom Circle

The Chinese Tang dynasty (618–907 CE) was an era of economic and cultural development (some would say ‘China’s best moment’) during which ‘the world’ paid homage and tribute to the Middle Kingdom.

Trade flourished along the Silk Road, but also along the Chinese coast. From Japan to India and even Zanzibar, goods flowed to Chang’an, the Empire’s capital, and its court, writes Edward H. Schafer in The Golden Peaches of Samarkand: A Study in T’ang’s Exotics).

Barbarian Royalty Worshiping the Buddha by Zhao Guangfu
Barbarian Royalty Worshiping the Buddha by Zhao Guangfu (Cleveland Museum of Art)

We exchange gifts among friends and trade with foreigners, notes David Graeber in Debt: The First 5,000 Years. This anthropological rule created problems for the Yellow Emperor. To ‘trade’ would have implied recognising the ‘other’ as being from a ‘world apart’ and beyond the reach of the Son of Heaven. On the other hand, the court wanted all these exotics, and some of these foreign goods, like the steppe horses of the Uighurs or the Fergana horses, were even ‘vital interests’.

Never at a loss for a way to square the circle without loss of face, the Chinese Empire developed the ‘tribute system’. Foreign countries wanting to establish diplomatic or trade relations were declared subjects of the Emperor and were expected to pay homage to him, as well as deliver ‘tribute’ in foreign goods.

The submission to the Yellow Emperor allowed the latter to bestow ‘gifts’ in return. Generosity toward his subordinates being a virtue of the sage ruler, the Emperor’s gifts tended to be over-generous. This was particularly so when the Empire was in no position to quibble, which happened regularly in its dealings with Nomads.

So how did this play out in practice? Court-wise ambassadors and wily merchants standing in for ambassadors (or masquerading as such) ordinarily did not make much fuss about ‘submission’. Once this was agreed upon, the next thing was to obtain ‘credentials’.

A fish of bronze for ambassadors

This required the court to gift the foreign ruler or his envoy a handsome wallet in which his emissary may carry his official ‘token’. This token usually had the form of a fish of bronze. Each bronze fish also bore an identifying number, as well as the name of the country involved. The was cut in two: the ‘male’ half of the fish remained in the Chinese capital, and the ‘female’ half was sent to the ‘tributary’ country. An ambassador arriving in Chang’an would show his part of the ‘token’: if the two parts matched, he was accorded corresponding rights and benefits (food allotments in particular).

The Gathering of Kings, 7th century, Tang Dynasty, by Yan Liben
The Gathering of Kings by Yan Liben (Wikimedia)

The ambassador was put under the tutelage of the Hung-lu Office, which was responsible both for the funerals of members of the imperial family and for the reception and entertainment of foreign guests. It was also the clearing house for information about foreign countries.

Came the day of the reception by the Emperor: after being treated to a suitable show of court pomp, the ambassador would approach the throne, prostrate himself and utter: ‘Your bulwark-vassal of nation X presumes to offer up these oblations from its soil.’ The Emperor would remain silent, but the Office of Protocol signified acceptance. In return, the tributary king and his ambassador were awarded nominal but resounding titles in the Tang administration, in accordance with the doctrine that they were vassals of the Son of Heaven, and rich gifts were awarded them as ‘salary‘. The ambassador withdrew to a fitting feast with the mandarins and other dignitaries.

Dwarfs for the Emperor

With the passing of time, these tributes turned into ‘fantastic tributes’, where the claims which were made for the exotics became more and more preposterous. The first Tang Emperor Kao Tsu ordered ‘such things as dwarfs, small horses with short joints, pygmy cattle, strange beasts, odd birds, and all things without actual utility: the presentation of these shall in every instance be discontinued and cut off’. This edict was soon forgotten.

Tribute Giraffe with Attendant China
Tribute Giraffe With Attendant (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

In dealing with the ‘foreign’ and ‘strange’, rituals develop, which paper over the shallowness of the bond between the parties. The Gunwinggu people of Western Arnhem Land of Australia were famous for entertaining trading partners in rituals of ceremonial barter called ‘dzamalag’, which included music, dance, food, and wife-swapping, writes Graeber.

Such ceremonies are no longer part of diplomatic protocol.

This post was first published on DeepDip.

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