Collapse of tributary system reshaped East Asia

Japan’s seizure of Ryukyus marked beginning of end
By By Yang Zehui / 09-18-2015 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

In this painting, incoming Ryukyu King Shang Tai leads his subordinates waiting for the appointment mission from the Qing court (1616-1911).


As a mode of international relations, the tributary system played a huge role in the history of Asia, particularly East Asia. The East Asian tributary system was a China-centered hierarchical order in which the Chinese court honored other countries as vassal states and received tribute from them regularly.

In modern times, the expansion and aggression of Western powers and Japan in Asia caused the East Asian tributary system to break down and give way to the Western treaty system. The system began to falter with Japan’s annexation of the Ryukyu Islands and ultimately met its demise following the Qing government’s crushing defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95).

Harmony with Ryukyu Kingdom
Stretching southwest from Japan’s Kyushu to Chinese Taiwan, the Ryukyus include 55 large and small islands, the most notable of which are Amami in the north, Okinawa in the center and Sakishima in the south.


During the Tang and Song dynasties (618-1279), the Ryukyus maintained trade relations with China but never sent tributary missions to the country. In the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368), Emperor Chengzong (reigned 1295-1307) once dispatched envoys to subjugate the islands only to meet concerted resistance from the Ryukyuans. In the 12th century, the Ryukyu chain was divided into three independent kingdoms: Northern Ryukyus, Central Ryukyus and Southern Ryukyus.

In 1372, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the central government sent envoy Yang Zai to the three Ryukyu kingdoms and conferred honorific titles on the three kings. In return, the three kingdoms promised to pay tribute to the Chinese court as Ming vassal states.

In 1429, the Central Ryukyus conquered its Northern and Southern counterparts, unifying the Ryukyu Islands. The king of Central Ryukyus was recognized by the Ming government as the Ryukyu king.
Thereafter, the relationship between the Ryukyu Kingdom and China developed harmoniously, and the islands were regarded as a model for other tributaries. All Ryukyu kings were subject to appointment by the Ming court, with the kingdom under the title of the Chinese emperor’s reign and lunar calendar. All official documents, diplomatic treaties and history books of the Ryukyus were written in Chinese.


In 1392, Emperor Hongwu (reigned 1368-98) designated 36 surnames to a number of shipbuilding experts and good voyagers and sent them to the Ryukyus to export advanced Chinese technology, which boosted bilateral trade.

In 1430, the Ming court bestowed the surname “Shang” upon the then Ryukyu king, further underscoring the dependence of the Ryukyus on China. Starting with the Ming Dynasty, the Ryukyus sent a total of 182 tribute missions to China.

Through close contact with China, Confucianism and Chinese customs spread across the Ryukyus. Taking advantage of its favorable location, it successfully expanded foreign trade with China and Japan. By paying tribute to China, it gained cultural, economic and political interests and strengthened its loyalty to the suzerain.

After the fall of the Ming Dynasty, the Ryukyus continued its tributary relations with the Qing government (1616-1911). In 1646, King Shang Xian requested an appointment from the Qing court. The Qing’s Ministry of Rites, however, declined his request for the reason that the kingdom had not turned in the seal granted by the Ming government. The Ryukyus did not gain recognition from the Qing until 1654, when the king handed over the seal and made a second request.

In 1663, the Qing government officially nominated Shang Zhi as the King of the Ryukyus, laying the foundation for friendly ties between the two sides. In the dynasty, the Ryukyus was in close tributary relations with China through more than 100 tribute missions.

As a vassal state of China, the Ryukyus was an important component of the East Asian tributary system. Nonetheless, China never intervened in its internal affairs. The intimate suzerain-vassal relationship was built on a voluntary basis. Guided by Confucianism, a China-centered stable regional and international structure was shaped in East Asia.

Japan plotted annexation
Owing to its unique location, the Ryukyus gradually became a thoroughfare for maritime trade between China and Japan. It benefited tremendously from trading Chinese and Japanese products, but it soon became a target for Japan’s territorial ambitions.

In 1591, the de facto ruler of Japan Toyotomi Hideyoshi dispatched his vassal Shimadzu to the Ryukyus to persuade the king to provide soldiers and funds for a planned invasion of Korea. He threatened to destroy the Ryukyus if the king refused. However, the Ryukyu king informed the Ming government of the matter and turned down Japan’s demand.

In April 1609, Shimadzu advanced into Shuri Castle, the political center of the Ryukyus, and captured King Shang Ning, who was forced to pledge that he would send food to Japan’s Satsuma.

At the time, China was plagued by a series of crises—an earthquake, floods, a popular uprising and the invasion of Nurhachi, who later founded the Qing Dynasty. The Ming court was therefore too busy to care about the situation in the Ryukyus. Furthermore, the central government had used up its resources aiding Korea in its defense against Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

Because they placed a higher value on friendly relations with China, the Ryukyuans rose up against Japanese aggression. However, they were so weak that they could hardly resist. Consequently, the Ryukyus had no alternative but to pay tribute to China and Satsuma as well.

After carrying out the Meiji Restoration, Japan followed the path of capitalism and militarist expansion. Close to Japan and weak in strength, the Ryukyus became the primary target of Japan’s outward expansion.

In 1868, the Japanese government forcibly placed the Ryukyus under the jurisdiction of Kagoshima Prefecture. Three years later, Japan tricked Ryukyu Prince Shang Jian into visiting Tokyo under the pretext of celebrating the Meji Restoration. Moreover, it arbitrarily gave the title “Seignior” to Ryukyu King Shang Tai, included him in the nobility of Japan and abolished the title conferred by the Qing government in a bid to assert Japan’s sovereignty over the Ryukyus.

In 1873, Japan ordered the Ryukyus to accept the jurisdiction of the ministry of interior and to pay land taxes and other levies to the ministry of finance, thereby incorporating the state into Japan’s internal affairs.

In 1875, Japan sent troops to the Ryukyus, ordering it to accept Meiji rule and no longer pay tribute to the Qing court. The next year, Japan instituted a police apparatus and a judicial branch there, establishing colonial rule over the territory.

In 1877, the Ryukyu king sent secret envoys to China to ask for help from the Qing government, but the latter didn’t take it very seriously. The Chinese envoy in Japan He Ruzhang was ordered to investigate the matter and lodged a stern protest against Japan’s action.

However, aware of the cowardice of the Qing government and proud of its growing strength, Japan ignored the Qing’s overtures. In April 1879, Japan officially changed the name of the Ryukyus to Okinawa Prefecture and assigned Nabeshima Naoyoshi as the first magistrate. Meanwhile, it took the Ryukyu king into custody by force and compelled him to migrate to Japan. These measures completed the annexation of the Ryukyu territory and sealed the demise of the kingdom.

Decline of tributary system
Japan’s occupation of the Ryukyus, an important tributary of China at the time, dealt a heavy blow to the East Asian tributary system, which constituted the bedrock for international order in the region.


After the Meiji Restoration, Japan gradually made itself a capitalist country and indulged in foreign aggression and expansion. A result of its military efforts, the annexation of the Ryukyus brought great changes to international relations in East Asia, and the tributary system began to crumble.

After the Opium Wars (1840-1842; 1856-1860), China was gradually reduced to a semi-colonial and semi-feudal society due to the aggression of Western powers and Japan. As its national strength fell precipitously, the Qing Dynasty plunged into instability. With its decline in East Asia, it became incapable of maintaining the tributary system. Consequently, its tributaries came into the orbit of Western powers and Japan.

When the Ryukyus was invaded by Japan, the Qing court hardly did anything to remedy the situation, fully exposing its weakness in diplomatic affairs and emboldening imperialist powers to annex its vassal states.

In 1895, the Qing forces were defeated in the First Sino-Japanese War, and the central court was forced to sign the humiliating, costly Treaty of Shimonoseki, putting an end to the tributary system.

Yang Zehui is from the School of International Studies at Renmin University of China.