China's Growing Sea Trade with Europe 1517-1800 (Part 2)

by James Graham

The Dutch were not granted the same privileges other tribute paying nations received despite on the surface doing most things required to fit into the Chinese world order. This was a demonstrable failure of the tribute system to incorporate all nations into the Chinese world order. The failure was not caused so much by the tribute system itself as the Dutch as private citizens had no problem in performing the kowtow in front of the Emperor. The problem lay in the interpretation by each side of what the nature and function of a tribute mission actually was. China viewed the missions as ceremonial acts of submission and expected the Dutch to fulfil their obligations every eight years. Conversely the Dutch saw the missions solely as a means to facilitate important discussions and win the favour of court officials. Communication differences plagued the two nations relations throughout the seventeenth century causing frustration on both sides as each perceived the other of not meeting their obligations. Combined with a decrease in common interests the two nations preferred to let direct contact die away. This left the Chinese-Dutch trade in the hands of the Chinese and especially the Batavian Chinese who both operated completely outside of the tribute system.

After 1685 the Ch'ing abandoned the link between the tribute system and international trade. Maritime trade remained highly regulated and centralised but fiscal concerns became paramount. This change resulted from the defeat of the last Ming loyalists, the capture of Taiwan and thus the consolidation of Manchu rule in China. The tribute system may have been relaxed but the pattern of trade and the Chinese world order were mostly unaffected. European maritime trade while allowed to grow was restricted to the Canton area after 1760 and overseen by customs officials. In practical terms the Europeans preferred Canton because of its location closer to Europe. The opening of China to foreign trade was driven by a new sense of security and a desire to extract revenue from trade.

The British were able to trade in Canton for the whole of the eighteenth century without being required to pay tribute. Only when they wanted access to an increased number of Chinese ports did the British send a tribute mission lead by Macartney in 1793. The Chinese government refused to meet their requests and the British remained restricted to trading in the Canton area well into the nineteenth century. The Chinese viewed this trade very much in their tradition of accepting trade on the frontier as a means to pacify non-Chinese groups. Thus to them restricting maritime trade to Canton was the best way to balance the powerful Europeans and to preserve order and culture within the empire. While the tribute system declined in importance in the eighteenth century, it did so merely to accommodate an increased number of civilised states into the Chinese world order.

The Europeans constantly faced different rules and higher costs in their trade with China than did China's traditional tributary states. Excluding precious metals there was little desire in China for anything the Europeans had to trade. This position of relative strength allowed China to draw the Europeans into its world order largely on Chinese terms. China's tribute system however did not extend to Chinese who went abroad to trade and to Chinese in foreign countries who traded with China. This could have been construed as an unfair advantage and that it was not is evidence of how dependent on China the maritime powers actually were.

Unlike other tributary nations, the Europeans paid tribute solely to gain commercial concessions or political leverage in China. Trade in Peking that tributary missions facilitated was only ever a by-product and of little interest. The maritime powers also found the ritual obligations and restrictions of tribute missions made negotiation difficult and limited their usefulness. When they did pay tribute, the Europeans participated in the ritualistic nature of the Chinese tribute system and accepted its implied inferiority as a commercial necessity. John Wills Jr comment that the Dutch "did not worry very much what an embassy meant to the heathen, so long as they knew what it really meant in Western international law" is doubtless true of all the Europeans. The unsatisfactory results of their tribute missions and the end of the Roman Catholic-Protestant world war in 1648 led the Europeans to focus on developing their commercial operations within the existing commercial environment in China at the time. For their part, the Chinese were content to tolerate a variety of practical arrangements and did not try to persuade the Europeans to resume their tributary relationship. French, Danes and Norwegians all traded in China without ever entering the tribute system. All were relatively minor players and confined their activities to the Canton area. The Chinese assumed in time their civilising influence would again encourage the Europeans to pay homage to the Chinese Emperor. The Canton system of trade in the eighteenth century had little relation to the tribute system.

China relied on its tribute system to subordinate non-Chinese to the Emperor and thus maintain its perception of a world dominated by Chinese civilisation. More flexibility however was applied to states whose power was an actual threat to China itself. The working of the tribute system was hence dependent on the internal strength of China relative to the foreign nations that it was in contact with. Between 1517 and 1800 this power while suffering a slow relative decline was still sufficient to encourage the European maritime powers to seek and accept accommodation within the Chinese world order. In the eighteenth century, European maritime trade clearly operated outside the tribute system and furthermore remained acceptable to the Chinese. This made the Chinese-led world order a fiction only the Chinese continued to believe in, if even then.

China's Growing Sea Trade with Europe 1517-1800

China's Growing Trade with Europe (Part 1)
Chinese History Bibliography