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The Four Quarters Come to Court: A Special Exhibition of Envoys Presenting Tribute

  • #Painting


The tribute system, or "periodic offerings" in Chinese, was historically a unique way in which the court in China engaged with external polities and peoples. In this system, tributary states or groups would send envoys to the suzerain host court in China with offerings on a periodic basis. Envoys, as representatives of their respective people or state, would have an audience with the emperor, receive investiture, and then be awarded with gifts to indicate submission at least symbolically. To illustrate and document its power and prestige, the court in dynastic China often commissioned paintings on the occasions of pomp and circumstance surrounding these tribute missions. The earliest recorded example of such is the depiction of "Envoys Presenting Tribute" by Emperor Yuandi of the Liang dynasty in the Southern Dynasties period. The paintings as a whole express ideas of national power and ethnic cooperation within a distinctly heirarchical framework. Presenting a propagandist view by imperial China of a unified expression in terms of its relationships with other peoples, rulers in the past placed great attention on tribute missions and their byproducts, including the paintings made to illustrate them.

The origins of the official tribute system in East Asia trace back to the pre-Qin period in China. Records of the "Five Domains System" from the Western Zhou dynasty in ancient times present the royal domain as the center of a power base within four concentric rings divided on the basis of blood relations, officials of rank, and geographical proximity. These "Five Domains" forming a heirarchical relationship featured the Western Zhou rulers in the center surrounded by "nobility" and then "dignitary," "non-Zhou," and “wasteland” rings. By identifying and assigning roles between the royal family and nobility, sinicized peoples, and non-Chinese border inhabitants, the system established a means of reciprocal service and obligations that each was to fulfill. From this concentric system of rule from the center emanating outward, a tributary system of power association between "ruler and nobles" and "central and local" would later become the basis for Chinese diplomacy in "international relations" and "ethnic relations." The inherently "unequal relations" and "Sino-centric notions" deep-rooted in this Western Zhou tributary system continued to influence following generations in diplomatic affairs, as reflected also in the records and illustrations that were made.

Paintings of tribute-bearing envoys and official missions to China depict the peoples and tribes of various nations with diplomatic relations, vassal states, and border regions. The contents of such images span several disciplines in modern research, including anthropology, art history, and communication and transportation between China and the outside world. Hence, their importance has gradually come to the attention of scholars. This special exhibition features a selection of twenty paintings as well as calligraphy from the National Palace Museum collection to present a brief overview of the tribute missions in these art forms. Along with examining related inscriptions, it is hoped that these works can help audiences understand how dynastic China managed its relations with other peoples and viewed the world around it.


Publication: The Four Quarters Come to Court: A Special Exhibition of Envoys Presenting Tribute