The tribute system, or “periodic offerings” in Chinese, was historically a unique way in which the dynastic court in China engaged in diplomacy with external polities and other peoples. This system involved tributary states or groups of people sending envoys to the suzerain host court in China with offerings on a periodic basis. Envoys, as representatives of their people or states, would have an audience with the emperor, receive investitures, and then be rewarded with gifts to indicate submission. The origins of the East Asian official tribute system trace back to ancient times in the pre-Qin period of China. The Western Zhou dynasty established a tributary system with the royal domain as a center of power surrounded by the “nobility” and then in decreasing importance the “dignitaries,” “non-Zhou,” and finally “wastelands.” In such a way, the Western Zhou king created a hierarchical relationship with and between the nobility and border peoples. The inherent “unequal relations” and deep-rooted “Sinocentric notions” of this Western Zhou tributary system continued to influence and shape diplomatic affairs in later periods, as seen in the records and illustrations that have been left behind.
Paintings of tribute-bearing envoys and official missions to China depict the peoples and tribes of various nations with diplomatic relations, of vassal states, and from border regions. Whether representing envoys coming from afar to receive investitures or tribute from different places to symbolize the four corners of the world paying homage to the court in China, all such images can be broadly viewed as “tribute paintings.” As a whole, the works express a sense of great national power and symbolize ethnic fusion within the idea of a grand unity. Rulers in China in the past thus placed great emphasis on these tribute missions, frequently ordering court artists to illustrate the pomp and circumstance of such occasions.
The National Palace Museum houses a large number of objects related to tribute offerings in its collection, and this special exhibition represents a selection of 20 works of painting as well as calligraphy on the subject. It is hoped that studying the images and analyzing the texts in them not only highlights various facets about this topic but also their styles of rendering. For example, Yan Liben’s “Tribute Bearers” offers both a factual and fanciful depiction. “Khitan Envoys Visit the Court” portrays China as the center of the world, while Li Gonglin’s “Myriad Nations Bearing Tribute” serves as a metaphor for the difference between Chinese and other peoples. Yan Liben’s “Assembly in Homage to the King” and Gu Deqian’s “Copy of Emperor Liang Yuandi’s Foreign Guests Entering the Court” also reveal various aspects of geopolitics, while album leaves “From the Imperial Brush of Ming Taizu” and Xie Sui’s “Official Tribute” handscrolls manifest elements of foreign policy at their respective times. And, finally, the classic schemas seen in Zhou Fang’s “Envoy Bringing Tribute” and “Kylin Painting with an Ode by Shen Du” show foreign figures leading exotic animals to the court in China. Taken together, they are all not just beautiful works of art but also important fragments of fascinating snapshots from the annals of Chinese diplomatic history.
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