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A tribute (from Latin tributum, contribution) is wealth one party gives to another as a sign of respect or, as was often the case in historical contexts, of submission or allegiance. It also incorporated certain aspects of regulated trade in goods and services between the parties under a contractual relationship formed upon duress, and based upon the potential for threats if specific performance did not occur. A tributary or tributary state is a state, colony, region, or people who pay tribute to a more powerful, suzerain state.

Various ancient states, which could be called suzerains, exacted tribute from areas they had conquered or threatened to conquer. In case of alliance, lesser parties gave tribute to the dominant parties as a sign of allegiance and for the purposes of financing the agreed projects - usually raising an army. The term may also be used on religious tax used for maintenance of temples and other sacred places.

Athensmarker received tribute from the other cities of the Delian League. Empires of Assyria, Babylonmarker, Carthagemarker and Romemarker exacted tribute from their provinces and subject kingdoms. Ancient Chinamarker received tribute from various states such as Japanmarker, Koreamarker, and Vietnammarker. Roman republic also exacted tribute in the form of equivalent to proportional property taxes for the purpose of waging war.

Chinese practice of tributes as trade regulation and authority

In Chinamarker, the tribute system began from the earliest days to provide both an administrative means to control vassals, as well as a means of providing exclusive trading rights to those who paid tribute from foreign regions. The process of tribute from a foreign nation to China allowed reciprocal trade under both imperial protection and imperial regulation, and barred entry into this trade by those who did not participate. It was an integral part of the Confucian philosophy and was seen by the Chinese as equivalent to the familial relation of younger sons looking after older parents by devoting part of their wealth, assets, or goods to that purpose. Political marriages also existed between the Chinese empire and tribute states, such as Songtsen Gampo and Wencheng (Gyasa).
China often received tribute from the states under the influence of Confucian civilization and gave them Chinese products and recognition of their authority and sovereignty in return. Sometimes Chinese support was significant in local politics. There were numerous tribute states to the Chinese-established empires throughout ancient history, including neighboring countries such as Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. This tributary system and relationship are well known as Jimi (羁縻) or Cefeng (册封), or Chaogong (朝貢). In Japanese, the tributary system and relationship is refered to as Shinkou (進貢), Sakuhou (冊封) and Choukou (朝貢).

According to the Chinese Book of Han, the various tribes of Japanmarker (constituting the nation of Wa) had already entered into tributary relationships with China by the first century . However, Japan ceased to present tribute to China and left the tributary system during the Heian period without damaging economic ties. Although Japan eventually returned to the tributary system during the Muromachi period, it did not recommence presenting tribute . According to the Korean historical document Samguk Sagi (삼국사기, 三國史記), Korea sent a diplomatic representative to the Han Dynasty in 32 AD, and the Emperor Guangwu of Han granted the official rank of Korea. The tributary relationship between Korean and China was established generally after the 4th century.

There is a clear differentiation between the term "tribute" and "gift." The former, known as gong, has important connotations. The Chinese emperors made sure that the gifts they paid to other states were known as mere gifts, not tributes. Even at times when a Chinese dynasty had to bribe nomads from raiding their border such as in the Han Dynasty and the Song Dynasty, the emperors gave "gifts" to the Xiongnu and the Khitan. The only time when a dynasty paid formal tribute to another was during the southern Song dynasty, where tribute was given to the Jin Dynasty for peace. The Jin Dynasty also saw itself as the legitimate holder of the "Mandate of Heaven".

In addition, the Zheng He expeditions also carried goods to build tribute relationships between the Ming Dynastymarker and newly discovered kingdoms. Tribute activities occupy several chapters in the Twenty-Four Histories.

Islamic notions of tribute

The Islamic Caliphate introduced a new form of tribute, known as the 'jizya', that differed significantly from earlier Roman forms of tribute. According to Patricia Seed:

Christians of the Iberian Peninsulamarker translated the term 'jizya' as tributo. This form of tribute was later also applied by the Spanish and Portuguese empires to their territories in the New World.

Western European notions of tribute in medieval times

Raid, like Vikings and Celtic tribes, could also exact tribute instead of raiding the place if the potential targets agreed to pay an agreed amount of valuables.

Tribute was not always money, but also valuables, effectively making the payers hostages kept unpillaged in exchange for good behavior.

Various medieval lords required tribute from their vassals or peasants, nominally in exchange for protection to incur the costs of raising armies, or paying for free-lance mercenaries against a hostile neighbouring state. That system evolved into medieval taxation and co-existed as a secular approximation of the churchly tithe upon income.

During the Spanish Reconquista, there were period when the Christian kings were more militarily powerful than the Moors, but lacked the population to settle and defend the conquered territories.They were contented with receiving tribute, the parias.Combined with commerce across the Mediterranean, it was a means for African wares like gold to enter Europe.

Tribute in the modern era

Modern elements of tribute are restricted to highly formal and ceremonial rituals: such as formal gifts being given to prove either fealty or loyalty upon the inauguration of a US or other president, a wedding of a president's children while in office; the accession of a member of a royal family, or their marriages; and even in the largely staged show business marriages, where studios, banks, and other stars prove their loyalty through expensive gifts in hope of future benefits, and if are not given will result in loss of business. Thus, the element of duress and coercion seen in earlier times is part of this process, particularly in Hollywood.

In general use, the phrase, "to pay tribute," often means, "to praise or laud," whether or not an accompanying gift (the historical understanding of "tribute") is provided.


  1. 後漢書, 會稽海外有東鯷人 分爲二十餘國
  2. "우리 나라와 중국과의 조공 관계는 대개 4세기 이후 삼국시대부터 성립되었다. ≪삼국사기≫에 의하면 32년(고구려 대무신왕 15)에 후한으로 사신을 보내어 조공을 바치니 후한의 광무제(光武帝)가 왕호를 회복시켜주었다는 기록이 있다."

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