In ancient China, the tribute system provided an administrative means to control their interests, as well as providing exclusive trading priorities to those who paid tribute from foreign regions. It was an integral part of the Confucian philosophy, seen by the Chinese as equivalent to younger sons looking after older parents by devoting part of their wealth, assets or goods to that purpose. Political marriages have 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. There were several tribute states to the Chinese-established empires throughout ancient history, including neighboring countries such as Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Borneo, Indonesia and Central Asia. This tributary system and relationship are well known as Jimi (羈縻) or
Cefeng (冊封), or
Chaogong (朝貢). In Japanese, the tributary system and relationship is referred to as
Sakuhou (冊封) and
According to the Chinese Book of Han, the various tribes of Japan (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 in the reign of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, it did not recommence presenting tribute.
According to the Korean historical document Samguk Sagi (Korean: 삼국사기; Hanja: 三國史記), Goguryeo sent a diplomatic representative to the Han dynasty in 32 AD, and Emperor Guangwu of Han officially acknowledged Goguryeo with a title. The tributary relationship between China and Korea was established during the Three Kingdoms of Korea, but in practice it was only a diplomatic formality to strengthen legitimacy and gain access to cultural goods from China. This continued under different dynasties and varying degrees until China's defeat in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895. The relationship between China and Vietnam was a "hierarchic tributary system". China ended its suzerainty over Vietnam with the Treaty of Tientsin (1885) following the Sino-French War. Thailand was always subordinate to China as a vassal or a tributary state since the Sui dynasty until the Taiping Rebellion of the late Qing dynasty in the mid-19th century.
Some tributaries of imperial China encompasses suzerain kingdoms from China in East Asia has been prepared. Before the 20th century, the geopolitics of East and Southeast Asia were influenced by the Chinese tributary system. This assured them their sovereignty and the system assured China the incoming of certain valuable assets. "The theoretical justification" for this exchange was the Mandate of Heaven, that stated the fact that the Emperor of China was empowered by the heavens to rule, and with this rule the whole mankind would end up being beneficiary of good deeds. Most of the Asian countries joined this system voluntary.
There is a clear differentiation between the term "tribute" and "gift." The former, known as gong (貢), 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, having occupied the plains around the Yellow River, also saw itself as the legitimate holder of the "Mandate of Heaven".
In addition, during Zheng He's expeditions, his fleet often returned with foreign envoys bearing tribute. The foreign states received gifts in return to build tributary relationships between the Ming Dynasty and the foreign kingdoms. Tribute activities occupy several chapters in the Twenty-Four Histories.