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The "Sinocentric World": The area of usage of Chinese characters at its maximum extent (to a considerable extent following the borders of the Qing Dynasty). Areas using only Chinese characters in green; in conjunction with other scripts, dark green (includes countries such as Japan and Korea that incorporated Chinese characters in their own writing systems, and areas like Xinjiang and Tibet where Chinese characters are used only in writing Chinese and not local languages); maximum extent of historic usage, light green, although the Khitan, Jurchen, and other northern peoples not shown here also used Chinese characters.

Sinocentrism (Template:Zh) or (Template:Zh) is any ethnocentric perspective that regards China to be the center of civilization and superior to all other nations. Depending on the historical context, sinocentrism can refer to either the ethnocentrism of the Han people and Han culture, or the more recent concept of zhonghua minzu popularized by the non-Han Manchu Qing dynasty. It was popular among the Chinese elites up to the Qing dynasty, but it is not so widely popular among Chinese in present day. In pre-modern times, it took the form of viewing China as the only civilization in the world, and foreign nations or ethnic groups as "barbarians" of different degrees, a distinction known in Chinese as the Hua-Yi distinction. In modern times, it can take the form of according China significance or supremacy at the cost of other nations.[1]

Sinocentric system

File:Tianxia zh-hant.svg

Barbarians according to the Sinocentric world[citation needed]. Those in the east were called Dongyi (東夷), those in the west Xirong (西戎), those in the south Nanman (南蠻), and those in the north Beidi (北狄). The outward area of the Sinocentric influence were called Huawaizhidi (化外之地).

The Sinocentric system was a hierarchical system of international relations that prevailed in East Asia before the adoption of the Westphalian system in modern times. Korea, the Ryūkyū Kingdom, and Vietnam were regarded as vassals of China and relations between the Chinese Empire and these peoples were interpreted as tributary relationships under which these countries offered tribute (朝貢) to the Emperor of China. Areas outside the Sinocentric influence were called Huawaizhidi (化外之地), means uncivilized lands.

At the center of the system stood China, ruled by the dynasty that had gained the Mandate of Heaven. This Celestial Empire (神州 Shénzhōu), distinguished by its Confucian codes of morality and propriety, regarded itself as the only civilization in the world; the Emperor of China (huangdi) was regarded as the only legitimate Emperor of the entire world (lands all under heaven or 天下 tianxia).

Under this scheme of international relations, only China had an Emperor or Huangdi (皇帝), who was the Son of Heaven; other countries only had Kings or Wang (王). (See Chinese sovereign). The Japanese use of the term Emperor or 'tennō' (天皇) for the ruler of Japan was a subversion of this principle. Significantly, the Koreans still refer to the Japanese Emperor as a King, conforming with the traditional Chinese usage.

Identification of the heartland and the legitimacy of dynastic succession were both essential aspects of the system. Originally the center was synonymous with the Central Plain, an area that was expanded through invasion and conquest over many centuries. The dynastic succession was at times subject to radical changes in interpretation, such as the period of the Southern Song when the ruling dynasty lost the traditional heartland to the northern barbarians. Outside the center were several concentric circles. Local ethnic minorities were not regarded as 'foreign countries'. However, they were governed by their own leaders called Local Commanders (土司 tusi), subject to recognition by the Emperor, and were exempt from the Chinese bureaucratic system.

Outside this circle were the tributary states which offered tribute (朝貢) to the Emperor of China and over which China exercised suzerainty. Under the Ming Dynasty, when the tribute system entered its peak, these states were classified into a number of groups. The southeastern barbarians (category one) included some of the major states of East Asia and Southeast Asia, such as Korea, Japan, the Ryūkyū Kingdom, Annam, Đại Việt, Siam, Champa, and Java. A second group of southeastern barbarians covered countries like Sulu, Malacca, and Sri Lanka. Many of these are independent states in modern times.

In addition, there were northern barbarians, northeastern barbarians, and two large categories of western barbarians (from Shanxi, west of Lanzhou, and modern-day Xinjiang), none of which have survived into modern times as separate or independent states.

The situation was complicated by the fact that some tributary states had their own tributaries. Laos was a tributary of Vietnam and the Ryūkyū Kingdom paid tribute to both China and Japan.

Beyond the circle of tributary states were countries in a trading relationship with China. The Portuguese, for instance, were allowed to trade with China from leased territory in Macau but did not officially enter the tributary system. Intriguingly, Qing dynasty have used the term Huawaizhidi (化外之地) explicitly for Taiwan (Formosa) [2][3].

While Sinocentrism tends to be identified as a politically inspired system of international relations, in fact it possessed an important economic aspect. The Sinocentric tribute and trade system provided Northeast and Southeast Asia with a political and economic framework for international trade. Countries wishing to trade with China were required to submit to a suzerain-vassal relationship with the Chinese sovereign. After investiture (冊封) of the ruler in question, the missions were allowed to come to China to pay tribute (貢物) to the Chinese emperor. In exchange, tributary missions were presented with return bestowals (回賜). Special licences were issued to merchants accompanying these missions to carry out trade. Trade was also permitted at land frontiers and specified ports. This sinocentric trade zone was based on the use of silver as a currency with prices set by reference to Chinese prices.

The Sinocentric model was not seriously challenged until contact with the European powers in the 18th and 19th century, in particular the Opium War. This was partly due to the fact that there were little direct contact between the Chinese Empire and other empires of the pre-modern period. By the mid 19th century, imperial China was well past its peak and was on the verge of collapse.

In the late 19th century, the Sinocentric tributary state system in East Asia was superceded by the Westphalian multi-state system.[4]

Response of other countries

Within Asia, the cultural and economic centrality of China was recognized and most countries submitted to the sinocentric model, if only to enjoy the benefits of a trading relationship. However, clear differences of nuance can be discerned in the responses of different countries.



Another rendering of foreign relations of Imperial China. The center nations are tributary states, known as 小中華 (Little China), which incorporate the centermost 大中華 (Big China).

The Korean peninsula was greatly influenced by its geographic and historic proximity to China.

Until the era of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, Korean states had been protected from Chinese invasions by militarily powerful states such as Goguryeo which ruled northern region of Korean peninsula and Manchu. Goguryeo considered herself as an equally supreme state as China and adopted her own centric system to adjacent countries. Refusing to pay any tributes and continuing to conquer eastern territories of China altogether incurred a series of massive Chinese invasions of Goguryeo from 598 to 614, which ended disastrously and they mainly contributed to the fall of Chinese Sui Dynasty in 618. Such numerous defeats of the Chinese raised the sense of ethnic superiority in Goguryeo and further expansions into the Chinese territories continued.

After Goguryeo finally collapsed by allied forces of Silla, one of the Three Kingdoms of Korea, and Tang Dynasty in 668, Silla, now being the sole ruler of Korean peninsula, more readily started the tribute system. However, such ties between two countries were greatly weakened after Silla's submission to Goryeo who claimed to succeed Goguryeo.

Goryeo's relationship with Chinese Song dynasty remained equal but close and very profitable bilateral trade propspered without the tribute system as Goryeo's ginseng and porcelain were highly priced in China whereas Chinese silks were popular in Goryeo. This peaceful relationship ended when Mongol invasions of Korea, as part of a general campaign to conquer China, occurred in 1231. After 30 years of fierce resistance, Goryeo finally sued for peace and became a tributary of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty. Soon after the weakening of Yuan Dynasty, Goryeo retook her lost territories from the Mongol Empire by military campaigns and regained her sovereign rights.

Later state Joseon (1392), however, encouraged the entrenchment of Confucian ideals and doctrines in Korean society and voluntarily entered herself into the Sinocentric system. After the Ming Dynasty, which regarded itself as huá (華), cultured civilization was considered to have collapsed under the invasion of the Qing from Manchuria, who were considered barbarian (夷) in 1644. The Ming was thought of as the last true Sino culture (中華). Many philosophers of the Joseon in that era considered their country a Little China (小中華, Sojunghwa) as a way of asserting[citation needed] that they were now the last descendants of the civilized world.

The Sinocentrism in Joseon came to an end in 19th century when Korean Empire was proclaimed by Emperor Gojong. Ever since, Sinocentrism, known as Junghwa-sasang (중화사상; 中華思想) in Korea, has been regarded as imprudent and disdainful delusions of grandeur.

This started with simultaneous influx of European culture and the decline of Qing Dynasty in early 19th century. During Korea's annexation by Japan, the Japanese injection of the belief of Chinese inferiority into the country boosted the resistance to the Sinocentrism in Korea over the years. It had also been claimed by many historians and philosophers in Korea that the acceptance of Chinese confucianism and culture was the main contribution to military weakness and resultant external aggressions in Joseon Dynasty.


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The various levels of administrative influence of Imperial China.

Vietnam (Annam) had an intimate but not always peaceful relationship with China. Vietnam was under Chinese rule for approximately 1,000 years before gaining independence in the 10th century. In subsequent centuries the Vietnamese drove out Chinese invaders on a number of occasions, to the extent that conflict with China may be seen as one of the main themes of Vietnamese history.

However, Vietnam was also heavily Sinicized, using Classical Chinese as its official literary language and adopting most aspects of Chinese culture, including the administrative system, architecture, philosophy, religion, literature of China, and even a general cultural outlook. Vietnam persistently identified itself in relation to China, regarding itself as the kingdom of the south as against China in the north, as seen in this line from a poem (in Chinese) by General Lý Thường Kiệt (李常傑) (1019–1105): "Over mountains and rivers of the South reigns the Emperor of the South. (南國山河南帝居)".

In adopting Chinese customs, the Vietnamese court also adopted the Chinese world view. In 1805, the Emperor Gia Long referred to Vietnam as trung quốc, the "middle kingdom".[5]. Cambodia was regularly called Cao Man, the country of "upper barbarians". In 1815, Gia Long claimed 13 countries as Vietnamese vassals, including Luang Prabang, Vientane, Burma, France, England, Tran Ninh Plateau in eastern Laos, and two countries called "Water Haven" and "Fire Haven", which were actually Malayo-Polynesian Jarai tribes living between Vietnam and Thailand. Copying the Chinese model, the Vietnamese court attempted to regulate the presentation of tribute to the Vietnamese court, participation in New Year and emperor's birthday ceremonies, as well as the travel routes and size of tributary missions.[6]

Chinese influence waned as French influence rose in the 19th century, and Vietnam eventually abolished the Imperial examinations and stopped using Chinese characters and Chữ Nôm in the 20th century.


In Japan, an ambivalent tone was set early in its relationship with China. Shōtoku Taishi (574-622), Prince Regent of Japan, is famous for having sent a letter to the Emperor of China starting with the words: "The Emperor of the land where the sun rises sends a letter to the Emperor of the land where the sun sets to ask if you are healthy" (日出處天子致書日沒處天子無恙云云). This is commonly believed as the origin of the name Nihon (source of the sun), although the actual characters for Nihon (日本) were not used.

Not long after this, however, Japan remodeled its entire state and administrative apparatus on the Chinese system under the Taika Reforms (645), the beginning of a period of Chinese influence on many aspects of Japanese culture until Imperial Japanese embassies to China were abolished in 894.

In 1401, during the Muromachi period (室町時代), the shogun Yoshimitsu (足利義満) restarted the lapsed tribute system (1401), describing himself in a letter to the Chinese Emperor as "Your subject, the King of Japan" while also a subject of the Japanese Emperor. The benefit of the tribute system was a profitable trade. The trade was called Kango[7] trade (means tally trade[7]) and Japanese products were traded for Chinese goods. This relationship ended with the last envoy of Japanese monk Sakugen Shūryō in 1551[8][9], which was Ashikaga Yoshiteru's era, including a 20 years suspension by Ashikaga Yoshimochi[clarification needed]. These embassies were sent to China on 19 occasions.

In the years 1592–1593 Toyotomi Hideyoshi, having unified Japan, tried to conquer Korea as a prelude to conquering Ming China. The attempt to conquer "all under heaven" (itself a sinocentric concept identifying China as "the world") ended in failure.

Japanese responses to Sinocentric concepts have not always been so straightforward. The Mongol invasions in 1274 and 1281 evoked a national consciousness of the role of the kamikaze (神風) in defeating the enemy. Less than fifty years later (1339–43), Kitabatake Chikafusa wrote the Jinnō Shōtōki (神皇正統記, 'Chronicle of the Direct Descent of the Divine Sovereigns') emphasizing the divine descent of the imperial line. The Jinnō Shōtōki provided a Shinto view of history stressing the divine nature of Japan and its spiritual supremacy over China and India.

In the Tokugawa era, the study of Kokugaku (国学) arose as an attempt to reconstruct and recover the authentic native roots of Japanese culture, particularly Shintoism, excluding later elements borrowed from China. In 1657, Tokugawa Mitsukuni established the Mito School, which was charged with writing a history of Japan as a perfect exemplar of a "nation" under Confucian thought, with the emphasis on unified rule by the emperors and respect for the imperial court and Shinto deities.

In an ironic affirmation of the spirit of Sinocentrism, claims were even heard that the Japanese, not the Chinese, were the legitimate heirs of Chinese culture. In the early Edo period, neo-Confucianist Yamaga Soko asserted that Japan was superior to China in Confucian terms and more deserving of the name "Chūgoku". Other scholars picked this up, notably Aizawa Seishisai, an adherent of the Mito School, in his political tract Shinron (新論 New Theses) in 1825.

As a country that had much to gain by eclipsing Chinese power in East Asia, Japan in more recent times has perhaps been most ardent in identifying and demolishing what it dismissively calls Chūka shisō (中華思想), loosely meaning 'Zhonghua ideology'. One manifestation of Japanese resistance to Sinocentrism was the insistence for many years in the early 20th century on using the name Shina (支那) for China, based on the Western word 'China', in preference to Chūgoku (中国 Central Country) advocated by the Chinese themselves.

Another example is the claim, heard among some commentators on China, that general depopulation and the incursion of races from the north during the period of the Three Kingdoms (三国) led to the virtual replacement of the original Chinese race by non-Chinese.[10] The general thrust of this kind of claim is to deny the continuity of a "pure" Chinese civilization and discredit modern Chinese claims and appeals to their ancient history.


Unlike East Asian states, which communicated in written Chinese, Myanmar (Burma) used a different written language in its communications with China. While China consistently regarded Myanmar as a vassal, Myanmar records indicate that Myanmar considered itself as China's equal. Under the Burmese interpretation, Myanmar was the "younger brother" and China was the "elder brother".[11]


The best-known official encounter between Sinocentrism and Europeans was the celebrated Macartney Embassy of 1792-93, which sought to establish a permanent British presence in Peking and open up trade relations. The rebuff of the Chinese Emperor to the British overtures and the British refusal to kowtow to the Emperor of China has passed into legend. In response to the British request to recognise Macartney as ambassador, the Emperor wrote:

The Celestial Empire, ruling all within the four seas, simply concentrates on carrying out the affairs of Government properly...We have never valued ingenious articles, nor do we have the slightest need of your country's manufactures, therefore O King, as regards to your request to send someone to remain at the capital, which it is not in harmony with the regulations of the Celestial Empire - we also feel very much that it is of no advantage to your country.

It was to be more than half a century before Europe gained the upper hand with the Opium War. Led by the British, one Western power after another imposed unequal treaties on China, including provisions of extraterritoriality that excluded Europeans from the application of local laws.

Cultural Sinocentrism

In a cultural sense, Sinocentrism refers to the tendency to regard Chinese culture as more ancient than or superior to other cultures. This often involves regarding neighboring countries as mere cultural offshoots of China. In point of fact, China has a far longer written history than neighboring countries, and these countries borrowed heavily from the Chinese model at an early stage in their histories. However, Sinocentrism goes beyond this and tries to deny surrounding countries uniqueness or validity as separate cultures. For example, there is a story that a sea-going fleet led by Xu Fu near the end of the Qin Dynasty resulted in large-scale Chinese settlement on the Japanese islands. This story is supported only by circumstantial evidence, but is eagerly embraced by many Chinese as proving that the origins of Japan as a nation can be traced to China[citation needed].

The geographical dimension of traditional Sinocentrism was highlighted by Chinese reactions to the publication of the first world map by the Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552–1610):

Lately Matteo Ricci utilized some false teachings to fool people, and scholars unanimously believed him...take for example the position of China on the map. He puts it not in the center but slightly to the West and inclined to the north. This is altogether far from the truth, for China should be in the center of the world, which we can prove by the single fact that we can see the North Star resting at the zenith of the heaven at midnight. How can China be treated like a small unimportant country, and placed slightly to the north as in this map?[12]

In the late nineteenth century, the idea that knowledge borrowed from the West already existed in China in antiquity, a trend of thought known in Chinese as gǔ yǐ yǒu zhī (古已有之, literally 'this already existed in ancient times'), flourished in Chinese intellectual circles. The Qing dynasty scholar, Ruan Yuan, wrote the book Chouren zhuan (畴人传, Biographies of Astronomers and Mathematicians) from the point of view that Western science had an ancient Chinese origin. This notion had its intellectual roots in the Han Learning tradition, a movement to recover “pristine copies” of the ancient classics. Scholars such as Ruan saw astronomy and mathematics as a key to deciphering the ancient classics, and until the Sino-Japanese War many believed that the science and technology coming from Europe was actually lost ancient Chinese knowledge. Although the theory of gǔ yǐ yǒu zhī is no longer taken seriously in China, there is still a residual tendency within Chinese culture, rightly or wrongly, to identify customs and technology borrowed from the West as having Chinese antecedents or to claim that aspects of Western culture originated in China.[13].

Culturally, one of the most famous attacks on Sinocentrism and its associated beliefs was made by the author Lu Xun in The True Story of Ah Q, satirizing the ridiculous way in which the protagonist claimed 'spiritual victories' despite being humiliated and defeated.[14]


The Sinocentric model of political relations came to an end in the 19th century. The ideology suffered a further blow when Imperial Japan, having undergone the Meiji Restoration, defeated China in the First Sino-Japanese War. As a result, China adopted the Westphalian system of equal independent states. In modern Chinese foreign policy, the People's Republic of China has stated repeatedly that it will never seek hegemony (永不称霸).

While China has renounced claims to superiority over other nations, some assert that China never really completely abandoned Sinocentrism and that a sinocentric view of history lies behind many modern Chinese constructs of history and self-identity. After the Second Sino-Japanese War and the establishment of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, China quickly claimed sovereignty and incorporated territories which it considered to be integral part of China, such as the areas of Tibet and Xinjiang, which were part of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912). They had become de facto independent or semi-independent during the Republican era, but the Republican government (which retreated to Taiwan after 1949) also considered them as part of China in its Constitution.[15] Such a situation at that time was largely due to the chaos in the early history of the Republic of China, when every area possessed by a warlord is de facto independent or semi-independent.[16]

In China, these actions are regarded as acts that any sovereign state in the world would take to defend its sovereignty and integrity, since Tibet and Xinjiang were internationally recognized as parts of China and they did constitute parts of China for centuries,[17]

Mongolia was also part of the Qing Dynasty, however it had become a satellite state of the Soviet Union since the 1920s. Attempts to persuade the Soviet Union to accept the incorporation of Mongolia failed as Mikoyan declared that this should be decided by the Mongolian people.[18] However, in 1950s, the newly founded People's Republic of China signed the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Alliance in which it gives up the Mongolia in exchange for the support from the Soviet Union.[19]

Some claim elements of Sinocentrism have been identified in China's recent relations with Korea[citation needed]. In 2004, Chinese scholars of the Northeast Project claimed the ancient kingdom of Goguryeo, which included the area of southern Manchuria and northern Korea, is a part of the history of China when its capital was in modern-day Manchuria (Northeast China), and also a part of the history of China when its capital was in modern-day.However, this unilateral historical research result still remains desputable.[20]

Related concepts

Successive peoples from the north, such as the Xianbei, Jurchens, Mongols[21], or Manchus, were quite ready to place themselves at the center of the model, although they were not always successful. The Xianbei empires during the Southern and Northern Dynasties, for example, regarded the Han Chinese regimes of southern China as "barbarians" because they refused to submit to Xianbei rule. Similarly, the Manchu Qing Dynasty regarded the initial wave of European incursions during the mid-19th century as "barbarians".

Sinocentrism is also not synonymous with Chinese nationalism. The successive dynasties of China were Sinocentric in the sense that they regarded Chinese civilization to be universal in its reach and application. Chinese nationalism, in contrast, is a more modern concept focused primarily on the idea of a unified, cohesive, and powerful Chinese nation, as one of the nations of the world.

See also


  1. "Beneath the Facade of China". School of Contemporary Chinese Studies NG8 1BB. May 30, 2007.
  2. History in The Mutan Village Incident
  3. Chinataiwan history (历史) of Taiwan area (Chinese)
  4. Kang, David C. (2010). Template:Google books
  5. Vietnam and the Chinese Model, Alexander Barton Woodside, Council on East Asian Studies Harvard, Cambridge (Massachusetts) and London 1988: P18
  6. Vietnam and the Chinese Model, Alexander Barton Woodside, Council on East Asian Studies Harvard, Cambridge (Massachusetts) and London 1988: P236-237
  7. 7.0 7.1 Page 81, Japan's Renaissance, Kenneth A. Grossberg
  8. Page 80, Tanegashima, Olof G. Lidin
  9. Page 1232, Flow cytometry and cell sorting, Andreas Radbruch
  11. Suzerain and Vassal, or Elder and Younger Brothers: The Nature of the Sino-Burmese Historical Relationship by Laichen Sun, University of Michigan
  12. Wei Chün, On Ricci's Fallacies to Deceive the World (Li shuo huang-t'ang huo-shih p'ien), quoted in: George H. C. Wong, “China's Opposition to Western Science during Late Ming and Early Ch'ing”, Isis, Vol. 54, No. 1. (Mar., 1963), pp. 29-49 (44)
  13. Needham, Joseph (1954-2000), Science and Civilization in China, 7 volumes, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
  14. Lu Xun [鲁迅] (1981), Lu Xun Quanji (鲁迅全集, Collected Works of Lu Xun), 16 volumes, Renmin Chubanshe, Beijing
  15. Constitution of the Republic of China.
  16. [1].
  17. [2].
  18. Cold War International History Project
  19. [3].
  20. Northeast Project of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
  21. Kublai Khan


External links

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