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Sinocentrism (simplified Chinese: 中国中心主义; traditional Chinese: 中國中心主義; pinyin: Zhōngguó zhōngxīn zhǔyì) refers to the historical ideology that China was the cultural center of the world.[1]


  • Overview and context 1
  • Sinocentric system 2
  • Responses of other countries 3
    • Korea 3.1
    • Vietnam 3.2
    • Japan 3.3
    • Burma 3.4
    • Europe 3.5
  • Cultural Sinocentrism 4
    • Indigenous criticism 4.1
  • Today 5
  • Related concepts 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
    • Citations 8.1
    • Bibliography 8.2
  • External links 9

Overview and context

Depending on the historical context, sinocentrism can refer to either the ethnocentrism of the Han society and culture, or the modern concept of zhonghua minzu. It was popular among the Chinese elites up to the Qing dynasty, but it is not so widely popular among Chinese in present day.[1]

In pre-modern times, it often took the form of viewing China as the most advanced civilization in the world, and external ethnic groups or foreign nations as being uncivilized to various degrees, a distinction known in Chinese as the Hua-Yi distinction.[2][3] In modern times, it sometimes can take the form of according China significance or supremacy compared to other nations.[1]

Sinocentric system

Zhou Dynasty cosmography of Huaxia and the Siyi: Dongyi in the east, Nanman in the south, Xirong in the west, and Beidi in the north.

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. Surrounding countries such as Japan, 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 (貢品) to the Emperor of China. Areas outside the Sinocentric influence were called Huawaizhidi (化外之地; “beyond the Pale”), meaning uncivilized lands.

At the center of the system stood China, ruled by the dynasty that had gained the Mandate of Heaven (天命 Tiānmìng). This Celestial Dynasty (天朝 Tiāncháo), distinguished by its Confucian codes of morality and propriety, regarded itself as the most prominent 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 Tiānxià).

Under this scheme of international relations, only China had an Emperor or Huangdi (皇帝), who was the Son of Heaven (天子 Tiānzǐ); other countries only had Kings or Wang (王).[4] The Japanese use of the term Heavenly Emperor or 'tennō' (天皇) for the ruler of Japan was a subversion of this principle. Throughout history, the Koreans sometimes refer to their hierarchy as King, conforming with traditional Korean belief of Posterity of Heaven.

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 (貢品) 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. Tsushima was also a tributary of Goryeo and Joseon dynasties of Korea.

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. During the Qing dynasty's rule of Taiwan, some Qing officials have used the term Huawaizhidi (化外之地) to refer to Taiwan (Formosa), specifically to areas in Taiwan that have yet to be fully cultivated, developed and under the control of the Qing government.[5][6]

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 (貢品) 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 sustained contact between the Chinese Empire and other empires of the pre-modern period was limited. 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 superseded by the Westphalian multi-state system.[7]

Responses 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 the foreign relations of Imperial China. The center nations are tributary states, known as 小中華 (Little China (Sojunghwa)), 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, Southern Korean states had been protected from Chinese invasions by militarily powerful Northern Korean 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 between Silla and Tang. 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 somewhat popular in Goryeo. This peaceful relationship ended when Mongol invasions of Korea, as a part of a general campaign to conquer China and rest of Asia, occurred in 1231. After 30 years of fierce resistance, both Goryeo and Mongols finally sued for peace and became a dependency of the Mongol Yuan Dynasty under Mongol influences of the Goryeo royal courts. Soon after the weakening of Yuan Dynasty, Goryeo retook their lost territories from the Mongol Empire by military campaigns and regained her sovereign rights.

During the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910) period, however, they encouraged the entrenchment of Korean 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).[8]

The Sinocentrism in Joseon came to an end in the 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 Joseon dynasty.

This started with simultaneous influx of European culture and the decline of Qing Dynasty in the early 19th century. It had been claimed by many historians and philosophers in Korea that the acceptance of Confucianism as a state ideology was the main contribution to military weakness and resultant external aggressions in Joseon Dynasty.


The various levels of administrative influence of Imperial China.

Vietnam (Annam) had an intimate but not always peaceful relationship with China. Vietnam was part of various Chinese dynasties and kingdoms for approximately 900 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 Classical Chinese) by General Lý Thường Kiệt (李常傑) (1019–1105): Nam Quốc sơn hà Nam Đế cư. (南國山河南帝居), which means "Over mountains and rivers of the South reigns the Emperor of the South"

In adopting Chinese customs, the Vietnamese court also began to adopt Sinocentric world view during the expanding Le and Nguyen dynasties. In 1805, the Emperor Gia Long referred to Vietnam as trung quốc, the "middle kingdom".[9] In 1811, Gia Long proposed a law Hán di hữu hạn (漢夷有限), which means "making clear the border between the Vietnamese and barbarians", referring to the Vietnamese as Han people.[10] Cambodia was regularly called Cao Man Quốc (高蠻國), the country of "upper barbarians". In 1815, Gia Long claimed 13 countries as Vietnamese vassals, including Luang Prabang, Vientane, Burma, Tran Ninh Plateau in eastern Laos, and two countries called "Thủy Xá Quốc" and "Hỏa Xá Quốc", which were actually Malayo-Polynesian Jarai tribes living between Vietnam and Thailand. Mirroring 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.[11]

Chinese influence waned as French influence rose in the 19th century, and Vietnam eventually abolished the Imperial examinations and stopped using Chinese characters and the related Chữ Nôm script 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 Kangō[12] trade (means tally trade[12]) and Japanese products were traded for Chinese goods. This relationship ended with the last envoy of Japanese monk Sakugen Shūryō in 1551,[13][14] which was Ashikaga Yoshiteru's era, including a 20 years suspension by Ashikaga Yoshimochi. 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.[15] 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".[16]


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 Chinese folk culture. 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.

Half a century later, Western Europe forced their way in via 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. 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?[17]

In the late Ming and Qing periods, there was a belief in Chinese cultural circles that knowledge entering China from the West had already existed in China in the past. This trend of thought was known in Chinese as xi xue zhong yuan (西學中源, literally 'Western knowledge has Chinese origins'). Xi xue zhong yuan was a way to not only enhance the prestige of ancient Chinese learning, but also that of Western learning and make it more acceptable to the Chinese at that time. One notable example was Chouren Zhuan (畴人传, "Biographies of Astronomers and Mathematicians"), a book by the Qing dynasty scholar Ruan Yuan which adopted the point of view that some Western sciences had an ancient Chinese origin. Scholars such as Ruan saw astronomy and mathematics as a key to deciphering the ancient classics. Until the Sino-Japanese War, some intellectuals believed that some of the sciences and technologies coming from Europe were actually lost ancient Chinese knowledge. The Chinese have abandoned the idea of xi xue zhong yuan since the early 20th century.

Indigenous criticism

Followers of Chinese Buddhism were some of the fiercest critics of Sinocentrism, since they followed a religion that originated in India, rather than China. The monk Zhiyi (538–597 CE) referred to China as "Zhendan" (震旦), rather than by any epithet that emphasized China's centrality, such as Zhongguo or Zhonghua. "Zhendan" originated in a transcription of the Sanskrit word for China, "Cinisthana". Another anti-Sinocentric name for China used by Buddhists was "country of the Han" or "region of the Han".[18] Reacting to an insecurity against China's indigenous religions of Confucianism and Daoism, Buddhists in China asserted that Confucius and Yan Hui were avatars of the Buddha, and that Confucianism was merely an offshoot of Buddhism. When Buddhists had influence in the court, such as in the minority-led Tang and Yuan dynasties, they successfully persuaded the imperial governments to censor and destroy Daoist texts. They especially hated the Huahujing, which made the opposite argument to that of the Buddhists; that Buddhism was an offshoot of Daoism.[19]

Liu Ji, one of the key advisors of Zhu Yuanzhang (the founder of the Ming dynasty) generally supported the idea that while the Chinese and the non-Chinese are different, they are actually equal. Liu was therefore arguing against the idea that the Chinese were and are superior to other people.[20]

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.[21]


The Sinocentric model of political relations and Sinocentric belief in cultural superiority (especially against the West) came to an end in the 19th century. The Sinocentric 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).[22] However, some believe there are Chinese who still hold Sinocentric beliefs.[23]

Related concepts

Successive peoples from the north, such as the Xianbei, Jurchens, Mongols,[24] 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 in China's history 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. ^ a b c "Beneath the Facade of China". School of Contemporary Chinese Studies. NG8 1BB. May 30, 2007. 
  2. ^ von Falkenhausen (1999), 544.
  3. ^ Shelach (1999), 222-23.
  4. ^ Schmid, Andre (1997), "Rediscovering Manchuria: Sin Ch'aeho and the Politics of Territorial History in Korea", Journal of Asian Studies 56 (1): 29 
  5. ^ "History in The Mutan Village Incident". 2001-06-11. Retrieved 2011-04-11. 
  6. ^ Chinataiwan history (历史) of Taiwan area (Chinese)
  7. ^ Kang, David C. (2010). p. 160.East Asia Before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute, , p. 160, at Google Books
  8. ^ Han, Young-woo (1992), "The Establishment and Development of Nationalist History", Seoul Journal of Korean Studies 5: 62–64 
  9. ^ Vietnam and the Chinese Model, Alexander Barton Woodside, Council on East Asian Studies Harvard, Cambridge (Massachusetts) and London 1988: P18
  10. ^ Southern Vietnam Under the Reign of Minh Mang (1820–1841): Central Policies and Local Response, Choi Byung Wook , Cornell University Southeast Asia Program Publications 2004: P136
  11. ^ Vietnam and the Chinese Model, Alexander Barton Woodside, Council on East Asian Studies Harvard, Cambridge (Massachusetts) and London 1988: P236-237
  12. ^ a b Page 81, Japan's Renaissance, Kenneth A. Grossberg
  13. ^ Page 80, Tanegashima, Olof G. Lidin
  14. ^ Page 1232, Flow cytometry and cell sorting, Andreas Radbruch
  15. ^ Ulrich Theobald. "Chinese History - Sixteen States 五胡十六國". Retrieved 2011-04-11. 
  16. ^ by Laichen Sun, University of MichiganSuzerain and Vassal, or Elder and Younger Brothers: The Nature of the Sino-Burmese Historical Relationship at the Wayback Machine (archived February 17, 2009)
  17. ^ 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)
  18. ^ Abramson, Marc (2011). Ethnic Identity in Tang China. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 76. 
  19. ^ Pregadio, Fabrizio, ed. (2004). "Huahu jing". The Encyclopedia of Taoism. Psychology Press. p. 494. 
  20. ^ Zhou Songfang, "Lun Liu Ji de Yimin Xintai" (On Liu Ji's Mentality as a Dweller of Subjugated Empire) in Xueshu Yanjiu no.4 (2005), 112-117.
  21. ^ Lu Xun [鲁迅] (1981), Lu Xun Quanji (鲁迅全集, Collected Works of Lu Xun), 16 volumes, Renmin Chubanshe, Beijing
  22. ^
  23. ^
  24. ^ "Kublai Khan". 1999-09-21. Retrieved 2011-04-11. 


  • Kang, David C. (2010). East Asia Before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute. New York : Columbia University Press. ISBN 9780231153188/ISBN 9780231526746; OCLC 562768984
  • Shelach, Gideon (1999). Leadership Strategies, Economic Activity, and Interregional Interaction: Social Complexity in Northeast China. Springer. ISBN 0-306-46090-4, ISBN 978-0-306-46090-6
  • von Falkenhausen, Lothar. "The Waning of the Bronze Age: Material Culture and Social Developments, 770–481 B.C." In Michael Loewe and Edward L. Shaughnessy (editors), The Cambridge History of Ancient China: From the Origins of Civilization to 221 B.C., pp. 450–544. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1148 p. ISBN 0-521-47030-7, ISBN 978-0-521-47030-8.

External links

  • Public Secrets: Geopolitical Aesthetics in Zhang Yimou’s Hero
  • Origin of Vietnam name
  • The Rise of East Asia and the Withering Away of the Interstate System
  • Sinocentrism or Paranoia?
  • Suzerain and Vassal, or Elder and Younger Brothers: The Nature of the Sino-Burmese Historical Relationship
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