How to Bring Powerful Foreigners into a Tributary Relationship

Monday, August 18th, 2014

What is peculiar to China’s political culture, and of very great contemporary relevance, Edward Luttwak notes, is its doctrine on how to bring powerful foreigners into a tributary relationship:

Formidable mounted archers and capable of sustained campaigning (a primary objective of the Steppe State), the Xiongnú ravaged and savaged and extorted tribute from the perpetually less martial, and certainly cavalry-poor Han until the latter finally felt able to resist again. Even then, 147 years of intermittent warfare ensued until Huhanye, the paramount Chanyu (Qagan, Khan) of the Xiongnú, personally and formally submitted to the emperor Han Xuandi in 51 BCE, undertaking to pay homage, to leave a son at court as a hostage, and to deliver tribute, as befitted a vassal. That was a very great downfall from the familial status of earlier Chanyus of the epoch of Xiongnú predominance, who were themselves recognized as emperors, whose sons and heirs could have imperial daughters in marriage, and who from 200 BCE had received tribute from the Han, instead of the other way around.

It is this successful transformation of a once superior power first into an equal (signified by imperial marriages) and then into a subservient client-state that seems to have left an indelible residue in China’s tradition of statecraft. It was achieved with a specific “barbarian-handling” tool box first described by its early practitioner, the scholar and imperial advisor Lou Jing 199 BCE. His method was first applied when the Xiongnú were still very strong and the Han were not only tactically inferior (their chariots were totally obsolete for fighting mounted archers) but also beset by political divisions, so much so that a 198 BCE treaty required the payment of an annual tribute in kind (silk, grain, etc.), and the formal attestation of equality for the Chanyu embodied in a marriage alliance, formalized by imperial letters that make the equality fully explicit.

The first barbarian-handling tool is normally translated as “corruption” in English translations, but perhaps “addiction,” or more fully “induced economic dependence” are more accurate: the originally self-sufficient Xiongnú were to be made economically dependent on Han-produced goods, starting with silk and woolen cloths instead of their own rude furs and felt. At first supplied free as unrequited tribute, these goods could still be supplied later on when the Han were stronger, but only in exchange for services rendered.

The second tool of barbarian handling, is normally translated as “indoctrination”: the Xiongnú were to be persuaded to accept the authoritarian Confucian value system and the collectivistic behavioral norms of the Han, as opposed to the steppe value system, based on voluntary allegiance to a heroic (and successful in looting) fighting and migration leader. One immediate benefit was that once the Chanyu’s son and heir married an imperial daughter, he would be ethically subordinated to the emperor as his father-in-law — remaining so when he became Chanyu in turn.

The much larger, longer-term benefit of the second tool was to undermine the entire political culture of the Xiongnú, and make them psychologically well as economically dependent on the imperial radiance, which was willingly extended in brotherly fashion when the Han were weak, and then contemptuously withdrawn when the Xiongnú were reduced to vassalage. What happened between the Han and the Xiongnú from the equal treaty of 198 BCE to the vassalage treaty of 51 BCE, remained thereafter, and still remains today the most hopeful precedent for Han dealings with powerful and violent states — evidently the assigned role of the United States in the present Beijing world-view.

The method forms a logical sequence:

Stage One: start by conceding all that must be conceded to the superior power including tribute, in order to avoid damage and obtain whatever forbearance is offered. But this in itself entangles the ruling class of the still-superior power in webs of material dependence that reduce its independent vitality and strength.

Stage Two: offer equality in a privileged bipolarity that excludes all lesser powers, or “G-2” in current parlance. That neutralizes the still powerful Other party, and isolates the manipulated soon-to-be former equal from all its potential allies, preventing from balancing China with a coalition.

Stage Three: finally, when the formerly superior power has been weakened enough, withdraw all tokens of equality and impose subordination.


  1. T. Greer says:


    This is simply Not. True. As in, the history being told here is factually incorrect. The Han-Xiongnu war did not happen the way Luttwak says it does.

    I spent two hours last night working on a rebuttal to this piece, which for some mysterious reason seems to be making its way around the blogosphere this week.

    I’ll pass it on to you when I am done.

  2. Isegoria says:

    I’ll admit, I knew you objected to it, and I posted it as an interesting bit of Greer-bait.

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