Ryukyuan tribute missions to China
The Kingdom of Ryûkyû was a tributary of Ming, and then Qing Dynasty, China from 1372 until its dissolution in the 1870s. Tribute missions, sent once every few years, reaffirmed Ryûkyû's subordinate relationship to the Chinese Emperor, and enabled the continuation of Ryukyuan access to Chinese trade.
Envoys traveled to Fuzhou aboard Ryukyuan ships, remaining in the city for a time and being lodged at the Ryûkyû-kan (C: Liúqiú guǎn) located there. They typically presented a formal gift of sulfur to officials in Fuzhou, and then traveled to Beijing, first overland and then the rest of the way via the Grand Canal.
In Beijing, the envoys made formal displays of obeisance and offered gifts of copper, tin, and local Ryukyuan products as tribute, receiving in exchange considerable gifts as a benevolence from the emperor.
While in the city, Ryukyuan envoys took part in a number of events, celebrations, and rituals. For example, on certain occasions, they received gifts from the emperor at the wǔmén 午門 gate of the palace, and on others they saw off the emperor when he departed on journeys from the east or west flower gates (東華門, Dōnghuámén & 西華門, Xīhuámén), or from the palace's main northern gate, the Shénwǔmén (神武門). They took part in formal processions at the Hall of Supreme Harmony (太和殿, Tàihédiàn), the largest building in the Forbidden City, in order to offer New Year's greetings to the emperor, and on certain other similarly major occasions; these processions would first form up outside the Gate of Supreme Harmony (太和門, Tàihémén) before entering in towards the palace hall. Following such processions, the Ryukyuans would often attend banquets (on New Year's, and other major occasions) at the Hall of Preserving Harmony (保和殿, Bǎohédiàn). Year-end banquets were also sometimes held at the Zhónghuágōng (重華宮).
The Jūnjīchǔ (軍機処) housed the highest administrative organs of the Qing state. Officials at this office processed various official documents and matters related to relations with the Ryûkyû Kingdom.
On the return journey, the envoys were permitted to engage in commercial interactions with local Chinese merchants, exchanging Japanese silver for silks and other goods. The silver was initially provided by merchants of the castle town of Kagoshima, but by the late 17th century a larger percentage of this silver was provided by the lords of Satsuma han, who often took out loans from Osaka-based merchants in order to do so.
Local officials known as wǔ zhǔ (五主) assessed the Ryukyuans' trade goods, and helped in loading the goods obtained in exchange onto the Ryukyuan ships to take back from China.
A "reception mission" sent from Ryûkyû to escort the envoys back from Fuzhou brought additional silver and other goods, with which to purchase additional Chinese goods. Following their return to Ryûkyû, the envoys shipped off much of the goods obtained in China to Satsuma, who then sold it at markets in Osaka and Kyoto.
- Robert Hellyer, Defining Engagement, Harvard University Press (2009), 38-39.
- Gallery labels, "Kuninda - Ryûkyû to Chûgoku no kakehashi," special exhibit, Okinawa Prefectural Museum, Sept 2014.