Sinocentrism refers to the ideology that China is the cultural, political or economic center of the world.[1]

Traditional Chinese中國中心主義
Simplified Chinese中国中心主义

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. The concept was popular among the Chinese elites up to the final demise of Qing dynasty. The concept came to an end in 19th century and suffered several more blows in 20th century, and as a result is not as widely popular among Chinese people in the 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]

Sinocentric system

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 (which cut off its vassal relationship with China during the Asuka period, because it regarded itself as an equal and individual culture), Korea, the Ryukyu 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), 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 (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 Zhongyuan, 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 Ryukyu Kingdom, Annam/Đại Việt, Thailand, Champa, and Java. A second group of southeastern barbarians covered countries like Sulu, Malacca, and Sri Lanka.[5] 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 Island 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.[6][7]

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 First 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.[8]

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.


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 the 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 prospered 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).[9]

The Sinocentrism in Joseon came to an end in the 19th century when the 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 an example of the imprudent and disdainful delusions of the Joseon dynasty.

This started with the simultaneous influx of European culture and the decline of the 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 the Joseon dynasty.


Vietnam (Annam) had an intimate but not always peaceful relationship with China. Vietnam, originally independent, 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. "Trung Quốc" 中國 was used as a name for Vietnam by Emperor Gia Long in 1805.[10] It was said "Hán di hữu hạn" 漢夷有限 ("the Vietnamese and the barbarians must have clear borders") by the Gia Long Emperor (Nguyễn Phúc Ánh) when differentiating between Khmer and Vietnamese.[11] Minh Mang implemented an acculturation integration policy directed at minority non-Vietnamese peoples.[12] Thanh nhân 清人 was used to refer to ethnic Chinese by the Vietnamese while Vietnamese called themselves as Hán nhân 漢人 in Vietnam during the 1800s under Nguyễn rule.[13] 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, Vientiane, Burma, Tran Ninh 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 Cambodia. 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.[14]

Vietnamese Nguyen Emperor Minh Mạng sinicized ethnic minorities such as Cambodians, claimed the legacy of Confucianism and China's Han dynasty for Vietnam, and used the term Han people 漢人 (Hán nhân) to refer to the Vietnamese.[15] Minh Mang declared that "We must hope that their barbarian habits will be subconsciously dissipated, and that they will daily become more infected by Han [Sino-Vietnamese] customs."[16] These policies were directed at the Khmer and hill tribes.[17] The Nguyen lord Nguyen Phuc Chu had referred to Vietnamese as "Han people" in 1712 when differentiating between Vietnamese and Chams.[18] The Nguyen Lords established đồn điền after 1790. It was said "Hán di hữu hạn" 漢夷有限 ("the Vietnamese and the barbarians must have clear borders") by the Gia Long Emperor (Nguyễn Phúc Ánh) when differentiating between Khmer and Vietnamese.[11] Minh Mang implemented an acculturation integration policy directed at minority non-Vietnamese peoples.[12] Thanh nhân 清人 or Đường nhân 唐人 were used to refer to ethnic Chinese by the Vietnamese while Vietnamese called themselves as Hán dân 漢民 and Hán nhân 漢人 in Vietnam during the 1800s under Nguyễn rule.[13]

Chinese style clothing was forced on Vietnamese people by the Nguyễn.[19][20][21][22][23][24] Trousers have been adopted by White H'mong.[25] The trousers replaced the traditional skirts of the females of the White Hmong.[26] The tunics and trouser clothing of the Han Chinese on the Ming tradition was worn by the Vietnamese. The Ao Dai was created when tucks which were close fitting and compact were added in the 1920s to this Chinese style.[27] Trousers and tunics on the Chinese pattern in 1774 were ordered by the Nguyễn Phúc Khoát to replace the sarong type Vietnamese clothing.[28] The Chinese clothing in the form of trousers and tunic were mandated by the Vietnamese Nguyen government. It was up to the 1920s in Vietnam's north area in isolated hamlets wear skirts were worn.[29] The Chinese Ming dynasty, Tang dynasty, and Han dynasty clothing was ordered to be adopted by Vietnamese military and bureaucrats by the Nguyen Lord Nguyễn Phúc Khoát (Nguyen The Tong).[30]

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 Reform (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 shōgun 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[31] trade (means tally trade[31]) and Japanese products were traded for Chinese goods. This relationship ended with the last envoy of Japanese monk Sakugen Shūryō in 1551,[32][33] 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. Reasons included that the Imperial House of Japan never died out comparing to the rise and fall of Chinese monarchs in the past, and that Japan was free of barbarism like Qing Dynasty's forced adoption of Manchu queue and clothing on Han Chinese after 1644. Combined with Shintoism, came the concept of "Shinkoku/the Divine Kingdom (神國). In the early Edo period, neo-Confucianist Yamaga Sokō 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.


Unlike East Asian states, which communicated in written Chinese, Burma used a different written language in its communications with China. While China consistently regarded Burma as a vassal, Burma records indicate that Burma considered itself as China's equal. Under the Burmese interpretation, Burma was the "younger brother" and China was the "elder brother".[34] This belief still survives today in Burma, and has even spread to China as the two countries grow closer.


Thailand was always subordinate to China as a vassal or a tributary state from the Sui dynasty until the Taiping Rebellion of the late Qing dynasty in the mid-19th century.[35] The Sukhothai Kingdom established official relations with the Yuan dynasty during the reign of King Ram Khamhaeng.[36] Wei Yuan, the 19th century Chinese scholar, considered Thailand to be the strongest and most loyal of China's Southeast Asian tributaries, citing the time when Thailand offered to directly attack Japan to divert the Japanese in their planned invasions of Korea and the Asian mainland, as well as other acts of loyalty to the Ming dynasty.[37] Thailand was welcoming and open to Chinese immigrants, who dominated commerce and trade, and achieved high positions in the government.[38]

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka was a tributary state of the Ming dynasty for many years. It was during this period that Chinese hegemony was most impactful on Sri Lankan politics and commerce.[39] Sri Lankan kings provided tribute to Chinese emperors in the form of pearls, Filigreed gold, gems, ivory and valances. Notably, Parakramabahu VI of Kotte established relations with China in 1416 to appease the Yongle Emperor and to win his support and integrate himself with the Chinese emperor following the Ming–Kotte War.[40] Sri Lanka, like Japan, was considered yuanyi (remote foreigners; 遠夷) in jueyu (remote territories; 絕域) under the Imperial Chinese Tributary System.[41]


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 Beijing 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.

European contact with China did not end there, however. Western European imperialist activity in China arose in the interest of trade. Half a century later, Western Europe forced their way into China via the First Opium War. The war led to British sovereignty over Hong Kong, the first of many unequal treaties between Western powers and China, and the opening of five treaty ports (Shanghai, Canton, Fuchow, Ningpo, and Amoy) opened to trade with the West – eschewing China's traditional protectionism. More and more Concessions in China opened up to European powers, including provisions of extraterritoriality that excluded Europeans from the application of local laws.

The subjugation of China into foreign spheres of influence is regarded by historians as having eroded the strength of Sinocentrism.

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 missionary 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.[42]

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?[43]

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 (Chinese: 西學; pinyin: Xīxué Zhōng yuán; 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 (Chinese: 疇人; pinyin: Chuórén zhuàn; literally: '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.

Cultural Sinocentrism was the political and cultural core of the region: traditional Chinese language and writing system, ideological frames of the Confucian social and familial order; legal and administrative systems; Buddhism and the art of historiopraphy were used in China, the Korean peninsula (Korean Confucianism) and also Vietnam.[42]

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; Zhèndàn), rather than by any epithet for China that emphasized China's centrality, such as Zhōngguó (the modern name of China, 中國; 中国; Zhōngguó) or Zhonghua (中華; 中华; Zhōnghuá). "Zhendan" originated in a transcription of the Sanskrit word for China, चीनस्थान, cīnasthāna. Another anti-Sinocentric name for China used by Buddhists was "country of the Han" (漢国; 汉国; Hàn-guó) or "region of the Han".[44] 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 Yuan dynasty, 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.[45]

Liu Ji, one of the key advisors of the Ming-dynasty founder Zhu Yuanzhang, 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.[46]

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, in which the protagonist is humiliated and defeated; satirizing the ridiculous way in which he claimed "spiritual victories" in spite of this.[47]


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 (Chinese: 永不称霸).[48] However, some believe there are Chinese who still hold Sinocentric beliefs.[49]

Successive peoples from the north, such as the Xianbei, Jurchens, Mongols,[50] 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 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 (nationalism) focused primarily on the idea of a unified, cohesive, and powerful Chinese nation, as one of the nations of the world. Chinese nationalism does not necessarily assert superiority over other nations or cultures.

See also



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