International societies in pre-modern East Asia: a preliminary framework

Feng Zhang

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


    Was there an international society in East Asian history during China's long imperial age (221 BC–AD 1911)? What were the rules, norms, and institutions of such an international society? Classic English School scholars, chiefly Martin Wight and Hedley Bull, seemed to think that because of ‘Chinese suzerainty’, this was a ‘suzerain-state system’ rather than an ‘international states system’. Both, however, readily identified China during the Warring States period (403–221 BC) as an international society, apparently because the seven competing states during the time appeared to possess ‘sovereign equality’ analogous to that of modern European states, which was seen as a basic condition for the existence of international society (Wight 1977: 23–4, 33; Bull 1977: 11). East Asia during the era of the Chinese empire, spanning most of the region's history, therefore does not fit within the traditional English School understanding of international society. In any case, this period was treated as an anomaly and largely neglected (X. Zhang 2011). Even Adam Watson (1992), in his celebrated analysis of the evolution of international society, fails to follow on his account of China's Warring States' system by considering East Asia's imperial age. This early bias and neglect are now being addressed by a new generation of English School scholars. Barry Buzan and Richard Little have long pointed out the problem of Eurocentrism inherent in Western international relations (IR) theorizing (Buzan and Little 2000: 7, 20; Buzan 2004: 169). Legal sovereignty is a profound institutional innovation in modern European international relations. Whether or not it can serve as a justification for denying the existence of international society in East Asian history is far less clear. Buzan and Little have also noted the hierarchical nature of traditional East Asian international relations in their comparison of international systems in world history (Buzan and Little 2000: 232). Yongjin Zhang (2001), in what appears to be the first systematic English School treatment of the subject, sees the so-called tribute system as the fundamental institution of the historical East Asian order. Building on this argument, Zhang and Buzan (2012) have recently articulated the constitutional structure of the tribute system as an international society in East Asian history.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationContesting International Society in East Asia
    Editors Barry Buzan and Yongjin Zhang
    Place of PublicationCambridge, UK
    PublisherCambridge University Press
    ISBN (Print)9781107077478
    Publication statusPublished - 2014


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