Prof. Dr. Ahmet Taşağıl

Mimar Sinan Güzel Sanatlar Üniversitesi Fen-Edebiyat Fakültesi Tarih Bölümü

Characteristics Tribute of Turks to China

Diplomatic relations between the Turk and China started in 545 and lasted about 200 years. Genre of these relations was subject to changes in different periods. After the Turks’ proclamation of independence in 552, good relations were established with the West Wei and North Ch’i states in the north of China. After that, the pertinent states’ might determined tones of Turko-Chinese relations. When the Turks were more powerful (552-582), the Chinese sent more gifts (or ‘tribute’). Otherwise, the Turks sent their taxes (tribute) to China. This pattern of relations lasted by the end of the Turk state.


The Turks grow in power beginning from 542, when they first time appeared in history. Their first chief Bumın dealt with silk and horse trade in bazaars of North China before 545. The Turks welcomed An-no-p’an-t’uo, the Western Wei envoy to them, who arrived at the Turk horde in the year 545, since it was the first case intimating recognition of the Turks. Eastern Wei state, rival of the western one, had got in alliance with the Juan-juan, and the Western Wei state had remained alone. Thus, rise of the Turks was in favour of that state. Then, the Turk chief Bumın wanted to marry with a Juan-Juan princess, which was rejected, and he took a princess from the Western Wei dynasty, making the two country closer to each other. It sholud be connected with this situation that Bumın gifted 50.000 horses to the West Wei emperor in 553. This also shows that the friendship between them continued even after the Turk victory over the Juan-Juan and the following independence in 552.


The Turks had to keep good relations also with the Eastern Wei, which changed its name to the Northern Ch’i in 550, because their immediate target was to destroy the Juan-Juan power. This peaceful relation lasted by the year 558. Mukan, who was enthroned in 553 as the Turk qaghan, crushed the Juan-Juan, and the latter took refugee to the Northern Ch’i. The pursuing Turk forces were stopped by the Ch’i. Quarrel did not happen and the two sides agreed on exchange of gifts to each other with the goods and products being abundant in their countries.


However, the Western Wei was in trouble with this close relation. K’u Ti-ch’i, their envoy to the Turk horde in 554, tried to draw them to their side, and was indeed successful. But this did not preclude Mukan from taking care of the balances, and he again sent envoys and gifts to the Northern Ch’i. This policy resulted in extermination of the Juan-Juan, enemies of the Turks, by Wen Hsüan, the Northern Ch’i emperor.


The Turk state, got very powerful by the year 555, made repeated raids onto the Western Wei lands. The latter could convince the Turks to reconcile only with annual 100.000 rolls of silk.


Turk envoys visited in 558 capital of the both states. Meanwhile, the Western Wei state had replaced its name to Chou in 557, and the Ch’i-Chou conflict over hegemony in China had rose. This was in benefit of the Turks. But, anyway, they obeyed their diplomatic promises, and continued sending their representatives to the Chou court in 560 and 561.


When tension in the Chou-Ch’i conflict rose in 563, the Chou reminded the qaghan his previous promise on giving a princess to the Chou court. A serial of diplomatic activities starting with this resulted in sending a Turk princess to the Chou in 568. By that case, there happened some other bilateral relations. The Turks sent gifts to the Chou in 564 (5th month). When he learned that the Chou had started to close to the Ch’i without informing him, Mukan Qaghan resented and sent his envoys, together with gifts, to the Ch’i. The latter retaliated in kind.

After the death of Mukan in 572, the new qaghan Taspar continued the hegemonic Turkic policy over the Chinese states. The both states wanted to get close to him by presenting 100.000’s tones of silk. Then, Taspar gave up the policy of supporting the Chou, and tended toward the Ch’i. That Buddhist priests religiously influenced him was the determinant factor in this change. Just, he had wanted to marry a Ch’i princess.


Indeed, he presented symbolically a horse to the Chou in the first month of the year 574. Thus, one can assume he targeted a balance politics. The Ch’i could not endure to the Chou pressure and collapsed in 576. Fugitive members of the dynasty took refugee to Taspar Qaghan. The qaghan initially wanted to reconstruct to the Ch’i state, but then enjoyed the Chou victory. He fraudulently delivered surviving members of the Ch’i to their rivals in 579. But the Chou could not manage living more, and replaced with the Suei dynasty in 581.


After Taspar Qaghan died, an internal strife began and eventually Ishbara succeeded in getting the throne. Ta-lo-pien, son of the previous qaghan Mukan, resented and migrated to the north. He sent an ambassador and gifts to the newly Suei court in 582. His aim was to find foreign support in his internal conflict. But Ishbara Qaghan also sent his envoy to the Suei after one month, and thus made the first official contact.


The internal strife beginning in 581 deeply weakened the Turk power. Tardu, qaghan of the western half of the state, by enjoying the Chinese Suei support, proclaimed his independence in 582. From then on, there exist two Turk states, as the western and eastern ones. Thus, developments were no longer same as the previous period.


After facing many catastrophes within his own land, easterner Ishbara Qaghan had to accept the Suei political supremacy. A peace envoy in 583 was rejected by the Chinese. Meanwhile, Ta-lo-pien (A-po), keeping his claims for throne, continuously sent his representatives to China to seek for their support. Ishbara offered to the Chinese court that his wife, a member of the former Chinese dynasty, would be titled as princess of the Suei dynasty. Thus, he would be son-in-law of the Chinese emperor, and would enjoy his support. After long negotiations and exchanges of letters, Ishbara was informed that his wife had been accepted daughter of the emperor, and so he became son-in-law. In a ceremony in 585, Ishbara accepted that he was a vassal of the Suei emperor. After that, he wanted Chinese permission to settle in the south of the desert Gobi in order to get rid of his opponents. The Suei accepted this and even sent some aids. In a thanksgiving mission, Ishbara sent his own son Ku-ho-chen Tegin to live in the Chinese capital Ch’ang-an.


In 587, the qaghan sent his son as ambassador to China to request permission for hunting in the north of China. He dead at the end of the hunting season. His brother Ch’u-lo-hou Yabgu succeeded him with the title Baga Qaghan. He sent an embassy to China to state his vassalage to the Suei emperor, who by the way did not accept the offer of capturing and killing the hardened opponent Ta-lo-pien. Baga Qaghan was killed with an arrow during a campaign in the west. His nephew, son of Ishbara, Yung-yü-lü succeeded him. He also affirmed his vassalage to the Suei emperor. The Turks were tributaries of China.


In 591, Tou-lan Qaghan presented to the Chinese emperor seven valuable bowls. The same year he sent a tigin as ambassador to the Suei, and another embassy next year followed him. But from 591 on ne gave up paying tribute to China. Moreover, he secretly supported opponents of the Suei emperor. After a long interruption, Turkic raids onto China started. However, the Chinese opposition failed and the qaghan wanted to set good relations once again, by sending symbolically fish-glue and white gland.


By the way, the Eastern Turk empire started to shows symptoms of dismembering. Leaders of some notable tribes sent embassies to China together with 10.000 horses, 20.000 sheep, 500 camels and 500 cattle. In turn, they wanted the Chinese to permit them to trade in Chinese borderlands. The tribes’ establishing contact with China would be well exploited by the latter. In those days, Baga Qaghan’s son Jan-kan, who used to live near the Lake Baykal, contacted with the Chinese to seek for political support. He wanted to make a marriage alliance with the Suei, by taking a Chinese princess. Tou-lan Qaghan, who wished to revive the old friendship wanted also a Chinese princess (597). The Chinese allied with Jan-kan (T’u-li, later Ch’i-min Qaghan) against Tou-lan. The latter prevailed upon the forces sent against him, but was killed during a Töles rebellion. Tardu, qaghan of the Western Turks, who attempted to seize throne of the Eastern Turk state, shared the same fate, and Jan-kan became qaghan in 603, with the title Ch’i-min, thanks to the Chinese support. Ch’-min, though being qaghan of the Eastern Turk state, did not go to the centre Ötüken, and lived in the south of the desert Gobi, near to the Chinese lands.


Some interesting developments happened in his days. The qaghan informed the emperor about his wish to live in China and to become a Chinese. But his coming to China was not in benefit of the empire. However, he could rule in the northern lands in the name of the emperor. Thus, the emperor did not accept his offer, instead had a castle built for him in Chinese style, and decorated with Chinese arts and ornaments. Ch’i-min Qaghan and his Chinese wife Princess İ-ch’eng visited the emperor in his soil. The emperor retaliated by visiting them in their home. Ch’i-min once more visited China in 609, and died in the same year, by leaving the throne to Shih-pi.


Though he sent an immediate embassy to inform the Chinese about his coronation, Shih-pi was in no way like his father. He did not recognise political supremacy of China, and stopped paying the annual tribute. By the way, the Suei was weakening and governors of many provinces rebelled. Many of those, who had failed in their uprising, took refuge to the Turks. The siege of the emperor Yang in 615 by Shih-pi Qaghan in Yen-men deeply injured image of the empire, which could survive only two years after that.


The succeeding T’ang dynasty seems having enjoyed a demonstrable Turkic military support. For instance, K’ang-ch’iao-li Tegin sent 500 trooops and 2.000 horses in the year 617. Shih-pi Qaghan, then very powerful made continuous marauding raids to the Chinese borderlands. His embassies to the T’ang court were always welcomed. When he sent his son Kutlug Tigin to the Chinese capital, a magnificent banquet was prepared in his honour, and music was performed in nine tessituras in the Ta-ch’i Palace. Other Turk embassies kept also their pride in Chinese court. But the Turks continued, anyway, occasionally sending horses to China. By the way, an alliance of marriage was determined. Kutlug Tigin once more went to China, and enjoyed the same respect by visiting the emperor in his throne.


Shih-pi suddenly dead in 619, when he was preparing a comprehensive campaign against China. His brother Ch’u-lo succeeded him. Ch’u-lo Qaghan, who ruled for two years, informed the T’ang court about death of his brother. His embassy, sent with this occasion, was visited by notable Chinese statesmen and enjoyed the same respect as the previous ones (620, 5th month). However, Ch’u-lo carried out a great expedition onto the T’ang, but was poisoned and killed by Chinese envoys.


His other brother Tou-pi, replaced Ch’u-lo in the Turk throne with the title İllig Qaghan. He continued the hegemonic policy over the T’ang by 625. When he was enthroned, he informed the Chinese about the death of his brother. When he arrested the Chinese envoy Ch’ang-sun Hsün-te in 621, the emperor retaliated by arresting the Turks in the Chinese capital. The qaghan freed the envoy in the next year, and requested to marry a Chinese princess. He also sent fish-glue, symbolising the wish of bettering relations between them.


He offered peace to China in 623. It was signed, by soon violated by the Chinese. After the treaty made near the river Wei in 625, Turks hegemonic position over China ended. According to the agreement, The Turks would give horses and cattle to the Chinese, and receive silk, silver, golden etc. The Turkish Army would withdraw, and the sides would establish good friendship.


After that, the Eastern Turk state was subjected to political strife. İllig Qaghan, who remained helpless also with the rise of economic depression due to drought, sent an embassy to the T’ang emperor and stated his wish for vassalage, but the latter preferred to catch him with a trick. Consequently, the Eastern Turk state collapsed in 630. Thus, the Sir Tardush remained independent. They gathered other Töles tribes around themselves, and proclaimed their qaghanate. Their qaghan İ-nan sent his brother T’ung Tigin.


Tardu, who had proclaimed his independence by taking wolf-headed flag from the Chinese emperor in 582, sent the same year his embassy to China, which was met with great respect. Exchange of embassies seem to have continued after that. After demise of Tardu in 603, the Western Turk state got weaker. Some Western Turk beys, such as Ho-sa-na Ch’u-lo, Kül Tardu Şad and Ta-nai Tigin took refuge to China. They contributed even to the establishing of the T’ang dynasty. She-kuei, about whom we know very little, revived his state, but he did not live much. His younger brother T’ung Yabgu is the strongest West Turk ruler after Tardu.


He sought for alliance with the T’ang against the Eastern Turks. He sent an embassy to China to present fish eggs in 620. A following envoy transmitted his wish for alliance of marriage. But Eastern Turk ruler İllig Qaghan prevented it. For this, Chen-shu-t’ung Erkin visited in 627 the T’ang court together with the Chinese envoy Tao Li. He brought 10.000 golden belts, some other golden goods, and 1.000 horses.


Although his state got very powerful, rule of T’ung Yabgu was shaken by rebellions. After his uncle killed him, the country got in total disorder. By the year 659, beys, who succeeded in becoming ruler, sent continuously embassies to provide Chinese support. Non of them was successful. Some beys even went to China to take refuge, and became officers in Chinese army. The T’ang Empire was controlling all of Central Asia by 659.


On the other hand, the Sir Tardush, who had became independent in 628, sent nine embassies to China by 640. When the Chinese wanted to send the Turks, who had took refuge to them, the Sir Tardush-Chinese relations worsened. Peace attempts were renewed in 642 and 643; a following envoy take 50.000 horses, 10.000 camels and cattle, and 100.000 sheep. Just as, the Sir Tardush political entity would disappear within the next two years.


When he declared his independence, Ch’e-pi Qaghan sent an embassy to China in 648. But he rejected to enter rule of the T’ang emperor, and was eventually destroyed by other tribes provoked by the Chinese.


The Turk state gained independence in 682 under the leadership of Kutlug Qaghan, and the state was reshaped thanks to the contributions of Tonyukuk, who had fled from China. The Second Turk state reinforced its bases within ten years, and China was taken under pressure with continuous raids. After his death in 691, his brother Kapgan became qaghan.


Kapgan continued hegemonic policy of his elder brother over the T’ang Empire, and often interfered its internal affairs. He did not ignore, by the way, peaceful attempts. For instance, a peace envoy arrived at the Chinese court in 695, and the T’ang queen Wu, gave in turn some titles and 5.000 rolls of silk. After that, the qaghan said that he would suppress the Kıtan (Ch’i-tan) uprising in the name of China. He wanted return of the captivated Turks in China. It was accepted together with other requests, such as agriculture tools and millet for seed. Besides, he wanted to give his daughter to a Chinese prince. When this was rejected by some tactics, he started a great expedition against China. He pillaged a great part of Northern China for three years. Unable to stop them, the queen had to accept all conditions. Thus, Kapgan in 703 sent Baga Tarkan as his envoy and wanted a new alliance of marriage. This was accepted and I-li-t’an-kan was sent to the Chinese court. An entertainment was prepared for the envoy in garden of the palace.


However, when the queen Wu had to leave the throne to Chung Tsung in 705, the offers for marriage and alliance were rejected. By the way, Turk country fell in political upheaval, and Kapgan could not continue his policy of pressure on China. He was killed in 716 in a tribal uprising. Bilge, who became qaghan in the same year, provided internal peace by the year 723, and successfully got rid of Chinese intrigues. He sent a peace envoy in 720, but his offer was rejected. In spite of this, he tried to use peaceful means in relations with China. An embassy in 723 repeated his offer for peace to the T’ang emperor Hsüan Tsung. The emperor, who had rejected former demands, was now recoiling from continuing warfare. He welcomed the Turk envoy with great respect, and saw him off with many presents. Moreover, he did not reject the demand for a Chinese princess. Bilge repeated his demand for marrying a Chinese princes with an embassy sent in 725. He sent his great vizier A-shih-te İlteber to the ceremony held by the Chinese emperor in T’ai-shan. Succeeding great vizier Buyruk Çor (Mei-lu-ch’o) went to the Chinese court in 727 and presented 30 horses. He was continuing good relations with the T’ang in this way. There was no any Turk military activity in Chinese borders; moreover, he rejected Tibetan offer of invading China together. Hearing about this, Hsüan Tsung was very pleasant and prepared a magnificent banquet for the Turk envoy Buyruk Çor. According to an agreement signed by the way, a common bazaar would be established in Shuo-chiang-ch’eng in the Shuo-fang region.


In 733, Bilge sent an envoy called Ko-chie-li-pi to thank for accepting of the marriage wish. Thus, it seemed the long-standing marriage issue was to come to an end. But the qaghan was poisoned in the next year by his man Buyruk Çor, and this marriage did not happen. Due to the lack of authority of the succeeding qaghans, the Second Turk State fell in turmoil. When the Turk statesmen got in disagreement with each other, some tribes like Uighur, Basmıl and Karluk rose up, and gave an end to the Turk rule. Any important diplomatic mission of the Turks in these years was not recorded.


It is very normal that the Turks established diplomatic relations with the Chinese, and sent many embassies for two hundred years. These missions had a variety of purposes: 1) Demand for political recognition, 2) Demand for precious things like silk, and thus, contributing to economy, 3) Becoming relatives through marriages, thus establishing alliances, 4) Providing support against internal opponents, 5) Seeking for Chinese permission to hunt in the north of China during droughts, 6) Becoming vassal of the Chinese emperor in difficult times, 7) Setting bazaars in border castle-cities, and making trade there, 8) To return Turks, who had to go to China, 9) Obtaining seed and tools for agriculture, 10) Having influence in China by giving a Turk princes to a Chinese prince, etc.


The main item sent by the Turks to China as tax or gift was horse. Besides, there were sheep, camel and cattle. But, horse was always prominent. On the other hand, it was also recorded that the Western Turks had sent gold and golden products. This was thanks to economic richness of the western half of Central Asia. Sometimes we see that symbolically fish-glue was sent to restore hardened relations, or to establish good relations from the very beginning. In turn, the Chinese sent mainly silk, and a variety of clothes, golden and silver products. This was indeed a pattern of relation that lasted between China and the steppe for many centuries.


Those sent by the Turks were called by the Chinese Kung ( -) and Hsien, and sometimes Hsien fang-wu. These are general terms. Kung = to present tribute, Hsien = to present, Hsien fang-wu= to present things of one’s own side. These have general meanings, and do not always mean tribute and gift, because sometimes the Turks sent gifts when they were mighty, and they were also recorded so. That is, here is a generalisation appropriate to the Chinese state concept. Thus, one have to careful while examining Chinese texts.


More powerful side has always been superior in diplomatic relations, and gained more advantages. Once upon a time, little states in Northern China contested for making alliance with the Turks, and once tribes of Central Asia and beys fighting for throne sent their embassies to obtain Chinese support.


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