Networks of Profit and Faith: Spanning the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea, 838–1403


Yiwen Li

PhD defended at: 

Yale University


The lengthy descriptions of tribute embassies in the Chinese dynastic histories have led to the widespread belief that the China-centered tribute system dominated the trade of pre-modern East Asia at all times. The tribute trade, however, was not the main form of trade between China and Japan. In the year 838 CE, the last Japanese embassy for nearly six centuries traveled to Tang-dynasty China (618–907). Until 1403, when the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimitsu of the Ashikaga bakufu dispatched a delegation to the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) to resume formal diplomatic relations, the tribute trade was suspended. Even though sources are few and far between, this thesis demonstrates the Sino-Japanese trade flourished throughout these six centuries.
Buddhist trade—the commercial exchange of objects for Buddhist uses, with monks as participants—occupied a prominent position in Sino-Japanese trade between 838 and 1403. People living on the Japanese archipelago desired many continental goods, and meanwhile, Chinese consumers also sought many commodities from Japan. Some of the Japanese embassy members in the 838 delegation were already engaged in non-tribute trade, trying to purchase incense and medicines in the lower Yangzi region of China. Meanwhile, Japanese monks diligently collected Buddhist texts and ritual objects. Archaeological discoveries show that between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, the Japanese repurposed various Chinese daily utensils such as ceramic jars, porcelain boxes, and bronze mirrors for religious uses. At the same time, Chinese commoners acquired Japanese goods. In addition to fine products like pearls, China also imported bulky goods from Japan such as lumber for monastery construction and for coffins.
Religious networks and commercial networks gradually became integrated as monks traveled on merchant ships and transmitted trade information. Prestigious monasteries also actively collaborated with merchants, and the trust embedded in the religious network facilitated long-distance trade. The authorities in both China and Japan realized that the shared belief in Buddhism could act as a common ground to reduce friction. The emperors of the Song dynasty (960–1276) warmly welcomed pilgrim monks from Japan.
Although the Mongol ruler Khubilai Khan (r. 1260–1294) launched two invasions of Japan, in 1274 and 1281, the commercial and religious exchanges between China and Japan continued. The Mongol Emperor Chengzong (r. 1294–1307) dispatched a Zen master as his envoy to Japan, who stayed and taught in Kamakura. Ships named for Japanese monasteries brought sulfur and other goods to China and then returned to Japan with incense, medicines, ceramics, copper coins, and books. In the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries Kamakura became the center of the growing Zen Buddhist movement as well as a distribution center for continental goods.
The six centuries of commercial and religious exchanges between China and Japan left a clear legacy. When Ashikaga Yoshimitsu resumed sending tribute to the Ming dynasty in 1403, an eminent monk led the Japanese delegation. Unlike the tribute system before 838, the newly established tribute exchanges acknowledged the need for participants to make a profit. And after the resumption of the tribute trade in 1403, monks and monasteries continued to play a significant role.