The Lifan Yuan (Office to Administer Foreign Barbarians), established in 1638, was the Qing dynasty’s principal organization for supervising the tribute system, during which outsiders brought (but mainly received) gifts to the Chinese court. It persisted in this important role until nearly the end of the dynasty when pressures exerted by the outside world, principally contact with Western powers, caused change.

Imperial Chinese foreign policy, whatever the pragmatic reality, was always rooted in a Confucian tributary system whereby outsiders—“barbarians”—had the obligation, in the well-known words of the Chinese philosopher Mencius, to “come to court and bear tribute” and thus recognize the superior virtue of the Chinese ruler. This was true even if in reality the gifts usually returned by the emperor in exchange for the tribute exceeded its value by a substantial margin.

Various agencies supervised such actions throughout imperial history and often intervened in the countries from which tribute came to express the superior power and position of China and to ensure the continued maintenance of the tribute system and thus the traditional order itself. The Qing dynasty (1644–1912) was no exception. Among the agencies supervising the tribute system and trade and the countries involved was the Lifan Yuan (Office to Administer Foreign Barbarians), established in 1638 and staffed by Manchu, that is, members of the multinational banners the constituted the core military and social groups of early Qing society. It was created by renaming an older agency, that of Mongolian affairs, even before the formal accession of the dynasty. Governing the operations of the office was a special set of rules and regulations that provided the basis for the operations of the Lifan Yuan for almost the entire Qing period and embodied long-term Chinese experience in dealing with outside peoples.

The Lifan Yuan later co-existed with the traditional Board of Rites (libu, one of six boards in the Qing government), the board with which tribute bearers, real or alleged, from the West and south were most likely to come into contact. As set up, the Lifan Yuan, which held nearly ministerial authority and was unique in its power in the Qing system, had charge of Qing relations with the Mongols associated primarily with what is now Inner Mongolia. This was an important function since the Manchu were then closely allied with Mongol princes by marriage, had borrowed the alphabet and key elements of their culture from the Mongols, and were heavily reliant on Mongol riders to back up their military striking power. Mongolia, as well as Manchuria, also bordered on Russia, and almost immediately the Lifan Yuan had dealings with that Western and at the same time Inner Asian power. Russia became the first country with which China signed a treaty as an equal (Treaty of Kiakhta, 1727), but the fiction of tribute participation continued to be asserted.

Later the authority of the Lifan Yuan, along with Qing power itself, was extended more generally westward to take charge of virtually all relationships with the peoples of Inner Asia. Here the driving force was Qing conquest of the Mongols and the gaining of a paramount influence in Tibet and in Xinjiang, an area that in the later nineteenth century became a Chinese province to counter Russian ambitions (and is now the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region). Key events were the various Qing campaigns against the Dzungars and their eventual defeat, the gradual absorption of all of Mongolia (by the mid-eighteenth century), and the imposition of a Qing protectorate in Tibet to replace that of the Dzungars.

Although the central Asian trade of the old Silk Roads was no longer what it once was with the new maritime age, and although the central Asian states were no longer that menacing to China with the coming of gunpowder empires, a substantial flow of goods still existed. This flow was worth administering, and trade could be manipulated to bring the peoples and states involved under greater Chinese influence, thus the importance of the Lifan Yuan. This was particularly true for Mongolia, where the Qing pursued an active policy of economic divide and conquer, rewarding some with luxury goods and food, blockading others.

Although primarily an administrative organization, the Lifan Yuan carried on a considerable research on the peoples and cultures with which it was involved and provided language experts to the Qing government. The latter was an old tradition, and many foreign texts survive from antiquity in editions produced to train translators involved in the tribute trade, including what is now known as the Secret History of the Mongols, the Chinese version being originally intended to train Ming translators in using Mongolian documents. Among reference works produced by the Qing Lifan Yuan, or in whose production the Qing agency cooperated, were encyclopedias, often well illustrated, sometimes with hand-drawn color pictures, of strange customs and of the strange peoples offering tribute. Here, too, the officers of the Qing agency followed old precedents. One such book from the Song dynasty (960–1279), for example, deals extensively with the overseas trade upon which the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279) was dependent. A significant part of the agency’s activities was providing special quarters for visiting envoys and their assistants, staging official banquets and other entertainments, and collecting and codifying law codes connected with tribute relationships and the countries involved, particularly Mongolia, and even some specially administered Buddhist temples. Buddhism was then the common religion of the Manchu themselves, their Mongol allies, and Tibet, the central authority for the Tibetan Buddhism involved, thus the eagerness of the Manchu to control it. The Lifan Yuan also had control of a system of subordinate agencies and of individually ranked religious and secular princes.

Although it remained a part of Qing government organization almost until the end, the Lifan Yuan declined considerably in importance as the role of Inner Asia in Qing life decreased. By the nineteenth century relations with Western powers were of far more significance, leading to an increasing reorganization of Qing government to try to respond better to the modern world; this modern world included Russian pressure in Turkistan, where the Russians attempted to seize some Qing domains taking advantage of the large-scale rebellion there. In 1861 the Lifan Yuan became China’s first real foreign ministry, the Zongli Yamen, an event marking the real end of traditional tribute relationships as the West kicked the door open.

Further Reading

Fairbank, J. K. (Ed.). (1968). The Chinese world order. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Perdue, P. C. (2005). China marches west: The Qing conquest of central Eurasia. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Source: Buell, Paul D.. (2009). Lifan Yuan. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 1328–1329. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Lifan Yuan (L?f?nyuàn ???)|L?f?nyuàn ??? (Lifan Yuan)

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