This study intends to analyze a variety of interpretations presented by Western scholarship on the tribute system in historical East Asia. It classifies a number of explanations on the historical institution as two distinctive schools and examines their logic, characteristics, and limitations. The first school based on John K. Fairbank`s paradigm views the tribute system as the only medium for China`s relations and diplomacy with its neighboring states in the premodern era. The “Fairbank model” conceives of an East Asian world order of tributary relations centered on China. This model posits that Chinese rulers initiated tributary relations because of the value of the prestige that foreign tribute would bring to their rule in China. Foreign rulers participated in tributary politics because of the value of the benefits of trade with China. The Fairbank paradigm is problematic for a number of reasons. It is internally flawed and incapable of interpreting major events and underlying dynamics in East Asian international politics. The second school suggested primarily by scholars of international relations understands the tribute system as one institution of historical East Asian international relations. The actual international system of premodern East Asian politics was much broader than the tribute system. Other institutions, such as war and even the balance of power politics, can be found in international relations in historical East Asia. In other words, the tribute system was only part of the whole picture of historical East Asian international politics. Despite its logical validity and persuasive powers, the interpretation also reveals its own inherent flaws. History is subject to multiple interpretations and perspectives. It is clear that the “tribute system” constitutes the fundamental institution to explain the premodern East Asian world order. At the same time, we must make efforts to move beyond the “tribute system” paradigm to better understand historical East Asian international politics.