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Ming-Qing China and Chosŏn Korea Relations Essay

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Updated: May 16th, 2021

Shortcoming 1

The first shortcoming in the current research on the relations between Ming/Qing China and Chosŏn Korea is the lack of definition of China’s goals in the relationship. When historians describe the topic, they prefer to concentrate on the Korean government’s desire for autonomy and security and their choice of purchasing freedom from the Chinese through tribute. However, the Chinese court should have also had a policy toward Korea, even if it did not actively display many actions or attitudes.

The goal of the Chinese side in the relationship remains unclear, although it is unlikely that it chose to dismiss Korea and accept the tribute without considering further developments of the situation. The frequency of Korean diplomatic missions implies that Chinese officials should have been aware of Korea as another country with desirable resources.

The attitude of Chinese envoys, as well as the dismissive treatment of Korean delegations by the court ministries, implies that the officials did not see Korea as an influential factor in the geopolitical situation. This conflicts with Korean influence on entities such as Jurchen tribes, which was a matter of concern to the Hung-wu emperor and interfered with Chinese plans to take control of the people (Clark, 285-286). Furthermore, the two countries frequently interacted over issues, including relations with the Jurchen and a range of border disputes. It is likely that China had a detailed and goal-oriented strategy toward Korea, and the attitude deserves further investigation, particularly in the context of diplomatic relationships between the two countries.

Shortcoming 2

The second shortcoming of the research on the relations between Ming/Qing China and Chosŏn Korea is the concentration on details and personalities and a lack of consideration for the greater picture. The readings contain a significant amount of records about the personal attitudes and impressions of various ambassadors and officials but lack an overview of the influence of politics on the overall relationship between the two entities. Clark describes the dismissive attitude of the Chinese toward the Koreans and their significant demands, yet the Ming helped the Chosŏn defend their country against the Japanese, and the assistance did not cost the Koreans anything but a debt of gratitude (299). In turn, the Koreans chose to honor the relationship and take China’s side in the Ming’s struggle with Manchuria.

The signs are indicative of a deeper relationship between the two states than feigned loyalty and mutual disrespect. Despite Korea’s desire for independence, the dynasties of Chosŏn and Ming may have developed a relationship in which the two countries were closely entwined, forming similar cultures over time and gaining shared geopolitical interests that led them to stand together against the Japanese and the Manchurians. The view is supported by situations such as new rulers of Korea looking for Chinese validation of their rule to solidify their position (Wang, 4). The symbolic nature of the tribute system also reinforces the viewpoint as the actual goals of the emissaries were the acquisition of Chinese goods and especially their knowledge in the form of books.

Factors in the Relationship

The aspects of the relationship that are discussed in this paper are the goals of each state and the overall nature of the relationship. China and Korea’s relationship began as a struggle for dominance in the local arena. However, Korea was by far the weaker of the two, which led to numerous concessions and surrenders on its part. To avoid further losses, king Kongmin of the Korean Koryŏ dynasty took the opportunity offered by the rise of the first Chinese Ming emperor to declare his country a tributary and reduce Chinese hostility towards his state. The two sides discovered the weaknesses of the system, such as Korea’s inability to continuously supply precious metals, and came into further conflict regardless, which led to the fall of the Koryŏ dynasty and the rise of the first Chosŏn king, Yi Sŏng-gye.

Yi Sŏng-gye usurped the throne and required a means of validation for his rule. China, which was displeased with the actions of the previous dynasty, presented an appropriate source of support, assuming the new king was able to persuade them. Ultimately, the only issue the Chinese had with the new government was the identity of the usurper, who they believed to hail from remnants of the old dynasty (Clark, 278).

After his abdication and the end of the succession wars, which coincided with the death of the Ming emperor and the struggle before the appointment of a new one, the countries began acknowledging each other. Korean aid significantly contributed to the success of the candidate who ultimately emerged victoriously, and the Chosŏn received a significant reimbursement for their assistance. The exchange also helped establish a new tributary situation, in which the Koreans would regularly offer valuables to the Chinese court and receive valuable gifts in return.

Nevertheless, the relationship between Ming China and Chosŏn Korea was often damaged by the attitudes of the envoys the two states exchanged. According to Clark, the Ming dynasty would often send eunuchs as ambassadors to its tributary state, part of them being Korean-born (283). These agents were overbearing and disrespectful, committing many violations of etiquette or hospitality. Clark provides the example of Sin Kwi-Saeng, a Korean-born eunuch who insulted his host, demanded conflicting treatments, refused to speak Korean, humiliated officials, and even brandished a knife in front of the king (283).

At the same time, he notes that the attitudes of Chinese eunuchs were not significantly different, engaging in activities such as raiding temples for artifacts and collecting young girls. Ultimately, the visits of Ming ambassadors became dreaded and hated in Korea.

As a tributary state, Chosŏn Korea displayed significantly greater respect for Ming China, regularly sending diplomatic missions and separate tribute delegations. The envoys were necessary to improve relations between the two states in times of conflict, and the frequency of the visits became lower as the countries established a stable situation. However, according to Clark, Koreans saw the missions as opportunities to trade with the Chinese for their valuables, primarily books (281). This tendency irritated the Chinese government, which wanted the envoys only to have contact with official institutions. Nevertheless, the Koreans persisted with the practice in a subtle display of disrespect.

The Ming ended up overthrown by Nurhaci and his Manchus, who ended up declaring himself the founder of the Qing dynasty. The Koreans supported the Ming until the end, even providing support for a Chinese general who escaped from the mainland and established a resistance movement (Clark, 300). However, this opposition only gave the Manchus a reason to invade Korea and conquer it along with the entirety of China.

The country was unable to resist the invading forces and became a vassal state of the newly established Chinese empire. Due to this initial hostility, the Qing were initially significantly more strict with the Chosŏn than the Ming used to be, but eventually, they relented and ended up establishing a more open relationship, although the two countries no longer shared a similar culture, with Koreans still observing Ming rituals (Clark, 300). The tributary system was ultimately reinstituted without significant changes and used for the same purposes by both sides.

Despite the general noninterference policies employed by both states with regards to each other, the Qing liked to remind the Chosŏn of their status as a conquered nation. Chosŏn kings had to receive official recognition from Beijing and could not assume the title before it, calling themselves Heads of State Affairs instead (Van Lieu, 85). The threat of non-recognition hung over every successor to the throne, making them anxious to avoid any situations that would displease the Qing before the coronation could be recognized.

Despite the border segregation that characterized the relationship between the two countries at the beginning, the situation became less tense as time passed. According to Van Lieu, local officials from Qing and Chosŏn frequently communicated and visited each other across the border (87). They also made quick decisions without necessarily consulting their superiors, which sometimes led to international incidents, such as the timber situation of 1864, in which the friendly request of one official to another led to a series of protocol violations that required a diplomatic mission to be resolved. This closeness between the border officials of two nations that were supposedly on somewhat poor terms highlights the lack of communication and interaction between the two entities.

Conclusion

The incident highlights the possibility that the tributary system did not only contribute to a part of the relationship between the Qing and the Chosŏn. According to Van Lieu, the timber incident mentioned above was resolved within the tributary framework despite not being related to the submission of tribute to the Chinese court by the Koreans (105). This notion gives rise to the idea that the interactions between the two countries were fully defined by and contained in the tributary framework. It is a valid possibility, as the system had existed since before the establishment of either ruling dynasty and could have developed over time to encompass the entirety of the relationship between the states.

Works Cited

Clark, Donald N. “Sino-Korean tributary relations under the Ming.” The Cambridge History of China. Vol. 8, Part 2, edited by Denis C. Twitchett and Frederick W. Mote, Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 272-300.

Van Lieu, Joshua. “Chosŏn-Qing Tributary Discourse: Transgression, Restoration, and Textual Performativity.” Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review, no. 27, 2018, pp. 79-112.

Wang, Sixiang. “Korean Eunuchs as Imperial Envoys: Relations with Chosŏn through the Zhengde Reign.” Web.

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