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Comforting fictions: the tribute system, the Westphalian order, and Sino-Korean relations.

Observers and practitioners of Sino-Korean relations in both the pre- and post-nineteenth century have utilized powerful “comforting fictions” to describe and justify power asymmetry. In the pre-nineteenth-century period, the idea of the “tribute system” put a veneer of Confucian benevolence on what a closer examination reveals to have been unequal and coercive relations. Western proponents of the Westphalian system of sovereign equality saw the new norms of international relations as potentially liberating to Korea, a way to free Korea from the Chinese yoke. However, Westphalian equality, too, was a comforting fiction that masked the reality of imperialism–both formal and informal. The Qing empire played a heretofore neglected role in both types of unequal coercive relations between Korea and the outside world. KEYWORDS: Choson Korea (1392-1910), Ming China (1368-1644), Qing China (1644-1910), tribute system, Westphalian system, imperialism

IN THE LATE NINETEENTH CENTURY, BOTH THE QING EMPIRE (CHINA) and the Chosen kingdom (Korea) exchanged one comforting fiction, the so-called tribute system, for another comforting fiction, the Westphalian system of modern international relations. (1) Some explanation of the term “comforting fiction” is warranted. First: “fiction.” It is apparent that many of the actual participants in the tribute system were entirely unaware of the systematic nature of the rules that structured and limited their interactions. Indeed, the “tribute system” is an idea for which there was no indigenous Chinese (or Korean) term in the time period during which the tribute system was thought to have existed (Mancall 1984, 13). And while some practitioners of modern Westphalian-style relations wrote of international law and the “family of nations,” many were likely only dimly aware at best of the systematic rules that supposedly governed modern international relations. Leaving aside such conceptual complexities, it is also apparent that the actual practice of international relations did not always comport to the supposed rules of such relations, be they systematic or otherwise.

This is where “comforting” comes in. In terms of Sino-Korean relations under the “tribute system,” both sides went to great lengths to describe their interactions not as the result of an unequal power relationship but as the natural result of the mutual acceptance of shared Confucian norms. Unlike other relationships that might be explained by Thucydides’s famous axiom that “they that have odds of power exact as much as they can, and the weak yield to such conditions as they can get” (Thucydides 1989, 365), Sino-Korean tributary relations were said to have been based on both China’s and Korea’s acknowledgment of the centrality of China, its emperor, and its civilization. As long as China adhered to its Confucian obligations, the loyalty of its Korean vassal was natural and inevitable, requiring neither coercion nor extensive intervention. “In administering your government, what need is there for you to kill?” Confucius famously queried. “Just desire the good yourself and the common people will be good” (Confucius 1979, 115). And yet despite the ubiquitous declarations of adherence to Confucian ethics–“I use only the Five Classics to rule the realm,” proclaimed the Ming Yongle emperor (Brook 2010, 92)–the actual practice of Sino-Korean relations diverged, often significantly, from the Confucian norm. (2) Yet both sides appeared more than willing to cling to the comforting fiction that their relations were not merely the result of the coercion that Thucydides’s Athenians assumed was the natural outgrowth of power asymmetry.
These oft-repeated comforting fictions have greatly influenced present-day depictions and understandings of East Asian international relations before the nineteenth century. Many contemporary scholars appear to have accepted more or less at face value the notion that the tribute system in general and Sino-Korean relations in particular were predicated on something other than mere power relations. In his “preliminary framework” of the “Chinese world order,” John King Fairbank placed Sino-Korean relations into the category of “Attraction” (rather than “Control”–either “Military” or “Administrative”–or “Manipulation”) based on “Cultural” and “Ideological” elements (Fairbank 1968, 13). Following in this vein, Mark Mancall’s (1984, 32-33) declaration that “Korean kings, for instance, accepted investiture in office from the Chinese emperors and sent them tribute mission regardless of the dynasty’s military might, and they did this almost solely on the basis of Confucian principles, backed up by commercial advantage and the cultural and traditional image, though not necessarily the physical reality, of power” is representative of many similar expressions (Chun 1968, 90; Chung 1995, 8-9; Kang 2010, 55; Shambaugh 2004/5, 95). The presence of some revisionist scholarship that highlights the bluntly coercive and militaristic aspects of Chinese statecraft and foreign policy (di Cosmo 2009; Johnston 1998) has not, apparently, significantly altered this conclusion. In addition, while some have acknowledged considerable diversity in the range of relations included under the umbrella term “tribute system,” the notion that Korea was perhaps the best representation of the tributary ideal remains firmly entrenched in the minds of many (Chun 1968, 90; Clark 1998, 272; de Heer 1993, 240; Gills 1993, 196; Hevia 1995, 50; Kim 1980, 1; Kye 2005, 109).

When Westerners appeared in East Asia in significant numbers in the nineteenth century, they found the Chinese and Korean descriptions of their own relations not comforting but confusing and troubling. Backed by unstoppable military might, the West demanded that the rules of international relations be changed from the supposed tradition of ritual-based hierarchy to conform more closely to the Westphalian system of diplomatic and commercial relations conducted between sovereign and equal nation-states. Contemporary observers and subsequent generations of scholars have been convinced that the Qing empire was dedicated to shoring up the tribute system in the face of Western challenges and that many Koreans, aside from a handful of so-called Progressives, clung to the past with equal intensity (Chay 1990, 57; Han 1970; Kim 1993, 584; Kim 1997, 40-66; Lee 1984, 274, 378; Lin 1935, 205-206). By doing so, both China and Korea were thought to have held themselves back from the promises of modernity and the liberating potential of Westphalian equality.
Ultimately, however, both the Qing empire and Choson Korea would comply with the new international norms. But the system of modern international relations was no less a comforting fiction than the system it purportedly supplanted. When it came to the Choson kingdom, the new international order being ushered in was not a Westphalian “family of [equal and sovereign] nations.” Rather, it was a conclave of empires, none of which was terribly interested in asserting or protecting the sovereign and equal status of Korea.
What follows is a cursory exploration of both comforting fictions. First, an examination of Sino-Korean relations during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) eras reveals periods of marked divergence from the tributary ideal and the Confucian ethics that supposedly underpinned it. Moreover, it is noteworthy that the period of the longest continual adherence to tributary norms in the Sino-Korean relationship was the very period during which Choson Koreans, the self-declared most Confucian people on earth, were convinced that the rulers in China, the Manchu Qing, were most decidedly not civilized, and, therefore, unworthy of respect or veneration. Second, when considering the critical nineteenth-century transition from “tribute” to “modern” relations, the role of the Qing empire deserves reconsideration. The Qing empire played a heretofore underappreciated role in ushering in the new Western-style relations to the Choson kingdom. Moreover, while often described in the rhetoric of tradition, what the Qing empire actually did was as new and unprecedented as what the Western powers did in Korea at the same time. Finally, despite the confident affirmations made by some Westerners of the liberating potential of membership in the “family of nations,” Choson Korea discovered that such rhetoric was indeed a fiction, one that gave small comfort to a kingdom and people inexorably drawn not into sovereign equality but into the vortex of imperialism.
A “Model Tributary”?
The centuries of relations between China and Korea defy easy characterization and summary. Nevertheless, many contemporary scholars have concluded that the relations can be summarized either by reference to a small set of recurring practices or to a tribute system, the parameters of which were ostensibly recognized and agreed upon by both China and Korea. In contrast to Westphalian equality, relations between China and Korea were assumed to have been unequal: China was the superior, Korea the inferior. This hierarchy was expressed in the titles used for the rulers of both places: China had an emperor (huangdi/ hwangche), in theory the only such title in the world. Korea, along with other recognized states (guo/guk), merely had a king (wang). Korea sent tribute missions to China in which Korean envoys offered goods and ritual obeisance to the Chinese emperor. The Chinese, in return, sent occasional missions to Korea, usually to grant investiture (zefeng/ eh ‘aekbong) to Korean kings newly ascendant to the throne. Korea agreed to use the Chinese calendar, particularly in any correspondence with China.
Aside from these ritual expressions of hierarchy, other modes of interchange–trade, travel, the permanent stationing of representatives in respective capitals, and the like–were thought to have been sharply limited if not altogether prohibited. Times of emergency, when the Chinese elder brother was obligated to come to the aid of its Korean younger sibling, were thought to be the exception. Distance and noninterference were the rule.
In addition to the contrast between traditional hierarchy and modern sovereign equality, other differences between the “tributary” mode of relations and the ideal Westphalian-style relations are apparent. Neither side had a diplomatic presence, or any other kind of abiding presence for that matter, in the other’s capital. And while both sides made occasional references to tradition or “old statutes” (jiudian/kujon) as a resource for understanding and delimiting the relationship (Kojong sillok 1871 [KJ 8.4.17]), (3) it is apparent that these did not function in the same manner as a treaty in Western-style relations.
Whether there actually was a tribute system in any meaningful sense of the term is a matter of considerable debate. It is clear that some Chinese descriptions of regional interstate relations assumed a universal acceptance of a Sino-centric hierarchical order predicated on ritual expressions of subservience on the part of the vassal and benevolence on the part of the suzerain. Moreover, China’s far-flung tributaries were at least occasionally viewed as potential allies and resources to be drawn upon, as was the case in the late-sixteenth-century Japanese invasions of Korea, which prompted the Wanli emperor (r. 1572-1620) to repeatedly declare that massive armies recruited from the distant tributaries of the Ming were on their way to help defeat the Japanese (Swope 2009, 125, 150, 244). (4)
Whatever unity the tribute system had as an organizing principle for Chinese foreign relations during the Ming was seriously challenged during the subsequent Qing era (1644-1912). In ruling their far-flung, multiethnic regime, the rulers of the Qing used a variety of approaches and institutions to deal with its various “constituencies” (to use Pamela Crossley’s [1999] term) both within the realm and beyond; many of these were far removed from anything resembling “tribute.” Whether it was negotiating with the Russians on a basis of equality and pragmatism (resulting in the 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk) or using the Buddhist imagery of the Cakravartin (wheel-turning king) in correspondence with Tibetans, it is apparent that the Qing rulers found the language and concepts of “tribute” to be only one arrow in their well-stocked quiver of foreign relations approaches.
Even cases that are often assumed to be within the purview of the tribute system display significant variations. The Western powers that traded with the Qing empire under the “Canton system,” for example, did not send tribute to the Qing imperial throne (with rare and contested exceptions) and their interactions with the Qing were not managed by the Board of Rites (traditionally assumed to manage all tributary relations) but by the cohong merchants in Canton itself.
While “tribute” may not adequately encompass or explain all cases of East Asian international relations, it is widely assumed that it does well explain Korea’s relations with China. As noted previously, declarations of Korea as a “model tributary” of China are legion. An examination of actual relations between Korea and China renders these declarations incomplete if not problematic.
Not So Tributary
If tributary relations are characterized by a primary if not exclusive focus on ritual expressions of hierarchy buttressed by shared Confucian norms, there are numerous moments in Ming-Choson relations that fit uneasily at best under the rubric of tribute. While too numerous to fully list here, these moments include Choson irredentist plans to attack the Ming and reclaim territory in Liaodong (T’aejong sillok 1405 [T’aejong 5.6.27]; Ming demands for authors of offending correspondence (and their families) to be sent to China for harsh punishment with some of the offenders’ dying in Chinese prison and others returned to Korea branded with facial tattoos indicating their criminal status (T’aejo sillok 1397 [T’aejo 6.11.30]; T’aejong sillok 1404 [T’aejong 4.3.27]); Ming requirements of tribute silver and gold in amounts so large that Koreans were forced to melt down Buddhist icons to meet them (Clark 1998, 291); even more onerous demands for human tribute–boys to be castrated to serve as eunuchs in the Ming court (Tsai 1995, 293) and girls for the imperial harem (T’aejong sillok 1409 [T’aejong 9.11.13]; Clark 1998, 291-292)s; and, repeated (if not always heeded) calls for Korean military support against various enemies of the Ming (Kye 2006a). It was only in 1479 that all of these “abnormal” aspects of Sino-Korean relations ceased and something more closely resembling “normal” tributary relations took the stage for slightly longer than a century.
This period of normalcy ended when, in response to the Hideyoshi Invasions (1592-1598), the Ming engaged in unprecedented involvement and interference in Korean affairs. Ming commanders and officials treated the Choson king and his officials haughtily (more often they ignored them altogether), Ming soldiers ravaged the countryside, and Ming negotiators pointedly ignored Korean claims and interests in their dealings with the Japanese (Swope 2009, 194-195). At one point, the frustrated and anxious Choson court probably took some rueful comfort in learning that it was a Japanese negotiator that repudiated his Ming counterpart’s claim that the Korean peninsula was Ming territory (Swope 2009, 132). (6) In short, there was much to Ming-Choson relations that far more closely resembles coercion and raw power relations than the comforting notions of mutual cooperation and respect based on shared civilizational norms. One might contend that the cases briefly recounted above are exceptional, epiphenomenal moments that should not distract from the deeper structure and continuity of tributary relations. One wonders, however, how many exceptions must pile up before the underlying rule comes into question.
As the Ming declined toward its ultimate demise in the first decades of the seventeenth century, it made increasingly desperate demands of its Korean vassal for continued ritual declarations of support as well as direct military aid. Many in the Choson court were eager to comply, not least because of feelings of gratitude and loyalty stemming from the Ming assistance during the Hideyoshi Invasions. Some justified rebuffing early overtures from the Jurchen leader Nurhaci by “the excuse of the Ming prohibition on direct relations between tributary countries” (Kye 2006b, 160-161, 163). In this they were opposed by King Kwanghae (r. 1608-1623), who advocated a more pragmatic balancing between the declining Ming and the rising Jurehen power on Choson’s northern border. Kwanghae cited past precedent when the Koryo kingdom had paid tribute to both Song China and the Jurchen Jin Dynasty as a means of securing national survival (Kye 2006b, 8-9). (7) Despite Kwanghae’s vehement opposition, the Choson court heeded the Ming calls for military support and sent a force to join a Ming expedition against the Manchus, which was decimated in the 1619 Battle of Sarhu. (8)
After this defeat, Korea suffered two separate Jurchen invasions (1627, 1636). By the time of the second invasion, the Jurchens (who had rechristened themselves as Manchus) had declared a new dynasty-the Qing–and had begun an expansion that would ultimately bring about the demise of the Ming.
The Manchus engaged in a number of acts that more closely parallel the difficult times of early Ming-Choson relations than they do the ideal tributary relationship. They forced Choson King Injo to prostrate himself eight times before the Manchu ruler Hong Taiji (r. 1626-1643) and commemorated this ritual submission with the “Three Ferry Fields Stone,” a memorial stele inscribed with “barbarian” Mongol and Manchu scripts (as well as classical Chinese). They took thousands if not tens of thousands of prisoners, including two Choson princes. Many never returned. They made demands for large amounts of tribute including human tribute (Chun 1968, 100) as well as calls for Choson military assistance in campaigns against the Russians (Park 2007, 5758; Yang 1988, 165-173).
That Manchu rule was resented by many Koreans is well known. King Hyojong repeatedly planned a “northern expedition” against the Manchus. Hyojong’s plans, however, were never carried out. After holding the largest military examination in Choson-era history in 1676, which resulted in an astonishing 17,652 successful passers, Hyojong’s successors seemed less enthusiastic about fighting the Qing (Park 2007, 57-58).
However, despite these less than auspicious beginnings, Qing-Choson relations shifted from coercion and intervention to something that far more closely resembled normal tributary relations rather quickly. Choson sent regular tribute missions, never letting a year go by without at least one being sent to China. (9) Qing missions to Korea to grant investiture to Choson monarchs (or for other reasons) also continued. But both sides appear to have agreed that relations could be kept to the acceptable minimum of tribute, investiture, and the use of the Qing calendar (at least in official Korean documents); other forms of interaction were discouraged if not prohibited outfight. Aside from some early-eighteenth-century disagreements over border demarcation and a fairly continuous, but low-level, string of other border issues, most Qing-Choson relations after the late seventeenth century appear to conform far more closely to the tributary ideal.
If the Ming or Qing suzerain did not always behave in the manner of benevolent noninterference required of a righteous Confucian relationship between sovereign and subject, so too many acts of Choson Korea fit uneasily at best within the traditional notions of tribute. First, while Choson Korea’s neo-Confucian elite usually acknowledged China as the source of the East Asian civilization of which Koreans were full and meaningful participants, they contested the Ming (and even more so the Qing) claims to be the proper heirs to Confucian civilization. This was done in part by highlighting the story of Kija (Ch. Jizi) as a part of the explanation of the origins of Korea. By highlighting the story of the Shang aristocrat who supposedly left the Yellow River valley to found a dynasty in the northern part of the Korean peninsula in 1122 B.C.E., Choson-era Koreans were not so subtly emphasizing the fact that Korea had “Chinese” civilization even before the golden age of the Zhou Dynasty (trad. 1122-221 B.C.E.). Choson-era Koreans also stressed the fact that certain aspects of Korean society and tradition–including slavery and the high status of hereditary great families–that were not usually associated with Chinese culture and civilization were passed down from Kija to the present day (Lee 2007, 1-2, 225).
The writings of Choson Koreans also contain expressions of the sentiment that Korea was a better guardian and practitioner of “Chinese” culture and civilization than even China itself was. For example, advances in printing technology achieved under the reign of King Sejong (r. 1418-1450) resulted in some self-congratulatory comparisons: “The kings of T’ang and Han spent their strength in the training and equipment of armies; how much better is the work of our good king. As high as heaven overtops the earth so does this deed outshine theirs. Endless blessing for Korea” (Gale and Rutt 1972, 234-235). Another example can be found in the preface to the 1478 literature anthology, the Tongmunson, which reads, “The literature of the East is neither the literature of the Song or Yuan, nor the literature of the Han and Tang. It is the literature of our country” (Tongmunson 1966, 1). (10)
The Korean sense of civilizational superiority was only enhanced by the conquest of the Ming by the “barbarian” Qing. Choson scholars showed their disregard for the Qing in a variety of symbolic ways including using Ming reign dates for private documents (all official correspondence with the Qing and many official records used Qing reign dates) and using derogatory language to refer to the Manchus (“barbarian messengers” [Hoch’a] to refer to Qing envoys, for example) (Gale and Rutt 1972, 281-282).
Another case of Choson Korea’s sometimes espousing the principles of the “tribute system” while acting in quite different ways can be found in the Korean use of the notion that vassals cannot practice diplomacy. This “rule” was brought up in cases in which the Choson court wished to avoid engaging with other powers such as the rising Jurchen (later to become Manchu) confederation in Manchuria in the early seventeenth century (Kye 2006b, 160-161). Mid-nineteenth-century Korean rulers and officials would use the same pretext to avoid even talking to Westerners who appeared on Korea’s shores (Kojong sillok June 4, 1871 [Kojong 8.4.17]). A wider examination of Choson’s foreign relations clearly reveals that such statements were either the result of an astonishing historical amnesia or were merely useful instruments toward a desired foreign policy end. The Choson kingdom conducted extensive diplomacy with various Jurchen peoples both in the northern part of the Korean peninsula and in Manchuria, often resulting in the Choson court’s enlisting Jurchen chieftains as vassals and demanding tribute in a manner similar to China’s demands made on Korea (Kye 2006a; Robinson 1992). Choson Korea had similar interactions with the kingdoms in the Ryukyu (Liuqiu) Islands, to say nothing of the tradition of “neighborly relations” (kyorin) with Japan.
If we are still desiring to use the language and concepts of “tribute” to explain Qing and Korean behavior, we are left with the difficult task of explaining why Korea came closest to the status of “model tributary” during the reign of the dynasty in China for which Koreans had the most contempt, a dynasty that demonstrated its willingness to go far beyond the practices and principles of the tribute system in its relations with a variety of peoples and states at and beyond its own borders. Perhaps rather than resorting too swiftly to the Orientalist presumption that the rules of behavior in the East are inscrutable and somehow different from those of the West (“East is East, and West is West”), we should first determine whether more conventional notions of coercion and power relations can explain why both sides of the Sino-Korean relationship behaved in the ways that they did.
The Qing Empire and the Nineteenth-Century Transformation
Whether rooted in shared Confucian values or merely a manifestation of mutually acceptable interactions based on realpolitik, Choson-Qing relations had settled into a comfortable routine by the mid-eighteenth century, a routine that remained more or less unchallenged until the mid-nineteenth century. Korea continued to send tribute missions to Beijing; Choson monarchs invariably received investiture from Qing envoys; Choson scholars and officials used the Qing calendar (except when they didn’t, using the Ming calendar as a sign of their continued resentment of Manchu rule, albeit outside the purview of any Qing visitor).
Moreover, as noted above, in the nineteenth century the Choson kingdom appears to have rediscovered the principle that “vassals have no foreign relations” (ZRHGX 1972, 175). Thus, when British, US, French, and other vessels and representatives appeared on Choson’s shores, they were rebuffed and sent to China. However, upon arrival in China, many of the same foreigners were frustrated to find the Qing empire eschewing responsibility for the foreign relations of its Korean vassal. In 1871, the Zongli yamen, the newly created Qing foreign policy organization, responded to one such foreign inquiry as follows: “Choson is a tributary of China; but as for said country’s autonomy in its own politics, religion, prohibitions, and orders, China has never interfered with it” (ZRHGX 1972, 96). (11) In 1879, Japanese diplomats received a similar reply: “That Korea is a dependent state of China is known by all; that it is an autonomous country is also known by all” (ZRHGX 1972, 353-354).
The result of such confusing statements as well as the more general Western perception of both China and Korea as resistant to change, especially foreign-inspired change, is a depiction of the Qing empire and its allies within the Choson officialdom as being dragged kicking and screaming into the new Westphalian order. If the Qing empire acted in any way toward its Korean vassal it was to uphold, maintain, or, as is more often expressed in scholarly treatments of this period, reassert its traditional, ritual-based suzerainty over Korea.
A close examination of what the Qing actually did during this critical period, however, reveals that far from simply resisting all change, the Qing empire played a critical role in Choson Korea’s transition to participation in the new international order. The Qing empire was influential in convincing the Choson court to accept modern-style treaties as an instrument of defining the terms of foreign relations (a relatively new development for both Korea and China). This was accomplished first by the Qing empire’s own example of its participation in treaty negotiation, first with an array of Western powers (beginning with the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842) and then with Meiji Japan in 1871. While Choson officials were aware that the Qing’s earlier treaties with the West were negotiated under duress, the Qing-Meiji Treaty was conducted and ratified in a time of peace and clearly signaled the Qing empire’s willingness to use treaties. Second, as Meiji Japan carried out its own gunboat diplomacy with Korea–in 1876 sending a fleet toward the peninsula and promising war if a treaty were not negotiated–the Qing statesman Li Hongzhang sent behind-the-scenes “advice” to Korea (usually via the Choson official Yi Yu-won) encouraging the Choson kingdom to negotiate rather than fight (Kim 1980, 248-255; ZRHGX 1972, 276-278). Third, and perhaps most significantly, the Qing empire directly mediated Choson Korea’s first modern-style treaties with major Western powers–the United States, Great Britain, and Germany–in 1882. Far from being an implacable enemy to Korea’s participation in a new Western-inspired international order, the Qing empire was an instrumental facilitator of this participation.
Indeed, one can read the writings and declarations of influential Qing statesmen, most notably Li Hongzhang, for what appears to be an enthusiastic embrace of Western-style international law and its potential for facilitating peaceful interactions between states. This can be observed in the 1876 conversation between Li and the Japanese diplomat Mori Arinori:
Mori: It seems to me that treaties cannot be relied upon.
Li: The peace of nations depends on treaties. How can you say they are not relied upon?
Mori: Treaties would do for ordinary commercial relations. But great national decisions are made according to comparative national strength, not according to treaties.
Li: This is heresy. To rely upon strength and violate treaties is not tolerated by international law. Mori: International law is also useless.
Li: (pointing to a wine cup) Peace is a spirit; a treaty is something to uphold it. Human hearts are like this wine; the cup keeps them within limits.
Mori: The spirit of peace comes in and goes out by every nook and crevice. How can a cup confine it? (Tsiang 1933/34, 59)
In addition, Li was advised by Ma Jianzhong, the first Chinese to earn a Western law degree (in France) who was instrumental in negotiating an 1885 amendment to the Chefoo Convention allowing the Qing empire to tax the opium trade at much higher rates, and Ma’s brother Ma Jianchang (also known as Ma Xiangbo). In the early 1880s, the latter spoke confidently of being able to use international law to hold foreign powers to their word: “Whatever ability they [foreign diplomats] have, I have; whatever knowledge they have, I have; when, in the future, they act haughtily, we can restrain them with law. Before long, they will behave properly” (Zhang 1939, 139-140).
It would seem, then, that both the Qing empire and major Western nations were in agreement on the merits of Western-style international order and the inevitability if not desirability of a shift from a Sino-centric “tribute system” to a Westphalian “family of nations.” But there are several reasons why this transition was neither orderly nor clear. First, the continued Qing assertion of a special, suzerain-vassal relationship with Korea was in apparent conflict with the new treaties and the new rules of international engagement. Many Western diplomats and observers decried these efforts as inconsistent with modern international relations. Subsequent generations of scholars have characterized these Chinese efforts as the last gasp of an anachronistic order in the modern era (Jung 1998, 164-165; Lee 1988, 172; Tsiang 1933/34, 99). Second, an aspect of the transition not fully recognized at the time was the fact that the Qing empire was simultaneously asserting the ritual privileges and prerogatives of suzerainty (usually understood as traditional) and engaging in what can only be labeled imperialism of a much more modern sort. Many (though certainly not all) Western diplomats and observers of the time were less resistant to these Qing actions, provided that their nations received the same treatment and unequal privileges from and in Korea. This tacit acceptance of modern Qing informal imperialism in Korea leads to the third aspect of the transition: despite the high rhetoric of sovereignty, equality, and membership in the “family of nations,” the order being ushered in to East Asia was most decidedly not a Westphalian order based on these principles. Rather, it was an order of imperialism in which the strong abridged the sovereignty of the weak at will, the only key question being whether the imperialism would take an informal form (as in the treaty port system across East Asia) or a more formal one (as in the direct annexation of territory characteristic of the global age of “high imperialism”).
Even as the Qing empire was facilitating Choson Korea’s entrance into a treaty-based Western-style international order, it also continued to assert its ritual-based hierarchical position that is usually associated with past practice. For more than a decade after 1882, Korea continued to send tribute missions to Beijing on a regular basis and to use the Qing calendar. The Qing also took advantage of special moments, such as the Chinese mission of condolence sent in the wake of the death of Korean Queen Dowager Cho in 1890, which was ostentatiously used to reinforce (or, if Joshua van Lieu is correct, reimagine or recreate) the idea of Korea’s ritual submission to its Chinese suzerain (van Lieu 2010). All of these interactions remained under the purview and management of the Qing Board of Rites, not the Zongli yamen. In addition, Qing officials, permanently stationed in Seoul after 1882, often took pains to emphasize the special Qing position in Korea in various ritual settings such as the seating arrangements at banquets and the protocol of royal audiences.
Many of these Qing actions were dismissed by Western observers as inconsequential, part of what John Russell Young, the US minister to Beijing, described as the “romance and hyperbole which surrounds these Oriental claims to sovereignty” (Nelson 1945, 162). However, when the Qing empire attempted to use treaties to assert continued Qing suzerainty over Korea, Western diplomats were more likely to resist. Hence, the US negotiator Robert Shufeldt steadfastly refused to accept any Korean-US treaty that included a clause declaring Qing suzerainty over Korea, and many dismissed as immaterial the letter from the king of Korea attached to the treaty declaring Korea’s acceptance of Qing suzerainty. Furthermore, the Qing declarations of suzerainty and special privilege found in its own treaties negotiated with Choson Korea, most notably the 1882 Regulations for Maritime and Overland Trade Between Chinese and Korean Subjects and the 1883 Twenty-Four Rules for the Traffic on the Frontier Between Liaotung and Corea, were for the most part ignored entirely. Prominent critics of the Qing claims, perhaps most notably the US adviser to Korean King Kojong, Owen Nickerson Denny, went to great lengths to demonstrate the ways Qing claims were inconsistent with modern international law, declaring that the relationship between the Qing empire and Choson Korea was, apparently, based upon principles that “such well-known expounders as Grotius, Vattell, and Wheaton never comprehended” (Denny 1888, 24).
This focus on the Qing empire’s continued assertion of “traditional” ritual suzerainty masks the fact that while the Qing may have indeed attempted to continue some practices seen in previous centuries, much (if not most) of what the Qing did in Korea in the late nineteenth century was actually quite new. A list of the new features of the Sino-Korean relationship would necessarily include the following: the Qing dispatch of 3,000 troops to put down a soldiers’ mutiny in Hansong (Seoul) in 1882 and the subsequent three-year occupation of the Korean capital by Chinese soldiers; the permanent stationing of Qing diplomats in both the Korean capital and in port cities; the presence of Chinese merchants who enjoyed extraterritorial privileges both in designated treaty ports and in the interior of Korea; Qing gunboats in Korean harbors; the Qing construction and operation of the first overland telegraph lines linking Korea to the outside world; a series of loans made to the Choson government and subsequent Qing involvement in Korean finance; and the establishment and operation of Korea’s Maritime Customs Service, staffed largely by employees of the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs Service (Larsen 2008).
Most of these acts have few, if any, precedents in the past practice of Sino-Korean relations. Moreover, if one were to remove the adjective “Qing” or “Chinese” from the descriptions of these acts and replace them with a Western (“British,” for example) or even Japanese equivalent, few would have any difficulty in recognizing these acts for what they were: manifestations of modern imperialism. (12) The fact that this is not widely acknowledged in the case of Qing actions in Korea probably tells us more about our perceptions of China, the West, and imperialism more generally than it does about the actual events on the ground.
That few foreign observers of Korea at the time recognized Qing activities for what they were may have also stemmed at least in part from the fact that the Qing activities were so unremarkably similar to the general practices of the day. In short, while some Western observers and critics could not accept Qing claims of special privilege in Korea, particularly if such claims were based on ritual and tradition rather than sound principles of international law, most had little trouble with the actual Qing practices of imperialism in Korea. But this acceptance came with an important caveat: other foreign powers involved in Korea consistently demanded the same unequal privileges claimed by the Qing. This tendency to demand equal access to unequal privilege in Korea is most often manifested in the assertion of most-favored-nation privileges. For example, when the Qing secured much lower tariff rates for Chinese imports to Korea in the 1882 Regulations for Maritime and Overland Trade, foreign diplomats were quick to criticize the agreement. The Japanese foreign minister complained that “China intended to assume great powers of control over Corea, and to secure exclusive commercial privileges in that country” and was quick to demand similar tariff rates for Japanese goods (Nish 1989, 104). Soon thereafter, the British diplomat Harry Parkes declared,
It would be vain, I thought, for Corea to suppose that the Western Powers would accept inferior terms to those which Corea had granted to China and Japan, as it was obvious that their people could conduct no trade in Corea unless they were placed, in regard to commercial advantages, on an equal footing with the subjects of those two nations. (Nish 1989, 112)
It is worth noting that such declarations displayed little to no concern for Korean sovereignty, which would presumably include the Korean right to dictate the terms of its relations with outside powers. Nor did they demonstrate any concern for the fact that mandating excessively low tariff rates might damage the Korean economy and restrict needed revenue to the Choson court. Finally, the objections were not aimed at the Chinese assertion of unequal (vis-a-vis Korea) privileges in Korea per se, but rather at the Chinese attempt to secure a privilege not granted to others. At one level this might be seen as a defense of Westphalian equality but only the equality of equal treatment of all foreigners in Korea, not the equal treatment of the sovereign state of Choson Korea itself.
Another illustration of the conflict between Qing claims of special privilege and Western claims of most-favored-nation concessions was the so-called sedan chair affair. For years, Western diplomats had grumbled at the fact that when they paid official visits to King Kojong they had to walk between outer gates and the audience hall, a distance sometimes of several hundred yards. While these complaints might have been written off as a minor annoyance, the fact that Yuan Shikai insisted on riding up to the doors of the audience hall in a sedan chair rankled many.
Yuan justified his behavior by asserting that the Qing empire enjoyed a special relationship with its Korean vassal, and, as such, he was not simply another foreign diplomat in Korea. (13) US and other diplomats occasionally contested this assertion of special privilege, but as a general rule their complaints fell on deaf ears. The issue simmered under the surface for years to erupt again in 1893 when Yuan Shikai’s assistant, Tang Shaoyi, asserted the same special privilege in his visit to the Korean king. Incensed, the foreign diplomats organized a boycott of diplomatic visits to the Korean court until all were granted the privilege of riding to the doors in their sedan chairs. The US diplomat Horace Allen summarized the foreign consensus: “I would be justified in uniting with my colleagues in asking that at least equal privileges with the Consul of China” be granted to all foreign diplomats in Seoul (Palmer 1963, 95).
Eventually a compromise was reached in which the Choson government would “build a closed gallery from the nearest Palace Gate to the Reception Hall, through which [foreign diplomats] might walk, protected from the weather” (Palmer 1963, 99). However, before the proposed walkway was completed, complaints from the foreign diplomatic community ceased because in August of 1894 the Choson government announced that all foreign diplomats would be allowed to ride as far as they wished in sedan chairs. In subsequent years, all foreign diplomats enjoyed the privilege of riding directly into court in sedan chairs, even when the distance between gate and door was less than twenty yards (Sands 1904, 59).
This incident and its outcome illustrate the fact that the reflexive reaction of the international community (as represented by foreign diplomats in Korea) was not to criticize the assertion of special privilege per se or to point out that such assertion would seem to violate basic principles of Korea’s national sovereignty, but rather to insist on the same special privileges for themselves. The “law of nations” was less a protection of Korean sovereignty than it was a guarantee of equal access by outsiders.
Western defenders of Korean independence in the face of this continued Chinese assertion of suzerainty often pointed to the text of Korea’s treaties with other nations that had declared Korea’s sovereignty, encouraged the Choson kingdom to establish legations abroad to further establish Korea’s membership in the modern Westphalian “family of nations,” and openly criticized the Qing claims vis-a-vis Korea.
But in doing so, they had to studiously avoid the fact that their own presence in Korea, and across East Asia for that matter, was the result of a series of unequal treaties usually forced at gunpoint upon East Asian states. An illustrative example of how advocates of the Westphalian system ignored the patently unequal aspects of their relations with East Asian powers can be found in the writings of the US judge and adviser to Korean King Kojong, Owen Nickerson Denny (Swartout 1980). After his arrival in Seoul in 1886, Denny continuously busied himself in seeking loans for the cash-strapped Korean court, urging that Korea establish permanent legations in Washington, DC, and elsewhere, and generally seeking to “prick the vassalage bubble” of continued Qing claims of suzerainty in Korea (Deni munso 1981, 96). His 1888 tract, China and Korea, is an attempt to subject the Sino-Korean relationship to modern legal analysis. In China and Korea, Denny dismisses the “usual mystification and vagueness” that characterizes descriptions of the traditional relations (Denny 1888, 11). Moreover, he asserted in a thoroughly Westphalian fashion that
The unerring test, however, of a sovereign and independent state, is its right to negotiate, to conclude treaties of friendship, navigation and commerce, to exchange public ministers, and to declare war and peace with other sovereign and independent powers. These are rights and conditions compatible and consistent with sovereignty which, when possessed by a state, place it in the great family of independent nations. (Denny 1888, 5-6)
Denny cites and uses Western international law authorities such as Henry Wheaton to counter Qing claims to a special relationship with Korea. However, he seems blissfully oblivious to the larger, imperialistic context within which he and all Westerners were operating in East Asia (and beyond). For example, he brings up several examples of Qing tributary claims–Liuqiu (Ryukyu), Annam (modern Vietnam), and Burma–to demonstrate the “precarious claims” of the Qing in general. After all, the first “forms a part of the sovereignty of the Empire of Japan, the second belongs to the Republic of France, while the third recently passed to the sovereign control of Great Britain” (Denny 1888, 6-7). The fact that passing from Qing tributary to modern colony precludes the membership of Liuqiu, Annam, and Burma as sovereign and equal members of the “family of nations” apparently does not deserve mention. More to the point, Denny criticizes the 1882 Sino-Korean treaty by correctly pointing to the fallacious nature of the Qing claims that treaty provisions were a “favor” to Korea:
Is it a favor to Korea for that state to grant ex[tra]-territorial privileges to the subjects to China while the latter lays claim to suzerainty over the former? Is it a favor to Korea to permit Chinese men-of-war to repair to her open ports to protect Chinese consuls and other residents? And, finally, is it a favor to overrun the Korean capital with Chinese merchants while there is not a Korean merchant in all of China? (Denny 1888, 16)
That the same could be said of virtually every foreign power in Korea is not acknowledged by Denny. Unremarked is the relationship between the Western assertion of the very same unequal privileges in Korea and any degree of Korean sovereignty or equality on the international stage.
Denny and other like-minded foreigners likely were sincere in their belief that asserting Choson Korea’s participation in the modern Westphalian order was the “best possible service I could render” (Swartout 1980, 90). The stakes were high, nothing less than the “question as to whether or not the autonomy of this little kingdom, which is now struggling so heroically to get a foot hold on the great plains of western civilization, shall be preserved or not” (Deni munso 1981, 87-88). But, in the end, much in the same way the comforting fiction of the tribute system masked an often much more coercive reality, the fiction of a Westphalian order of sovereign and equal nation-states was just that–a fiction. The reality was that, like most nations of the time, Korea was being ushered into an international order of imperialism in which powerful empires asserted their strength and promoted their interests either by directly claiming and annexing territories and peoples (e.g., the “scramble for Africa”) or by asserting informal empire: the practice of leaving an indigenous government somewhat intact but dictating the (highly unequal) terms of engagement between the semi-colonized and the outside world. Despite all the talk of treaties, legations, and the family of nations, the new powers with which Korea was engaging were not interested in supporting Korean independence. Rather, they sought either equal access to the unequal privileges of informal imperialism or the more direct exclusive assertion of special privilege, up to and including the formal direct annexation of Korean territory.
In such an atmosphere, idealists like Denny (or Li Hongzhang) were forced to agree that treaties, agreements, and international law were of limited use in an era all too familiar to the likes of Thucydides’s Athenians. The seminal Japanese thinker Fukuzawa Yukichi put it simply: “A hundred volumes of international law are no match for a few cannon. A handful of friendly treaties cannot compete with a little gunpowder. Cannons and gunpowder are machines that can make principles where there were none” (Bradley 2009, 181). Japanese public opinion, if popular songs are any indication, seemed to agree. One song ran, “There is a Law of Nations, it is true,/but when the moment comes, remember,/the Strong eat up the Weak” (Dower 1999, 21). (14)
One need look no further than the 1907 Hague Peace Conference for evidence of the primacy of power over law and ideals. The Kwangmu emperor (formerly known as King Kojong) sent three delegates to The Hague to protest Japan’s growing colonization of Korea and to make a case for Korean independence. Japan’s representatives naturally called for the rejection of the Korean delegates and their pleas, making the argument that the peace conference was to be attended only by representatives of independent nations (Dudden 2005). (15) World opinion appeared to agree, and the Koreans were branded as “troublemakers” and were shut out of the proceedings (Davis 1975, 193). Proponents of the conference proudly claimed that “a world conference has been realized, as only two or three minor nations, for domestic reasons, were unrepresented” (“The Second Peace Conference of the Hague” 1907, 946). Whether the authors regarded Korea as one of these “unrepresented” nations is not clear. What is clear is that the nations that had signed treaties with the Choson kingdom, which had declared Korea’s sovereignty and independence, uniformly turned their backs on Korea (ignoring decades of treaties in the process) when push came to shove. However, even if Korea had been admitted to the conference, it is far from clear what substantive impact this would have had on Korea’s future status. After all, at the conference was the German foreign minister von Bulow, who had declared in 1906 that “wherever treaties clashed with vital interests they were never to be taken all too serious [sic]: paper won’t blush!?” (Eyffinger 2007, 200). Arthur Eyffinger notes, “In 1907, at The Hague, this diplomat, with Von Schlieffen’s plan ready at his desk, had the sanctity of the Belgian frontiers solemnly guaranteed” (Eyffmger 2007, 200fn2). Whether as traditional vassalage or modern participation in the family of nations, the “comforting fictions” all too often seemed to comfort the strong more than the weak.
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(1.) Previous versions of this article and the ideas contained therein were presented at “Was There a Historical East Asian International System?” (USC, March 4-5, 2011) and “China in the World of Choson Korea” (UBC, July 2-3, 2010). I have benefited greatly from the feedback and discussion at both conferences.
(2.) After introducing the quotation from the Yongle emperor, Timothy Brook concludes that “the doctrine of moral reciprocity between superiors and inferiors that animates Confucian ethics is hardly in evidence in his reign” (Brook 2010, 92).
(3.) The date that follows each reference (for example, “KJ 8.4.17”) is the reign year, month, and day used in the original (the 8th year, 4th month, 17th day of the reign of Kojong).
(4.) None of the Ming tributaries actually responded to the Ming emperor’s call for help, although King Naresuan of Siam appears to have offered naval assistance to the Ming (Kang 2010, 70). For the Ming discussion of the Siamese offer, see Ming shilu (Wanli 21.1.6 [February 6, 1593]) in Wade 2005.
(5.) The practice of demanding human tribute caused the Korean king T’aejong (r. 1400-1418) to lament the Choson kingdom’s relative weakness that gave him no choice to but accede to Chinese demands for pretty girls (and numerous horses). See T’aejong sillok 1409 (TJ 9.11.13). Donald Clark aptly summarizes the significance of this practice: “The number of persons requisitioned at any one time was usually small, but the trade itself is what mattered, and the Korean records bear witness to the bitterness with which the Koreans looked upon it. No other aspect of the tributary relationship so clearly demonstrated the abjectness of the Koreans’ submission to the Chinese emperor or the contempt in which the Chinese held their loyal neighbors” (Clark 1998, 291).
(6.) Swope recounts this particular incident as follows: “Undaunted, Shen [Weijing (ft. 1540-1597)] told the Japanese to evacuate and wait for order from the Ming, for this was their territory. Konishi [Joan] produced a map and said ‘This is clearly Korea'” (Swope 2009, 132).
(7.) Kye (2006b, 8-9). This was not the first time the Choson court had noted this precedent. See Myongjong sillok 1554 (Myrngjong 9.7.18) for an earlier case. For an English translation see Kang (1997, 169).
(8.) Much of the English-language scholarship that mentions this incident (however briefly) relays the idea that Kwanghae secretly instructed General Kang Hong-nip to observe the course of the battle and surrender to the Manehus if the tide of the battle turned against the Ming. See, for example, Clark (1998, 299); Haboush (2001, 24, 260fn74); and Palais (1996, 93). The same notion can be found in at least some survey texts written by Korean scholars: Han (1997, 323); Lee et al. (2005, 414). However, given the enormous casualties the Korean army suffered before Kang’s surrender, if he were indeed following royal orders, he did so in a stunningly inept fashion.
(9.) Kim Key-hiuk sees this not as a sign of Korean acceptance of Qing suzerainty but of the continuity of Qing unfeeling inflexibility, noting that “For two and a half centuries, Korea was not once exempted from tribute payment, even in times of national emergency such as famine, flood, or rebellion” (Kim 1980, 27-28).
(10.) Thanks to Andre Schmid (1996, 37) for pointing this out.
(11.) For a similar declaration, see Zongli yamen to Frederick Low (ZRHGX 1972, 243-244).
(12.) Jurgen Osterhammel describes various facets of Western and Japanese “semi-colonialism” in China including the following: “foreign territorial enclaves … extraterritoriality … foreign troops stationed in the national capital … infringements upon the ability of the Chinese government to implement economic and financial policies of its own (absence of tariff autonomy until 1930 etc.) … [and] de facto foreign control over some of the most important revenue-collecting agencies (maritime customs, salt administration)” (Osterhammel 1986, 290-291). The similarities between these practices and those of the Qing empire in Korea are striking.
(13.) According to Sukhee Hail, “Yuan also demonstrated this disrespectful behavior at a banquet given at the Chinese legation in Seoul. Yuan often seated the president of the Korean Foreign Office below all the foreign representatives on the excuse that the Korean official was not a guest but a member of the family of China. From time to time, Yuan also refused to attend conferences of the foreign representatives in Seoul by stating that he was not a member of the regular diplomatic corps” (Hail 1998, 241).
(14.) Some Korean newspapers agreed: Andre Schmid observes that “On the question of law–an issue central to munmyong kaehwa as a rational regulator of human society–social Darwinism stressed its use as a tool of the powerful. As one paper had a person in an editorial declare about international law, ‘These so-called public laws, righteous principles, alliances and treaties, and morality all are nothing more than words on a piece of paper'” (Schmid 2002, 38).
(15.) Dudden (2005, 7) argues that “in the summer of 1907, the world declared Korea illegal.”
Kirk W. Larsen is associate professor of history at Brigham Young University. He received his PhD in History from Harvard University. He has previously taught at the University of Texas-Austin and George Washington University. At GWU he served as director of the International Affairs Program and the Sigur Center for Asian Studies. His publications include Tradition, Treaties, and Trade: Qing Imperialism and Choson Korea, 1850-1910 (2008). He has published, presented, and commented on a variety of contemporary issues including North Korea, nationalism and elections in South Korea, and Sino-Korean relations.

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