On the 27th day of the eleventh month of 1542, the Chosŏn court learned from a returning envoy of startling developments at the Ming court. About two months earlier, on the 21st day of the ninth month, sixteen palace ladies had attempted to assassinate the Jiajing 嘉靖 emperor (r. Shizong 世宗 1522--1567) by strangling him with a cord. One loyal palace maid had sought help in time and rescued the emperor, but not before he fainted from asphyxiation. Palace guards apprehended the would-be assassins, who were then beheaded and dismembered. Over two hundred others were eventually executed in connection with the affair.1 The Chosŏn court soon dispatched an envoy mission to congratulate the emperor on the successful elimination of these "rebels" and the enduring protection of his ancestral spirits.2
The arrival of the Korean embassy came as a surprise to the emperor. He wondered how, first of all, "the Chosŏn king could have known of these palace incidents," and also how his emissary arrived to "inquire of [him] with such alacrity?"3 Korean knowledge of the affair surprised the emperor because he had not in fact informed the Chosŏn king. Indeed, the Ming rarely boasted of internal upheavals abroad. His Grand Secretary, Yan Song admitted to the emperor that it was he who informed Chosŏn envoys in Beijing of the affair.4 Yan's explanation, however, was misleading. Yan Song did communicate with Chosŏn embassies regarding the matter, but Chosŏn had discovered the matter through other means. Successful information acquisition depended deliberate, systematic effort on the part of the Chosŏn court.
The Chosŏn court invested considerable resources in understanding the Ming; regular tribute missions were one manifestation of that investment. Chosŏn, already familiar with the imperial past through the classics and dynastic histories, relied on embassies for information on Ming local conditions and its contemporary politics. Embassies interacted with many levels of the Ming state apparatus, including not only the Ming civil bureaucracy in Beijing, but also the eunuchs of the inner palace, military officers in Liaodong, and petty functionaries at the Huitong Hostel. Knowing how to navigate Ming institutions and cultivate relations required a sensitivity to the peculiar interests each of these groups had in the Chosŏn-Ming exchange. Knowledge of empire thus went beyond the warp and woof of imperial ideology, but into its concrete substrate, in the form of the quotidian interactions on the ground. By the same token these two dimensions were inextricably linked. Knowledge of the workings of the Ming state spilled over into questions about the moral purpose of empire, bound up with moral judgment and reflections at the Chosŏn court over how relations between Korea and the empire were to be imagined.
The burden of this quotidian diplomacy fell not on court-appointed envoys, but the official interpreters (t'ongsa 通事). Their abilities went beyond skill of tongue; as seasonal visitors to the Ming, they guided official Chosŏn emissaries, their erstwhile social and political superiors, through the complex workings and interstices of imperial politics, managing interactions between Chosŏn envoys and Ming officials.5 They also helped institutionalize and formalize their knowledge, accrued through lifetimes of experience. Together with Chosŏn officials, these professional diplomats compiled a host of language manuals, institutional handbooks, caches of diplomatic missives, envoy journals and reports, and institutional records. This "archive of empire" was located not in the Ming, but in Chosŏn; the knowledge of "empire" was not produced in the proverbial hub of the imperial wheel, but on its rim.
In general, the Chosŏn knew more about the Ming that the Ming knew about Chosŏn. Chosŏn knowledge of the Ming was on a larger scale, wider in scope, and of a finer grain than what the Ming possessed about Korea. The sheer frequency of Chosŏn travel to the Ming (several embassies a year), when compared to the occasional visits by Ming envoys (once every several years) granted the Chosŏn an advantage in first-hand access. The tilt in Chosŏn's favor speaks to a dynamic of "asymmetrical relations" at work, used by Brantly Womack to describe the history of Vietnamese-Chinese relations. As a way to conceptualize interstate interactions without presuming the normativity of Westphalian sovereign equality, the notion of asymmetry helps illuminate Korean-Chinese interactions as well, as they too entailed a "relationship [of] great disparities, all in China's favor." Differentials in power, resources, size translates into entirely different stakes the relationship had for each party.6
Asymmetrical dynamics thus partly explain the schematic nature of Ming knowledge about Korea, and the comparatively detailed view of the Ming in Chosŏn. The Ming court (and the later Qing court) did maintain records about Korea, but they were often vague and dispersed. What little exists is often rife with omissions and inaccuracies.7 More reliable accounts, drawn from official archives, were generally part of broader encyclopedic works describing Ming relations with peoples and states on its frontier.8 Listed among other "tributary states" (藩國) and "foreign barbarians" (外夷) along the Ming frontier, Korea was but one vista in a broader imperial horizon.9 Whereas the most high-ranking officials undoubtedly had access to information about borders, frontiers, and foreigners10 the working knowledge of how to deal with any specific foreign group was dispersed among different parties. Since dedicated attention to Korean issues from the center was difficult,11 Ming policies toward Chosŏn were likely to be "uncoordinated," with different arms of the Ming state enacting contradictory policies, a pattern confirmed by Korean experiences discussed in the previous chapter.12 Knowledge about Chosŏn, then, was likewise fragmented and diffuse.
On the other hand, the relationship posed greater risks for the weaker party. Whereas a weaker party does not pose an existential threat to its partner, the stronger power has the potential to cause great harm to, if not entirely destroy, its counterpart. Chosŏn, as the smaller partner in an asymmetrical relationship, had an incentive to pay as much as attention to the relationship as possible; missteps could be disastrous. The Chosŏn court knew more about the Ming because the Ming mattered more to it.
This combination of what Womack has called respectively, "the politics of inattention" and "overattention," were seeds of instability. Uncoordinated policies from the Ming produced contradictory signals and could lead to small crises which, when interpreted in Chosŏn through the lens of heightened attention, could escalate into larger confrontations.13 Nonetheless, early Chosŏn-Ming relations are illustrative of "normative asymmetry," situations in which asymmetrical relations were stable, consistent, and peaceable over long periods. Such stability should not be taken for granted. Not all asymmetrical relations stabilize---small states are in fact sometimes destroyed as small crises snowball into existential conflicts. The stability of fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, then, was not the logical outgrowth of asymmetrical dynamics. The imbalance of power the Chosŏn faced may have been inherent to its historical and geopolitical situation, but the stability of its relations with the Ming required effort: in particular, a significant investment in the relationship on the part of the Chosŏn court.
To understand how the Chosŏn and Ming managed a persistent, if occasionally fractious, peace, one must delve into how such asymmetrical relations were actually managed. Womack proposes that the management of asymmetrical relations requires the recognition of the asymmetry of the relations by both sides and relies potentially on two "sleeves of negotiation." One is the establishment of multilateral institutions and cross-cutting connections that can manage crises; the other is the history of the relationship itself, i.e. the force of precedent.14 These features are observable in the Chosŏn case. Ji-young Lee, drawing on Womack's insights, has argued that the policy of sadae ("serving the great" 事大) was a "mechanism adopted to reduce the tensions" in a situation of power asymmetry.15 In the same vein, the language of hierarchy that suffuses Chosŏn-Ming discourse and the persistent use of "imperializing mode" in Korean diplomacy explored in the previous chapters can be seen as mechanisms for making explicit this hierarchy. Likewise, shared institutions like ritual and tribute provided the multilateral, or in this case, bilateral "sleeve of negotiation," while the force of past precedent, whether embedded in the imperial tradition or the history of Chosŏn dealings with the Ming, became authoritative points of departure in negotiations. Both Womack and Lee interpret these institutions as fundamentally mechanisms of maintaining the "soft power" of the stronger party. On the contrary, this chapter argues the maintenance of these practices and institutions fell on Korean shoulders. Each of Womack's requirements for stable relations--- recognizing asymmetry, creation of bilateral connections, establishing and appealing to precedent---occurred on the Korean end. Though burdensome, these activities also generated an invaluable space for Korean agency. Chosŏn-Ming relations stabilized as they did, not mainly because Ming China "craft[ed] remarkably stable relations" and "focus[ed] on the practice of foreign relations," as often characterized. Instead, it was because Chosŏn Korea had learned to manage them.16
One chief prerequisite for managing these relations was knowledge production. This entailed keeping records to document the relations' history and construct the values and ideals that informed them. Knowledge production also augmented one (perhaps, only) major structural advantage for the Chosŏn in this asymmetrical partnership. The desire to know about the Ming may have merged from a "politics of over-attention," but cultivating this "knowledge of empire" converted power differentials into an advantage of knowledge. The conversion was achieved through deliberate choices in strategies of information control and self-representation in Chosŏn diplomacy. Asymmetry of power was reversed into an asymmetry of knowledge.
The Chosŏn court cultivated this imbalance of knowledge by carefully limited access to information about Korea and tailored its self-representation. The production of knowledge for engaging the Ming went hand in hand with these representations of Korea customized for Ming eyes. Travel to Korea during this period was limited strictly to the occasional imperial envoy. His arrival often stimulated a wholesale refurbishing of Chosŏn's ceremonial display. Always under the careful watch of Chosŏn court officials and interpreters, a Ming embassy had no freedom of travel within Chosŏn. What it could see in Chosŏn territory was orchestrated ahead of time.17 Envoy activities were coordinated by the Reception Commission (Yŏngjŏp togam 迎接都監),18 while Ming ambassadors to Chosŏn were accompanied by a Chosŏn high official who reported directly to the king and received detailed instructions. Ming travelers found themselves constantly under watch by the king's immediate representatives.19 Chosŏn officials who contacted Ming emissaries without prior approval or who divulged sensitive matters were severely punished.20 Political secrets were maintained on the pain of death, and an image of a civilized, literate, and halcyon Korea was continuously reproduced. With the exception of an occasional Ming envoy, the Ming did not have a channel of direct communication with the Chosŏn. Unlike twenty-first century states operating in a multimedia context in which constant flows of information make it possible not only to mount challenges against official narratives, but also supplant their authority entirely, the Chosŏn court could achieve a higher degree of homogeneity in self-representation through these efforts. Though Chosŏn arrangements for secrecy and controlled self-representation were also not necessarily fool-proof, they still meant that the Chosŏn court exercised a considerable amount of control over the flow of knowledge about Korea outside of its territories.
Chosŏn reception practices mirrored how the Ming treated Korean envoys. The Ming court, sensitive to questions of secrecy and knowledge, placed Chosŏn envoys under close watch. Ming surveillance measures, however, were only marginally effective. With the aid of Chinese-speaking interpreters, a Chosŏn embassy often circumvented seemingly ironclad imperial prohibitions by enlisting the help of the right Ming go-between or power-broker. The petty officials charged with guarding Chosŏn emissaries were easily bribed or co-opted, cultivated contacts at the Ming court regularly divulged valuable information. Contraband goods and guarded information flowed to Korea despite imperial prohibitions. Ming envoys, however, lacked the ability to escape surveillance. As a result, Chosŏn knew more about the Ming than the Ming knew about Chosŏn; and much of what the Ming knew about Chosŏn was what Chosŏn wanted the Ming to know about itself.
This chapter addresses this issue of knowledge asymmetry by understanding how information flowed from the Ming to the Chosŏn. For information to transfer, and become meaningful "knowledge," it required a layer of "social processing."21 Given the importance of the social medium of knowledge transfer, both the structural dynamics of information transfer and the social contexts of these flows will be examined. It treats the knowledge of Ming institutions and its personnel in diplomacy as part of a generative dynamic, where better knowledge of how the Ming functioned was essential for the cultivation of that same knowledge.
The chapter begins with an examination of the structures and strategies deployed by the Chosŏn court to acquire information from the Ming. As the Chosŏn sought information about Ming policies, it also had rely on accomplices in the Ming to acquire valuable information. This together spawned the need to develop ongoing contacts with different echelons of the Ming state. Diplomacy, abstracted as relations between monarchs or between two states was in fact constituted by a series of micro-diplomatic relations. They blurred the boundary between official and unofficial contact as sanctioned institutional interchange was shadowed by emergent webs of interest. Through these connections, the Chosŏn developed a stronger awareness of Ming institutions, which in turn allowed for more effective diplomacy. Together these dynamics explain the relative richness and focus of Korean documentation of Chosŏn-Ming relations. This richness relied on concerted efforts in preservation, formalization and integration; it was not the natural result of asymmetrical relations of power and knowledge, but a consequence of Chosŏn strategy in navigating the institutions in tribute.
The second half of this chapter shifts the discussion towards the kinds of information the Chosŏn court acquired through its traveling envoys. These travelers to Beijing brought back information critical to Chosŏn decision making. Asymmetry in knowledge helped create interstitial spaces through which the Chosŏn court could exercise influence and acquire political initiative. As the Chosŏn court deliberated on critical decisions, contingencies and uncertainties presented repeated challenges and dilemmas. Maintaining stable ties with the Ming were far from the inevitable result of tributary relations, but instead demanded the regular flow of new information. In the meantime, information about the Ming, strongly colored Chosŏn perceptions about the state of Ming governance and the personal virtue (or lack thereof) of its rulers. Its seasonal celebrations of Ming virtue and splendor notwithstanding, the Chosŏn harbored no illusion about the Ming's excesses and abuses. For the Chosŏn court, the Ming never really represented an unquestioned source of moral authority, even if the language and discourse of tribute seem to suggest it was. There are broader implications for this observation, which will be explained in the conclusion.
The Chosŏn dispatched at least three tribute missions a year to the Ming for over two hundred years. The nomenclature of Chosŏn embassies suggest that "coming to court" (來朝) acknowledged Ming centrality and superiority in a logic of ritual hierarchy. These three regular embassies were described in the language of ceremony and tribute: to express felicitations and present gifts for the new year (hachŏng 賀正), the imperial birthday (sŏngjŏl 聖節), and the heir apparent birthday (lit. Thousand Autumns, ch'ŏnch'u 千秋), which was eventually replaced by the winter solstice mission (tongji 冬至).22
The burden of travel fell largely on Korean envoys. Chosŏn envoys traveled significantly more frequently to the Ming than vice-versa. Ming envoys came to Chosŏn relatively frequently in the early half of the fifteenth century23 but did so very rarely in the sixteenth century.24 Even with this decline of Ming embassies, from several a year to one or two a decade, the Chosŏn court still maintained the basic three embassies per year.25 Where maintaining this frequency seems to show ideological conformity to Ming expectations, for Korean embassies to take up the burden of travel reflected the clear hierarchical distinction between the Ming emperor as a universal ruler and the Chosŏn king as a vassal lord of a local kingdom.26
Reading the envoy mission as an expression of hierarchy has its merits. Chosŏn observance of ritual codes and precedents in regular acknowledgment of Ming political superiority sent consistent signals to the Ming, valuable in a context of power asymmetry as a way to avoid conflict.27 For any one side to alter precedents, even pro forma ones, may lead to unnecessary misunderstandings; as such, the diplomacy relies on mutually agreed upon practices. Institutional inertia results because the parties involved "reiterated" the terms together in the course of dealings. The precedents established through reiteration often operate with guiding principles quite abstracted from the initial context that birthed them.28 It should also be noted, however, that this hierarchy existed only because such rituals constituted them by producing meaningful distinctions and markers of that hierarchy. Without the rituals of envoy exchange, and when their attendant pronouncements and ceremonies are pared away, hierarchy would be a meaningless abstraction.29 Without Korean participation in this rituals, Ming claims of supremacy would have been moot. Therefore, it would not be enough to say that Koreans participated in these rituals, simply because their hierarchical relationship demanded it, but also because the ritual constitution of hierarchy had important functions to play.
Ritualizing hierarchy did have normative effects for diplomacy, especially once the gradual accretion of past practices transformed them into established precedents.30 Nonetheless, even the most long-standing and rigid precedents had to be established against a wide range of possible alternatives or interpretations, often in the context of considerable debate or contention. Debates around the efficacy or necessity of frequent envoy missions beyond the usual three were a case in point.31 Where ritual observance ended and political calculations began was not always clear. As Seung B. Kye has observed, certain Chosŏn kings, such as Chungjong, who sought connections with the Ming as a way to buttress their own political prestige, went above and beyond what the Ming expected.32 They sought to represent themselves to the Ming court as dutiful loyal vassals, sometimes disregarding dissent from their own officials. These practices, then, cannot be explained solely as examples of ideological conformity. A discourse of following "old precedents" (kurye 舊例) and "ritual duty" (yeŭi 禮義) did not speak to self-evident ethical standards with immutable rules, but could be political slogans open to interpretation and exploitation.
The basic three missions a year to the Ming had Yuan-Koryŏ antecedents. The way they emerged in the early Chosŏn suggests that ritual observance, despite its ubiquity in diplomatic discourse, was not the driving force for their establishment as precedent. The first Ming emperor Hongwu actually asked the Koryŏ to send no more than one embassy every three years. At one point, when Chosŏn-Ming relations were tense, Hongwu asked the Chosŏn to cease dispatching emissaries altogether; when relations thawed, Hongwu reiterated his former demand that embassies should be sent once every three years. The Chosŏn again appealed to relatively recent Koryŏ-Yuan precedents of three missions a year to argue that these frequent missions in fact adhered to ritual norms.33 With broader geopolitical issues as the backdrop of these contentions over ritual practice, a discourse of normative conformity became a way to legitimize particular practices over others.
The activities of envoy missions always exceeded their express ceremonial functions. They were valued in more ways than as gestures of fealty or a way to accrue symbols of political legitimacy.34 As Ch'oe Tonghŭi suggested, Chosŏn's desire for frequent contact was not only to acquire "political legitimacy and security," but also cultural artifacts and material resources for both the Chosŏn court and its agents.35 All members of the embassy, envoy-officials, interpreters, and even their porters, all profited from the opportunity for trade. They often had to carry out specific orders, such as research into ritual institutions and the purchase of books, became matters of routine.36 Book purchases were intended to augment the holdings of the government libraries, and thus were generally limited to works of classical and historical learning. One Chosŏn king, Yŏnsan'gun, however, also asked his envoys to indulge his interest in Chinese romances, by purchasing titles such as the Story of the Western Chamber (Xixiang ji 西廂記) and the Story of Alluring Crimson (Jiaohong ji 嬌紅記).37 Court records documented these and other requests for exotic tropical luxuries like lychee, longans, and betel nuts with disapproval.38 Though maligned, they were only atypical, because a king had asked for these particular objects. Other kings made special orders before and after, while the journeys of their own officials were in part funded by trade in tropical luxuries, like peppercorn.39
There was also a third major function of the envoy mission: intelligence gathering, which has hitherto been comparatively neglected, and deserves further attention.40 In the trifecta of trade goods, political legitimation (to which hierarchy was integral), and information, the third resource was in fact the most critical for the Chosŏn court. Information mattered more than commercial goods, which, mostly smuggled for private gain anyway, rarely found their way into Chosŏn coffers. Information certainly superseded the need for official recognition from the Ming when royal legitimacy was not at stake (i.e. whenever a Chosŏn ruler had already received patents of investiture, which was most of the time). And most importantly, just as the hierarchical order of Chosŏn-Ming relations would disappear without envoy missions and other rituals constituting them, in a context where sustained contact could only exist through envoy exchange, no traveling envoys meant no information.
Envoys who traveled to Beijing reported were expected to report what they heard and saw during their travels. In times of border unrest, these envoy reports were a valuable source of intelligence about frontier conditions.41 For diplomacy to double as a mechanism for intelligence gathering was not unique to the Korean context. In the multilateral political environment with crosscutting and shifting alliances in Europe of the same period, the development of permanent legations allowed rulers to conduct diplomacy while enabling their ambassadors to conduct "honored espionage."42 Interstate relations in East Asia, however, differ in several significant ways. For one, they were conducted on bilateral and unipolar terms. They never involved permanent legations, an institution evolved in the context of a multi-lateral system in early modern Europe.43 The strategic ends of intelligence gathering had to be achieved through rather different mechanisms. Frequent, short-term embassies took the place of permanent plenipotentiary representation. With three envoy missions a year to the Ming, the Chosŏn court was able to maintain regular, if not nearly constant, contact with the Ming.
For about half the calendar year, a Chosŏn embassy was traveling in Ming territory. The Chosŏn court not only had a form of representation at the Ming court, and but also sets of eyes and ears to acquire information. Given that travel distance from Seoul to Beijing, over rugged terrain and through hostile lands, was around three thousand Korean ri, the degree of sustained contact alone is remarkable. At twelve hundred kilometers (seven hundred miles), it was roughly the length of the diagonal from southwest corner of France to the northeast corner of Germany, an overland distance on a different order of spatial magnitude than the context of contemporary Italian city states who pioneered the institution of permanent representation.44
Frequency translated into tangible advantages in the flow of information. Intelligence acquisition was formalized in the institutional organization of these envoy missions. Designated members of the embassies: the chief envoy and his vice-envoy had to stay with the mission for its entire duration, many individuals in this coterie had a much more flexible role. The permanent staff of an embassy included a number of official interpreters45 Some of these traveled as "advance interpreters"(sŏnnae t'ongsa 先來通事), detached from the main body of the embassy to relay urgent matters.46 Nearly every envoy mission traveling between Beijing and Seoul dispatched these messengers for delivering information in a timely fashion.47
This mechanism of transmission sometimes delivered valuable information weeks in advance of an official Ming embassy. In this manner, major events in the Ming court would often be privy to the Chosŏn before the information was disclosed through official channels or proclaimed by Ming envoys. The Chosŏn court usually learned the identities of the Ming emissaries, their purpose, and planned departure dates if not the precise timetable well ahead of time.48 Once within Chosŏn territory, information could travel even faster. Messages could travel by horse from Ŭiju to Seoul within three days.49 Anticipating the arrival of an envoy mission provided the Chosŏn court time to make advance preparations and adjust to changing circumstances.50 When it learned from an earlier embassy that the Jingtai emperor had replaced his nephew with his own son as the Ming heir apparent, it still could inform a separate set of envoys, already en route to the Ming, to change the recipient of the tribute gifts.51 In the meantime, Chosŏn prepared another embassy to congratulate the Ming on the prince's investiture.52
|Jingtai changes crown princes||5/2|
|Chosŏn learns of Crown prince change||5/24|
|Envoy Dispatched to Congratulate the Ming||6/15|
|Ming envoy departs for Seoul with announcement||7/4-7/5|
|Chosŏn learns of Ming envoy||7/21|
|Arrival of Ming emissary in Ŭiju||8/07|
|Arrival of Ming emissary in Seoul||8/21|
The Ming did not dispatch its own envoy to inform Chosŏn until early in the seventh month, but a congratulations embassy departed two months before the arrival of the Ming announcement in Korea.53 The Chosŏn court learned of the change in heir apparent two weeks before the Ming embassy even left Beijing, only twenty-two days after its occurrence. The effective relaying of information by its envoys and interpreters made for the rapid Korean response. The result was virtual prescience; it was as if the Chosŏn had acquired the ability to bend space and time.
Official Ming channels were not the only way, or even the most important way, such information traveled to Korea. Hearsay from petty officials, deserting soldiers, and Jurchen emissaries, along with domestic Ming proclamations (Ch: bangwen) surreptitiously copied from waystations, contributed a considerable portion. Documents of the latter kind were compiled in Chosŏn institutional records, including the Kwewŏn tŭng'nok. A documentary style handbook, the Imun 吏文, used Ming documents acquired during envoy missions for its model examples.54
Information was relayed to the Chosŏn court in a variety of forms, including written dispatches and oral testimony by members of a diplomatic retinue. Chosŏn embassies always included an official Recorder (sŏjanggwan 書狀官) who was responsible for keeping records of the mission and for managing their travel documents. Embassies also included Correctors (chichŏnggwan 質正官). The original purpose of this office was for "correcting" the language and wording of documents, which included consulting authoritative Chinese texts. Eventually, their responsibilities extended to Chinese culture in general and imperial institutions. Ritual practices and official institutions deemed suitable for appropriation or consultation would be reported back by these officials for consideration by the Chosŏn court.55 The records of these officials comprised the bulk of extant envoy travel journals, the so-called "Beijing diaries," the Yŏnhaengnok 燕行錄. Only a handful survive from the early Chosŏn.56 Nevertheless, some of their contents survive in paraphrased form. The Chosŏn Veritable Records includes numerous envoy reports presented after the conclusion of a mission.57
The Chosŏn response to the attempted assassination of Jiajing, mentioned at the outset of the chapter, well illustrates the practices and dynamics discussed so far. Again, the timing of envoy travel played a critical role. The Chosŏn court first learned of the assassination attempt on the 17th day of the eleventh month of 1542. It received a report from a Chosŏn envoy sent earlier in the year to congratulate the Ming heir apparent's birthday (千秋使). On the 22nd day of the ninth month, one day after the attempted assassination, the envoy arrived in Beijing. He saw the decapitated heads and dismembered bodies of the would-be assassins on the southeast corner of the city's walls. News of this startling affair, coupled with earlier reports of a massive Mongol invasion in Shanxi, left King Chungjong and his court in shock.58
As the court reeled from its dismay at the state of Ming politics, it also debated the proper course of action. The initial envoy report mentioned that the emperor had ordered the Board of Rites to "perform sacrifices at the ancestral temples and send down proclamations to both inside and beyond" (祭告宗廟 降勑中外), with the expectation that relevant offices would present "congratulations" to the Ming emperor for performing the ancestral sacrifices. The Korean envoy could not determine whether the edict applied to Chosŏn. Without precedent for a Korean congratulations mission for such an event, the ambiguous wording of the edict remained open to interpretation.59 "Beyond" could refer either to foreign states like Chosŏn or simply the outer provinces of the Ming. If the former, it would mean a Ming imperial edict was forthcoming, necessitating an envoy mission to inquire of the emperor's well-being (hŭmmun 欽問) and to congratulate him (chinha 進賀) on the destruction of his enemies.60 If the latter, then it was never Jiajing's intent to inform Chosŏn, who then "should not casually send inquiries or congratulations."61 The court officials recommended that the king await further news from another group of envoys, sent for the winter solstice, before deciding on how to proceed.62
The court did not have to wait for the solstice envoys. On the 24th day of the eleventh month, one week after the first report from, a letter arrived with information that helped resolve the court's dilemma. Consultation with the Ming Board of Rites clarified that "beyond" was "not in reference to foreign states" and that there would be no edict promulgated to Chosŏn. The Jiajing emperor, however, did order the Board to inform the Chosŏn envoys of the events. In light of this new development, the Chief Councilor Yun Ŭnpo 尹殷輔 (1468--1544) argued that, even without a forthcoming edict, the emperor's personal communications warranted a congratulatory embassy. After extensive deliberation, the Chosŏn court dispatched an envoy bearing a memorial, as it was known in Chosŏn to "congratulate on the punishment and execution of the palace ladies who committed treason" 賀宮嬪謀逆伏誅表.63
|Mission purpose||Departure||Arrival of Report||Return of Envoy|
|Imperial Birthday 聖節||1542/05/27||1542/10/21||1542/11/18|
|Thousand Autumns 千秋||1542/07/12||1542/11/17||1542/12/18|
|Winter Solstice 冬至||1542/08/13||1542/11/24||1543/01/28|
During the second half of 1542, the Chosŏn court had three separate envoy entourages traveling through Ming territory. In the course of their travel, the Chosŏn received regular updates regarding situations of note in Ming territory. Travel to and from Beijing and Seoul generally took two months, with twenty days of which was spent traveling within Chosŏn.64 Each envoy trip took around five months, leaving each Chosŏn mission about one month in the imperial capital, with a total of nearly four months spent in Ming territory.
An exhaustive tabulation of numerous similar cases in Chosŏn-Ming diplomacy would be tedious, especially since the above anecdotes already illustrate a common set of institutional practices. Chosŏn envoys who traveled to China acquired important intelligence throughout their sojourn. They were able to acquire this information through hearsay and observation, but Ming officials themselves often divulged this information, either as part of protocol or out of their personal ties with the Chosŏn court. When possible, Chosŏn diplomats made copies or summaries of Ming bureaucratic documents, which they sent back to Chosŏn along official interpreters who traveled ahead of the embassy through the Chosŏn post system. Timely information allowed the Chosŏn court to adjust its diplomatic posturing and policies according to the circumstance. In the meantime, developments within Chosŏn were completely unknown to the Ming, save for what could be reported by an occasional ambassador. This was an institutional production of knowledge asymmetry.
The sheer frequency of its embassies distinguished Chosŏn from other states who only occasionally sent envoys to the Ming. Even compared to the kingdoms of Ryūkyū and Đại Việt, who also relied on a shared script and literary culture in their interactions with the Ming, Korean embassies were on an entirely different order of magnitude.65 Granted, Beijing, the Ming capital, was closer to Korea, but these embassies nonetheless required tremendous institutional investment by the Chosŏn court. Frequent contact meant more intensive interactions with Ming officials, which proved an additional burden, but it also provided opportunities to cultivate both personal and institutional relations. All along the tribute route between the two capitals and across the Yalu River, diplomacy was deeply embedded in informal and personal interactions. The channels of communication and opportunities for collusion these interactions opened up are key to understanding Chosŏn diplomacy.
In principle, diplomacy was the strict purview of rulers. Prohibitions against lateral dealings between their minions emerged from recognizing how contacts could be exploited for personal gain by agents of both courts. The chains of mutual benefit could therefore compromise their integrity and dependability. Frequently cited, both in historiography and by the historical actors themselves, was the hallowed principle that "those who serve do not engage in private [or: foreign] relations (人臣無私[外]交)."66 The principle, as enshrined in the Record of Rites, demanded that a loyal vassal avoid unsanctioned intercourse with outsiders, lest he acquire for himself "two lords." This principle, then, imagines monopolization of foreign affairs to be integral to monarchical sovereignty. Only approved proxies could engage in legitimate diplomacy, save that they occurred through public and official channels, and not in private for private reasons. From the Ming perspective, the principle, in theory, also applied to the Chosŏn king, who as a vassal of the Ming emperor, was not to have private relations of his own, let alone those with Ming subjects barred from such dealings in the first place.67 When Chosŏn envoys presented a gift of horses at the request of the Prince of Yan (燕王, later the Yongle emperor), the Hongwu emperor arrested and exiled the Chosŏn envoys to Yunnan, charging, "how could the King of Chosŏn [be allowed to] have private relations?"68
These declarations were also part of a discourse of sovereignty that imagined the Ming emperor and Chosŏn king in a personal relationship of lord and subject, synecdochal for the ritual status of their respective states. In the first decades of Chosŏn-Ming relations, the language of personal ties corresponded to the personalized character of diplomatic practice. Emperors received Chosŏn emissaries in person, spoke with them either directly or through an interpreter, and asked them to relay personal messages to the Chosŏn ruler.69 Personal ties between monarchs, however, became largely figurative by the sixteenth century when emperors became less involved with governing in general. As the imperial person retreated from everyday politics, lateral relations and the informal channels they engendered became ever more important.
Between Ming eunuchs of the inner palace, military officers posted at the borders, and functionaries responsible for entertaining foreigners, a Chosŏn envoy mission had to move through many channels and thread many interstices. Contact with these groups fell within the bounds of sanctioned contact, since official business required it, but it was not always clear when formal business ended and the personal began. The lines between the sanctioned and prohibited were often blurred, as was that between the public and the clandestine. Iron prohibitions against "personal" dealings would have been impractical and the principle was regularly flouted by Ming and Chosŏn agents alike. Even during periods when strict curfew regulations were in place, designed to prevent this sort of lateral contact, Chosŏn envoys still managed to seek out Ming literati who had visited Chosŏn, bringing them gifts from Korea, though the court did tread carefully, keeping the principle of sovereign monopoly in mind.70 Yet, Chosŏn attention to these lateral ties sometimes eclipsed what was due to the emperor. If quantity is a valid measure, Korean gifts to visiting Ming envoys often far exceeded the formal tribute due to the emperor himself.71 Contact with high profile figures like Ming princes or former Ming envoys led to greater scrutiny, but the less prominent the agent, the more room for maneuver there was. Despite appeals to the principle of sovereign monopoly in diplomacy, (and occasional use of this pretext to punish violators), Chosŏn diplomacy in practice depended on lateral relations cemented by exchanges of gifts and information.
In other words, the Chosŏn did not only interact with the Ming on the register of the emperor and his immediate court, but also in multiple strata of the Ming's institutional infrastructure. In the meantime, the Chosŏn court, along with its agents who had to navigate through the Ming's interstices and fractures, sought to comprehend them. The best evidence for Chosŏn awareness of these interstices and fractures is their formalization in knowledge. Chosŏn institutional texts made a recognition of the Ming state's varied channels of power explicit. Knowledge of them, then, comprised not only the institutional makeup of Ming state and society, but also encoded strategies of engagement. Like knowledge of diplomatic practice in general, its responsibility fell on the Chosŏn's official interpreters who managed the quotidian tasks of the tribute embassy.72 Seldom did a chief envoy or his assistants directly manage official matters and protocols for entering Ming territory; instead the interpreters did most of the talking.73 A considerable portion of the interpreter's expertise remained tacit, acquired through experience and often passed within the family.74 Official training of interpreters, part of court efforts to routinize diplomacy, nevertheless, led to the formalization of such knowledge in institutional handbooks.75 By the sixteenth century, the Chosŏn court had published a great deal of such texts. They included not only language textbooks but also handbooks that served as references for envoy travel, such as Ŏ Sukkwŏn's Kosa ch'waryo.76 Not meant as a focused treatise, the information it contained was not notable for its depth, but its breadth. The way information was presented in this text suggests its main use was the retrieval of details in which precision was key: precedents, dates, and titles, usable only in the hands of one already familiar with his responsibilities. It covered a range of general topics in statecraft, such as the institutional organization of the Chosŏn and Ming courts and reference list for Ming and Chosŏn reign eras, but its emphasis was on diplomacy. It included a basic chronicle of Chosŏn-Ming relations,77 standard tribute item lists for different occasions.78 and specifications for diplomatic documents.79 The organization of Ming bureaucratic offices, titles, and ranks in such a book thus also suggests that an interpreter was responsible for at least a working knowledge of Ming institutions.80 With editions in only three or five volumes, it was a handy guide, one that spared both expert and training interpreters the need to wade through much more voluminous archives or the Ming institutional compendium to find relevant information. In other words, it was a tool of information management.81
Like the Kosa ch'waryo, another early Chosŏn publication, the Sangwŏn cheŏ (Conversation subjects of the Translator's Hall), devotes considerable attention to various Ming agencies. It was, however, not an institutional manual per se. For one, the information was not transcribed in literary, written Chinese. The function of various Ming agencies and petty officials was described in the colloquial language. Interpreters-in-training could hit two birds one with one stone; as they memorized phrases in spoken Chinese, they were also committing to memory the functions and duties of various Ming offices, which included the Hanlin Bachelors82 and the Three Judicial Offices83 and also those who oversaw Korean reception in Beijing, such as the Ushers84 of the Court of State Ceremonial 85 and its Grand Interpreter.86 Towards the second half of the guide, there are also sample statements about specific subject matter, addressed to different members of the Ming bureaucracy. One such stock statement was an appeal to lift the travel restrictions on Korean envoys. Addressing an unnamed Ming official with the colloquial honorific, laoye 老爺, the interpreter blamed the policy on the unexplainable actions of one Ming official in charge of the Bureau of Receptions.87 The interpreter hoped to enlist the sympathies of the unnamed laoye to follow the rules of the "former emperor" and allow the Koreans to move freely.88
The experience of Chosŏn envoys in Beijing was fraught with unpredictability. As the examples in Chapter 2 had shown, Ming policy towards Chosŏn ambassadors were inconsistent, and subject to the meddling of Ming officials, often acting out of step with official policy. In the case of movement restrictions in Beijing, even though the Grand Secretary Xia Yan had managed to convince the Jiajing emperor to lift them, his underlings still limited the activities of the Korean embassy. Envoys thus concluded these were only maintained, in spite of orders to the contrary, because only with strict restrictions could the functionaries at the hostel continue to extort bribes from the Koreans and merchants.89 Ming institutional complexity and the politics behind it gave Chosŏn envoys much grief. Yet, it was precisely the complexity, that Ming bureaucracy and its apparatuses often did not operate in a coordinated or coherent fashion that produced the fractures that allowed Chosŏn envoys to circumvent the strictest of regulations.
These fractures existed not only between different rungs of the Ming bureaucracy, but also among what have been called "interest groups," whose collective operations produced the "effect" of empire. Understood as collections of individuals who share a common socio-political identity, an interest group worked under common motivations and utilized similar structures of social advancement.90 Their range of behavior were often limited by social rules that bound them within specific social, cultural and political paradigms of behavior. The most obvious examples in the Ming context would be literati officials (Ch. wenchen 文臣), palace eunuchs (Ch. huanguan 宦官), military officials (Ch. wuguan 武官), and petty functionaries (Ch. xuli 胥吏). Although some permeability was possible between them, each group's career trajectories, sources of institutional power, and strategies for acquiring social and cultural prestige differed dramatically. The way to success for a palace eunuch was fundamentally different from the path of advancement open to a degree-holding literati official. A eunuch under the service of the emperor might view the acquisition of gifts for the emperor to be his duty as an imperial envoy, while even a greedy literati might still appeal to and perform the values of austerity and restraint.91 Reputations of moral virtue and literary talent were conducive to advancement in the civil bureaucracy, but this channel of advancement was barred to hereditary military households. A military officer stationed in Liaodong, with regular interactions with Chosŏn emissaries, might turn instead to a long-term rent-seeking relationship of informal patronage with the Chosŏn court, where customary gifts and political favors translated to tangible gain.92 The Chosŏn court, then, had to understand the incentive structure that motivated each group. Their embassies needed to know whom to contact and in what manner; it meant anticipating how the emperor, the bureaucracy, and the inner palace would respond to particular demands; and it meant deciding which individuals and which agencies would respond best to particular of strategies of rapprochement.
Dealings with military officials at the Liaodong Command illustrate how formal, sanctioned diplomatic interactions were intermeshed with informal ties. Liaodong, as the point of entry to Ming domains, received Korean embassies on a regular basis, who in turn required the Liaodong government's cooperation in nearly all matters related to the Ming.93 Chosŏn contact with Liaodong Command was thus official, documented in a "paper trail." The correspondences acknowledged the legitimacy of these interactions, as its discourse, the bureaucratic language of the Ming, treated Chosŏn as a virtual branch of the imperial government.94 Yet, it was precisely in these sanctioned avenues of contact that that official prohibitions against private dealings were most impractical.
In the shadow of these public, official dealings were a host of other interactions absent from these formal, bureaucratic correspondences. Nonetheless appearing in Chosŏn records, they straddled the boundary of the public and the private, the official and the unofficial. Responsibility for enforcing Ming regulations fell on military officers like the Liaodong Commander and his subordinates. Korean clandestine trade in in prohibited goods like horn for making composite bows, gunpowder, and history books occurred with their tacit approval, with Ming military officers sometimes choosing to make exceptions.95 Ming officers also often relayed information to the Chosŏn envoys.96 A portion occurred through sanctioned channels and included official correspondence, but not all of the information was originally intended for Korean eyes. It included sensitive information about Ming court affairs and valuable intelligence about border disturbances. For example, it was the Liaodong military judge97 who passed on the intentions of hostile Jurchen coalitions to the Chosŏn embassy in 1468.98 Not all such information was reliable. One Chosŏn envoy complained in his diary about the behavior of one Commandant Xiao at Shanhai Pass, who passed along false information as a ploy to acquire gifts of oiled paper from the Koreans.99
The Ming military was indispensable to the Chosŏn in many matters, not least of all the protection of its embassies from hostile Jurchens and roving bandits.100 This dependency contributed to an already uneven power dynamic. Imperial officers, by being gatekeepers of both valuable information and access to the imperial state, often expected gifts in return. Chosŏn embassies brought customary gifts, euphemistically called, injŏng (Ch: renqing 人情), literally "[things for cultivating] personal feelings." Evidence from the late Ming and Qing periods suggests that border trade and other commercial transactions with Chosŏn envoys was a significant part of the local economy.101 Although the documentation for this phenomenon is relatively scant for the early Ming, a kind of symbiotic relationship did emerge at least between the Liaodong command and the regular envoy missions that arrived. Each passing envoy trip, each favor done by the Liaodong military for the Chosŏn was an opportunity for personal gain.102 For the Chosŏn court however, this reliance only exacerbated the problem of graft for its embassies, but this was only one side of the story.
It is tempting to see these emergent ties as simply "corruption." Certainly, the behavior of many Ming officials disappointed the expectations of their Chosŏn guests, but these operations was not a debased version of preexisting system that functioned without these practices. This was the system. The difference between a gift, a bribe, and a commodity for trade was also contextual and relative. Even as some Chosŏn officials balked at practices such as extensive gift giving, others like the experienced diplomat and official Sin Sukchu 申叔舟 (1417--1475) believed that they were a necessary part of diplomacy. He asked rhetorically, "for a journey of a myriad leagues," how can "'personal' feelings be dispensed with?"103 Later diplomatic handbooks like the Tongmungwan chi included comprehensive, standardized lists of items, all called injŏng to be bequeathed to various Ming officials along the the tribute journey.104 To what degree such lists actually conformed to what was really exchanged is difficult to know in general, but anecdotal evidence suggests that gifts easily exceed the quantities from prescribed lists.105
Documentation formalized gift giving practices, perhaps as an attempt to establish clear precedents. It reflected a desire to draw, distinguish and enforce a boundary between acceptable practice and a breach of custom, which was in practice fluid and indeterminate. In 1461, a Chosŏn emissary returned with requests of stationery by the Ministry War Secretary Yang Ju 楊琚 in charge of Shanhai pass106 and of composite bows by Dong Xing 董興, the Regional Commander of Guangning. The court officials rebuffed Yang's requests, because of his low rank, but complied with Dong's, because Dong "was in charge of matters [pertaining] to our country [i.e. Korea] 專主我國事."107 Though there were Ming prohibitions in place against gifts of weapons, eventually gifts of Korean bows became an established precedent. And so, when a scribe to the Liaodong Command108 came to Chosŏn in 1467 with requisitions of deerskins, composite bows, and over one hundred arrows for the Commander, the Chosŏn State Councilors, after debate, ultimately acceded to the request in light of established precedent, and in spite of Ming prohibitions.109 Yet, only several months later, the Chosŏn refused to give another Ming military officer exactly the same gifts. He, the son of the Liaodong military judge Wang Heng 王鐄, had come with a Ming embassy to Chosŏn and requested fifteen composite bows. The same State Councilors rebuffed him because it would violate Ming regulations to give weapons to the son of a frontier military officer.110 Inconsistently applied, imperial prohibitions were convenient pretexts to begrudge specific items, or ignored, even as the Chosŏn recognized the risk of eliciting imperial censure.
The exigencies of diplomacy thus made contradictory demands on the Chosŏn court. The Ming's own officials often flouted the very imperial prohibitions they were tasked to enforce. For the Chosŏn, who wished to maintain cordial relations with Ming officials and maintain good standing with the imperial court, determination of the permissible involved a complex accounting of multiple factors, not least of all the desire to maintain the patrimonial links that made diplomacy possible.111 It was therefore not always clear whether a particular incident involved the Chosŏn court cultivating relations with a Ming official or a Ming official extorting the Chosŏn court.112
Even as euphemism, the term "personal feelings" cautions against reducing such exchanges to mere transactions. Not simply tit-for-tat, they were integral to the cultivation of long-term relations on both the institutional and personal level. For instance, when a Liaodong commander passed away, the Chosŏn court sent envoys with gifts to offset funerary expenses as condolences.113 Few Chosŏn envoys went to the Ming more than a couple of occasions in a lifetime, but a significant degree of continuity persisted among the coterie of professional interpreters. Repeated, regular interactions lent to the personal character of these missions, which could nevertheless be exhibited in other ways. The Veritable Records relates one anecdote involving Kang Hŭiyŏn 姜希顔 (1417--1464), a scholar-official known for his calligraphy and painting. When he went to Beijing on an envoy mission, he had given a gift of his work to the Ministry Secretary Yang Ju at Shanhai Pass. As the gateway to China from the northeast, it was another important site along the envoy route. The commander, fond of Kang's work, "kept it away as a treasure," and asked later envoys for his calligraphy. When Hŭiyŏn's younger brother Kang Hŭimaeng was dispatched as an envoy, Hŭiyŏn asked Hŭimaeng to bring a poem of his to give to the commander. Because Hŭimaeng was Hŭiyŏn's younger brother, the commander treated him especially well during his stay.114 With the personal and the official thus intermixed, it was no wonder that Ming military officers occasionally even asked for the Chosŏn's help in their official careers. A Regional Commander named Han Bin 韓贇 once told to a Chosŏn envoy that the Ming court was to remove him from office. He explained that if the Chosŏn king could write a memorial that praised him for "being able to defend against Jurchen incursions, thus making it possible for Chosŏn embassies to reach [the Ming]," his job could be saved. He reminded the envoys that in the past he had done his best to divulge whatever information he could to help the Chosŏn and hoped now they would aid him in this matter. Although the Chosŏn king found the request ludicrous, from the perspective of the Ming officer, relying on relations he developed with the Chosŏn court appeared a viable solution to his professional predicament.115
Here is a picture of a kind of diplomacy far removed from the both the imperial center and the exalted rhetoric that accompanied it. Much of diplomatic activity was in fact highly localized, as Ming agents acted independently of the Ming itself. Rules were implemented inconsistently and different interest groups along the route from Seoul to Beijing demanded different strategies of engagement. If the Chosŏn, by sending tributary envoys, helped constituted Ming empire ritually, these embassies helped form a figuration. Understood in the Eliasian sense, the figuration interlaced different organs of the Ming state, the Chosŏn court, and its agents into a "flexible lattice-work of tensions." These "interdependent" relations emerges as a "changing pattern," whose dynamics could not be controlled entirely by any given entity, whether Ming court or the Chosŏn.116
The Ming, as it appeared to the Chosŏn, was therefore not a monolithic entity, but a diffuse one. In turn, Chosŏn diplomacy, both in theory and in practice, was neither imagined as tête-à-tête bilateral relations between two rulers, nor reducible to ritual performances reinforcing the hierarchy between them, but one constituted at least partially through personal and informal ties, cultivated in the shadows and interstices of formal institutional channels. At the analytical level, it means for us to understand diplomacy primarily as relations between two states is a higher order abstraction at best. For the Chosŏn, it meant that "knowledge of empire" had to account for not only an aggregate, abstracted idea of the "Ming," but also internal operation of Ming institutions and the vicissitudes of their politics. For both information to flow and for an aggregate view of the Ming to form, how the imperial bureaucracy worked and how they implicated Chosŏn all had to be legible to the Chosŏn court. In sum, the Chosŏn had to also know the Ming in its disparate parts.
The resulting diplomacy was also protean and multifaceted, manifested in the lateral ties cultivated by the Chosŏn court. As both a conduit and the purpose of knowledge, diplomacy was the basis of a productive relationship between knowledge and power. Awareness of how the imperial court functioned was both requisite and ancillary to the acquisition of other valuable information, often acquired directly from Ming officials. The diplomatic process and the "knowledge of empire" were mutually self-reinforcing. The better the Chosŏn could navigate the Ming and its disparate parts, the more information it acquired about them; and the more information it acquired, the better it could navigate them.
To say that Chosŏn envoys wove through the interstices of Ming bureaucracy unchecked would be an exaggeration. These tactics were not always effective in achieving their intended end---not all Ming bureaucrats were pliable and some certainly manipulated the arrival of Korean embassy for their own ends. Yet, it was precisely the confluence of these personal, patrimonial interests by various participants of diplomatic exchange that allowed for room for maneuver. A dishonest, greedy official may extort, but that also meant he was willing to overlook violations of imperial prohibitions. A Chosŏn embassy that acquired forbidden goods and sensitive information did not so much as slip through the cracks as it entered through doors that others opened for them along way.
Chosŏn envoys often returned with news about the political climate at the Ming. They paid close attention to the shifting landscape of power at the Ming court, for who was in power at the Ming court directly affected the outcome of Chosŏn's diplomatic efforts. When envoys reported that the Grand Secretary Xia Yan, whose support Chosŏn envoys counted on,117 had been impeached, the Chosŏn knew they had to work with on his replacement, Yan Song 嚴嵩 (1480--1567).118 Knowing that Yan held the keys to power, the Chosŏn valued the relationship with Yan and acceded to Yan's requisitions for special gifts, in particular, for Korean memorial paper.119 When Yan had rebuffed a Korean petition for revising sections of the Ming Compendium (明會典) the Chosŏn found offensive, it dropped the issue, knowing full well attempting to circumvent him would have been fruitless.120
Interest in Ming affairs extended beyond matters of immediate relevance with Korea. Like in other reports, dramatic political developments like the emperor's successful suppression of the Prince of Ning's (寧王) rebellion was also related in detail. The Chosŏn court was also interested in the Ming's other foreign contacts. This mission reported the first contact the Ming court made with Europeans, and Korea's first interaction with European powers. The Korean emissaries informed the king envoys that for the first time, envoys from the country of the "Franks" (Pullanggi 佛朗機) had come to court.121 The report of these previously unknown foreigners, who arrived by sea from far Western reaches and traveled "three thousand ri" overland to reach the capital, piqued the interest of the Chosŏn king. The Korean emissaries had a chance to engage with the "Frankish" envoy. They were impressed by their books, which contained writing "that looked like the dhāraṇī writing [of the Esoteric Buddhists]122 and were finely wrought without peer." Puzzled by their appearance and customs, they noted their strange dress of "goose down coats" and "wide trousers" and the practice of monogamy, where even the "ruler... has [but] one queen and does not remarry even after her death." The Franks also had puzzling dietary habits, "eating only chicken and wheat," due, no doubt, to those being the "only produce" of their faraway country. The Koreans were otherwise unimpressed. According to the report, the Ming Board of Rites found these new foreigners to be unruly and refused to grant them an imperial audience for three years.123 Given the sheer number of individual envoy missions and resulting reports, their content varied considerably. They often included information about Ming customs, intellectual trends, and literary culture, but matters of war and peace and Ming imperial politics in particular remained perennial concerns.
It was in matters of war and unrest that the politics of "overattention" is most apparent, for they directly concerned Chosŏn's security and survival. These matters usually received extensive documentation in Chosŏn envoy reports. The Chosŏn court watched attentively the Jianwen-Yongle Wars of 1398-1402 carefully, as it pursued a cautious diplomacy to remain above the fray.124 As the war raged on, the Chosŏn received regular reports gathered from the border related to the succession crisis.125 Chosŏn watched closely not only to manage relations with the Ming but also to be prepared in case the unrest spilled over to Chosŏn. In 1449, the Chosŏn court learned of the debacle of Tumu, where the Emperor Yingzong was abducted by his enemies, led by the Mongol commander Esen.126 Its immediate concern was not the well-being of the emperor, but what such a turn of events would have for Chosŏn and whether the ensuing Ming-Mongol conflict might spill over to the Liaodong region. Instability of the Ming's northeast frontier could manifest as present threats. Once it was discovered that Esen traveled west to Datong, not east, the Chosŏn canceled its defense preparations.127 In 1511, the court caught wind of a large-scale rebellion fomenting in Ming Shandong. Court officials worried that the rebels might move up to take the Shanhai Pass and make a pact with the Jianzhou and Haixi Jurchens. Most unnerving was the possibility that this coalition would "carve out Shandong" and form its own state, then demand that the Chosŏn court submit to them as vassals. Unwilling to be caught "unprepared," the State Councilor Sŏng Hŭiyŏn (成希顔 1461--1513) implored the court to "take preemptive measures."128 Although the rebellion did not manifest into a threat of that scale, lest one dismiss Sŏng's anticipated chain of events to be unrealistic alarmism, it should be noted a version of these sort of events one hundred years later ---peasant uprisings, the Ming loss of Shanhai pass, and a Jurchen-reben alliance---was exactly what brought destroyed the Ming and subdued the Chosŏn.129
Ming strength was feared just as much as weakness. Even though Chosŏn-Ming relations developed largely peaceably, its early years were plagued with uncertainty and mistrust. As the Hongwu emperor refused to recognize King T'aejo with patents of investiture, both the Ming and Chosŏn talked of war, but when the Ming descended into civil war after his death, his successors invested King T'aejong as the "King of Chosŏn."130 The Hongwu emperor also explicitly prohibited his descendants from invading a set of foreign countries, which included Korea, in his ancestral injunctions. These two gestures, tacit acknowledgment of Chosŏn's legitimacy, and the abjuration of future aggression, should have been ample guarantee of Chosŏn's political autonomy, but they were nevertheless unconvincing.131 For one, the Yongle emperor had not only disregarded his father's instructions regarding the line of imperial succession by usurping the throne, he also flouted the injunction against foreign aggression by invading and conquering Vietnam in 1407.132
The conquest of Vietnam, and other Ming expansionist activities during this early fifteenth century, elicited anxiety at the Chosŏn court. News of the conquest led to worry that Korea might one day fall to the same fate. One Chosŏn courtier remarked that Vietnam, as a "small country," to be invaded by "all the troops under heaven," "could [not] have stood a chance." King T'aejong agreed. In his eyes, "the emperor has always loved vainglory and delighted in triumph," and so any small failure in recognizing his superiority will be exploited as pretext to "launch an invasion." The king agreed with his officials that constructing fortifications and stockpiling provisions would be necessary in the event of war, but he placed his faith on diplomacy, a stance he maintained through the rest of his reign.133 T'aejong believed, in essence, the root of the matter was the emperor's vainglory; so long as his pride could be satisfied, diplomacy alone should be enough to ward off the fate suffered by Vietnam. As a part of this "diplomacy of utmost sincerity" (至誠事大), T'aejong called for a special round of civil service examinations that asked its candidates to write mock memorials to congratulate the emperor's victories.134 Only eight days after Ming envoys came with an imperial proclamation declaring victory over the Vietnamese, T'aejong dispatched an embassy bearing such a letter of congratulations to the triumphant emperor.135
Later in the year, the Yongle emperor sought to allay the possible worries of the Chosŏn king by explaining the justifications for his actions to a Chosŏn envoy. He had intervened on behalf of the Trần (陳朝 1225--1400) rulers who were usurped by Lê Quý Ly (黎季犛 also Hồ Quý Ly 胡季犛 1336--1407).136 This casus belli may have only exacerbated tensions in Chosŏn, for T'aejong too had questionable claims to dynastic legitimacy. Not only did he and his father usurp the throne from the Koryŏ rulers, he had also wrested power after murdering rival claimants, two of his younger brothers, in 1398. Moreover, the emperor had not in fact restored the Trần, but instead annexed Vietnam as a Ming province.137 Yongle, believing the Chosŏn king would denounce his activities as "war-making in distant lands," asked a Chosŏn envoy to "explain the matter clearly to [his] king." He did not want T'aejong to think the cause for restoration was merely pretext for conquest. He defended himself, arguing he had "no choice" in the matter because the Lê had already killed off the Trần scions, leaving no legitimate claimants for him to support. Evidently unaware of the Chosŏn ruler's capacity for political machination, the Yongle emperor assumed T'aejong would only have "misunderstood" him because he was a "bookish man," too naive to understand the "villainy of the Lê."138
Whatever effect the Yongle emperor's assurances had, the specter of Ming expansionism reared again, once more raising alarm in Chosŏn. After Vietnam was subdued, the Yongle emperor soon turned his war machine to Mongolia. In 1413, news of a massive movement of Ming troops to the Mongolian frontier sparked another round of debates in Chosŏn. A Korean-born eunuch, Yun Pong (尹鳳 fl. 1400--1450) also informed a Chosŏn emissary that the emperor considered building three thousand warships for an invasion of Japan. Court officials suggested that the king dispatch military officers to the both the "western and eastern borders [i.e. along the Yalu river and the southeastern coast]" to make war preparations. They feared that once the war in Mongolia concluded, the Ming emperor would then turn his acquisitive attention to Chosŏn. T'aejong, however, was assured that the Ming had no intention of including Korea in its territorial designs, since the Ming emperor "had not lately treated [Chosŏn] any differently from before."139
The court debated the proper response for several days. Not all Chosŏn officials shared in the king's faith that since Korea "has served the greater [state] with sincerity," they had nothing to fear. The minister Ha Yun 河崙 (1347--1416) reminded the king that diplomacy had been a tool of past emperors in strategies of divide and conquer. An aggressor could use false promises of peace to pick off rival states one by one. He implored the king to at least fortify the capital city. One suggested that an alliance could be made with Japan to fend off a potential invasion.140 The king explained he had given all this consideration. If the emperor really "intended to campaign east" to conquer Chosŏn, then such a "fate would be unavoidable." Only then, when he "had no other choice," would he follow their suggestions. The Chosŏn king was particularly dismissive of the notion of fortifying the capital:
If the situation deteriorates to the point that the only thing we can do is hold fast to our capital city, what would be left of the state to speak of? All things have their rise and fall. The emperor disobeyed his father's commands and seized the throne for himself. He invaded Jiaozhi [i.e. Vietnam] to the south, and now he attacks the deserts of the north. With what leisure is he to turn East [towards us?]. If there really is going to be difficulties, then we will just raise troops and meet him in the field, what benefit is there in waiting inside our walls?141
The king acknowledged the merit of preparing against contingencies, but found the defensive posture of his officials overly passive and ultimately self-defeating. Though still convinced that the Ming, already burdened with war elsewhere, would not invade Chosŏn, T'aejong did not preclude such a possibility in his calculations.142 In this vein, T'aejong's diplomacy of "serving the great," was not a passive reaction to Ming power, but a strategy that both anticipated a vast differential in power and sought to preserve a space for Korean agency. The goal was not to defeat a Ming invasion by the walls of the Chosŏn capital, but to prevent it from materializing all together.
It is remarkable that T'aejong maintained a consistent diplomatic approach, without resorting to preemptive military solutions, despite the near unanimous advice of his officials. The king's preferences could be generalized for Chosŏn policy towards the Ming for all of its early history. Relying on diplomacy for security, however consistent it looks in hindsight, was not seen as the default answer by the Chosŏn court.143 Diplomacy was one course of action among many. T'aejong's confidence in it rested on a judgment of the state of Ming politics and his evaluation of imperial intentions. He had no illusions about the emperor's motivations in the invasion of Vietnam, which he called a "moral error" of the emperor, but he saw the Mongolian campaigns to be motivated by a different set of priorities. As a war to eliminate "brigands at [the Ming's own] front gates," it concerned the Ming's own security. Since the emperor thus far treated Chosŏn with "extreme generosity," Chosŏn's diplomacy appeared to be working. In his reckoning, an "alliance with the superior state" was enough to "preserve this one region [i.e. Korea]," though he ultimately still acknowledged that "securing this fiefdom" may one day still require "stockpiling grain and training troops."144
King T'aejong could not have made his strategic assessments without the steady relay of information about the Ming from his envoys. Here, as elsewhere, diplomacy was not only a mechanism for engaging the Ming, but was also a conduit for intelligence. This relationship between the flow of information about the Ming and broader strategic considerations persisted well after fears of invasion subsided. For example, in 1481 Chosŏn learned from its emissaries that the Ming wished to establish a fortress near the Chosŏn border in order to protect Chosŏn embassies from marauding Jurchens. The court official Yang Sŏngji 梁誠之 (1415--1482) found this development worrisome. He explained that the Ming Hongwu emperor's willingness "to allow Chosŏn's own sovereignty in rule" was not simply because of cultural differences between Korea and China.145 It was rather because Korea had successfully resisted the aggressions of past imperial dynasties. None among them, whether the native Chinese Han, Sui, and Tang nor the conquest regimes of the Liao, Jin, and Yuan, could subjugate Korea completely with its armies. In other words, Korean autonomy rested on its ability to resist militarily. Now that the Ming was extending its power with new fortifications in Liaodong, it narrowed the natural geographical buffer between the Ming and the Chosŏn, leaving only "one day's distance" between the new Ming fortress and the Yalu River. He wrote:
For now, there may be no problem [with the Ming]. But, five hundred years from now, how are we to know that there will not be [a ruler] who abuses arms and indulges in the martial? Or [a ruler] who loves vainglory and delights in triumph?146
When the Yongle emperor perished during a campaign in Mongolia, his grandiose ambitions died with him. No other Ming emperor would attempt to subjugate his neighbors as he did. The clarity of hindsight assures us that Chosŏn-Ming relations were to remain relatively peaceful, but Chosŏn court did not have the benefit of prescience in its political calculus. The Chosŏn, while ever conscious of the delicacy of its relationship with a giant neighbor, could not have known that history would unfold as it did. Echoing King T'aejong's description of the Yongle emperor as a ruler enamored of vainglory and triumph, Yang warned that such a ruler may have been no more, but that did not mean another emperor with the same flaws might not one day take his place.
For these reasons, imperial aggression, even when it was not directed towards Korea, stirred up considerable anxiety in the early Chosŏn court. When Ming armies did one day come to Korea, it was to defend it from a Japanese invasion in 1592. The experience of the subsequent Imjin War might suggest that Chosŏn's allegiance to the Ming was for protection, but Chosŏn never anticipated such a cataclysmic invasion from the east, let alone pursue a consistent diplomatic policy for two centuries for such a goal. What the Chosŏn really sought from diplomacy was protection from the Ming, not by it. With such anxieties at play, any information regarding imperial designs shaped policy debates at the Chosŏn court.
As Korean emissaries kept an eye on the state of Ming politics, the Chosŏn became privy to court intrigue and palace coups, along with the personal moral failings of the Ming emperor. Korean envoy testimonies spoke of the scandal and violence that surrounded the nexus of imperial power. As historians of China have long noted, Chosŏn record-keepers, unconcerned with the taboos of lèse-majesté, had no compunction casting the imperial person or his rule in a negative light.147 David Robinson, for example, has drawn on Korean sources extensively in his study on the economy of violence at the Ming court. Chosŏn envoys related in gory detail the aftermath of the attempted coup by the palace eunuch Cao Jixiang in 1461. When this massive mutiny of Mongol military units in the Ming capital, was suppressed, several thousand were dead with eight hundred executed by slicing. For the three next days, it rained, and "water, mixed with blood, flooded the forbidden palace."148 The envoy report then appended a verbatim copy of the Yingzong emperor's proclamation, but made no additional comment on the matter. The bloodshed, even if exaggerated, was a chilling reminder of the violence that lay behind imperial authority. This awareness did not prevent the Chosŏn court from dispatching an envoy in the next month bearing memorials of congratulations to the Ming court, singing the same praises of august majesty and eternal peace as other memorials that came before.149
Reports detailing the carnage of Ming imperial politics, are in good company. The Chosŏn Veritable Records relates no discussion of the Cao Jixiang, likely because the affair had no immediate consequences for the Chosŏn court. Events concerning Korea are another matter. In such cases, even scandal from the emperor's seraglio did not escape the Chosŏn court's attention. In 1424, an envoy returned to Chosŏn after the Yongle emperor's death. He had discovered the tragic fates of several Korean women who were sent to the imperial harem. According to his informants, a Korean nurse at the service of one of the Korean concubines and a Korean-born eunuch at the Ming palace, the women were implicated in a series of purges and massacres. A Chinese concubine by the name of Lü (呂) tried to befriend a Korean concubine, Lady Yŏ (呂), by claiming virtual kinship with her on the basis of their shared surname. Lady Yŏ, however, snubbed Lü. Thus spurned, Lü sought vengeance against Yŏ. Lü accused Yŏ of poisoning another Korean concubine, Lady Kwŏn, causing her death. The emperor, who had favored Kwŏn, was enraged, and executed Lady Yŏ along with several hundred others in the palace, including many of the palace ladies presented to the Ming court from Korea. Eventually, Lü was discovered to have engaged in sexual relations with palace eunuchs. The emperor had her servants questioned. Under torture, they confessed to conspiring to assassinate the emperor. The Yongle emperor personally attended to their executions by dismemberment. In all, two-thousand and eight-hundred individuals perished, but not before some of them cursed the emperor saying, "It was your own penis that shriveled, how could you have blamed her for having an affair with a young eunuch?" When the Yongle emperor died, the two Korean concubines who had survived all hanged themselves to join the emperor in his sepulcher.150
Such information managed to escape the confines of the inner palace, and traveled, with Chosŏn envoys to Korea, and preserved in the records kept by Chosŏn's court historians. A policy of "serving the greater" and declarations of "admiring China" did not mean Koreans entertained romantic fantasies about the Ming. Effusive literary declarations of Ming imperial virtue did not prevent open discussion about the failure of the imperial person in living up to those ideals. Chosŏn envoys had no qualms appraising the failures of Ming emperors and blamed them for the perceived devolution of court politics and Ming governance. Consider the ways in which they described the Zhengde emperor. Early in his reign, the reports merely remarked that he was "an immature and young ruler, who did not like listening to sound words." He ignored the remonstrance of his officials and neglected the duties of government. He often did not hold court until well past noon, leaving his courtiers to wait outside with until their feet were frozen. But, at least he was said to have "approved all matters presented to him by the chief ministers of the Six Boards." In the meantime, he devoted his time to "childish games," and because of the favor he bestowed on the eunuchs, "none among the court officials did not acquiesce" to them in all matters.151 An envoy report only one year later, however, remarked that the "emperor grew lazier by the day," and did not hold court more than once or twice a year." Things had devolved to the point that whenever the envoy tried to ask the Chinese about contemporary affairs, they "covered their mouths and ran away," unwilling to speak of such matters.152 Ming interpreters (xuban 序班) who worked at the Huitong House nonetheless divulged a few things here and there. The emperor now took up dressing up as a Mongol warrior, complete with "felt caps, leather coats, robes, and socks" and ordered his eunuchs to role-play with him, "calling each other 'barbarians,' and "galloping around on horseback day and night, not returning [to the palace] for the whole evening." When one loyal eunuch tried to reproach his ruler, the emperor answered, "you are by nature loyal and straightforward; it would be good if we sent you to a post to Nanjing," and had him assassinated on the way. According to the report, after this incident, no one else dared remonstrate with the emperor.153 From the emperor's infatuation with a young catamite leading to disinterest in his harem, to the outbreak of rebellions led by imperial princes, reports of the Zhengde emperor's private indulgences and his troubled reign continued to flow into the Chosŏn court.154
In 1521, when the Zhengde emperor embarked on a campaign to put down a rebellion by the Prince of Ning, which, to the emperor's chagrin, had been taken care of by a local official, Wang Shouren 王守仁 (1472--1529).155 In time, it became a tour of indulgence of the Ming's southern territories. A Chosŏn envoy who returned from Beijing that year remarked that "what the emperor has done, was like child's play," and cannot be compared to actions of other indulgent rulers, such as Chen Houzhu, or Sui Yangdi, who ultimately lost their states to conquest and rebellion. The returning Chosŏn emissary assured the king that even though he "expected that [the Ming] would certainly be in danger of being destroyed," he found that "the common people are not especially worried or anguished." Though the emperor's frolicking has caused suffering in the places he has visited, the "court officials managed all sorts of affairs with utmost diligence."156 Several decades later, during the reign of the Zhengde emperor's cousin and successor the Jiajing emperor, the tenor of Chosŏn envoy reports took a marked turn. One Chosŏn envoy, Yu Insuk 柳仁淑 (1485--1545), described the Jiajing emperor's excursion to Huguang in 1539:
From a [Ming] hostel officer I heard that [the emperor] was accompanied by a hundred thousand soldiers, three thousand eunuchs, two thousand officers, and a thousand officials. Palace ladies were carried in ten separate carts, with each cart holding five. The soldiers and horses in the retinue suffered from thirst but could not drink. When they reached the Yellow River, they [competed] to drink, climbing and trampling over one another. Many drowned as a result of this. The emperor behaves as such; and at court, there is not one good person. All vie among each other to fawn and flatter, tending to the emperor's will. When auspicious clouds appeared when the emperor appointed his Crown Prince, the officials all submitted memorials of congratulations, [for example].
Even though the Zhengde emperor was neglectful and licentious, there were still [good] people in the imperial court and he left [the duties] of governance to respected officials. For this reason, all-under-heaven was not so disturbed. The emperor is obstinately self-willed and there is no matter in the empire that he does not preside over. When there is someone who remonstrates directly, they are put under heavy punishment, and all are now silent.157
Ming politics had deteriorated considerably in the eyes of the Chosŏn officials. Although both Zhengde and Jiajing were licentious, the Jiajing emperor was also an autocrat, overruling his own officials and incompetently interfering with their. The report also implicated Ming officials for playing to the emperor's desires, critiquing especially the presenting congratulations on meaningless omens.
The irony of recriminating fawning Ming officials was that the Chosŏn court presented the same sorts of flattering memorials to curry imperial favor, such as the 1542 "congratulating" the emperor for escaping assassination at the hands of his harem. The Chosŏn too was complicit in the adulation of it believed to be a morally bankrupt imperial regime. But, the outward celebration of the execution of the palace-women-turned-rebels concealed a sharp sense of disapproval of the Ming emperor himself. When the court first learned of the affair, it speculated that such a dramatic turn events could only be due to the emperor's personal failings. One member, Kwŏn Pal who had been an envoy to the Ming, blamed it on the emperor's neglect of government, his failure of moral self-regulation, and his general indolence. When an emperor "does not cultivate [his body] or order [his household], and is constantly in the company of women and girls," how can he be expected to "govern the state?" The complete deterioration of "moral standards" (紀綱) would inevitably lead to disaster. With these "internal disturbances," it would only be a matter of time before "barbarians will descend" upon the empire.158 Kwŏn Pal's concern was warranted, for only a month earlier, an interpreter arrived sent by the Imperial Birthday envoy, had arrived to relay news of a massive Mongol incursion in the border of Shanxi.159
Information about Ming politics envoys reports brought to the Chosŏn guided not only Chosŏn policy making and diplomacy, but also became the basis for evaluating Ming governance of China. Pithy appraisals of nearly every Ming ruler could be found in Korean sources. By in large they do not depart far from how they are described in Chinese historical accounts. King T'aejo once described the Hongwu emperor to have "killed excessively," as even his "founding officials and important advisers could not preserve themselves."160 His son T'aejong repeatedly condemned the Yongle emperor's love of glory. The Chenghua emperor was notorious for giving his eunuchs free rein, while Zhengde could not cease with "childish games."161 A Chosŏn high official went as far to say that it was only "appropriate that a muddleheaded ruler" like Jiajing "suffered an [attempted] assassination."162 The early Chosŏn court, its rulers, officials and historians would probably agree, more or less, with the appraisals of the sixteen emperors of the Ming dynasty by the American historian Sarah Schneewind.163 They were "respectively, murderous, impractical, grandiose, sickly, licentious, vainglorious, improvident, doltish, hen-pecked, bibulous, self-indulgent, profligate, completely irresponsible, debauched, frivolous, and ineffectual." Yet, a resoundingly negative image of Ming rulers did not prevent the Chosŏn court from adhering to a diplomatic posture of reverence. Just as Schneewind has asked of "the loyalty, the lifetime service, even the death as faithful martyrs of many of their subjects," a similar question could be asked of the Chosŏn court. Why?164
That this outward presentation of reverence was only an expedient means to avert Ming intervention in Korean affairs is a tempting answer. The Chosŏn court, even as it observed what it took to be the Ming court's political degeneration, never voiced its criticisms openly to a Ming audience. In moments where the Ming had the most reason to doubt its own authority, the Chosŏn envoys came to gently stroke away the anxieties of those in power. When examined in terms of the envoy mission's function of intelligence gathering, interpreting Chosŏn behavior as a utilitarian "outward obeisance" appears even more convincing. The Chosŏn was mainly interested in Ming politics for how its developments affected Korea. The state of Ming governance in China was generally abstracted from the day-to-day operation of Chosŏn politics. Only when border conflicts or imperial invasion threatened Chosŏn's security did they matter. The excesses of one individual Ming ruler did not matter, so long as diplomacy could stave off the immediate effects of his failings.
The problem with the utilitarian view is that it alone cannot account for the full range of information that the Chosŏn envoys actually brought back. Intelligence was but only one area of information transmission; Chosŏn interest in the Ming was not limited to areas of realpolitik. Envoys, often with directives from the court, also brought back observations of Ming customs, institutions, and rituals. The travelogue of the Corrector for the 1576 embassy, Cho Hŏn 趙憲 (1544--1592), enumerated a number of aspects of Ming society as models for Korean emulation. From their personal experiences in China, envoys like Cho Hŏn acquired an appreciation for everything from "China's urban economic development" to its cultural accomplishments. Scholars like Xu Dongri and Chen Shangsheng have argued that these attitudes gradually entered Chosŏn discourse in general and became an important way the Chosŏn imagined Ming China.165 That envoys such as Cho turned to the Ming for institutional, social, and political inspiration, has been read as indicative of a "whole hearted acceptance of Chinese culture."166
How, then, should these dimensions---the utilitarian goals of diplomacy, the critical gaze that fell on the imperial state, and what appears to be a sincere admiration for Ming institutions---be reconciled? Though Chen Shangsheng has argued that envoys like Cho Hŏn displayed "an attitude of sincere attraction and active osmosis,"167 he also noted that proposals for reforming Korean society along Ming lines were seldom taken-up wholesale. The appropriation of Ming institutions was a selective process. Recognizing this selectivity is key. Zealous reformers like Cho Hŏn selected models for emulation in ways informed by their own political goals. Cho Hŏn judiciously weighed the kinds of institutions that could be emulated and rejected ones he found unworthy of copying.
I underscore the process of appropriation over a process of transmission not simply as a matter of emphasis. Appropriation in fact more accurately captures the social and intellectual dynamics behind this cultural process. The transfer of Chinese practices to Korea is described in terms of Chinese "influence" over Korea, both in historical documents (i.e. hwa/hua 化) or in analytical discourse (i.e. yŏnghyang/yingxiang 影響), but as Foucault stated, "the notion of influence" is a "too magical a kind [of explanation]" for transmission to be "very amenable to analysis."168 When examined more concretely, all processes of influence required agency on the part of the influenced---in other words, they are really always processes of appropriation. The pertinent questions are not of who influenced whom and what the content of that influence was, but what and why one appropriated.
For Chosŏn courtiers and rulers alike, the Ming provided founts of examples from which they could draw authority for their own arguments. Ming cases became points of reference for their own political agenda. Awareness of Ming practice certainly shaped Chosŏn court debates, but the motivations were always tied up in Chosŏn concerns. During one royal lecture in 1509, Chungjong's advisers described their own experiences from traveling to Ming Beijing. One recounted an instance where a Ming high-official was punished with severe beatings over a minor offense. Lamenting the excesses of Ming punitive measures, Sŏng Hŭiyŏn used the example of Ming punitive excess to argue for leniency for another Chosŏn official. In the same lecture, Sŏng praised the Ming's use of a systematic mechanism for assessing the merits and accomplishments of court officials. Ming governance, then, provided case examples of statecraft in action, not a model for unqualified emulation. It was possible for courtiers to borrow the authority of the imperial state to justify their own policy point, as Sŏng did.169 But pressure for reform according to the model of Ming Chinese institutions could always be deflected with a simple acknowledgment that "there is much in [Korea] that do not follow Chinese institutions---there is no need to change everything."170 To see Ming institutions, not as models for emulation, but as cases for illustration, also absolve the need to dichotomize Chosŏn opinions of the Ming in terms of positive and negative appraisals. Instead, these divergent responses can be understood to form a "knowledge of empire," inextricably bound with Chosŏn's own concerns. Information about the imperial state was not only filtered through the critical gaze of Chosŏn observers, but also strategically deployed in the politics of the Korean court.
Constitutive of this "knowledge of empire," critiques of the imperial person are then metonymic of a broader dynamic of implicit comparison and reflection. The excesses of imperial politics was enough to shake the confidence of the Chosŏn court, but imperial profligacy could also serve as a perfect, negative example for what a ruler should not do. When Kwŏn Pal condemned the Jiajing emperor in 1542, he evoked the lessons of self-cultivation and self-regulation in the Greater Learning in his critique of monarchical despotism. When he, and other Korean officials, appealed to these enlightened rulership in their moralizing diagnosis of Ming decline, one wonders whether they were in fact veiled reminders for their own rulers on the dangers of monarchical excess.171 Kwŏn's ruler, Chungjong, for example was known for punishing officials who were too forward in their remonstrance. The so-called "literati purges" (sahwa 士禍) of 1498 and 1504, carried out by his predecessor Yŏnsangun, and the 1519 purge that Chungjong enacted himself could not have been too far distant in the court's collective memory.172 Negative portrayals of the Zhengde emperor, for instance, could have been used to justify the 1506 removal of the unpopular ruler Yŏnsangun, and as such, was an implicit check on monarchical excess.173 Much like the inculcation of Neo-Confucian programs of self-cultivation to Chosŏn monarchs, it was another technique for court officials and the educated elite they represented to circumscribe the authority of the Korean throne.174 In this broad program of reining in the monarch, the excesses and failures of Ming emperors might have provided ready examples to illustrate the validity of their remonstrances. Whereas their literati counterparts in the Ming could only resort on the historical examples of long dead rulers to remonstrate with their own rulers, thanks to likes of Zhengde and Jiajing, Korean court officials could draw on the examples provided by living monarchs.
The practices described in this chapter worked consistently through the entire duration of Chosŏn-Ming relations. The regularity of envoy dispatch has justified seeing Chosŏn-Ming exchange from the rubric of the "tributary system." Yet, it was often the microcosmic, incidental, and barely visible interactions that made regular envoy missions possible. In these interactions, a different kind of historicity appears, where the diverse actors involved could appropriate existing institutions for ulterior ends. The ideological, discursive, and social context of tributary exchange made appropriation possible, but in doing so, they also became subject to reinvention. Viewed from the bird's eye, the continuity and regularity of envoy travel appears an unchanging fact of Chosŏn-Ming diplomacy; viewed on the ground, however, we see that it was constituted by a host of minute practices subject to revision and restructuring. What looks like a static feature was in fact the coalescing of a variety of dynamic processes.
Viewing envoy travel through the lens of knowledge and its asymmetry makes this point clear. The Chosŏn court did not collect intelligence about the Ming for curiosity's sake, but rather because what it garnered was vital to its activities. Imperial succession, frontier unrest, or matters of Korea's prestige and position in the Ming court all had consequential implications for Chosŏn. These issues were doubly important because Chosŏn engaged the Ming on terms of extreme asymmetry. Every single imperial agent its emissaries encountered could potentially ruin a Chosŏn embassy, but this dynamic did not render Chosŏn powerless. Ming policy was rarely unitary and its representatives were often disaggregated and dispersed. Awareness of how each disparate part functioned and investment in ties with different echelons of Ming administration could allow a Chosŏn embassy considerable discretion in moving through its cracks. In other words, intimate knowledge of Ming politics, institutions, and interest could convert asymmetry into an advantage. Chosŏn may have been relative powerless before each, individual imperial agent, but mastering the workings of empire made it extremely effective in the broader context.175
Knowing empire and investing in empire were dialectical. Lateral connections with Ming agents, then, can be seen as a form of investment in networks of patrimonial relations. Frequent missions provided the Chosŏn court an opportunity to maintain and upkeep this network, which extended beyond Chosŏn's border, well into the Ming capital. When Ming border officials, interpreters, merchants, Jurchen chieftains and other local figures entered into transactions of trade, news, and favors, they were integrated into the sociological fact of empire. The gifts and favors used to maintain these links were certainly costly for the Chosŏn court, but like any form of investment, it was loaded with risk and did not always earn anticipated returns. It is possible to view these practices, as Chosŏn envoys often did, as "corruption." But, even they (who were usually quite removed from these activities) tolerated them, and tacitly allowed their underlings, career interpreters to carry them out. It is also possible to see these parasitic figures on the tribute route as potential allies or sources of valuable information. For those who had to carry out the day-to-day business of an embassy, it was this systemic "corruption" that made a successful envoy mission possible. In sum, these phenomena, far from aberrations, were essential for the regular operations of an envoy mission and its dual purpose of diplomacy and intelligence.
This is not to discount the role of envoy missions as diplomatic ritual. They certainly contributed to maintaining peaceable relations with the Ming. Envoy missions were one among a "range of flexible institutional and discursive tools with which to resolve conflicts," the tributary system provided. Chosŏn missions signaled normality to the Ming, but, as the only substantive form of sustained contact, also quite literally constituted normality through its performance of hierarchy. The enduring peace the Ming and Chosŏn enjoyed then cannot be attributed simply to the Ming's "commitment not to exploit."176
While it has now been a truism that the Ming court largely left Chosŏn to its own devices in domestic affairs, such a result was not a natural outgrowth of something inherent to interstate relations in East Asia nor to the Chinese imperial tradition. The Ming founder in theory guaranteed Korean sovereignty and listed Korea (and many other neighboring states) among the "countries that should never be invaded," the value of these assurances were dubious, especially when his son, the Yongle emperor, violated this injunction. Hindsight allows us to see these centuries as time of enduring peace, but from the vantage of Chosŏn actors, there was little guarantee of such a result. There is no way to know what would have happened if the Chosŏn court ceased its envoy missions and did not constantly remind the Ming of its commitment to moral empire and non-intervention. The absence of direct intervention, instead, was at least partially related to Chosŏn's careful management of this relationship, not least of all through an exploitation of its asymmetrical dynamic.
Ever since Fairbank's The Chinese World Order, there is also a tendency to conflate the "tributary system" with the political designs prerogatives of imperial China. Given that the Chosŏn court invested enormously in its upkeep, such a view is extremely reductive. At the very least for the period in question, the Chosŏn court co-constructed with the Ming its basic institutions, if not most of the burden for sustaining its operations. The Chosŏn also saw the "tributary system" as a "legitimate institution," but that legitimacy did not derive from it being a Chinese invention or its imperial use.177 The extensive documentation of realpolitik considerations and the frequent, often candid, appraisals of Ming politics ought to dispel any misconception that the Koreans viewed the Ming court as an inherently moral institution. The tributary system, its rules, and its principles were legitimate, along with the Confucian discourse that described it, but in Korean eyes, the legitimacy of the Ming, the tributary system, along with those of the Chosŏn court itself derived from the same universal principles.
Appeals to and the performance of ideals of empire did not automatically translate into a wholesale worship of things Ming (or Chinese), despite Korean declarations to that effect in numerous diplomatic dispatches and letters. Conversesly, critiques of Ming rule and practices in envoy reports should not be read as Korean rejection of ritual hierarchy, or even of the Ming itself. Neither wayward emperors nor their uncouth agents undermined these ideals, but rather served as negative models of what things ought to be. The critiques themselves echoed an ideal of empire and the moral injunctions of proper Confucian governance. Garret Mattingly, while discussing medieval European diplomacy, wrote the following of the relationship between an idealized community of Christendom and the often violent political reality of the times: "Like other creatures, princes and republics were prone to sin and error. That did not impugn the validity of the norms by which their conduct must be judged.... it had not yet been suggested that in these matters society might accomplish more just by expecting less."178 The discourse of moral empire in East Asia may have functioned similarly---those who participated in the system did not believe that the ideal corresponded to reality, but that the imperfections of human action do not in themselves undercut the norms that ought to govern it. For Chosŏn Korea, the celebration of the Ming as moral empire was not to curry favor. Instead they, were a way shape the political commitments of the imperial state in order to bind the empire to its own political ideals.
The realm of ideology and the sphere of political action were seldom mutually exclusive, and as was the case in Chosŏn-Ming relations, were intertwined dialectically. What the sociological facts of empire, their idealizations, and the rituals that constitute these idealizations have in common are that they were vulnerable to appropriation. Actors who came into contact into these processes, whether manifested as patrimonial connections or symbols of authority, could employ these for ulterior ends. The next chapter will examine one case, the rise and rule of a Korean prince who commandeered the resources of empire for his own ends and rose to become the ruler of the Chosŏn dynasty. In the process, he even appropriated the most important symbol of Chosŏn dynastic rule and its connection with Ming empire par excellence---Ming patents of investiture---to achieve his ambitious designs. While the case itself is extraordinary, the methods he used were not. Empire for him, like scripture for the devil, was something to cite for his own purpose.