In 1455, Prince Suyang, 首陽大君 (Yi Yu 李瑈 1417--1468) usurped the throne of his nephew Yi Hong'wi (李弘暐 1441--1457, known posthumously as King Tanjong 端宗 r. 1452--1455). Suyang ruled as the seventh king of Chosŏn until death (King Sejo 世祖 r. 1455--1468).1 Marred by bloodshed and intrigue, his reign is one of the most controversial in the history of Korea. Controversies over Suyang's rise compromised the legitimacy of his successors, precipitating more political violence, such as the literati purge of 1498. Modern historians continue to debate Suyang's reign as a watershed moment in Chosŏn's history.2
Suyang was politically prominent well before his accession to the throne. He transmitted royal orders on behalf of his ailing father King Sejong 世宗 (r. 1418--1450) and carried out important ritual functions as the most senior member of the royal family when his older brother, King Munjong 文宗 (r. 1450--1452), was debilitated by illness.3 Sejong and his successor, Munjong, died within three years of each other, leaving the Chosŏn throne to Munjong's teenage son, Tanjong. Suyang exploited the power vacuum that ensued. The senior ministers Hwangbo In 皇甫仁 (?--1453) and Kim Chongsŏ 金宗瑞 (1383--1453) held the reins of state, but their increasingly rivalrous relationship with Suyang escalated into decisive coup d'état in the tenth month of 1453. Suyang killed Hwangbo and Kim, along with their allies, accusing them of plotting to usurp the throne in favor of Suyang's younger brother, Prince Anp'yŏng 安平大君 (1418--1453). After the coup, Suyang executed Anp'yŏng and seized control of the bureaucracy, paving the way for his formal accession as king in the leap sixth month of 1455.4 When Suyang discovered a conspiracy to restore Tanjong in the summer of 1456, he executed the instigators and forced his deposed nephew to commit suicide in 1457.5 With Tanjong dead, the throne was securely in Suyang's hands.
Existing studies usually focus on the political context of Suyang's usurpation or how the incident led to the later political divide between the so-called royalist "meritorious officials" (hun'gu 勳舊) and the self-righteous literati known as the Sarim (lit. "forest of scholars" 士林).6 The events of Suyang's reign thus foreshadow both later political factionalism and the "literati purges" of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The role of diplomacy, however, has never been discussed in this context. Suyang's embassy to the Ming in 1453, only months before launching his coup d'état, for instance, is mentioned only in passing, if at all, in modern accounts of his rise. This neglect is understandable, since, with the exception of the first two Chosŏn rulers, the Ming generally granted requests of investiture by Chosŏn kings. The gesture of recognition appears to be pro forma, a foregone conclusion.7
Suyang's use of diplomacy went beyond acquiring symbols of legitimacy through the rite of investiture. He also made use of the whole gamut of techniques available to the Chosŏn court. He cultivated lateral relations with Ming officials and crafted tailored representations of both his kingship and his country. Suyang and his supporters converted asymmetries of power and knowledge into political initiative and exploited diplomacy for their own political goals. A coup d'état from within, Suyang's accession had everything to do with exploiting diplomatic channels to his advantage. Foreign relations, in this case, was part and parcel of a contest for domestic power.
Suyang's strategic use of established diplomatic institutions for partisan benefit and his ability to maneuver the mechanics of power in the Ming institutions caution against the reading of Chosŏn-Ming relations only in terms of state level interactions.8 Suyang's achievements certainly reflected existing strategies and are useful illustrations of the mechanisms of interchange between the Ming and Chosŏn courts, but they should not simply be read as a reflection of so-called "tributary relations" at work. Instead of arguing for the representativeness of Suyang's case as illustrations of a "system," this chapter will examine how various contingencies came together with existing practices, and ultimately shaped later practice. It treats diplomatic practice not as an unchanging modus operandi that followed fixed rules, but an evolving set of practical repertoires.
Diplomacy is doubly important because Suyang's gradual ascent, from a powerful prince in 1450 to the undisputed ruler of Chosŏn in 1457, coincided with a period of dynastic crisis in the Ming. In 1450, the Ming throne in Beijing briefly sat empty; the Mongol commander Esen Taishi captured the Yingzong emperor (英宗 r. 1436--1449, 1457--1464) after the destruction of the Ming army in Tumu (Tumu zhi bian 土木之變). The Ming court, led by the War Minister Yu Qian 于謙 (1398--1457) installed Yingzong's younger brother on the throne as the Jingtai emperor (景泰帝 r. 1450--1457). In 1450, the Ming dispatched Ni Qian (倪謙 ?--1479) to announce the sudden accession of the Jingtai emperor. When he arrived, neither the Chosŏn king, Sejong, nor his crown prince (later King Munjong 文宗 r. 1450--1452) were ready to receive him. When told they were bedridden with illness, the envoy grew suspicious, fearing that Chosŏn may "harbor a second heart" because of what he had termed, rather euphemistically, the Ming court's recent "incidents." His worries that Chosŏn would renounce its loyalty to the Ming were soon allayed, once Prince Suyang came to welcome the envoy at the head of the other royal princes.9 Esen returned Yingzong to the Ming court, but the former emperor was sequestered in virtual house arrest. Several disgruntled officials launched their own coup d'état, the so-called "storming of the gates," (duomen zhi bian 奪門之變) that reinstated Yingzong in 1457.10 The period of dynastic instability led to heightened diplomatic exchange. Imperial deaths and accessions had to be announced and reported while new Korean rulers required investiture and their heirs apparent and consorts demanded recognition. All of these affairs involved the exchange of emissaries. Dynastic upheaval was a source of insecurity for both courts, but it also offered a valuable opportunity for Prince Suyang to actualize his political ambitions. In using diplomacy, Suyang exploited fissures in the Ming bureaucracy and appropriated symbolic repertoires connecting tribute, diplomacy, and royal authority to secure his accession and legitimize his usurpation.
In spite of this heightened contact, Ming records make no mention of Suyang's violent coup d'état, his controversial elimination of his nephew, or the bloody purges that followed. Not only did Suyang exploit diplomacy to take power, but he also did so while successfully concealing his questionable legitimacy from the Ming court. This conspicuous omission in sources like the Ming Veritable Records parallels the situation for other major political intrigues in the Chosŏn court. After a coup removed Yŏnsangun and placed Chungjong on the throne in 1506, the Chosŏn court under the control of the conspirators went to great lengths to secure the support of Ming officials and palace eunuchs, all to ensure a document of investiture would be granted to the new king. Whereas the Chosŏn Veritable Records relates numerous Ming rear palace scandals and political intrigues, similar cases are virtually undocumented in Ming accounts.11
Suyang's rise to power also showed the instrumentality of diplomacy. As king, Suyang continued to exploit relations with the Ming for his own ends. The ideology of sadae that supposedly drove the practice of the "tributary system," Korea's "admiration" for China and its "sincere" submission, all became a part of a discursive repertoire, resources to be deployed at convenience. On this count, it was hardly ideological at all, but rather a transactional motif that produced momentary legibility between them. For Suyang, even as king, cordial relations with the Ming was never an end in itself, but a means. He was more than willing to exploit Ming envoys and diplomacy to his advantage, often in ways clearly contradictory to Ming interests and policy. Nevertheless, Suyang, aware of his uncertain legitimacy went to great lengths to secure Ming support for his rule. This was classic realpolitik, where ideological conformity mattered only insomuch as it could serve the exercise of power. Suyang had appropriated the symbols of empire for other ends.
No reliable contemporary sources about Suyang's rise survive. Several accounts written by contemporaries are now lost.12 Historians instead have to rely on the Tanjong Veritable Records. As court annals, these Veritable Records all bear the mark of politically motivated redaction; it would be naive to assume any work with the express purpose of leaving a "true record" for posterity was not devoid of bias and political concern. The Tanjong Records was particularly compromised. When it was first compiled, the Tanjong Records was dubbed the Daily Chronicles of Prince Nosan (魯山君日記), using the deposed king's princely title to reflect his alleged illegitimacy. The exact dates of its compilation are unknown, but it was likely completed along with the Sejo Veritable Records, during the reign of Suyang's grandson, Sŏngjong (成宗 1469--1494).13 Their compilers had every reason to cast Suyang in a positive light. The two individuals who directed the compilation of the Sejo annals, Sin Sukchu 申叔舟 (1417--1475) and Han Myŏnghoe 韓明澮 (1415--1487), were among Suyang's chief supporters and aided his rise to power. Sin Sukchu was the Recorder (sŏjanggwan 書狀官) who accompanied Sejo on his embassy to the Ming and a chief envoy later. Han Myŏnghoe was already one of Suyang's close associates well before his accession.14 The portrayal of Suyang in the Tanjong Records is indeed replete with the contrived hyperbole of hagiography, leaving its credibility suspect.
Reading the Tanjong Records requires caution. The lack of extant, corroborating sources compounds problems endemic to historical interpretation based on court records. Its account of Suyang's diplomatic activities preceding his accession is no exception.15 The reading I offer will manage, but not resolve these problems, by relying on a hermeneutic strategy of dual reading. On the one hand, I will read the narrative as a fabrication to understand the kinds of political claims it was meant to support. On the other, I will tentatively accept the version of the events narrated in the account to see what strategies Suyang employed in diplomatic encounters. In other words, the accounts are read concomitantly as post facto constructions of political legitimation and as naive accounts of Suyang's political self-fashioning. Instead of looking for what "really" happened, I will try to understand what purpose these texts served, and the logics at work in both narrative modes. Though a definitive account of events remains elusive, this mode of dual reading shows that the two alternatives in fact converge on a consistent logic of political legitimation.
Suyang went to the Ming as the official Chosŏn envoy to express gratitude (謝恩使) for Tanjong's investiture in 1452. When the court debated over who to dispatch, Suyang volunteered himself. His proposal was met with disapproval not only from his political rivals, the chief ministers Hwangbo In, Kim Chongsŏ and his younger brother Anp'yŏng, but also his own advisers. They tried to dissuade Suyang, noting that his absence will merely create an opportunity for his rivals to seize power.16 Suyang prevailed over his opposition and overruled his advisers, though he offered no explanation of why it was important for him to go to the Ming personally. Interpretation hinges on how one understands the prince's intentions. The Tanjong Records suggests that his coup d'état was not planned until the ninth month of 1453, portraying it as a necessary and last-resort countermeasure against those who threatened the integrity of the Chosŏn monarchy.17 The timing of his trip, and the precautions he took against Hwangbo and Kim, suggest that it had been a part of a long-term political plan. Perhaps, by leaving the country as a royal emissary, he was temporarily protected from political designs upon him by his rivals.18
Regardless of Suyang's motivations, the post facto account of the embassy offers a rather different perspective. Diplomacy granted novel opportunities for the ambitious prince. It was not a matter of conspiratorial logistics, but symbolic ascendancy: the arrogation unto himself the aura of royal destiny.19 Suyang impressed those he encountered across the Yalu with his virtue, competence and decorum. He kept discipline in his entourage to a degree "unmatched" by past envoys. When soldiers violated his orders and procured provisions from locals, he punished them severely. Once in Liaodong, Chinese soldiers and commoners squeezed by each other to catch a glimpse of him. His gallantry, poise, and handsome appearance led the Chinese to refer to him as a "true knight" (真將軍也). Jurchen chiefs who encountered him referred to him as a "Buddha." How others treated Suyang testified to his princely virtue.
Suyang's knowledge of ritual also impressed his hosts. In Beijing, he made five prostrations to the emperor, but made only one to the ministers of the Six Boards. Those who were present exclaimed, "the son of the Chosŏn King is a scion of noble essence," whose "wisdom and virtue surpass the average person." They found him far superior to another foreign prince, a brother of the ruler of the Shan kingdom of Mubang, whom they dismissed as "nothing extraordinary."20 He declined musical performances during banquets because he was still in mourning for his brother, Munjong. When offered gifts, Suyang declined them and explained "a gentleman (kunja/junzi 君子) loves men for their virtue, not their wealth. Why must there be gifts bequeathed before he knows grace." One of Suyang's hosts explained that he had adorned the banquet table with plum, bamboo, and pine, because, they, as symbols of virtue, "befit a gentleman" like Prince Suyang. Indeed, like the gentleman of the classics, his steady virtue earned the submission of lesser men like the wind bends the grass before it.21
His princely demeanor fostered an ambiguous regal aura. Convenient misunderstandings over Suyang's identity ensued, as observers mistakenly referred to him as the Chosŏn heir apparent or the Chosŏn king himself. Jurchens who saw Suyang in Beijing declared that they will return to Chosŏn to see the "Crown Prince" (Ch: taizi 太子) once again. It was no wonder then, that Ming officials "addressed him as wang (王, i.e. king) or dianxia (殿下, i.e. your majesty)," titles properly reserved for the ruling Chosŏn monarch himself, not a mere prince-envoy. These slippages of identification demonstrated a remarkable prescience on the part of these individuals. Did they know what was to come?
In such accounts that depict the deeds of a ruler-to-be, records of these slippages were not meant to show usurpation of royal prerogatives or invalid pretensions to divinity. It sought to construct royal legitimacy by demonstrating its preordained character. These slippages were to be understood as spontaneous reactions to virtue that naturalized the rise to power. In this case, even the elephants at Ming palace recognized Suyang's royal destiny. When Suyang entered the palace grounds, they "moved back several steps in unison." With beasts too susceptible to the power of his virtue, Suyang's royal destiny was obvious to all. As they did for other rulers who came to the throne through irregular means such as usurpation and rebellion, these signs augured the inevitably of their ascent.22 With destiny preordained, the irregularity of his accession became a moot point.
In this retrospective account of Suyang's embassy, Suyang appears to have foreknowledge of his eventual political success. At the conclusion of this embassy, Suyang capped his achievements with an adroit demonstration of his twin mastery of literary craft and martial prowess. In an archery contest, Suyang bested his followers. While none could hit his mark, the prince landed seven shots in a straw man erected a hundred and thirty paces away. Accepting the exhortations to "loyalty and righteousness" of his deputies, possibly a coded reference to his impending conspiracy, he composed a long poem celebrating their journey to the Ming. In the last lines, Suyang hinted at his loftier political designs: "On [my] return, the court and country will be renewed / and the royal house will be at peace." He then implored his companions to "aid [him] in [fulfilling his] ambitions" with reassurances that he would not "forget the virtuous men" who supported him.
What do we make of the anecdotes in the Tanjong Records? The effort to portray Prince Suyang's rise as inevitable is clear. The hagiographic account certainly should not be taken at face value, but as political encomiums go, few of the individual elements of the narrative are particularly remarkable in and of themselves. The ritual decorum of Chosŏn envoys was a common trope in envoy accounts. Other Korean visitors behaved just as well in the eyes of Ming officials.23. What distinguishes this account of Suyang from the others is how its narrative elements were linked to the construction of kingship. From behaving with due ritual deference, to showing benevolent leadership, to, most importantly, eliciting the awe of all those who came in contact with him, Suyang was in every way, in the words of a Ming envoy to Suyang's court in 1460, five years after his accession, a "wise king" of Chosŏn.24 One need not believe that even elephants could recognize Suyang's gleaming virtue and certain destiny to see how such narratives construct royal authority. Whether these accounts were wholesale fabrications to justify seizure of the throne, or exaggerated portrayals of actual deeds in China, only matter to a point---both were mechanisms of self-construction that rested on a similar symbolic logic. Talent, virtue, and destiny weave together to augment the prince's reputation.
What is remarkable, however, is the account's inversion of classical imperial topoi. A tributary mission, at least from the vantage of the imperial center, was a gesture that demonstrated the moral and political supremacy of the imperial court. Now, a "foreign" prince had come to the imperial capital, but his court composers utterly transformed its significance. In their account, the emperor's own subjects and tribute bearers turned their admiration to Suyang, demonstrating his moral superiority and authenticating his political destiny. Not only had the symbolic logic of empire been appropriated, it was displaced by an erstwhile tribute-bearer at the very site where imperial virtue was to be made most manifest.
The Veritable Records are multivalent texts, often incorporating competing viewpoints through their lacunae and inconsistencies. Their sheer volume alone makes it difficult for even their compilers to control the narratives within.25 A separate entry in the Tanjong Records casts doubt on a key detail of its account of Suyang's mission. Returning seven months after Suyang, the leader of another embassy to the Ming led by Yi Inson 李仁孫 (1395--1463) related words of apology from the Korean eunuch Yun Pong 尹鳳 (?--1483) who worked at the Ming court. He explained that because the Ming Board of Rites and Directorate of Ceremonial26 had failed to "investigate precedents for entertaining a prince from our country [Korea]," Suyang's arrival was not reported to the emperor. For these reasons, Suyang's "reception was inadequate." The emperor realized only later Suyang's identity as a Chosŏn prince and regretted his "failure to observe the rites of reception." Whereas the account of Suyang's mission shows the prince to be recognized as an important guest by Ming officials and commoners alike, Yun's apology on behalf of the emperor, suggests that his reception in Beijing was disappointing at best.27 Although the Ming realized its mistake, its initial oversight may have been related to Suyang's ambiguous status as a "Grand Prince" (taegun 大君), a title that was in Korea reserved exclusively for children of kings birthed of primary consorts. Unfamiliar with this usage, Ming ritual officials might not have recognized its precise meaning. This ambiguity may also explain the slippages of identity described in the first account of the mission.
The account of the mission makes no indication that Suyang was slighted by Ming officials. From border military officials to capital ministers, none seemed the least bit derelict in their treatment. Another possibility for what Yun Pong and the Ming emperor might have meant then, was that the court did not treat Suyang according to precedents reserved for the Korean rulers or their heirs apparent. Ming ritual regulations had specific provisions for entertaining personal tribute missions (Ch: qinchao 親朝) by foreign monarchs. Unlike their Koryŏ predecessors, Chosŏn kings never pursued personal audiences with emperors, but they did occasionally send their princes as envoys in gestures of fealty.28 Before Suyang, several Chosŏn princes went to the Ming to present tribute, but only T'aejong's heir apparent Prince Yangnyŏng (讓寧大君, 1394--1462), who went in 1408, received exceptional treatment from the Ming. T'aejong had gone to the Ming as well in 1396, but because he was not an heir apparent, he was treated no differently than other Korean emissaries.29 Without the necessary credentials or regalia, Suyang could not have openly claimed to be the heir to the Chosŏn throne to enjoy this level of treatment. However, had Suyang wanted to cultivate a royal aura, the ambiguity of his identity would have offered ample room for willful, if oblique, misrepresentation.30
The seemingly exaggerated accounts in the Tanjong Records may yet be plausible, if we read them as artifacts of this concerted misrepresentation. Traveling with a larger than usual entourage as a Chosŏn prince could foster additional fanfare and spectacle and provide much food for rumor and speculation among Ming officials, commoners, and Jurchen tribute-bearers. Without certain knowledge of protocols surrounding past precedents and Suyang's diplomatic credentials, few would have been privy to the exact identity of the Chosŏn prince.31 That Suyang was mistakenly called "wang" and "dianxia," was not surprising. Ming official hesitation in ceremonial preparation and the slippage in modes of address could both result from and compound these ambiguities. The anecdotes of royal recognition then may not simply be discursive fabrications, but the intended result of manipulated social situations. Neither verbatim transcripts of fact nor outright fabrications, these accounts are more likely artifacts of a subtle interplay between textual construction and self-fashioning. The accounts are thus likely embellishments of actual events, themselves the outcomes of staged gestures and intentional equivocation.
All possible readings converge on the importance of Suyang's mission for constructing his legitimacy and the political opportunities diplomacy provided. If we believe the account, then Suyang, through the performance of virtue and his disciplined behavior, arrogated unto himself a regal aura. His coup d'état was transformed into a political and historical necessity, an event that destroyed his wily, usurping rivals to secure the throne for its rightful claimant. If we do not, his brush-wielding aides invented these stories to promote an identical narrative. But, even as wholesale fabrications, they only underscore the symbolic importance of the same tropes, only in historiographical representation. Symbolic manipulation on that plane ultimately shares the poetic logic that would have informed Suyang's social performance. Both were exploitations of Ming diplomacy for political legitimation; both deployed identical idioms of virtue and rulership. How we choose to interpret these accounts has great implications for understanding "what actually happened," but does not alter the cultural and political symbolism of Suyang's embassy itself.
Regardless of whether the mission's symbolic significance was in providing Suyang a regal aura in anticipation of his accession or as a post facto rhetorical reconstruction to legitimize his rule (or some combination of both), interpreting it entirely on a symbolic level would be an enormous oversight. Accounts of his mission and of Suyang's sustained contact with Ming officials suggest that diplomacy also provided an opportunity for cultivating lateral ties to secure Ming approval for his eventual accession.
Korean-born eunuchs were important points of contact for the Chosŏn. Sent as human tribute to the Ming palace as young boys, some rose to positions of prominence in the Ming palace. From the Yongle period onward, the Ming court also dispatched them as envoys to their native land. Their role in diplomacy was not limited to envoy missions to Korea; they also served as points of contact for Ming embassies. In the fifteenth century, it was common for Chosŏn envoys to be feted at the residences of Korean-born eunuchs.32 The account of Suyang's embassy related events at several banquets held in Suyang's honor at the Ming, but there was no mention of his reception by Korean eunuchs. The absence is conspicuous, given that contact between emissaries and the palace eunuchs were sanctioned by long-standing precedent. Other Korean emissaries, such as Yi Inson who went several months later, were feted at the residence of Yun Pong, the highest-ranking Korean eunuch at the Ming court. Given the high-rank of Suyang and the efforts Yun Pong usually made to maintain relations with the Chosŏn court, the two would have at least contacted one another. Though only a speculation, it is possible the compilers of the Tanjong Records had good reason to conceal evidence of their contact.
Suyang's documented contacts with other Ming Korean eunuchs leave other clues. The only Ming envoys who arrived in Chosŏn between Suyang's coup d'état in 1453 and his accession in the seventh month of 1455 were the Vice-Director Ko Pu 高黼 (fl. 1455--1457) and the Palace Attendant Chŏng Tong 鄭同 (fl. 1455--1480). The two Korean-born eunuchs arrived in Korea in the fourth month of 1455.33 No extant records speak to the nature of their relationships with Suyang prior to the 1453 embassy, but their interactions show that Ko and Chŏng were aware that Suyang was already the real power behind the throne. Upon their arrival, they praised Suyang for his "wisdom and brilliance" to his right-hand man, Sin Sukchu. They exclaimed that "all-under-heaven has heard of Prince Suyang" and hoped to visit him before paying their respects to King Tanjong. Suyang declined the overture and insisted they observe proper precedence and visit the king first.34.
Relating Suyang's refusal to meet Ming envoys before they paid respects to his nephew may have been meant as an illustration of the prince's continued deference to King Tanjong. At the same time, the account deployed the tropes of recognition used in its treatment of Suyang's embassy to again construct a sense of royal predestination. The Tanjong Records thus relates the conversation between Suyang and the Ming eunuchs during their meeting:
Sin Sukchu brought a royal edict and liquor to come see the emissaries. The edict read, "Prince Suyang has accomplished great deeds for me and so I [i.e. Tanjong] entrusted him with the affairs of state. That Your Excellencies understand my intention, I am very happy."
The emissaries said, "We have arrived here to witness the loyalty and sincerity of Suyang-- it is no coincidence. That His Majesty [i.e. Tanjong] entrusts him with these tasks is appropriate. All-under-heaven knows the accomplishments and loyalty of Prince Suyang."
[...]The emissaries said, "His Majesty [the Jingtai emperor] has said that Suyang has accomplished great deeds. The merit of Suyang is known by all-under-heaven, and the Emperor knows all of this. How did we hear of this? At the imperial court it was talked about all over, and thus we know of it in detail. All-under-heaven compares Prince Suyang to Li Jing (李靖 571--649) of the Tang."35
Sejo [i.e. Suyang] declined [the compliment] and said, "The virtue of the Emperor is immense, and His Majesty [King Tanjong]'s fortune is grand, and so the altars of state are without danger. For this reason, the rebellious ministers have earned their own deaths. What sort of accomplishment could I have in these [matters]?"
The emissaries said, "Without Prince Suyang, how could these matters have been settled? [...]We should report today's banquet and what the king has said of your merits to the emperor."
Sejo said, "I also believe that today's banquet should be made known to the emepror."36.
In this conversation Suyang emerges as an honorable, meritorious official acting on behalf of his young king. His later political maneuvers certainly cast doubt over Suyang's intentions as presented here, but the internal logic of the account is already frayed. In attempting to sanitize Suyang's image, it exposes a separate set of issues. There is the problem of knowledge. How did the Ming court already discover the details of his coup d'état? What were the channels of communication through which such information passed? Secondly, there is a question of reporting Suyang's accomplishments to the emperor. Why should Suyang's particular role in suppressing "rebellious ministers" and his recognition by the Chosŏn king be a matter of concern to the Ming emperor? Most telling, perhaps, is Suyang's insistence that the banquet "should be made known to the emperor." Something was being implied.
The Ming emissaries offered a dubious account of how they discovered Suyang's coup d'état. They explained that the Ming court learned of it from a group of Jurchens. When Suyang left Beijing, the Jurchens who had come to the Ming to pay tribute also began to disperse abruptly. Ming officials, finding it strange, inquired after the reason for their sudden departure. They told the Ming that they "were hurrying back" because "Prince Anp'yŏng, Hwangbo In and Kim Chongsŏ were going to rebel in Chosŏn" and were worried that the conflict would spill over into their own backyard. When the Ming emissaries told Suyang this version of the events, he confirmed that he had indeed put down this impending rebellion. The timing of those events, however, suggests that there was more to it. Suyang only moved against his enemies months after his return. If the Ming envoys' account is to be believed, the timing suggested that the Jurchens had foreknowledge of the impending contest between Suyang and his enemies.37
There are several ways to read this temporal discrepancy. The first is simply to accept the Tanjong Records at its word: that An'pyŏng, Hwangbo In and Kim Chongsŏ's ambitions were so transparent that the Jurchens and the Ming court could know them in advance (thus conveniently justifying Suyang's seizure of power). The problem again is a question of knowledge: how would this information have gotten into the hands of Jurchen tribute-bearers? Two other possibilities resolve this conundrum. Though they go against the grain of the narrative, they are more likely. One is that the source of this information was none other than Suyang's own embassy. Suyang's entourage, who had kept frequent contact with Jurchen tribute-bearers throughout their trip, could have easily disseminated information to serve his cause. If this had been the case, the rumor must have been spread surreptitiously, given that the sons of Hwangbo In and Kim Chongsŏ had accompanied Suyang on this mission. The other possibility is that the Ming envoys only learned the details of the coup d'état after they arrived in Chosŏn. Eager to curry favor with the new power-holder in Chosŏn, they repeated Suyang's own narrative justifying his rise.
Regardless of how the Ming eunuchs came to learn of Suyang's political ascendancy, the fact remains that by the time of their meeting, their interpretation conveniently coincided with Suyang's version. Suyang and the Ming eunuchs were probably colluding. Evidence to the effect is indirect, since we cannot know how much these Ming emissaries actually knew of Suyang's coup d'état. The records of their interactions are admittedly inadequate for demonstrating guilt of conspiracy beyond a reasonable doubt, the minimum threshold for obtaining a conviction in a modern American jury trial. Nonetheless, the circumstantial evidence is strong. We find that both sides quickly entered a mutually beneficial relationship. The Ming envoys had no illusions about who was the power behind the throne and made it a point to see Suyang repeatedly, bringing gifts of silk and ivory to him, instead of to the young king.38 Suyang, in return, catered to the envoy's demands, provisioned them with rare tribute items like gyrfalcons to help them curry imperial favor, and elevated their relatives in Korea through emoluments and court ranks.39 Many Chosŏn kings disbursed these favors as well, but this time these favors did not come from a regal hand.
These interlocking patterns of mutual benefit was typical of how political favors were exchanged in Chosŏn diplomacy with Korean-born Ming envoys. Though the Veritable Records is silent regarding what, if any, political deal was being hammered out, the events that unfolded while the Ming envoys were in Korea are also suggestive. Suyang orchestrated his nephew's abdication in the presence of the Ming envoys. The abdication ritual took place on the eleventh day in the leap sixth month of 1455, with the approval of the Ming envoys.40 On the twenty seventh day of the same month, a Ming officer named Zhang Xiong was to return to Beijing ahead of the main body of the mission and came to the royal palace to bid farewell to the king. The king invited the officer to Kwangchŏng Pavilion and said to him, "My uncle Suyang has achieved great things for the state---his virtue and renown make him suitable for taking up such an important duty. I have already asked him to take care of the affairs of state. I now intend to send someone to report this matter [to the emperor]." Having made his desire to abdicate clear to the Ming official, he also wanted secure formal recognition from the Ming court.41 At this point, Suyang's control of the organs of state was virtually uncontested. By the time this account reached us, the original conversation already underwent through several levels of filtration. Tanjong could have been coerced, his words willfully misrepresented, and the entire conversation could even have been fabricated.42 Whatever the truth of the matter, a Chosŏn embassy left for Beijing only two days later to request "permission" from the Ming for the already-enacted abdication.43 The rapidity of these developments (a diplomatic mission could take weeks, if not months to prepare) could only mean that the Chosŏn court had long been ready for this moment.
Though already the Chosŏn monarch, Suyang nevertheless cultivated an aura of avuncular paternalism. Tanjong was still given ritual precedence over his uncle in dealings with the Ming envoys.44 Up until they saw the Ming envoys off, uncle and nephew appeared to work in unison as a harmonious family. Suyang, without formal Ming recognition, appeared unwilling to infringe on his nephew's ritual prerogatives.45 With the desire to abdicate already intimated to parting Ming envoys and his own embassy to the Ming on the way, Suyang did not wait long to formalize the passing of power. Only two days after the eunuchs' departure, Suyang donned the royal robes and proceeded to invest his nephew as "Grand Supreme King" (t'aesang'wang 太上王), the honorary title for retired monarchs, and disbursed the corresponding title to Tanjong's consort, who had only several months ago received Ming recognition as the Chosŏn queen.46
Whether Ming eunuchs were in fact involved with orchestrating Tanjong's abdication is unclear. No record indicates that Suyang sought their prior approval. At the very least, Suyang had secured them as witnesses to Tanjong's desire to abdicate, which was probably instrumental in acquiring formal Ming recognition. In the tenth month of 1455, an imperial edict arrived announcing tentative support of the abdication. It did warn Tanjong to stay on guard against "deception by evil words" and "perfidious designs," but by then, Suyang's control of the throne had long been a fait accompli, achieved likely with the private blessings of the emperor's own ambassadors. Tanjong was no longer in a position to "investigate the the behavior and character" of Suyang, as the edict implored him to do. Its closing words, "Oh King, be vigilant, Oh King be vigilant!" had come too late for the young monarch. 47
At each stage of his rise to power, Suyang manipulated diplomatic contacts with the Ming court to his advantage. A mission to the Ming secured for him a virtuous reputation. Or, reading the sources differently, he and his associates used his interactions with Ming and Jurchen officials, soldiers and commoners to cultivate his regal aura. Through his contacts with Ming eunuch envoys, his ascent to power became a noble act in defense of the Chosŏn monarchy, not a Machiavellian grab for power.
The Ming court was not entirely gullible. Its warnings to Tanjong point to their reservations over his sudden request. But, these doubts meant little; Suyang was already firmly in control by the time the "request" had reached Beijing. Whatever the Ming Board of Rites and the palace eunuchs had known about Suyang's usurpation at the moment, there is no evidence of that knowledge exist in extant Ming records. The Ming Veritable Records mentions a request for abdication and the imperial court's subsequent approval, but demonstrated no awareness of the momentous and violent political events that led to Suyang's rise.48 In Ming official consciousness, for all intents and purposes, the coup d'état had never happened.
Ming permission for abdication was not enough. The edict only recognized Suyang as a "temporary overseer of the affairs of state" (kwŏnsŏ kuksa 權署國事). To obtain Ming recognition as the King of Chosŏn required a formal rite of investiture, which would have shown imperial sanction of his legitimacy. Suyang dispatched Sin Sukchu, the former recorder of his envoy mission in 1452, to lead an embassy to request the patents of investiture (komyŏng 誥命), royal robes, and seal insignias. Suyang's choice was well-considered. Sin had served in Sejong's court and traveled on many occasions to Ming China. A seasoned diplomat, Sin was rare among Chosŏn civil officials for his fluency in spoken Chinese.49 Moreover, Sin was likely already known in Ming court circles. He had been one of the Chosŏn literati who exchanged poems with the 1450 Ming emissary Ni Qian.50
Sin Sukchu did not disappoint. On the third day of the second month of 1456, an interpreter from Sin's entourage arrived in Seoul and reported the imminent arrival of the Ming envoys Yun Pong and Kim Hŭng (金興).51 They were bringing the patents of investiture for the new king and queen of Chosŏn. Though Sin had succeeded, details of Sin's activities in the Ming is unknown. Suyang evidently received a written report from Sin, as he replied with the following: "I have received your [envoy] report, and I can see your ardent loyalty in your dedication and responses (赤心專對), and have thus achieved great success." Whatever Sin had done, it was enough to allay the Ming court's earlier suspicions, or at least, dissuade the Ming from acting upon them.52 In gratitude, Suyang held a banquet in honor of this meritorious official upon his return.53
Suyang's political success owed much to the support he received from venerable senior officials and influential royal clansmen.54 Sin Sukchu was only the most representative example from this group. Another official whom Suyang had promoted and employed in diplomacy was Han Hwak 韓確 (1400--1456). After receiving his emoluments, Suyang sent Han to lead yet another embassy to the Ming, this time to offer gratitude for the patents of investiture he just received.55 Han too was a long standing associate of Suyang. He had been a junior minister in the State Council when Suyang instigated his coup. Whereas two of the chief counselors, Hwangbo In and Kim Chongsŏ were killed, Han Hwak, had in fact been part of his conspiracy and was subsequently made a meritorious official and given the third-highest ranking post in the Council.56 This is unsurprising, given that Han Hwak and Suyang had developed affinal ties by this time. Han's daughter had married Suyang's son, who later became Suyang's heir apparent.57
The relations Suyang cultivated with Ming eunuchs already gave him access to the Ming inner palace.58 Through Han Hwak, the connection went even deeper. Han Hwak was related not just to Suyang through marriage; he was also imperial kin. Han Hwak had two sisters who entered the Ming imperial harem. One married the Yongle emperor. Having been selected to accompany the emperor in his grave, she was forced to commit suicide upon his death. A second sister was selected\ for the harem of the Xuande emperor.59 She, Han Kwiram (Ch: Guilan 韓桂蘭), survived the emperor, and wielded considerable influence over the Ming inner palace until her death in 1483.60 Owing to these imperial connections, Han enjoyed rare prestige as not only a Chosŏn high official, but also possessed an honorary Ming title, the Vice-Minister of the Court of Imperial Entertainment (Ch: Guanglusi shaoqing 光祿寺少卿).61 Suyang's familial ties with the Han thus mirrored Han's imperial connections.
Figure 2: Ch'ŏngju Han and their Royal Connections
Suyang employed officials like Han Hwak and Sin Sukchu to pursue relations with the Ming. He also worked with Korean-born eunuchs like Yun Pong and Chŏng T'ong. He thus made the most of available Korean connections with the Ming court to secure his political position. The bounds of interest and power transcended state-centered loyalties when these human networks brought them together. The fruition of Suyang's plans, however, was not the logical end of these connections, but was achieved via their concerted manipulation. To borrow a twenty-first century turn of phrase, he had hijacked the mechanisms of empire.
Suyang appropriated symbols of imperial authority, diplomatic practices, and the eyes and mouths of Ming ambassadors to usurp the Chosŏn throne. These were not free-floating resources available for anyone to use at will, since they required the orchestration of entire institutional apparatuses. Nevertheless, as Suyang's own example showed, they were not the exclusive property of kings either. Ming formal recognition did not stop Tanjong's supporters (or other ambitious courtiers, depending on one's perspective) from using Suyang's own medicine against him. The cabal, joined most famously by the scholar-official Sŏng Sammun 成三問 (1418--1456), had plotted to launch their own coup d'état and reinstate Tanjong while the Ming investiture envoy Yun Pong was still in Chosŏn.62
The affair ultimately failed, but the advantage its planned timing would have offered is clear. If Sŏng and his accomplices had succeeded during the Ming embassy, Suyang's perfidy could have been exposed in front of Ming envoys, thereby reversing whatever sanction the new king had received from the Ming. Whereas Sŏng and others were arrested immediately, Suyang waited until the Ming envoys departed to move against his nephew. The officials loyal to Suyang petitioned the court to decry the recent upheavals. But, first, they established Suyang's impeccable qualifications as Chosŏn's legitimate king:
....disaster and chaos have ensued, and the state and dynasty still could not be brought to peace. But, heaven impelled the will of the former king [i.e. Tanjong] and had him pass the throne to Your Majesty [i.e. Suyang] to protect against disaster and chaos. The Emperor too bequeathed the patents of investiture to the king and queen. How could this have been achieved by the efforts of men? It was the command of heaven and the silent protection of the ancestors.63
Suyang's rule was the inevitable culmination of destiny. Ming approval was exalted as divine sanction. The human efforts and political contingencies that made this possible are explicitly denied. The rhetoric of imperial sanction was now turned against Suyang's enemies. Opposing the invested king was to oppose heaven itself.
Recently, the likes of Yi Kae 李塏 (1417--1456) [i.e. Sŏng Sammun and his collaborators], as the cabalists of Yi Yong 李瑢 [i.e. Prince Anp'yŏng], plotted to carry off [the former king] to undertake their evil plan, just as Hwangbo In and Kim Chongsŏ once did. These are all great enemies of the ancestral shrine and villains to the royal ancestors. The former king [i.e. Tanjong] had long heard of their wicked plots and evil designs. Not only did he not expose them for their crimes and villainy, he collaborated with them willingly. In this alone, he will suffer reprimand from the ancestral shrine. The heavens above shall not protect him; the higher state [i.e. Ming] will certainly reprimand him. The spirits of the former kings in heaven will certainly be outraged. The hundreds of divine mountain and river spirits will be indignant. Among the royal kith and kin, the high ministers, the hundred officials and the commoners---there is none who does not hurt from rage. [He, Tanjong] has disobeyed heaven's command and opposed the wills of men to such a degree that even if Your Majesty wishes to change him with your sincerity, it will, in the end be impossible.64
The petition, in the name of the Yi dynastic house, the common weal, and Ming imperial authority, condemned the actions of Tanjong and his supporters to justify the former king's permanent removal from the capital. Suyang soon sent his nephew into exile.65 Isolated and vulnerable, the young former king was forced to commit suicide within a year, dying at the age of seventeen.66 Unbeknownst to the Ming court, it had become an accomplice of regicide during one of the bloodiest episodes in Chosŏn dynastic history.
Shrewd self-fashioning, the deft management of personal ties and the careful dissemination of information allowed Suyang to not only seize the Chosŏn throne from within, but be recognized as a legitimate ruler from without. Throughout his reign as King Sejo, he exploited the same dynamics of asymmetry that enabled his accession. How he used diplomacy before and after taking the throne rested on the same institutional foundations. The strategy relied on maintaining regular contact with various rungs of the Ming bureaucracy. Each layer supplied valuable information, which could then be dispatched through a tightly-managed waystation system that allowed for its rapid transmission. The converse of this was to maintain control of outgoing information through careful self-representation. The intimate relationship between information and diplomacy remained pivotal for Sejo.
The Chosŏn generally sought peaceable relations with the Ming, but they were fraught with controversy during Sejo's reign. Overtures of friendship did not preclude Chosŏn-Ming competition along their porous frontiers. The Jurchen groups along the valley frontiers of the Chosŏn and Ming became a central point of contention.67 Both courts utilized "loose rein" (kimi/jimi 羈縻) polices, bringing powerful Jurchen leaders to their own courts, granting them gifts and various emoluments, including noble titles and official positions.68 These strategies made the most of the disjointed political alignments among various Jurchen groups. While one Jurchen group might engage in violent raids against Chosŏn border towns, others may prove to be valuable allies in war, offering intelligence and manpower. Sejo redoubled his father's aggressive policy in the northeast frontier, because Chosŏn control suffered significantly after his coup d'état. He had eliminated able military commanders like Kim Chongsŏ and Yi Ching'ok 李澄玉 (or 澂玉 ?--1453) who had governed the northeast regions.69 In the meantime, Jurchen leaders even joined Yi Ching'ok in an attempt to oust him in 1453.70
Chosŏn expansion into Manchuria caught the attention of the Ming court. The Ming discovered that Sejo had granted Chosŏn titles to the Jianzhou chieftain Tongshan (童山, also 董山 and 充善; Manchu: Cungšan, ?--1467) and others, who had already received Ming emoluments. To the Ming, Sejo's "private grants" (私受) were outward challenges to Ming authority. In 1459, the Ming dispatched an emissary, Chen Jiayou 陳嘉猷 (1421--1467), to bring an imperial edict to chastise the Korean king.71
The Ming emissary might have intended to catch Sejo off guard. Whereas envoys usually took well over two months to reach Seoul from Beijing Chen Jiayou reached his destination in only thirty-four days.72 Despite Chen's breakneck pace, Sejo learned of the mission only nine days after Chen's departure, informed by a group of Chosŏn envoys sent earlier that year. Discovering Chen's travel plans, they dispatched an interpreter to report the news.73 These messengers noted not only the identity of the envoy and the purpose of the trip, but also updated the court on the precise timetable of the envoy's sojourn.74 This timely information gave the king enough time to request and receive advice on the matter from Sin Sukchu, who was now stationed at the frontier to deal with Jurchen matters.75
King Sejo and the Chosŏn court were well prepared for the unexpected Ming envoy, made possible by their timely knowledge of both the Ming embassy and the exact contents of the Ming edict. The court prepared generous gifts for the ambassador.76 Meanwhile, Sejo's officials attempted to forestall Chen's progress through the country. The envoy insisted on reaching Seoul within ten days; he arrived only after fourteen days on the road in Chosŏn, delayed repeatedly by his Chosŏn handlers.77 The extra time was invaluable, giving Sejo enough leeway to conceal his dealings with the Jurchens. When news of Chen's embassy reached Seoul, several Jurchen leaders were in the Chosŏn capital. He dispersed the tribute-bearing Jurchen leaders, sending them away from the capital as soon as possible, so that their presence would not rouse the envoy's suspicions.78 Sejo had no inclination of giving into Ming demands straight away, and sought to carefully balance relations with the Ming court and his political ties to the Jianzhou Jurchens.79
Ming accounts of Sejo's reception of Chen portrayed the Chosŏn king as a docile vassal who readily "admitted his faults in trepidation."80 This impression left in Ming records owed to Sejo's strategic self-representation, for the Chosŏn court annals paints an entirely different picture. Chosŏn king and his court carefully strategized their reception of the Ming embassy throughout. It is clear from Korean sources that Chosŏn had actively sought contacts with the Jurchens. In policy discussions, they decided enticing "the submission of the Jurchens" was "the best strategy" for managing the frontier. When asked about the matter by a Ming envoy, Sejo offered an entirely different portrayal of Chosŏn policy.81 He denied that Chosŏn had any agency in Jurchen dealings:
These people [i.e. the Jurchen leaders] have the faces of men but the hearts of beasts. If we do allow them [to come to us], they will certainly instigate border conflicts. We had no choice but to treat them this way. They came of their own accord.82
Humbling himself before Chen Jiayou, Sejo explained that he was helpless. Chen requested that Sejo report the names of Jurchen leaders who received Korean titles; when Sejo offered them, he received assurances from Chen that the Ming will "order" the Jurchen leaders to refrain from contacting Chosŏn in the future.83
Sejo also reinforced an image of docility in his memorial to the Ming. Writing that he was, "overcome with trepidation," he assured the Ming that his border policies were not "private dealings with outsiders" that intended to "deceive the [imperial] court." It was only to avoid further "border conflicts," His hand had been forced. Apologizing for these actions, Sejo declared that "from now on, if [the Jurchens] beg for permission to come [to my court], Your Servant will show them the imperial edict, and refuse them."84 The Ming sent back a response to Sejo with a returning Chosŏn embassy. In this rescript, the Ming laid bare their conflicting interests and came with a stern warning: "for Chosŏn to give titles to those who have received imperial offices is to compete with the imperial court." The Ming exhorted the Chosŏn king to make good on his declarations of loyalty by "cutting off private dealings [with the Jurchens]."85
On the surface, it appeared that Chen's mission had succeeded in severing Chosŏn-Jurchen ties. Chosŏn's Jurchen policy indeed exhibited a gradual, but noticeable retrenchment after these interventions. By the early sixteenth century, Jurchen tribute bearers no longer assembled en masse at the Chosŏn capital, even as Jurchen affairs remained a concern for the Chosŏn frontier.86 These changes, however, cannot be attributed to the effectiveness of embassies such as Chen's, but rather to the structural changes that accompanied the decline of Jurchen power in the late fifteenth century.87 The image of a docile Korean king in the Ming records was a temporary fiction, a result of strategic performance. Even though he no longer invested the Jianzhou chiefs with Korean titles, King Sejo continued to pursue an aggressive policy towards the groups along the Chosŏn frontier, in particular the Uryangkhai (Kr: Oryanghap 兀良哈) of the Korean northeast.88
Less than year after Chen Jiayou left Chosŏn, separate hostilities broke out with the Uryangkhai. The affair escalated when Sejo captured and executed a recalcitrant leader, Lang Parahan (浪孛兒罕 ? --1459), after luring him to Chosŏn with promise of titles and gifts. Lang Parahan's subordinates begged for leniency, reminding the Chosŏn that he "received high rank from China," and served the Ming as the Assistant Commissioner-in-chief of the Maolian garrison.89 Fully aware of his connections to the Ming, the Chosŏn authorities had him executed anyway.90 Sejo openly flouted Ming warnings against contact with Jurchens.
Lang Parahan's followers reported the incident to the Ming and portrayed it as a direct affront to Ming authority. The Ming responded by dispatching another embassy to Chosŏn, led this time by Zhang Ning and assisted by a Jurchen-born military officer of the Embroidered Guard known for his valor. Again, the purpose, timetable, and identities of the Ming envoys were discovered by another Chosŏn embassy traveling through the Ming at the time. Although the Ming kept the mission a secret and did not disclose it (秘不發), Sejo learned of Zhang's mission only twelve days after his departure from Beijing. Sejo ordered his officials to "deal with this emissary the way [they] had dealt with Chen Jiayou."91
Zhang Ning's mission was likely to mediate the conflict rather than to chastise. The edict Zhang proclaimed was sympathetic to Sejo's position. It merely inquired whether the accusations of the Maolian Jurchens were true. Asking the Chosŏn king to "understand My intentions," the imperial voice implored Sejo to "not cover up anything at all" so as to stem escalating hostilities. The envoy, on the other hand, went to the crux of the matter and demanded that Sejo explain himself for "wantonly killing" a high-ranking imperial officer. In the course of their discussion, Sejo never acknowledged this point, but explained that Lang Parahan was in fact "a person of [his] country" and killing him was no different from executing a common criminal. In the course of this conversation, Zhang Ning ultimately relented and assured the king that the imperial court was only concerned with maintaining peace for Chosŏn's sake.
Zhang Ning had initially shown himself to be dutiful, incorruptible and somewhat officious. He paid detailed attention to matters of ritual and refused the many gifts prepared for him. Sejo's personal meeting with Zhang dramatically softened the envoy's approach. In the course of their conversations, Zhang dismissed the Korean interpreter, finding his linguistic skills inadequate (or, more likely, he feared that the interpreter was dissembling for the King). Zhang asked the king to speak to him directly in writing. The king's attendants prepared the stationery, and the two continued their intercourse on paper. In the middle of this exchange, Sejo expressed his desire to send Korean students to study in the Ming and declared his unwavering loyalty to the emperor.92 Sejo's eloquence, his lavish gifts, and the erudite company of Chosŏn's court scholars, eventually coaxed the Ming envoy to relax his initially rigid stance.93
Zhang and Sejo agreed to draft their memorials in mutual consultation. Zhang asked to see the drafts of several Chosŏn memorials before he approved of the final version.94 Zhang also composed his own memorial, which explained that the Chosŏn king "truly did not know that [the Jurchen chief] had received an office [from the Ming]" and vouched for the king's honesty and sincerity. Zhang insisted that what Sejo stated in their brush-conversation was "consistent from beginning to end, and nothing was concealed or embellished." According to this account, Sejo merely believed that he was "enacting the laws of his own country" to punish a rebel.95 Lang Parahan's Ming affiliation became irrelevant.
Sejo's own memorial to the Ming echoed these sentiments, but focused on the Chosŏn court's belief in having acted within its jurisdiction. It made no mention of Chosŏn's prior knowledge of Lang Parahan's Ming titles. These two memorials worked together to sidestep the problem of Chosŏn infringement on Ming sovereign claims. Zhang Ning, whether he was aware of it or not, had abetted Sejo in covering up the incident. The conspicuous declaration that "nothing was concealed or embellished" really pointed to the contrary: much was in fact concealed and embellished. The final reports submitted to the Ming court was a co-production between the Ming literati and the Korean king. As Matthew Mosca has argued, it was not in the interest of imperial frontier officials to bring to light matters of controversy to the center. Seldom would such expositions lead to rewards of honesty, but rather call into question the official's competence. So long as the matter did not go out of hand, it was much more expedient for an official to manage the matter on the spot and package whatever resolution in a narrative palatable to the imperial center.96 The same observation applies to imperial envoys dispatched to Chosŏn. Zhang, by convincing Sejo to admit to the slaying of the Maolian chief and express his regret, may have achieved all he needed to do. To push further the matter of whether the Chosŏn had knowingly disregarded Ming authority would have led to unnecessary escalation, benefiting no one involved (save, perhaps, the aggrieved Uryangkhai).
Zhang's cooperation with Sejo teetered on collusion. At the very least, his representation of the matter equivocated the actual situation in Chosŏn. But, such an impression could not be gleaned from the pages of Ming historical writing. Instead, we are only told that Zhang Ning arrived to Korea and "guided [Koreans] through a show of force and display of virtue, laying out his warnings of calamity and his tidings of fortune." Zhang's performance brought the foreign ruler and his subjects to heel. They "looked upon each other startled, and looked up to Zhang Ning like a mountain peak or the Great Dipper." As a result, the Koreans were "ever more respectful of the imperial court." To Zhang's adulators, his mission was "no less than a hundred thousand troops sweeping across the Yalu River."97
If Sejo had had an opportunity to read these glorified accounts of Zhang's trip to Korea, it is hard to say whether they would have elicited laughter or anger. Sejo once spoke dismissively of Ming literati who came as envoys to Korea. Sejo wrote, "These scholars know only of [the Han Dynasty envoy] Ban Chao 班超 (32--102 CE) who traveled to foreign countries to proclaim the virtue of the Han (漢 206 BCE--220 CE), and [so think] they can bring barbarians to submission with their tongue alone."98 For Sejo, the very idea of a scholar-envoy overawing a "foreign" ruler had already become a hackneyed trope, one which he consciously exploited in his dealings with them.
Ming envoys, literati, eunuchs and officers alike, were to Sejo instruments for achieving his own political ends. After Zhang's departure, and despite Ming entreaties for peace, he immediately resumed hostilities with the Uryangkhai. Later in 1460, Sejo learned that another Ming envoy was traveling to Maolian to implore the Uryangkhai to make peace with Chosŏn. He offered to send an armed escort ostensibly to protect the Ming envoy. An overt gesture of good will, Sejo in fact planned to use the envoy as bait. He arranged for the main body of his army to travel near envoy's entourage. Hoping that the Maolian leaders would assemble to hear the imperial edict, he wanted to use the opportunity to ambush them and eliminate them once and for all.99 The Ming envoy, however, departed earlier than anticipated, leaving no time for the main Chosŏn army to reach their positions. Sejo's conspiracy had failed.100
The Ming could express its displeasure or dispatch envoys to chastise Sejo for defying their orders, but the vendetta with the Maolian was to be pursued in spite of them. As Sejo's adviser Sin Sukchu suggested, "if the emperor sends edicts," one only need to answer for the time being that one "will reverently obey the Sagely command." If opportunities for military action should arise later, Ming orders could still be flouted, for there was "no need to fret for the lack of words" in responses to Ming inquiries. A pretext, an excuse, or some other deft rhetorical ploy could always be plied to the Chosŏn's advantage.101
In the mid-fifteenth century , dynastic crisis and frontier conflict raised the political stakes of diplomacy. It would be dangerous to generalize from this particular moment and the political strategies of one very remarkable king. Sejo was, perhaps, unique among Chosŏn rulers for his ability and willingness to manipulate the institutions of empire for his own ends. Part of this can attributed to Sejo's own experience with diplomacy prior to taking throne. Until the nineteenth century, no other Chosŏn ruler ever stepped outside of Korea during their lifetimes.102 His attentiveness to diplomacy may only be rivaled by one other early Chosŏn ruler, Chungjong (1506--1544), who too also came to power via a coup d'état and struggled with lingering questions over his legitimacy.
As he orchestrated his court's interactions with Ming envoys, Sejo was exceedingly generous with them. In spite of frequent protests by his courtiers against all-too-frequent envoy trips that burdened Chosŏn's waystations, Sejo generally spared no expense in lavishly entertaining imperial ambassadors.103 Perhaps his vulnerable legitimacy made it doubly important to maintain friendly ties with Ming ambassadors and to preserve an image of himself as an ever dutiful vassal, for a relationship gone awry posed acute risks for his kingship.
On the other hand relations with the Ming, when managed well, offered numerous advantages. Most of these, such as political legitimacy and access to metropolitan goods and culture, had been available to any Chosŏn ruler. Sejo was remarkable among Korean rulers only in that he succeeded in claiming them even before his accession. Yet, this manner of manipulation was not remarkable in and of itself. Imperial connections had long been appropriated by nearly any party who was involved with tributary trade and envoy exchange. Noble-born courtier-envoys, interpreters, and military officers, erstwhile agents of the king, all made use of their access to accrue prestige, wealth, and political power.104 All this was done in the name of revering imperial authority by "Serving the Great" in diplomacy. If a Chosŏn king could borrow the authority of empire to achieve its own ends, then his officials could borrow the demands diplomacy to achieve their own ends as well.
The Chosŏn court did not in fact monopolize control over its own diplomacy, though it sought to maintain one.105 The very connections that Sejo had exploited to seize and consolidate his power, had, by the reign of his grandson become a political liability. With the death of a particularly savvy and strong-willed ruler like Sejo, few other Chosŏn kings maneuvered the structures Sejo helped foster with equal deftness. Good will from imperial envoys could be nurtured with favors and gifts, but their demands could become excessive. A direct channel of communication to the Ming inner court through Korean-born eunuchs was useful, but expensive to maintain. Sejo's grandson, Sŏngjong had to deal with the persistent demands of his great-aunt, Han Kwiram (the sister of his maternal grandfather, Han Hwak), who served as senior palace lady in the Chenghua emperor's inner palace.106 Sŏngjong's maternal uncles, Han Kwiram's nephews, took advantage of the situation to acquire wealth and status for themselves.107 Even as Sŏngjong's advisers wanted to limit the influence of the Han family, the king found himself currying favor from Han Kwiram and the Korean eunuchs loyal to her in achieving his own political goals.108
Envoy missions did not only tax local resources because of their frequency. Increased private trade by tribute envoys and their entourages meant that local corvée labor had to shoulder the burden of transportation. Members of the tribute embassy regularly abused these public resources for their private gain. Sŏngjong's court tried to rein in the smuggling, but the court often relied on the same individuals for enforcement. When King Sŏngjong instigated a crackdown on the smuggling, he found the envoys he appointed to be among the chief offenders.109 Interpreters and other members of the entourage who smuggled goods too were often acting at the behest of venerable high officials, including for example, the famous compiler of the Literary Selections of the East, Sŏ Kŏjŏng.110
These attempts at managing diplomacy could be seen as the court's attempt to monopolize the access to the material (and, potentially the ideological and cultural) resources that tribute-trade offered. When trying to curtail the abuse of the corvée transport system, experienced diplomats, such as Sin Sukchu, reminded the king that successful diplomacy required the use of bribes to cultivate "human feelings" (injŏng 人情) between the various parties involved.111 Private smuggling, extortion, and the appropriation of public resources had become endemic to the practice of envoy exchange. The Chosŏn court could not stamp them out because these very practices were necessary the system to function at all. As a result, The Chosŏn court, its own officials, envoys and interpreters, and even Ming officials competed with one another in this complex field of negotiation. We may wonder whether tribute trade actually benefited Chosŏn materially in the longue durée, but it is probably safe to concede that these institutions had long been co-opted by a diversity of interests.112 Empire, once constructed, belonged entirely to no one.
Investiture, diplomatic ceremony, tribute presentation, and edict proclamations were hallmark features of the tributary system. They were also all vulnerable to Chosŏn manipulation. When Sejo went to China as an envoy, he usurped both the royal court's diplomatic prerogative and the narrative ingredients of imperial legitimation. Poaching both to construct his own personal mythology as a king-to-be was nonetheless only the most extreme example of appropriation. Viewed this way, the only substantive difference between his actions and those of the envoys and interpreters, whose smuggling activities plagued his grandson's court, was the extent of their ambitions.
As part of this process of appropriating empire, King Sejo also played to Ming expectations through careful self-representation. Even as Sejo sought tit-for-tit exchanges of political favors with Ming eunuchs, to literati Ming envoys, he constructed an image of a loyal vassal, as if drawn straight from the pages of a Chinese dynastic history. Keen to declare his "loyalty," he played to imperial desire and performed, though only outwardly, the role of an obedient vassal. If the Chosŏn king could make the Ming see itself as a loyal vassal, as it did during the Jurchen wars, he could avoid suspicion, but more importantly, deflect imperial attention.
Establishing the relationship itself as inherently trustworthy was a way to increase Chosŏn credibility in Ming eyes, but it could very well be seen as an attempt to exploit Ming trust. Ming credulity reinforced the dynamics of knowledge asymmetry already in play. The Chosŏn court already knew more about the Ming empire than vice-versa by maintaining channels of information acquisition, such as lateral ties with Ming institutional actors and using tribute missions for intelligence gathering. Assiduous self-representation worked together with deliberate concealment to manipulate Ming knowledge of Korea so that it comprised only stereotyped images. These images were palatable and legible to the Ming because it was readily integral to its legitimating ideologies.
The production of these stereotypes of Korea as a "model tributary" and its rulers as ideal vassals may have been for ulterior reasons, but over the course of time these stereotypes acquired a normative power. In Chosŏn, the realpolitik of the fifteenth century seemed to give way to an internalized "Confucian idealism" of the sixteenth century, as Peter Yun and others have suggested. Late sixteenth century philosophers like Yi Hwang and Yi I called for Chosŏn to consistently perform its duties as a loyal vassal to the Ming, but these exhortations to ritual perfection were always embedded in an implicit moral critique of society, politics, and the imperium itself.113 Within this "Confucian" logic, these exhortations did not necessarily signal subservience to the Ming, but instead asserted the moral agency of the hierarchically inferior, whether it be a local literatus vis-a-vis the state, a court official vis-a-vis the king, or, in the case of Chosŏn, a feudal lord vis-a-vis the emperor. Even as being a loyal Ming vassal became more than an image to project to the Ming, and was seen to have normative weight, it did not mean it lost its strategic dimension. It merely operated along a different axis.
Both strategic and normative discourses of diplomacy persisted throughout the Chosŏn period, but one way they shifted was in the reification of Korea's image as an ever-loyal tributary of the Ming. Rather than see this image as a defining feature of Chosŏn-Ming relations, it is far better understood as a product of choices made by the participants of this diplomacy. Seen in this way, Sejo's own self-fashioning and ritualized behavior in front of imperial agents, was a strategic decision to continue the practices first adopted by his predecessors. Yet, in the process of conducting realpolitik, Sejo's court increased the Chosŏn's investment in Ming ideologies of empire. Ironic though it is, the Chosŏn ruler who was most hard-nosed about diplomacy and most keen to assert his royal prerogatives may have also contributed the most to a fiction of empire and the image of Chosŏn-as-loyal-vassal. It was not simply a matter of degree, because his reign also developed an entirely novel technology of self-representation, the Brilliant Flowers anthologies (Hwanghwajip 皇華集). These Ming envoy poetry collections were veritable literary monuments to empire, reifying over time an image of Chosŏn as the Ming's most loyal tributary and the Ming as universal sovereign. But, behind this most pronounced stereotypes was another story, whose significance will be discussed in the following two chapters.