This exploration of Chosŏn strategies and practices of diplomacy with the Ming has made three main interlinked arguments. The first is that a large part of Chosŏn diplomatic strategy was about shaping and changing narratives of Korea's place in empire. The tributary system, the Ming's moral empire, and Korea's perpetual loyalty were all examples of narratives resulting from Korean self-representation. The second is that these representations were tied to techniques of knowing that inverted a dynamic of power asymmetry. Armed with knowledge of empire, the Chosŏn court could exercise enormous agency in its dealings with the Ming. The third is that empire, whether understood in terms of institutions or persuasive discourses, emerged from co-construction. By co-constructing empire, Chosŏn interpolated itself into the imperial tradition. As a result, preserving Chosŏn Korea's political autonomy became an essential expression of an imperial power's claim to moral legitimacy.
The perspectives we apply to the premodern past have inevitably been shaped by the narratives offered by historical actors themselves. We describe Chosŏn-Ming diplomacy in terms of ideas like sadae or through the institutions and discourses of the "tribute" and "investiture" party because historical actors have chosen to reify these particular concepts. This study has attempted to historicize this process by showing that these concepts endured because they integral to the political narratives the Chosŏn court used to negotiate with the Ming. For Chosŏn Korea, the imperative was to distill a narrative of Korea and empire that could guarantee Chosŏn's membership in the civilized ecumene, while preserving the sanctity of its sovereign claims as an independent state.
These narratives worked in a context where alternative interpretations. How Ming and Chosŏn maintained simultaneous claims as heirs to the classical tradition is a case in point. These claims could coexist because both parties constructed an idealized political imaginary by reenacting the past through ritual and literary production. What in turn enabled this co-construction was not so much a coherent reconciliation, but rather the polyvalency and polysemy of the discourses and symbols involved. Just as the name for the the hostel for imperial envoys outside of the gates for Seoul, Mohwagwan (慕華館) could be interpreted as either "admiring civilization hall" or "admiring China hall," many of the tropes and symbols of diplomatic discourse could both refer to the legitimacy of Ming imperial claims or Chosŏn's own independent inheritance. When different actors came together, they intervened on a pre-existing tradition with established conventions and precedents. What they produced also worked in the register of the social; it was never essential for the participants to share each other's vision of the world. As Peter Galison puts it, "two groups can agree on rules of exchange even if they ascribe utterly different significance to the objects being exchanged; they may even disagree on the meaning of the exchange process itself." So long that "local coordination" occurs "despite vast global difference," a diplomatic transaction could mean different things to its participants without undercutting its efficacy.1
Meanings then, were not so much ambiguous as they were superimposed, to borrow a concept from quantum mechanics. One might ask, did performing a particular ritual or using a particular turn of phrase mean Chosŏn was part of the Ming empire? The answer could be yes, no, both, or neither---the "correct" answer depends on the motivations and goals of the observer. The Chosŏn and the Ming (and later the Qing) could theoretically tell themselves wildly different versions of the story without any unifying coherence, so long as the signs these stories used were legible to one another. This arrangement, however, could only be stably maintained if diplomacy was strictly bilateral and other channels of communication were unavailable. Once previously excluded third-party observers entered the picture, this dichotomous superimposition was no longer possible. As Joshua Van Lieu's example of Western journalists who viewed a Chosŏn-Qing ritual in 1890 shows, the multiple, multilateral vantages made made a coherent picture impossible, and this proliferation of interpretations threatened the efficacy of the ceremony itself, even as both the Chosŏn and Qing court tried to insist on their own versions of the story.2 Seen from this angle, the breakdown of the "tributary system" in the nineteenth century was as much a result of geopolitical shifts as of a semiotic dissolution, where old techniques of knowledge management became ineffectual in a context of new hegemonies, new technologies, and new audiences.
That later nineteenth century and twentieth century thinkers and politicians viewed Chosŏn diplomacy in terms of sadaejuŭi (事大主義), as cultural and political subservience, reflects less Chosŏn period ideas and practices, than their own concerns. As they faced the encroachment of colonial empires and an increasingly aggressive Qing, they turned to a discourse of ethnic nationalism and rejected the very premise of sadae. Equated with flunkeyism or toadyism, it was blamed not only for the decline of the Chosŏn dynasty, but also Korea's colonization by Japan in 1910, a resonance that has remained well into the contemporary period.3 As Chŏn Haejong, whose scholarship helped define the field of Sino-Korean relations in Korea, describes it:
... the ideologies of sadae [which entailed participation in the tributary system] and the admiration of China, [which assumed] the superiority of Chinese culture, greatly impeded the political and cultural independence of Korea. [This is was] especially the case during the late nineteenth century, the period when [Korea] was to encounter and engage with the west, the sadae relationship with China, or to put it in different words, the admiration for Chinese culture, did not give the Korean state or society the opportunity to break out of its shell.4
Lurking beneath this assessment was the charge that Chosŏn's sadae policies were at least partly to blame for all the woes of Korea's modern political history. Had Korea had the chance to develop its cultural and political independence and modernized according to Western models in the nineteenth century, it could have avoided colonization by Japan. Korea's past relations with imperial China has become an allegory for North and South Korea's uneasy geopolitical position, especially vis-a-vis the United States, the former Soviet Union, and more recently the People's Republic of China.5
This study has offered an alternative, a comprehensive rethinking of Chosŏn diplomatic policy unburdened by contemporary assumptions of what sadae meant. That is not to discredit modern discourses of sadae, but rather to point out that the overwhelming negative connotations the concept has since taken on, often did not apply to Chosŏn. For the Chosŏn court, the principle of hierarchical relations was non-negotiable, but how hierarchy could be realized was. For it, sadae was less an ideology of subservience, than an articulation of a comprehensive political strategy. What a discourse of sadae, "Serving the Great," did was make the asymmetries of power inherent to Korea's relationship with empire explicit, while keeping its accompanying asymmetry of knowledge remained largely hidden from view. The Chosŏn remained legible to the Ming court, all the while concealing crucial details of its social and political organization, its history, and its culture. The triumph of Ming universalism was fashioned to be as complete as possible, even as the Chosŏn court and its agents made sure to preserve its own line of legitimacy, cultural transmission, political autonomy within it.. It was a strategy to manipulate of empire.
In retrospect, we can also think of Korean knowledge production in terms of an "archive of empire." There was a literal archive, the wood-and-tile facilities where the Chosŏn stored them, but here I point to a figurative form, where the organization of these documents and compilations grant them their archival character. As archives, to borrow the wording of Ann Stoler, they are "active, generative substances with histories," whose documents too have "itineraries of their own," and take on a distinctive "archival form" detectable in its repetitive refrains, means of persuasion, and the modes of rationality they espouse. The Korean "archive of empire" is admittedly minuscule, especially compared to the vast brick-and-mortar Dutch colonial archives. A more fundamental distinction, however, lies not in a matter of size or medium, but the kind of knowledge they constituted.6
The Korean archive, like those of modern colonialism, emerged from a dynamic of power asymmetry, but with two key points of difference. The first is that it was not the handmaiden of metropolitan, imperial desires. Instead, these diplomatic missives, interpreter manuals, poetry anthologies, and envoy travelogues, comprised the knowledge of managing empire from its periphery.7 This Korean "archive of empire" also far exceeded in scope of what the Ming and Qing kept about Korea. Here was a dynamic of knowledge and power in empire that defies the conventional postcolonialist equation of "knowledge of a thing" to domination and "authority over it."8 What, then, does it mean if the ostensibly weaker party is in fact shouldering the production of knowledge? What kind of power does it grant in such a situation?
The Chosŏn-Ming case was undoubtedly a different condition of empire from the colonial story. This difference can be appreciated on many fronts, but through the lens of knowledge production, we see an empire that was conjured rather than governed. And, ironically the conjurers were not those who claimed sovereignty over empire, but those who were supposed to be its subjects.9 And, in conjuring empire themselves, they ensured it remained conducive to their ends. Chosŏn Korea did not deploy the technologies of statistics or ethnography---the standard toolkit of colonial empire---but the generative power of symbolic manipulation.10 For Chosŏn, it was semiotic mastery that allowed it to manage empire.
One might ask the question: did it work? Did manipulating the symbols of empire do what it was intended to do? Did Chosŏn Korea manage to change its place in the imperial tradition? These, I believe, should be thought of as open questions; without the benefit of alternative timelines and parallel realities, it is impossible to test these propositions rigorously. Nonetheless, how Korea's relations with the Ming and Qing empires in the centuries that follow do offer some points for consideration. Let us return to the sixteenth century, to 1592, to the outbreak of the Imjin War.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi's invasion of Korea was not initially conceived as an attempt to conquer Korea per se. He had much grander designs, seeking to unify the known world under his overlordship. His primary target was not Chosŏn Korea, but the Ming. Before his troops landed in Pusan in the spring of 1592, Hideyoshi had dispatched envoys to Chosŏn to coax the Korean court into supporting his grand plan. The Chosŏn rebuffed them. In the court's words, aiding Hideyoshi's venture would be akin "to a son turning against its father;" for Korea, a loyal vassal of the Ming to take up arms against it would be a gross moral violation. Chosŏn tried to dissuade Hideyoshi from the invasion, to no avail.11 When Hideyoshi did invade, and the Korean defenses melted before the onslaught, the Ming came to its vassal's rescue. After six long years, Hideyoshi's forces were turned back, and Chosŏn Korea was restored.
Many scholars have seen the successful Ming defense of Korea in the Imjin War as both demonstrating the Sinocentric tributary system's operation and validating its normativity.12 It was a case where the suzerain repaid the vassal's loyalty in blood and enforced its vision world order against an upstart, ignorant challenger. Chosŏn's investment in relations with the Ming paid off. Du Huiyue for instance writes, Korea's "utmost sincerity in serving the great" was "the very reason the Ming court did not sit idly by when Chosŏn suffered the invasions of Japan under Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1592, but sent troops and dispatched generals to Korea to support the war."13 Other scholars put it not in quite the same words, but largely concord with this interpretation that Chosŏn, as the Ming's "loyal tributary" was entitled to the empire's protection.
In these portrayals, Ming intervention appears as an inevitable outcome of the tributary system itself. Only by supporting its vassal could it reassert its hegemonic place and fend off challenges to its preeminent position in East Asia. When we examine more closely Chosŏn diplomatic activities in 1592, the sense of inevitability disappears. Certainly, the Chosŏn king, Sŏnjo, for one, believed Korea's "service of the great with utmost sincerity" (事大以至誠) over many generations meant he could count on the Ming's support in these desperate times. As he and his courtiers fled in the wake of the advancing Japanese army, he told his officials that if they reached Ming Liaodong, they would not only receive Ming protection, but the Ming would help restore Chosŏn rule with is armies. His courtiers, however, were much more skeptical and dissuaded the king from abandoning Korea. They were unsure whether the Ming would even accept an exiled Korean king, let alone lend its support to him.14
Indeed, true to the reservations of his officials, Ming aid was not immediately forthcoming. The Ming Board of War insisted that "China should only guard at its own gates," and that Korea, as one among the "four barbarians," was only the "outer hedge." The Ming's duty towards Chosŏn was merely to render material aid and send rewards. Despite its loyalty, the Chosŏn court had "fled before the wind and abandoned its state." It was not the Ming's duty to hold it together. In more pithy terms, the son-of-heaven ought to "use the barbarians of the four directions to protect [the realm], not protect the lands of the barbarians."15 Others believed that the Japanese invasion of Korea was a case where "barbarians were fighting one another," a situation beneficial to the Ming. In this logic of "using barbarians to fight barbarians," imperial intervention would be a waste of resources.16 Some officials suspected that the Koreans were in fact in cahoots with the Japanese invaders. A Ming envoy was sent to investigate the situation, and was convinced otherwise only when the Koreans showed him their wartime correspondence with the Japanese.17 Whatever the two hundred years of regular tribute missions meant for the Ming, it was not enough guarantee Ming military intervention. Indeed, considerable parts of the Ming officialdom continued to oppose Ming involvement, even as the war waged on.18
As the Ming debated its options, Chosŏn officials sent to request aid waited anxiously in the Ming hostel. They did find a willing supporter in the Ming minister of war Shi Xing 石星 (1537--1599). While other Ming officials saw Korea as a place beyond the reach and authority of the Ming, Shi argued that "Chosŏn had long been considered a place of ritual of righteousness, on par with the Central Efflorescence and had been reverent for two hundred years" and deserved the Ming's support.19 He agreed with his opponents that the fate of so-called "foreign states," which were "far beyond the distant marches" were indeed not the concern of the Ming, but Chosŏn, was exceptional and should be treated as part of the Ming's "internal realm."20 In the meantime, Shi Xing invited the Chosŏn emissaries to his private residence and they worked together to ensure aid in both the form of troops and armament were forthcoming. After Shi had built a coalition of voices to support the Chosŏn cause (which included a Siamese ambassador who pledged military aid to Korea), the Ming court decided, with the emperor's personal approval, to intervene.21
The case Chosŏn envoys and Shi Xing made for intervention rested on calling attention to Korea's status as a "land of ritual and righteousness," Korea's virtual integration into the Ming's imperial realm, and the larger ecumenical imaginary of all-under-heaven.22 At one point, the Chosŏn court even offered to surrender its kingdom to the Ming (naepu/ neifu 內附), if the Japanese invaders could be trounced.23 These appeals meant to deflect Ming reservations had to counteract alternative views of empire that saw Chosŏn as beyond the concern of the imperial court. By assuring the Ming of Chosŏn's perpetual loyalty, they also raised up the banner of imperial responsibility: what the Ming owed its loyal vassals in this time of need. At the same time, they emphasized Korea's role as a "fence and barrier" for the Ming frontier, just as the lips protect the teeth from cold.24 Chosŏn should not be cast away as an extraneous appendage, but preserved as an integral component of the Ming's empire. The Ming court could be moved to action, only if it could be convinced that a Korean intervention was a matter of strategic and ideological importance. Invoking the ideals of Ming universal empire and Korea's place within that imagination, then, was in hopes that the Ming would agree. In one sense, Chosŏn diplomacy did pay off; without the reification of these very same narratives during the centuries before, such appeals could not have been convincing.25
The irony is these narratives of empire were never intended for use in this way. As I have argued in Chapter 3, Chosŏn did not invest in tributary relations so that the Ming could be called to its aid in the event of aggression by a third party, but as a talisman against imperial intervention. Korea was not ready for the Imjin War, because two centuries of diplomacy had already staved off the greatest potential threat to its military security: imperial China.26 What the likes of Kwŏn Kŭn, Pyŏn Kyeryang, Sin Sukchu, Sŏ Kŏjŏng and others, the fifteenth century Chosŏn officials who were the architects of sadae diplomacy could never have envisioned was that the most crucial invocation of empire in Chosŏn history was not to fend off an imperial army, but to invite one to Korea to rescue it from an unanticipated threat.
Notably, their sixteenth century successors, the Chosŏn courtiers at the helm during the Imjin War, were uneasy about imperial aid. Their primary concern, even as Chosŏn faced this unprecedented existential crisis, was that once the Ming army arrived, Chosŏn Korea would no longer be able to maintain its hard-earned sovereignty. These concerns were not unwarranted. The lessons of the Silla-Tang wars offered examples of when Chinese armies had come as allies but attempted to stay as conquerors.27 As the Imjin War carried on, the Ming gradually sidelined the Chosŏn court in peace talks with the Japanese. There were even talks of partitioning the Korean peninsula between Hideyoshi and the Ming. Although the Ming never seriously considered these proposals, knowledge of such discussions led to much consternation at the Korean court.28
One major, but subtle (and therefore overlooked) effect of the Imjin War was how it shifted the delicate balance between the asymmetry of power and the asymmetry of knowledge. This balance, which the Chosŏn court had cultivated carefully over the past two centuries had been severely disrupted. For the first time in centuries, hundreds of thousands of imperial subjects---soldiers, officials, traders---set foot in the peninsula. A sizeable volume of Korean poetry, maps, history books, literary anthologies, and Korean editions of the classics---all complied and published in Chosŏn, trickled for the first time into the Ming. No longer a faraway land, whose vistas had only entered the eyes of an occasional imperial emissary, Korea was now visible to the imperial gaze in a qualitatively different way. Even after the Japanese threat abated, the rise of Nurhaci and the Jianzhou Jurchens (later the Manchus) made Korea a key consideration in Ming strategic calculus.29 Korea's importance to the Ming was no longer merely ideological. Once the Ming focused its gaze on Korea, the Chosŏn court could no longer count on imperial inattention.
The ramifications of this shift are enormous. After the war, for the first time in two centuries, the Ming court intervened directly in matters of Korean succession. It refused the investiture of King Kwanghae, because Ming officials wished to enforce a rule of primogeniture in dynastic succession.30 When the Manchu threat grew, Ming officials even proposed to send Viceroys (監國) to oversee Korean military preparations.31 The Chosŏn protested these interventions, but what is clear is that the Imjin War set what Chosŏn considered a dangerous new precedent. Empire was no longer constituted by rituals and poetry; their evocations and fictions threatened to become reality. The collapse of the Ming, I suspect, was mourned less than what post-Ming narratives of Korea's stalwart loyalty to the Ming would have us believe. During the early seventeenth century, the atmosphere at the Chosŏn court much more complicated. Ming incursions into Korean political space were no less a concern to the Chosŏn court than the looming Manchu threat. The greatest fantasy of hindsight then, shared both by Ming loyalists and Chosŏn statesmen after the Ming's fall, was that if somehow Chosŏn and the Ming had cooperated more effectively, the Manchus would never have succeeded.
The second open question is that Korea had managed to interpolate itself into the legitimating ideologies of empire in East Asia. The Manchu invasions of Korea serves as the best illustration of this effect. When the Qing emperor Hong Taiji (r. Qing Taizong 清太宗 1626--1643) invaded in 1636, he outmaneuvered Chosŏn's defenses and besieged the Korean king at the mountain fortress of Namhan. The Chosŏn king capitulated and agreed to a humiliating surrender. For the first time since the Koryŏ, a Korean monarch prostrated before a foreign ruler to pay his obeisance. Hong Taiji then withdrew with his armies. He brought with him captives, hostages, and booty, but he was content to leave the Chosŏn state intact. Unlike the Mongols of the thirteenth century, he left no overseers or soldiers to enforce Korea's compliance. Hong Taiji continued to war with the Ming and his descendants went on to conquer China and much of Inner Asia, but left Chosŏn to its own devices. Why didn't the Manchus conquer Korea, when it clearly had the wherewithal?
Hong Taiji certainly had his own strategic calculations. Korea may not have been worth the trouble if he had his eyes set on a grander prize. But, before Hong Taiji left, he commissioned a massive stele to be erected in the Chosŏn capital. Korean literati officials were responsible for drafting its text. In it, the Manchu invasion was rewritten as an august display of martial and civil virtue. Korea submitted willingly and all this demonstrated his magnanimity as a sage emperor.32 Having so recently assumed the title of emperor (Ch: huangdi 皇帝), which in Chinese language texts now replaced his former inner Asian style of Kaghan (Ch: kehan 可汗), Hong Taiji was eager to legitimate his claim to the imperial tradition. Hong Taiji saw more value in the idea of Korea as one major component of the imperial tradition itself than as territory to be appended to his dominion. As Wang Yuanchong has argued, Hong Taiji wished to enforce tributary relations with Korea as a way to fashion himself as the rightful claimant to the mandate of heaven.33 To be the tradition's plausible successor, he had to acquire all its symbols of legitimacy, which included paraphernalia like the imperial calendar, dynastic reign titles, not to mention the lost seal insignias of the First Qin emperor and Chinggis Khan. Claiming the Ming's former vassals as his own, then was a way to displace the Ming as the legitimate master of the ecumenical world.
We can preserve Hong Taiji's logic by wording it slightly differently, a rearrangement with startling results. If tribute missions from Korea were an essential component of imperial legitimation, then, it follows whomever Koreans decided to paid tribute to was likely the legitimate Son-of-Heaven. Could it be also that, an empire that cannot earn Korea's allegiance, was no true empire at all?34 In many ways, this logic echoed the narratives Koryŏ memorial writers plied to their Mongol overlords. They legitimized Koryŏ's relative autonomy in the Mongol imperium by claiming that Korea "was the first to submit" to Khubilai Khan, who therefore rewarded the Koryŏ with perpetual autonomy.35 Hong Taiji's move, then, had its antecedents in the imperial tradition.
But, viewed against the long history of empire in East Asia, this move was not his only available option. For the Sui and Tang emperors, Korea was an object of conquest, former imperial territory that must be regained. By the Ming and the Qing, this idea was no longer tenable. What replaced it was the notion of Korea as the empire's most loyal vassal, whose regular devotion validated the imperial project. For this mechanism of legitimation to work however, Korea had to remain independent. Hong Taiji, of course, coerced Korea to submit, but by leaving his stele behind, he was content enough that Korea's submission be narrated, in perpetuity, as their willing recognition of his virtue and destiny.
In August 2007, on Tieba, a popular Chinese social media forum, a netizen posted a series of questions about Chinese history. One of them was, "why didn't China conquer Korea?" The netizen listed several examples where it looked like a past imperial state could have. One of the respondents offered the following answer: "China has always been a country of 'propriety and righteousness' and so, its attitude towards the little countries on its borders has always been of care and concern. If Korea wasn't next to China, but was next to a country like Portugal or Rome, it certainly would have been destroyed a long time ago."36
In this response, the anonymous netizen offered, in a nutshell, a grand theory of comparative empire. What explained Korea's survival over the millennia, essentially, was the distinct character of the Chinese imperium. It was qualitatively different from other imperial formations. Unlike the rapacious Portuguese or the ever-expanding Romans, it only ever considered matters of ritual and propriety and thus never exploited its neighbors. Though not the words of a professional historian, this perspective well reflects a thread of Chinese-self perception in mainstream imagination. It is also implicit in elucidations of the tributary system contemporary scholars have offered. It is also, what I have called, the Whig history of Chinese empire.
This perspective rests on a teleological reading of imperial history, one in which historical development is perceived as the inevitable outcome of the essential values of an imperial ideology. For the British empire, it is the march of market-driven liberalism; for the Chinese empire, it is the idea of cultural superiority, magnanimity and non-interference. Just as the former has become an essential part of British national identity, the latter has become so for the identity of modern China. The idea of China's moral empire is deeply ingrained in how modern Chinese perceive China in the international order. What this dissertation shows, however, is that this particular notion, as it applies was in many ways a Korean production.
This Whig history of empire exists in part because it had been constantly reinforced by generations and over centuries. Its plausibility to modern Chinese audiences today is not only because of its prominence in nationalist discourses or in selective readings of the imperial past, but because for centuries, Korean diplomats have been repeating this narrative to modern China's imperial forebears. In hindsight, the sheer volume of utterances in support of this narrative makes it appear qualitatively true. What is lost, of course, when one proceeds from these assumptions is what purpose this discourse really served for the Korean diplomats who had used them. Viewed from the vantage of Chosŏn diplomats and memorial drafters, Korea's survival owed not to some essential quality of the Chinese or even the imperial tradition as a whole. It owed instead to their efforts in convincing emperors and their agents that the best way to be imperial was to behave according to "propriety and righteousness." And, to do so, they invested greatly in an image of moral empire.