In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Chosŏn Korea 朝鮮 (1392--1910) maintained stable and peaceable relations with the Ming empire 明 (1368--1644). This dissertation makes several related arguments about these relations and the practice of diplomacy during this period. The first is that the Chosŏn Korean court co-constructed empire with the Ming in order to shape, frame, and ultimately delimit Ming sovereign claims. To make empire pliable to its interests, Chosŏn tailored its interactions to suit imperial desires of political recognition from Chosŏn and pretenses to universal rule.
The second is that acts like the ritual of tribute, the writing of envoy poetry, or the profession of loyalty to the Ming created what now appears in retrospect to be the stable, reified structure of tributary relations. Whereas prevailing narratives of Chosŏn-Ming relations explains Korean diplomatic practices as compliance with a Sinocentric world view or an ideology of "Serving the Greater" (Kr: sadae juŭi 事大主義) that upheld a stable "tributary system," I contend that what appears as stable ideology is in fact a product of the strategic use of language, ritual and other forms of representation in the context of diplomatic practice.
At stake in these relations were Korea's political autonomy, cultural prestige, and position in a transnational imaginary of political order that was controlled by a counterpart who dwarfed it in size and power. The third argument is that Chosŏn was able to maintain a space of agency by cultivating a favorable dynamic of knowledge asymmetry in which Korea's superior knowledge of empire could counteract the unfavorable power asymmetry inherent in its relations with the Ming.1 With an asymmetry of power manifest in an inverse asymmetry of knowledge, Chosŏn's co-construction of empire transformed Korea's relationship with empire so that Korea's acknowledgment of imperial authority became an integral piece of imperial legitimation. In other words, whomever Korea paid tribute to was the legitimate empire; it was the vassal who made the ruler.
Centuries of diplomatic exchange has left a documentary record abound in declarations of Korean fealty and proclamations of the Ming emperor's universal sovereignty. In a preface to a Ming envoy poetry anthology, Hong Sŏm 洪暹 (1504--1585), the Chosŏn court's most esteemed literary official hailed the Ming as "the August court who receives its brilliant mandate from heaven." The Ming emperor was the "Son of Heaven" who "succored a myriad realms," extending its influence by promulgating its calendar to the "marches of the eight [directions]." Hong was proud that Chosŏn Korea, a "humble country occupying the sea's edge," was treated by the Ming "no differently than its interior territories."2 If the wages of time had spared only this fragment of the documentary record from destruction, a modern reader could only conclude that the Chosŏn saw itself as an integral part of the Ming empire.
A far richer textual record survives, but much of it seems only to corroborate the story. We know that the Chosŏn king compared himself to Ming princes of the blood, sharing with him the titles of wang (王) and wearing the same regalia. His court observed the Ming imperial calendar and he ruled with Ming patents of investiture (komyŏng/ gaoming 誥命) that demonstrated the derivation of political authority from the Ming emperor.3 It seems indisputable that Chosŏn recognized of the Ming emperor as a universal ruler and showed Korean pride of inclusion in the Ming's political order.
If one considers the context of these rhetorical and symbolic assertions of imperial possession, a rather different image emerges. Chosŏn operated as its own state, with institutions mirroring those of the imperial court. It sought to monopolize legitimate violence in its own domain, contested Ming territorial claims on its hinterland, taxed its population and tried to confine them within its borders. It also conducted diplomacy with its neighbors, such as the Ryūkyūans, Jurchens and the Japanese, on its own terms, all hallmark behaviors of a modern sovereign state.4 And, perhaps most importantly, no representative of Ming authority---not a single soldier, bureaucrat, or administrator---resided in Chosŏn on a permanent basis.
The situation can be contrasted with how the Chosŏn's predecessor, the Koryŏ 高麗 (918--1392) dynasty interacted with the Mongol-Yuan 蒙元 (1206--1388) court.5 The Mongol empire subjugated Koryŏ through military force, established concrete institutional links, and actively intervened in Korean court politics.6 When Mongol power waned, the Koryŏ shed the coercive institutions, which were never to be restored, even after the establishment of relations with the Ming. Whereas Mongol-Yuan domination of Koryŏ can be understood in terms of analogues with, for example, nineteenth-century European notions of empire rooted in Roman legal discourse, i.e. territorial possession (dominium) and sovereign jurisdiction (imperium), the relations between the Chosŏn and the Ming empire defies such characterization.7 Without mechanisms for enforcing its will in Korea, the Ming could neither exert juridical control nor impose territorial claims.
It is tempting to distinguish the Koryŏ-Yuan and Chosŏn-Ming cases in terms of "formal" and "informal" empire, respectively. In the former, domination is made explicit through visible institutional channels, but in the latter such influence is exercised without the "form," though it possesses the substance. But, empire was anything but "informal" in the Chosŏn-Ming case.8 Inscriptions, such as that on the tombstones of a Korean monarch, which includes the words "....Great King of the State of Chosŏn of the Ming," made Ming political domination explicit.9 Furthermore, Korean diplomatic documents also declared the dynasty's unswerving loyalty to the Ming; envoy-poets from both courts jointly composed paeans to imperial rule. While Korea's landscape was littered with monuments asserting the Ming empire's universal authority, the Chosŏn court even continued Mongol-Yuan period ritual and institutional precedents that had symbolically curtailed the authority of the Korean monarchy.10 How are we to understand the persistence of these technologies of imperial legitimation in the absence of institutions of coercion?
If one understands the legitimation of empire in terms of a "technology of rule," a mechanism by which ideology conceals the methods of power, then the representation of imperial authority, in Marxian terms, should do nothing more than adorn Ming hegemony in beautiful words. Then, the Chosŏn court's active participation in legitimating Ming domination becomes even more puzzling; it could not have concealed methods of coercion, because they did not exist in the first place. Why, then, would the Chosŏn produce technologies of its own subjugation?
Resolving these apparent paradoxes, requires recognizing how discourses and representations of empire can serve purposes other than buttressing imperial authority. We return to an understanding of legitimation closer to its classical Weberian sense---that is, not simply as the rationalization of existing authority, but rather as a mechanism for enabling political action within a specific framework of normativity. How a particular political arrangement is made legitimate alters its terms accordingly.11 For Chosŏn then, raising the banner of Ming imperial authority was to rewrite the terms of its relationship with the Ming; constructing empire was to bind it within specific parameters. Ironic though it was, legitimating imperial rule could in fact be a way to subvert it.
Empire, as used here, is not equivalent to the Ming, either as a dynasty or a state. One goal of this dissertation is to break open the facile equation of empire with a particular dynasty or even China as a geopolitical entity. In conventional parlance, an empire is more or less a really big state. What distinguishes an empire from other, "small-scale" political forms in this definition is its relative degree of cultural, ethnic, and political heterogeneity, and geographical extensiveness.12 This study, therefore, departs from these vernacular understandings of empire. Instead, I take a cue from Ann Stoler and Carole McGranahan's critique of the "fixation on empires as clearly bounded geopolities," to move beyond understanding "empire" in terms of expansionist territorial states. Empires are better thought of as "imperial formations," which are not "steady states, but states of becoming, macropolities in states of solution and constant formation."13
To capture this sense of dynamism, I prefer to employ empire as a category of analysis---a set of heuristic devices that highlight a set of issues, instead of a stable object of study. Karen Barkey treats "empire" as an analytical framework that is "about political authority relations...between a central power and many diverse and differentiated entities." Key to this understanding is the presence of "peripheries, local elites, and frontier groups" that work with an imperial authority to "maintain compliance, resources, tribute, and military cooperations, and to ensure political coherence and durability."14 Empire is a useful category because it can help bring into analytical focus the multiple facets of these relations and the intersections between different registers of historical phenomena. It poses a set of questions for analysis, ones that interrogate how institutionalized control, coercion, material extraction, imperial desire, and political persuasion operate and interact in contexts where expansive political imaginaries extend across putative ethnic, cultural, and territorial boundaries.
As C.A. Bayly puts it, empire was not only a matter of economic or political interest, but "[also] a matter of attitudes, legends, theories and institutions."15 Empires had to be created both on the ground and in the mental worlds of their subjects, articulated through the concrete manipulations of people, resources, and space, effected through representation, and perpetuated in discourse.16 Any specific empire in history must be understood in terms of both its persuasive and coercive dynamics. To do so, I propose that any historical empire can also be parsed as a transection of three interrelated and mutually reinforcing registers that each comprise a separate, but integral dimensions of the total phenomena. They are empire as 1) a spatial-political entity, 2) a series of interconnected social configurations that sustain or are engendered by that entity, 3) a political imaginary buttressed by representations, ideologies, and discourses. In the first register, empire is anchored to an imperial state, such as the Mongol-Yuan and Ming imperiums and its organized, coercive institutions. Territorial conquest, military and economic control, and governing apparatuses fit well in this level of analysis.17
The imperial state, to borrow Philip Abrams's classic critique, can be thought of as an "effect" of the second register of empire: a series of sociological configurations.18 Here, empire is constituted by dynamics of connections and relationships, which may include the bureaucratic institutions, military organization, commercial networks, flows of information, ethnic, religious, or corporate solidarities that make imperial power possible. Actors operating through these social configurations may choose to pursue their political or economic goals by manipulating imperial institutions. Any act done in the name of an imperial authority can further sustain the empire both ideologically and materially.
In the second register, where a diversity of practices are tied to the authority of empire, the realms of coercion and persuasion intersect. Whereas coercion implies the use of force, persuasion, as Torquil Duthie describes it, "[offers] an administrative and ideological structure for [imperial] subjects to belong to and make sense of their position within the larger world."19 This third, and final register, which depends on the power of discourse and signs, then points to the legitimation and enunciation of imperial domination. Given the diversity of actors and practices involved, means of persuasion are seldom monolithic and constant across social and geographic space. In the case of the Chosŏn and the Ming, these are found not only in official documents such as edicts and memorials, but also in ritual, poetry, visual culture, and architectural monuments. Each of these objects embed notions of authority, the relations between power and normative ideals.
These three registers of phenomena, although interconnected, are not mutually interchangeable. They reinforce one another in one arena, but mutually interfere in others. The territorial extent of the imperial state is rarely coterminous with the reach of its influence. The relationship between empire as an imperial state and the second and third registers of empire can also be thought of in terms of emergent properties, where the latter registers emerge from the first. Common parlance regarding American empire is illustrative of this understanding. American empire seldom refers solely to the territories and peoples formally part of the American dominion. It points also to the mechanisms of American economic, military, and political influence. The official policies of the United States may help engender new political relations, business interests, and cultural influences that slice across not only American society, but also the rest of the world.20 What results, however, are a plethora of dynamics that fall outside of the control of the American state. Nonetheless, the United States still attempts to control these dynamics by exercising its "imperial" prerogatives, acting in the name of universal standards and global peace and prosperity, often through multinational institutions, such as NATO, the United Nations or the World Bank.
Empire is therefore conceptually related to the desire to control, reflected in the etymological origins of the English term "empire" in the Roman concept of imperium---the power of military command, which enabled the control of peoples, territories, and resources. Military control, however, also tends to spawn new political, economic, and cultural connections that elude control, motivating the design of new institutions to establish it. One is reminded of how the British East India Company's activities invited wider and more frequent interventions by the British crown, as what began as audacious and rapacious commercial ventures became a project of territorial empire.21 The zealous generals of Rome, like the nineteenth-century colonizers of India and Africa, secured their new acquisitions by conquering the environs of their new territories.22 The most obvious parallel in the case of the Ming, and later Qing, context, is the gradual integration of wide swathes of upland Southeast Asia into the imperium. State concerns with frontier security led to the encouragement of Chinese settlement in aboriginal regions, which in turn led to conflicts over land and resources between the Chinese and the natives, demanding further military intervention, a process which ultimately resulted in these regions' formal integration.23
Common to all examples of empire, from postmodern American empire to ancient Rome and early modern East Asia, are dynamics in which new sociological dynamics emerge from attempts to control. Burbank and Cooper describes these patterns as a "fundamental political dynamic" that rested on the "externalization of sources of wealth," which incentivized and "emboldened" rulers to "collect resources in a regular...way, to facilitate the incorporation of new peoples' territories, and trade routes without imposing uniformity in culture or administration." A resource-oriented understanding of empire, while accurate for many macropolitical formations and able to explain many aspects of empire-making in East Asia, still does not fully account for the Chosŏn-Ming relationship.24 The practice of empire is not only about expansion, but also laying claims of authority to justify that expansion. While there were certainly extractive incentives for the Ming, motivations for constructing a Ming political imaginary that extended to Chosŏn had less to do with the acquisition of material resources than of ideological ones. In other words, it was about claims of authority.
The importance of authority claims again points to the persuasive dimension of empire. This rationalization of the desire for control is what Negri and Hardt have identified as "empire" as a "juridical concept," where empire is conceived as political power in the service of "utopias of 'perpetual peace.'" Chosŏn and Ming diplomats who spoke of Ming rule in these terms did not necessarily presume that they lived in an age free of warfare or violence. When the Chosŏn and Ming dispatched joint-military campaigns to castigate the Jurchens who harried their borders, their diplomats identified these acts of violence as exceptional measures for enacting universal justice, appealing to empire's "capacity to present force as being in the service of right and peace."25 Pacifying those beyond the pale could always be justified in these universalistic terms, especially in cases where effective control was elusive. In this dialectic interplay, new horizons of desire gave rise to new persuasive technologies that legitimized claims of control.
In sum, a history of empire is therefore conceived less as a history of particular imperial states than as a history of issues related to the process of empire-making. Much as a good economic history is concerned not only with questions of exchange, wealth, value, productivity, and material accretion, but also with the institutions, ideas, and discourses surrounding these issues, a history of empire grapples with questions of sovereignty and authority, and the extension of these claims across geographical, cultural and ethnic zones, in addition to the technologies, institutions, and ideologies that support, challenge, and inform these claims.
Using empire as an analytical framework allows us to compare the diverse empire-making experiences of the Ottoman, British, Manchu, American, Roman and other imperial formations by foregrounding common historical questions. Writing a history of Chosŏn-Ming interactions as a history of empire therefore explicitly places early modern East Asian empire-making on the same analytical plane as empire in other regions and time periods. The very versatility of empire as a heuristic tool might elicit objections. After all, is not the term "empire" an imposition from contemporary, Western analytical vocabulary? How appropriate is it for describing the experience of early modern Korea?
Certain risks are inherent to any approach that transplants analytical terminology from one context to another. Discursive violence can result from a mismatch of critical vocabulary with historical context. The best way to approach this problem is neither to deny, a priori, the appropriateness of transplanted terms for understanding non-Western societies, nor to assume that the Western historical experience should provide the models for doing such comparisons. Instead, as JaHyun Kim Haboush has argued, there needs to be a "mutual accommodation between the new user and old usage: the new user searches and employs words of best approximation from the Western regime; conversely, the new usage should be assimilated into the old word, and the new usage becomes another possible meaning of this word."26 The task at hand then is to first recognize the repertoire of practices, including their persuasive technologies, distinct to each imperial formation. Then, by understanding how they operated in their cultural and historical context, i.e. that of Chosŏn-Ming relations, we can expand our own notions of empire to tell a more inclusive history.
Understanding early modern empire in East Asia hinges on the concept of t'ong (Ch: tong 統). I posit it as a suitable equivalent for the idea of "empire." Not only does t'ong encapsulate both the coercive and persuasive dimensions of empire-making,27 it also embeds the dialectical relationship between the exercise of control and expanding horizons of political desire. T'ong, as used in various compounds, could point to legal-juridical, military, and administrative mechanisms of enforcement. This control can be spatial; a political regime can "control and administer," (t'ongche/tongzhi 統治) a particular region. It can also be temporal, as hinted by the deep etymology of t'ong, as "thread," links of transmission from the present to an origin. This is also the sense adapted in the modern word for "tradition," chŏnt'ong (Ch: chuantong 傳統), which parses as "transmitted authority."28
The spatial and temporal notions of authority are intertwined in the concept of "legitimacy," chŏngt'ong (Ch: zhengtong 正統), both in the sense of authoritative political power and scholastic transmission. This sense of t'ong, as diachronic transmission, becomes an important element of persuasion in political discourse. "Imperial succession" was thus described as hwangt'ong (most literally, "august thread," Ch: huangtong 皇統) or chet'ong (dit'ong 帝統) embody all the senses above. Authentic connections to the past are what makes present imperial authority legitimate, permitting its synchronic control over territories, institutions, and peoples. T'ong then dovetails with both the semantic and etymological ranges of the word "empire," with an added, diachronic dimension, a sense of a continuous "imperial tradition."29 For the purposes of this dissertation, the diachronic and temporal aspects of t'ong will be emphasized over the spatial, synchronic ones, because it was the temporal aspects of imperial authority that were most salient for Chosŏn-Ming relations.
I again part ways from linguistic convention by associating empire with the concept of t'ong. In modern East Asian languages, the English word "empire" conjures the character compound cheguk (帝國, Ch: diguo; Jp: teikoku literally, "emperor-state").30 The putative interchangeability of "empire" with "cheguk" appears to convenience the task of comparison, but it, however, is unsuited to the analytical goals of this dissertation. The problem with "cheguk" is that the compound poses as an indigenous, East Asian equivalent to "empire," when in fact it is both anachronistic and exogenous. No East Asian state called itself or its contemporaries a "cheguk" before the late nineteenth century. The Chosŏn and Ming were no exception.31 The exogeneity of the term "empire" at least allows a level of comparative distance; cheguk, on the other hand, infuses an air of false authenticity, one which is revealed in the complex history of its translation and coinage.
Absent in earlier sources, the character compound cheguk was coined as a neologism, deliberately fabricated as a referent for "empire" in contemporary Western usage. As Lydia Liu would describe it, cheguk-as--empire was a "supersign," one of many produced by massive projects of translation in the wake of nineteenth century imperialism. As East Asian terms were adapted to new, Western concepts, novel character compounds were forged.32 When East Asian monarchies began to call themselves the Great Qing Empire (Da Qing diguo 大清帝國), the Great Japanese Empire (Dai Nihon teikoku 大日本帝國) or the Great Korean Empire (Taehan Cheguk 大韓帝國), they did so as part of a broader adaptation of Western discourses and symbols of sovereignty and authority. Using these terms in diplomatic discourse, for instance, put them on par with Western imperialist powers, such as the "Empire of Great Britain" (大英帝國).33 When these terms took root, they fundamentally reoriented the political discourse in East Asia thereafter. Disavowing the equivalence between cheguk and "empire" here, then, is to identify notions of political authority in transpolity relations in East Asia before the age of gunships and opium. The disavowal seeks to undo the discursive violence of a particular critical discourse, by exorcising the implicit privileging of nineteenth century and post-nineteenth century models of interstate relations that have long haunted contemporary understandings of East Asia's past.
The cheguk-as--empire supersign brings a slew of associations and assumptions that risk clouding our analysis. Cheguk is embroiled with late nineteenth-century notions of territorial sovereignty, hinted already by the character compound. Cheguk, literally "emperor-state," embeds a definition of "empire" that rests on a notion of a "state," a kuk/guo 國 whose political sovereignty is linked the person of an emperor. This link to statehood is in turn related to a discourse of international law that entered East Asian political vocabulary after the translation of Henry Wheaton's Elements of International Law (Man'guk kongpŏp/ Wanguo gongfa 萬國公法). Most notably, notions of sovereignty (chugwŏn/zhuquan 主權) and suzerainty (zongzhu 宗主) over "tributary states" (sogguk/shuguo 屬國) entered the political discourse.34 In the language of Wheaton, the Chosŏn has often been described as entering "suzerain-vassal relations" with the Qing court.35 Whether this extrapolation of nineteenth century European terminology implies the Qing enjoyed "sovereignty" over the Korean peninsula is unclear, leaving both the nature of Korean sovereignty and the terms of Chosŏn-Qing relations equally ill-defined.36
With these new frameworks in vogue, Chosŏn Korea and the Qing dynasty found themselves struggling to describe the nature of their relationship in these new terms to outside observers.37 The simultaneous claim of Qing sovereignty over Korea and assertion of Korea's independence were incomprehensible to contemporary Western observers who dismissed them as mere "romance and hyperbole" typical of "Oriental claims to sovereignty."38 Whereas nineteenth century European observers blamed this illegibility on the Chosŏn and the Qing, it was really their own notions of territorial sovereignty that was at fault.39
The common sense of modern international law is inappropriate for understanding interpolity interactions in not just East Asia at the time, but also other parts of the world, including Europe. Lauren Benton has cautioned against "project[ing] backward in time the post-nineteenth century idea that territoriality" was the "defining element" of sovereignty. While control of territory was "an important part of early modern constructions of sovereignty," it was only one mechanism of figuring imperial dominion, which also relied on "strategic, symbolic and limited claims" that recognized the "incomplete and tentative nature of more expansive spheres of influence." In other words, the origins of modern territorial sovereignty in a European empire's gradual "rationalization of space" had a contingent history, developing out of a complex interaction between a variety of competing practices of sovereignty and jurisdiction.40 Since all forms of sovereign thinking are historically contingent, the task at hand is to historicize them.
Sovereign thinking was certainly not foreign to East Asia. Li Chen's discussion of the late Qing case offers an illustrative example. The Qing did maintain "sovereignty," if defined as a "supreme authority of an independent state or imperial formation to administer matters within the geographical boundaries... under its effective control." It, however, did not always exercise sovereign prerogatives according to the expectation of international law, such as "the strict enforcement of its law against all foreign offenders within its territory." Furthermore, Qing notions of sovereignty was complicated in several ways by the extension of its influence over its "tributary states," especially Chosŏn Korea.41 The first is what "effective control" means. Did it entail enforcement of law, military domination and deciding policy? This leads to the second issue, the nature of sovereign prerogatives. What if sovereign prerogatives did not entail the above, but questions of ceremonial practice and dynastic succession, and were coded not in geographical terms, but temporal ones? And, finally how did Chosŏn Korea understand Qing sovereign claims?
The Chosŏn court saw its political autonomy not as a grant by an imperial sovereign, but as fundamentally rooted in its own internal transmission of political legitimacy, ideas which once shaped its relations with the Ming as well. In effect, the Chosŏn court ruled a territorially sovereign state, but one whose sovereignty was hierarchically defined vis-a-vis that of an imperial claim to time. This arrangement, which informed the relations Korean states had with imperial powers on the mainland for over a millennium, effectively exchanged territorial independence for temporal domination.42 Sovereignty conceived in this manner then, was not inherently unitary nor territorial, as it was for the world of Wheaton. The Chosŏn court possessed supreme authority and legal jurisdiction over Korean territory; if it did not, it would have made no sense for the Qing and Chosŏn to negotiate the limits of their respective national borders.43
The exact relationship between these two concepts: territoriality and sovereignty, should be examined, not assumed. Indeed, assumptions of their firm association, as informed by modern, contemporary legal usage, have derailed discussions of the Korean (and much of the East Asian) past by inevitably distracting them with a question that is mostly a red herring: was Korea part of the Chinese empire? Or, in the cartographic conventions of modern geopolitical imagination, should a map of the Yuan, Ming, or Qing empires include the Korean peninsula?44
To draw lines on a map as an attempt to answer the above questions is to reproduce political claims of territorial sovereignty in one's analytical perspective (and thereby naturalizing the idea that people or territory can be possessed). It is to be a voyeur who borrows the gaze of an emperor to fantasize from his throne room all the people and lands in his possession. Imperial fantasies, like those elaborated by Italo Calvino's fictional Marco Polo, cannot explain the diverse experience of empire on the ground.45 For people, land, and resources to "belong" to political entities, claims of possession had to be first imagined, constructed, and reinforced. In the present day, when irredentism is combined with modern territorial nationalism, when ancient empires have become avatars of modern nation-states, establishing past possession can be easily leveraged to legitimize political domination.46 This project, however, has no interest in claiming history as national "property;" neither will it use past claims to legitimize present sovereignties.47 The central concern, instead, is to trace the articulations of political authority, legitimacy and order in early East Asia in order to historicize the competing and interacting sovereign claims between the Ming and the Chosŏn courts.
Chosŏn-Ming ideas of sovereignty and territoriality, even if understood as antecessors to modern notions, should be restored to the structures of relevance specific to their immediate historical context. Avoiding anachronistic transplantation of conceptual assumptions and dealing with them explicitly is not enough. We need to appreciate the valences, logics, and practices of empire-making that shaped how the Chosŏn and the Ming understood their own relationship, all the while positing and experimenting with putative equivalences and imperfect translations between their conceptual world and our own analytical perspective.48
How the Chosŏn and the Ming acknowledged each other's territorial claims illustrates why modern assumptions about territorial sovereignty simply do not work. When the Chosŏn was first established, it had to contend with a series of border disputes with the Ming that lingered from the collapse of Mongol-Yuan rule. These concerned the jurisdiction of areas north of the Yalu river in Liaodong, which had formerly been an appanage of a Koryŏ prince during the Yuan, but had been annexed by the Ming, and a wide swath of land north of Chŏllyŏng pass in Hamgyŏng province in modern North Korea, which was had been annexed by the Mongols, but now returned partly to Chosŏn control.49 Against the backdrop of these tense relations, one Korean envoy Kwŏn Kŭn 權近 (1352--1409), dispatched to the Ming in 1396, alluded to these territorial questions in an poem on the Yalu River, written on the command of the Ming emperor:50
Imperial influence is not bound by limits of the civilized and the barbarian?\ What use is there to distinguish one's territory from another's?51
The Yalu River was an effective natural barrier that separated Ming and Chosŏn zones of control at the time and has remained the Chinese-Korean border into the present day. Kwŏn's couplet, however, denied the river the power of demarcation. In contrast to the Ming emperor, who in his own poem saw the Yalu River as reminder of conflict a place "dotted with ruins of ancient fortresses," the remnants of wars over contested land; in Kwŏn's rendering, the river became a a mere fact of geography, one whose divisive power melted away in the face of the Ming's all-embracing imperial influence. In this latter logic, imperial rule transcended geographical limitations, rendering distinctions of territory irrelevant. Korean control did not preclude imperial claims over them.
Kwŏn Kŭn's deterritoralized reading of imperial sovereignty points to several important issues. For one, it was possible because of how sovereignty was figured in the imperial tradition in East Asia. Since the Ming was a huangchao, an "imperial court" (Kr: hwangcho 皇朝), it received its mandate to rule from heaven, which placed in the line of a succession of preceeding imperial dynasties. The domain of its ruler, as the son of heaven (Ch: tianzi/ Kr: ch'ŏnja 天子), was properly, tianxia, "all-under-heaven" (Kr: ch'ŏnha 天下), often translated simply as "the realm," in modern scholarship. His universal rule would then culminate in a "grand unification," the Da yi tong (Kr: tae'il t'ong 大一統).52 Huangchao referred to the emperor and his court, but it also carried clear cosmic implications. The idea of a chao (Kr: cho 朝) is related, etymologically, to the dawn, because the emperor holds court in early morning, but is also extended to the period of time that a particular ruling dynasty could claim sovereignty over tianxia. Both the diachronic, temporal claims of authority, and the spatialized rendition of it in tianxia signified at least, a theoretical assertion of universal sovereignty that transcended geographical space, figuring political control in cosmic, rather than geographic terms.53
Imperial sovereignty figured here contrasts with the explicitly territorialized understanding of Korean rule in the early Chosŏn. There were cosmic elements to Korean kingship, but by the fifteenth century, Chosŏn courtiers defined the sovereign prerogative of the Korean ruler in terms of a limited, bounded geographical space. Whereas the Ming son of heaven could commune directly with heaven and earth in ceremony, the Chosŏn king, as a ruler of bounded state, was entitled only to worship the "mountains and rivers." By receiving Ming imperial investiture, Chosŏn kings ruled their territory as one of the "feudal lords."54 On the other hand, the Ming initially implemented rituals to sacrifice even to the mountains and rivers of Korea, and those of other neighboring states as assertions of universal sovereignty. Though this gesture was not repeated in later years, a discourse of universal empire persisted, even if the Ming no longer acted on these prerogatives by initiating contacts with the world beyond its borders after the mid-fifteenth century.55 In contrast to the implications of territorial sovereignty in the modern term cheguk, what made a certain claim of sovereignty "imperial" in the Chosŏn-Ming context was its deterritorialization and universalism. With this definition in mind, to equate empire with a territorial state is a contradiction in terms. What made a state "imperial" was its claim to universal authority, even if it can never be actualized in practice.
What made these claims of sovereignty legible for both sides is a shared imperial tradition. This constellation of concepts foundational to empire-making linked political practice to an inherited past. Taken in the most literal sense, the imperial tradition is the delineation of inherited imperial rule, the huangtong or ditong, the diachronic succession of legitimate rulers, the zhengtong (Kr: chŏngt'ong 正統). Since at many points in history, there were multiple rulers and dynasties who claimed this imperial succession at any given moment, later rulers and their officials had to draw their own narratives of legitimate imperial succession, which could vary greatly from one another. Drawing lines of descent, then, was essential for determining which dynastic precedents could provide legitimate models and ideals for immediate political action. A whole body of knowledge developed around the question of transmission that debated not only the lines of legitimate descent but also the various practices and precedents they offered.56 Dynastic histories, classical texts (and their commentaries), literary paeans, and works of statecraft sustained this transmission. Imperial tradition, writ large, points to this body of knowledge that illustrated how empire was to function.
Access to this body of knowledge depended on the circulation of certain foundational texts on the one hand and literacy in the classical language on the other. As such, the ways of articulating empire and figuring sovereignty are legible only within a specific scriptal zone (that of literary Sinitic), making this imperial tradition peculiar to East Asia. The East Asian tradition differed from the Roman, Islamic, or Sanskrit ones, not for distinctions in practices of rule, dynamics of evolution, or even semiotics of sovereignty per se, but in their hermeneutic technologies---that is which body of texts could be legitimately cited to appraise, interpret and ultimately define political practice.57
The imperial tradition, like all traditions, have elements of reinvention. Its pretension to antiquity could only be sustained because enough people found the imperial tradition useful enough to appropriate and reinvent. Claims of political authority within the same imperial tradition are mutually legible, and often speak to similar issues, but they do not always say the same thing. A reigning emperor could draw on the deeds of past rulers as rationales for his decisions. Likewise, an imperial official could borrow the authority of the classics to justify a policy position. The actions of a well-evaluated past ruler were more readily acceptable as models for emulation, while the deeds of poor rulers would often be cited to criticize contemporary policy. The imperial tradition was therefore not a monolith, but something mutable over time and pliable to change, even as those who sought to derive authority from it found its reification convenient for their own ends.58 The tradition's coherence was not preexisting, but produced out of how the past was applied.
This malleability is true for the early Chosŏn case as well. The tradition did not provide self-evident normative models for how Chosŏn was to interact with the Ming. Even the designation of the Chosŏn king as a ruler of a territorial state and the Ming as universal, cosmic sovereigns, a portrayal standard in modern textbooks, is a best a snapshot of different elements in flux. Chosŏn rulers, for instance, at times sought more universalist idioms to describe their authority, only to be reined in by their own officials. Kwŏn Kŭn's poetry exchange with the Ming emperor is also a useful illustration of how the imperial tradition could be used for different ends. Kwŏn's pronouncement of Ming universal sovereignty was in fact an implicit challenge to an alternative vision of empire, one espoused by the founder of the Ming dynasty himself, the Hongwu emperor Zhu Yuanzhang 朱元璋 (Ming Taizu 明太祖r. 1368--1398).
Zhu Yuanzhang envisioned a world in which the ecumene was unequivocally separate from the barbaric beyond, but coterminous with the imperial domain, and conveniently demarcated by natural geography. In this paradigm, Chosŏn Korea was but one among the "barbarian peoples of its four frontiers, with culture and customs distinct." Its king could not be among the lords who "shared the white thatch of invested territory."59 Its "separation by mountains" and location "beyond the seas," made its exclusion from the civilized ecumene of imperial rule a matter "heaven made and earth endowed."60 For the Ming emperor, the proper role of the universal ruler was to police these preternatural boundaries. Kwŏn Kŭn's vision of all-embracing sovereignty, on the other hand, hearkened back to the universalist vision of empire of the Mongol-Yuan. Although the Mongol-Yuan had tried to conquer Korea, annexed a wide swath of its territory, curtailed its kingship's ritual status and administrative autonomy, it embraced a cosmopolitan vision of empire. Their inclusive approach to cultural and ethnic diversity meant that Korea's ecumenical membership was never under question.
Evoking Mongol-Yuan universalism did not mean Kwŏn wished to return to the political configurations of the Koryŏ-Yuan period. He wanted to have his cake and eat it too--- maintaining Korean territorial claims while including Korea within the ecumene.61 Therefore, when Kwŏn Kŭn divested the Yalu River of significance as a boundary separating the "civilized" from the "barbarian," and charged that imperial influence extended beyond natural barriers, Korea's inclusion became a demonstration of the Ming's universal reach. Yet, elevating Ming authority to the register of the universal also made its territorial claims inconsequential. By reframing the relationship between ecumenical boundaries and political authority, Kwŏn intervened on interpretations of the imperial tradition itself. In other words, Kwŏn contested one vision of empire by elucidating his own. That Kwŏn's version was at odds with what the Ming emperor espoused speaks to how the relationships among sovereignty, territoriality, and ecumenism could evolve and change even within the same imperial tradition.
Other Chosŏn envoys relied on this disjunction between sovereignty and territoriality in their interactions with the Ming. Ironically, they turned to a deterritorialized vision of sovereignty precisely to maintain Chosŏn Korea's territorial integrity. This vision was useful because of Korea's peculiar place within the imperial tradition. In imperial histories, Korea had been represented as a target of conquest, a territory properly within the pale of direct rule. Later emperors, motivated by irredentism, attempted to conquer it in order to demonstrate themselves to be heirs of a unified empire.62 Appeals to empire's boundless civilizing power provided a useful counter to irredentism by turning territorial acquisition into a meaningless venture.
Millennia of empire-making in East Asia produced a gamut of precedents to guide imperial policy towards Korea. One precedent sitting above another made alternative and often contradictory interpretations possible. The imperial tradition had the quality of a palimpsest.63 Its selective reading then becomes a powerful technique of negotiation. Just as the devil may cite scripture to suit his purpose, any Confucian scholar can find some turn of phrase in some authoritative text to make legitimate what may otherwise have been a radical claim. The task of a Chosŏn envoy was to turn imperial policy away from precedents unfavorable for Korean goals towards others that were more conducive to their interests. In reading their tactics, it is important to not mistake the discourse for the utterance. A statement may be couched in familiar language, but it could very well be stating something dramatically novel. Therefore, identifying which discourses Korean diplomats used, whether of Confucian ecumenism, tributary relations, or universal empire, is only the beginning. The task at hand then, is to contextualize Korean diplomatic statements within field of negotiation, identifying the substance of the utterance, by teasing it out of the discourse and historicizing the ends to which they were used.64 It is with an awareness of these issues that one must approach the discourse of diplomacy in Chosŏn and Ming interactions.
It is in part to give due weight to the strategic use of representation (discourse and ritual) in Chosŏn-Ming relations that this study parts ways from existing scholarship,65 whose analyses revolve around the idea of the "tributary system." This paradigm informs the study of not only Chosŏn-Ming relations, but also much of Korean-Chinese relations in the premodern period, not to mention interpolity relations in premodern East Asia as a whole. Understood as an "overarching set of rules that governed international relations at the time," the "tributary system" enforced a hierarchical order that maintained "Chinese hegemony" while "provid[ing] a set of tools for resolving conflicting goals and interests short of resorting to war."66 In an East Asia under a "Chinese world order," those who desired goods from China dispatched regular tribute missions in exchange for formal political recognition.67 As described by John King Fairbank and his collaborators, in particular S.Y. Têng, and Mark Mancall and Chun Haejong in the Chinese World Order,68 the "tributary system" is not simply an analytical category, but the institutional manifestation of a "normative pattern... developed and perpetuated by the rulers of China over many centuries."69 In other words, it was also the discourse of diplomacy, the way interpolity relations were talked about by historical actors themselves.
The "tributary system" has oriented the study of Korean diplomatic history across multiple academic communities.70 In lieu of "tributary relations," Korean and Japanese scholars tend to prefer a variation of the term "tribute-investiture system" (Kr: chogong-chaekpong ch'egye, Jp: chōkō--sakufū taikei 朝貢冊封體系) or the general notion of a regional East Asian order.71 Sinophone scholars also use this terminology as well, but also use "suzerain-vassal institutions" (Ch: zongfan tizhi 宗藩體制) or (Ch: zongfan guanxi 宗藩關係).72 As Koo Bumjin has argued, despite their diverse nomenclature, they essentially operate within the Fairbankian paradigm outlined in the Chinese World Order. These frameworks ultimately share a focus on issues of institutional, political, and economic history and disagree little in how practices such as tribute missions and rites of investiture are interpreted.
Common analytical perspectives translate into shared hazards. These problems are connected in particular to the idea that Chosŏn Korea was a "model" tributary of the Ming. Each can also be addressed with by rethinking them in terms of "empire" They are as follows. The first is the problem of Sinocentrism, which can take a variety of forms. On an analytical level, it is the privileging of a Sinocentric discourse in our terms of analysis. On a conceptual level, it is the casual conflation of a host of distinct phenomenon---from imperial formations, vast bodies of text, to the entire Confucian tradition---with some essentialist idea of "China." And, on a historiographical level, it is a systematic discounting of the historical agency of actors on China's "periphery," in this case, Korea. These are related to a second problem, that of contextual and diachronic perspective, where an overarching, stable model is upheld at the expense of historical specificity and resolution. The final problem, which is in turn related to the discounting of Korean agency, is the inadequate accounting the role of ritual and literary practices in the construction of "tributary relations."
The problem of Sinocentrism is in many ways inherent to the paradigm. By emphasizing dyadic relationships founded on the institutions of "tribute," ritualistic gifts that recognize imperial overlordship and "investiture," the imperial grant of patents recognizing local rulers, this paradigm assumes that tributary practices largely derive from "Chinese ideas" that enforce hierarchies delineated by "Confucian notions of cultural achievement."73 Polities like Chosŏn Korea were thus integrated in a Sinocentric (Kr: Chunghwa sasang 中華思想) vision of the world. Foregrounding the technologies and discourses of Sinocentric imperial rule in analytical vocabulary risks conflating the ideology present in imperial sources with the "actual" operations of the East Asian world order.74
Another point of criticism that the paradigm has elicited is best represented by scholars of New Qing History and Inner Asia. They have interrogated whether imperial practices really reflect a singular Chinese view at all. They have shown how a variety of imperial traditions, world views, and technologies of legitimation, many drawn from non-Chinese traditions, such as those of Qing China's Manchu rulers and their non-Chinese constituents informed interstate relations.75 In the case of Chosŏn-Ming relations, as Peter Yun has shown, many practices considered typical of Korean relations with imperial China in fact owe to the Mongol-Yuan innovations.76 Furthermore, they view the adoption of pre-existing Chinese institutions by Manchu (and Mongol) conquerors of China not as a story of inevitable "Siniciziation" but rather as a process of appropriation.77 It is therefore important to appreciate different threads, trajectories, and genealogies of imperial practice across time, while accounting for agency in processes of appropriation.78
Scholars working in Korea have long recognized the limitations of the tributary system paradigm and have endeavored to address the issues of Sinocentric perspectives by emphasizing change over time and the particulars of the Korean experience. Lee Ik Joo and several other prominent scholars in Korea have compared how tributary relations took on a variety of forms for Korea from their early origins in the third century to their collapse in the nineteenth century, a welcome remedy to the pitfalls of a totalizing, imperial perspective.79 This pericentric view decouples Korea's experience from a metropole-projected "world order;" Korea is no longer a spoke in the proverbial imperial wheel, but a partner in a dyadic relationship.
A pericentric view is only the first step for addressing the problems the Fairbankian paradigm presents. Fairbank wrote that the "world order" was a "unified concept only at the Chinese end and only on the normative level," implying that any pericentric view, such as one that examines how Mongols or Tibetans viewed the empire---80promised to destabilize the relationship between imperial ideology and practices on the ground. Chosŏn Korea however, is an exception, for it was the only polity "attracted" only by "cultural and ideological" means, and not coerced by force or incentivized by material gain.81 Korea's semiotic participation in the project of empire---writing, performing, and acting in its discourses and ritual regimes---make it impossible to cleanly separate the Korean perspective from an imperial one, even for heuristic purposes. Although tributary relations took on various forms throughout the history of Sino-Korean interactions, the degree to which Korean polities, especially the Koryŏ and the Chosŏn seemed to acknowledge its normativity only speaks to the paradigm's relevance.
For these reasons, the Chosŏn-Ming relationship is idealized as a quintessential illustration of what the "tributary system" was.82 This is especially true for the period this dissertation examines, the two centuries between the establishment of the Chosŏn dynasty in 1392 and the outbreak of the Imjin War in 1592.83 Although Chosŏn-Ming relations were fractious during the first two decades, they soon stabilized, and in the words of Donald Clark, "the tribute system functioned relatively smoothly until the last decade of the sixteenth century."84 The terms established during this period then became the basis for "tributary relations" for centuries to come.85 These two macro-historical events: the dynasty's founding and a cataclysmic war, both subjects of extensive historiographical treatment, serve as bookends in the standard narrative of Sino-Korean relations.86
To be sure, there is no shortage of empirical work on the particulars of Chosŏn-Ming relations during the "placid" period,87 in English, Korean, Chinese and Japanese. Studies on the shifts in Ming diplomatic personnel and its relationship to Ming politics are an example.88 Other works focus on periods following dynastic turmoil, such as the Chungjong restoration of 1506, where the seemingly routine matters of investiture and tribute were sources of controversy.89 Territorial disputes,90 exacerbated by cross-border conflict with Jurchens and the Uriyangkhai, are another area of contention in Chosŏn-Ming relations that scholars have examined.91
These studies approach Sino-Korean relations largely through the lens of traditional diplomatic history, emphasizing trade, warfare, and political negotiation. Another body of scholarship examines the practice of diplomacy itself, turning to the history of concrete institutional practices. They are interested, for instance, in the frequency and practice of envoy travel, the flow of documents, and the verification of envoy identities.92 Other works turn to the establishment of ritual regimes to enforce political hierarchies.93 This body of scholarship, especially in Korean, has increased our understanding of the institutional operation of Korean diplomacy, but have not fundamentally challenged the standard narrative, that the two centuries between 1392 and 1592 can be adequately characterized as reflecting the "tributary system" at work.94
Further inquiry along the same paradigm will inevitably reproduce existing axes of analysis and become a mere case study confirming what existing analytical frameworks have totalized in their explanations. Even if a diachronic sensitivity can increase awareness of difference across time, we still lack a conceptual apparatus that can be used to explain how these practices evolved from within. Only macro-historical events, such as the Chosŏn or Ming dynastic foundation, or cataclysmic wars like the Imjin War (1592--1597) or Manchu Wars (1627, 1636), and the impact of foreign colonialism in the nineteenth century, appear able to alter the structure of "tributary relations."95 Once the Chosŏn court established tributary relations with the Ming, it entered into a rigid, pre-existing structure and appeared powerless to alter it.
These factors are responsible for the prevalent characterization of Korea, and especially Chosŏn, as China's so-called "model tributary."96 This characterization is conceptually problematic and ultimately short-circuits our historical agency by occluding Korean agency, a result of an inadequate accounting of the role ritual and literary practices played in constructing Chosŏn-Ming relations during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.
Viewing Korea as a "model" tributary leads to an array of epistemic and methodological fallacies. Chosŏn Korea was a "model" tributary because it functioned as an ideal tributary state should; and, it was also "paradigmatic" for best illustrating how the tributary system worked. Here the ouroboros consumes its own tail. To explain Chosŏn-Ming relations as an example of "tributary relations" is to say nothing more than Chosŏn-Ming relations operated like itself. It would be analogous to stating that the European Union is a representative example of a "transnational order" and defining, a priori, that "transnational order" is whatever the European Union happens to be. What does it mean when an example is paradigmatic, and yet is, essentially, the model of itself?
The problem is not only logical, but also empirical. The conformity of ideology and practice, which premised the notion of a "model tributary," was not so seamless in the actual operation of Korean diplomacy. Cha Hyewŏn, in addressing the many inconsistencies with seeing Chosŏn as a "model," calls attention to the politics of self-representation, where "overt and outwardly ingratiating displays of affection that [Chosŏn] deployed to honor China may not necessarily align with its true feelings toward the country."97 The political use of rhetoric and representation places assumptions of Chosŏn's sincere adherence to imperial ideology on shaky ground. Nonetheless, since the Chosŏn court professed these "ingratiating displays of affection" so convincingly, and so consistently, it is hard to argue that there not real sentiments behind them. While evidence against the transparent authenticity of these sentiments exist,98 the kind of outright defiance in public ideology evident in late Chosŏn attitudes towards the Manchu Qing are not easily found in early Chosŏn sources.99 Furthermore, the Chosŏn-Ming relationship even came to be idealized in the late Chosŏn memory and discourse.100 Indeed, it was often Korean envoys themselves who described Chosŏn Korea as the Ming's model tributary.101
This massive body of literal declarations of fealty and admiration have been used to suggest Chosŏn participation in the Ming "tributary system" was an inevitable outgrowth of Korean ideological predilections. In these analytical tropes, the Chosŏn sought tributary relations with the Ming because of the Neo-Confucian orientation of Chosŏn's founders, which was expressed in an ideology of sadae or "Serving the Greater" (sadae juŭi 事大主義), a reflection Korea's "admiration for China" (mohwa sasang/ muhua sixiang 慕華思想).102 As deterministic understandings of the relationship between culture and structure, they provide self-evident explanations for the history of Chosŏn-Ming relations, as any particular historical phenomenon can simply be explained as an expression of these ideological predilections.
These tropes contain a series of problematic assumptions and logical leaps. There is an implicit teleology in the "Neo-Confucian" narrative, which skirts around the question of historical causality. It is undeniable that Neo-Confucian discourses were deployed in Chosŏn's diplomatic approach towards the Ming. But, while Neo-Confucianism was influential in the early Chosŏn, it had yet become a dominant orthodoxy; it is dangerous to read the first two centuries of Chosŏn history from a vantage point that presumes the eventual, firm establishment of Neo-Confucianism in Chosŏn court and elite after the sixteenth century.103
If the Neo-Confucian explanation suffers from teleology, the idea of "admiring China" suffers from tautology. Quite prevalent in Sinophone scholarship, it attributes Chosŏn's tributary relationship with the Ming to the affinity toward Chinese civilization on the part of the Korean elite. There is a grain of truth to this, since some members of the Chosŏn elite did exhibit admiration for Ming elite culture. Those who traveled to China as envoys often took pride in having done so. However, explanation is both logically recursive and empirically reductive. For one, affinity towards Chinese culture does not necessarily inspire the desire for political allegiance. Furthermore, the primary evidence for ascribing Korean political allegiance to "admiration" of "Chinese civilization" is Korean participation in the tributary exchange and statements gleaned from Chosŏn envoys, who often expressed them explicitly for an imperial audience. We cannot then use this professed admiration as the sole explanatory cause for the phenomena of tributary relations, when tributary relations was the evidence for this admiration in the first place. Since professions of "admiration" also served clear political ends, not to mention that Chosŏn Koreans, including court envoys, also harbored complex and sometimes antagonistic sentiments towards the Ming, it seems then "admiring China," should also be treated as part of a Korean discourse of self-representation; it cannot then be reinserted into the interiority of the Chosŏn envoy-scholar as a causal explanation.
The prevalence of this trope reflects an unexamined assumption that Chinese things should naturally be admired. It is essentially a figment of what I call the "Whig narrative" of Chinese imperial history. Like the Whig reading of British imperial history, the Chinese Whig narrative either assumes or tries to demonstrate that the Chinese imperial project was essentially and inherently moral and that its political successes can be attributed to its morality.104 In the Chinese case, the persistence of the tributary system through the Ming and Qing periods demonstrates the success of imperial influence, when its "moral civilization/transformation" (Ch: dehua 德化) earned the admiration of faraway people.105 Like the Whig narrative of British imperial history, this position assumes the inherent normativity and naturalness of imperial power, and never interrogates its presumed legitimacy, or why those who turned to imperial authority did so in the first place.106 This interrogation may be unnecessary, when writing from a Sinocentric and empire-centered perspective that adopts the vantage of an imperial gaze, but it is untenable when one wants to take seriously the historical experience of those who were threatened by, and thus had to reckon with and manage imperial power.107
These tropes have stunted our historical curiosity by portraying the "tributary system" as an inevitable consequence of stable ideological dispositions. Literary expressions in envoy poetry or diplomatic missives, which form the core of this dissertation, became, along with Chosŏn tribute missions and Ming enfeoffment of Korean rulers, rituals that either reflected a preexisting hierarchical order between the Ming as suzerain and the Chosŏn as its tributary and showed Korean adherence to a particular ideology.108 In short, Chosŏn and Ming diplomatic practices were effectively black-boxed in the paradigm of "tributary relations." Since how these relations operate is already theorized, further scrutiny of these cultural practices may offer additional texture, detail, or subtlety, but have no potential to fundamentally alter our historical understanding.
To read cultural production only as subordinate to or as byproduct of the structure of tributary relations, however, fundamentally distorts the role of cultural production. I argue something of the converse: that the "structure" of the tributary system actually emerged from literary and cultural practices. To understand how this worked, we must open the figurative black box of the "tributary system" and examine Korean diplomatic practices, not as reflective, but as constitutive, with the potential to alter the terms and even the structure of a relationship.
What is needed therefore is an approach that tackles the questions of representation, discourse, and symbolism in the practice of diplomacy. The approach needs to sidestep the historiographical rut created by generations of scholarship on premodern East Asian relations that has largely treated ideology as determinative of, rather than constituted by cultural practices. Rather than a diplomatic history in the traditional sense, I propose something methodologically akin to a "cultural history of diplomacy." In lieu of what states and their actors negotiated and contested, it centers on the practice of official interaction and what was produced from it.109
I eschew the use of the "tributary system" as an overarching framework;110 nonetheless, by thinking of Chosŏn-Ming diplomatic relations in terms of a history of empire, I am still interested in the macro-historical questions that the tributary framework was meant to answer, such as how the Chosŏn and the Ming maintained stable relations over two centuries. It, however, shifts the search for causality in what Karen Barkey has called the "meso--" level of "intermediary spaces."111 Institutional actors such as Korean and Chinese envoys and interpreters, who operated as go-betweens for the Chosŏn and Ming courts, come to the fore as central protagonists of this story.112 Theirs is also a story of how those on the margins of empire could interpolate and interweave into the process of its construction. At this level of analysis, their seemingly minute interactions---letter exchanges, envoy poetry, ceremonial displays---constitute and ultimately shape ideological and structural patterns.
A history of empire in early Chosŏn is also a story of how the Chosŏn court grappled with the Ming to comprehend their relationship, so that it could control--- bring sense, regularity, and predictability to its dynamics. Chosŏn-Ming diplomacy often engendered processes that eluded the total control of either party. Pervasive smuggling and illicit trade under the cover of tributary missions, activities which sometimes threatened the feasibility and operation of envoy exchange itself, are cases in point. A parallel dynamic can be observed on the level of cultural and ideological construction as well. The Chosŏn court interpolated Korea into the cultural and ideological constructs of the Ming. It helped reinforce Ming imperial authority that, in theory, extended to all-under-heaven. These constructs did not truly comprise a "world order," at least insomuch as "order" implies a comprehensibility, legibility, and coherence between the imagined and the observed. It was instead a desire of order---an imposition of coherence that could make all the messy complexities legible to the interests of the Chosŏn and Ming courts. In short, all the hackneyed representations in historical sources thought of as emblematic of the "tributary system" and the "Chinese World Order"---not least of all the notion that the Ming ruler was a virtuous universal sovereign and the Chosŏn king was his loyal vassal---were only that, representations. These narratives of how the relationship worked were hopelessly imperfect, often a result of many distillations of the phenomena they supposedly described. Such descriptions, however, were neither accidental nor inert. Representations did not only describe, they enabled. By structuring the world and making diverse, often complex phenomena legible, these representations constituted a form of knowledge, a regime of interpretation that made action, and therefore, agency possible.
The Korean construction of a vision of Chosŏn and its place in empire should be seen as an investment in what I refer to as a "knowledge of empire." By "knowledge," I am thinking in terms of two distinct, but related forms. They are differentiated by French thinkers like Henri Lefebvre through the terms savoir, which points to the first, and connaissance, which points to the second. The first form of knowledge is found in the constructs produced from a dialectic relationship between the epistemic structures and the phenomenological "reality" they were meant to comprehend. This is the knowledge, in the words of Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, that "constitutes the fabric of meanings" and provides "relevance structures" that make interpretation of "objective reality" possible.113 The second form of knowledge can be thought of as the repertoire of tactics and strategies that allow one to navigate those constructs. Although Lefebvre conceives these forms to be in "antagonism," in which the former "serves power" and the latter "refuses to acknowledge power," they can in fact be mutually constitutive.114 Tactics of navigation (connaissance), whether in the form of direct subversion, deflection, or appropriation, are only legible and effective within a particular framework of knowledge (savoir). A tactic (connaissance), insofar as it acknowledges the epistemic structures (savoir) it seeks to manipulate or circumvent, not only constructs and reinforces them, but also requires that they are readily legible; otherwise the tactic is both meaningless and ineffectual.
In the context of this discussion of early Chosŏn diplomacy, "knowledge of empire" refers both to the act of constructing "empire" as a legible entity and the tactics that allow Chosŏn agents to navigate them. Though they are in theory separate, they are intertwined intimately in practice. The Chosŏn tried to make empire work in their favor. To do so required first comprehending the ideological basis of empire and then contesting it by producing an alternative vision that could fit seamlessly with the original.
The imperial tradition itself was one portion of this knowledge. Korean diplomats could negotiate imperial policy or contest imperial claims because they mastered the Confucian classics, imperial histories, and the imperial language (literary and spoken Chinese, and during the Yuan period, Mongolian). Korean interactions with empire could therefore intercede and transform what empire was supposed to be, because it built on a preexisting imperial tradition and interfaced with the institutional and discursive production of imperial authority at the Ming court. For instance, the Chosŏn exploited classical tropes, such as the idea that "submission" (pok/fu 服) by "distant peoples" (wŏn'in/yuanren 遠人), authenticated the moral virtue of the imperial house. Although this notion was arguably always important to imperial conceptions of political order, how it was institutionalized in Chosŏn-Ming relations was unprecedented.115 The Chosŏn leveraged this notion to carve an essential place for Korea within the imperial imagination in order to displace preexisting ideas, ones which perceived Korea either as an object of irredentist ambitions or a realm beyond the pale. The relationship between mastery and politics was thus dialectic; the political demands of diplomacy encouraged mastery, while mastery further linked Korea to empire.
Interacting with empire through the language and symbols of imperial power may have facilitated communication, but it also implicitly legitimized and strengthened imperial authority, for it deployed the discourse of power on which imperial authority rested. The geopolitical reality of vast differentials of power meant that Korea had to reckon with a neighbor whose superior command of human and natural resources loomed as a serious existential threat, while Korea's status as a target of irredentist ambitions in certain interpretations of the imperial tradition meant that a potential rationalization for the obliteration of any Korean state always lurked in the shadows. Letters written to imperial throne had to reckon with the very real, though often unspoken, potential of overwhelming imperial power in the form of an invading army, but, more often than not, used the opportunity to create and fashion an imperial image, not only one of august majesty, infinite power, but also one that was tempered, rational, merciful, and most importantly, civilized.
Even if Chosŏn were to ignore the legitimating technologies of its imperial neighbor, refusing to participate in its construction of authority, the peculiar place of Korea within the imperial tradition meant that Korea, as an object of imperial desire, would never be free from the gaze of empire. The Korean choice to participate in the construction of empire could be construed, as Chŏng Chiyŏng has, as a "weapon of the weak." Rather than deny imperial claims outright, it sought to alter them, using the "tools of the master," the language of empire itself. Therefore, the effectiveness of diplomatic rhetoric required anticipating how the privileged imperial observer looks upon a "barbarian Other," "infantaliz[ing] and trivializ[ing] what [its gaze] falls upon."116 Chosŏn had to be made legible to the imperial agent who presumed his own cultural values universal and paramount. To anticipate imperial eyes, the Korean envoy employed chiefly two sorts of rhetorical tactics. The first tactic was "autoethnography." Mary Louise Pratt uses "autoethnography" to "[refer] to instances in which colonized subjects undertake to represent themselves in ways that engage with the colonizer's terms." These texts "[collaborated] with and [appropriated] the idioms of the conqueror."117 Korean drafters of diplomatic missives and the envoys who bore them were ever conscientious of what the imperial tradition meant to their audience and composed their letters, poems, and memorials to be legible to them.
Though the Chosŏn-Ming situation shares the asymmetrical power dynamics of a colonial context, it differs fundamentally in one important way. The "colonizer's terms," in this case the discourse of the imperial histories and classics, had long been appropriated and owned by the Korean elite since at least the seventh century, if not earlier. This distinction is an important caveat. The colonial context of autoethnography implies a degree of alienation between the colonized subject and the discourse of the colonized; this kind of alienation was not present for early modern Korea. The Chosŏn court never doubted its ecumenical membership or saw itself to be any less a legitimate heir of the classical past than the Ming. Nevertheless, "autoethnography" is appropriate because a Korean envoy often had to contend with Ming counterparts, whose attitudes towards empire were strongly colored by notions of cultural and ethnic superiority. Imperial officials often described Koreans as "barbarians" (Ch: waiyi, Kr: oei 外夷) and relegated them to the ecumenical margin. Korean autoethnography then, sought to dispel the imperial gaze of what they considered to be an erroneous view, but in doing so they had to elevate Korea in terms of imperial discourse, ultimately acknowledging the discourse's legitimacy.
The second rhetorical tactic at work is what I call the "imperializing mode." Whereas autoethnography was a mode of self-representation, the imperializing mode was a set of rhetorical tropes that brought to bear the normative elements of the imperial tradition to the table of negotiation. Texts and gestures that make use of this mode sought to exhort the imperial state and its representatives to behave according to their own professed values. In this sense, it is similar to autoethnography as it requires collaboration with and appropriation of imperial discourse. The strategies it entails requires the selective and judicious deployment of the imperial tradition to cajole, entice, and ultimately persuade an emperor or his official to a course of action beneficial to the supplicant. In this sense, the imperializing mode was hardly the exclusive property of Korean envoys, but a manner of appeal that was quite common in the context of court politics. Courtiers who found themselves needing remonstrate with recalcitrant rulers were in positions where power asymmetry could be quite severe, and resorted to this rhetorical strategy to achieve their own ends.118 But, what made the use of this imperializing mode peculiar to the Korean context was how the target of persuasion shifted away from the imperial person. Imperial officials, military officers, eunuch chamberlains, literati ministers and even private scholars all became its target as Korean diplomats foisted the demands of imperial magnanimity onto them.
By aligning Korean diplomatic goals with imperial prerogatives, the Chosŏn court was able to achieve its own ends without appearing to challenge imperial authority. Although the Ming was the dominant party in this relationship, the discourse of empire produced out of it was not one of Ming hegemony, but rather a counter-hegemonic one.119 It veiled Korean claims of sovereignty, autonomy, and cultural parity under a guise of Ming supremacy. The ideologies of empire espoused by the Chosŏn was not to adorn Ming hegemony, but to conceal the challenge Korea posed to the imperial state's claims to universal political authority and its monopoly on the legacies of classical civilization. The language of imperial adulation in Korean diplomatic writing, then, was never simply "lip-service" or even "legitimation." Their cumulative role in the production of empire, especially when taken in the longue durée was in fact much more subtle, for they were the very substance of its construction.
Foregrounding the strategic uses of language and representation also obviates the need to determine, once and for all, whether particular declarations reflected genuine sentiment. Rather than try to pin down or distill what is authentic from these declarations, I will embrace their diversity and seek instead to locate the kinds of cultural and political work they were deployed to do. A discourse of "sincere" subservience to the Ming and Korea as a loyal, "ideal tributary," should not be taken as transparent description or historical fact but rather as strategic utterance infused with political intent. What needs to be avoided is an analysis that generalizes Chosŏn Korea as a "model" tributary state simply because historical actors seem to suggest so. Doing so ignores the "cultural work" that such statements performed in a Korean strategy of self-representation. Rather than be seduced by such representations, we can instead move towards a historicized understanding of how this notion came into being and how it was used. This understanding will not only show how such representations in fact altered Chosŏn-Ming relations, but also reveal how Chosŏn appropriated Ming ideology and its imperial tradition as part of its diplomatic strategy.
The Chosŏn made the preservation of Korean political autonomy a keystone concept in their vision of empire, and ultimately succeeded in ensconcing it in the imperial tradition. By the end of the Ming period, a legitimate imperial power was obligated to preserve and respect Korea's political autonomy, even when it had the wherewithal to subjugate and annex Chosŏn to its dominion. This notion of an inviolable Korean autonomy would have lasting reverberations and implications for how Koreans considered political sovereignty and understood their relations with its neighbors, down from centuries to the present day. This history of Chosŏn and empire is clearly an integral chapter in the formation of Korean identity and the history of nationalism. At the same time, it is also a history of how Korea fit in empire, not so much in territorial terms, but in terms of empire as a transnational political imaginary---a moral and philosophical ideal.
The Chosŏn court had significant stake in maintaining and perpetuating empire as an ideal. Only by participating in its production could it hope to insert into it notions of Korea's political autonomy or cultural coevality with the Ming. The Chosŏn court's regular dispatch of envoys peddled these narratives of self repeatedly over the centuries, but it would take more than a compelling narrative to convince the Ming. A mastery of a tactical form of knowledge, and the cooperation of its own agents, was indispensable. For this reason, Chosŏn's envoys, courtiers, and interpreters kept records, collected poems, letters and memorial, and compiled institutional handbooks and language manuals with the awareness that they would be consulted in the future. The production of knowledge invested these discrete gestures of fashioning empire with lasting significance. Momentary acts, by shaping later practice, had cumulative effect. A past precedent set in the past, once documented, could acquire a normative authority.
This awareness transforms wide swaths of the historical record that have largely been neglected by historians into crucial sources. With issues of representation underscored, the exchange of envoy poetry, the composition of routine, "ritualistic" diplomatic memorials, and ceremonial procedures now become central to the story. These include diaries of envoy missions, letters and poems exchanged with imperial officials located literary anthologies (munjip 文集) of Korean literati officials.120 Other literary sources include massive Chosŏn court compilations such as the Literary Selections of the East (Tongmunsŏn 東文選), notable for its repository of diplomatic memorials, and a series of Ming-Chosŏn envoy poetry collections, the Anthologies of Brilliant Flowers (Hwanghwajip 皇華集).121 They will be supplemented by miscellanies (p'ilgi 筆記), whose anecdotal accounts provide valuable windows into the social context of diplomacy.122 Often compiled by Chosŏn officials who were personally involved with diplomacy, these and diaries of embassies to the Ming provide first-hand accounts of diplomatic interactions.123
What these sources have in common is that they were immediate products or media of diplomatic exchange. Empire, then, was in many ways sustained by words on paper, a "fictive" production, made expressly for imperial consumption. That did not mean it was merely fictional, because these texts and the discourses and ideologies they contained had tangible, if subtle effects on politics. These sources should be understood in terms of a "social history of knowledge," in which they are not treated as inert repositories, but as bodies of knowledge with cultural work to do.124 Ideological claims expressed in these sources, then, should not be treated as inert veneers painted by the imperial center, but as open-ended and dynamic constructs that Korean modes of self-representation and diplomatic strategy could interact with and shape. This reading thus offers a correction to narratives that overlooked Korean agency in constructing the "tributary system." Since it was precisely in these mechanisms of self-representation that Korean agency was most pronounced, any framework that overlooks or marginalizes these processes also ignores a priori the way Korean actors were in fact involved. The quantity of material, human and cultural resources that the early modern Korean court invested in tribute missions, the entertainment of Ming envoys, literary compilations and diplomatic ceremony must be accounted for.
Although literary anthologies and diplomatic missives form the bulk of the material investigated, no understanding of the knowledge of empire without considering institutional records and court chronicles. Official Korean records are no stranger to any scholar of Korean history. In particular, the Veritable Records of the Chosŏn Dynasty remains an important chronicle.125 The Veritable Records also includes numerous diplomatic missives, envoy reports and detailed accounts of Ming envoy visits. Other compilations of the Chosŏn court used here include institutional handbooks and language textbooks, which together were used to train and guide Korean interpreters, who often managed the routine matters of diplomatic activity.126
No picture of Chosŏn-Ming interaction would be complete without a consideration of Ming materials, far less detailed and extensive though they are. In many ways they parallel Chosŏn materials. Ming literary collections offer glimpses into how Korea was perceived by the Ming elite.127 Most valuable among Ming source materials are envoys' records, which document their sojourns in Korea,128 and a variety of encyclopedic Ming writings documenting Ming relations with foreign peoples.129 Institutional texts such as the Ming Compendium (Ming Huidian 明會典) and the Ming Veritable Records (Ming shilu 明實錄) only deal cursorily with Ming relations with Chosŏn, but are important for illustrating how attitudes towards Korea were formalized in official discourse.
These texts helped constitute a knowledge of empire. Used both for comprehending the Ming and its institutions and influencing imperial ideology, the knowledge of empire was a set of technologies that enabled the Chosŏn court and its agents to assert Korean sovereign claims. The vivid imperial presence that materialized in the historical record, then, was intimately tied to Korean diplomatic strategy and the production of knowledge that guided it. Once empire became an object of knowledge, it became a resource to be appropriated, often in contexts with only tangential relevance to the exigencies of diplomacy. For the agents of both the Chosŏn and Ming courts, participation in empire could be motivated by a host of disparate, and often personal, concerns. Economic profit, literary reputation, political power, and social status were among them. A fundamental tension thus emerges between the desire of the Korean court to master and control this knowledge and the disparate sites and diffuse processes in which they come to be produced and deployed.
What also emerged from the confluence of these processes is a dynamic of knowledge and power that is also quite distinct from what has usually been observed between imperial "metropoles" and their "peripheries." Rather than a central archive that foregrounds the experience and perspective of imperial rule, what we have that squarely centers the experience of the peripheral. In the Chosŏn-Ming case, it is not in the imperial "metropole" that knowledge about empire is produced and preserved, instead this knowledge was located in its erstwhile "periphery." In many ways then, it was Chosŏn Korea that maintained empire, at least for this corner of all-under-heaven.
The dissertation is in six chapters. Each of the first three chapters deal with one aspect of early Chosŏn diplomacy with the Ming that have not been fully accounted for by long-standing interpretations of Chosŏn-Ming relations. They are: the presentation of diplomatic memorials, the political ramifications of ecumenical discourse, and the importance of intelligence gathering for envoy missions. Chapter 1 deconstructs a prevailing stereotype of Chosŏn Korea as the Ming's "most loyal tributary," by examining Korean diplomatic memorials preserved in the fifteenth century Chosŏn court compilation, the Literary Selections of the East. It argues Korean memorial composers appropriated a genre of imperial encomium to interpolate into a process of imperial legitimation. Chapter 2 examines how Chosŏn envoys also held Ming officials responsible in a similar manner in their letters of appeal. Records related to these appeals---envoy reports, interpreter's manuals, and the letters of appeals themselves---show Korean envoys walked a fine line, navigating contradictory visions of this imaginary at the Ming court. These ideals, often used by scholars to describe Chosŏn-Ming relations as a whole therefore emerged from Korean rhetorical strategies of negotiation.
The effectiveness of Korean appeals rested on the Chosŏn court's practical savvy about the intricate workings of Ming institutions it nurtured by investing in regular envoy missions. Chapter 3 understands envoy exchange as a channel the Chosŏn court could use to influence the dynamics of empire. Korean envoy travel to the Ming fostered unofficial, unsanctioned, and often clandestine relationships between the Chosŏn court and Ming officials. These connections allowed Chosŏn to acquire information about Ming political developments vital to Chosŏn's decision-making process.
Whereas previous chapters discussed how techniques of engagement and representation, dynamics of knowledge production, and social connections came to constitute empire, Chapter 4, argues that these all became resources for appropriation and manipulation. It follows the dramatic rise of Prince Suyang who had used diplomacy with the Ming to become the king of Korea (King Sejo). Although diplomacy was the exclusive prerogative of the monarch, his representatives could appropriate and usurp these functions in practice. As king, he continued to appropriate Ming authority instrumentally, flouting Ming orders and concealing his insubordination through assiduous self-representation.
Suyang's reign also saw the emergence of novel techniques of Korean self-representation, namely the Korean compiled anthologies of Chosŏn-Ming envoy poetry, the Brilliant Flowers. When Korean diplomacy appealed to Ming authority, it could mitigate unfavorable imperial policies, but it also risked undercutting the Chosŏn court's own claims of cultural and political sovereignty. Chapter 5 argues that the Brilliant Flowers addressed this particular dilemma. Envoy poetry posed as transparent celebration of imperial grandeur, but through their composition, Chosŏn poet-envoys contested empire by clarifying the ideological bases for Ming sovereignty and positing alternative narratives for triangulating the relationships between Chosŏn, the Ming, and the imperial tradition. Chapter 6 address spatial practices of historical self-representation. The Chosŏn court used historical sites in the city of P'yŏngyang related to the legendary Shang Chinese prince Kija, widely credited with bringing civilization to Korea, to represent particular narratives of Korea's history to Ming visitors. Chosŏn secured Korean links to the Kija mythos and divested it of resonances with an irredentist view of Korea as lost imperial territory. Kija became instead a symbol for Korea's status as an autonomous and civilized political entity, which the Chosŏn court used to designate legitimate bounds of imperial desire.