Chosŏn’s Office of Interpreters: The Apt Response and the Knowledge Culture of Diplomacy

2020 “Chosŏn’s Office of Interpreters: The Apt Response and the Knowledge Culture of Diplomacy.” The Journal for the History of Knowledge.


From 1392 until its dissolution in 1894, Chosŏn Korea’s Office of Interpreters managed diplomatic relations with its vastly more powerful Ming and Qing neighbors. The Office was originally conceived out of a bureaucratic strategy to formalize the training of its interpreters and manage the volatile knowledge they possessed. This bureaucratizing of diplomacy created a distinct socio-economic niche for these interpreters, facilitating their social reproduction. This paper argues that a distinct culture of knowledge also emerged in this process. Beyond language, interpreters also translated between multiple domains of knowledge. As experts of diplomatic protocol, they served as informants to their social and administrative superiors. As scholars, they produced compendia and handbooks that made their office legible to outsiders. As specialists, they asserted the dignity of their craft. And as diplomats, they were tasked with furnishing the “apt response” that moved between local exigency and the demands of state ideology. Herein lies the central dilemma of bureaucratic knowledge: the skill to do so required both cultivated erudition as well as accumulated experience, but its timely execution could not be legislated through bureaucratic rules—a tension between the desire to control and the need to preserve agency. The paper deliberately locates bureaucracy in a domain (diplomacy), place (East Asia), and a time (premodern) that was not supposed to ‘have’ bureaucracy in order to dispute the casual conflation of bureaucratization with modernization that has obscured the Korean Office of Interpreters in the global history of diplomacy.


Compiling diplomacy: record-keeping and archival practices in Chosŏn Korea

2019 “Compiling diplomacy: record-keeping and archival practices in Chosŏn Korea,” Journal of Korean Studies (2019) 24 (2): 255–287

The Chosŏn court kept meticulous records of its interactions with their Ming, and later, their Qing neighbors. These materials, especially those that predate the nineteenth century, survive not in the form of original materials but rather as entries in court-sponsored compilations. For instance, the monumental Tongmun hwigo, published in 1788, categorizes diplomatic activity according to areas of policy concern. Its organizational scheme, handy for a Chosŏn official searching for relevant precedents, has also provided ready material for historical case studies. What has been less appreciated, however, are how such records came into being in the first place. By interrogating the status of these compilations as “archives,” this article follows how diplomatic documents were produced, used, and compiled as both products and instruments of diplomatic practice. In reading these materials as instruments of knowledge, rather than mere sources of historical documentation, this essay also makes the case for going beyond diplomatic history as interstate relations and towards a cultural and epistemic history of Korean diplomatic practice.


  • pg. 262 "chinch’ŏngp’yo 陳請表 –> "chinjŏngp’yo 陳情表

What Tang Taizong Could Not Do: The Koryŏ Surrender of 1259 and the Imperial Tradition

2018 “What Tang Taizong Could Not Do: The Koryŏ Surrender of 1259 and the Imperial Tradition” T’oung Pao 104:3-4 (October).



The surrender of the Koryŏ crown prince to Khubilai Khan in 1259 heralded a century of Mongol domination in Korea. According to the Koryŏ sa, the official Korean dynastic history, Khubilai saw the timely Korean capitulation as demonstrating his superiority over the Tang emperor Taizong, who had failed to subjugate Korea by force. Although the account certainly embellished certain details, notably the voluntary nature of the surrender, this paper argues that it nonetheless captures an important dynamic between Korean diplomatic strategy and the political and ideological goals of Khubilai and his advisers. The Koryŏ court, hoping to ensure the kingship’s institutional survival, portrayed Korea as representing the cultural and political legacies of the imperial past to make common cause with Khubilai’s officials who sought to recast the Mongol empire in the image of China’s past imperial dynasties. The convergence of Korean diplomatic missives, accounts in Chinese and Korean historiography, and writings by Khubilai’s closest Chinese advisers on the themes of imperial restoration and cultural revival result in part from these interactions. Moreover, these interactions helped interpolate Korea into the repertoire of political legitimation, in which Korea’s role was redefined from an object of irredentist desire, to a component in the construction of imperial authority.



La soumission du prince héritier de Koryŏ à Khubilai Khan en 1259 inaugura un siècle de domination mongole en Corée. Selon le Koryŏ sa, l’histoire dynastique officielle de Corée, Khubilai appréhenda la capitulation comme une preuve de sa propre supériorité sur l’empereur Taizong des Tang, qui jadis avait échoué à subjuguer la Corée par la force. Bien que ce récit embellisse sans aucun doute certains détails, notamment la nature volontaire de la capitulation, l’article montre qu’il éclaire néanmoins l’articulation entre la stratégie diplomatique coréenne et les objectifs politiques et idéologiques de Khubilai et ses conseillers. La cour de Koryŏ, dans le but d’assurer la survie institutionnelle de la royauté, représenta la Corée comme héritière des traditions culturelles et politiques d’un passé impérial, et partageant une cause commune avec les fonctionnaires de Khubilai qui cherchaient à réinventer l’empire mongol à l’image des dynasties chinoises précédentes. Cette convergence idéologique se reflète dans les lettres diplomatiques coréennes, dans l’historiographie chinoise et coréenne, ainsi que dans les écrits des proches conseillers chinois de Khubilai sur le thème de la restauration impériale et du renouveau culturel. De plus, ces interactions ont contribué à insérer la Corée dans le répertoire discursif de la légitimité politique : son rôle s’y est trouvé redéfini non comme un pays irrédentiste objet de désir impérial mais comme un élément de la construction de l’autorité impériale.




Koryŏ History, Hao Jing, tributary relations, Yelü Chucai, Mongol empire, Yuan
dynasty, Koryŏ dynasty


This project, which began as an idea for a Master’s thesis at Columbia University, has benefited from the insights of many critical readers across its various iterations over the years. I thank especially Theodore Hughes, Gray Tuttle, the late JaHyun Kim Haboush, Robert Hymes, Sun Joo Kim, Dorothy Ko, Jungwon Kim, the three anonymous reviewers from T’oung pao for their critiques and suggestions, as well as the University of Pennsylvania’s James Joo-Jin Kim Program in Korean Studies for its support.


The Story of the Eastern Chamber: Dilemmas of Vernacular Language and Political Authority in Eighteenth-Century Chosŏn

“The Story of the Eastern Chamber: Dilemmas of Vernacular Language and Political Authority in Eighteenth-Century Chosŏn” Journal of Korean Studies 24, no.1 (March)


When we think of writing in premodern Korea, we usually think of them as being in either literary Chinese (hanmun) or vernacular Korean (hangŭl), a linguistic situation often described as “diglossic.” But what do we with a text that is in neither? The late Chosŏn play script, titled the Story of the Eastern Chamber (Tongsanggi) is one such text. Written entirely in Chinese characters, its language hearkens back to the vernacular of late imperial Chinese fiction, employs song suites in the manner of Yuan drama (further reinforced by its titular allusion to the Chinese Story of the Western Chamber), and integrates colloquial Korean words and idioms. This combination defies our conventions of thinking of Chosŏn linguistic as diglossic. It was a linguistic experiment that sought to collapse the distance between Korean vernacular and contemporary Chinese vernacular. While this move seems counterintuitive, if we think of vernacular language in distinctly “national” terms, this essay shows it makes eminent sense when the text is placed in its Chosŏn period context. The Eastern Chamber spoke to a number of anxieties that occupied the Chosŏn elite and the Korean court, namely how cultural continuity with the past and compatibility with universal cultural aspirations could be reconciled with linguistic difference and change over time.

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The Filial Daughter of Kwaksan: Finger Severing, Confucian Virtues, and Envoy Poetry in Early Chosŏn

2012 “The Filial Daughter of Kwaksan- Finger Severing, Confucian Virtues, and Envoy Poetry in Early Chosŏn.” Seoul Journal of Korean Studies 25, no. 2 (December): 175–212.

Among the three cardinal human relations in Confucian morality, filiality stands out as the only one with the potential of being universally applicable. While chastity fell upon women and loyalty was meaningful for elite men, all human beings were children of some parents. This paper will investigate filiality in early Chosŏn Korea through one relatively obscure figure, Kim Sawŏl. Severing her finger and feeding it to her ailing mother, Kim’s remarkable act of filial devotion earned the recognition of the Chosŏn court. Though not the only finger severer in Chosŏn, a fact of geography propelled her to renown among the generations of Ming envoys who passed by her hometown, many of whom left poems in her honor. Both the Ming envoys and the Chosŏn court, however, had to grapple with the potentially heterodox implications of her cannibalistic filial act. Not only did finger severing have resonances with Buddhist notions, local religious traditions, and fringe medical lore, but it directly contradicted classical Confucian injunctions against “self-harm.” The resolution of this problem, in both the envoy poetry and the Chosŏn social context, involved reinterpretations and rewritings that converted a problematic category of behavior into symbols of a Confucian civilizing project by emphasizing the affective power of sincere filial emotion. This mechanism of conversion and accommodation may partly explain how local differences and alternative cosmologies persisted in the context of Confucian hegemony in Chosŏn Korea.


  • pg. 176, n3 "Ming distinguished between lie and jie"–> "between jie and lie