Dissertation: Co-constructing Empire in Early Chosŏn Korea: Knowledge Production and the Culture of Diplomacy, 1392–1592

Co-constructing Empire in Early Chosŏn Korea:
Knowledge Production and the Culture of Diplomacy, 1392–1592

Sixiang Wang

Submitted in partial fulfillment of the
requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences



Political, military, and economic power alone cannot explain how empires work, for empire-making is also a matter of theories, narratives, ideas and institutions. To sustain themselves, empires both coerce and persuade. Tools of persuasion, however, were seldom the monopoly of those who sought to dominate, for they could also be contested and appropriated by those who sought to resist. This dissertation on Chosŏn Korea’s (1392–1910) interactions with Ming China (1368–1644) offers a cultural history of interstate orders and diplomatic institutions in early modern Korea and East Asia. I illustrate how Chosŏn appropriated the persuasive technologies that sustained Ming empire as a political imaginary to contest Ming imperial claims and ultimately reshape imperial ideology.

Chosŏn-Ming relations have long been described in terms of “tributary relations.” This paradigm, as conceived by John K. Fairbank and others, understands these relations as the logical consequence of a shared Confucian ideology and illustrative of Korea’s historical status as China’s model tributary. These approaches privilege a metropole-centered vantage and have failed to account for Korean agency. They treat Korean envoy missions, ritual performances, and literary production as scripted gestures that can only reflect stable ideology. Meanwhile, they miss how these acts were contesting and transforming ideology in the process. I argue that the Chosŏn court in fact exercised enormous agency through these ritualized practices. The discourses of the Ming as moral empire and Korea as a loyal vassal, long held to be emblematic features of the tributary system, were a large part reified products of Chosŏn diplomatic strategy. They did not reflect a pre-existing political order, but constituted its very substance. They were part of the “knowledge of empire” produced by the Chosŏn court for comprehending the Ming and its institutions and influencing imperial ideology. Facilitated by institutional practices at the Chosŏn court, this “knowledge of empire” allowed Chosŏn to manage successfully asymmetrical relations with the Ming and co-construct Ming empire in the process.

Chapter 1 examines Korean diplomatic epistles to show how the Korean court used its knowledge of historical precedents, ritual logics, and literary tropes of empire-making to contest symbols of imperial legitimacy. Chapter 2 discusses how Korean emissaries appealed to ideals of moral empire and reified particular understandings of Korea’s relationship with the Ming to achieve their diplomatic ends. Chapter 3 treats Korean envoy missions as a conduit for information on Ming institutions and politics. As a result, the Chosŏn was able to construct a dynamic of knowledge asymmetry where it knew more about the Ming than vice-versa. Once empire was constructed, its symbols and institutions were subject to appropriation. Chapter 4 looks at one such example, where a Korean prince manipulated diplomacy with the Ming to usurp the Chosŏn throne. Chapter 5 shows how the practices of envoy poetry associated with the Brilliant Flowers Anthology (Hwanghwajip) became a site where competing narratives of how Chosŏn’s relationship to empire, civilization, and the imperial past could stand together. Chapter 6 continues the discussion of envoy poetry by turning to its associated spatial practices. Chosŏn court poets invested the city of P’yŏngyang with symbolic resonances that asserted Korean cultural parity with China, legitimized Korean autonomy and denounced historical imperial claims on Korean territory, all without infringing on Ming claims of universal empire.