Korean Eunuchs as Imperial Envoys: Relations with Chosŏn through the Zhengde Reign

2019 “Korean Eunuchs as Imperial Envoys: Relations with Chosŏn through the Zhengde Reign.” Chapter 23 in The Ming World, edited by Kenneth Swope

Introduction excerpt:

The usual way to describe Ming relations with Korea is through the notion of the “tributary system.” The Ming emperor, with the moral and cultural authority as a universal ruler of “all-under-heaven,” enforces a China-centered world order by investing foreign rulers as vassal-kings, with the expectation that they render obeisance through regular tribute missions. This formula for understanding pre-nineteenth century diplomacy in East Asia has received its fair share of criticism since its influential scholarly articulation in the work of John King Fairbank.[1] But for being overly general, anachronistic, Sinocentric, reductively functionalist, and culturally essentialist, its hold on Ming-Korea relations nevertheless remains tenacious. Its tenacity reflects in part the utility of the “tributary system” as an analytical framework for scholars and the malleability of tributary practices and institutions, which were used in flexible ways by both parties for domestic legitimation and foreign relations..[2]

Korean embassies were also notable for the frequency, regularity, and intensity of participation in Ming tributary practices. They arrived in the Ming capital at least three times a year. Unlike most other groups along the Ming’s maritime and land frontier, the Korean court also professed (at least in the context of these embassies) shared cultural values and an ideological commitment to Ming claims of universal sovereignty. Both countries were administered by a Confucian elite who could communicate with one another through literary Chinese (also referred to as classical Chinese or literary Sinitic). In other words, whatever the faults of the “tributary system” as a descriptor in general, the Ming-Korea case seems to fit the bill as a “paradigmatic”, if one-of-a-kind, example of tributary relations, with Korea stereotyped as imperial China’s most loyal vassal.[3]

This stereotype has its origins in historical Chinese perceptions of what Korea meant to for the imperial project. The primary narrative of Ming relations with Korea that could be gleaned official imperial historiography concerns precisely matters of imperial legitimacy. When Korea appears in the laconic entries of the Ming Veritable Records, it is usually in the context of routine tribute embassies, especially those who arrived to participate in the New Year’s rituals. On the other hand, the detail regarding the few years of the Imjin War of 1592–1598, when the Ming defended the Chosŏn dynasty (1392–1910) of Korea against the invasion launched by the Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536–1598) contrasts starkly with the terse coverage of the preceding two centuries.[4] The considerable attention devoted to the war is unsurprising, considering the Ming’s outlay of blood and treasure, though as scholars have argued the expedition to rescue Chosŏn also sought to reaffirm a “Ming-centered world order.”[5] These concerns are reproduced in the official Qing-compiled Ming History, which devotes an entire fascicle to the history of Ming relations with Korea. It largely reproduces the contours of Ming official sources, with a shared concern with imperial legitimacy extending into detailed coverage of how the Qing managed to replace the Ming as Korea’s tributary overlord.[6]

The prominence of these topics—dynastic transition, imperial legitimacy, and the Ming defense of Korea—reflect the historiographical concerns of the late imperial Chinese state, and revolve around the issue of Korea’s status as a tributary vassal. But it takes two to tango. Korea too played a part in shaping this relationship. As Ji-Young Lee has recently argued, the resilience of the Ming tributary institutions and practices have as much to do with the domestic interests of the states and rulers who participated in it as it does with Ming imperial ambitions and cannot simply be reduced to a function of Ming imposition or the logical consequence of shared Confucian culture.[7] While it is hard to gainsay the importance relations with the Ming for Korea, the view from Chinese official historiography is a pale reflection of the total picture. The preoccupation with tribute as a function of Ming legitimacy occludes whole swaths of the diplomatic experience: practices of envoy poetry,[8] cultural competition,[9] Korean realpolitik,[10] the importance of language interpreters,[11] the impact on Korean domestic politics,[12] and Korea’s lateral relations with the Ming’s other northeast Asian “tributaries”: the Jurchens, Japanese, and Ryūkyūans.[13] All in all, a much more in-depth and nuanced understanding of Ming-Korea relations have developed to not only challenge the once dominant, stereotypical view, but also broaden our understanding of how interstate relations operated in East Asia during the Ming period. Given the limitations of space, this chapter cannot provide a comprehensive discussion of the ramifications of these insights.. What it will offer instead are snapshots of two facets of Ming-Korean interactions before the cataclysmic Imjin War, the value of envoy travel for the Korean court as a vehicle for information gathering and the role of Korean-born eunuchs as mediators between the Ming and Korean courts that will both complement and challenge the usual diplomatic history of this period.

  1. John King Fairbank, ed., The Chinese World Order; Traditional China’s Foreign Relations (Cambridge,: Harvard University Press, 1968).  ↩
  2. Morris Rossabi, ed., China among Equals : The Middle Kingdom and Its Neighbors, 10th–14th Centuries (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983); Saeyoung Park, “Long Live the Tributary System! The Future of Studying East Asian Foreign Relations,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 77.1 (July, 2017), 1–20; Peter C. Perdue, “The Tenacious Tributary System,” Journal of Contemporary China 24.96 (Nov., 2015), 1002–14; David C. Kang, East Asia before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010).  ↩
  3. For overview of Sino-Korean relations during the Ming, see Donald N. Clark, “Sino-Korean Tributary Relations under the Ming,” in The Ming Dynasty, 1398–1644, Part 2, The Cambridge History of China (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998); For critique, Cha Hyewon [Ch‘a Hyewŏn] “Was Joseon a Model or an Exception? Reconsidering the Tributary Relations during Ming China,” Korea Journal 51.4 (Winter 2011), 33–58.  ↩
  4. See Liu Qinghua, Xu Qingyu, and Hu Xianhui, eds., Ming shilu Chaoxian ziliao jilu (Chengdu: Bashu shushe, 2005).  ↩
  5. Kenneth Swope, A Dragon’s Head and a Serpent’s Tail : Ming China and the First Great East Asian War, 1592–1598 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009). See also Masato Hasegawa’s chapter in this volume.  ↩
  6. Zhang Tingyu, Ming shi (Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1974), 8302–8307.  ↩
  7. Ji-Young Lee, China’s Hegemony: Four Hundred Years of East Asian Domination (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).  ↩
  8. Dane Alston, “Emperor and Emissary: The Hongwu Emperor, Kwŏn Kŭn, and the Poetry of Late Fourteenth Century Diplomacy,” Korean Studies 32 (2008), 101–47.  ↩
  9. Sixiang Wang, “Co-Constructing Empire in Early Chosŏn Korea: Knowledge Production and the Culture of Diplomacy, 1392–1592” (Columbia University, 2015); Sixiang Wang, “The Filial Daughter of Kwaksan: Finger Severing, Confucian Virtues, and Envoy Poetry in Early Chosŏn,” Seoul Journal of Korean Studies 25.2 (Dec. 2012), 175–212.  ↩
  10. Peter Yun, “Confucian Ideology and the Tribute System in Chosŏn-Ming Relations,” Sach’ong 55..9 (2002).  ↩
  11. Sixiang Wang, “The Sounds of Our Country: Interpreters, Linguistic Knowledge and the Politics of Language in Early Chosŏn Korea (1392–1592),” in Rethinking East Asian Languages, Vernaculars, and Literacies, 1000–1919, ed. Benjamin A. Elman (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2014), 58–95.  ↩
  12. Seung B. Kye, “Huddling under the Imperial Umbrella: A Korean Approach to Ming China in the Early 1500s,” Journal of Korean Studies 15. 1 (2010), 41–66; Seung B. Kye, “In the Shadow of the Father: Court Opposition and the Reign of King Kwanghae in Early Seventeenth-Century Choson Korea” (University of Washington, 2006).  ↩
  13. Kenneth R. Robinson, “Centering the King of Chosŏn,” The Journal of Asian Studies 59.1 (2000), 33–54; Kenneth R. Robinson, “Organizing Japanese and Jurchens in Tribute Systems in Early Chosŏn Korea,” Journal of East Asian Studies 13.2 (May 2013), 337–60.  ↩


  • pg. 427: "… which unbeknownst to them was the Korean eunuch mission…" –> "…was the last Korean eunuch mission…"

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