Loyalty, History, and Empire: Qian Qianyi and His Korean Biographies

2018 “Loyalty, History, and Empire: Qian Qianyi and His Korean Biographies” to be included in Representing Lives in East Asia, China and Korea 1400–1900, Cornell East Asia Series

The life of Qian Qianyi 錢謙益 (1582–1664) straddled the tumultuous Ming-Qing dynastic transition. Though a self-identified Ming loyalist, Qian did not, as some of his contemporaries did, die as a martyr. Instead, he honored the Ming’s legacy through literary and historiographical projects. Many of his critics saw his literary commemoration as an attempt to make up for questionable loyalist credentials, permanently tarnished by his surrender to the Qing and his brief service as a Qing official. One of Qian’s literary projects was the massive anthology of Ming poetry, the Collected Poetry of the Successive Reigns (Liechao shiji列朝詩集). In this compilation, Qian wrote short biographies of the poets he included. The compilation included not only the works of Ming scholars and officials, but also a significant number of pieces by Korean poets. Most of the Korean writers, however, did not receive biographical treatment. Among the exceptions were the Koryŏ dynasty (918–1392) loyalists, Chŏng Mongju 鄭夢周, Yi Saek 李穡, and Yi Sung’in 李崇仁. The inclusion of their biographies raises several questions. What motivated Qian Qianyi to include them? How did he understand, in particular, the martyrdom of the Koryŏ loyalist Chŏng Mongju, vis-à-vis his own position as a self-identified Ming loyalist? And finally, how did Qian gain access to biographical information about these figures in the first place? The answers to these questions reveal numerous intriguing parallels that revolve around several key issues. What emerges from these Korean loyalist biographies are issues of moral and political authority, the purpose of historical writing, and how Korea fit into late Ming and post Ming imaginations of empire. The biographies of these historical figures were closely coordinated texts, and resonated across space and time, spurring discussion of a wide range of issues.

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