Choson-Qing Tributary Relations & Politics


A review of Divergent Visions of Serving the Great: The Emergence of Chosŏn-Qing Tributary Relations as a Politics of Representation, by Joshua Van Lieu.

In this fascinating dissertation, Joshua Van Lieu examines the international ritual protocol between Chosŏn dynasty Korea and Qing dynasty China in the late-nineteenth century. Basing his study on close readings of Korean and Chinese sources, he argues that the larger geopolitical realities of Northeast Asia, mainly the impact of Western and Japanese imperialism, compelled Qing and Chosŏn officials to rethink not only the form but also the substance of such protocol. In order to reinforce Qing sovereignty over Korea, Beijing insisted on an increasingly public display of Qing-Chosŏn ritual in Seoul directed at the “Western diplomatic gaze” (p. 2), which the Korean bureaucracy attempted to resist. But it was these attempts to refashion protocol that ultimately led to Western misperceptions of Chinese-Korean state relations that persist to this day.

Functioning more as an introduction, Chapter 1 problematizes current historiography of Qing-Chosŏn relations, concluding that scholars misrepresent the nature of tributary ritual or simply ignore it when examining the important period between 1870 and 1890. Van Lieu defines ritual as “discursive and performative practices that both reproduced and expressed the hierarchical dynamics” (p. 14) of the Qing-Chosŏn sadae, or “revere the great,” tributary relationship. By the late-nineteenth century, such tributary ritual became an “international politics of representation” where the Chinese and Koreans “contested highly visible public performances of their relationship explicitly for the consumption of observing Western powers” (p. 3). To provide an example of state ritual between the two courts before the arrival of foreign powers, especially the rhetoric of diplomatic correspondence, Chapter 2 examines the fallout surrounding a fire at an international market in a Korean town along the Sino-Korean frontier in 1864. After the fire, the local Korean magistrate sought assistance from his Chinese counterpart across the border to rebuild the market. However, the Korean and Chinese courts viewed the request as a breach of protocol only mollified through diplomatic correspondence, platitudes, and “soaring language” (p. 34) of diplomacy. While the breach was only a “minor incident” (p. 77), the Korean court was concerned about employing proper protocol and language because the young King Kojong had not yet received his investiture and those who supported him feared risking any challenge to their rule.

Chapters 3 through 5 investigate the “fundamental change in Chosŏn-Qing relations” (p. 80) by examining how the arrival of Western and Japanese imperialism pressured the Qing and Chosŏn dynasties to reevaluate the uses of ritual protocol. The Korea-Japanese treaty (1876), the Qing dynasty’s Chosŏn Strategy (1880), and the Korea-U.S. treaty (1882) pressured the existing relationship. Understanding that these issues threatened Korean sovereignty, King Kojong wished to “formulate his own proposal for a reconstruction of the Chosŏn-Qing relationship” (p. 129) based on Chinese suggestions that the Qing court ultimately rejected. From the perspective of the Qing, ritual protocol was necessary for “restraining Chosŏn diplomatic ambition and managing Western and Japanese perceptions” (p. 149) of Korea. While Korea was allowed to open direct trade with China, conducted through the Zongli Yamen, tributary relations continued through the Board of Rites. With the failure to abolish ritual protocol based on the suggestions of Chinese diplomats in Seoul, King Kojong and others grew suspicious of top Chinese officials. These sentiments unfolded in the ritual discord surrounding the Qing condolence mission for Grand Queen Dowager Cho’s death in 1890, a mission that was “conceived and executed as an event for Western consumption” (p. 166). While the Qing carried out the condolence mission as an opportunity to demonstrate “Chosŏn submission to the Qing” (p. 174), Western diplomats who witnessed the mission criticized it as “an anachronistic affront to Western Powers whose limited patience with the pre-modern could precipitate the collapse of the Qing Empire” (p. 233). However, Van Lieu argues that later Qing propaganda on the condolence mission that was translated into English and circulated in 1892 skewed Western perceptions of Chinese-Korean relations. The British MP and future Viceroy of India, George Nathaniel Curzon, “globalized” (p. 240) the idea in his widely influential book Problems of the Far East (1894). In Chapter 6, the conclusion, Van Lieu reiterates a major point of the dissertation, that “the concern for the diplomatic gaze” (p. 251) preserved tributary ritual, then compelled a refashioning of it for foreign consumption. Ritual protocol was the space where both the Qing and Chosŏn dynasties acted out their agencies.

Joshua Van Lieu’s study makes an important contribution to early modern historiography of Korea and Northeast Asia by improving our understanding of the ritual protocol relations between the Qing and Chosŏn dynasties. By dismantling widely accepted views of the unchanging nature of “traditional” tributary order, the dissertation makes a very powerful argument for rethinking the Qing-Chosŏn relationship.

George Kallander
Department of History
Syracuse University

Primary Sources

Pibyŏngsa tŭngnok
Tongsa kangmok
Kojong Sunjong sillok
Qing ji Zhong-Ri-Han guanxi shiliao
Qing guangxu chao Zhong-Ri jiaoshe shiliao

Dissertation Information

University of Washington. 2010. 280 pp. Primary Advisors: James Palais, Clark Sorenson, Hwasook Nam, R. Kent Guy.


Image: Queen Dowager Cho (1808-1890) from Han’guk ui ch’osanghwa. Wikimedia Commons.

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