Eternal the Eastern Fief: Choson Korea and the Diplomacy of Universal Empire

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 11:30 AM
Hancock Parlor (Palmer House Hilton)
Sixiang Wang, Stanford University
The Chosŏn kingdom of Korea maintained close ties with the Ming empire, enjoying nearly two centuries of unbroken peace in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. During this period, Chosŏn functioned as an independent territorial state, but the rhetorical and ceremonial practices of Korean diplomacy regularly invoke Ming claims of universal sovereignty. Rather than treat these invocations as either a contradiction in terms or superficial veneer, this paper understands them as important tools in Korean negotiations with the Ming. The Chosŏn court occupied a position of weakness as a junior partner in a relationship of extreme asymmetry, but through the deployment of Ming discourses and symbols of empire, it nonetheless succeeded in lessening or eliminating tribute, preserving Korean territorial claims, and expanding Korean access to imperial knowledge and goods. These dynamics are revealing in a number of ways. They demonstrate at least the partial the fungibility of rhetorical and ritual claims with questions of tribute, land, and access. They illustrate how appeals, in particular, to Confucian ideals of universal rulership worked alongside bribery, social ties, and institutional maneuvering between the fractures of imperial bureaucracy. They also explain why Chosŏn Korea, a functionally autonomous political entity chose to invest in persuasive dimensions of imperial ideology as one of the empire’s stakeholders.
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