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Late Imperial China 28.1 (2007) 33-61

Ginseng and Border Trespassing Between Qing China and Chosŏn Korea
Seonmin Kim

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Figure 1
Borderland Between Qing China and Chosŏn Korea

The 1685 Border Incident

In the fall of 1685 the imperial emissary Le Chu and his men, acting upon the Kangxi emperor's (r. 1662–1772) orders, began to survey Changbaishan and to map the topography of the border area. Their field investigation was part of an ambitious project to create The Unified Gazetteer of the Great Qing (Da Qing yitongzhi). When they approached a place named Sandaogou (K. [End Page 33] Samdogu), on the western bank of the Yalu River, they encountered a group of Koreans who had illegally crossed the river and who were hunting for ginseng in the same place. This illicit expedition was organized by a local Korean official who had assembled a group of thirty-one "vagabonds and wanderers." They were all natives of Hamgyŏng province, on Korea's northeastern frontier. When the Qing officials found the illegal intruders in Sandaogou, they began to shoot arrows to drive them away. This frightened the Koreans, who fired their rifles back and killed a Qing official, injured two other people, and killed twelve horses. The Korean intruders managed to leave the area, but because the military governor of Shengjing reported it to the Board of Rites in Beijing, this incident soon escalated into a serious diplomatic issue between Beijing and Seoul.1

The responses of the two courts to the above incident dramatically illustrate the complexity of the relationship between Qing China and Chosŏn Korea. Shortly after the incident, the Kangxi emperor's emissary went to Seoul to investigate the case and forced the Chosŏn court to execute all of the offenders and local officials. The Korean King Sukchong (r. 1675–1720) was also asked to write a long and apologetic memorial to the Kangxi emperor and to pay a fine of 20,000 liang of silver. As a short-term measure to prevent further trespassing related to illegal ginseng gathering, the Chosŏn court forbade the Korean tribute embassy to engage in private ginseng trade during their missions to Beijing and banned the ginseng trade with Japan via Pusan. But this was not the end of the matter. The Kangxi emperor's second response came in 1712 in the form of an investigation into the Changbaishan matter and an attempt to demarcate the border with Korea.2

By examining border negotiations between the Qing and the Chosŏn courts, this article analyzes the Qing court's empire building project in the northeastern border region. I argue that Manchuria and Chosŏn Korea were two crucial [End Page 34] sites of Qing empire-building, in that the transition from the Ming to the Qing first began in this vital frontier and was completed through a reversal in the relationship between the Manchus and the Koreans. One important element in this story was a highly profitable commodity: ginseng. This prized medicinal plant, which grew wild in the borderland, was an ongoing source of tension between the Manchus and the Koreans, and conflict over ginseng can be seen as a microcosm of larger problems that affected Qing-Chosŏn relations. As the Manchus became serious contenders for power in Manchuria, they began to enforce Manchu superiority over the Koreans and claimed sole ownership of all ginseng in the borderland. These two endeavors ran counter to Korean views: the Koreans believed the Manchus were inferior in every sense, and the ginseng in the borderland had long been a shared resource. The Changbaishan investigation in 1712 shows that the Qing court continually sought to achieve two goals—the imposition of Qing superiority and the marking of the territorial boundary—in their relationship to the Chosŏn court even after the two military campaigns. The nature of the borderland and the tributary relationship were crucial to the investigation.

Qing Empire Building

Qing empire building was envisioned...


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