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  • Tradition, Treaties, and Trade: Qing Imperialism and Chosŏn Korea, 1850-1910
  • Jungwon Kim (bio)
Tradition, Treaties, and Trade: Qing Imperialism and Chosŏn Korea, 1850–1910, by Kirk W. Larsen. Harvard East Asian Monographs. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008. 328 pp. $39.95 cloth.

Despite its significance in understanding Chosŏn Korea's (1392–1910) vibrant yet tumultuous foreign relations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the study of Sino-Korean relations has been relatively neglected in Western academia compared to its enduring impact on shaping Chosŏn's foreign affairs. With a growing number of scholars and students delving into issues of colonial Korea, the subject of Sino-Korean relations during this period has been overshadowed by the popularity of research focused on Korea's changing relations with Japan as well as Japan's imperialist ambition toward Korea.

Kirk Larsen's Tradition, Treaties, and Trade: Qing Imperialism and Chosŏn Korea, 1850–1910 is an important addition and revisit to the short list of studies on Sino-Korean relations. Challenging the prevailing wisdom of Qing exceptionalism, which has portrayed the late Qing Empire (1850–1910) as a passive, backward victim of foreign imperialism, Larsen analyzes how the Qing swiftly engaged in "informal" or "multilateral imperialism" in a changing international setting. In contrast to the general assumption that isolates the Qing Empire from the ranks of Japanese and Western imperialists, Larsen shows how the Qing learned from and utilized the institutions of Western imperialism in its internal and external conflicts and struggles after the first arrival of Western power in 1842. The Qing's new diplomatic mode of imperialism, or "Qing imperialism," was not exclusively Western but a unique and flexible adaptation of the traditional tributary system that centered China on the world map to modern imperialism. [End Page 154]

Emergence and implementation of "Qing imperialism" meant shifting Qing-Chosŏn relations. While the Qing began to appear as a modern imperial power, displaying its imperialistic interventionism in Chosŏn, Sino-Korean relations did not abruptly depart the realm of a traditional suzerain-vassal relationship predicated on Confucian ritual whenever that was advantageous to the Qing side. Therefore late nineteenth-century Qing-Chosŏn relations were not in fact a Qing effort to "reassert," "restore," or "recover" its traditional "suzerainty" in Korea (p. 9), as described in existing scholarship, but a hybrid form in which the Qing successfully combined the traditional tribute system and "multilateral imperialism" (p. 16). By meticulously investigating Qing diplomatic behavior toward Chosŏn, especially (re)assessments of key Qing political figures such as Li Hongzhang, Chen Shutang, and Yuan Shikai, Larsen asserts that the Qing were fully aware of both the geopolitical and commercial importance of the Korean Peninsula and played a crucial role in "Korea's integration into regional and global political and economic systems" (p. 11).

Though narrated in chronological order, the core chapters of this book detail motivations, strategies, and applications of Qing multilateral imperialism in Korea. Briefly providing the long history of Sino-Korean foreign engagements, chapter 1 outlines/defines the Qing's pre-nineteenth-century tributary principles as those of "hierarchy and distance (or non-interference)" (p. 31). Chapter 2 discusses the turbulent period when Korea found herself in a vortex of imperialism—especially Japanese monopolistic imperialism—that transformed the Qing's interaction with Korea. Chapter 3 investigates how the Qing attempted to bring multilateral imperialism to Korea as efforts to counter Japanese interests there grew. Larsen notes the 1882 Imo Soldiers' Mutiny and the Qing dispatch of troops to Korea as a pivotal event that broke with past practice, although "Qing policy makers and officials sought to explain and justify their actions in terms that made sense in the older tribute system as well as in the more recent Western-style international order" (p. 85). Chapter 4 examines how the Qing made its presence official in Korea, both by sending advisers and promoting Korean "self-strengthening," particularly in the military field, resulting in the somewhat successful suppression of the Kapsin Coup of 1884.

Chapters 5, 6, and 7 explore various aspects of Yuan Shikai's Residency in Korea. Devoting these chapters to Yuan Shikai...


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