- A New Discussion of Sino-Korean Relations during the Chosŏn Period
In this book, Pae Usŏng, a historian at the University of Seoul, takes a fresh look at the relationship of Chosŏn Korea (1392–1910) with China and that of Chosŏn’s yangban (scholar-officials) with Sinitic civilization as a whole. None of Chosŏn’s relationships were more important, or more complicated, than that with China. On the one hand, Chosŏn was in nearly all respects independent from both Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1912) China. On the other hand, under both the Ming and the Qing, the Chosŏn court sent envoys regularly to Beijing, thereby acknowledging its subservience to China. After the Manchu Qing supplanted the Ming in the mid-eighteenth century, most Chosŏn officials, privately at least, rejected the Qing as an empire controlled by barbarians. Following the Qing conquest, most Chosŏn scholar-officials also asserted that China’s cultural and political traditions had been irreparably lost within China proper, and that Chosŏn was the only remaining heir of the Sinitic tradition. Even so, no Chosŏn person of significance before the late nineteenth century actually called for the removal of Chosŏn from the Sinitic world, no matter how much the legitimacy of the Qing was doubted. [End Page 629]
To some scholars in twentiethand twenty-first-century Korea, this “Sinocentrism” has seemed to represent a Korea that was embarrassingly dependent on China and lacking in a sense of self-pride. Other scholars, such as Chŏng Okcha (1998), have defended this Sinocentrism by arguing that, especially after the fall of the Ming, Chosŏn scholar-officials identified Chosŏn with Chunghwa (as I will refer to the partly deterritorialized Chinese civilization imagined by Chosŏn scholar-officials), and so admiration of Chunghwa was admiration not of China but of Chosŏn’s own political and cultural traditions. Both critics and supporters of Chosŏn’s Chunghwa consciousness, in other words, have tended to frame the subject according to the ideals of modern nationalism. Pae, however, argues that it is anachronistic to evaluate Chosŏn people and institutions according to whether they asserted Korean chaju (autonomy) and chajon (self-admiration), on the one hand, or dependence on or admiration for China, on the other. As he ably demonstrates, Chosŏn people generally did not understand matters in these terms, or even see membership in the Sinitic cultural and political sphere to be in contradiction to Chosŏn difference.
The book is divided into seven sections, each of which comprises several chapters. It is a long and intricate book, and it is not possible here to give more than a taste of the dominant themes. The discussion begins with an exploration of a key symbol of Qing domination in Chosŏn—the inscribed stele at Samjŏndo in the present-day Songp’a district in Seoul near the Han River, which was raised to commemorate and honor the Qing victory over Chosŏn and the submission of the Chosŏn king to the Qing emperor. Later sections explore such themes as Chosŏn-era debates about local customs and the status of the Korean vernacular (section 2); Chosŏn attitudes toward Manchuria, which many Chosŏn scholar-officials considered to be part of historical Korean territory (sections 3 and 4); Chosŏn responses to the wider world, especially as they related to the new understanding of geography that spread to Chosŏn via Jesuit missionaries based in China (sections 5 and 6); and the continuation of Chunghwa consciousness into the twentieth century by Kim Chŏnggyu (1881–1953) and Yu Insŏk (1842–1915), both Confucians who participated in the anti-Japanese military struggle (section 7).
Pae’s approach may be well observed in the section 2, where he explores Chosŏn views concerning Chosŏn local character (p’ungt...