As we know, the so-called tribute system was one of the most typical foreign relations in premodern East Asia. The process of modernization in this region greatly changed this system. At the end of this process, the system was entirely destroyed. There are several books that have paid attention to this topic. In a new [End Page 621]book published in 2008, Kirk W. Larsen tried to explain the Qing policy, which took place in the late nineteenth century in Korea. Larsen indicated that it was necessary to recognize the real influence of Qing imperialism in the nineteenth century. Larsen thought that the motivations, strategies, successes, and failures of the imperialists of the Qing empire engaged in Chosŏn, Korea, should not be seen as exceptional in regional and world history. In order to describe the Qing empire’s practice of imperialism in Korea, Larsen necessarily needed a precise definition of the term. In my view, this kind of imperialism not only is reflected in the official political and military structure, but also appeared as the apparatuses of an informal empire. This kind of informal empire is defined as the historical situation, in which the overt foreign rule of the colony is avoided, while economic advantages are secured by making unequal legal and institutional arrangements and through the political and military coercion. The analysis conducted in this book is based on this understanding of informal empire.
Throughout East Asian history, the relationship between China and Korea changed with the political variance. Although the basic information about the relations of these two nations is already elucidated in some general works, their historical interactions are not as clear. Larsen has provided better details and a better analytical procedure than former works on this topic.
The first two chapters of this book offer the background for Sino-Korean relations prior to 1882. The author emphasizes the importance for Korean states of having non-Chinese barbarians on their northern frontier. In the nineteenth century, the Qing empire and its tribute system faced a great challenge, which came from the Western powers. As a result, the policy that the Qing dynasty took toward Korea would also have an impact. The year 1882 was very critical for Sino-Korean relations; after this date, Japan became the Qing empire’s great rival in Korean affairs. In the third chapter, the author used the history of this year as the focus for the construction of new international relations among the Qing dynasty, Korea, Japan, and the Western powers. Chapter 4 particularly paid attention to the self-strengthening movement in Korea. At the same time, the Qing dynasty built a special diplomatic and military setting in Korea, which had great influence on Sino-Korean and Sino-Japan relations in the future.
It is necessary for us to notice that, in a very important political and military role at the end the Qing dynasty, Yuan Shikai and his special experience in Korea influenced not only Chinese history, but also Korean history. During his residency in Korea, from 1885 to 1894, great social and technical innovations were realized in that country. In chapter 5, the author examines how the Qing dynasty established and operated the first overland telegraph lines in Korea. During this process, Korea became focused on independence. In chapter 6, the author discusses what the Qing dynasty in general, and Yuan Shikai specifically, thought about Korean autonomy. Yuan Shikai was also a supporter of Chinese commerce in Korea. Chapter 7 focuses on this topic. [End Page 622]
After Yuan Shikai went back to Peking, the Sino-Japanese relationship became much more strained. The victory of Japan in the Sino-Japanese War meant the loss of the Qing dynasty hegemony in East Asia. Logically, it initiated the end of the tribute system between the Korea and Qing China. Nevertheless, informal communications between Korea and China lasted until Korea was completely annexed by Japan.