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In 1864, a fire destroyed the Chosŏn-Qing frontier market for Qing merchants at Kyŏngwŏn on the Tumen River. Unable to supply timbers himself, the Kyŏngwŏn magistrate asked his Qing counterpart across the river in Hunchun, for permission to fell timbers in Qing territory. This request was to evolve into a series of violations of frontier protocol that eventually necessitated a Chosŏn diplomatic mission to Beijing to restore frontier order. Read uncritically, the tributary discourses that facilitated these interactions between Qing and Chosŏn suggest a timeless relationship borne of the forces of the cosmos itself. Taken as empirical accounts, the discourses reveal little of how the two states interacted along their border. Employing close readings of Qing and Chosŏn intergovernmental communications, this article argues that the most important question is not what these texts are about but rather what they do. Emerging scholarship in international relations and other fields employing models of a Chinese tributary system must be careful in using tributary discourse naïvely to reconstruct the policy and ideological commitments of its participants. To do so is to mistake the performative for the descriptive.