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1 The Way of the Foreign Vassal State: Neo-Confucianism and Political Realism in Early Chosŏn Korea1 Sungmoon Kim Department of Public Policy, City University of Hong Kong The Chosŏn dynasty (1392-1910) was and still remains the only dynasty in history whose creation was spearheaded by a group of Neo-Confucian scholar-officials who wished to radically transform Korean political society to be in accordance with the Confucian ideal of good government. Korean historians and political theorists commonly agree that the defining moment of Chosŏn’s founding was Yi Sŏnggye’s decision at Wihwa Island, located on the northern border between Ming and Chosŏn, to turn the army, originally set out to attack the Liaodong Peninsula of Ming, back toward the capital of Koryŏ (918-1392). When Ming, a new Chinese dynasty by the Han, claimed Koryŏ’s northeastern territory, which had been occupied by the then waning Yuan dynasty, Koryŏ’s pro-Yuan faction prevailed over the pro-Ming faction, of which Yi Sŏnggye was the leader, in the argument for invading Liaodong. Liaodong used to be part of the ancient Korean kingdom Koguryŏ (37 BCE - 668 AD), after which Koryŏ was named with the anticipation to recover Koguryŏ’s old territory. King U (r. 1374-1388), then ruler of Koryŏ, ordered Yi to lead the army toward Liaodong, but, upon arriving at Wihwa Island, Yi turned the army back and marched toward the capital offering four reasons, the first of which was the moral impropriety of a small state to invade a large state.2 This move led, eventually, to Yi’s seize of power, paving the way to the founding of a new dynasty. 2 It is important to note that Yi Sŏnggye and especially his Neo-Confucian supporters believed that Chosŏn should not invade Ming, despite the latter’s heavy imposition of tributes and repeated military threats, not only because of the slim prospect of winning the war. More importantly, it is because Ming was the state established by the Han people, “the civilized people” (hua 華). In the view of the Yi Sŏnggye faction, Ming was more than an emerging regional hegemon, displacing the Yuan, the Mongolian empire. Far more important was the fact that the new Han state was the rightful occupier of the Central Plain as the “Son of Heaven,” who possesses the moral-political authority over “all under Heaven” (tianxia 天下), including Chosŏn, whose internal governance and foreign relations were conducted in accordance with Confucian rituals (li 禮). Unsurprisingly, as soon as Chosŏn replaced Koryŏ as a new dynasty, it voluntarily submitted itself to the Sinocentric and ritual-based world order and became Ming’s foreign vassal state, a vassal state located outside the Central Plains directly under the control of the Ming emperor.3 The fact that Chosŏn became part of the ritual-based civilized order under Ming’s suzerain authority implied, at least to Neo-Confucian elites in Chosŏn, that Chosŏn would not be one of the “barbarians” (yi 夷), ethnic groups outside the Chinese ritual-cultural realm, but rather a proud member of the moral and hierarchical universe undergirded by Ming’s cultural authority and military power. As Chosŏn Neo-Confucians envisioned it, inspired by Mencius, under this global ritual hierarchical order Chosŏn would serve the Ming who in turn would take care of Chosŏn.4 What is interesting is that after the successful establishment of Chosŏn, some of the NeoConfucian scholar-officials, who understood consolidating the young and unstable state as the most impending political task, strongly insisted on continuing a ritual practice from the 3 preceding dynasty that was regarded by the predominant majority of the ruling elites, including the king himself, as deviating from “the constant norm” (jing 經) of the hierarchical ritual that underpinned the Sino-Korean relation. The word “consolidation” (k. susŏng 守成) was frequently invoked by the so-called “governmental Neo-Confucians” during the reigns of King T’aejong (r. 1400-1418) and King Sejong (r. 1418-1450), Yi Sŏnggye’s son and grandson respectively.5 As ardent followers of Song Neo-Confucians, Zhu...


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