Defenders of Empire in Late Nineteenth Century East Asia: Qing-Chosŏn (淸-朝鮮) Negotiated Sovereignty and De Facto Protectorate

Panel organised by: CHUN, Jihoon (AREA Ruhr)


Panel topic

The topic of the proposed panel is the Qing-Chosŏn ruling elites’ perceptions of each other regarding their political entities and mutual relations during the late nineteenth century, particularly in the context of the interaction and eventual clash between an imperial construct based on putatively two-millennia-old transregional order and with various toolkits dealing with power relations including suzerain-vassal relations and a new structure based on Western international law involving equal-status sovereign states and symbolized by ‘Public Law of All Nations’[萬國公法].

Panel description

‘Uncivilized East Asian polities forced to open and embark on the road to nation-states upon external shock from superior Western civilization’ seems to have been a prominent lingering view on ‘premodern’ East Asia. This Eurocentric perspective, however, cannot duly grasp the historical subjectivity of nineteenth-century East Asia. Existing primary sources indicate that the Qing and its vassal (屬邦) Chosŏn can be seen as having attempted to absorb or appropriate the European legality of interstate relations and treaty-port system into Qing- Chosŏn’s own adaptation, not the other way around. Our understanding of East Asian ruling elites’ political subjectivity at the time could well be enhanced by looking at it as layered selective adjustments in historically institutionalized continuity, rather than botched inferior ‘response’ to successful superior ‘imposition’ in a kind of discontinuity. The relevance of the proposed topic would lie therein.

A guiding research question will be 1) how the Qing-Chosŏn policy decisionmakers’ perceptions were represented in official communications bilateral and those involving foreign powers as well as their bilateral political discourses and performative practices. As case studies, the following more specific questions may be addressed: 2) how the Qing government represented its status over Chosŏn in its dealings with the British, American, Russian, and the Japanese imperialists; and 3) how Chosŏn government represented its own legal status externally amid the power struggles of involved state actors through the 1880s until 1895. Thereupon 4) the implications of such perceptions and representations for the East Asian interpolity order at the time for a richer and more nuanced understanding may then be examined.

In consideration of these questions, panel’s core ideas may well include the following. A central idea shall be 1) paying due attention to transnationality of the topic and themes to be discussed and applying transnational research methodology accordingly. Fresh eyes in a bid to overcome, wherever deemed necessary, Western-centrism and methodological nationalism obliging nation-state-centered approaches in linear teleological historiography as well as in most of International Relations discourses would facilitate anew our understanding of historical subjectivity of major political agents of nineteenth-century East Asia.

A second, hypothetical, idea is that 2) the critical bulk of historical developments of East Asian interpolity relations during the period can be framed and understood such that Qing- Chosŏn might possibly have constituted a (unofficial) (con-)federal overarching polity, where the Qing would set up a de-facto protectorate over Chosŏn mainly for “mutual security guarantee” and “combined diplomatic representation.” The historical polities, not of ‘nation-states’, within the Confucian imperial formations may have shared their “single negotiated sovereignty”, not in its Western or ‘modern’ sense, among them under a grand political authority.

If we see that the East Asian interpolity order was not organized among equal-status sovereigns on a division of territories and if we conceive ‘sovereignty’ in East Asia as having been mutually constructivist and not been necessarily discrete or exclusive, even well after W. A. P. Martin’s translation of 《萬國公法》 came, then, building on those central and hypothetical ideas above, 3) the concepts of negotiated sovereignty and protectorate may well be considered for alternative theoretical approaches to figure out the then East Asian interpolity order and its transformation coming up over the end of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the next.

Additional information: Professor Dr. Marc Matten (Sinology, University Erlangen-Nuernberg) agreed to chair this panel. Professor Dr. Nianshen Song (History Department, Asian Studies Program, University of Maryland, Baltimore County)  & Professor Dr. YOO bada (Department of Korean History, Korea University) will take the role as discussants.

Paper proposal

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