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

Panel Organizer

CHUN, Jihoon (Bochum University/AREA)


Marc Matten (University Erlangen-Nürnberg)


SONG, Nianshen (University of Maryland, Baltimore)
YOO, Bada (Korea University)


HAN, Song-Yeol (Independent scholar)
CHUN, Jihoon (Bochum University/AREA)

Panel abstract

‘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 Ching (淸) and its vassal (屬邦) Chosŏn (朝鮮) can be seen as having attempted to absorb or appropriate the European legality of interstate relations and treaty-port system into Ching- 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 Ching-Chosŏn government decision makers’ perceptions were represented in official communications bilateral and those involving foreign powers as well as in their bilateral political discourses and performative practices. As case studies, the following more specific questions may be addressed: 2) how the Ching 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 Ching- Chosŏn might possibly have constituted a (unofficial) (con-)federal overarching polity, where the Ching 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.

HAN, Song-Yeol:  Informal Diplomacy in Chosŏn Korea: An ascending young monarch and intelligence gathering from tributary envoys to Ching

This paper focuses on a new awareness of geopolitical changes that emerged in the Chosŏn court in the early 1870s, triggered by Kojong’s (r. 1863-1907) ascendancy as a full-fledged Confucian ruler. After proclaiming his direct rule in 1873, Kojong immediately began to show his leadership by initiating a radical shift in Chosŏn’s foreign policy. By analyzing Kojong’s audience with departing and returning tributary envoys and the envoys’ written reports he read, this paper demonstrates Kojong’s interest in external affairs was incremental. The gunboat diplomacy and economic penetration by Euro-American industrial powers required intelligence on changing geopolitical conditions and kindled a demand for diplomatic counterstrategies, and Kojong’s strong interest in foreign intelligence transformed the way in which state and non-state actors in Chosŏn produced and circulated it. Unlike his father’s adamant anti-foreign policy that significantly narrowed the scope of intelligence that envoys could report to Chosŏn, Kojong’s strong demand for accurate and detailed foreign intelligence significantly expanded the depth of knowledge needed for him and his new cabinet to formulate alternative diplomatic strategies.

In pursuit of a more multifaceted understanding of diplomatic development, recent studies have emphasized the process of personal interactions and shared cultural and intellectual values as crucial elements that often determine the success of diplomatic activities. Chosŏn envoys would directly “converse” with Chinese officials via brush talk using shared Sinitic characters and syntax. For Chosŏn elites, brush talk was a crucial diplomatic component that obscured cultural and linguistic differences, thus promoting the appearance of harmony between the two separate political communities. Moreover, brush talk was a showcase for boasting their intellectual and cultural competency to embellish their rightful duty as the protectors of the realm of civility. The selection of tributary mission personnel often considered men of excellence in writing, regardless of their posts and ranks. Interpersonal and linguistic skills and envoys’ abilities to adapt to the social world of their host country was crucial for success in diplomacy. As for the appointed envoys, it became necessary to fulfill their intelligence-gathering missions by any means, using the most capable men they could find inside and outside the Chosŏn court.

CHUN, Jihoon:  Ching-Chosŏn [淸-朝鮮] Suzerain-Vassalage System and De facto Protectorate During 1882-1895

Scholars of East Asian interpolity relations are increasingly recognizing the intersections of political subjectivity in nineteenth-century East Asia with the webs of “protection” arrangements that constituted empires across European contexts. A dichotomy of Western ‘modern’ sovereign state system and East Asian ‘premodern’ suzerain-vassal relations does not stand up to actual world-historical developments. This study explores Ching- Chosŏn mutuality that gradually developed into, in the face of Euroamerican-Japanese encroachments, a de facto protectorate since the publication of《萬國公法》(1864), which cannot be duly grasped by a Eurocentric perspective to the effect that uncivilized East Asian polities were forced to embark on the road to nation-states upon external shock of superior Western civilization. The Ching government’s decision in February 1881 to delegate the functions to manage Chosŏn’s foreign affairs and trade to the Superintendent of Trade for the Northern Ports (北洋大臣) and the Ching Minister to Japan (出 使日本大臣), both under the auspices of the Zongli Yamen (總理衙門), while matters of tributes and ritual propriety being remained in the hands of the Board of Rites (禮部), was a significant turning point, with Chosŏn being transformed, in terms of international law, into a Ching vassal (屬邦). Noticeably, in November 1880, He Ruzhang (何如璋), the then Ching Minister to Japan, opined, citing《萬國公法》, that the German Confederation, where constituent states were able to enter into treaty relations with foreign states, can be invoked in support of the Ching-Chosŏn case where the Ching government, as upper state (上國), should keep the latter’s government under the former’s suzerainty, while allowing it to have treaty relations with foreign nations. The Ching-Chosŏn political alliance, however, was neither strictly confederal nor completely federal: Chosŏn had not been fully sovereign – thus not strictly confederal – and the Ching state organs hardly exercised direct power over the people of Chosŏn – thus not completely federal.

Notwithstanding the equivocal nature of the alliance, Ching state actions throughout the 1880s until 1895 indeed embodied, while absorbing the treaty-port system into Ching-Chosŏn’s own adaptation and not the other way around, mutually-constructed normative order sustained by a higher authority upper state despite the Chosŏn court’s vacillating positions thereto. The Ching and Chosŏn, as “superior-sovereignty guardian” and “semi sovereign recipient of protection”, respectively, may have operated under a grand negotiated sovereignty in quasi-(con-)federal constructs of Confucian imperial formation for mutual security guarantee and combined diplomatic representation.