Korean eunuchs as imperial envoys

Relations with Chosŏn through the Zhengde reign

Authored by: Sixiang Wang

The Ming World

Print publication date:  August  2019
Online publication date:  August  2019

Print ISBN: 9781138190986
eBook ISBN: 9780429318719
Adobe ISBN:

10.4324/9780429318719-29

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Abstract

The usual way to describe Ming relations with Korea is through the notion of the “tributary system.” The Ming emperor, with the moral and cultural authority as a universal ruler of “all-under-heaven,” enforces a China-centered world order by investing foreign rulers as vassal-kings, with the expectation that they render obeisance through regular tribute missions. This formula for understanding pre-nineteenth-century diplomacy in East Asia has received its fair share of criticism since its influential scholarly articulation in the work of John King Fairbank. 1 But for being overly general, anachronistic, Sinocentric, reductively functionalist, and culturally essentialist, its hold on Ming-Korea relations nevertheless remains tenacious. Its tenacity reflects in part the utility of the “tributary system” as an analytical framework for scholars and the malleability of tributary practices and institutions, which were used in flexible ways by both parties for domestic legitimation and foreign relations. 2 Korean embassies were also notable for the frequency, regularity, and intensity of participation in Ming tributary practices. They arrived in the Ming capital at least three times a year. Unlike most other groups along the Ming’s maritime and land frontier, the Korean court also professed (at least in the context of these embassies) shared cultural values and an ideological commitment to Ming claims of universal sovereignty. Both countries were administered by a Confucian elite who could communicate with one another through literary Chinese (also referred to as classical Chinese or literary Sinitic). In other words, whatever the faults of the “tributary system” as a descriptor in general, the Ming-Korea case seems to fit the bill as a “paradigmatic”, if one-of-a-kind, example of tributary relations, with Korea stereotyped as imperial China’s most loyal vassal. 3

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