Up until now, I’ve been relying on review essays I wrote last year, while in the process of doing these readings. But, now, I realize (remember) that for the rest of my China-related readings, I didn’t actually produce such review essays. So the next few blog posts are going to have to be based on my notes, not taking essays and merely fixing them up a little, but rather writing them anew. So, if there’s an even greater slowdown than usual in my getting these out, that’s why. Bear with me. Cheers.
Today, I’m discussing an article by Adam Bohnet, entitled “Ruling Ideology and Marginal Subjects: Ming Loyalism and Foreign Lineages in Late Chosŏn Korea.” I must admit, for the longest time, as a student interested in Japan, and then as a young emerging scholar of Japanese Studies, I was never really so interested in Korea (or China, for that matter) – it was Japan I was interested in. I don’t mean for it to be a political thing – not hardly; it’s just that we each have our interests, and our specialties. France scholars don’t necessarily have to have an interest in England, and vice versa, and the same for specialists in Spanish or Italian history. We each have our personal reasons that one place or culture or history has grabbed our attention more than others… though I’m sure that the prominence of Japan in the pop culture and general American consciousness during my younger years, and the relative absence of Korea in that consciousness (which has grown by leaps and bounds since then), had some significant influence. In any case, since I began studying Ryûkyû (and perhaps not coincidentally, since K-dramas and K-pop and so forth, and Korea Foundation-funded exhibitions at major US art museums, have started becoming much more prominent in popular consciousness) I have started to become a lot more interested in Korea.
Like Ryûkyû, Korea was also a Confucian kingdom, heavily influenced by China, and with considerable cultural exchange with Japan, yet politically independent, and culturally distinct, unique, in myriad important ways. Like Ryûkyû, Joseon/Chosŏn Dynasty Korea sent tributary missions to Beijing, and received investiture from the Ming and Qing in return, and like Ryûkyû, Chŏson sent missions to Edo. Thus, not only are there numerous parallels of direct relevance to my research, but beyond that, Korea simply presents, as Ryûkyû does, another interesting variation on the East Asian theme, without being the oh-so-standard elephant in the room, China. Plus, it is an essential part of the broader East Asian “world order,” a vital piece of the puzzle towards understanding the so-called “tribute system.”
I have in recent years grown more and more interested to simply learn more about Korean history in general, overall. I know so little, after all, and so the basic overall narrative, from pre-history, through the Three Kingdoms, United Silla, Koryŏ, and Chosŏn, to the Colonial Period and today, would all be new and interesting to me. But, one thing that I have been particularly eager to learn about is how the idea of the Ming Dynasty, as the greatest and the last true Chinese dynasty (in contrast to the “barbarian” Qing Dynasty of the Manchus) was conceived and acted upon in Korea, Ryûkyû, and Japan. Adam Bohnet’s article was, thus, my first exploration of this subject as it pertains to Korea, and one of my first times delving into Chosŏn history;1 there are entire books on Korean history on my list right now, and I eagerly look forward to getting around to getting into them. This also provides a thought-provoking contrast, or contribution, to my thinking about this alongside Yingkit Chan’s work on Ming-Ryûkyû relations. Though Chan only talks about the Ming period, and not the Qing, I think that along with what I know about Ryûkyû from some other sources – and just given the fact that Ryûkyû continued to employ Ming costume and other aspects of Ming court practice well into the Qing period, never adopting Qing practices – it’s safe to say that there are some potentially very valid parallels to be drawn here.
Let’s get to it, properly. Bohnet explains that prior to the fall of the Ming, people of Chinese descent who resided within Korea were grouped together with Jurchens, Japanese, and certain other ethnic groups under the Korean term hwang hwain. Bohnet translates this term very roughly as “submitting foreigners,” i.e. foreigners who submit(ted) to the authority of the Korean court. A little deductive Googling reveals this is equivalent to the Chinese term xiàng huà rén (or xiàng huá rén), but Bohnet does not give the Chinese characters (K: hanja) for any of his terms, making it difficult for someone like myself, who does not know Korean, to figure out whether hwang hwain refers to “people leaning towards transformation” (向化人) or “people leaning towards civilization” (向華人). I find this terribly frustrating. More works need to provide the characters, to give a clearer indication as to the etymologies, or meanings, of terms.
But, regardless of precisely which term it may be, this is really interesting: the Koreans had essentially adopted the Chinese, or perhaps simply Confucian, notion of foreigners traveling to the imperial (or royal) center, recognizing it as a civilizational center, and seeking to be transformed, or civilized. This is something which comes up in Hevia’s Cherishing Men from Afar (which, I know, I still haven’t reviewed. Maybe I should do that one next) and elsewhere – the traditional Chinese idea of the civilizing force which extends from the Emperor in all directions. It is closely tied into the rhetoric or logics of the tribute system (in which missions from other lands are said to be coming of their own free will, to pay homage and tribute, in recognition of the Emperor as source of superior civilization), and of the Sinocentric vision of the world as concentric circles, growing more barbaric, or less civilized, the further one moved from the Imperial center.
So, the Chinese were originally, in the 16th-17th centuries, “submitting foreigners,” or hwang hwain, leaning towards transformation, or civilization, a notion which placed Korean culture at a civilizational zenith. Korea represented itself as an exceptionally civilized kingdom, i.e. in terms of Confucian civilization.
But, then, following the fall of the Ming in 1644 to Manchu invaders, some one hundred years later, the Chosŏn court redefined the Han Chinese people under its rulership no longer as “submitting foreigners” there to be civilized or culturally transformed by Korea’s Confucian royal graces, but rather as remnants of the Great Ming, as people whose presence in the kingdom and whose participation in Ming loyalist rituals at the royal palace represented Ming support for the legitimacy of Chosŏn rule, and represented their approval of Chosŏn as the continuation of the proper “high” “great” Confucian civilization. Throughout the region, the Ming represented the last, greatest, true form of Chinese Confucian civilization. The Ming had fallen to barbarian invaders from the north, and while the Korean and Ryukyuan courts, and Confucian scholarly communities in Japan, all turned to the Qing to one extent or another, they also all developed rhetoric that represented their own country as the true successor of the Ming, the true protector and maintainer of proper Ming high civilization. In Ryukyu, this is most clearly seen in the court’s continued use of Ming robes and various other aspects of Ming court culture, never adopting Qing robes or customs in most respects. In Japan, Confucian scholars & kangakusha (“scholars of Chinese Studies”) kept up with the latest philosophical trends in Qing Confucianism, even going so far as to assert their superiority over Korean Confucians who held to woefully outdated Ming notions, and were thus seen as far behind on the latest developments; yet, even so, they too crafted narratives and explanations of how Ming high civilization survived best in Japan, i.e. how Japan was the greatest or truest Confucian country in the region (and thus, in the world).
In Korea, even as the court eventually (sometime after Ryukyu) switched its allegiances from Ming loyalists and pretenders in southern China & Taiwan to re-establishing formal tributary relations with the Qing, by 1750 or so, it simultaneously constructed a discourse of Chosŏn Korea as the true inheritor of Ming civilization, where proper high Confucian civilization was maintained and continued. Ambassadors to Japan during this period scoffed at Japanese scholars, with their degraded, barbarian-influenced, Qing Confucianism, declaring themselves to be upholding the true, great, un-corrupted Ming forms of Confucian philosophy and culture. Shrines were established within the royal palace grounds, dedicated to Ming emperors, and rituals were devised to pay homage and demonstrate loyalty to the Ming. Chinese people resident in Korea, and their descendants, up until then considered hwang hwain, were now to be considered remnants of the Great Ming – representatives, in a sense, of the Great Ming, who by their presence could represent Ming approval of Korea’s claims to Confucian civilizational superiority (or centrality).
Yet, what makes this even more interesting is that most of these Chinese were not in fact Confucian scholars of the Ming court – not really representatives of the Ming court or Confucian authority at all. And many were not even from what we might today call “China proper.” Many were Liaodongese, or from other border/frontier identities, and many were descended from those who, in one way or another, to one extent or another, lived or served under the Jurchens or the Manchus for years (if not generations) even before the Qing conquest. Ethnicity is a complex thing, defined not, in fact, purely by descent or genetics, but actually by cultural and political associations, and so it’s hard to say whether we should consider them to have been “Chinese” or “Han Chinese” by our modern definitions, or another ethnicity; and we’ll discuss the fuzzy category that is the Liaodongese when we get to discussing Pamela Crossley. But, whoever these “Chinese” people were, they were hardly “loyal” “remnants” of the Ming. And yet, they served that purpose for the Korean court.
Ethnicity is socially constructed, flexible, and often changed to suit political purposes. In East Asia, where tensions based on ethnic nationalisms are so strong, and where the politics of today so color people’s visions of the past, it is important to look back at the ways in which ethnicity was defined and changed over time. What did it mean to be “Chinese” in 17th century Korea, and then in 18th century Korea? What did it mean to be “Korean” or “Japanese” prior to the 7th century? I’ll bet you that if those sorts of identity concepts even existed at all, they meant something very very different from what they do today. When we get to Pamela Crossley, we’ll talk about the 17th century invention of the Manchu people, a group which never existed before that, and a group whose 17th-19th century history continues to be heavily colored by anachronistically applied ideas of the 1900-1911 era.
So that, basically, in a nutshell, is Bohnet’s argument in this one journal article. It certainly got me thinking about ethnicity, and also filled me in a bit on how Ming loyalism played out in the Korean court. I definitely need to read more, though – my knowledge of Korean history is pretty embarrassingly minimal.
All photos my own.
(1) See earlier posts on Korean art exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum and San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum. For the moment, my other sources of knowledge on Chosŏn are mostly books and articles about the missions to Japan (K: Chosŏn tongsinsa; J: Chôsen tsûshinshi), though I have read a good few of these; I’ve found them fascinating, and have learned a lot, but I am still learning.