Academic journal article Journal of East Asian Studies

Comforting Fictions: The Tribute System, the Westphalian Order, and Sino-Korean Relations

Academic journal article Journal of East Asian Studies

Comforting Fictions: The Tribute System, the Westphalian Order, and Sino-Korean Relations

Article excerpt

Observers and practitioners of Sino-Korean relations in both the pre- and post-nineteenth century have utilized powerful "comforting fictions" to describe and justify power asymmetry. In the pre-nineteenth-century period, the idea of the "tribute system" put a veneer of Confucian benevolence on what a closer examination reveals to have been unequal and coercive relations. Western proponents of the Westphalian system of sovereign equality saw the new norms of international relations as potentially liberating to Korea, a way to free Korea from the Chinese yoke. However, Westphalian equality, too, was a comforting fiction that masked the reality of imperialism--both formal and informal. The Qing empire played a heretofore neglected role in both types of unequal coercive relations between Korea and the outside world. KEYWORDS: Choson Korea (1392-1910), Ming China (1368-1644), Qing China (1644-1910), tribute system, Westphalian system, imperialism

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IN THE LATE NINETEENTH CENTURY, BOTH THE QING EMPIRE (CHINA) and the Chosen kingdom (Korea) exchanged one comforting fiction, the so-called tribute system, for another comforting fiction, the Westphalian system of modern international relations. (1) Some explanation of the term "comforting fiction" is warranted. First: "fiction." It is apparent that many of the actual participants in the tribute system were entirely unaware of the systematic nature of the rules that structured and limited their interactions. Indeed, the "tribute system" is an idea for which there was no indigenous Chinese (or Korean) term in the time period during which the tribute system was thought to have existed (Mancall 1984, 13). And while some practitioners of modern Westphalian-style relations wrote of international law and the "family of nations," many were likely only dimly aware at best of the systematic rules that supposedly governed modern international relations. Leaving aside such conceptual complexities, it is also apparent that the actual practice of international relations did not always comport to the supposed rules of such relations, be they systematic or otherwise.

This is where "comforting" comes in. In terms of Sino-Korean relations under the "tribute system," both sides went to great lengths to describe their interactions not as the result of an unequal power relationship but as the natural result of the mutual acceptance of shared Confucian norms. Unlike other relationships that might be explained by Thucydides's famous axiom that "they that have odds of power exact as much as they can, and the weak yield to such conditions as they can get" (Thucydides 1989, 365), Sino-Korean tributary relations were said to have been based on both China's and Korea's acknowledgment of the centrality of China, its emperor, and its civilization. As long as China adhered to its Confucian obligations, the loyalty of its Korean vassal was natural and inevitable, requiring neither coercion nor extensive intervention. "In administering your government, what need is there for you to kill?" Confucius famously queried. "Just desire the good yourself and the common people will be good" (Confucius 1979, 115). And yet despite the ubiquitous declarations of adherence to Confucian ethics--"I use only the Five Classics to rule the realm," proclaimed the Ming Yongle emperor (Brook 2010, 92)--the actual practice of Sino-Korean relations diverged, often significantly, from the Confucian norm. (2) Yet both sides appeared more than willing to cling to the comforting fiction that their relations were not merely the result of the coercion that Thucydides's Athenians assumed was the natural outgrowth of power asymmetry.

These oft-repeated comforting fictions have greatly influenced present-day depictions and understandings of East Asian international relations before the nineteenth century. Many contemporary scholars appear to have accepted more or less at face value the notion that the tribute system in general and Sino-Korean relations in particular were predicated on something other than mere power relations. …

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