Between Imperial and Tributary Sovereignty: Qing-Choson Interstate Legal Cases, 1630s-1790s

Jaymin Kim, PhD Candidate
University of Michigan

The legal status of Qing tributary states has been questioned often since the late nineteenth century, when the Qing faced other imperial powers such as France, Japan, and Russia who were trying to pursue colonial agendas regarding Qing tributary states. For example, William W. Rockhill, an American diplomat and Sinologist, started his 1889 article on Korea’s relations with China with such a question: “Were they [Western nations] . . . to consider it [Korea] as an integral part of the Chinese empire, or should they treat it as a sovereign state enjoying absolute international rights?”(1) Influenced by the modern concept of sovereignty in international public law, as were his contemporaries, he based his inquiry on the premise that the two possibilities were incompatible.

In fact, the Qing imperial worldview was based on its multiplicity and elasticity, two characteristics shared by the worldviews of tributary states like Chosǒn Korea. This paper will look at the establishment and development of Qing imperial sovereignty and Chosǒn tributary sovereignty from the 1630s to the 1840s from three interrelated perspectives: subjecthood, boundaries, and jurisdiction. The Qing invasion of Chosǒn Korea in 1637 resulted in a ceasefire treaty that laid out fundamental principles for the Qing-Chosǒn tributary relationship. Through this treaty, Qing China sought to delineate a clear line between Qing subjects and Chosǒn subjects, reaffirm the Yalu River as the territorial boundary between the two states, and criminalize certain behaviors in the borderlands. This paper will show how the two states delineated and maintained political and territorial boundaries in light of their worldview and how they dealt with interstate crimes over the next two centuries accordingly.

(1) William W. Rockhill, “Korea in Its Relations with China,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 13 (1889), p.

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