Civilized and Barbarous Are as One: The Guan Yu Cult and Textual Spaces in Nineteenth-Century Chosŏn-Qing Discourses of Tribute and State Legitimacy

Joshua Van Lieu, Assistant Professor
LaGrange College

In the nearly three-hundred years from the time Ming armies imposed it upon the Chosŏn court in the 1590s to the Qing occupation of Seoul in 1880s, the Guan Yu faith in Korea slowly changed from a Chinese and decidedly alien superstition to an enthusiastically supported state cult. In the nineteenth-century, Qing commanders stationed in Seoul were in agreement with the Chosŏn court that the deity Guan Yu was a protector of legitimate and righteous rulers and had thus defended the Chosŏn throne from recent internal uprisings. A comparison of Chosŏn and Qing texts presented and recited within the precincts of Chosŏn temples to Guan Yu, however, reveals different conceptions of state legitimacy, particularly in relation to the then deeply contested Chosŏn-Qing tributary relationship. Through close readings of the texts and spaces of Guan Yu temples in both Qing and Chosŏn, this paper explores Chosŏn state appropriations of Ming and Qing iterations of state Guan Yu cults to illustrate the Chosŏn court’s simultaneous contestation and adoption of the very discourses of empire to which it was then subject.

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