Imagined Territory: Paektusan in Late Chosŏn Maps and Writings

Nianshen Song, Postdoctoral Fellow
History Department, Vassar College

The presentation examines the formation of the territorial consciousness in Chosŏn Korea
(1392-1895) through the lens of maps and geographical writings. The modern shape of the Korean territory was generally formed in the fifteenth century. But the notion of a Korean space, especially the sense of its northern end centered at Paektusan (Ch. Mt. Changbai), emerged only in the early eighteenth century. The landmarks of the northern border—Paektusan, a demarcation stele, and a barrier connecting the stele and the Tuman River—recorded the results of a joint topographic survey conducted by a Qing official and his Korean counterparts in 1712. In late Chosŏn atlases and maps, those landmarks were presented prominently, often in an exaggerated and paradoxical manner.

The highlighting of these landmarks on maps and texts, from the perspectives of geography and cartography, revealed the popular effort among late Chosŏn intellectuals in searching for a new Korean identity. Such an effort was stimulated directly by Chosŏn’s geopolitical tensions with the Manchu Qing regime, and was influenced indirectly by Qing’s geopolitical tension with Russia. At the same time, mediated by the Qing, the image of a Korean space was profoundly improved by the introduction of Jesuit cartographic technique.

With comprehensive trans-regional and global contexts, a Korean “geo-body” was portrayed in an era when self-awareness was in rising. The legacy of such visualization was transformed to, and deeply embedded in, modern nationalist imagination—with Paektusan being promoted as a symbol of the Korean nation.

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