Our Chosŏn: China’s Policy toward Korea between Zongfanism and Colonialism, 1882–1895

Yuanchong Wang, Assistant Professor
University of Delaware

The article examines Qing China’s policy toward Chosŏn Korea between 1882 and 1895, when both countries struggled to define their time-honored and hierarchical Zongfan (a.k.a. tributary) relationship whose nature was severely challenged by Western and Japanese powers. Many Chinese officials and intellectuals suggested that Beijing should completely resolve the Korean crisis by integrating Korea into a part of China. This colonial approach presented itself in two ways. On the one hand, some invoked Zongfan norms and enthusiastically proposed that China should convert Korea into a province or several prefectures and counties. This proposal derived its legitimacy from historical precedents in the Han, Yuan, and Ming dynasties, when the Chinese empire construed Korea as constituting Chinese “prefectures and counties” or considered sending officials to the country to “supervise and protect” it. What this proposal would exploit was China’s patriarchal authority in the China-centric Zongfan family. On the other hand, some officials and intellectuals proposed that China could follow its policies toward Mongolian and Tibetan areas into incorporating Korean into China and these proponents used the relationship between Britain and India as a reference point. This proposal thus combined the Manchu colonialism in Central Asia with European colonialism in Asia that had recently triumphed over the Chinese way in Indochina and reached East Asia. What this proposal preferred was China’s hegemony in East Asian geopolitics. This article discusses the two proposed ways of incorporating Korea into China, namely Zongfanism and colonialism, and reveals the Qing ruling house’s great efforts to steer a middle course during a critical period in the late nineteenth century.

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