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.

A State of Ranches and Forests: The Environmental Legacy of the Mongol Empire on the Korean Peninsula

John Lee, PhD Candidate
Harvard University

The era of Mongol Yuan domination in the Korean peninsula, stretching from 1271 to 1368, lasted less than a century. The relatively short span, however, would witness the integration of the Korean peninsula into the Mongol imperial ecumene, with immense implications for the late Koryŏ and subsequent Chosŏn dynasties. Previous scholarship on the period has largely focused on how interactions between Korean elites and the broader Mongol empire fostered intellectual, cultural, and political changes on peninsula. This paper focuses on another area where the Mongols made an indelible but oft-ignored impact: the Korean environment. From the invasion fleets built from felled Korean forests to the expansion of hunting grounds in the interior and ranches on the islands and coasts, Yuan policies and priorities deeply imprinted the Korean landscape. I argue that the imprints were not temporary: they left a lasting institutional legacy. Yuan exploitation of Korean coastal forests forced later Koryŏ and particularly early Chosŏn officials to reckon with the limited supply of domestic timber. Yuan reliance on horse cavalry necessitated the establishment of ranches on southwestern islands and along the coast; in turn, they would form the basis for the expansion of state ranches for military use and royal consumption in the early Chosŏn era. By extracting new flows of sylvan resources from the peninsula and instituting new mechanisms for corralling animal resources, the Yuan empire established the basis from which the Chosŏn dynasty would launch centralized control of the peninsula’s environment. The early Chosŏn government instituted protected forests (kŭmsan 禁山) and state ranches (mokjang 牧場) to an extent unprecedented to that point in Korean history. Such innovations should remind historians that empires are also spatial-political entities with the capacity to extract and engender biotic shifts with consequences ranging beyond the empire’s lifetime.

Two Empires, Two Imperialisms: Land Surveys and Taxation Mechanisms in the Korean Empire (1897-1910) and the Colonial Period (1910-1945)

Sora Kim, PhD Candidate
Seoul National University

In 1897, the last king of the Chosŏn dynasty inaugurated a new era. The country was renamed the Korean Empire (Taehan cheguk), and King Kojong assumed the title of emperor. At the same time, several reforms were enacted to realign Korean society. The Kwangmu Land Survey (1898-1904), which assessed the country’s agrarian tax base, was one of these reforms. Although national codes set the interval of national land survey to be once every twenty-years, these rules were not followed. The dynasty had relied on the Kyŏngja Land Survey (1720) until the late of nineteenth century. The Kwangmu Survey, therefore, was the first of its kind in 180 years.

Most research treats the Kwangmu Survey as a “progressive project,” and have tried to identify its “modern” features. When compared to the colonial land survey (1910-1918), however, indigenous aspects of the Kwangmu project stand out. This paper compares the two land surveys to reveal differences in taxation mechanism and their underlying political ideologies.

The differences between the two surveys are visible in surveying processes, measurement methods, and how they are linked with household registers. Even information about area and grade, the most important variables for determining tax rate, could vary for the same plot of land between the two surveys. Although both surveys were conducted by “empires,” their different methodologies reflected the distinct political ideologies of the two regimes. The Korean Empire took over indigenous characteristics in taxation system of the dynasty. The Japanese colonial regimes, on the other hand, tried to implement a modern, Western model into Korea. Whereas ideals of benevolent Confucian rulership during the Korean Empire accommodated regional, the colonial government, however, believed a unified, procrustean order could flatten regional variation. The two regimes had distinct notions of imperial rule for Korea.