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.

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.

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.