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Traditional East Asian Structure from the Perspective of Sino-Korean Relations
Unformatted Document Text:  Traditional East Asian Structure from the Perspective of Sino-Korean Relations 1 Feng Zhang International Relations Department The London School of Economics and Political Science Paper presented to ISA’s 49 th Annual Convention, San Francisco, March 26-29, 20008 Traditional Sino-Korean relations have generally been understood as a relationship of remarkable amity and harmony. As the Chinese like to say, China and Korea are as close as lips and teeth. The label “model tributary state” has been invented to describe Korea’s role in its relations with China, signifying its submissiveness to the Chinese empire. Chinese historical documents, such as Da Ming Hui Dian (Collective Statutes of the Ming Dynasty), extolled Korea for being the most reverent and careful among Ming China’s tributaries. 2 Contemporary international relations scholars often take Sino-Korean relations as a classical example of hierarchy in international relations. This relationship, therefore, has achieved a kind of special status in China’s foreign relations and has been used as a case for certain claims in international relations theory. I argue in this chapter that much of this prevalent belief cannot stand up to close empirical scrutiny. Historical Sino-Korean relations were in fact more confrontational than harmonious. Korea proved to be a difficult neighbour for China at various moments in history, especially during the first millennium AD. It was only after the establishment of the Chosǒn dynasty in Korea (1392) that this relationship ceased to be conflict-prone. The label “model tributary” overlooks many crucial aspects of Sino-Korean relations in practice and can be very misleading if applied uncritically. In short, Sino-Korean relations defy to be characterized under a single rubric. I attempt to evaluate Sino-Korean relations in the early Ming dynasty (1368-1424) from the Hongwu (1368-1398), the Jianwen (1398-1402), to the Yongle reign (1402-1424). This is a unique period in terms of Sino-Korean 1 This paper draws from one chapter in my dissertation in progress, Chinese Primacy in East Asia: Past Patterns and Future Possibilities. As such many of the views and arguments here remain primitive. 2 It praised Korea for the fact that: (1) Chosǒn kings requested investiture regularly; (2) Korean envoys observed proper decorum and ritual; and (3) Korea’s tribute was paid promptly. See Hugh Dyson Walker, The Yi-Ming Rapprochement: Sino-Korean Foreign Relations, 1392-1592 (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 1971), fn. 52, p. 269. 1

Authors: Zhang, Feng.
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Traditional East Asian Structure
from the Perspective of Sino-Korean Relations
Feng Zhang
International Relations Department
The London School of Economics and Political Science
Paper presented to ISA’s 49
th
Annual Convention, San Francisco, March 26-29,
20008
Traditional Sino-Korean relations have generally been understood as a
relationship of remarkable amity and harmony. As the Chinese like to say,
China and Korea are as close as lips and teeth. The label “model tributary state”
has been invented to describe Korea’s role in its relations with China,
signifying its submissiveness to the Chinese empire. Chinese historical
documents, such as Da Ming Hui Dian (Collective Statutes of the Ming
Dynasty), extolled Korea for being the most reverent and careful among Ming
China’s tributaries.
Contemporary international relations scholars often take
Sino-Korean relations as a classical example of hierarchy in international
relations. This relationship, therefore, has achieved a kind of special status in
China’s foreign relations and has been used as a case for certain claims in
international relations theory.
I argue in this chapter that much of this prevalent belief cannot stand up to
close empirical scrutiny. Historical Sino-Korean relations were in fact more
confrontational than harmonious. Korea proved to be a difficult neighbour for
China at various moments in history, especially during the first millennium AD.
It was only after the establishment of the Chosǒn dynasty in Korea (1392) that
this relationship ceased to be conflict-prone. The label “model tributary”
overlooks many crucial aspects of Sino-Korean relations in practice and can be
very misleading if applied uncritically. In short, Sino-Korean relations defy to
be characterized under a single rubric.
I attempt to evaluate Sino-Korean relations in the early Ming dynasty
(1368-1424) from the Hongwu (1368-1398), the Jianwen (1398-1402), to the
Yongle reign (1402-1424). This is a unique period in terms of Sino-Korean
1
This paper draws from one chapter in my dissertation in progress, Chinese Primacy in East Asia: Past Patterns
and Future Possibilities. As such many of the views and arguments here remain primitive.
2
It praised Korea for the fact that: (1) Chosǒn kings requested investiture regularly; (2) Korean envoys observed
proper decorum and ritual; and (3) Korea’s tribute was paid promptly. See Hugh Dyson Walker, The Yi-Ming
Rapprochement: Sino-Korean Foreign Relations, 1392-1592
(Ph.D. diss., University of California, Los Angeles,
1971), fn. 52, p. 269.
1


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