China and Korea Ruling Dynasties and Relations Chart

We often see Joseon ambassadors in Korean sageuk dramas going off to pay their respects to the Ming dynasty. (For example, the Queen’s father is on his way back from one of these missions to Ming when he is stopped and arrested for treason by the King’s guards in episode 1 Deep Rooted Tree.)

Deep Rooted Tree, SBS, 2011. The Queens father returns from Ming. 

So why did Joseon regularly have to send ambassadors to Ming? And why did the leaders have to consult with Ming and get the Emperor’s blessing over important matters such as who would be the next Joseon King? 

It seems there were several reasons for this to do with economy, security, and ideology. As the super power in Asia, China had a tribute system not only with Joseon but also with many other countries around the world. This meant that the smaller countries accepted China as the greater power which meant they would send regular tribute missions. There were benefits for Joseon to having this kind of relationship. It benefited from trade agreements and could also rely on support in times of war. There was also a more symbolic reason to do with Confucianism. By accepting Confucianism as the ideology system, Joseon accepted Ming as the centre of the world and the Emperor as the Son of Heaven. So of course this ideology affected the Joseon people’s attitude towards the Ming Emperor making it necessary for them to get his blessing on various issues.

Of course the history of the two countries is long and complex, but I have tried to BRIEFLY summarise their relations throughout history in the form of a chart – otherwise it starts getting complicated trying to explain all the different dynasties!  A lot of the info in the chart I read here in this interesting article in the Harvard Asia Quarterly.  I’ve briefly mentioned Old Joseon but don’t list any Chinese Dynasties until the Tang Dynasty ( there were many and I thought that would get very confusing especially since we are trying to focus on Joseon) but I mention Tang in relation to how Tang dynasty helped Silla. Although we are mostly interested in Joseon, I think it’s relevant to start nearer the beginning to get a general overview. Hope this is helpful.

 

 

Korea

Relations

China

Gojoseon 

? – 108 B.C. 

(Old Joseon)

Myth of the founding of Korea:  Dangun, semi-God, semi-human, is borne to a bear mother.

(Chinese and Korean academics argue over the origin of Korea though …

Three Kingdoms

Goguyreo, Silla, Baekje

108 B.C – 668

The three Kingdoms are eager to adopt advanced Chinese culture including legal and administrative institutions, Chinese written language, Buddhism and Confucian ideologies. 

Goguryeo is the most powerful of the 3 Kingdoms and occupies the north of the Korean peninsula and parts of southern Manchuria. Goguryeo is keen to pursue military expansion and is often at war with neighbouring Chinese states.

(Again academics argue over whether Goguryeo was actually part of China at the time or not..) 

Tang

(618-907)

Unified Silla

 

(668-935)

Good relations between Silla and Tang Dynasty lead to Tang helping Silla to conquer Goguryeo and Baekje. Unified Silla joins the Tang worldwide tributary system and trade between them flourishes. Silla also embraces Tang ideologies and students go there to study Buddhism and Confucianism.

5 dynasties and 10 kingdoms 

(907-960)

Goryeo

(935-1392)

Goryeo has a good relationship with the Song Dynasty. Lots of trade both by official missions and private merchants. Exports: gold, silver, copper, ginseng, pine nuts, paper, brushes, ink, fans. Imports: China silk, books, porcelain, medicines, spices, musical instruments. Goryeo aristocracy looks up to the advanced Song Dynasty. 

But relations turn sour towards the end of the Song Dynasty when Goryeo remains neutral and refuses to support Song in a military attack against Mongolians (Khitan and Jin). So Song ends relations with Goryeo. The Song Dynasty soon comes to an end. 

1274- Yuan Dynasty occupies Goryeo and imposes “two nations, one family”. Goryeo kings are forced to take Yuan princesses as Royal consorts so that their sons will become Crown Prince.  Goryeo crown princes have to live in Peking until they become King. Goryeo kings have to pay frequent tributary visits to Peking and high taxes. Goryeo aristocracy have Mongol names, wear Mongol fashions, speak the Mongol language. Yuan Dynasty decides who will succeed to the Goryeo throne and politically and culturally repress Goryeo. 

Some Goryeo royal radicals want to abolish Goryeo and unite with Yuan. But officialdom, aristocracy, and grass-roots resistance prevents this. 

The Yuan Dynasty is now disliked and Goryeo is happy when the Ming Dynasty takes over.  The Goryeo Royalty has lost support over its collaborations with Yuan. General Yi Song-gye takes advantage of this instability as well as the change in Dynasty in China and takes over Goryeo to proclaim Joseon. General Yi becomes the first king of Joseon: King Taejo. 

North Song 

北宋 

(960-1127)

South Song 

南宋

(1127- 1279)

Liao /

(916-1125)

Jin

(1115-1234)

Yuan

(1271-1368)

Joseon 

1392-1910

Yi Song-gye the King of the new Joseon Dynasty wants to strengthern his claims to the throne so he keeps good relations with Ming and wants Ming to sanction the new regime. 

Joseon adopts the Confucian value system which places China at the centre of the world. So Joseon is now essentially subordinated to Ming. The Chinese Emperor is considered the Son of Heaven so it is important symbolically for new kings of Joseon to be approved by him.

(The Korean term for Joseon’s approach to its bilateral foreign relations with Ming is sadae 사대 (事大) meaning ‘serving the Great’. This is a way for a smaller country to acknowledge the power of a stronger country.) 

The investiture of Joseon kings by the Emperor symbolises the tributary status of Joseon to Ming. It also symbolises peace and good will between two countries and mutual protection against foreign invasions. The tributary status of Joseon also means Ming is obligated to help defend Joseon. ( eg. Imjin Wars (1592-1598) Ming sends 100,000 men to help defend Joseon from the Japanese Hideyoshi-led invasions.) Joseon has a sense of psychological and military security. 

Trade between Joseon and Ming flourishes. Joseon exports horses, ginseng, furs, clothes, and straw mats, and imports silk fabrics, Confucian books, Buddhist sutras, medicine, porcelain ware.

Three times a year, the Yi court dispatches official embassies to the Ming court to congratulate the Son of Heaven on the Emperor’s birthday, Chinese New Year, and the birthday of the Crown Prince.

But ….

Relations turn nasty when the Qing Dynasty defeats the Ming Dynasty. Joseon won’t accept the Qing Dynasty as rulers. Joseon loses protection and its tributary status and decides to shut itself off from the outside world. It becomes a ‘hermit kingdom’. 

Ming

1368-1644

Qing

(1644-1912)

 

 

 

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