Failure of Chosun-Ming relationship


When the Japanese War of 1592-1598 broke out and the Japanese army was very successful at the beginning, Ming China quickly dispatched troops to resist them at the request of Koreans.


Sending the armies itself was a very faithful fulfillment of Ming's obligation for the tributary relationship with Chosun. But in reality, many Koreans were sceptical about the goodwill of the Chinese because the latter often appeared to be not so much concerned about the fate of the Kingdom and its people. The greatest suspicion was laid on the willingness of Chinese negotiators to have southern parts of Korea ceded to the Japanese to make the conclusion of the war easy.


Such suspicions were not fully verified, but there was at least one matter with which the Emperor obviously made things difficult for Koreans. He refused to endorse the nomination of Kwanghae-gun(光海君, r. 1608-1623) as crown prince.


King Seon-jo(宣祖, r. 1567-1608) had not nominated the crown prince until the breakout of the war because he had sons only from concubines and not from the queen. When the war came, he was pressed to nominate one, so as to enlarge the royal leadership and to make things look more stable. The eldest son Imhae-gun(臨海君, 1574-1609) was soon gravely disgraced by being too easily captured by the Japanese, leaving the second son Kwanghae the only practical choice.


Seon-jo began asking for the emperor's endorsement for the nomination of Kwanghae as crown prince in 1593, but did not receive it until his death 15 years later. Emperor Wan-li(萬曆, r. 1572-1620) grudgingly endorsed Kwanghae as king of Chosun only several years after he took to the throne. The Emperor's reluctance to endorse Kwanghae caused a great unrest in the Chosun court, which led to a series of troubles, including Kwanghae's killing of Imhae and a kid brother(from Seon-jo's queen), and eventually a coup which dethroned him.


Wanli's refusal to endorse Kwanghae was the first and only such incident in the relationship between Chosun and Ming. It encouraged plotters against Kwanghae, increasing instability in the Chosun court. It can also have reduced Kwanghae's trust in Ming. During Kwanghae's reign, when Nurhachi's power was growing in the North, there were some occasions when Kwanghae's measures showed certain ambiguities. One of his most prominent crimes alleged by the 1623 coup leaders was his disloyalty to Ming.


Was Kwanghae really disloyal to Ming? A Ming military leader Xiong Ting-bi(熊廷畢, 1569-1625) once remarked that "Koreans are more sincere than the Chinese in their worrying for China." He was referring to Kwanghae's suggestion to the Ming court to be more tolerant to Jin() founded by Nurhachi in 1616. Ming did not heed it, attacked Jin, and suffered a decisive defeat at Sa-eh-hu(薩爾滸) in 1619.


Chosun dispatched an army to Sa-er-hu to aid Ming, but it surrendered to Jin without suffering much loss. Opposers to Kwanghae accused him of instructing the commander Kang Hong-lip(姜弘立, 1560-1627) to surrender without fighting. Though there is no way to verify this accusation, it sounds quite plausible because Kang later took an active role in easing the relations between Chosun and the Manchus.


Emperor Wanli's refusal to endorse Kwanghae as crown prince of Chosun was a failure to practice the principle of 'zi-xiao'. His refusal to accept Nurhachi as a vassal was another failure as Tian-zi. Apparently it did not please the Heaven, so his immediate successors lost tian-xia.


This incidence tells us that, when the tributary system fails at the center, it is practically impossible to be repaired from the peripheries. When the system began to look either unstable or unsatisfactory, Korean leaders were split into two groups. One, represented by Kwanghae, tried to minimize the commitment to Ming, so that they could adapt more easily to the changing situation. The other group insisted on the maximum commitment to Ming and ousted Kwanghae from the throne. After the coup, King In-jo(仁祖, r. 1623-1649)'s court had no way to get along with the rising Manchus and consequently suffered two Manchu invasions, in 1627 and 1636. The second invasion was concluded by Chosun's pledge to shift her loyalty from Ming to Qing, the new empire proclaimed by the Manchus.



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