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Travel and Travel Accounts in World History, Part 2


Korean Explorations between Civilization and Barbarism in the Eighteenth Century
Including a translated excerpt of Hong Taeyong's Dialogue at Mount Ŭimuryŏ

Sungshin Kim


     From the perspective of World History, an eighteenth century journey from Korea to China might not seem to take us beyond the predictable boundaries of area studies. The more so as the Korean travelers that will be discussed here made this voyage within the framework of the Sinocentric tributary system—one of the most traditional subjects in East Asian historiography. But for Hong Taeyong, who visited Beijing in 1765–6, and the group of scholars he influenced, this journey became more than a mission within a familiar cultural ecumene. Qing China, ruled by the Manchus, opened up new vistas as it forced these literati to reflect on the conceptual binary of civilization and barbarism. The tributary mission thus became a vantage point for this circle of thinkers to formulate a critique of their own society, not unlike the way some of their Enlightenment contemporaries in Europe were drawing on travel literature. With an excerpt from Hong's philosophical text translated below, this essay can hopefully serve to introduce an alternative example of the impact of early modern travel on philosophical reflection to the World History classroom.

     Since its origins in the 1390s, Chosŏn Korea had maintained the tributary relationship with its much larger neighbor. In return, however, it was free in the conduct of its internal affairs. It is a mistake to read Chosŏn's "reverence for China," as its scholars put it, through the essentialist perspective of modern national culture. In the modern period, Korean nationalists as well as Japanese colonialists would come to rebuke Chosŏn's supposedly slavish attitude toward the Middle Kingdom as the source of its weakness. While the Chosŏn elite were a proud participant in what we could call "Chinese" civilization, this primarily meant that it regarded the texts that came down from classical China as the source to derive a proper political and social order. Reverence for "China" was thus first and foremost for an ideal located deep in antiquity, which served as a civilizational model that was seen as universal (thus my scare quotes, as we are not dealing here with China as a national entity). From the Korean perspective, it was not only Chosŏn that tried to live up to this ideal; any post-classical Chinese dynasty had to be judged by it with the risk of falling short.

     While Chosŏn Korea and China shared a scriptural high culture that relied on the same classics, Koreans also had a long history of developing their local interpretations of this universal culture, distinguishing themselves as a distinct community. Indeed, underneath the semblance of centralized states modeled on the classics, Korea's socio-political trajectory was substantially different compared to its neighbor. The power of the Chosŏn monarch was far more circumscribed than that of the emperors in China. Instead, it was dominated by its literati elite, the so called yangban, who unlike in China formed a closed hereditary stratum—despite the Korean adoption of Chinese style civil service examinations.1 Koreans and Chinese were thus, at least from the standpoint of the former, both distinct participants in a universal civilization, both striving for the moral perfection laid down in the classics.

     It was the seventeenth century rise of the Manchus, emerging from the lands to the north of Korea, that overwhelmed and tore apart this shared sphere of civilization. The Manchu capture of Beijing in 1644 was the high point of a geopolitical transformation unfolding over decades. Earlier, the Manchus had invaded Korea twice, in the 1620s and 30s, to secure one flank in their struggle with the Chinese Ming Dynasty. Chosŏn's refusal to abandon the Ming, who had saved them from Japanese invasions only a few decades earlier, had ended in humiliating defeat, with the Korean king forced to submit in person to the Manchu Imperial claimant. Since China was the prize they were after, Korea did escape permanent occupation. Instead, as the Middle Kingdom eventually fell to these barbarians, Chosŏn Koreans emerged from the crisis to find themselves, in their eyes, the last remaining bastion of civilization.

     How this role as upholder of civilization was to be taken up, and its implications for Korean identity, was a question that would divide Chosŏn's literati, leading to internal struggles that lasted decades and continued to shape its political landscape. It was only then that Chosŏn elites came to identify themselves with a notion of civilization built around a specific reverence for the now defunct Ming dynasty and the dominant school of Chinese neo-Confucianism. From a long-term perspective, one can see this as another move—as there had been before—to transfer and domesticate Chinese political ideals, centering them into the Korean state. Rather than specifically Korean, one can also see this as a translatio or transfer of a universal or imperial ideal into a new geographic context—as there are many examples in the Early Modern world. Meanwhile, the realities of power still forced Chosŏn to maintain the tributary relationship with these new barbarian rulers of China.

     It would take more than a century before at least some Chosŏn thinkers broke with the outright rejection of Qing China that now became customary among Korea's literati. This re-opening of the mind can be dated to Hong Taeyong (1731–1783, penname Tamhŏn), who composed a travel account of the 1765–6 tribute mission. Hong's description of this six-month journey, which included a two-month stay in Beijing itself, came in two versions, corresponding to the forms the written word could take in Chosŏn.2

     One of these, the more literary presentation of his journey usually known in English as the Peking Memoir, was composed in the Chinese characters typically used by Korea's classically trained literati. With this text, Hong gave an important impulse to travel writing as a literary genre in Korea. As Gari Ledyard already pointed out in a pioneering analysis, he broke with the diary format used by earlier reports on embassies, organizing his material instead in topical fashion. Ledyard distinguished a number of segments. The first and largest one, taking up almost one third of the text, contains descriptions of encounters and conversations Hong had with people he met throughout his travel and stay. This also includes in-depth conversations with three Chinese scholars he befriended in Beijing. Next, we get a description of noteworthy scenes encountered by the Korean embassy on its travel to Beijing before Hong moves on to describe the look and feel of capital life. This is followed by activities that Hong and the Korean delegation participated in while in Beijing including discussions on a number of selected topics that range from food to domestic animals, clothing and music and concluding with a section on the members who made up the mission.3

     Aside from this account in the Chinese script, however, Hong also produced a version written in Korea's vernacular alphabet and thus open to a readership beyond the scholarly elite. Organized in diary form, this second text might have been closer to notes taken by Hong on the journey itself, and appears to have been written before the more polished Chinese version. But it still seems Hong intended it for a larger audience instead of being merely a working draft for the final Chinese version, since even poems written in characters are made accessible to a non-literati public—transliterated in the Korean alphabet as well as translated in regular spoken language. It certainly appears an oddity, the only case in which complete versions of a work in both classical Chinese and the vernacular script have been preserved.

     It was thanks to his well-connected family that Hong, then thirty-five years old, had the opportunity to join the embassy. His uncle, who served as one of the three ranking officials on this mission, chose him as his military aide—a pro forma rank usually offered to gifted relatives. But this family background that allowed Hong to make this journey to Qing China also tied him to the internal struggles over Chosŏn's place in the world in the wake of the Manchu conquest. His lineage was closely associated with the powerful Noron faction that had come to espouse a staunch Ming loyalism.

     As a living relationship, Korea's dealings with the Ming had always been overshadowed by the danger such a large power potentially posed.4 It was only in the wake of the Manchu conquest of China that the perished Ming dynasty became a key marker in Chosŏn politics. For the seventeenth century scholar Song Siyŏl, civilization had reached its pinnacle under the Ming as they had adhered to the orthodox neo-Confucianism of the Chinese scholar Zhu Xi. Chosŏn's singular role, as he defined it, was to continue these tenets of Ming civilization. To enforce this view, Song went to unseen lengths to suppress opposition scholars, who argued that no postclassical period or thinker could be above criticism in such a way.5 The Noron were those who continued to follow Song Siyŏl's lead when his heavy-handed approach split his supporters.

     While Song Siyŏl himself did not survive the purges and counter-purges that ensued, the Ming-loyalism he had promoted became, literally, enshrined in Chosŏn's internal politics. Korean literati, and eventually also its kings, came to commemorate the Ming, a foreign dynasty, at memorial shrines—something never seen before—to link themselves in that way to the source of the true civilization. For Hong this was no remote past but family history: his grandfather had participated in the campaign to elevate Song Siyŏl's posthumous position and was banished to the wilderness in one of the factional purges. The tutor responsible for Hong's training belonged to an even more central Noron family, which could trace its lineage back to one of the outspoken pro-Ming officials who had been taken as hostages by the Manchus after their victory over Chosŏn.

     Hong undertook his journey to China almost eighty years after the high point of these internal struggles and 120 years after the demise of the Ming; still this identification with this erstwhile dynasty is never far away in his Peking Memoir. It was a topic so central to his identity that the author was clearly compelled to bring it up in conversations with people he met on his voyage. An easy way for him to do so was through his appearance since Chosŏn officials still wore Ming style garments. At times, Hong would even approach Chinese administrators to ask what they thought of the Koreans' clothing. A more oblique way was to discuss theater, in which Ming style clothing had been preserved as a prop in historical pieces. At other times he would inquire after the writings of Ming patriots who had died in the Manchu conquest—works which were of course forbidden. As Hong himself admits, these questions often embarrassed his interlocutors who tried to ignore such a sensitive, even dangerous, topic.

     One might wonder how Hong could be a perceptive observer at all, if he wore his identity on his sleeve like that—based on the notion that Chosŏn had preserved classical civilization, defined by the Ming, in a way that had been impossible in a barbarian ruled China. But this was only one side of Hong's persona as it appears in his travel writing. He also showed an inquisitiveness that ranged far beyond this concern with the Ming past, interested in almost anything or anybody he encountered.

     One element that drove this curiosity was a realization that barbarian ascendancy did not develop as Korea's literati had expected. The Manchu conquest might have been shocking, but Korea's intellectuals had assumed that these barbarians would not be able to rule China for more than a century—a prediction they derived not altogether unreasonably from the historical examples of earlier conquest dynasties in northern China—after which they expected renewed regional chaos. As this amount of time had now passed, and Manchu rule over China proved more durable, it came to pose something of an intellectual challenge. At the beginning of his diary in the vernacular script, Hong rehearses the standard, bleak view of Manchu rule as the end of civilized life in China: "the descendants of the sages all had to cut their hair and wear barbarian clothing, leaving no place for proper everyday rituals"—referring to one of the first Qing orders that had forced Chinese to adopt the Manchu hairstyle with shaved forehead. But Hong could not avoid noting that, "though they are filthy barbarians," the Manchus were still "standing their ground in China" and "had even enjoyed peace now for more than a hundred years." This begged for investigation: "it was thus worth to go and observe the Manchu's character and the extent of their rule," as he put it.6

     In fact, Qing hegemony was at this point more stable than ever. Resentment against alien rule still lingered under the surface, in the China that Hong visited, but the Manchu rulers had skillfully recruited the bulk of the Chinese elite to serve the regime. Ming-loyalism in China, once embraced by many of its literati, had become a mere memory, a marginalized romantic attitude that could be admired in plays but devoid of true political bearing.7 For a Chosŏn Korean, especially from Hong's background, this must have been striking. The assuredness of Manchu rule also meant that the Korean embassy was given greater freedom to observe life in Qing China. An account of the Chosŏn tributary mission written in the 1710s shows that the delegation had been closely monitored, with movements outside of their guesthouse heavily restricted. Fifty years later this strenuous supervision had disappeared, giving Hong and his colleagues more liberty to explore Beijing life.8

     Hong produced a richly colored portrait of society under the Qing, often casting a critical eye, but far from an anti-barbarian screed. Reflecting on his experience, Hong put it like this to the Chinese literati who had become his friends:

Now that I had a chance to see China I can tell that it is grand, with an abundance of sceneries and customs. It was thus worthwhile, without a doubt, to visit under the Heaven. Since such things expand the heart.9

     Indeed, amazement with what he got to see in China runs through the Peking Memoir. Hong was still convinced, however, of Korea's unique role as preserver of civilization. In the same reflection, he implicitly criticized his Chinese friends, pointing at a bodily marker whose symbolism we already encountered: hairstyle.

[Chosŏn] is only a small country surrounded by seas, as if we are sitting in a well looking up the sky. But by not cutting our hair, we alone still preserve what our ancestors bequeathed to us. It is with this knowledge that we comfort ourselves.10

     But Hong was surprisingly mild about the Manchus, whose leaders had forced the Chinese to cut their hair in the first place (or die). A decade later, in a conversation with the Korean crown prince, he compared the Manchus even favorable in certain respects to the Chinese. As he put it to the prince:

[In China] I have met a few literati-scholars and can say that their poetry, prose, calligraphy, and paintings were all excellent.[ . . . ] In general, many Chinese people are talented and artistic, while many Manchus are simple and straightforward. But the Manchus are superior to the Chinese when it comes to the human quality of honesty.11

Certainly, a surprising judgment for a literati from a Noron lineage. Hong even told the prince that this assessment could already be found in earlier reports on China. But it seems he was trying to cover himself, after taking such an unorthodox position.

     Maybe it was Hong's encounter in China with a Manchu prince, a descendant of the great Kangxi Emperor, that influenced this judgment. It was Hong who had taken the initiative to approach the prince in Beijing's shopping district. After a number of meetings, however, their relationship had turned awkward as the Manchu nobleman showered the Korean visitor with gifts the latter could never reciprocate. But this misunderstanding was eventually resolved in a way that left both sides emotionally touched. This experience, meeting a Manchu prince in Beijing's bustling commercial district also brings together two themes that stand out in Hong's description of China, which would have been unfamiliar to a Chosŏn traveler. First of all, Hong's account shows the diverse set of people brought together from afar in the capital of an empire like the Qing. With large zones of the city serving as quarters for the Eight Banners, the backbone of the Qing military, it is no surprise that Hong saw much of the Manchus as well as their Mongol allies.

     One of the most vivid scenes in the Peking Memoir is Hong's description of bannermen practicing their martial skills. Hong was clearly impressed, writing of their "efficiency of movement" and the "total control" with which they rode their horses. Even when they were just smoking and chatting with each other on horseback, it seemed as if animal and man were one. But as Hong observed their exercises, some of them gathered around him, including a Manchu officer who asked him to demonstrate his skills with the bow. They did not accept Hong's excuse that he was a scholar, pointing to his (in fact, pro forma) rank as military official. When Hong finally posed, holding the bow, they did compliment him, he reports with amusement. Hong was also asked questions that probed Chosŏn's martial prowess, including the quality of horses and riding in Korea. Eager to impress this foreign observer, the bannermen invited him to watch what they announced would be a truly spectacular demonstration, even compared to what he had seen so far, with a rider handling two horses at the same time. But as this man could not immediately be found, and Hong had already an appointment with his scholar friend, he had to forego this display.12

     The Peking Memoir also gives some idea how the imperial capital was a magnet for a range of Chinese people, from scholars to merchants or monks, who in some cases had travelled a longer distance to get there than the Korean embassy. This was the case with the three literati Hong befriended, who came from the Southern Chinese city of Hangzhou to participate in the imperial civil service examination. Hong describes a number of conversations he had with them, conducted through so-called brush-talks. Classical Chinese was as central to the formation of a Korean scholar like Hong as it was to these Chinese; Chosŏn literati, however, pronounced its characters in Korean. Yet on paper this did not matter, opening the possibility for in-depth conversation through the medium of brush and ink. Notwithstanding the classical heritage Hong and his Chinese friends shared, their exchanges often display a mutual curiosity for the foreign. This varied from the mundane to the scholarly. The Chinese would ask Hong about food and etiquette in Korea, the fabric of literati clothes there, about Buddhist scriptures Koreans read, and if women did compose poetry (in fact, they used the vernacular script). Hong inquired about Southern China, for instance if they also suffered smallpox, etc . . .13 Through these conversations a real bond developed: Hong and his Chinese friends would continue to exchange letters for the rest of their lives.

     Hong also had a chance to catch a glimpse of other foreigners who like the Koreans had come to Beijing on diplomatic mission. Most of these descriptions are anecdotal, but they give us a from-below view of the variety of diplomatic relations maintained by the Qing. In one scene Hong describes how tribute missions, to avoid embarrassment, would rehearse the ritual procedure they were to perform in front of the Emperor. Observing the delegation from the Ryukyuan Islands, he had to admit that their three ambassadors had managed to bow almost in unison while the larger Chosŏn delegation looked chaotic as everybody bowed in their own individual manner.14 Hong was also shown the compound once reserved for Chosŏn missions, which had come to house Russian traders and diplomats.

     Hong was relatively well informed on the basic outlines of the Qing-Russian relationship despite that it was conducted outside the tributary system, as a matter of Manchu imperial security. He mentions Qing suspicions of the Russians as the two had come to encroach upon each other, and how the Qing had granted the Russians the privilege to trade with China so as to keep a check on them. Hong was also told how these Russian traders had been prone to cause trouble in Beijing's streets, including a few cases of rape, until the emperor got some of these rascals beheaded.15

     While they did not get to see the Russians, Hong and his colleagues did manage to be received by the Jesuit missionaries from Europe who were employed as astronomers at the Qing imperial observatory. For this, the Koreans had to do some effort as they were first turned down by the Jesuits' gatekeeper. Hong did have his suspicion why that was the case. He recounts how Chosŏn delegations had been visiting the Jesuits in Beijing since the days of the Kangxi Emperor. Initially they had received a very friendly welcome, the missionaries giving them a tour of their quarters, letting them see some objects from the West, including their religious statues and even giving some of these as gifts. According to Hong, however, Chosŏn visitors had become greedy as this became a routine. The Koreans would always expect presents without giving anything in return, even messing up the belongings of these Westerners. That, according to Hong, was the reason behind the Jesuits' refusal to see the Koreans. To overcome this hurdle, he send the Jesuits a letter accompanied with gifts (including Korean fans, ink-stones, herbal medicines) to implore them to receive those who had come from "a remote and unenlightened area . . ." This did the trick, gaining them an invitation.16

     A second aspect about China that clearly fascinated Hong was its level of commercialization. Aside from the capital city, temporary markets were still more common than permanent shops in Korea. China's busy commercial districts thus presented a striking spectacle, even in smaller towns, but in particular the abundance of those in Beijing. A bit overwhelmed, Hong still had a keen eye on their operations. He noted how the pawnshop was at the center of commerce in smaller towns. In Beijing, he was struck by the need of its merchants to adorn the outside of their shops or parlors with dazzling and often expensive decorations in order to attract customers. At times this continued inside shops, with opulent presentations to display goods. Hong describes the haggling and the speed—faster than the eye could follow—with which Chinese merchants made calculations on their abacus. Hong was clearly surprised by the prosperity of China under Manchu rule. But he also expressed discomfort with the richness of material life he encountered in these commercial spaces. An elaborately engraved chair in a shop made him averse from sitting in it. Luxury, even when it came to rare antiques or books, usually drew critical remarks from him; such superfluous pursuits clearly did not deserve to be admired.17

     Still, the insatiable inquisitiveness with which Hong explored this bustling world departed from the general dismissal of Qing China by Chosŏn's yangban elite. If we can believe Hong, a discontent with the standards of his own class dated back as far as his adolescent years. In a letter to a Chinese salt merchant he had gotten acquainted with on his voyage, he recounts how already in his youth he resolved not to turn into a stereotypical scholar-official concerned only with the elegance of words. Instead, the letter continues, he had formed the ambition to contribute through his study of the classics to practical purposes: good government and the strengthening of the military.18 Hong was in fact far from alone with such a sentiment. A reformist interest in the study of statecraft had become a key thread in Chosŏn intellectual life, as the state had been shown to be so weak in a series of invasions.19

     Compared to Hong, however, most of these statecraft thinkers emerged at the margins of the governing elite, excluded from power because of their lineage and factional backgrounds. Hong's position as a critical outsider was more of his own making. From a Noron lineage, Hong did have the right background for higher office. Early attempts to pass the civil service examination failed, impaired perhaps by the disdain he reported for the required formalisms.20 But instead of further attempts Hong gave up on the examinations, eventually fashioning himself in his work as a "rustic" scholar. Social connections did still provide him the chance of serving in a low position in the Crown Prince's quarters, allowing occasional scholarly discussions with the prince. But he would refuse any more opportunities to take the official examination (the only road to high office) offered to him in this capacity.21

     For intellectual pursuits, Hong was willing to straddle even more fundamental socio-cultural boundaries that structured the Chosŏn order. For instance, he decided to study colloquial Chinese in preparation for his journey to China; to understand why this was uncommon for a yangban like Hong requires one more a look at the multiple dimensions of language in Chosŏn. We already mentioned how their knowledge of classical Chinese allowed Korea's literati to engage in brush-talks, but not in spoken conversations. Knowledge of colloquial Chinese was usually left to experts coming from the chungin, a largely hereditary class of technical specialists. Inferior to the yangban aristocracy, the chungin included interpreters, but also accountants, physicians, and court-painters. It was the chungin who were tasked with the practicalities of diplomatic exchange with China. For a Korean literati like Hong, it was not only impractical to learn spoken Chinese since he realistically would only get the chance to join the China embassy once, but also slightly transgressive, engaging in something associated with a lower stratum in the rigid social order of Chosŏn. Still, Hong reports how he studied the language manuals used by the Chungin in preparation for the trip, as well as numerous moments where he practiced or used this knowledge in China, even though in-depth conversations still required him to brush-talk.

     In Hong's blueprint for an ideal socio-political order, the class distinctions that marked Chosŏn were to be replaced with a true meritocracy that encompassed the whole population. Such a scheme was included in his Treatise on statecraft from a forest scholar, written a decade after his return from China, together with a study on military fortifications and defense to strengthen the state. Like any utopian vision, this one too was shaped by the social position occupied by its author. While Hong did propose a radical meritocratic system open to everybody, with universal education provided by the state, only some could rise to become its officials. State surveillance was to guard that the regular tillers of the earth were to stay in place. Maybe it was this meritocratic vision that also spurred Hong to expressly make a version of his travelogue available in the vernacular alphabet, which lacked the elegance of the true script, as he put it in a letter to his Chinese merchant friend, but possessed the clarity to make it a great tool to cultivate the people.22

     For Hong's sharpest political critique, we have to turn to what was also his most wide-ranging work: the Ŭisan mundap.23 This philosophical dialogue might have been written close to the end of Hong's life.24 Its setting was the same voyage that had once taken him from Korea to China. More importantly, Hong offered in this text a critique of the binary between civilization and barbarism that had also structured his thinking.

     At the beginning of the Ŭisan mundap, we are introduced to the character of Master Void, a literati who after thirty years of secluded study thinks he has reached enlightenment. When he goes out to talk to a larger audience, he encounters only small minded and vulgar people who fail to understand him, so he complains. This leads him to Beijing, but there too he does not find intellectual equals. So it is on his way back that he decides to climb Mount Ŭimuryŏ. The symbolism of this location—which from a Sinocentric perspective marked the border of the Middle Kingdom and the Eastern Barbarian lands that included Korea—will become clear later on. Hong himself had climbed this spot on his travel, as he tells in the Peking Memoir, by sneaking away from the diplomatic convoy. But while Hong described his ascent as exciting, the Void character weeps his way up in intellectual desperation, considering to retreat from society. He contemplates the examples of Laozi (the Daoist sage) who had departed to a foreign land when the China of his days was in decline, and Confucius who in the same situation had thought of setting out to sea on a raft. But then Void encounters a gate that takes him to a recluse living there—a giant who resembles the earth and the trees. His hope goes up again: maybe this 'wise man' could provide some answers. But Old Man Substance, as he is called, at first berates his visitor; he had immediately seen from his manners that Void came from the Eastern lands of Korea, with an empty politeness that was nothing more than pretense and flattery.

     The reader will already have picked up the layers of satire. Master Void can be read as a caricature of the Chosŏn yangban we saw Hong complain about, focused only on form without content. But in a gesture of self-mockery, Void also appears as an alter ego of Hong himself, travelling exactly the same route. The set-up of the Void and Substance characters already reveals the Daoist influence that will animate the argument that the Substance character will develop.25 Before we come to that though, we should stick with the biographical parallel a bit longer.

     As the dialogue develops, Hong settles accounts with the political and philosophical orthodoxy that had dominated his own upbringing. As Substance challenges Void to define what a 'wise man' is, the latter mentions reverence for Confucius, the study of Zhu Xi's teachings, and the protection of orthodox learning—as we would expect from a Noron literati. But this brings only laughter from the giant hermit, who asserts that the late followers of Confucius and Zhu Xi had in fact distorted the teachings of these sagely figures with their interpretations, erasing their true meaning. Their urge to protect orthodox learning, he continues, had actually been driven by pride and vanity, while the spirit of rivalry had motivated the persecution of alternative interpretations. The latter weakness, which Substance describes as the most serious of all moral weaknesses, he clearly saw present in his Korean visitor. Hong's recluse thus formulated an indictment, not just of the politics of factionalism, which other statecraft scholars also hoped to end, but, as would be quite clear for those familiar with its history, the figure of Song Siyŏl and his Noron followers.

     The Ŭisan mundap is mostly remembered for Hong's description, through the Substance character, of the earth as rotating around its own axis, which once fitted a postcolonial need for an indigenous history of modernization. Our focus, however, will be the latter part of Substance's discussion of the universe, when he turns from the natural world to the history of man. For it is there that Hong Taeyong finally worked out the contradictions of the symbolic landscape he had journeyed through decades earlier with the China embassy.

     Old Man Substance's expose on world history starts with the growth of human population, which led mankind from peaceful times to increased competition, moving on to a traditional rendition of the dynastic history of China until we arrive at the Manchu conquest. The translated excerpt given below picks up from there, as Void interrupts Substance to posit the problem how the Qing could be integrated into the framework of civilized history. In his question Void invokes Confucius, who in his historical work had followed the distinction made in the classics between the 'inner' of Chinese civilization and the barbarian 'outer,' as he wrote in a chaotic age when the former suffered under the invasions of the latter. How then could the barbarian Manchus—coming from the outside—fit into Chinese dynastic history? Substance's answer, unfolding in a staccato of comparisons, argues for the irrelevance of this distinction between 'inner' and 'outer.' Deploying first a relativistic argument that challenges the supposed uniqueness of different peoples or states, the old man goes on to argue that 'inner' and 'outer' are always part of a larger totality, starting from the human body, soaring upward to consider the geography of the world which includes both China and its supposedly barbarian others. Finally, Substance returns to Confucius brought up initially by Void, launching a counterfactual question: 'What if this sage would have exiled himself to a barbarian land like Korea, would our definitions of 'inner' and 'outer' still be the same then?' The argument developed by Substance stands in stark contrast with the way Chosŏn's place in the world had come to be imagined after the Manchu conquest. And let us not forget that the hermit delivers all of this to a character who seems to represent a Noron intellectual.

Fragment from Hong Taeyong's Dialogue on Mount Ŭimuryŏ—between Old Man Substance and Master Void:26

Old Man Substance says: [ . . . ] the Ming dynasty lost their throne (to the Manchus), so all under heaven people had to shave off their (front) hair. While the southern regime (i.e. the fleeting remnant of the Ming) weakened, the luck of the northern barbarians (i.e. the Manchus) soared. This was the result of the endeavor of men as well as the inevitability of heavenly timing.

Master Void asks: Confucius, by writing the Annals of Spring and Autumn, conceived of China as 'inner' and the four types of barbarians as 'outside' (of civilization). For him, the distinction between hua ("Chinese," civilized) and yi (uncivilized) is very strict. But you just ascribed this dynastic change (from Ming to Qing) as the result of both man's effort and the inevitability of heavenly timing. How can that be correct?

Old Man Substance replies: Those who heaven gave existence, and are nourished by the earth, and are imbued by the life-force, are all human. In all regions, those who excel in comparison to their fellow men govern – all of these can be considered rulers. All nations have their gates with their defensive moats to guard their borders. No matter if we are dealing with people who wear Shang dynasty hats or Zhou dynasty hats, have tattoos on their bodies or on their foreheads – these are all customs. If you look from heaven, how could there be a distinction between 'inner' and 'outside' (of civilization)? Thus, China and the barbarian lands (hua and yi) are similar in the sense that each has its cohesion, respect its own ruler, wants to protect its own land, is satisfied with its own customs.

It was with the passage of time, which led to the multiplication of people and living creatures, that this distinction between 'self' and 'other' appeared. As the distinction between self and other was formed, the difference between 'inner' and 'outside' was laid out. But consider this: internal organs and limbs are the inside and outside of a singular body; husband and wife are at the inner and outer of a singular family; one's brothers and one's kinsmen are respectively at the inner and outer of one's singular clan; where the people live and the surrounding marches are the center and periphery of a singular country; so the unified realm of the Middle Kingdom and the barbarian lands surrounding it on all cardinal directions are the inner and outside of a singular universe.

[. . .]

Confucius was a man of the hallowed Zhou Dynasty. But (in his days) the Zhou court was deteriorating; the power of its feudal lords was waning. So the (barbarian) States of Wu and Chu could disturb (China's) Central Plain and did not stop invading and plundering the Zhou. Since the Annals of Spring and Autumn is a record of the history of Zhou, it seems appropriate to distinguish clearly between the inner and outside of civilization? But imagine if Confucius would really have gotten upon a raft to float about on the sea, to end up living in the barbarian lands across the sea from China, then he would have transformed the customs of these barbarians, by introducing "Chinese" Rites and establishing the Way of Zhou in these peripheral lands. If in that case the distinction of 'inner' and 'outside,' [. . .] would have come to be applied, we would do so in an Annals of Spring and Autumn that would be centered on this peripheral land.

     Despite that he positioned himself as an outsider, a rustic scholar, Hong was not intellectually isolated. He became a key inspiration for a small coterie of thinkers who came to advocate a rediscovery of contemporary China as the path to strengthen Chosŏn, against the neglect of its living culture by Korea's elite. At the center of this group stood Pak Chiwŏn, six years younger than Hong and also descendant from a Noron lineage. In his youth, Pak went against family tradition with his outright refusal to take the civil service examination, devoting himself instead to literary pursuits. Like Hong, Pak did eventually get the opportunity in 1780 to join an embassy to China, which also yielded a long travel memoir. Pak's style, influenced by colloquial Chinese, provoked such strong reactions that his opponents instigated literary rectification campaigns against its influence.27

     Most of the scholars who gathered around Pak Chiwŏn were excluded from high political office on the basis of birth, as sons of concubines—a particularity of Korea's Confucian order. One of these, Pak Chega (no family relation), would after his first journey to China in 1776 compose a programmatic Discourse on Northern Learning, after which this circle of intellectuals would be known as the School of Northern Learning. 'Northern' referred here to Qing China, as Korean envoys set out northwards on their travel, but also invoked a passage from the ancient philosopher Mencius on a scholar from a Southern Chinese state who travelled North to study the teachings of Confucius. Unlike Hong Taeyong or Pak Chiwŏn, for whom this voyage had been the sole chance of a life-time, Pak Chega's technical position as royal librarian did allow him to join the tributary embassy multiple times. As a specialist, his task was to acquire valuable books. In China, he was struck by the same things Hong had written about. But his Discourse departs significantly from Hong's travel and philosophical writings, offering instead a focused analysis of Korean underdevelopment compared to Qing China as well as policy suggestions for its alleviation. Hong had been surprised by China's commercial vitality but also spurned its unnecessary luxury. Pak Chega, on the other hand, proposed the promotion of international trade by the state. He also linked this to cultural transformation. Allowing yangban to engage in commercial activity, Pak hoped, might change their customs and manners. Via China, books from across the world could be acquired to break the narrow frame of mind of Chosŏn's literati. Invoking the example of the Qing, Pak also proposed to invite Jesuit scholars to Chosŏn (their Buddhist-like beliefs would be easily contained, he assured).28

     The major thrust of Northern Learning was not to dispute the negative view of the Manchus, but rather to attack Chosŏn's shift to intellectual isolation in the wake of their rise. Pak Chega and other scholars of Northern Learning liked to point out that there was no reason for Chosŏn's yangban to assert civilizational superiority on the basis that Korea had escaped direct barbarian rule, when it had been a purely strategic calculation of the Manchus not to occupy Chosŏn after their victory over it.29 Or as Pak Chega put it literally, through the language of the sartorial, Chosŏn had simply been lucky not to be forced "to wear Manchu dress."30

     The prosperity of the barbarian ruled China these scholars visited belied Chosŏn's ideology as the sole upholder of civilization. But just as Hong Taeyong had set out in his philosophical reflection, this symbolic vantage point also opened up a more relativistic approach to this dichotomy. One example of this is Pak Chiwŏn's formulation of the same critique of the Chosŏn elite in one of his most well-known satires. The main character in this story, a Master Hŏ, an inventive rustic scholar, is solicited by an official to offer his advice on statecraft. His response includes a sartorial challenge. If the Chosŏn literati elite is really serious about avenging the Ming, Hŏ argues, they should send young Koreans to work in the Manchu's service despite that these would have to adopt the dress and hairstyle forced upon the Chinese. Only in that way would Koreans be able to infiltrate the empire to create a network of agents and contacts that would be useful when an actual opportunity to overthrow the Qing would arise.31 In an altogether different genre, Pak Chega's Discourse had made a similar recommendation when it referred to the example of a Chinese monarch of the Warring States who had ordered his cavalry to adopt barbarian dress, which had helped them achieve a decisive victory against their nomadic opponents. In Pak Chiwŏn's satire, however, the official who came to see Hŏ protests that Chosŏn literati could never tolerate their sons having to adopt Manchu dress and hairstyle. In response, Master Hŏ's points out the particularities of Korean customs from a Chinese vantage-point: the white color of Chosŏn clothing "fit only for mourning"; the way they wear their hair similar to Southern barbarians.32 Claims about civilization vs. barbarism, central to the Chosŏn order, could thus also be deployed against it.

     For the West, it is generally acknowledged that travel literature and even Orientalist imaginations made it not only possible to explore the exotic, but also allowed writers to cast an ironic gaze back upon one's own society. In the case of late eighteenth century Korea, it was the tributary mission to China, taking place in a reconfigured symbolic landscape that offered a similar vantage point to the School of Northern Learning. It was the complex interaction of identity and difference in their voyages from Korea to China that animated the critiques of Hong Taeyong, Pak Chiwŏn and Pak Chega.

Sungshin Kim is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Georgia where she teaches the history of East Asia, Korea, and China from the early modern period onwards. The focus of her research is the connections between the latter two. She can be contacted at


1 For a good introduction to this complex relationship, see Carter J. Eckert, "Korea's Transition to Modernity: A Will to Greatness," in Historical Perspectives on Contemporary East Asia, eds. Merle Goldman and Andrew Gordon (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), esp. 119–126.

2 For the so-called Peking Memoir, I used Hong Taeyong, Tamhŏn Yŏn'gi, trans. Lee Young Mu et al. (Seoul: Institute for the Translation of Korean Classics), accessed August 2012, ; for the diary I consulted the published version Sanhaegwan chamginmun ŭl han son ŭro milch'idoda: Hong Taeyong ŭi Pukkyŏng yŏhaenggiŭlbyŏngyŏnhaengnok, eds. Kim T'aejin and Pak Sŏngsun (P'aju, Kyŏnggido: Dolbegae, 2001).

3 Gari Ledyard, "Hong Taeyong and His Peking Memoir," Korean Studies 6 (1982): 63–103.

4 Even during the time when Ming support had been instrumental in defeating the Japanese invasions of the 1590s.

5 For a detailed analysis of these debates, see JaHyun Kim Haboush, "Constructing the Center: The Ritual Controversy and the Search for a New Identity in Seventeenth-Century Korea," in Culture and the State in Late Chosŏn Korea, eds. Haboush and Martina Deuchler (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 46–90.

6 Hong Taeyong ŭi Pukkyŏng yŏhaenggiŭlbyŏngyŏnhaengnok, 21.

7 Such plays were even staged in the imperial palace, as noted in Jonathan Spence, The Search for Modern China (New York: W.W. Norton, 1999[2nd ed.]), 58–64.

8 Pointed out in Ledyard, "Hong Taeyong and His Peking Memoir," 86.

9 Hong Taeyong ŭi Pukkyŏng yŏhaenggiŭlbyŏngyŏnhaengnok, 237.

10 Ibid.

11 Chŏngjo wa Hong Taeyong,saenggag ŭlkyŏruda – Sŏyŏnmundap, ed. Kim Tohwan (Seoul: Ch'aeksesang, 2012). See also Ledyard, "Hong Taeyong and His Peking Memoir," 73

12 Hong, Tamhŏn Yŏn'gi: Oejip Vol. 7, trans. Lee Young Mu, accessed August 2012,

13 Hong Taeyong ŭi Pukkyŏng yŏhaenggiŭlbyŏngyŏnhaengnok, 263–276.

14 Hong, Tamhŏn Yŏn'gi: Oejip Vol. 9, trans. Kim Young Su, accessed August 2012,

15 Ibid.: Vol. 7, trans. Lee Young Mu, accessed August 2012,

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.: Vol. 10, trans. Lee Ho Young, accessed August 2012,

18 An English translation of this letter is available in a collection of sources: JaHyun Kim Haboush, ed., Epistolary Korea: Letters in the Communicative Space of the Chosŏn, 13921910 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009), 207–9.

19 Writings that display this trend have been grouped under the label "Sirhak," or School of practical learning. One has to beware however that this never was a unified school. In fact, as a category it was only created in the 1930s. See on this Mark Setton, "Factional Politics and Philosophical Development in Late Chosŏn," Journal of Korean Studies 8 (1992): 39–44.

20 Ledyard, "Hong Taeyong and His Peking Memoir," 76, 78.

21 Chŏngjo wa Hong Taeyong,saenggag ŭlkyŏruda – Sŏyŏnmundap, 23–4.

22 For Hong's comments on the usefulness of the vernacular alphabet: Haboush, Epistolary Korea, 209.

23 I used Hong Taeyong, Ŭisan mundap, eds. Kim Tae Jun and Kim Hyo Min (Seoul: ZMAZ, 2011)

24 Ledyard, "Hong Taeyong and His Peking Memoir," 98: n36.

25 This has been explored by Song Young-bae, "Countering Sinocentrism in Eighteenth Century Korea: Hong Tae-yong's vision of "Relativism" and Iconoclasm for Reform," Philosophy East and West 49: 3 (1999). But Song's article neglects the specific historical context of the changed relationship with China as well as the political background in Chosŏn Korea.

26 Hong, Ŭisan mundap, 147–151. My translation from the Chinese.

27 Introductions by Marion Eggert in Haboush, Epistolary Korea, 184–7, 191–3.

28 Pak Chega, "On Revering China" and "Memorial of 1786," in Sources of Korean Tradition: Vol. II, eds. Yŏngho Ch'oe, Peter H. Lee and Wm. Theodore de Bary (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 101–4, 107–12. On Pak Chega see also Kyung Moon Hwang, A History of Korea (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 99–104. The comparison between Christianity and Buddhism was already made by late seventeenth century scholars, see for instance Yi Ik on the work of Matteo Ricci, Sources of Korean Tradition: II, 125–6.

29 Sources of Korean Tradition: II, 103.

30 Ibid.

31 Pak Chiwŏn, "The Story of Master Hŏ," in Anthology of Korean Literature: From Early Times to the Nineteenth Century, ed. Peter H. Lee (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1981), 213–221.

32 Sources of Korean Tradition: II, 103.


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