Thor's Korea Diary

Was Korea a Chinese Lap Dog?

@19 January 2001
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What was Korea's historical reaction to Chinese influence? Thor throws down a challenge, and Jinho Choi offers a spirited response. Other readers are also very welcome to challenge or to comment... (the views of Chinese readers on this topic would be especially interesting...)

The Chinese Influence in Korea:   Thor's Challenge   Jinho Choi's Response

The Chinese Influence in Korea:   Thor's Challenge

Jinho Choi, your historical comments are certainly not boring. Pundits say that history is written by the winners, and within nation states that is certainly true. Between states, tribes and football teams, nobody ever admits in their heart of hearts to "really" losing, so we get some healthy competition amongst the historians too...

Your material is on the Korea Diary web pages now, and should do much to inform lots of other people. It is astonishing how many people actually: my Faithweb pages (home of the Korea Diary) overall record about 1000 hits a week currently, according to the server manager, Freeservers (the page web counters seem to be meaningless..). So somebody out there is listening ....

One of the other great puzzles I find in my (tenuous) encounter with Korean psychology is the Chinese factor. Over the years I have had significant contacts with Vietnamese of various persuasions. Their take on Chinese influence is very different from the Korean. Although both states were in a tributary relationship with the Middle Kingdom, and absorbed the forms of Confucian behaviour, the Vietnamese maintained a fierce independence of spirit and took every opportunity to distance themselves from Chinese imperial influence. To a large extent they succeeded. Moreover, the courtly indifference to trade found in Hanoi and Hue (surviving to this day) was counterbalanced by the mercantile energy of South Vietnamese centered in Saigon, and historically resistant to the ideological or political interference from the north.

What do we find in Korea? Traumatized by freewheeling pirates from Japan, and later by invading armies, the Koreans became resistant to all things Japanese, in spite of shared links of ethnicity and language [but see note below] . Twentieth Century experience certainly reinforced that attitude. But Korea was also pressured from the north, by Mongols and various flavours of Chinese predators. The response of the Korean ruling classes to that seems to have been not spirited or spiritual resistance, but donning a Chinese clown's uniform. An attempt at invisibility?

Han China is a vast parade of cultural troupes in one big circus tent, certainly not a single act (of that I am certain after living in the place for two years). However Koreans, ethnically, linguistically, have never belonged to the Han circus. Yet Koreans (or at least the Yangban) seem to have become a kind of ruritanian pantomime for all things Chinese. They took Chinese names, idolized Chinese literature, slavishly imitated Chinese institutions, and borrowed Chinese words by the thousands. They aped and outdid the least tolerant strictures of Confucian orthodoxy. They ridiculed and did their best to outlaw the mercantile activity which might have been their salvation (as it was for England, Spain, Portugal and the Hanseatic ports of Europe).

The vast, sprawling populace of China was (and is) ungovernable in any strict sense, so the imbecilities and egotism of despots have always been mitigated by the determination of common people to wrangle a reasonable livelihood, including through commerce. This fortunate failure of administration has kept China alive. The Korean transplant was not so lucky.

How did, how do, the Chinese regard their Korean lap dogs? My reading of this (as of everything here) is sketchy. I have casually asked the odd educated Chinese both in Korea and in China itself. I have encountered occasional comments in various books. There is not much inconsistency: my Chinese acquaintances and the written comments have carried roughly the same message. Chinese with any geopolitical intelligence have always realized the strategic importance of Korea, and preferred to have it at least as a buffer state.

As to Korean homage at the foot of Chinese culture, well there is an initial smugness. It is nice to have your toes licked. But dig a little deeper and you find a kind of bemusement. The tributary visits of Chosun envoys to the Ming court were apparently sometimes regarded with the distaste you reserve for a clamouring hoard of indigent relatives. Somehow the envoys and their hangers-on tended to want more than they gave... (at least this is the story told by the Chinese).

When Korea finally opened for trade in the 1880s, Chinese merchants soon followed on the heels of the Japanese. They had great success bartering English cotton goods, especially around Seoul, but also acquired a reputation for despising the locals...

And modern Korea (that is, South Korea)? Well, things seem a bit more balanced at last. South Korea is, finally, a mercantile nation. Mass psychology does move a lot more subtly than technology and economics. The Newtonian law of physics, that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, seems to apply in the social sphere as well. The modern Korean polity has caste off the Chinese clown suit (especially after the devastation of the Korean War), and nowadays dresses in the colours of strident nationalism, even chauvinism. Perhaps in time those colours will tone down a bit too...

Well, Jinho Choi, I have offered you some provocative propositions here. Is it all complete nonsense :) ?

Regards, Thor

The Chinese Influence in Korea:   Jinho Choi's Response

As with your last mail, once again you didn’t fail to motivate me to write more. You write so eloquently that I get lost in some of your big words, so this time I had to have a dictionary by my side to understand your letter thoroughly. :)

Well. Korea and Vietnam…. Other than Mongolia, they are probably the only East Asian nations that survived from the mighty grasp of Chinese imperialism. Manchurians, Tartars, Khitans, Tibetans, Yans, Xia… More than 20 different peoples who once had independent nations all across East Asia fell victims to Chinese imperialism. Now each of them face the same fate as many other ethnics who were assimilated into the Chinese race.

The ones who were lucky enough to survive had to pay the price of freedom: the price that arranged their fate as the loyal dogs of China.

As you said the Vietnamese people have always been fighting for their existence and always will be because that’s their nature. However, according to you, in contrast to the spirited Vietnamese, the Koreans have been submissive and even loyal to China. To that narrow point of view, I say, “What do you know about Korean history?”.

It’s true that the Yangbans of Choson were very much in favour of literally “everything” that was Chinese. Therefore the term, “Sadehjuyi”. BUT, that was only in the span of 300 years: from 1400’s to 1700’s.[Thor: .. and the 1700s to Japanese occupation in 1904??] Most points you’ve made in your last letter were opinionated almost wholly from the facts in that short time span of 300 years, as if the Koreans are the product of the loyal Chinese dogs that were Yangbans of Choson.

As you were contemplating the history of Choson, you missed the big picture: The history of Korea. Throughout history, Koreans have been more successful at survival than most other people in the world. Before the 20th century, other than Korea, there has hardly been any country that could have withstood the millions of invading armies.

For instance, in the year 602, Sui Dynasty of China invaded Korea (Koguryo) with 1.3 million troops but were defeated after 25 years of war. After the collapse of Sui, Tang China launched an unsuccessful campaign against Korea (Koguryo) with more than 900,000 troops. Invasion after invasion, the resistance continued till the allied force of Shilla and Tang China finally defeated Koguryo in 668. This unholy alliance between the Korean kingdom of Shilla and China meant the initiation of Chinese influence in Korea.

Predictably, greedy Tang China invaded its unsuspecting Korean ally Shilla after defeating Koguryo. Fortunately, Shilla defended successfully against Tang aggression and avoided the genocide. After that, Khitans, Jurchens, Tartars and Turks invaded Korea with more than 1.8 million in total numbers, but all of them were defeated successfully.

Shilla and Koryo paid occasional tribute to China simply because they could not afford an all-out war with China. The tributes were not a sign of submission. Rather, they were signs of peace. However, when the right reasons were provided, they were always prepared to go to war with China.

In the 13th century, after conquering China, the Mongols invaded Korea with 800,000 troops, and the war lasted more than 40 years. The devastation of the war finally brought Korea to its knees and for the first time, Korea as a nation submitted to a foreign power: the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty. The Mongolian rule of China ended 200 years later, but the Korean submission did not end with it.

Unfortunately, a Koryo general, Yi Sunggye, who was ordered to attack Manchuria and China to reclaim Koguryo’s lost territory, attempted a successful coup with the help of the Chinese and became the first king of Choson. The new government suppressed any “anti-Chinese” sentiments and even the kings had to be approved and appointed by China.

If you look at Korean history, resistance and some submission were rather necessary. Unlike Vietnam, Korea was frequently invaded by not thousands, but by millions. Korea beat all the odds. Resistance has been the Korean way of life.

p.s. Only Choson had a ban on international trade. All the other dynasties of Korea were open to international trade. Korea had trade relationships with Japan, China, Vietnam, Turkey, Indonesia, India, Saudi Arabia, Persia, Uzbekistan, the East Roman Empire, and many more.

Jinho Choi

* Note on personal names: all names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals,
unless stated otherwise.

"Was Korea a Chinese Lapdog?"... copyrighted to Thor May 2001; all rights reserved
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