The Encounter of Civilizations
Nineteenth Century Korea
Japanese woodblock print representing a scene from the First Sino-Japanese War
Map showing China at the center of a system of "tributary states"
The Opening of Korea
At the start of the nineteenth century, Korea’s only foreign contacts were with Qing Dynasty China and Tokugawa Japan. Choson Korea was a self-acknowledged tributary of China. This meant that Korean kings were expected to use the Chinese calendar and seek confirmation of their enthronement from the emperor of China (who at the time technically happened to be Manchu rather than Han Chinese), who also issued approximately annual proclamations to Korea. ... Although Korea was an acknowledged tributary of the Chinese Empire, as one Chinese official explained in 1876, this really meant that except for the obligatory ceremonial tribute missions, Korea was entirely autonomous in both its domestic and foreign affairs. The peculiar ambiguity of Korea’s relationship with China even became a convenient excuse for rebuffing early Western approaches. When the British attempted to advance trade proposals with Korea in 1845, it was explained that this would be impossible because Korea “could not be opened to trade by China, for it was not part of China,” and it also “could not open itself to trade, for it was not independent.” (A History of East Asia, 235-6)
Chinese character for "principle" (li) Blueprint illustrating the relationship between "principle" and "material force"
Chinese character for "material force" (qi)
Choson Korea is considered by many to be the country that has adopted, preserved, and developed most earnestly the Chu Hsi (Zhu Xi) strain of the Neo-Confucian doctrine, much more so in fact than even China. ... As a matter of historical fact, the Choson Dynasty newly created in the last decade of the fourteenth century adopted Neo-Confucianism as its orthodox state ideology and statecraft, eventually disseminating it to the entire mass of the general populace in the form of norms governing social relations and principles of social organization in their everyday lives. ...
Uphold Orthodoxy, Reject Heterodoxy
When faced with pressure to open up the ports to trade, accompanied by military threats from the Western imperial powers in the 1860s, the conservative Confucian ruling forces stood firm on the principle to “Uphold Orthodoxy and Reject Heterodoxy” (wijongch’oksa), which was rooted in the ideology to “Honor China and Repel Barbarians” (chonhwayangi). The juxtaposition implied that China, with its Confucian supremacy, was to be protected whereas the Western barbarians from the oceans had to be repulsed. The West was looked upon as the “land of birds and beasts,” meaning that Western people were regarded as animals, while Eastern people were humans duly civilized by Confucianism, which of course was the Correct Learning.
Taiji (yin-yang) symbol with heaven and earth
This ideology was derived from the Neo-Confucian theories of the binary elements of the cosmological Principle and Material Forces (i-giron; 理氣論). When applied to the Sinic world against the West, the former was refined by observing the Heavenly Principle, while the latter was only swayed by material forces such as naked human desires. Thus, the hierarchical dichotomy was formulated of Heavenly Ways versus earthly technology, superior versus inferior, upper versus lower, civilization versus barbarism, and so on. Conceived in this way, Western culture was considered to consist of only peculiar techniques and foul tricks. In order to rebuff the Western forces, therefore, there is nothing more urgent than to be enlightened by the Correct Learning. It was especially the responsibility of the monarch to refine his mind, discipline himself, and correctly manage the family so that the nation would stand upright and therefore the foul culture from the western oceans could not help but retreat. Note that the most strongly emphasized point was the Confucian virtue of the ruler internalized in his mind, even in the face of the visible physical threat of the foreigners. (Confucianism and Modernization in East Asia, 63-5 [RTTP Readings, 21])
Joseon Korea Icon
King Kojong and his father, the Taewongun
Restoration in Korea?
King Kojong & the Taewon’gun
The 1860s were a decade of restorations in East Asia. China had its Tongzhi Restoration, Japan had its Meiji Restoration, and there was also a royal restoration of sorts in Korea as well. ... In Korea, King Kojong (r. 1864-1907) came to the throne in 1864 at the age of twelve. The king’s father, who was known as the Taewon’gun (the “Lord of the Great Court”), was still alive (he had not himself ever been king), and he acted as an informal regent from 1864 to 1873 on his son’s behalf. As regent, the Taewon’gun attempted to promote reforms that would invigorate the Korean monarchy by reducing corruption, inefficiency, and yangban aristocratic privileges. At the same time, he intensified the crackdown on Christianity and hardened Korea’s resolve in fending off the growing number of Western approaches. (HEA, 236-7)
Painting of the Taewon'gunReform efforts were also launched by the court starting in the 1860s. Taewon’gun, the Prince Regent as the biological father of the teenage monarch, was intent on reforming the institutional sectors. The first steps taken had to do with administrative reforms in the government sector involving personnel selection and management, which previously had been monopolized by the consort clan that had been in power for decades, as well as an overhaul of the taxation system and the building up of military capability. Next, all but 47 of the major private Confucian academies in the provinces were abolished. These academies were originally established for the purpose of admiring Confucian giants and providing higher learning to aspiring students in Confucian classics, but they had turned into centers for factional literati interests groups, undermining the authority of the central government and often interfering in local administration and causing hardships for the people. (Confucianism and Modernization in East Asia, 71 [RTTP Readings, 24])
After the Meiji Restoration of imperial rule in Japan in 1868, and the dissolution of the Tokugawa Shogunate, Japan’s new Western-style Imperial Foreign Office officially assumed jurisdiction over Korean relations from the daimyo of Tsushima in 1871. The Korean government, however, refused to accept these changes. ... Korea’s refusal to recognize the imperial government in Japan was regarded as an outrage by many patriotic Japanese and provoked debate over the desirability of immediate war with Korea. ... In 1876, Japan further signaled the firmness of its intentions by dispatching three warships, four transports, and eight hundred soldiers to Korea ... [with the result that] Korea signed a modern Western-style treaty (the Treaty of Kanghwa) with Japan. This treaty formally declared Korea to be an independent country (supposedly clarifying its ambiguous relationship with China) and granted Japan various treaty port-style concessions. (HEA, 237-8)
"Eastern Ways, Western Technology"
Royal Ordinance on International Treaties
  1. Our nation (Choson), located in a corner of the ocean, has sustained for five hundred years without being able to have intercourse with other nations and to widen our purview;
  2. The current of the entire world has been changing in such a way that nations in Europe and America are pushing for strengthening themselves by means of developing sophisticated implements (technologies);
  3. These nations have signed treaties among themselves and been involved in military clashes and/or supporting one another in accordance with the international laws, much as it was during the ancient Spring and Autumn eras. Since the Qing and Japan likewise concluding such treaties have been engaged in mutual trade, it has become inevitable for Choson to follow suit;
  4. Our nation has signed such treaties starting with Japan in 1876 and then America, England, and Germany this time. This means that since the courtesy of intercourse guarantees equal treatment with each other, there is nothing to be concerned about in view of the principle of righteousness: That there is the Way in international exchange is already written in the (Confucian) scripts;
  5. To sign those treaties of amity and trade only is meant to be in accordance with the international rules, but how can we discard the righteous Way and follow the evil ways when our people, whether the literati or commoners, have been learning and practicing customs based on such learning all along;
  6. Because the instruments (of the West) are truly useful for the practical purposes of utility and welfare, there is no reason why they should not be utilized for developing agriculture, sericulture, medicine and pharmacology, helmet and armor (military technology), and shipbuilding and transport implements;
  7. Since the power disparities among nations are overwhelmingly obvious, how can we stop their insult and unwarranted aspirations toward us, if we do not emulate their technologies? We should build a rich and strong nation on a par with other nations by improving our policies and cultivating our learning, internally, while externally by establishing friendly relationships with other nations and abiding by the rule of propriety.
  8. And since we have built sincere friendships with many Western nations now, I order that all those stone monuments with the inscription of the Uphold Orthodoxy and Reject Heterodoxy doctrine should be removed. (Confucianism and Modernization in East Asia, 67-8 [RTTP Readings, 22-3; cf. RTTP Gamebook, 35-7])
Uphold Orthodoxy, Reject Heterodoxy
Joseon Korea Icon
The Age of Enlightenment: The Age of Reason
The Enlightenment Movements
If the above [reform effort was] largely of a conservative nature in that [it was] not conceived primarily in terms of Western ideas, there were groups of younger elites who were more inclined to support the introduction of Western cultures in order to strengthen the nation in the face of internal instability and external threats. They were more open to the international acculturation emanating from the West and they were supported by King Kojong .... These new types of reforms were dubbed the Enlightenment (kaehwa; 開化) movements. The leading figures of such movements came not only from the yangban literati but also included young intellectuals of the “secondary status groups” or “middle people” (chung’in) who were exposed to the materials on various aspects of Western civilization introduced from China and/or teachings of other high-ranking official literati who traveled and had first-hand observation and experience in China. Later, some of them were also dispatched to Japan and the United States. This form of international acculturation deliberately initiated by the Korean elite was started in the aftermath of the opening of trading ports to the outside world in the 1870s and 1880s and continued into the first decade of the twentieth century. (Confucianism and Modernization in East Asia, 71-2 [RTTP Readings, 25])
Group of Korean "Enlightenment" Thinkers
Photo of Yu KilchunEnlightenment (kaehwa) refers to the fact that myriad aspects of human life have attained the best and most perfect stage. ... The enlightenment of behavior is to purify the behavior based upon the five ethical norms and to enable people to learn the moral principles. The enlightenment of learning is to pursue learning and to comprehend the principles of myriad things. The enlightenment of politics is to rectify the nation’s politics and to bring peace to the common people. The enlightenment of law is to make the law fair and to eliminate injustice to the common people. The enlightenment of implements is to develop convenient implements and to benefit people in using them. The enlightenment of commodities is to manufacture refined commodities and to enrich people’s life and eradicate crude items. Only when these aspects of enlightenment are combined may one speak of well-rounded enlightenment. ... In an enlightened society, myriad affairs and things are thoroughly studied and managed, and innovation is attempted at all times. There is heroic spirit for greater achievement, and indolence is totally absent. In personal relations, words are polite and correct demeanor is observed. There is emulation of the gifted and compassion for the less capable without any hint of contempt. Vulgarity and immorality in outward appearance are not tolerated. There is no discrimination among people based on position or circumstances. The people are united and strive together for the goals of enlightenment. (“Levels of Enlightenment” from Observations on a Journey to the West in Sources of Korean Tradition, Volume 2, 249-50 [RTTP Readings, 33-4])
Joseon Korea Icon
Japanese woodblock print depicting scene from the Gapsin Coup
The Kapsin (Gapsin) Coup
December 4, 1884

While the Korean conservatives looked to China to balance the growing Japanese influence, some Korean modernizers aligned themselves with Meiji Japan. In 1884, a handful of Korean reformers plotted a coup, in consultation with the Japanese minister in Seoul. On December 4, during a banquet celebrating the opening of a modern post office, the conspirators struck. Seven Korean officials were assassinated, and guards from the Japanese legation took the Korean king and queen into “protective custody. A new Korean government was proclaimed, and modernizing reforms were outlined. Chinese troops counterattacked the palace immediately, however, regaining custody of the king. The result of this failed coup, which only lasted two days, was to tarnish the reputations of both the reform and the pro-Japanese positions. (HEA, 238)
Photo of men involved in the Gapsin Coup
Their objective was to modernize Korea by attaining autonomy or independence from China by ending the tributary relationship and building a strong nation in the mode of the Meiji reform in Japan. But this posture was opposed by the conservative ruling faction, which was in favor of China’s milder reforms such as the Self-Strengthening Movement. This junta government lasted only three days before it was crushed by the Chinese army. Most of the leading intellectuals fled to Japan. To be noted here is that the reform movements of this whole period from the 1880s to the 1890s were attempted amidst the complex rivalry mainly between China and Japan, with Russia and the United States tangentially involved in the scramble. In the case of this coup attempt, it was Japan that was behind the plot, promising to offer a hand in the action. However, Japan did not keep its word, while China swiftly intervened to halt the coup. Thus, China gained pre-eminent influence over Korea for the following decade through the residency of a Chinese strong man [Yuan Shikai]. (Confucianism and Modernization in East Asia, 72 [RTTP Readings, 25])
Photo of Pak YonghyoAlas, Your Majesty came to the throne after the decline had set in and the nation had been plunged into turmoil. You have worried day and night and wished to bring about recovery. Yet things have not worked out, and the people and the nation are in greater distress. This is because the ministers are incompetent and do not know how to govern; they are concerned only with wealth and honor for themselves, their families, and clans and not with the safety of the nation and its people. They exploit the people, steal from the public treasury, expel the loyal and good officials for personal reasons, take pleasure in killing the innocent, openly engage in bribery, and sell public offices for profit. At every level, wealth is coveted, and public and private affairs are allowed to deteriorate. Those skilled in exploiting the people and stealing from the public treasury get to be provincial governors; those skilled in expelling the loyal and good officials in killing the innocent rise to the rank of ministers.
       The people are left in the wilderness, forced to wander here and there, away from their parents, brothers, wives, and children. some starve to death, some freeze to death, some die with unrequited grievances, some die of sickness due to the lack of medicine, some are executed despite their innocence, and still others meet death when they are reduced to stealing because of hunger and cold.
       To quote from the classics and ancient histories, Mencius said: “There is fat meat in your kitchen, and there are well-fed horses in your stables; yet the people look hungry, and in the outskirts of the city men drop dead from starvation. This is to lead the animals in the devouring of men.”
(Sources of Korean Tradition, Volume 2, 259 [RTTP Readings, 38])
Joseon Korea Icon
Painting of the Tunghak Uprising
The Tonghak Revolt began as an offshoot of a new religion that was founded in 1860 by a local Confucian scholar named Ch’oe Cheu. ... Even though Ch’oe was born into an aristocratic class of literati called yangban in Korea, he was barred from the civil service examination adopted from Tang China because his mother had remarried, which was prohibited in those days. Unhappy about this kind of discrimination and troubled by his doubts about the conditions of society and humanity, he came to experience some unusual religious revelations while suffering from a strange illness. He heard the voice of the Lord of Heaven (Hanulnim) and received not only talismans but also revelations. He received messages from the Lord to save Korea and humankind on earth. According to the heavenly voice, the Western ways (Catholicism) were not the right kind of words for this purpose, but rather the new Eastern Learning (or Korean National Teaching, because East meant Korea in those days) indigenous to Korean culture was needed. He then created a new religion, basically grounded in the Confucian tradition of ethics and cosmology, but blended with Buddhist faith, Taoist naturalism, shamanistic appeals to spirits, longevity, geomancy, and the use of talismans, imprecations, methods of divination, and healing practices. These were supposed to represent indigenous Korean thought in comparison to Western Learning or Christianity. In his theology, he transposed the Confucian idea of Heaven to a Heavenly Lord, which reflected both Korean folk belief and even Catholic conceptions of a single divinity. In addition, it contained the notion of universal brotherhood and the equality of all human beings who were intrinsically united with the Lord of Heaven. (Confucianism and Modernization in East Asia, 70 [RTTP Readings, 24])
Maps showing the spread of the Donghak Uprising
The tensions resulting from the conflicting Chinese and Japanese ambitions in Korea were temporarily cooled by an agreement in 1885 that both China and Japan would withdraw their troops. This uneasy peace was brought to an abrupt end, however, by a religiously inspired Korean rebellion in 1894. ... [The Tonghak] uprising swept across southwest Korea, fueled by popular discontent with heavy taxes and high interest rates. This became the most massive rebellion in recorded Korean history. An anxious Korean king asked China for military assistance, and the Qing Dynasty responded by sending a small detachment of soldiers. Japan countered by deploying a much larger force of its own. Although the Korean authorities, alarmed by the possibilities unleashed by this dual foreign intervention, quickly offered concessions to the Tonghak rebels, who agreed to lay down their arms, the Japanese troops remained. On July 23, a Japanese infantry regiment seized the Korean palace. On August 1, 1894, war was declared between China and Japan. (HEA, 238-9)
Twelve Tonghak Reforms
Proclaimed by the Tonghak Overseer’s Office
  1. The ill will that has long persisted between Tonghak believers and the government shall be eradicated. There should be cooperation in all aspects of governance.
  2. Crimes committed by greedy and corrupt officials shall be investigated and severely punished.
  3. The wrongdoers among the rich and powerful shall be severely punished.
  4. The wicked among the Confucian literati and the yangban class shall be ordered to mend their ways.
  5. Slave registry documents shall be burned.
  6. There shall be improvements in the treatment of the seven classes of lowborn (ch’ilban ch’onin), and butchers shall no longer be required to wear the “Pyongyang hat.”
  7. A young widow shall be allowed to remarry.
  8. Improper levies of sundry taxes shall be completely terminated.
  9. In recruiting officials, regionalism shall be eliminated, and talented persons shall be appointed irrespective of their birthplace.
  10. Persons who are in league with foreign enemies shall be severely punished.
  11. All past debts, private or public, shall be declared null and void.
  12. Farmland shall be equitably redistributed for cultivation. (Sources of Korean Tradition, Volume 2, 265-6 [RTTP Readings, 41-2])
Painting of the Kabo Reformers
Kabo (Gabo) Reforms
[This] was another attempt by the court to implement institutional reforms, supported by another group of enlightenment-oriented yangban literati officials together with the second status groups of chung’in. These Kabo Reforms were basically a series of “Japan-oriented modernization movements” that lasted from the establishment of the Kabo Reform Council in June 1894 to the collapse of the Kabo cabinet in February 1896, when King Kojong had to take refuge in the Russian Legation in the midst of a political scramble caused by the assassination of Queen Min by Japanese swordsmen.
       The major characteristics of the members of this reform movement may be summarized as follows: (1) it was initiated under Japanese influence in Korean politics; (2) the main groups of officials involved included the former moderate pro-enlightenment faction under the Taewon’gun reign in the initial phase of the movement; (3) they were gradually replaced by those who had plotted the Kapsin coup ten years earlier, who repatriated from their exile mostly from Japan and partly from the USA; thus, the second phase was led by a coalition cabinet consistent of both moderate and radical reformers; (4) then, in the third stage, the cabinet comprised a coalition of pro-Japanese and pro-Western groups.
(Confucianism and Modernization in East Asia, 74 [RTTP Readings, 26])
Note: According to the authors of the game (John B. Duncan and Jennifer Jung-Kim), “although Japanese troops were in Seoul and had made King Kojong a prisoner in his own palace and the Japanese legate was strongly urging the Korean government to reform, the emerging consensus among historians of Korea is that the first round of reforms, from August through November 1894, was carried out largely free of external interference. This game is premised on that consensus.” (“Korea at the Crossroads of Civilization” Student Manual, 5)
Japanese woodblock print of the First Sino-Japanese War
Map showing key battles of the First Sino-Japanese War[In response to the Tonghak Uprising, both Chinese and Japanese troops come to Korea to help suppress the revolt. According to the Japanese, the Chinese violated the Convention of Tientsin, according to which each country was supposed to notify the other before sending troops into Korea.] Over the following nine months, the Japanese army easily expelled Chinese troops from Korea, captured territory in Manchuria, and even gained a foothold in coastal China proper. Qing Dynasty Chinese forces proved to be badly led, undermined by corruption, and split by faction and regionalism. ... Japan won this Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) with surprising ease. The war was much celebrated in the modern Japanese press but came as a tremendous shock, and a wake-up call, to China. Under the terms of the resulting Treaty of Shimonoseki that ended the hostilities, China was forced to transfer the island of Taiwan to Japan (as well, initially, as a strategic peninsula in southern Manchuria, which intervention by Russia, France, and Germany promptly compelled Japan to return) and to pay Japan an enormous indemnity equal to roughly 15 percent of Japan’s total gross national product. In addition, China formally acknowledge the independence of Korea, which in practice meant the ascent of Japanese influence there. (HEA, 239)
Queen Min (Myeong Seong)
During the Sino-Japanese War, Japan moved quickly to assume a dominant position in Korea, extracting the right to begin constructing railways on the peninsula and to provide advisors for Korean domestic affairs. Even while the war with China was still raging, pro-Japanese Korean officials reorganized the government, introducing sweeping modernizing reforms (known as the Kabo reforms) in 1894-1895. ...
Holographic image of Queen Min at the Palace in Seoul
Despite Japanese victory in the war with China, Korea once again temporarily eluded reduction to an outright Japanese protectorate, partly because of the blatant contradiction inherent in the Japanese policy of pursuing domination in Korea while proclaiming a goal of promoting Korean “independence” from the archaic Chinese tributary system. The modernizing command that all Korean men cut their topknots and adopt Western hairstyles provoked great popular discontent, and when, in October 1895, a Japanese-backed coup assassinated the Korean queen and restored pro-Japanese officials to power, this assassination outraged and horrified Korean opinion. In February 1898, King Kojong, seeking to escape Japanese control, allowed himself to be smuggled out of the palace by Russian marines in the palanquin of a court lady. The king took refuge in the Russian legation, where he spent the next year. (HEA, 239-40)
Map showing the growth of the Japanese empire
By playing off Russian interests against the Japanese, as he had previously used the Chinese against the Japanese,  King Kojong was able to retain a measure of Korean independence. In 1897, the king returned to his palace and formally assumed the supreme East Asian title of “emperor” (in Korean, hwangje), asserting his sovereign equality with both the Chinese and Japanese monarchs. Over the next few years, modern army units were organized, postage stamps issued, and streetcars and electric lights introduced into the capital, and in 1902, the newly renamed Korean Empire even acquired a Western-style national anthem. ... A new spirit of modern Korean nationalism began to glimmer, and the hope kindled that Korea might successfully be transformed into an independent, modern, Western-style nation-state. The degree of material modernization remained limited, however, and in the early twentieth century, the dream of Korean independence would prove to be a false hope, as the lengthening shadow of the Japanese Empire stretched across the land. (HEA, 240)
Joseon Korea Icon