Frequent misunderstandings about the history of China and Joseon

It is often said that we should learn from history to solve a problem currently faced or design the future.

Indeed, it is very important to do so. However, we often tend to view history based on current criteria. This will cause misunderstanding of the history and make it difficult to learn from the history and design a better future accordingly.

Learning from history involves shedding light on a new aspect of the present time in consideration of an enormous amount of historical events and a great tide of history surrounding them.

I have been interested in Japan-Joseon relations of the early modern period. In attempting to take the perspective of the Joseon side, I have found that I first need to learn the history of Joseon and China.

Joseon is often said to have adopted a Sadaejuui (serving-the-great) policy for China. This represents a critical statement against Joseon’s attitude. However, when you carefully review the history of China and Joseon, you can find that this statement is based only on one aspect of their relations and that the reality is not that simple.

For example, as for Chinese history, many people think that Qing destroyed the Ming dynasty.

Indeed, Beijing fell in 1644, and the Ming dynasty collapsed with the suicide of its emperor Chongzhen. However, it was not Qing, but a rebel group within Ming that caused this incident. The rebel group mainly consisted of peasants, and its leader was Li Zicheng, who was also from a poor peasant family in Shaanxi.

However, a part of the Ming dynasty troop fighting with Li Zicheng joined with Qing, the forces mainly organized by the Manchu people, who suddenly rose to power in the northeastern region of China. The allied troops entered Beijing after Li Zicheng retreated from the city.

However, the Qing dynasty had also faced resistance from surviving retainers of the Ming dynasty for a long time. It took about 50 years to attain supremacy across the whole of China.

In short, it is an obvious misunderstanding of history to believe that Qing simply destroyed Ming to replace the dynasty.

First, it was Nurhaci who unified the Jurchen people and declared himself Khan (ruler) in 1616.

Hong Taiji, who succeeded Nurhaci, conquered Inner Mongolia and expanded the influence of his state. In 1636, he named the state Qing and invaded the Korean Peninsula.

At that time, the power of the Ming dynasty had already been weakened by the armed uprising of peasants and other factors. The Joseon dynasty decided to resist Qing’s invasion though it could not expect support from its suzerain state Ming.

However, Qing’s forces were irresistibly powerful. Recognizing the situation, King Injo of Joseon made a decision to surrender.

This attitude of Injo has long been criticized in South Korea.

Indeed, Injo and some of his retainers rejected the claim of most retainers to fight it out and adopted a diplomatic strategy of surrender. However, this strategy allowed the Joseon dynasty founded in 1392 to avoid destruction and sustain itself for more than 500 years.

In contrast, the Chinese dynasty was destroyed by internal collapse and fell under the rule of Qing led by alien ethnic groups, though many Han Chinese were later recruited as officials. Considering this Chinese history, it may be reasonable to give some positive evaluation to Injo’s decision.

That is to say, this incident should not be considered as an example of Joseon’s Sadaejuui (serving-the-great) policy. In South Korea, a new view of Injo that appreciates his decision may be brought in the future.

In this way, careful examination of historical events may enable us to recognize our misunderstanding of history or our biased historical perspective formed from images based on current criteria.

Reliable materials essential for a correct understanding of history

One way to understand history correctly is to refer to materials contemporary with the events.

One set of materials I am currently studying is Simyang Janggye (Letters from Shenyang), and I use it as a reference contemporary with the Qing invasion of the Joseon dynasty. As the prince of the surrendered Joseon dynasty was taken as a hostage to Shenyang, which was Qing’s stronghold at the time, his attendants kept a record of his daily events in this material to report to their government.

The word hostage can evoke the image of harsh treatment; however, it was not the case with the Joseon prince. According to Simyang Janggye, the Qing emperor Hong Taiji expressed his apologies for not being able to greet the prince because the emperor was sleeping in the open air outside the palace to prevent smallpox infection which was spreading at that time.

This means the Joseon prince was properly treated as a nation’s prince in spite of his position as a hostage from the surrendered nation.

Furthermore, you may feel it is unusual for an emperor to sleep outdoors. However, by learning that the Manchu people made a living by farming and stockbreeding in this period, you will come to think an emperor sleeping outdoors was not that unexpected in those days. Actually, the Manchu people already knew, probably from their experience, that living in urban areas which tend to get crowded made one more susceptible to infection from a virus or disease.

Amid the pandemic of coronavirus, the government calls on people to avoid closed spaces, crowded places and close-contact settings. It may be said that infection countermeasures of policymakers have remained largely unchanged for about 400 years.

Although this Simyang Janggye material is unknown to the general public today, it attracted attention from oriental historians in the Meiji period such as Naito Konan and Inaba Iwakichi as the material from which to learn about Manchuria, which was a frontier region of the time. In order to know the present, a correct understanding of history is essential. For this purpose, our forerunners also placed emphasis on referring to reliable materials.

Open and tolerant society developed in Korea

Development of the Qing dynasty in China was contemporary with the period when various elements leading to today’s China, North Korea and South Korea were established. One example of this is the territory of China.

It was in this period that the present-day Autonomous Regions of Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang Uyghur and Tibet (Xizang) fell under the rule of China. Also, the border between China and Korea was placed on the Yalu River and the Tumen River around the same period.

Large rivers are most likely to be associated with national borders. Therefore, people tend to assume that the border between China and Korea has been on the Yalu River and the Tumen River since long ago. However, the area around these rivers was the territory of Yuan in the period of the Yuan dynasty, and many Jurchen people have lived there since then. This fact can also be found by examining history carefully.

Owing to this historical background, a sense of the border was not well-established among the people living in the area even after the Yalu River and the Tumen River were set as the border. So, they continued to come and go across the rivers.

Another reason for this was that the Manchu people of the Qing dynasty were tolerant of other ethnic groups. Therefore, the Korean people sometimes violated a national ban and continued to interact with the people of Qing across the rivers. Actually, Koreans and Jurchens coexisted in the Korean Peninsula, and some of them had mixed marriages.

Around the 17th century, making genealogy books became common in Joseon. These books show that origins of their ancestors varied from China, Vietnam to Uighur. There was also a family of Japanese origin whose surname Kim was given by the king.

Joseon is regarded as a homogeneous country, but this is not necessarily true. Actually, it consists of people with various ethnic backgrounds, almost equivalent to multi-ethnic countries. I assume that these people got together and developed the society of Joseon over time.

Indeed, today’s South Korea is also very open. Compared with Japanese, far more Korean students study abroad. In addition, more and more Korean companies are actively expanding their business overseas. Furthermore, as represented by active acceptance of foreign human resources, South Korea is very tolerant of the outside. In July 2020, it was reported that the coronavirus was brought to North Korea via South Korea. As such, it is not easy to stop the flow of people.

I believe this nature of people in the Korean Peninsula has been cultivated through their experience in coping with reality more rationally and flexibly, regardless of policymakers’ conflicts or the national border.

On the other hand, the history of the Japanese annexation of Korea makes Korean relations with Japan different from those with other countries. However, for Japan, this is just one aspect of Korea viewed from the Japanese side.

We can understand this by interacting with Korean people without any preconceptions. I believe that learning the history of not only Japan and Korea, but also Asia, including China, can serve as a trigger for this understanding.

Recently, more and more students take my classes to know more about South Korea after getting interested in the country through Korean dramas and K-POP. Young people in South Korea are also very interested in Japanese culture.

These younger generations may form the basis for the development of a new history without being trapped by conventional preconceptions and stereotypes. After a few centuries, this trend may be seen as a part of a great tide of history.

* The information contained herein is current as of January 2021.
* The contents of articles on are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.

Information noted in the articles and videos, such as positions and affiliations, are current at the time of production.