Although the Japanese were driven out of Korea by combined Korea and Ming forces and Chosun began to recover, a new emerging force — the Manchu — invaded both Korea and China. The impact of the overthrow of the Ming dynasty in China by the Manchus in 1644 one historian said "was comparable to that experienced by the Christian world after the loss of the Holy Land to the Muslim world." The Manchu established a new dynasty in China — the Qing (1644–1911) — and established tributary relations with Chosun.

Drained and impoverished by violent invasions from China and Japan, Korea closed itself off from the outside world and became a "Hermit Kingdom" for the next 200 years. This was around the same time that China and Japan closed themselves off to the West. Chosun then experienced a long period of peace and became the center of Confucian thought..

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Korean rulers generally devoted little attention to the military, although King Injo (1623-49) did reorganize the army and establish five permanent military bases in the country. Military service became unpopular after the Japanese invasion. The yangban class no longer provided a large source of strong military leaders, and the lower classes generally preferred to pay a tax that exempted them from conscription. Because Korean rulers had little contact with the outside world, the Korean military establishment remained uninformed about developments of new weapons and modern battlefield tactics until the middle of the nineteenth century. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990]

Korean Exposure to the West

Korea was labeled with the words "Here Be Dragons" on medieval maps and was believed to be the home of fantastic things such as giant birds, miniature horses and solid gold tombs encasing jewel-encrusted corpses. Korea had a reputation for being hostile to outsiders. This is not a big surprise when one considers the experience it had being squeezed and manipulated by its larger, more powerful neighbors: China and Japan.

Western ideas, including Christianity, reached Korea through China in the seventeenth century. Telescopes, alarm clocks, guns, Catholicism and Western scientific literature were introduced to Korea in the 1630s and 1640s, mainly via Japan.

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: Koreans were first exposed to both Western technologies and Catholic religious doctrine via the Chinese-language writings of Western missionaries in China. In the late eighteenth century, the first Korean converts to Catholicism appeared, and their numbers increased to several thousand after missionary priests entered the peninsula and began to proselytize in secret. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University]

Ideas brought to China by Jesuit missionaries on things like astronomy, mathematics, natural sciences, philosophy and the Christian religion made their way to Korea. Donald N. Clark wrote: “The "practical learning" scholars advocated realistic answers to the problems facing Korea, suggesting applications of Western science and technology. They also went far toward adopting the Jesuits' understanding of the spiritual dimension and even founded their own branch of the Catholic religion in Seoul, which turned out to be the beginnings of Korean Christianity.”

Chosun Foreign Policy

Chosun Dynasty Confucian doctrines also included a foreign policy known as "serving the great" (sadae), in this case, China. Chosun lived within the Chinese world order, which radiated outward from China to associated states, of which Korea was the most important. Korea was China's little brother, a model tributary state, and in many ways the most important of China's allies. Koreans revered things Chinese, and China responded for the most part by being a good neighbor, giving more than it took away. China assumed that enlightened Koreans would follow it without being forced. Absolutely convinced of its own superiority, China indulged in a policy that might be called benign neglect, thereby allowing Korea substantive autonomy as a nation. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada, Library of Congress, 1993]

This sophisticated world order was broken up by Western and Japanese influence in the late nineteenth century. Important legacies for the twentieth century remained, however. As a small power, Korea had to learn to be shrewd in foreign policy. Since at least the seventh century, Koreans have cultivated the sophisticated art of "low determines high" diplomacy, a practice whereby a small country maneuvers between two larger countries and seeks to use foreign power for its own ends. Although both North Korea and South Korea have often struck foreign observers as rather dependent on big-power support, both have not only claimed but also strongly asserted their absolute autonomy and independence as nation-states, and both have been adept at manipulating their big-power clients. Until the mid-1980s, North Korea was masterful not only in getting big powers to fight its battles, but also in maneuvering between the Soviet Union and China to obtain something from each and to prevent either from domination. And just as in the traditional period, Pyongyang's heart was with Beijing.

Nonetheless, the main characteristic of Korea's traditional diplomacy was isolationism, even what scholar Kim Key-hyuk has called exclusionism. After the Japanese invasions of the 1590s, Korea isolated itself from Japan, although the Edo Shogunate and the Chosun Dynasty established diplomatic relations early in the seventeenth century and trade was conducted between the two countries. Korea dealt harshly with errant Westerners who came to the country and kept the Chinese at arm's length. Westerners called Korea the Hermit Kingdom, a term suggesting the pronounced hostility toward foreign power and the deep desire for independence that marked traditional Korea.

First Europeans in Korea

The first known European to set foot in Korea was the Spanish explorer Gregorio de Cespedes. He arrived in 1593, stayed for about a year and later wrote about his experiences. The first Westerners to see Seoul were 33 Dutch sailors and merchants who were shipwrecked off of Cheju Island in 1653. They were brought to the capital a year later as prisoners, and later set free. One member, Henrik Hammel, lived in Korea from 1653 to 1666 and wrote a best selling book about his experience there. On the language issue he wrote: "Korean is very hard to learn. It doesn't look like any other language” and “there are three scripts."

Catholic priests entered Korea from China in 1795. Most of them were executed for spreading the decadent Western religion. Their belief took root however and by the mid 19th century more than 8,000 Korean Catholics were massacred. During the Japanese occupation Christian churches were a sanctuary for those with Libertarian ideas. [Source: Pico Iyer, Smithsonian magazine]

The expansion of Western powers in East Asia in the nineteenth century significantly altered the established order, in which Korea had been dominated by China. China under the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) was in decline; its power waned rapidly under the concerted attacks of such Western nations as France, Britain, and Russia. Stimulated by these events, Japan proceeded to modernize after having been forced to open its ports by Commodore Matthew C. Perry of the United States Navy in 1853-54. Korea, however, remained dormant, having closed itself to all outside contacts in the early eighteenth century.

Reaction to Western Ideas Europeans in Korea

By 1785, however, the government had become incensed over the rejection of ancestor worship by Roman Catholic missionaries, and it banned all forms of Western learning. Western ships began to approach Korean shores after 1801, seeking trade and other contacts, but the government rejected all overtures from abroad. When news of the Opium War in China (1839-42) reached Korea, the dynasty had all the more reason to shut the doors tightly against Western "barbarians." In the meantime, the Chosun Dynasty suffered from a series of natural calamities including floods, famines, and epidemics, as well as large-scale revolts of the masses in the northwest (1811-12) and southwest (1862 and 1894-95). [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990*]

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: Catholicism (and sometimes Western teachings more generally) were opposed by conservative Confucian scholars and soon by the Chosun state for a variety of reasons: because Catholic teachings opposed Confucian ancestral rituals, because Catholics were held to be of questionable loyalty (in one famous incident, a Catholic appealed to foreign powers to send military aid to protect the beleaguered community in a secret letter that was intercepted by Chosun officials), and more broadly because of perspectives exemplified by conservative scholar Yi Hangno (1792-1868) in following passage. As a result, throughout the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century Korean Catholics suffered from a series of state persecutions in which missionaries and converts were rounded up and executed in large numbers.” [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University]

Yi Hangno: "Sinifying the Western Barbarians"

Yi Hangno wrote in Hwaso sonsaeng mujip ("Sinifying the Western Barbarians"): When Chinese civilization encounters a barbarian people, those barbarians aretransformed by Chinese ways into a civilized people. Barbarians look up to China and are delighted to receive its civilizing influence. This is the way things are in the natural order of things. This is the way human beings ought to feel. China is like the roots of a plant supplying nourishment for the branches and leaves. It is like the hands and feet that protect the belly and chest of the human body. This should never change. [Source: translated by Donald Baker, ”Sources of Korean Tradition”, edited by Yong-ho Ch’oe, Peter H. Lee, and Wm. Theodore de Bary, vol. 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 140-142. © 2000 Columbia University Press,Asia for Educators, Columbia University]

“These Europeans come from a land far away from China, so it is only natural that their customs are quite different from Chinese customs. But they have learned all the different styles of Chinese writing and have collected over 3,800 classical works for their library. They can even compose T’ang.style poetry and are able to do so within the constraints that style of poetry imposes. In fact, they write such eloquent Chinese that they have been able to mesmerize many people in China.

The children of peasant households, though they study Confucian writings as hard as they can, can never grasp the structure and organization of those writings as well as children from families that have been studying Confucianism for generations. How much more difficult it must be for men from lands with customs and languages totally different from those found in this part of the world. No matter how clever and bright they may be, Confucian culture is still a foreign culture for them. If they had not studied with a truly sincere heart, how could they possibly have mastered the language as well as they have?

However, unfortunately the world is such a big place that Europe had no contact with China for quite a long time. There was no contact between China and Europe in those years before the brutal Ch’in emperor burned the books of scholars and then buried those scholars alive.1 There was also no contact between China and Europe when the Ch’eng brothers and Chu Hsi were giving their lectures explaining what Confucianism is really all about.2 That meant that, regrettably, Europe was not introduced to the basic principles of the Great Way, and Europeans were not turned into more virtuous people by its civilizing power. Europe has instead been saturated with a lot of misleading notions, and Europeans as a result tend to spout a bunch of nonsense, criticizing the teachings of the earlier Confucian sages

“Europeans do have a remarkable talent for technology. They easily surpass the Chinese in that area. But that achievement makes them arrogant, and they think that they can convert the whole world to their way of thinking. They need to think again! The heavens are so vast that the universe appears boundless. Yet we can locate the center of the universe, that point around which it revolves. That is the North Pole. The earth is also quite large, extending so far in all directions that it too appears infinite in size. Yet it also has a center, the site from which the entire earth is governed. That terrestrial center is China.

“There are also many different ways human beings can behave and interact, so many that they appear countless. But above them all is the Supreme Ultimate, the Way of ways. The North Pole rules over the multitude of stars, so the multitude of stars all bow in the direction of the North Pole. The center of the earth rules the ten thousand regions, so all of those regions recognize the paramount position of China. The Supreme Ultimate reigns over all creation, so all creation is brought together under the Supreme Ultimate. This is the one principle that unites everything in Heaven, on earth, and among people.

1) This refers to the First Emperor of the Ch’in (246–210 B.C.). The centuries before the Ch’in was established were China’s golden age of philosophy, when Confucius and Mencius were alive and teaching in China. 2) Ch’eng Hao, Ch’eng I, and Chu Hsi are the three most important figures in the Confucian revival that resulted in the creation of Neo.Confucianism in China and condemning the teachings of later Neo.Confucian philosophers. It appears to be next to impossible to awaken those men to their true inner nature and get them to change their mistaken practices.

First Americans in Korea

In 1866, about a decade after Japan was opening to the West after 300 years of isolation and China was carved up by European powers into protectorates, an American-owned ironclad schooner — the S.S. General Sherman — arrived in Korea with four Americans, an English missionary and a Chinese and Malay crew. It is still not clear what the ship’s mission was. [Source: Pico Iyer, Smithsonian magazine]

The S.S. General Sherman sailed up Taedong River and ignored demands by the local people to turn back. An order was issued by the Regent of Korea to exterminate the invaders. The ship ran aground near present-day Pyongyang. When the ship was approached crew members aboard fired into a crowd of Koreans. The Koreans answered back with flaming arrows.

A battle ensued for four days. The Americans inflicted heavy casualties with their cannons. A Korean officer named Pak launched burning barges towards the ship and set in on fire and sunk it. The Americans and the crew were captured after they leapt into the river. They were killed and dismembered and their body parts were carried off as trophies. Pak became a nation hero.

An English reporter who arrived in Pyongyang found the anchor chains hanging over the gates of Pyongyang “as a warning to all men of fate awaiting those who would dare to disturb the peace of the Land of the Morning Calm.”

Korea Opens Up to the World

After failing to get an adequate explanation for the incident from the Korean government, the U.S. government sent five warships, commanded by Admiral John Rogers, to Korea in 1871. The warships retaliated after being shelled by Korean batteries on Kanghwa island. When ships withdrew, there were three dead Americans and 243 dead Koreans. [Source: Pico Iyer, Smithsonian magazine]

Although the Chosun leaders had no desire to open their ports, they finally acquiesced out necessity and to get their hands on money to modernize their kingdom. In 1876 the Japanese sent a warship that forced the Koreans to sign a treaty opening trade and diplomatic relations with Japan. Additional treaties followed in the 1880s, with the United States, Great Britain, Germany, Russia, France and others. In 1882 the Korea and the United States signed the Korean-American Treaty of Peace, Amity, Commerce and Navigation at Inchon. The United States pledge its “good offices” if Korea was threatened from abroad. The Korean king was said to have danced with delight when an American diplomat was assigned to Seoul.

In the late 1860s, the advisors of King Kojong (1864-1907), alarmed by the interest of the United States, France, Russia, and other Western countries in opening Korea to foreign trade, convinced him to modernize the Korean army. During the next two decades, Korean military missions travelled to China and Japan to study modern warfare. King Kojong had neither the money nor the will to establish a large army, and he continued to rely primarily on the Chinese for military protection. In the 1880s, Chinese advisors trained 2,000 Korean troops and organized them into four elite units that were intended to be King Kojong's palace guard. [Source: Andrea Matles Savada and William Shaw, Library of Congress, 1990*]

Korea began its first postal system in 1884; a rail line was built between Seoul and the port of Inchon in 1897. This Royal College at Seoul was the first modern day school created directly by King Gojong for the purpose of introducing an English and western-world-oriented education system. The school was opened upon the recommendations of the Korean “Bobingsa” delegation — the First Korean Embassy delegation — after their trip to the United States in 1883. Seoul got its first electricity, running water and modern hospital in 1908, thanks to the Japanese.

Reformist Thought in Late Chosun-Era Korea

According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators, “Late Chosun was beset with a number of political issues, most notably factional power struggles between different groups of elites and officials. Chong Yagyong (1762-1836) was an important late Chosun political thinker associated with a loose, reform-oriented school of thought called “Sirhak” or Practical Learning. Here Chong argues within the framework of Confucian thought — indeed, for a return to the supposed standards and practices of earlier times — in favor of a fundamental reform of Chosun political principles that might strike at the root of its problems. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University]

Chong Yagyong wrote in the Chong Yagyong on the Roots of Royal Authority: “Where do rulers come from anyway? Do they drop out of the sky like rain? Or do they well up out of the ground like spring water? Here is what I think. Five households, making up one neighborhood, chose one of their number to be the neighborhood chief. Then five such communities, which together made up one hamlet, chose one of those neighborhood chiefs to serve as their hamlet chief. A few such hamlets constituted a township, and five townships together made up one county, with one of those five townships’ leaders Chosun to serve as the county head. The person the various county heads chose as their leader became the local feudal lord. And the person the various feudal lords chose as their leader became the ruler. So the ruler was someone whom the populace selected. Since he could only be the ruler if the populace selected him to be the ruler, if the populace did not choose him, then he could not be the ruler. [Source: translated by Donald Baker, “Sources of Korean Tradition”, edited by Yong-ho Ch’oe, Peter H. Lee, and Wm. Theodore de Bary, vol. 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 26-27]

“Therefore, if the five family heads found they could not support their neighborhood chief, they met and decided on a replacement for him. If the five neighborhood chiefs found they could not support their village head, the twenty.five families met and decided on a replacement for him. If the various feudal princes and barons found they could not support their ruler, they met and decided on a replacement for him. If five family heads could change their neighborhood chief and twenty.five families could change their village chief, then why is it when subjects change their ruler, that is called a subject overthrowing his sovereign? This does not mean that when the sovereign is changed, the person who once sat as sovereign cannot step down to a lesser post as a feudal prince. …

“Let’s say there is a troupe of sixty.four dancers serving the court. The members of the troupe choose one of their number to go to the forefront, holding the ornamental plume and serving as their leader. If he does a good job of setting the pace for the dances, then the rest of the troupe calls him “our master of the dance.” But if he turns out to be incapable of doing what is required of him, then the troupe removes him as head and tells him to rejoin the ranks of the other dancers. They then select another from their ranks and elevate him to the leadership position, calling him “our master of the dance.” In this situation, the troupe as a whole decides who should serve as the leader, who should be elevated to that position and who should be unseated. So what grounds would there be for hurling a charge of rebellion from within the ranks at the person Chosun to replace the previous leader?

“Since the time of the Han dynasty, the emperor has appointed the various nobles, the nobles the county heads, the county heads the hamlet chiefs, and the hamlet chiefs have selected the neighborhood chiefs. If anyone is so bold as to challenge his superiors, he is castigated as a rebel. … Why do they lambaste as rebels those suspected of lack of respect for their superiors? In the past authority went from those below to those higher up. These days, however, authority runs from the top down, and anyone who tries to reverse that order is labeled a rebel.”

Life of Foreigners in 19th Century Korea

Robert Neff wrote in the Korea Times: “Westerners, especially the missionaries, were perceived as living in the lap of luxury. Judging from their wages, they did have a fairly good life. Single missionaries earned about US$60 per month and married couples earned about US$100 in addition to an allowance they were given for each child they had. [Source: Robert Neff. Korea Times. August 6-7, 2011]

“Traveler’s accounts of these missionaries living in Seoul in their large houses with servants doing their menial household chores as they whiled away their time attending tea parties and playing tennis at the Seoul Union Club soon became the heated topics of conversation amongst more than a few of their jealous contemporaries back home. Of course, the missionaries didn’t help by publishing their own accounts. “Compared with the bulk of our constituents at home we live in, to say the least, the greatest ease and comfort,” declared one young missionary woman, and then added. “Compared with the people who, we have come to serve, we live like princes and millionaires.”

“The American Minister to Korea, Horace N. Allen, who first came to Korea as a missionary physician, explained why missionaries needed servants. “In a land where servants may be had for three dollars of our money per month, and feed themselves, it would be folly for the missionary or his wife to devote their valuable time to work that a servant could do better at so little cost.” But not everything in Korea was cheap. In the 1890s, a new apartment in the foreigners’ section of Seoul (Jeongdong) could be rented for about US$10 a month but keeping it heated and lit was pretty expensive. American kerosene — said to be the best — was US$2.08 a case. Imported Japanese coal was US$10.50 a ton — a bargain compared to the US$12 to US$15 dollars you had to pay for coal from Pyongyang.

“Smoked salmon was 55 cents a pound (0.45 kilogram), Alaska salted salmon was only 15 cents, and Korean beef — advertised as good steaks and roasts — could be obtained for only 14 cents a pound. American ham was 55 cents a pound and bacon was 20 cents. Korean pork, however, was relatively cheap — one whole pig cost US$6. One-pound cans of jams and jellies, in all varieties, sold for about 20 cents each. Large bags of American flour (23 kilograms) for US$2.75 each, English loaf sugar for 70 cents a pound but if you were willing to use Chinese sugar you could obtain a 100 pound bag for a mere 70 cents. The best Korean rice was US$7.52 a bag.

“Fresh cow milk (Chinese) was delivered to your house for 12 cents a bottle but if you preferred canned milk you could buy a dozen cans of Eagle Brand for US$5. ECA International reports that the current price of eggs in Seoul is US$4.60 a dozen but in 1898 you could have bought 100 eggs for 80 cents (which is roughly US$20.60 in today’s money). A dozen bottles of St. Emilion Claret would have set you back US$7.40 in the 1890s and for US$1.95 you could have purchased a box of 500 cigarettes (Blue Star). And while you were sipping your wine and smoking, you could have read The Independent (the English-language newspaper) — a monthly subscription was 50 cents.

“The wages of missionaries may have seemed rather high when compared with those of the Western miners at the gold mines in northern Korea (US$33 per month) but they paled in comparison with the Western employees of the Korean government. The tutor to the Crown Prince received nearly US$300 a month — and she didn’t even teach — while senior advisors received US$1,000 or more. But, as Prof. Lankov likes to conclude, that is a story for another time.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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