Korean tribute missions to China

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Across many dynasties and historical periods, Korean kingdoms have been the "model" tributary state in China's Sinocentric tribute system.

These missions provided the Korean court with the opportunity to obtain certain much-needed luxury goods, and, of course, enabled Korea to maintain a positive political and military relationship with China. However, combined with the costs of receiving Chinese embassies to Korea, the relationship was profoundly expensive for the Korean court, and was, purely in terms of revenues and expenses in pure monetary numerical equivalence, far more of an expense than a source of profit or gain. That said, given the massive size of the Chinese economy, Korean tribute missions were not dramatically profitable for the Chinese Court either. In particular, tribute payments, official gifts, trade, and other transactions saw a considerable flow of silver out of Korea and into China, at a time when considerable amounts of silver from Japan, Bolivia, and around the world were likewise being drained into Chinese coffers.

Ming Dynasty

From the very earliest years of the Ming Dynasty, China received tribute missions from Joseon Dynasty Korea three times annually. The missions were ostensibly sent by the Korean court in celebration of three annual occasions, and were known by different terminology depending on the occasion. Missions known as chŏngjo (正朝) were sent on New Year's', those sent in celebration of the birthday of the Emperor of China were called sŏngjŏl (聖節), and those celebrating the birthday of the Chinese Imperial Crown Prince were known as ch'ŏnch'u (千秋). Towards the end of the Ming Dynasty, Korea came to send instead only one annual mission, at the time of the winter solstice, and being named as being sent in celebration of one or more of the three occasions previously standard.

In addition to those standard three missions annually, Joseon Korea also occasionally sent additional missions, including missions of thanks for imperial grace (saŭn, 謝恩), congratulations (chinha, 進賀), condolence (chinwi, 進慰), incense offerings (chinhyang, 進香), notifications of the death of prominent figures (kobu, 告訃), gifts of horses as tribute (amma, 押馬), or for presenting memorials to the throne (chumun, 奏聞), among others.

Each mission presented the Chinese Court with a variety of formal greetings and letters, and tribute goods, receiving formal greetings and documents in exchange, along with extensive gifts. Journeys were made either by land or by sea, along a variety of routes.

Qing Dynasty

Korea was conquered by the Manchus in 1637, seven years before Beijing, and the Ming Dynasty with it, fell to their armies. During this span of seven or eight years, Korea nominally sent four missions each year to China, on the occasions of the birthday of the Qing Emperor, New Year's, the winter solstice, and an additional mission designated as the "annual tribute" mission (yŏn'gong, 年貢). In practice, however, one of the former three always served doubly as the official tribute mission.

In 1645, following the establishment of Manchu (Qing) rule in Beijing, Korea sent only one mission, at the time of the winter solstice, and dubbed the official annual tribute mission (sep'ye 歳幣). This single annual mission, combined with the occasional additional ones, remained the standard form through the end of pre-modern Sino-Korean relations in 1894. On average, two additional missions were sent each year, for a total of three.

These additional missions included:

  • Missions related to investiture, in which the ambassadors received an imperial patent symbolically granting China's official recognition of the legitimacy of a new Korean king.
  • Notifications of royal deaths and receiving of Imperial official expressions of grief
  • Congratulations on the occasions of the enthronement of a new emperor, the naming of a new imperial heir, the naming of new imperial consorts, the successful suppression of rebellions, or the adoption of new era names.
  • Offering of condolences on the death of members of the Imperial family, or on the occasion of major disasters.
  • Courtesy visits to meet up with the traveling Imperial Court when it paid official visits to Mukden or certain other locations.
  • Offering explanations of significant events in Korea.
  • Requests, including inquiries into the emperor's birthday or certain other matters essential to performing proper protocols; requests for goods or commodities; requests for temporary or occasional exception from tribute, taxes, or certain ceremonial obligations
  • Granting gifts
  • Receiving or conveying information on solar and lunar eclipses, the official calendar, matters of border security and other military matters, trade, smuggling, runaways, and castaways, information about Japan, or information about Western nations

The composition of Korean missions to China varied, but the official annual tribute missions generally included one lead envoy, one deputy envoy, an official secretary, four or five interpreters, seven military officials along with an additional fourteen guards, a physician, one or two writers, a painter, a language student, and an astronomer; adding in minor porters, horse drivers, umbrella holders, sedan chair bearers and the like, a Korean mission to China often comprised roughly 200 to 300 individuals.

The lead and deputy envoys were generally royal princes or high-ranking officials (of the Upper Third Rank or above, out of nine ranks), while the secretary was generally of the Lower Sixth Rank or above; other members of the embassy were generally selected from the officials in the Office of Interpreters (Sayŏk won, 司訳院). For the duration of the embassy, these three figures would be raised in rank by one or two full grades. As in the Ryukyuan missions to Edo, the secretary not only kept records of the daily events of the mission, and reported back to the Korean king, but also was of high enough rank within the embassy to speak or act on behalf of the envoys when both lead and deputy envoy were not present.

Goods offered as tribute to the Chinese Court included precious metals, knives and bows, paper, leopard, otter, deer, and squirrel skins, tea, pepper, sappanwood, rice, and bolts of cloth including cotton, hemp, ramie, and silk. The amounts of each varied over time, as new policies were put into place, with many of these goods (including tribute paid in gold and silver) eliminated after 1729. The total value of the tribute offered thus varied dramatically, but has been estimated to have totaled in 1808 the equivalent of 80,000 taels of copper. In addition to these formal tribute goods, the missions also offered a sizable amount of "local goods" (C: fang-wu, 方物), making the true total of goods given by the Korean missions to the Chinese Court equivalent to more than 100,000 taels of copper. In exchange, they received Imperial gifts totaling the equivalent of only 30,000 taels of copper.

Much of the details of these missions are recorded in a compilation entitled Tongmun hwigo (同文彙考), or "Collection of Documents Exchanged between Korea and China, and Korea and Japan."

The Journey & Reception

Members of the embassy were generally named in or around the sixth month, and departed for China in the 10th or 11th month. The Korean royal court provided extensive provisions as well as tribute goods, and made formal requests to locations along the traveling route that they should provide lodging, fresh horses, and the like. Though sea routes had been used occasionally during the Ming Dynasty, during the Qing, land routes became standard. The journey covered roughly 3000 li, or roughly 750 miles, and took about 40 to 60 days, generally passing through, or past, Seoul, Pyongyang, Ŭiju, the Yalu River, and Shenyang (Mukden) before arriving at Beijing. The journey back to Korea was generally slightly quicker, taking around 40 to 50 days.

Before crossing the Yalu River, which separated Chinese and Korean territory, the mission would send a formal communication back to Seoul, informing the king of the membership of the embassy, and certain other details, reporting these details as well to Manchu officials at the border. Upon arriving in Mukden, the mission engaged in ceremonial expressions of respect and offered a portion of the tribute goods, which would then be conveyed to Beijing by Manchu officials, while the Koreans continued on to Beijing to deliver the remainder of the tribute in person. Gifts were presented as well to a number of Manchu officials along the way.

Upon arriving in Beijing, the embassy would be received by officials from the Hall of Tributary Envoys (Huitong-guan); during their journey in Chinese territory, and their stay in Beijing, the Chinese Court would provide food, lodging, and the like for the embassy, whose provisions thus only had to last for the portion of the journey in Korean territory. In total, the Chinese Court generally spent around 80,000 taels on the various expenses associated with receiving a Korean embassy. Shortly after their arrival, the envoys would present memorials to the throne and other formal documents to an official from the Chinese Board of Rites. New Year's embassies would be formally received alongside envoys from other tributary polities. Following certain ceremonial exchanges between the Board of Rites and the Court, the envoys would be invited to present their offers of tribute, and would then be banqueted by the Board of Rites, and would receive a formal Imperial audience and gifts from the Emperor; some of these gifts were for the envoys themselves and a limited number of their retainers, while the majority were to be brought back to Korea to be presented to the king.

Though in the Ming Dynasty, envoys were limited to staying in Beijing for no more than forty days, during the Qing Dynasty, there was no formal limitation, and embassies usually stayed for around two months. During this time, members of the embassy visited friends or contacts within the Chinese scholar-bureaucracy, and otherwise enjoyed life in the city, visiting restaurants, bookstores, and the like. Each member of the mission was permitted to carry up to 2,000 taels worth of silver or ginseng, with which to make personal purchases; the envoys also engaged in a certain amount of official trade on behalf of the Korean court, purchasing silks, medicines, and various luxury goods for use at court. Certain goods, such as maps, history books, and military materials such as gunpowder, were prohibited from being purchased or taken out of the country.

Following a final banquet, the envoys would formally notify the Court of State Ceremonial (鴻臚寺) of their departure, and would then depart Beijing, being escorted as far as the Shanhai Pass (山海関) by officials from the Board of War.

The lead envoy, deputy envoy, and lead secretary presented formal reports to the king upon their arrival back in Seoul. The envoys often also returned with formal commands, edicts, or other communications of a particularly official sort issued from the Chinese Emperor to be conveyed to the Korean king; very often, imperial embassies would be dispatched from Beijing to convey such missives, but, not infrequently, such communications were sent instead with returning Korean embassies.


  • Hae-Jong Chun, "Sino-Korean Tributary Relations in the Ch'ing Period," in John K. Fairbank (ed.) The Chinese World Order, Harvard University Press (1968), 90-111.