How could the Joseon (also, Chosŏn) dynasty (1392–1910) be considered the successor to the Ming dynasty (1368 to 1644) that previously ruled China? It’s perhaps quite well known that throughout its history the dynasties of Korea whether it be Goryeo (Koryŏ) or Joseon existed within the Sino-centric tributary system placing the Chinese empire as the central, superior realm and tributary realms such as the Joseon dynasty as inferior. However, over the centuries, as the ruling dynasties of China would change and alter so would Joseon’s view of the ruling Chinese dynasty and of itself–so much so that eventually, Joseon would eventually come to consider itself the true representative of the traditional Chinese-orientated culture in East Asia and the successor of the once ruling Ming dynasty.
How Joseon Korea claimed to be the true successor to the fallen Ming empire
In the seventeenth century, the Manchus, a semi-nomadic people in northeast Asia, invaded and attempted to conquer the ruling Ming dynasty of China that presided as the head of the Sino-centric tributary system. The Manchu conquest of China took place over the course of decades and during that time, the Manchus also invaded Joseon twice, once in 1627 and again in 1636. After the second Manchu victory in 1636, Joseon was forced to recognize the Manchu-ruled Qing dynasty as the new hegemon in the tributary system. The Manchu were ultimately victorious over the Ming dynasty and were able to establish the Qing dynasty’s rule over China.
Despite having severed ties with the former Ming empire and formally recognized the Qing Manchus as the superior state within the tributary system the regard with which the Joseon dynasty held the Manchus did not change from what it had been prior to the Manchu conquest. Joseon looked down on the peoples north of their territory and considered them barbarians. Even after the Manchu's rise to power in China, Joseon still held the lost Ming empire with great reverence. Alongside resentment toward Qing, a great cultural affinity developed for Ming culture, revealed in subtle things such as how Joseon officials privately continued to use the Ming calendar (Kallender 14). Joseon’s culture was always heavily influenced by Chinese elite culture, but with actual China nor ruled by the “barbaric” Manchus, Joseon began to consider itself the only true remaining example of this Chinese-oriented culture in Asia. Work by scholars such as Adam Bohnet gives us great insights into Joseon’s efforts to safeguard this culture.
Adam Bohnet’s book Turning towards Edification: Foreigners in Chosŏn Korea is a study of the presence of foreigners throughout the Joseon period. His book looks at how foreigners from abroad, from a different culture, were treated differently and given a specific status lower than the status of most within Joseon. A key term in this book is the notion of Chunghwa. It has been used as a broadly encompassing term that describes the Confucian ideals-based culture originating from China, which the Joseon dynasty believed it needed to protect in the post-Ming era (Bohnet 2). Seeing itself as the successor of the Ming empire and Chunghwa culture it felt the need to protect this culture very strongly so much so that it would not only socially quarantine and isolate incoming foreigners from what is considered barbarian regions such as Japan or Manchuria but also, ironically, arrivals from the former Ming territories (Bohnet 16). This is an indication of how Joseon came to see itself as the final bastion of this culture and the successor to the Ming empire and this concept only grew throughout the Qing era, even though Joseon maintained stable diplomatic relations with the Manchu-ruled Qing empire.
Is it perhaps strange that a regime ruling a land with no territorial overlap would attempt to pick up the mantle of and attempt to embody its previously lost civilization? The truth is that Joseon claiming to be the successor to the Ming empire is not anything out of the ordinary as there are numerous examples from global history where a state with little concrete connection to the original entity which they claim to be a descendent of. Perhaps the most notable examples come from Europe with many different, kingdoms, empires, and states trying to claim to improve their legitimacy by somehow linking themselves to the Roman empire. For centuries after its collapse, the Roman empire has influenced the culture and the behaviour of many states and statesmen. The word in for emperor in many European languages is derived from Caesar including the Russian word, Tsar. For a time, the Russian empire its capital, Moscow, was claimed to be the “Third Rome” despite the Russian empire's borders not overlapping with the former Roman empire at all but justified nonetheless through claims of religious and political inheritance. Linking oneself with a long-gone, but culturally revered civilization is not unique to Joseon’s case with the Ming; it is another example of improving its own legitimacy by doing it.
Today, the two Koreas that occupy the Korean peninsular both exhibit their own distinct Korean culture, and although Korean culture has influences from China, neither North Korea nor South Korea now claim to be the true successor to the Ming empire or any other Chinese dynasty for that matter. So, when exactly did this idea fade from Korean consciousness? The idea idealization of the Ming faded somewhat in the nineteenth century when the Chinese-centered worldview was shattered. Qing China suffered numerous defeats to foreign powers culminating in the most significant China’s defeat in the First Sino-Japanese war in 1895 (Kallender 21). With, this fundamental concept of world order destroyed in the eyes of Joseon, the desire to channel the Ming faded too (Na 21). However, it wouldn’t truly leave the consciousness of Joseon until the end of the dynasty and the beginning of the colonisation period in the early 20th century.
After the fall of the Ming and throughout the Qing dynasty, Joseon Korea continued to play its part within the tributary system as a vassal kingdom to the superior empire of China. However, resentment towards the Manchus whom they considered to be barbarians persisted. They perceived themselves to be the last bastion of Chunghwa and therefore came to see themselves as the rightful successor to the fallen Ming empire. This was not necessarily an extraordinary occurrence as there are numerous examples of similar things happening throughout history.