The Manchu Qing Confrontation
The Manchu were descendants of the Jurchen who had troubled Korea earlier. They conquered China, but they also attacked Korea on their way into China to secure their flank against a possible attack from China’s indebted ally.
They attacked Choson in 1627 and quickly secured Korea’s pledge of loyalty in Chinese tributary fashion. The Koreans, too battered to resist, secretly contacted Ming China and planned a combined attack on the Manchu. The Ming-Choson alliance never coalesced, however, and the Manchu attacked Korea again in 1636.
This time, in order to secure Korea’s alliance, they took the crown prince and his two brothers captive, reestablishing the hostage system seen earlier in the Yuan-Koryo relationship, but unlike the Mongols, who held each successive generation of crown princes, the Manchu did not continue the practice beyond the first generation. Once they had secured the Chinese court and proclaimed the Qing dynasty in 1644, they released the three Korean princes.
The degree of devastation in Korea at the hands of the Manchu was insignificant compared with that wreaked by the Japanese a generation earlier. The Manchu were not interested in the goods of Korea, they only demanded its loyalty in their pursuit for the greater prize—China.The eldest of the three princes taken by the Manchu died mysteriously after returning to Seoul. The second son later became Hyojong (r. 1649–59), who throughout his reign harbored great hatred for the Qing court. He planned a “Northern Retaliation,” but it never came to be.
Gradually, the Korean court came to accept the Qing and used the Qing calendar in all public documents, but in private discourse, letters, bills of sale, and the like many continued to use the reign date of the last Ming emperor. Because the calendar was based on a 60-year cycle, what to do in years 61 and after was a problem, but this was solved by referring to the second appearance of a year in the cycle as the second kapcha (“first-year”), for example.
Since the Qing dynasty continued for another 250 years, some Korean documents were dated the third, or the fourth, or even the fifth kapcha. Aside from being a quirky method of recording years, it was a measure of Korean loyalty to the “true” Chinese court and their displeasure with the aliens who had usurped the Chinese throne.
This usurpation of the Ming court posed a philosophical and religious problem for Choson. How could they show the same respect to the usurpers, the barbarian Qing? Ming was the “older brother” in Confucian terms, but the Qing was not worthy of elder brother status. This moral dilemma pushed Choson toward increased orthodoxy in their practice of Confucianism. Since older brother was gone, it was up to the younger brother to maintain Confucian standards.
Cultural compromises that Koreans had heretofore routinely made in adopting Confucianism would no longer be acceptable, with great consequences for society. Ritual practices and inheritance laws began to change over the next century. More immediately, what should have been a minor issue in the interpretation of the ritual requirements became a major confrontation with deadly consequences for the losers.
The conflict began at the death of King Hyojong in 1659. His son King Hyonjong (r. 1659–74) ascended the throne at age 18. The question was how long the king’s stepmother should mourn for King Hyojong. She was advised to mourn for one year, the time period stated in the ritual texts. However, she had previously mourned three years for the king’s elder brother who had died young.
One faction at court argued that those who advised her to mourn only one year were less-ening the stature of the king who had just died. This had implications for the legitimacy of the new king, Hyonjong. Nonetheless, Hyonjong stuck with his decision to support those who said one year was correct. In spite of resentments on the part of those who argued for three years, the issue passed.
The next occasion for a mourning ritual, however, reignited the issue. This time it was a question of how long the king’s step-grand-mother should mourn for her step-grandson’s queen, Hyojong’s wife. The particular issue was not as important as the fervor with which the officials at court took sides in this debate on correct Confucian ceremony (Haboush 1998).
There were five degrees of mourning, ranging from three years to one month: Three years were reserved for parent or child; one year was for grandparent, grandchild, or stepchild; and nine months, three months, and one month of mourn-ing were prescribed for more distant relatives.
Some at court argued that the grandmother should mourn for one year, as for a grandchild, and others that she should mourn for nine months since she was a step-grandmother.
In this case those who had earlier argued for three years argued for one year, and those who had argued for one year now argued for nine months.
The debate battle lines were drawn in the Choson court. Powerful officials asserted each side of the debate, and younger officials lined up behind each. It was a dramatic showdown, with the king in the position of deciding which side was correct.
The winning side would remain in the court; the losing side would have to resign, or worse, they could be banished or executed for giving the king wrong advice.
The king chose the one-year option, the more con-servative choice, and not only reaffirmed the position of the deceased step-grandmother—treating her like a birth grandmother—but also set Korea on an even more orthodox track in the application of Confucianism in politics and society.
The showdown was pivotal in the history of the late Choson court. Some historians have concluded that the ceremonies were not really the issue, arguing that philosophy was only a cover for a fight for power between factions at court.
However, more recently, historians have made the case convincingly that philosophy was at the heart of the conflict: Confucianism became so important that an exact analysis of proper ceremonies was important in Korea, which had become the repository of orthodox Confucianism now that China was under the control of barbarians.
A shrine on the outskirts of modern Seoul is another testament to the fervor of Korean Confucianism. At the foothill of a mountain is a shrine to the imperial family of the Ming dynasty where Confucian-style ceremonies are still offered.
Such offerings are not found in China or Taiwan, but in Korea, ever loyal, the ceremonies are still practiced. This is an interesting statement on the Confucianization of Korea and the depth of feeling for the core Confucian concept of loyalty.
After the devastating Japanese invasion at the end of the 16th cen-tury and then the invasions by the Manchu in the early 17th century, the Korean people settled into a long period of peace and recovery.
Gradually, the population began to grow again, mourning for the dead became more institutionalized and was passed on to the next genera-tion, and the economy moved toward recovery. Even so, in the relatively tranquil years to come, deep and permanent changes were going to take place—changes that would mark the traditional family and social order in uniquely Korean ways.