CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 11, September 2007


Contested Domains | China Heritage Quarterly

Contested domains: The Poetic Dialogue between a Ming Emperor and a Chosŏn Envoy

Dane Alston

In 1396, relations between Ming and the fledgling Chosŏn court reached an all-time low. The newly consolidated Ming dynasty of China, still based in Nanjing, froze relations with Chosŏn and detained their envoys over what they perceived as disrespectfully worded communiqués. Across the border, the Chosŏn court official and scholar Yangch'on Kwŏn Kun (1352-1409) volunteered to go to the Ming court to resolve the impasse and, in settling diplomatic ties between the two countries, he and the Hongwu Emperor (Zhu Yuanzhang 1328-1398, r. 1368-1398) struck up a rapport. The most lasting artefact of this meeting was an exchange of poetry between the emperor and emissary Kwŏn known in Korea as Ungjesi (Chinese: Yingzhishi, English: Poems Written at Royal Command).

The Hongwu Emperor composed three poems for Kwŏn and in return Kwŏn composed three groups of poems on selected topics, totalling 24 poems. Although both parties spoke different languages, this exchange was conducted in was conducted in literary Chinese-the medium of communication shared by literati stretching from Japan down to Vietnam up until the 20th century. These poems provide a valuable source through which to explore communications between these two royal courts and how, under these strained circumstances, both sides were attempting to reconcile their differences, understand each other and assert themselves.

The Yalu River: a boundary real, remembered and imagined

The first of Hongwu's poems deals with the Yalu (Korean: Amnok) River, located in the north-western corner of the Korean peninsula. The river today forms part of the boundary between China and North Korea.

Fig. 1
Fig.1 Ti Yalujiang by the Hongwu Emperor.
The poem takes the river as the site of a range of boundaries that are historical, cultural, territorial and national. In the opening line of the poem, Zhu Yuanzhang clearly articulates the historical background that surrounds the Yalu. The river is described as the 'clear boundary of ancient fiefdoms,' a reference to viscount Ji Zi [1] being invested with the land of Chaoxian (or Chosŏn as it is known in Korean).

According to the Book of Documents (Shang shu), when King Wu defeated Yin he released Ji Zi who had been imprisoned by King Zhou of the Shang. Refusing to serve yet another dynasty, Ji Zi is said to have fled to Chaoxian, or. King Wu was so impressed by Ji Zi's loyalty to his previous rulers that he invested him with the land of Chaoxian.[2] Other early historical sources also confirm Ji Zi being invested with the land of Chaoxian. The Historical Records, for example, also refer to his being invested with the land and going there not in the capacity as a minister, suggesting that he went independently of King Wu's Zhou.[3] The History of the Han Dynasty (Han shu) states more modestly that with the decline of the Shang, Ji Zi simply went to Chaoxian.[4] Most of the dynastic histories written after these references reiterate this event whenever addressing matters concerning the Korean peninsula. By declaring the Yalu River to be the boundary of ancient fiefdoms, Zhu was clearly drawing on this historical memory and historicising the Yalu as the geographical boundary across which Ji Zi travelled to establish the kingdom of Chaoxian.

In this opening line Zhu Yuanzhang also subtly asserts a Chinese claim to territories surrounding the Yalu. In the first instance, Ji Zi crossing the Yalu and being enfoffed with the land Chosŏn forges a historical connection between early Chinese and Korean civilisations. Ji Zi's role in the Shang dynasty and formation of the early Chou dynasty, along with his reputation as a wise man in early Chinese historical records, show that he was considered an important historical figure in Chinese antiquity. In the story of Ji Zi crossing the Yalu, and more importantly its reiteration here in the opening line of this poem, Zhu is reaffirming a historical connection between the formative period of Chinese civilisation and the kingdoms of the Korean peninsula. The boundary of the Yalu and the reference to the ancient fiefdoms is then a demarcation between the domains of the Chou and Ji Zi 's Chosŏn, but not necessarily an exclusive division. The fiefdoms either side of the Yalu are considered separate but not 'separated'. Just as Zhu describes the water of the Yalu flowing between the fiefdoms as clear, equally clear is the implication that Ji Zi 's crossing of the Yalu symbolizes a claim that ancient China played a significant role in contributing to the early development of civilisation in the peninsula.

The extent to which Zhu Yuanzhang perceived the civilising effect of early connections with ancient China is reiterated again in the poem. Zhu explains,

Not excepting fugitives gave a thousand years of dynastic stability, Cultivating rites and propriety gave a hundred generations of merit.

In excluding fugitives, and presumably their mischievous influence, the Korean peninsula was able to enjoy dynastic prosperity as they cultivated the civilised Chinese ways. The end result of this is, as Zhu writes, '[Each of us] strong now there is no more deception, we enjoy these times of harmony.' Here Zhu is presenting a positive attitude to the present state of affairs between Ming and Chosŏn, acknowledging, if not perhaps imagining, that both nations are enjoying a degree of stability, strength and harmony thanks not only to their shared origins, but also their mutual cultivation of appropriate Chinese etiquette. The 'fugitives' mentioned here is presumably a reference to wayward elements that fled China at various times; that Zhu sees Chosŏn as also refusing them refuge again appeals to a shared moral view between Ming and Chosŏn.

Underlying this appeal to shared and harmonious relations, however, the poem still hints at difficulties that centred on the Yalu River. While Zhu Yuanzhang writes of the mutual strength and harmony Ming and Chosŏn now apparently enjoy, in the same phrase he clarifies that this is only possible now that there is 'no more deception.' What this deception could have been is not elaborated on, but the porous nature of the boundary, the influx of 'fugitives' and their subversive potential, and the ever present threat of north-eastern peoples such as the Liao (Khitan) and Jin (Jurchen) were certainly a very real cause for Ming concern. Should Koryŏ or Chosŏn relations with these peoples solidify into an alliance or even fugitives gain a sympathetic ear then Ming would have faced an even larger threat on its north-eastern flank. Clarity for the Ming in terms of Koryŏ/Chosŏn alliances would mean nothing short of security and a reassurance. So for Zhu to claim that there was no more deception between Ming and Chosŏn indicates a contemporary stasis in relations between Ming and Chosŏn, while at the same time recognising the potentially dangerous nature of their exposed north eastern flank.

Two additional lines in Zhu Yuanzhang's poem further highlighting the historically contentious nature of the Yalu and its surrounds. These lines are,

The Han conquest is clearly recorded in the books, and the Liao attack can be scrutinised from the bright traces that remain.

Not only do these two terse lines break with the conciliatory and laudatory tone of the poem so far, they stand out for their sudden shift in topic and show that even in the late 14th century historical claims to the Yalu region were far from transparent. The reference to the Han conquest and attack on Liaodong comes from the Historical Records where Han Wudi's forces finally defeated Wieman Chosŏn (194-108 BCE) and established four commanderies in the area.[5] Chinese commanderies were established in the Liaodong area but Koguryŏ formed an alliance with the Chinese state of Wei and mounted an attack on the commanderies and eventually seized control of the area. From that point onwards Koguryŏ and later the Three Kingdom states effectively controlled the Liaodong peninsula until the seventh century. These two lines appear to suggest that, although the Ming claim to have exercised some degree of control over the Yalu region through these commanderies in the distant past, the fact that they were attacked, and more importantly lost, is a tacit acknowledgement that they did not always control the area. Underlying these two lines is a claim that historical sources somehow prove that the land was part of the Chinese domain in antiquity and that the Ming felt it still ought to be theirs, but, nonetheless, it has slipped from their control. In fact, these lines points to the region of the Yalu as a prized territory whose control has, through time, passed through the hands of various peoples.

In closing the first poem, Zhu Yuanzhang again evokes the river, although this time he appeals metaphorically to its strength as a natural boundary between Ming and Chosŏn. This strength, he writes, comes not from the river's waves, but from their absence, suggesting that a calm and peaceful state of affairs benefits both side of the river. Zhu is appealing to the river as a natural boundary shared by Ming and Chosŏn that simultaneously acts as a defensive barrier and discourages one side from attacking the other. For the Hongwu Emperor, the Yalu represents a territory laden with historical meanings that are fragmented and contentious, yet in light of the potential danger it represents, he is willing to acknowledge it as a natural boundary between Ming and Chosŏn that he seeks to keep harmonious.

The old Koryŏ capital

The topic of Zhu Yuanzhang's second poem is quite peculiar.

Fig. 2
Fig.2 Poem titled The Koryŏ Capital by the Hongwu Emperor.

It deals with a place he could never have visited, because at the time of writing the Koryŏ capital no longer existed. During the Koryŏ period (Chinese: Gaoli, 918-1392) Kaegyŏng (Chinese: Kaijing, present day Kaesŏng ) was the capital but with the new Chosŏn dynasty (1392-1910) the capital was relocated to the place called in Chinese Hanyang, the location of the present day capital of South Korea. In this poem Zhu shows that he regards the abandoned capital as a place of desolation. The scene he depicts has the market squares dissolved, building overflowing with plants and flowers, and animals live where once there were humans. All this, he imagines, fills the passing traveller's eyes with sadness: 'Desolation filling the eyes makes passers by sad.' The loss of human control over the old Koryŏ capital means the chaos of nature has filled the vacuum and this provokes in Zhu's imagination a sense of loss and despair.

In this poem Zhu shows a surprising degree of concern for how the relocation of the capital might have affected ordinary people. He portrays travelling merchants abandoning the old, crooked roads to the Koryŏ capital and making their way to the new capital. Furthermore, he also envisages the relocated residents as yearning for their old shops. Why the emperor of Ming in the first place would be so concerned with how the relocation affected the people of Chosŏn, not to mention the presumption that they would be reminiscing and longing for the old Koryŏ capital, adds a curious dimension to this poem.

In the closing lines of the poem Zhu Yuanzhang voices yet another concern. He explains the Koryŏ capital was the 'endeavour of Mr Wang', clearly a reference to Wang Kŏn, founder of the Koryŏ dynasty, and this is his legacy. He then asks rhetorically how long a time it will take for things to be set straight.

Since Tangun passed away, however, how long a time has passed to again set forth.

Hongwu's concern here relates directly to the state of affairs in the peninsula as possibly being put in order. In asking this question he is evoking Tangun, mythical founder of Korean people, and suggesting that only now that the legacy of the Koryŏ capital has been overcome can the new regime Chosŏn regime set things straight. The question Hongwu is asking, then, is an acknowledgement of that the period of uncertainty has passed and that now the Chosŏn court was once again setting forth on the right path - a path that is mirrored in the historical and mythological precedent of Tangun.

In the eyes of another: the envoy and his experiences of civilisation

The final poem of Zhu Yuanzhang describes the experiences of an envoy as they pass Liaodong into Ming territory. This poem is about what Zhu imagines an envoy coming into Ming territory would encounter. Given the setting in which these poems were composed and who they were given to, we can comfortably presume that the envoy Zhu is talking about is Kwŏn Kun. The poem can then be understood as an expression of Zhu explaining what he expects, if not wants, Kwŏn to have experienced when he crossed into Ming territory.

The images Zhu presents in the poem are of a peaceful, harmonious and orderly society. As soon as the envoy crosses the border he encounters farmers happily singing as they plough the fields. Further into the poem, when the envoy arrives at the postal/official station he is greeted by happy officials and later when he leaves,

The stableman happily dispatches people on peaceful long trips.

This state of peace is no temporary state, instead farmers have sown seeds for so many summers that they have lost count and prosperity overflows with 'grain and millet fill he fields and are reaped year after year.' This territory has enjoyed long term peace.

Entwined within the images of peace and harmony, however, are the echoes of a time of war and suffering. The people are described as 'weary of battle' and the alarm bells in the watch tower that would have once warned of approaching armies and bandits have since turned green with rust now they are no longer used. Even beacon fires used to signal danger and calamities have transformed into earthen mounds. While the images of war and conflict in this poem are used principally to show just how peaceful the state of affairs has become, their mention nonetheless points to a time in the past when considerable conflict and chaos dominated the area. The conflict that this poem potentially refers to could be the Han conquests, Koguryŏ recapturing the territory or even threats from Liao and Jin. That the Liaodong area at the time of writing the poem is under Ming control and, as far as Zhu is concerned, has for a long time has enjoyed peace and stability implies strongly that only once Sinitic control of the area was regained true peace and prosperity could reign.

The portrayal of Ming society in this poem as harmonious and prosperous contrasts sharply with the image of the Korean peninsula in Zhu's previous two poems. In the first of the earlier poems there is a sense of uncertainty in regard to territory surrounding the Yalu and Zhu appeals to the waveless strength of the river as a mitigating force to any hostilities that might cross into Ming, while in the second poem the old Koryŏ capital reverts to wilderness in the absence of human control and newly relocated people do not rejoice at their new circumstances, but instead reminisce of the old days. Zhu's imagination of his own territory, Liaodong, on the other hand overflows with a happy populace, a peaceful society and an efficient and happy bureaucracy. He clearly regards his own territory as one of peace and safety, which contrasts clearly with what he imagines is taking place across the border.

In imagining both his own domain and the Chosŏn peninsula Zhu is clearly contrasting his presumption that Ming control provides a state of peace and prosperity, with the uncertainty and danger that lurks beyond the Yalu and in the Chosŏn domain. His Chosŏn neighbours undoubtedly share more than the mutual border of the Yalu river and Zhu acknowledges as much in his references to shared historical and cultural points. But enmeshed within his poems is a recognition of the danger the north-east poses to his government and a desire to strike an agreeable and peaceful relationship with Chosŏn. Nonetheless, Zhu cannot help but imagine that with the recent change of regime from Koryŏ to Chosŏn there is chaos and disquiet across the border, which contrasts markedly with his own imagined domain. To reconcile and mitigate the potential danger posed by Chosŏn, Zhu is then forced to try and bring Chosŏn into the Sinitic fold, through appealing to shared historical references and putting a positive spin for his own domain. The desire for this security means that Hongwu has no choice but to acknowledge the tenuous and contested nature of the area both states share.

The envoy's reply: all quiet on the Eastern front

Kwon's three sets of poems on prescribed themes cover firstly, his experiences travelling to Ming, secondly, accounts of Korean history and scenery and lastly, his experiences in the capital while enjoying the emperor's hospitality.

Fig. 3
Fig.3 Opening page of Kwŏn Kun's Yangch'on Sŏnsaeng Munjip, with the first poem titled Lamenting Wang's old capital .

In the first set of poems in particular Kwŏn responds to some of the concerns the emperor raised in his poems.

To begin with, we can see that Kwŏn is attempting to allay Zhu Yuanzhang's concerns over the change of regime and state of affairs in Chosŏn. In the first poem, Lamenting Wang's old capital, he explains that since Wang Kŏn (Chinese: Wang Jian, r. 918-943), founder of Koryŏ, established the capital they gradually lost their mandate to rule over 500 years. Using typical Confucian imagery associated with the portents of a wayward ruler, he writes of Koryŏ,

Weakened and waning, finally they lost the way, their vicissitudes in reality linked to Heaven.

The consequence of this is that only the pitiful castle remains and the flourishing new regime of Chosŏn has moved on under the rule of Yi Sŏng-kye (Chinese: Li Chenggui, r. 1392-1398).

Kwon attempts to further arrest Zhu's concerns by explaining that the difficult times of Koryŏ have passed and now under the rule of Yi Sŏng-kye peace has come to the peninsular. Zhu, as outlined above, describes the uncertainty of the natives with the change of capital and questions whether now Chosŏn will set forth correctly. In Kwŏn's second poem, On Mr Yi changing his abode, he seems to be directly addressing Zhu's concern and he uses Yi Sŏng-kye's relocation of the capital with establishment of the new Chosŏn dynasty to show that the new state of affairs has overcome its troubled times and brought success and peace to the people. Furthermore, Yi has cultivated this new state of affairs in appropriate Confucian moral terms, namely with great loyalty and sincerity.

In the Eastern Kingdom there recently have been many difficulties, but now our King has accomplished what he set out to achieve. Giving peace to the people, nurturing wise governance, in these great affairs he has been completely loyal and sincere.

The lines of this poem and the positive image they present of Chosŏn society clearly contrasts with the uncertainty voiced in Zhu Yuanzhang 's poem on the old Koryŏ capital. Kwŏn is clearly trying to tell Zhu that not only has stability come to the peninsula, but it has come in manner that is befitting of Confucian standards. As though to answer Zhu's rhetorical question, Kwŏn is suggesting that yes, things have set forth in a correct manner similar to that seen in the time of Tangun.

Kwŏn's also shows that Chosŏn and Yi Sŏng-kye are particularly concerned with cultivating good relations with Ming. In the same poem, for example, Kwŏn ties the moving of the capital to the Ming Emperor bestowing the new dynasty name:

In receiving the formal title [for our nation], we received Heaven's grace, [the King] moved his residence, establishing a walled city. Willingly we discharge our duties and pay tribute, may all receive the Emperor radiance.

In this quote we can also see that Kwŏn is emphasising to Zhu the resumption of tribute relations between Chosŏn and Ming. Kwŏn is saying that the new arrangement in Chosŏn is one that understands how relationships work with the Ming and that they are willing to discharge their duties, or in other words, work by the Chinese paradigm. In doing so, the Emperor's radiance and grace then reaches to the affairs of Chosŏn.

These themes of harmonious relations, paying tribute and enjoying the favour of the emperor are reiterated in Kwŏn's poem On passing the Western Capital. Kwŏn writes,

Ten thousand li over mountains and across ferries we always come to pay tribute, and the boundaries and territory of the Samhan are forever protected. Conscientiously being neighbours the inhabitants have been happy, we have thus prospered from your imperial favour.

Despite the geographical difficulties that separate Ming and Chosŏn, Kwŏn stating that they are happy to make the effort to pay tribute to Ming and as a consequence enjoy good relations and safe borders. He also explains that as conscientious neighbours Chosŏn people have reaped the rewards in happy and benefited from the emperor's influence.

Crossing the troubled waters of the Amnok river

In the first set of eight poems Kwŏn composed there are two that thematically match Zhu Yuanzhang's poems: The Yalu (Korean: Amnok) river and Liaodong region.

As outlined above, Zhu's poem on the Yalu river regarded it as a site of historical and cultural boundaries that refer back to Chinese antiquity and the founding of civilisation in the Korean peninsula, as an area of ambiguous control and perpetual threat, and the river as mediating influence that mitigates potential aggressive actions. Kwŏn's poem approaches the Amnok river from an altogether different perspective. In the opening line he completely avoids historicising the river as Zhu did through histories, texts cultural references and merely gives an on the spot impression of it as a desolate, old place:

In the gloomy border village the branches of trees are old and thick, the line of the river dividing the distant north shore.

In these lines the images of the gloomy village, thick twisted tree branches and the breadth of the river give an impression that civilising forces of any kind have failed to permeate this area. In the following two lines, however, Kwŏn reassures that the emperor's influence knows no boundary between Ming and Chosŏn, and then he asks whether in fact the land can actually be divided up into boundaries.

The Emperor's virtue knows no boundary between the realm of Ming and us Eastern Barbarians, [so] how can the land be divided into boarders of this and that?

Kwon's approach to the Amnok river, then, completely avoids Zhu's attempt to historicise the river and the sticky issue of who has controlled the area. In fact, Kwŏn is taking a step further than Zhu and suggesting that Ming and Chosŏn share realms to the extent that there need be no boundary between the two nations.

When Kwŏn actually describes his crossing the river, the reader cannot but help but presume that Kwŏn is speaking allegorically of the stormy and tumultuous events that have troubled Ming-Chosŏn events in recent years.

Resigned to the oncoming waves, a large swell buffets the small ferry, longing to see heaven's sun illuminate this remote and barren place. Anyone who know this leaves quickly thinking so, wishing to receive your grace, I convey news from my king.

Fig. 4
Fig.4 Poem titled Crossing the Amrok River by Kwŏn Kun.

Crossing the Amnok river, Kwŏn surrenders to the large waves that toss and turn his small ferry. As though suffering from bad sea-sickness he writes how he longs for 'heaven's sun illuminate this remote and barren place.' In humble and self-effacing terms Kwŏn, his small ferry and the journey across the river appear to represent his attempt to reconcile the present diplomatic dispute between Ming and Chosŏn, while the oncoming waves and the large swell that make his ferry list so violently are symbolic of the broader river of events that flow through time. Acknowledging the gloomy ambience of the border town and the fractious nature of the medium between these two nations, Kwŏn appeals to heaven to illuminate this desolate place. This is both literal and figurative. He is also appealing for the emperor's influence to enlighten the dark corners of his realm. Sensing the urgency of resolving relations between Ming and Chosŏn, but more importantly wishing to convey his king's message to the emperor, Kwŏn rushes onward towards the capital.

Passing through Liaodong

On route to the capital, Kwŏn passes through the Liaodong peninsula and the poem he composed on this topic conveys a sense of optimistic caution. The caution comes from the underlying military presence in the area. He describes the towns as, 'marshalled like paduk [chess] pieces, spread out all robustly' with a military poised ready for action: 'Four horse chariots fearlessly wait for a sign from the locus of truth.' The military presence described in these few lines appears primed and prepared for action, again suggesting strongly that the Liaodong area, while under Ming control was far from peaceful and harmonious. Kwŏn's remarks here markedly contrast with Zhu Yuanzhang's poem on the same topic that describe watchtower bells rusting from lack of use and signal fires turning into earthen mounds. In Kwŏn's poem, rather than a state of transparent calm and peace, there is clear military presence and sense of readiness to strike out at any invasion.

Kwon's poem by no means dwells on the military presence with dread and fear. As though to breach the military tensions in this area Kwŏn explains that people nonetheless come from distant regions to cooperate with the Ming and enjoy good relations. He describes these people as 'yearn[ing] for righteousness and [to] nurture tribute.' Despite the military presence, when these people arrive they encounter a safe and jovial administration: 'check point officers rest and laugh, rejecting fine silks and all other silliness.' Further appealing to the common cultural history that Ming and Chosŏn share, Kwŏn writes that he feels happy and comfortable visiting Ming:

Fortunately now across the four seas we use the same writing and rules, it was most enjoyable journeying and seeing your great country's glory.

Kwon's poem certainly does not echo the peace and stability that Zhu's poem on the same topic attempts to portray. Kwŏn notes an underlying military presences and a readiness to action on the Ming front that contrast with the peaceful and amicable intentions of those who are coming from afar to work with the Ming. And as though to distinguish Chosŏn from others who visit, Kwŏn appeals to the common language both nations share so as to convey his sense of comfort in visiting Ming and that he and Chosŏn feel no threat from Ming.

Contested domains and neighbourly encounters

The exchange of poetry between Zhu Yuanzhang and Kwŏn Kun in 1396 reveals that the area between Ming and Chosŏn, namely the Yalu/Amnok River and the Liaodong peninsula, was a place of considerable consternation for both parties. It was an area that both nations understood as layered with historical and cultural meanings that stretched over centuries. It was where cultural influence ebbed and flowed across the porous landscape and control of the area shifted between nations and tribes of antiquity. The precarious nature of the area is strongly felt in the poetry of Zhu and Kwŏn and their pretensions to peace and harmony contrast with underlying military tensions in the region and suspicions of what chaos might lurk across the border. Zhu's poetry also imagines with some despair and concern how people and events must be fairing over the boarder in Chosŏn, hoping that events will lead to a peaceful state of affairs on the border. Kwŏn, in return, writes of the new Chosŏn regime, its promising and resplendent start, and its desire for peaceful relations with Ming. Looking at how Ming and Chosŏn through Zhu and Kwŏn's poetry understand each other we can see that both parties hold a degree of anticipation and anxiety towards each other and this is projected through physical and poetic landscape between them. The landscape that each uses to understand and interpret the other then becomes a domain through which they are attempting to mediate a shared desire for cooperation and peace.

Dane Alston is a PhD scholar in the Division of Pacific and Asian History of the Research School of Pacific and Asian History, The Australian National University.


[1] Korean: Kija.

[2] Zhou shu, juan 12. See also: James Legge, The Chinese Classics: The Shoo King, Vol. 3, p. 320 for a paraphrasing of this event in English.

[3] Shi ji, juan 38.

[4] Han shu, juan 28.

[5] See Sima Qian, Records of the Grand Historian, Han II trans. Burton Watson, Columbia University Press, 1993, pp. 225-230 for an English translation of Emperor Wu's conquest of Wieman Chosŏn. The Four Han Commanderies were established in the Liaodong and northern Korean territories and were called Lelang, Lintun, Xuantu and Zhenfan.