Scholars often regard the Qing-Korean relationship as the most representative instance of the so-called tributary system, the Sino-centric hierarchical world order in early modern East Asia. It was also the most stable one, established in 1637 and ending as late as 1895 after the Qing’s total defeat in the first Sino-Japanese War. Precisely because this bilateral relationship was so typical and so stable, it was also unique in many ways. Although the Manchu regime largely inherited Ming China’s institutions in dealing with Korea (and, later, with other foreign states), this legacy revealed new meanings in the context of the Manchu conquest of China. As the Qing’s first and last subordinate state in the region, Chosŏn Korea served as both an ideological and a practical model in shaping the Qing’s geopolitical construction.
Beginning and ending with military clashes, the Qing-Chosŏn hierarchical relationship from the early 17th to the late 19th centuries was nourished and solidified by more peaceful interactions. Generally conducted under the Confucian zongfan (宗藩) principles, these interactions included rituals, diplomatic missions, trade, negotiations, cross-border jurisdiction, and cultural exchanges. Far from being imposed unilaterally by the Qing, the bilateral relationship was mutually constructed in a long process in which the Korean government and literati played a proactive role. During this time, the Korean attitude toward the Qing underwent a gradual change, from hostility to nuanced acceptance. In the late 19th century the two countries tried but failed to adjust their relationship in order to survive the geopolitical threat from industrialized, colonial powers. The collapse of the Qing-Chosŏn hierarchy eventually led to the rise of new national identities in both China and the Korean Peninsula in the 20th century.
During the 518 years of Korea’s Chosŏn dynasty (1392–1910), many things changed and many things stayed the same. After the Yi family established the Chosŏn dynasty, Confucianism became the dominant philosophy. Although Confucianism’s grip on Chosŏn weakened somewhat at the end of the 19th century, it nevertheless continued to provide the basic framework for how government officials and most of the educated elite conceptualized ethics, religion, nature, and technology. This changed when the Chosŏn dynasty was absorbed into the Japanese empire in 1910. Chosŏn-era science, technology, and religion operated within a Confucian framework. This affected astronomical, geographical, mathematical, and medicinal thought and practice. It also affected the role of technology in Chosŏn life and society. Moreover, when Buddhism, folk religion and, from the end of the 18th century even Christianity, were practiced in Korea, it was necessary to maneuver within constraints imposed by a Confucian state and society.
Korea’s Confucianism was imported from China. Koreans, however “Koreanized” what they adopted from China to make it their own. When dealing with religion, Chosŏn-era Koreans adopted a much harsher attitude toward non-Confucian religions. When dealing with science and technology, Koreans sometimes made improvements on Chinese models. For example, in the 15th century, Koreans built astronomical instruments that were better than those they had learned about from Chinese astronomers. And, in the 17th century, Koreans produced the most comprehensive encyclopedia of traditional East Asian medicine of pre-modern times. However, none of those changes threatened the hegemony of Confucianism. Chosŏn Korea remained Confucian in its science, technology, and religiosity for over five centuries.