Chinese embassies to Korea

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The Chinese Imperial Court frequently communicated edicts, orders, information, or other sorts of official communications to the royal court of Joseon Dynasty Korea. During the first century or so of the Qing Dynasty, such communications were almost always carried by formal embassies dispatched from Beijing; however, beginning around the 1730s, such materials began to more frequently be entrusted to Korean envoys returning home from a formal tribute mission to China.

Imperial edicts or orders were generally received in Korea once a year; between 1645 and 1735, these communications were carried by Chinese missions more than 90% of the time, but from the 1730s on, this duty became entrusted more and more frequently to returning Korean envoys. In the period from 1736-1765, only about 87% of these messages were carried to Seoul by Chinese envoys, and after 1820, the percentage drops down into the 20-40% range, with the remaining 60-80% of imperial orders and edicts being conveyed to the King of Korea by his own returning Korean envoys.

In total, over the course of the 245-year period from 1636-1880, 169 official embassies of this sort were dispatched from Beijing, with the messages being entrusted to returning Korean envoys 78 times. Averaging out the figures for the entire period, therefore, roughly 32% of orders & edicts were entrusted to returning Korean ambassadors rather than by a Chinese mission.

Such Chinese missions, when they were sent, generally consisted of a lead envoy, a deputy envoy, two chief interpreters, two minor interpreters, and eighteen other followers. As in Ryûkyû, preparing a proper reception for Chinese Imperial envoys was an elaborate affair, and a significant financial expense for the Korean court. A temporary commission was established within the Korean court to prepare for the reception each time such an embassy was announced, and reception committees established at roughly five locations along the way between Beijing and Seoul, to greet the Chinese envoys along their journey and to fete the envoys. The Chinese envoys generally only stayed in Seoul a short time, but enjoyed multiple banquets and a formal audience with the king during their brief stay. The court also offered sizable gifts to these Chinese envoys, to be brought back to their emperor; even late in the Qing period, when the amounts had declined considerably, a Chinese embassy was still often given thousands of rolls of textiles, and roughly 20,000 taels of silver, along with some portion of skins, mats, paper, tobacco, pipes, knives, fans, medicines, food, artworks, books, and the like. In total, the Korean court gave roughly four times as much in gifts to Chinese embassies as its own embassies received when presenting tribute in Beijing. Chinese envoys also engaged in a small amount of personal and official trade while in Seoul, often paying less than desired for their purchases, a source of frustration for the Korean court.

Altogether, including travel expenses, lodging and banquets, and gifts, the reception of a Chinese embassy could cost the royal court as much as 230,000 taels, or 1/6th of the entirety of government expenditures for the year. By contrast, the Chinese Court generally spent around 80,000 taels on the travel expenses and reception of a Korean embassy. Despite this incredible expense on the part of the Korean court, however, this amount did not represent considerable gains for the Chinese Court, which presided over a truly massive economy.


  • 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.
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