[KS] inquiry of Koryo period during the Yuan period

gkl1 at columbia.edu gkl1 at columbia.edu
Sun Dec 19 21:56:29 EST 2010

Junghee Lee asks a good question: Why does the name "Koryo" not appear  
on the Korean peninsula map displayed in the NY Metropolitan Museum's  
exhibition and accompanying book on the art and culture of the Mongol  
period in China? Its absence galled me too.

No doubt the Mongols probably had the general idea that Korea was  
theirs. From 1231 to 1259 they struggled without success to overthrow  
the Koryo state, which, with its governing institutions secure from  
assault on Kanghwa Island, maintained its weakened hold on the  
peninsula. In 1259 the Mongols succeeded in forcing the capitulation  
of King Kojong, and sending his eldest son and heir to Peking, where  
he was married to a Mongol princess and made to establish his  
household in Peking. Within two months Kojong had died, and the heir  
then returned to take the Koryo throne as King Wonjong (r. 1269-1274),  
while leaving his own son and heir in Peking in his own princely  
household with HIS brand new Mongol princess-wife. For almost a  
hundred years this process repeated itself. The uxorilocal matrimonial  
institution was a widely used strategy by the Mongols to keep control  
of conquered territories by keeping the heirs of their various rulers  
hostage in Peking, where they would grow up speaking both Mongolian  
and Korean and even assuming Mongol names. But in Korea, on the  
record, they kept the royal Koryo surname, Wang. As each king died or  
abdicated, his Mongolized heir and his Mongol queen would replace the  
preceeding royal couple. This situation continued until 1356, when  
King Kongmin militarily succeeded in expelling the Mongols from Korea.  
By that time they were a weak and dying regime.

So during all that time and through all those sucessions, the Koryo  
dynasty, through the suceeding male heirs to the throne, maintained  
its existence, and also the laws, institutions, and the Korean-staffed  
bureaucracy that governed Koryo. For a few decades in the late 1200s  
the northwestern area of the Korean peninsula had been formally  
annexed to the Yuan dynasty, but that was discontinued before the  
century ended. Cheju, earlier declared a direct Mongol holding, was  
also restored to Koryo around that time. Finally the Hamgyong coastal  
area was also Mongol territory throughout most the occupation, but  
those lands were recouped by King Kongmin in 1356. But from 1259 to  
1356, the Koryo dynasty existed and governed, and retained the key  
populated areas of the nation, though with Mongols watching the  
situation. Though the Mongols had the capability to seize the whole  
country, in fact they never did.

Even if Khubilai Khan, who after all was Emperor of Yuan dynasty  
China, had resorted to the Chinese tributary system to maintain a  
controlled relationsip with the Korean kingdom, that institution would  
still not have dissolved the Koryo state. For all of its embarrasing  
elements of superior-to-inferior relationships, its general purpose  
was to recognize such outlying countries and to relate to them using  
its power and prestige rather than its military to run them as Chinese  
colonies, while offering them peaceful access to China's markets and  
culture. From China's point of view, this offered much more stability  
than if they had tried to rule the smaller states themselves. And it  
was certainly cheaper than having to support armies to conquer and  
repress unhappy neighbors. Thus Korea, which for the Chinese dynasties  
of the last thousand years was considered the most important and  
highest ranking tributary in the system, actually had a practical  
interest in maintaining this relationship, with Korea remaining a  
Korean kingdom with a Korean king, governed by Korean laws and a  
Korean bureaucracy.

The relationship of China to Korea was very different than its  
relationship to some other nearby ethnicities. During the Qing  
dynasty, for instance, administration of the Korea relationship, and  
the tributary system in general, was the responsibility of the Board  
of Rites, while its relationship with many of its ethnic minorities  
and/or neighbors, such as the Uighurs, Mongols, and Tibetans, was  
administered by the Lifanyuan, an entirely different institution with  
different goals.

When one talks with ordinary Chinese people, one finds that they often  
have the idea that because Korea was a tributary state of China it was  
also a part of China. The fact that Korea in the dynastic days was a  
paragon of Chinese culture, Confucian values, and a master of its  
classical language might explain such impressions. But one wonders if  
they have not unconsciously assumed that all near neighbors are in the  
same category. But today China recognizes two Koreas and deals with  
them in terms of international protocol, while the situation with the  
Uighurs, Inner Mongolians, and Tibetans is still pretty much a  
continuation of the Qing dynasty.

Somehow, I imagine that someone, whether Chinese or an American  
specialist in Chinese art on the curatorial staff of the Metropolitan  
Museum, innocently enough, believes that Korea was once part of China.  
Although the Khubilai Khan show has only a couple of weeks to run, it  
might be nice if someone at the Met could put Koryo on that map. But  
in spite of the Met's gaffe, let me say that that show is a great one,  
and anyone in New York or close to it should visit it if at all  

I might add that the State Department still seems to think that North  
Korea is a tributary state of China and can tell it what to do and  
where to get off. It misunderstands China, North Korea, and the  
tributary system all three.

Gari Ledyard

Quoting "Dr. Junghee Lee" <dilj at pdx.edu>:
> Dear members,
> I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art yesterday and saw the Kubhlai
> Khan exhibition.  The map of Yuan dynasty in the exhibition shows that
> there was no Koryo dynasty and Yuan dynasty territory extends to the
> Korean peninsula.  Koryo was no where seen.  Is this correct? Best
> wishes,
> Junghee Lee

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