Welcome to the World Wide Web Home page of Road to East Asia
Written by students of FC1750.06
at Founders College, York University
Vol.2, no. 2, January-February, 1997
Traditionally, Sinocentric ideology had a strong impact on most East Asian nations. China describes itself as the Middle Kingdom with its people and culture at the center of the Earth and used to dismiss its neighbors as barbarians. It adopted a policy of assimilating these uncivilized peoples into its culture. As a matter of fact, the Chinese do have an old, sophisticated civilization and plenty of fertile land.
China was not interested in territorial conquests. Instead, they forced adjoining countries to pay tribute and defended themselves against all potential invaders. The Great Wall, for instance, shows their insular attitude toward foreign cultures. When British envoy Sir Macartney tried to establish special ties with the Qing Dynasty, Emperor Qinlong told him that China did not lack anything as many countries were eager to send all sorts of luxury goods as tributes (Behr, 1988). Beijing was only interested in a principal-subordiante relations with its neighbors such as Vietnam and Korea.
The most loyal followers of this Sinocentric ideology were the Korean ruling elites themselves who highly respected the Chinese culture. This attitude could be attributed to the system of selecting government officials. The successful candidates, screened by state examiantions, had to demonstrate a mastery of traditional analyses of various Confucian scriptures. Confucianism was also a way of life for most Koreans, who emulated the Chinese, and the Middle Kingdom described Korea as a "miniature China."
As for the Japanese, they were deemed uncivilized by the Chinese. When the Ming Dynasty was defeated by the Manchus, the Korean elites changed their attitude toward China and began to develop respect for their own culture. Although they bowed to the Qing Dynasty, the Koreans viewed the Manchus as barbarians.
Yet it is true that Korea enjoyed a relatively highly level of culture and played an important role as a conduit of continental civilization for China's neighbors, especially Japan. Despite its policy of isolation, Korea opened some limited routes for trade to the Manchus before they became the rulers of China, and to the Japanese. Through trade, Japan learned from the Koreans and became well versed in the Chinese culture.
However, the Japanese also harbored territorial ambition because they are islanders (Lee, 1987). Fishery has been their major source of livelihood. If they failed to get enough catches, they resorted to piracy and pillage. As Korea provides the fastest route to China by land, Japan's first targets were the Korean coastal towns. In 1592, Japan invaded Korea under the pretext of borrowing a short cut to China. During the Japanese occupation, Korea served as an outpost for transporting goods and manpower to the mainland.
The fate of Korea originated from its submission to the traditional Sinocentric order. It was so strong a belief among the Koreans that their world view was limited. By contrast, the Japanese widened their contact beyond East Asia and made strenuous efforts to develop themselves. Furthermore, promxity to China and Japan relegated Korea to an unfortunate position of a tributary to China and of an occupied territory to Japan in the early twentieth century.
The story of "Kapitan Lee" reflects the turmoil in modern Korea. The difference is that Dr. Yi demonstates a personal struggle for survival while the history of Korea documents its fight for nationhood and sovereignty.
Behr, Edward. The Last Emperor. Seoul: 1988.
Kwangyong, Chon. "Kapitan Lee." Flowers of Fire: Twentieth- Century Korean Stories. Ed. Peter H. Lee. University of Hawaii Press, 1974, 1986, pp. 319-347.
Lee, Won Bok. Far and Neighboring Countries. Seoul: Korea Garden, 1987.
Suh, Hyun Sub. Japan Exists. Seoul: Korea Garden, 1994. (The original data are in Korean.)
Copyright © 1996 by the author. Information from this article should be attributed to the author.