Zhijun Ren

  • Fellowship year:2022-2023
  • University: University of Wisconsin - Madison
  • Dissertation Topic/Category: Early Modern East Asia
  • Dissertation Title: Envisioning the Early Modern Empire: Travel and Writing in Sino-Korean Relations
  • Between 1644 and 1894, Korean missions filled the roadways from Seoul to Beijing to fulfill their tributary obligations to the Qing empire. While serving as envoys, Korean scholar-officials toured China and generated abundant observations on the Chinese metropolises and borderlands. With their rich details in depth and breadth, Korean travelers’ encyclopedic and ethnographic accounts outshined their contemporary counterparts in early modern Eurasia. These travelogues have become collectively known as Yŏnhaengrok (Records of Journeys to Beijing). In my dissertation, “Envisioning the Early Modern Empire: Travel and Writing in Sino-Korean Relations,” I use these travel writings and diaries to reconstruct an order of
    intelligence and knowledge unique to the early modern East Asian world. While the existing literature has focused on how political, economic, and military intelligence informed the Korean decision-makers in the conduct of Sino-Korean diplomacy, I argue that by rediscovering and reinterpreting unconventional circles of information, it could be revealed how the Qing empire interacted with its tributary others were equally determined by anomalous information that appeared irrational and marginal to the modern minds.

    Both China and Korea prided themselves on meticulous documentation of court regularities and diplomatic activities. However, the profusion of official archives and bureaucratization of intelligence resulted in hindsight biases and allowed the official narratives to overpower individual voices. Scholars have noticed the private diaries and travelogues and used them to supplement occasional voids in the official records. Still, historians of Sino-Korean relations have seldomly paid adequate attention to what had been purged from the formal intelligence collecting and decision-making process. The unfiltered observations and unprocessed intelligence contained in the Korean travelogues and diaries shaped the initial information order between China and Korea; they were nonetheless screened out as unreliable historical sources and mere anecdotes in the later compilation of diplomatic documents.