A Chinese Traveler in Medieval Korea

Xu Jing's Illustrated Account of the Xuanhe Embassy to Koryo

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Sem Vermeersch
Robert E. Buswell
Sem Vermeersch
Korean Classics Library: Historical Materials
  • Honolulu, HI: 
    University of Hawai'i Press
    , April
     400 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In A Chinese Traveler in Medieval Korea, Sem Vermeersch presents a critical English-language translation of a rare Koryŏ-era text: Xu Jing’s Illustrated Account of the Embassy to Koryŏ in the Xuanhe Era (Xuanhe fengshi Gaoli tujing). Vermeersch begins his work with a comprehensive background of both the titular embassy—a mission from Song China to Koryŏ Korea in 1123—and the accompanying account, including the sociohistorical and literary contexts from which they respectively emerged. On the one hand, he argues, the entire endeavor reflects the latest addition to an established tradition of formal encounters between the Song and Koryŏ, as well as the ways in which they were typically recorded or recounted by Chinese scholars (12-24, 25-32, 52-53).

At the same time, however, the Illustrated Account represents something new: a local gazetteer (tujing) reimagined for the translocal level (28-29). And it is ultimately through this literary innovation that Korea is constructed as not only a “satellite state” of the Song, but also a necessarily promising candidate for vassalage in the face of the encroaching Jurchen Jin (23-24, 53).

Unfortunately, relatively little information has survived about Xu Jing, the author of the Illustrated Account. A biography appended to the original work states that he was born in Hunan in 1091 and exhibited an almost innate proficiency in calligraphic writing as a youth (3, 252-53). Despite this “unusual aptitude” for knowledge, Xu gained a reputation as a man of action, one that likely contributed to his eventual appointment to the embassy to Koryŏ in 1123 (3-4). His official position of assistant general secretary (tixiaguan) may have been a unique addition to this particular mission, but brought with it a significant amount of responsibility and prestige; according to Xu, he was the fourth ranking official in the embassy and tasked with the maintenance of “ritual protocol” upon his arrival in Kaesŏng. Although it is probable that the composition of the Illustrated Account lay outside of the scope of Xu’s official duties, it nevertheless contributed to a rapid series of promotions after his return to China. However, the invasion of the Jurchen Jin in 1126 led to his subsequent demotion and withdrawal from courtly life and Xu Jing spent his last several decades serving as the caretaker at a series of Taoist monasteries (5).

The Illustrated Account itself provides an unparalleled glimpse into life at the height of the Koryŏ Dynasty. Unlike earlier “embassy accounts”—or “conversation transcripts” (yulu)—Xu Jing’s record represents a systematic attempt to catalogue numerous elements of social and material culture in both the capital city of Kaesŏng and the Korean peninsula, as a whole (26-28). The account thus comprises forty chapters, twenty-eight themes, and just over three hundred subject headings. As Vermeersch points out, only around half of the chapters are devoted to events directly related to the embassy, such as its nautical journey from China and reception in Koryŏ (33-34). The remainder cover a range of topics intended to encompass the entirety of Korean history and society: the mythical origins of the Koguryŏ and subsequent dynastic lineages; religion; the lives of “common people,” women, and servants; everyday customs; the structure and dress of military units; and the layout of Kaesŏng, among a handful of others (63-69, 80-95, 110-17, 141-62).

Of course, the breadth of the Illustrated Account is not entirely unproblematic. Many of the aforementioned sections are brief and offer only superficial descriptions of complex issues or activities; in some cases, they actually receive far less attention than other topics of seemingly lesser significance. The passage on archery, for example, spans only a single paragraph in a short chapter on weaponry, which in turn receives approximately the same amount of space as the subsequent chapter on flags and pennants (118-23). Other entries reflect a paternalistic attitude toward the people of Koryŏ, typically by beginning with a formulaic comparison praising them over other barbarians (63, 72, 96, 100, 105, 110, 151). Further still, Xu occasionally openly derides his hosts by describing them as “[lacking] a sense of gratitude,” ignorant of “law and propriety,” and “depraved, superficial, and flimsy” in their attempts to observe Chinese-style customs (145, 154).

And while none of these trends are surprising, especially considering the idealized “fiction” of the tribute-investiture system or Xu’s own admission that he only left his lodgings “five or six times,” they effectively highlight the limitations inherent in the production of a localized sociohistorical record by a non-native source (11-12, 34).

That being said, the existence of such biases ultimately proves more instructive than obstructive. According to Vermeersch, the Koryŏans were not simply passive recipients of Song diplomatic efforts, but rather active participants in the construction of a particular narrative. They were keenly aware of their position within a broader history of formal political and cultural contact with the Song (and its predecessors), and consequently sought to use these ingrained prejudices to their advantage. As a result, the Illustrated Account provides insight into not only the Chinese perception of Koryŏ, but also the Koryŏan effort to “manipulate the Chinese gaze” by deploying the entire diplomatic system to their own advantage (53-54).

It is for this reason that Vermeersch’s A Chinese Traveler in Medieval Korea stands as a significant contribution to the field. Although the subjects at hand (i.e., Koryŏ Korea and the Illustrated Account) are comparatively niche, the volume’s extensive introduction and critical translation are both extraordinarily accessible. The latter itself would be particularly well suited as a primary source for undergraduate introductions to Korean or Chinese history, not least because of its sheer scope and intriguing foci. Furthermore, it could most certainly serve as a topic for intensive graduate-level study. In either case, Vermeersch deftly fills a lacuna in English-language scholarship on Koryŏ Korea, and provides future generations of scholars and students with a solid springboard for continued research.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Darian Shump is a graduate student in East Asian Languages and Cultures (EALC) at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
June 29, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sem Vermeersch is associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies, Seoul National University, and the author of The Power of the Buddhas: The Politics of Buddhism during the Koryŏ Dynasty (2008).

Robert E. Buswell Jr., Distinguished Professor of Buddhist Studies in the UCLA Department of Asian Languages and Cultures, is the Irving and Jean Stone Chair in Humanities at UCLA, and the founding director of the university’s Center for Buddhist Studies and Center for Korean Studies. From 2009-2011, he served concurrently as founding director of the Dongguk Institute for Buddhist Studies Research (Pulgyo Haksurwon) at Dongguk University in Seoul, Korea.



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