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Furnishing an Apt Response: Language, Interpretation, and Bureaucratic Knowledge in Early Modern Korea

Read Sixiang Wang’s research article “Chosŏn’s Office of Interpreters: The Apt Response and the Knowledge Culture of Diplomacy” here.

Sixiang Wang

University of California, Los Angeles

The Chinese ambassador, obviously inebriated, showed no signs of stopping. He called for one cup after another, both for himself and for his host, the king of Korea. At some point, the king, no longer able to keep up, quietly ordered his attendants to replace his drink with sweetened water. Though he could not understand the words spoken, the ambassador noticed something was amiss. Suspecting a trick, he requested that the king’s cup be exchanged with his own. The Korean court interpreter, P’yo Hŏn, asked for permission to bring the royal cup to the envoy. But when he was about to present the cup, he stumbled, spilling the entire contents of the cup over the floor. The king, feigning anger, scolded the interpreter for his failure to maintain decorum and ordered him to be dragged away from the banquet. After the Chinese ambassador returned to China, however, the king promoted P’yo, commending his ability to respond quickly to the circumstances.

What are we to make of this anecdote? The interpreter, by virtue of his quick-thinking, moved seamlessly between two realities. In the first, he had fallen from grace, accused of compromising the dignity of the Korean Court and offending the Chinese envoy. In the second, the interpreter cleverly steered the situation away from such impairment and saved the king from personal embarrassment.

While it was not mentioned in the royal chronicles or any official diplomatic account, the anecdote was recorded in the Compendium of the Translation Bureau, an official manual compiled in the eighteenth century by interpreters who served the Chosŏn dynasty of Korea (1392–1910). Among the regulations, chronicles, promotion policies, and rules of governance, the Compendium also included a section that honored the agency’s exemplary interpreters. Here, though, interpreter P’yo was not celebrated for his eloquent speech or his mastery of tongues but for his ability to furnish an “apt response.” Findings like these reveal that good interpreters required knowledge far beyond mere language learning. And it was findings like these that inspired me to look further into what sort of “knowledge” this was.

First page of the Vernacular Explications of Old Khitay (Nŏgŏldae ŏnhae 老乞大諺解, edition of 1670), a textbook for learning spoken Chinese with phonetic and semantic glosses in Korean script. Kyujanggak Archives, 2044 v.1–2. Image: Kyujanggak Archives.

Defamiliarizing Bureaucracy

The concept of bureaucratic knowledge, as developed by the “Histories of Bureaucratic Knowledge” working group, presented an ideal opportunity to pursue this question in a comparative perspective. Though Chosŏn’s court and its interpreters are often and without question contextualized within bureaucracy as a system, here, we sought to understand bureaucracy – Korean or otherwise – as knowledge.

Confucian statecraft, as widely adopted in early modern East Asia, is often hailed as an exceptionally sophisticated bureaucracy. Anyone trained to work with Chosŏn period sources will be acquainted with the vast body of compilations, chronicles, histories, literary works, and other materials published under court auspices. Thus, examinations, regular evaluations, ranks, roles, all governed by explicit rules and protocols that derive their authority from routine – or, in early modern East Asian parlance, guided by “precedent” (Korean: sŏllye/ Chinese: xianli) and conforming to “established models” (Korean: sŏngsik/ Chinese: chengshi) – are often viewed as consequences of this form of bureaucracy. For us specialists working within the field of Korean history, such characteristics often warrant no further explanation. Sometimes, however, this familiarity leads us to overlook important things. All the more so, because nothing comparable existed prior to the modern era. Here, then, the comparative lens given by the framework of bureaucratic knowledge, helped defamiliarize some of these once self-evident features of Chosŏn statecraft.

Looking Beyond Confucianism

Besides the Confucian statecraft tradition, there are some structural factors that may have helped such an institution to thrive and its bureaucratic mechanisms to persist. For instance, for about seven centuries, the period spanning the late Koryŏ (1200s–1392) and much of the Chosŏn period, Korea existed in a unipolar geopolitical environment. With one dominant power, whether the Mongol empire, the Chinese Ming dynasty (1368–1644), or the Manchu Qing empire (1644–1911), the bulk of Korea’s diplomatic attention could be dedicated to one large neighbor – a situation conducive to investing in a corps of specialists, who could devote their energies to managing that relationship.

Another important reason was the fact that Korea had to maintain a finite number of bilateral relations. In contrast, the complex, entangled mess of principalities, city-states, fiefdoms, and aspiring empires that characterized the Concert of Europe demanded flexibility from its many actors. In turn, they could not afford the deep, rigid institutionalization that we see in Korea. Thus, hasty arrangements to deal with the shifting political sands were not so much due to cultural preference as necessity: They were required for managing the vicissitudes of a multilateral system. That said, it would be a mistake to see bureaucracy simply as a result of geopolitical stability. Enduring bilateral relations, especially one exhibiting such extreme asymmetry as that between Korea and its imperial neighbor, come with their own volatility. And it is this volatility that Korea’s diplomatic bureaucracy was conceived to navigate and stabilize.

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