Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Sadae: Attendance to the Great

King Taejo
"A shrimp among whales."

This saying has defined Korea's position in East Asia. Korea had been and has been surrounded by large and great powers of China and Japan. Korea was always in danger when the two countries would engage in war. To survive and remain independent, the Koreans had to rely on diplomacy and getting a strong ally - attending to a greater power - in order to survive. And this idea became the core of the traditional diplomacy of old Korea known as Sadae.

What is Sadae?

Sadae, meaning “attendance to the great”, was the old traditional diplomacy of Korea with China. With the influence of Neo-Confucianism idea of relation between the young brother and older brother, Koreans back then recognized themselves as the younger brother of the older brother China. This traditional diplomatic relations dated back during the time of the Unified Silla, when the Tang Chinese aided them in unifying the fragmented Korean Peninsula. However, Sadae only became a formally recognized diplomatic doctrine during the Chosun/Joseon Dynasty, from the 14th-20th century. Yi Songgye or King Taejo gave the name Sadae to this traditional diplomacy. During at the start of his reign, he needed to legitimize his rule after his coup by being recognized by the superpower Ming China. He then sent missions to China in order to attain that recognition.

As part of the special relations between the two countries, the Joseon court sent regular tribute missions to pay homage to the Emperor. There were four regular of these missions. The first was during the Hajongsa or the New Year. The second was during the Emperor’s birthday or Songjolsa. The third was during the birthday of the crown prince or the Chonchusa. Lastly, a mission sent during the winter solstice or Tongjisa.

Sadae During the Imjin War

The effects of the Sadae can be best illustrated during the Imjin War. Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the leader of Japan, wanted to invade Asia. But to do so, must first have a stepping stone, which was Korea. In 1593, the Japanese army attacked Korea. The Koreans then requested for the aid from its big brother China. China, knowing that its own security was at stake, assisted Korea. Eventually the two successfully drove out the Japanese and thwarted any plans of an Asian empire of Hideyoshi.

The Fall of Ming Dynasty

Sadae was once again put on the test during the time when the Ming Dynasty fell in the hands of the barbarians - the Manchus. When Emperor Hong Taiji already established himself as the Emperor of China, he wanted the Koreans to recognize him as the new big brother. A split however formed in the Joseon court. One side wanted to maintain the Ming Dynasty as the sole legitimate ruler of China. Another side wanted otherwise. In the end, the faction that supported the Ming Dynasty won. The decision of the Joseon court angered Emperor Hong Taiji. The Emperor showed that he and the Qing were now the new major power in the region. With his 100,000 strong army, he marched down to the Joseon capital, Hanyang (now Seoul). The Joseon King Injo was force to retreat to the fortress of Namhansanseong. The Qing Army besieged the King. When all hope was lost, King Injo humiliatingly surrendered to the Qing and accepted the terms of Korea being a tributary of the Qing China.

The special relation began to weakened during the 19th century, when the West and the neighboring powerful Japan began to encroach in Korea. The West and Japan humiliated China in several wars, including the First and Second Opium War and the Sino-Japanese War. But it was during the Sino-Japanese War when the status as tributary of Korea ended as part of the signed Treaty of Shimonoseki between Japan and China in 1895. From then on, China’s influence to the Joseon Court tremendously waned and replaced by the Japanese who would eventually occupy and end the dynasty in 1910.


The time when Korea sees itself as a client state ended in 1910, but its relation with China continued to be important and strong. Today the close relation between China and Korea continued to this day. The issue of North Korea made Korea to give important to its relation with China. It further became vital when China became an important market for Korean good, making the signing of a free trade agreement between the two countries as a milestone. Furthermore, Sadae also resulted to great arrival of Chinese culture to Korea. Hence, China is and will continue to be an important partner of Korea. 

See Also: 
Sunshine Policy

Kim, D. The History of Korea. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2005. 

Lee, K. A New History of Korea. Massachusetts: Published for the Harvard-Yenching Institute by Harvard University Press, 1984.

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