Bongsa Joseon Changhwa Sigwon: Poems Exchanged by Joseon Officials and Ming Envoys

Essay by Seo Yunhee

Bongsa Joseon Changhwa Sigwon (Poetry Book Between Ming Envoys and Joseon Literati), 1450, Joseon Dynasty, Korea, ink on paper, 33 x 1600 cm (The National Museum of Korea, Treasure 1404)

Bongsa Joseon Changhwa Sigwon (Poetry Scroll Between Ming Envoys and Joseon Literati) (detail), 1450, Joseon Dynasty, Korea, ink on paper, 33 x 1600 cm (The National Museum of Korea, Treasure 1404)

Bongsa Joseon Changhwa Sigwon (Poetry Book Between Ming Envoys and Joseon Literati), 1450, Joseon Dynasty, Korea, ink on paper, 33 x 1600 cm (The National Museum of Korea, Treasure 1404)

Bongsa Joseon Changhwa Sigwon (Poetry Book Between Ming Envoys and Joseon Literati), 1450, Joseon Dynasty, Korea, ink on paper, 33 x 1600 cm (The National Museum of Korea, Treasure 1404)

In 1450, the thirty-second year of the reign of King Sejong, envoys from the Ming Dynasty came to Joseon to officially pronounce the ascension of Emperor Jingdi. The Ming envoys were received by a select group of Joseon officials, and the two groups exchanged poems that they had written and compiled especially for the occasion. Some of those poems are collected in this scroll, Bongsa Joseon Changhwa Sigwon (奉使朝鮮倡和詩卷, Poetry Scroll Between Ming Envoys and Joseon Literati).

The scroll includes thirty-three poems, along with two rhyming prose texts known as bu (賦): “Seoljedeungnubu” (雪霽登樓賦), written by Ni Qian of the Ming Dynasty, and “Hwaseoljedeungnubu” (和雪霽登樓賦), a response written by Shin Sukju of Joseon. The thirty-three poems include fifteen by Ni Qian; six by Jeong Inji (鄭麟趾); six by Shin Sukju; and six by Seong Sammun. Each poem is stamped with the seal of its author.

Written on the exterior of the scroll is the title: 明倪文僖公奉使朝鮮倡和詩卷 (Poetry Scroll Between Ming Envoys and Joseon Literati). Two other inscriptions on the cover—光緖乙巳重裝 and 唐風樓藏—indicate that the scroll was remounted in 1905 by Luo Zhenyu, an epigraphist of the late Qing Dynasty, who had his own library called Tangfenglou (唐風樓). Unrolling the scroll, the first text reads “奉使朝鮮倡和詩冊” (Poetry Book Between Ming Envoys and Joseon Literati) in seal-script calligraphy by the writer Wang Shuan, a contemporary of Ni Qian. Colophons by Tang Hanti and Luo Zhenyu of the Qing Dynasty can be found at the end of the scroll. In addition, six Korean art historians and researchers—Kim Sanggi (金庠基), Yi Byeongdo (李丙燾), Kim Dujong (金斗鍾), Yi Yonghui (李用熙), Jeon Hyeongpil (全鎣弼), and Won Chunghui (元忠喜)—added their own evaluations in 1958 after the handscroll was brought to Korea.

Very few materials from the early Joseon period have survived, making this scroll an important historical document for understanding Joseon’s diplomacy with the Ming Dynasty. Furthermore, since all of the poems were handwritten in the unique styles of the respective authors, the scroll is an essential resource for studying the calligraphy of the early Joseon Dynasty.

Bongsa Joseon Changhwa Sigwon (Poetry Book Between Ming Envoys and Joseon Literati), 1450, Joseon Dynasty, Korea, ink on paper, 33 x 1600 cm (The National Museum of Korea, Treasure 1404)

Bongsa Joseon Changhwa Sigwon (Poetry Book Between Ming Envoys and Joseon Literati) (detail), 1450, Joseon Dynasty, Korea, ink on paper, 33 x 1600 cm (The National Museum of Korea, Treasure 1404)

Beginning of tribute-investiture system between Ming and Joseon

Rising from the ranks of the general populace, Zhu Yuanzhang led the overthrow of the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) and became Emperor Taizu, founder of the Ming Dynasty. Being wary of foreign powers, Emperor Taizu was suspicious that Joseon maintained relations with the former Yuan people, who had been driven back into the area that is now Mongolia. Claiming that some of the terminology in Joseon’s diplomatic documents was disrespectful, the Ming emperor refused or detained Joseon envoys who attempted to cross the border. As a newly founded state, Joseon (established in 1392) sought to strengthen its legitimacy by gaining recognition and approval from the Ming, who were the strongest power in the region at the time. Although the Joseon Dynasty continually dispatched its envoys to Ming three times a year, Emperor Taizu remained steadfast in his refusal to accept them. Only after Emperor Taizu’s death in 1398 was Joseon able to establish an amicable tribute-investiture relationship with Ming, in accordance with the usual political practices of the time.

Significance of Ni Qian as leader of the Ming envoys

In 1450, a group of Ming envoys led by Ni Qian came to Joseon to officially pronounce the ascension of Emperor Jingdi. A year earlier, after the Ming were invaded by Esen Tayisi of the Oirat Mongols, Wang Zhen, a eunuch with great influence in the Ming court, had proposed that Emperor Yingzong should personally lead 500,000 troops on the counterattack. While leading the campaign, Emperor Yingzong was taken prisoner by the Oirat army, causing his brother to ascend to the throne as Emperor Jingdi, the seventh emperor of Ming.

Poems by Ni Qian and Seong Sammun, Bongsa Joseon Changhwa Sigwon (Poetry Book Between Ming Envoys and Joseon Literati) (detail), 1450, Joseon Dynasty, Korea, ink on paper, 33 x 1600 cm (The National Museum of Korea, Treasure 1404)

Poems by Ni Qian (right) and Seong Sammun (left), Bongsa Joseon Changhwa Sigwon (Poetry Book Between Ming Envoys and Joseon Literati) (detail), 1450, Joseon Dynasty, Korea, ink on paper, 33 x 1600 cm (The National Museum of Korea, Treasure 1404)

On December 13, 1449, a group of envoys led by Ni Qian, who was then serving as an expositor-in-waiting (侍講) of the Hanlin Academy (翰林院), and Sima Xun (司馬恂) left Beijing to deliver the official edict of the imperial accession. The group spent twenty-seven days traveling from Beijing to Liaoyang and twenty-one days traveling from Liaodong to Hanyang (present-day Seoul); then, after staying in Hanyang for twenty days, they returned to Liaodong in fourteen days. Ni Qian wrote his account of this trip as Chronicles of Travel to Joseon (朝鮮紀事), published in 1469 as the third volume of The Liaohai Compilation (遼海編). The first and second volumes of The Liaohai Compilation include Ni Qian’s poems about the landscape and his impressions from the round-trip between Beijing and Hanyang. In the third volume, which takes the form of a journal, Ni Qian recorded his day-to-day experiences on the journey, beginning from Liaodong on January 10, covering his stay in Hanyang, and concluding with the return to the Amnokgang River on February 3. By collectively examining all three volumes, we can reconstruct the full trajectory of the Ming envoys’ travels. Bongsa Joseon Changhwa Sigwon includes some of the poems that were exchanged after the Ming envoys arrived in Hanyang and visited the shrine of Confucius inside the Royal Academy on their return to the Amnokgang River.

Praised by his colleagues as a scholar of the highest order, with expertise in Confucianism and literature, Ni Qian was the expositor-in-waiting of the Hanlin Academy and the closest advisor to the emperor. Based on such skills and knowledge, he was chosen to lead the Ming envoys on the important diplomatic mission to Joseon. Prior to Ni Qian, most of the Ming envoys who had been sent to Joseon were eunuchs, who had typically been very aloof, and sometimes even tyrannical, in their dealings with Joseon. Thus, the Ming’s decision to send a revered literati scholar was greatly welcomed by Joseon. Upon receiving the news that Ni Qian would be coming as an envoy, the Joseon royal court assembled its own best literati scholars, such as Jeong Inji, Shin Sukju, and Seong Sammun, to received the Ming diplomats.

Poems by Ni Qian and Jeong Inji, Bongsa Joseon Changhwa Sigwon (Poetry Book Between Ming Envoys and Joseon Literati) (detail), 1450, Joseon Dynasty, Korea, ink on paper, 33 x 1600 cm (The National Museum of Korea, Treasure 1404)

Poems by Ni Qian (right) and Jeong Inji (left), Bongsa Joseon Changhwa Sigwon (Poetry Book Between Ming Envoys and Joseon Literati) (detail), 1450, Joseon Dynasty, Korea, ink on paper, 33 x 1600 cm (The National Museum of Korea, Treasure 1404)

Joseon scholars welcome Ni Qian

As members of the “Hall of Worthies”(集賢殿), Jeong Inji, Seong Sammun, and Shin Sukju were highly favored by King Sejong. At the time, Jeong was fifty-five years old, Shin was thirty-four years old, and Seong Sammun was thirty-three years old, while the Ming envoy Ni Qian was thirty-six years old. After crossing the border into Joseon, Ni Qian composed several poems about his journey, but he did not exchange these poems with the Joseon officials until the group visited the shrine of Confucius at the Royal Academy. Records indicate that the Ming and Joseon scholars exchanged poems several times during the visit. At first, the two groups used the poems to subtly compete and feel each other out. Soon enough, however, they began to feel true affection for one another, as well as deep literary and personal respect. Indeed, when it came time for the Ming envoys to depart, both sides shed tears of sadness. According to Seong Hyeon (成俔) in Assorted Writings of Seong Hyeon (慵載叢話), Ni Qian particularly admired Jeong Inji, telling him that “one night of conversing with you is better than ten years of reading books.” But Ni Qian also felt deep love for Shin Sukju and Seong Sammun (who were close to his own age), such that the three established an official “Brotherhood Relationship.”

Bongsa Joseon Changhwa Sigwon (Poetry Book Between Ming Envoys and Joseon Literati) (detail), 1450, Joseon Dynasty, Korea, ink on paper, 33 x 1600 cm (The National Museum of Korea, Treasure 1404)

Bongsa Joseon Changhwa Sigwon (Poetry Book Between Ming Envoys and Joseon Literati) (detail), 1450, Joseon Dynasty, Korea, ink on paper, 33 x 1600 cm (The National Museum of Korea, Treasure 1404)

Bongsa Joseon Changhwa Sigwon: beginning of “Hwanghwajip”

This scroll marked the beginning of the tradition of “Hwanghwajip” (皇華集), which was the practice of compiling and publishing poems that had been exchanged between Joseon officials and Ming envoys. Prior to this group of envoys, Ming had usually delivered its royal edicts to Joseon through eunuchs who had been born in Joseon, who served solely as messengers. Starting from the reigns of Emperor Jingdi and King Sejong, however, Ming began sending civil officials who were well-versed in literature and Confucianism. Starting from Bongsa Joseon Changhwa Sigwon, twenty-four volumes of “Hwanghwajip” poems were published over a period of about 180 years, concluding in 1633. Then in 1773, King Yeongjo ordered that all of these publications be compiled and republished as a new anthology of “Hwanghwajip,” consisting of twenty-five volumes.

Poetry exchanges: the literary pride of Joseon and Ming

In addition to forging friendships between individual scholars, the poetry exchanges played a crucial role in demonstrating the depth and quality of Joseon culture, and thus elevating Ming’s opinion of its neighbor. Indeed, Ni Qian was very impressed with the nobility and sophistication of the Joseon scholars’ reply to his poetry, which helped to lay the foundation for the friendly relations between the two countries. By regularly welcoming Ming envoys with luxurious tribute goods and recruiting gifted officials to participate in the poetry exchanges, Joseon built a strong relationship with the Ming, which lasted until the latter’s fall in 1644.

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Cite this page as: The National Museum of Korea, "Bongsa Joseon Changhwa Sigwon: Poems Exchanged by Joseon Officials and Ming Envoys," in Smarthistory, March 10, 2023, accessed April 13, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/bongsa-joseon-changhwa-sigwon-poems-joseon-officials-ming-envoys/.