2006 Annual Meeting: Border-Crossing Sessions


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The Korean War of 1592-98 and Styles of Governance in Premodern East Asia

Organizer: Nam-lin Hur, University of British Columbia, Canada

Chair and Discussant: Ronald Toby, University of Illinois

Discussants: Ronald Toby, University of Illinois; John B. Duncan, University of California, Los Angeles

The Korean War of 1592-98 was, beyond a military showdown, a testing ground for the administrative strength of each country involved. In conducting the war, critical decisions had to be made and executed. Once these were put into practice, they merged (favorably or unfavorably) with the evolving fate of the war.

By presenting three papers -- each of which deals with China, Japan, and Korea -- this panel aims to compare each country’s administrative machinery and how it worked behind the scenes during the Korean War of 1592-98. Kenneth Swope asks how the Ming government came to dispatch a rescue force to Korea, and he focuses particularly on Emperor Wanli, who assumed the role of "father" of Choson Korea. Nakano Hitoshi examines the governing style of Hideyoshi, highlighting how his despotic leadership led to his own defeat. Nam-lin Hur, while paying close attention to the innate characteristics of politicking in Choson Korea, looks at how King Sonjo and his court weathered vassalage to China, factional politics, and the loss of a mandate to govern.

These three papers provide a cross-border comparison of wartime governance in China, Japan, and Korea, suggesting that this international conflict was an extension of domestic politics exacerbated by power politics and ideology.

Father Knows Best? Emperor Wanli and the Ming Intervention in Korea

Kenneth M. Swope, Ball State University

While historians have traditionally ascribed the Ming decision to intervene in the Imjin War (1592-1598) as being due to nothing more than callous self-interest, careful examination of the primary documents from the Chinese side reveals that this was not the case. In fact, Ming officials at all levels of the administrative hierarchy fiercely debated the pros and cons of going to war in Korea using both practical and moralistic arguments. The final decision to go to war on Korea’s behalf was made by Emperor Wanli (r. 1573-1620) himself after lengthy consultation with veteran civil and military officials, despite the fact that many of the empire’s best troops and commanders were already committed in other engagements in distant corners of the realm. Wanli’s decision was informed by reports he solicited from all over the Ming Empire as well as its tributary states such as Ryukyu and the Philippines. In choosing to fight the Japanese, Wanli effectively answered Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s (1536-1598) challenge to Ming hegemony in East Asia and reasserted, albeit temporarily, the primacy of the Ming in the East Asian world order. He also established a precedent later Chinese emperors would be forced to follow. Utilizing a wide variety of primary materials including communications between Wanli and his officials in the field, this paper will examine how and why the Ming decided to intervene and how this decision reflected the larger tensions and factional struggles taking place within late Ming government.

Hideyoshi’s Conduct of the Korean War of 1592-98

Hitoshi Nakano, Kyushu University, Japan

During the time of the Korean War of 1592-98 Japan was under the despotic rule of Hideyoshi. The magistrates who worked for his regime had their own administrative machinery, but their role did not go beyond transmitting his orders -- verbatim -- to the field generals.

How can we explain the despotic manner in which Hideyoshi conducted warfare -- the way in which he went against tradition? In order to do this we need to look at his life experience, which involved moving from being a low-rank vassal of Oda Nobunaga to being the undisputed leader of a unified country. During the course of Japan’s national unification, Hideyoshi always made key decisions on his own. When he launched his continental campaign, he originally planned to cross the sea and to command his troops in person. Although this plan did not materialize, he continued to function as a despotic leader and to decide upon all matters relating to the war.

However, due to communication lag between the battlefields of Korea and Hideyoshi’s headquarters in Japan, many of his orders not only turned out to be useless but actually caused a great deal of confusion. This innate deficiency of Hideyoshi’s command eventually resulted in Japan’s failure to achieve any of its war goals. In this paper I examine the chemistry of Hideyoshi’s leadership and show how it led to the failure of the war, which, in turn, led to the premature demise of Hideyoshi’s regime.

Politicking or Being Politicked: Wartime Governance in Choson Korea, 1592-98

Nam-lin Hur, University of British Columbia, Canada

The Japanese invasion of Korea forced King Sonjo’s court to reconfigure its system of government. Not only that, with the arrival of Chinese troops, the contours of Korean politics were further complicated. Given all this, how did King Sonjo manage to deal with his mandate to rule?

In approaching this question I examine three issues. First, in a situation where military leadership and truce negotiations were both delegated to the Chinese emperor, to what extent was the king able to assert his political authority? Second, the war situation crippled the decision-making process at the court as well as in the chain of administration. Factional disputes seemed to deepen, sometimes overriding sound military judgment. What role did the king play in all this and how were decisions made and executed? Third, while the government remained almost helpless, the people mobilized to defend themselves by whatever means possible. What did the heavenly mandate of the king mean to people who were left on their own? What role did the local leaders and literati play in wartime politics?

When the war was over prewar politics quickly revived: the king reclaimed his authority; the military was again subjected to civilian authority; and factional struggles swept through the political field. Against this backdrop of reversion to past habits, I explore the above three issues within the context of Choson politics and attempt to clarify what actually pushed the people and the country into this period of agony.