Long Reign of the Wanli 萬曆 Emperor 2. Siam

Siam and Korea

I have not often entertained the notion that the insignificant could be...somehow significant in great ways. But history had often proved me wrong on this.

History is if anything, full of ironies. A selfish, brash, and ruinous English King who would behead two of his wives- on paper would be one of those parables you tell that would crash his nation, yet each of his shortsighted, throw of the dice decisions would in the long run benefit his kingdom for centuries to come, would empower of all people, his daughter to be the most audacious English monarch. A world conquering barbarian King who had toppled hundred kingdoms, who calls himself "the Scourge of God" and subdued Rome itself would be turned back by a single Pope outside Rome and die of all things from from a nose bleed.

So too is the strange life of Ming Dynasty's Wanli Emperor. If we would contemplate Friedrich Nietzsche's words "What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end" then one'd find the opposite in this long lived emperor~ who started in austerity, in Ubermenschen and ended in debauchery. His purposeful neglect would be so reviled that five centuries after his death, a band of Red Guards would storm his tomb and drag his bones out to be denounced and then burned. They would hated him as the singular progenitor who had ruined China all the way into the age of atom bombs.

Yet he was a hero, seen as such by great heroes, by friends of China. One a besieged warrior king and another a tortured patriot who was so wronged yet so incorruptible he might as well be a Confucian parable. For~ when the Wanli emperor was able to be a hero to them, he did so diligently. I mentioned in my previous article if you know of Naresuan and Yi Sun Shin, then they definitely thought much of the "neighborly" Wanli emperor. Now you will know why, and perhaps you'll see how strange it is, the kind of anti-villain (anti-hero?) that helps heroes in their direst hour of needs.


Music: Itipiso Katha

Most of South Asia was shaped by the Buddhist nature of divine kingship. Strife and contentions between kings may be common but they were handled in a way that to would seem ritualistic to the modern observer. Conflicts revolved around becoming the supreme king among equals, around becoming the alpha at the head of the pack rather than around the destruction of ancient dynasties and ancient kingdoms, it was tributary, rather than nationalistic.


Think of it as long boxing tournament with many contenders, where upon the conclusion of the tournament, the final winner would be recognized as the undisputed champion by the rest of his defeated fellow contenders.

Now think of this translated politically, where each boxer would represent a King but now add + the ethnic group he leads. Each king, upon the realization of his defeat by a clear superior would voluntarily swear allegiance to the conqueror, and thus lead his own people to swear allegiance to the conqueror in obedience as well. Think of it as a politicized "winner gets all." The new winner would be acknowledged as supreme among his lessers~ who would in turn act as his vassals~ and their people the new vassal-subjects of the supreme King...but only for one life time. For the supreme king, the oaths of his vassals were only sworn to his personhood, and not to his dynasty or his kingdom, thus when great kings passed, the binding "contracts" of his vassals would be rendered insolvent, thus the game would be reset to restarted again.

Remember the famous line from "Game of Thrones?" "In the game of thrones you win or you die?" well, in this system, "In the game of thrones of southeast Asia, you win or you loose some of your treasury, a daughter in marriage, or a few cities, then you wait to start the game of thrones again." In this reality, power shifted laterally among a pool of equals. It is about getting as many clients as possible and be able to quickly overwhelm the game field.

Thus, unlike the post- 1648 European view, or the Classic Chinese view that the land = a set of boarders and the people within it- that any war made upon the people within the boarders is a challenge to the collective "nationhood" of such people. To the Southeast Asians, power and strife is much more fluid in this manner, it is between the kingly cores, while the lands between each core fluctuate according the the kings strength and prestige, it was called the "Mandala System," named after the halo of the Buddha,~ to the Chinese mind, it's as if each winner would spontaneously through his victory get the Mandate of Heaven, acknowledged by the other kings, thus gaining the subjugation of his contenders, or to the Japanese,~ immediate Shoguns over rival daimyos.

A quaint notion that conjures up the 18th century image of kingly understanding and voluntary submission in order to preserve the livelihood of the lowly people: civil and restrained, preserved in sportsmanship and consent. But the reality of such system was exactly the opposite: savage and unrelenting, and utterly destructive to the unprotected people of the lower classes.

The reality of this system is that war would be constant in this manner, so are the ethnic/ national boundaries that would shift radically every decade because of the endless "disagreement of Kings." For the lowly peasants and other minorities it was very easy to wake up one day and suddenly realize your land is now under another landlord of another kingdom, who could either charge you five times your previous rates, or you can pack up your entire clan and "go home to where you're from." Worse yet, if a pillage or a rape would happen to you and your kin, it won't be something they'd recognize, "after all, weren't our two people at war with each other? Who knows what might happen in these troubling times?"

Also, as Kings resided in the only fortified cities of this period: i.e the central cores of the kingdom, some of the long-living, century old dynasties are virtually ivory tower types that would let their entire people suffer outside the walls just to preserve their dynastic prestige. Sometimes for the conquerors to truly make a stubborn foe capitulate and recognize his superiority would mean to bleed the foe's whole people out to make him reasonable~ even if it meant the wholesale slaughter of them. As an ancient Thai truism goes, "when the elephants fights, it's the grass beneath who suffers."

What happened when this exact kind of stubborn prince refuses to kneel, even when surrounded on all sides by genocidal foes?


In the following account I will use Aythaiya and Siam interchangeably, know that both means medieval Thailand and the Thai people, while Tuangoo Empire signifies the many Burmese kingdoms and city states that are allied with each other.

In the middle of the 16th century the Kingdom of Ayuthaiya (Siam) was subjugated by the great Burmese conqueror Bayinnaung of the Tuangoo Dynasty, at the time the greatest south Asian polity that rivaled the power of even the Ming empire. Through savvy charisma and solid generalship, he was able to unite hundreds of divergent groups of people and dozens of kingdoms encompassing nearly all of SE Asia under his own brand of Burmese Kingship.

Though a disciplinarian at heart, credit was due to the Burmese King, in that he sees his conquest as purely a militaristic affair, and once a people voluntarily submitted to him, they would be a respected part of his empire, no more, no less, they would be his people to be treated with due dignity and left in their natural state~ as the ideal iteration of the Mandala System proscribed. When the relations between the Thais and the Burmese would further deteriorate in the ensuing centuries, the Siamese chroniclers would have declared that Bayinnaung had came like a king, the future conquerors like thieves.

Upon the great king's death, his cosmopolitan empire quickly succumbed to instability, for, as mentioned above, in the Mandala System, the vassals only pledged their servitude to the sitting King, not the dynasty, nor the empire as a whole. What had kept the massive Tuangoo empire together was not only the King's ardently drilled army, but also his charisma, and tough compassion. It was the sole reason that the empire was able to be born in such a state and expand so quickly in one lifetime.

However, just like how his conquests was the incarnation of the Mandala System's client- overlord relation, there also lies the internal flaws of the system, in that it was doomed to live no more than one stunning life time. As Bayinnaung had devoted much to rapid expansion and not meticulously breaking up the conquered dynasties and assimilate his many subjects to the Burmese way, each would be a potential threat to the future unity of his empire. To the many kept people and kept kings who had once sworn under him, the time to re- assert themselves is nigh. The Shan States, Ava, Lan Xang (modern Laos) and many other part of the empire rose in rebellion for independence. One such rebel was the young prince Naresuan of Ayuthaiya (Siam) who had served under the great king as a squire.


From childhood Naresuan had been kept in the Burmese capital as a hostage (a common good faith arrangement between vassals and overlords.) In the Burmese capital, the great king gave him one of the best military education in all of southeast Asia, one that blended traditional warfare with the deployment of cannons, elephants and massed cavalry. Naresuan was a good student, specially because of his natural athleticism and cunning, over the decades, the prince would serve in many campaigns on the great king's behalf.

But with the death of the great king, and the subsequent rebellions in the empire, Naresuan was summoned to the Burmese capital to lend military support against the rebels. Naresuan would follow suit, but because was slow in arriving, this raised the suspicion of Nanda Bayin, the new Burmese King. It was suggested that the Burmese soon ordered Naresuan killed lest he become another problem.

At the time there were already escalating rivalries between the Burmese and the Siamese. The Siamese had been the richest and most organized section of the empire. In fact Siamese support was so essential and so well organized that they constituted the physical center of the entire empire. They sat on the most fertile lands, the most fortified cities out of all the local kingdoms. Should they withdraw their support or become disobedient, the empire would not only loose its breadbasket, its trade center, but also the fivepoints for the empire's army to converge and maintain peace on the fringes. That, and the fact the Siamese were openly "modernizing" their army, fielding western muskets and cannons from the Portuguese. For the Burmese leadership, it was best to end the bud of the threat right then and there.

Weary of exactly such plots, Naresuan (who was still trapped within the Burmese hearlands) quickly took flight with his army, in his escape he conscripted as many Siamese as possible who served there.

In 1584, 3 years after the death of Bayinnaung, Naresuan stopped paying tribute to the Burmese, in a public ceremony, he would declare Ayuthaiya's formal independence from the Burmese. Predictably this triggered a vigorous two pronged attack which he was able to repel by fighting them piecemeal. Two years later, the Burmese King would personally lead a siege against the Siamese capital of Ayuthaiya, but would again be repelled by the young warrior prince.

In 1586, the young prince was able to capture the kingdom of Lan Na, and make it into a buffer state between him and the Burmese. These quick succession of early victories within just a few years sent a strong message to the neighboring states. The effects of these victories sent out ripples, and the many other vassals of the Tuangoo all took noticed of the empire's weakness. Nanda Bayin even at his best could only raise about 1/3 the forces his father once was able to field. Through these efforts, Naresuan was able to vigorously repel Burmese reclamation efforts and guarentee Ayuthaiya's independence.

When Naresuan ascended to Kinghood in 1590, he was a battle hardened veteran, already familiar with both statecraft and the arts of war. He was familiar to his people, familiar with the ways of his enemies, and within the lesser part of a decade, he had re- aligned the social political balance of southeast Asia. A betting man would have proclaimed that he had the making of a great king worthy of many other tributaries. Any betting man could also see that the century old way of the Mandala System was becoming something else entirely and now more like a duel to the death.

And speak of duels to the deaths~

in 1592, the Burmese would again invade, with a massive force, including three divisions that converged around the Three Pagoda Pass, which still stands as the border of Burma and Thailand today. According to Thai records, there, Naresuan would duel the son of Nanda Bayin in an elephant battle, where Naresuan would personally slay the princeling with his prowess.

From 1584-1592 Nanda Bayin would launch launch five successive assaults against the Siamese, for hundreds of miles, the Burmese would kill and enslave all they could find, scorched earth policy was instituted along whole western boarders of Ayuthaiya, by then the epic rivalry had long descended into a war of genocidal vendetta. But time and time again Nanda Bayin's invasion would be repelled, creating disastrous ripples that successively diminished the Nanda Bayin's powers in the eyes of his other vassals.

The Kingdom of Ayuthaiya after its initial victories, Red denotes the Tuangoo Empire. 
White dots signify powerful hostile vassals and city states.

But trouble, and the machination of enemies still threatens the young prince. These early victories would be threatened time and time again by a system of hostile alliances from the Burmese aligned polities. Longvek (Cambodia,) Bago (or Pegu, a Burmese Princedom,) and the capital city state of Tuangoo all yet motions in unison against Naresuan's early strides. Even the Spanish, who had been salivating at the opportunity to gobble up part of Siam as their own trade port joined in with this lot. Worse yet, strategically this hostile alliance is dotted all over the different cardinal directions of the Ayuthaiya kingdom. Should they strike in unison, the Siamese army would be out manned and outflanked. Naresuan would not, could not stop there.

In this bitter conflict, the invaders would be many, and they would undoubtedly come and come again from many directions in conspiracy. Aside from Spanish and Portugese guns, he was going to need foreign support from the undisputed Great Power of Asia. If he was surrounded by a pack of equals, he was going to need the 16th century equivalent of a Papal protection. Or more appropriately, Roman protection in classical antiquity.

In order to secure the true independence and legitimize his rule in the diplomatic circles of greater Asia, Nareuan applied for aid and recognition from the Wanli emperor of the Ming Dynasty~ as Siam had long been a tributary ally of the Ming. The Ayuthaiya Kingdom also traces its lineage to Chinese blood, as the founder of the dynasty, Uthong was said to be an ethnically Chinese merchant. He was also the progenitor who had initiated the alliance with Ming China two hundred years ago. As the centuries passed the Chinese are also the main traders in the region and had taken Thai wives because the scarcity of Chinese brides abroad.

Imperial aid was sent forthwith, and Athuthiaya was proclaimed a defensive ally of the Ming. This would guarantee Ming intervention on Ayuthaiya's behalf should they be invaded by their neighbors, the Ming would also supply the Siamese with supplies and relief through the Ming trading networks there. But most importantly the Emperor's imperial recognition cemented Ayuthaiya as the sole legitimate power in the native Siamese territories.

With this guarantee of protection, Naresuan got exactly what he wished, now his enemies are truly seperated and could not do him harm prematurely (especially the Burmese, who shared a long boarder with the Ming Yunnan territories and would be attacked in the flanks) Now, despite being surrounded, it is his foes that are cornered and divided by a common Siam. The alliance freed the warrior king to take them down individually while they can only watch in teeth chattering frustration as their army fall piecemeal~ that even if should by chance defeat the Siamese in the field, the Siamese could always retreat back behind a certain boundary that they were forbidden to pursue.

Better yet, those already not fond of the Burmese overlordship would be dissuaded from open hostility against the Siamese state, in this climate of clarity; all that's left for the warrior king are his enemies; and in times like that, he was able to focus on doing what he does best.

In 1593, he took the fight directly to the Tuangoo empire, putting Bayin Nanda on the defensive. Then he was also able to seize the entire south western coast of the Tuangoo empire and lay siege to the capital city of Tuangoo himself. In the decades to follow Naresuan would cement this legitimacy as the most powerful king in SE Asia by driving out the Burmese once and for all from all previously held Siamese territories. He would do exactly as the initiative afforded him, and shatter his foes one by one until whole fronts of eastern Siam were secure from threats for centuries to come.

In fact, the Siamese King was so pleased with the Ming aid and recognition that when Korea~ (another ally of the Ming) was invade by Japan in 1592,  he proposed that he would send thousands of Siamese warriors to invade Japan if the Wanli emperor wished.

This was politely declined, though a samurai vs war elephant battle somewhere in Korea does titillate my imagination.


The Tuangoo Empire under Bayinnaung in 1580 and the Ayuthaiya Empire under Naresuan in 1605

For the decades to come, Siam would preserve its sovereignty and eclipse the Burmese as a regional for nearly a century. Though Naresuan would die on campaign before he reached the age of 50, within just two and a half decades, he was able to reverse the fortune of a dying kingdom and transform it into a free, secure one able to hope for brighter future. More significantly, he was able to tackle head on against the greatest empire of SE Asia while being surrounded on four sides and replace it utterly within a generation. Who would knew after the spectacular victories of Bayinnaung, another great king would follow so quickly on his heels?

Even in dark times between those two anchors of security, the like of Naresuan would be followed by similarly warrior monarchs such as Taksin (who is of Chinese decent himself) who'd preserve Siam's integrity against many foes from many directions. For the centuries to come, Siam would be the sole regional power to successfully repel European imperialism, and maintain its freedom~ a legacy vigorously pursued by Naresuan- all the way into the 21st century.


I still wonder what war elephants fighting in Korea against Samurais looks like. But the story of Korea's struggle against the samurais are spectacular enough just as it was. Compared to the war in Siam, the Wanli Emperor would exert more influence in the Korean theater, stayed tuned for part 3. Korea/ and a whole new series detailing that conflict!


春秋戰國 said…
There was a series of border conflicts between Ming and Burmese around the same time as well.
Chaoticawesome1 said…
Indeed, mostly because of the instability of the Shan States. Ming expansion into Yunnan has weakened a lot of the local tribes so they ricocheted between the Ming and the Burmese rather like a pingpong ball. In my view rather like the Apache tribesmen when they are caught between the American/ Mexican boarder. Their foes may have fixed boarders but they hold allegiance to none but themselves and roamed as they wished between the two polities.

A good part of Bayinnaung's early career included crushing many of the Shan tribesman just so they would not constantly raid the Irrawaddy basin. In fact, he was credited as bringing the Shan territories into the Burmese fold.
Jayson Ng said…
Ayutthaya employs Japanese mercenaries. No need to imagine the Samurai fighting Elephants in Korea when they do it in Indochina (against the Burmese).
Chaoticawesome1 said…
I'm aware~ the Japanese expats in Siam lived in clusters of settlements called bangnippon (Japanese villages) and fought as samurais for assault missions. During the reign of Chairachathirat, Worawongsathirat, and Si Suda Chan they were quite important in repelling several Burmese attacks along with Portuguese elements.