Long Reign of the Wanli 萬曆 Emperor 3. Korea

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.


The Imjin War: The Promise of Blood

(I must confess now, that what started as a single detailed chapter about the Ming expedition in Korea has now morphed into an extended multi- chaptered series about the Imjin War as a whole. So think of this short chapter about Korea as also the first chapter in a distinct series about the Imjin War. It will still serve to narrate the Wanli Emperor's role in Asia, and the relation between Korea, China, and Japan, but rather than a simpler narrative~ like that of Naresuan, it requires an ensemble cast and detailed exploration: But, if you know me, then you know that I am here to give you the exciting, the colorful, and the remarkable, with these promises, and without further ado: join me in the Imjin War.)

To the Ming, the fall of Korea came as a great surprise. Worse, it occurred simultaneously with the Siamese- Burmese struggles.

To the average subject of the empire, all they knew was that one of the many, many, many, tributary kingdoms on the peripheries of China, an eastern one ruling over a series of islands had sent their emperor a demand for his daughter's hand. That same blustering shameless upstart also had the audacity to want the emperor to give him "approval" that he would be called the emperor's equal and should thus have equal claims to the portions of China this stranger sees fit. Should the emperor refuse, they would do their utmost in pursuing their supposedly sound and just claim to a natural end. Even if it means utterly crushing the Kingdom of Joseon (Korea) that lies between them.

To the Koreans, the Joseon court also received demands that they must give free passage for this invading army, or else they too would face the most dire of consequences.

Needless to say when the Wanli emperor, his circle of advisors, and the Korea court heard this strange request all were soundly confused. They did not know if they should take it as a jest, an insult due from some unknown ancestral grievances, or simply the sender of the letter was stark mad.

Or more likely- and practically, it was a strong worded attempt so the upstart would project his macho bravura to his warrior comrades~ while simultaneously getting a better trade relation with China because of the sender's strong haggling. The Wanli emperor, and the Korean King Seonjo dismissed the letter as a joke and simply moved on to their other daily duties. But as the letter stated, there would indeed be consequences, for the sender of this letter knew exactly what he was getting himself into; the whole of Japan does.

After all, you really don't find that many people who had united all of Japan, and all of its samurais clans for the first time in 130 years.

The Wanli emperor had lived contemporaneous to the closing of the Sengoku Jidai 戦国時代, Japan's Warring States Era, where power slowly become polarized, and then finally become absolute at the hands of the most able generals.

The man that had sent the audacious letter was Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a peasant who rose through the entire social strata of feudal japan, and in his early days (as Newton puts it) had "stood on the shoulder of giants," For he gave his service to one of the most ambitious and ruthless Daimyo (samurai chieftains) of his age; Oda Nobunaga, whose swift conquests had ended a series of once seemingly immortal clans in a succession of stunning victories.

When Nobunaga died at the hands of one of his retainers, Hideoyoshi would seize power for himself and complete the subjugation of the various clans. He would unite all of Japan under one Shogunate for the first time since 1467. To strengthen his hold on power, he would elevate his lineage, the Toyotomi as hereditary Shoguns. For the first time in nearly 130 years, there was peace in the islands.

He would also cement Japan's form for the next 160 years. Japan would become a militarize feudal society where local power rested solely at the hands of the Daimyos. Social mobility (which he so enjoyed) would be forbidden entirely, in turn ushering a virtual caste system in Japan where one's station is solely due to his birth and barred by sumptuary laws from moving upward or in imitation of one's superiors. The peasants would now be wholly owned by their landlords~ the samurai clans and thus enserfed to them for life, their arms were confiscated, and they were (unless given permission) expressly forbidden from travelling among the provinces nor marry anyone of a higher station.

On the surface these restrictive measures seemed severe and unjust, but it did eliminate the main problem of his era: peasant rebellions would flare up, would snowball into organized armies headed by disenfranchised samurais, and would then proceed to burn, loot, and rape, spilling from one region to another. These three pronged reforms did as it intended, they gave peace to a land that had been at war with itself for over a century and half and contributed to the long stability of the succeeding Tokugawa Shogunate.

But despite these long aimed reforms, Hideoyoshi faced a more pressing problem: What do you do, when you have tens of thousands of professional warriors, who were bred to fight, so singularly trained for the art of war they were forbidden from farming or trading, and must, always, fight~ in a country at peace?

His answer, as you might have guessed, was to send them overseas.

The Long Peace

Japan at this time has a rather strange relationship with both China and Korea, for in the ancient days, Japans' contact with China and Korea had been solely through cultural exchange. Zen Buddhism~ which had originated in China would pass to Japan through Korea, as well as the model of a centralized Tang styled court. Tang painting techniques, architecture, sword smithing were also central to Japan's cultural identity, including literary classics that would inspire the words "Sengoku Jidai" 戦国時代, which means "The Warring States," an allusion to the "Warring States" period of Confucius and Sun Tzu's China.

So too are the nature of conflict between the three polities. The few excursions Japan had with Korea were largely indirect proxy wars that only tangentially involved them.

The Gaya Confederacy (Japanese) once support different Korean polities in Korean's civil wars, technically they were backing a native Korean polity. So too was Japan's relation with China. For~ no wars between the native Han population of China and Japan had occurred since their nearly whole millennial of history (as the Mongol Invasion of Japan, aptly named such, was borne from the Mongols who had enslaved the Chinese and Koreans to war on their behalf) A rare feat compared to the affairs of the Europeans. Even more significant is the fact the Han Chinese had almost 700 years of peace with the Koreans. Between the three polities, the only recent incidents of violence were only unofficial Wokou raids (Japanese ronin pirates) that plundered along the Chinese/ Korean coast, though this is definitely not sanctioned nor supported by the Japanese court. Before this time, hostility between Japan to the rest of Asia had never been a direct affair of "nations" or peoples.

For Korea, this long peace would contribute to a severely underdeveloped military, and a mostly Chinese inspired Confucian court where scholar- officials ruled while military men were looked down upon as agents of strife. Already, the Korean land army was no match against the Japanese, who had long perfected their own form of fighting in the 130 years of constant war.

Conversely, Hideyoshi's Japan had an experienced army, with an economy wholly devoted to warfare. Japan also had a huge field army that are equipped with modern muskets and arquebusses (1/4, a huge fraction in the 1590s,) they also had tens of thousands of veteran samurais that have been picked for this undertaking, and proven leadership among the generals.

All of these factors, the long peace, Korea's demilitarized society would be conducive to Japan's rapid advancements in the early stages of the coming war.

(For new posts in regard to the sudden Japanese landfall, the early Korean losses, and the Wanli emperor's contribution to the entire war~ please continue check out the whole new mini series: The Imjin War: Fall Like a Thunderbolt!)


Der said…
I'm just rereading your awesome Imjin War series.

I find it strange that the Japanese attempted virtually no intelligence gathering of their opponents in China or Korea, that they had no 'diplomatic service' to speak of, ... very strange. You would think in the Japanese 'warring states' would have produced something similar to the Chinese Warring States Period where spying, intelligence gathering, diplomatic maneuvering, etc, etc would be just as important, if not more so, than actual fighting and killing, after all, the purpose of good intelligence it to reduce to cost to your side in terms of casualties, etc. At least, didn't the Japanese read Sun Tzu ... the best battles are won without fighting, i.e. meaning fighting costly battles resulting in Pyrrhic Victories.

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