Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds So in 1592, a few years after the Spanish Armada failed spectacularly to invade England, an equally large Japanese armada arrived off the southeast coast of the Korean peninsula down in Pusan. It was the beginning of a massive conflict that engulfed Northeast Asia, a conflict known today in Korea is the Imjin War. In our MOOC we’ll be referring to it as the Black Dragon War, because that’s what Imjin means. It refers to the year 1592 when the Japanese ships first arrived using the old calendar, the 60 year calendric system that Chinese and Koreans used for millennia to count the years.
Skip to 0 minutes and 50 seconds That’s where our course starts, with this war that revealed a great deal about the East Asian order, one of the main topics of our study for this week and next week, and also revealed a lot to us about the Sino Korean relationship. Japan’s goal was not just to invade and occupy the Korean peninsula, it was to directly challenge in even overthrow the Ming Dynasty. And to understand why that was their goal we need to step back and look at the Ming as a whole and where it stood in the East Asian order as of the late 16th century. The Ming dominated Asia in a way that’s hard for us to imagine.
Skip to 1 minute and 28 seconds Maybe we can imagine as we move into a future where China has risen back to its position of preeminence. It was the dominant economy in this region and some historians would argue the dominant economy in the world. There’s an interesting group of world historians who now describe China in the late Ming as the economic engine of the global economy, such as it existed in those early modern days. And certainly we know that traders from as far as Spain and Portugal where frantically seeking better access to the Chinese market from their trading outposts in Manila and Macao.
Skip to 2 minutes and 7 seconds They were bringing silver that they had mined from their possessions in the New World and using that to buy Chinese goods of all kinds, especially high end goods like porcelains and silk. And so that trade from China via the New World back to the old world of Europe was something that was pulling together sort of the origins of a global economy. And in many ways the Ming dynasty was at the centre, the engine of that growth.
Skip to 2 minutes and 37 seconds If you look at other factors like religion and culture, similarly we see Europeans, European missionaries for the first time in this same period in late 1500s arriving in China and trying to make an inroad where they could convert 100 million Chinese souls to Christianity. The most famous story being that of the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci who was spending 1580s and ’90s trying to reach Beijing, trying to reach the emperor, the Wanli emperor of the Ming Dynasty, thinking if he could convince the emperor to convert to Christianity it would trickle down to the rest of the Chinese masses.
Skip to 3 minutes and 16 seconds So this order was an economic order, it was a political order where the Ming dynasty was stronger than any other neighbouring power, and it was even a kind of cultural order where Europeans were coming from the other side of the world and actually being influenced by Confucianism rather than converting the emperor to Christianity. That was the order that Japan and its new leader Hideyoshi was trying to challenge. And the route that they took to challenge that order was via the Korean peninsula. So another critical feature of the 16th century world was Confucianism.
Skip to 3 minutes and 52 seconds And that’s something we’re going to be talking about for much of our course because it was also a big part of the bond between traditional China and Korea. And if we look at the Ming dynasty and its history, immediately we see the Confucian influence. The founder of the Ming was actually briefly a Buddhist monk, but after he created this state in the 14th century, in 1368, he quickly restored traditional Confucian government structures and practices. So the emperor from his family the Zhou family from the Ming founders family, would run this vast empire through a sophisticated bureaucracy of scholar officials who were recruited via written examinations. And this is something known as the Civil Service Examination System.
Skip to 4 minutes and 42 seconds Once you passed the highest level of examinations held every three years in the capital, then you could hope to get a bureaucratic appointment. At the top that bureaucracy were six ministries. And these ministries governed the kingdom according to Confucian precepts and values. Now Korea was a Confucian monarchy as well. And this is one of the critical features that the two countries shared. Korea was then Joseon dynasty. Joseon had been established almost exactly 200 years before Japanese ships arrived, back in 1392. So that’s some decades after the Ming.
Skip to 5 minutes and 21 seconds Joseon was established by a general in the proceeding Goryeo dynasty here in Korea who was ordered to go invade the young Ming dynasty, but had a change of heart, turned around and instead ended up overthrowing the Goryeo and establishing Joseon. The very name for the dynasty, Joseon, was first asked for approval by the Ming emperor in Beijing, which is a sign of how deep and intimate the relationship was between these two Confucian monarchies that had a sort of elder brother, younger brother relationship through the two centuries leading up to the moment when our story really gets started with the Black Dragon War.
Skip to 6 minutes and 6 seconds So these were the perfect Confucian allies put to the ultimate test, the invasion from Japan, an island nation that they considered barbaric. The leader of Japan, which was newly and barely unified under his rule, was Toyotomi Hideyoshi. And Hideyoshi had grand ambitions. When he landed over 150,000 soldiers in Korea their orders were not just to conquer the Korean peninsula, but use that as the staging point for an invasion of the Ming Dynasty itself, to ultimately arrive in Beijing and replace the Chinese emperor with a Japanese leader. This was a challenge, again, not just to the peninsula, but to the entire order of East Asia.
Skip to 6 minutes and 53 seconds And it was the ultimate test of the Sino Korean relationship which is always described in traditional times through this metaphor being as close as lips and teeth. So these are going to be the key themes for this week and next, is to understand what that East Asian order was about, what the rules of China and Korea respectively were in that order, and then to see through the challenge of the Black Dragon War what the real nature of the Sino Korean relationship was like.
Origins of the 'Imjin War'
What brought a devastating war to the Korean Peninsula, forcing the China-Korea alliance to be put to the ultimate test?
© John Delury