Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds So there are two narratives unfolding simultaneously about the Black Dragon War. One is on land and the other is on sea. You’ve been reading about the land part of the battles that were fought between the Japanese on one side and the Koreans and Chinese on the other, but I want to talk now for a couple minutes about the sea, and in particular draw your attention to the Yellow Sea. In some ways, the Yellow Sea is sort of hiding there in plain sight. It gets a lot less attention and particularly recently when there’s been Maritime conflict between China and Japan in the East China Sea and between China and many neighbours in the South China Sea.
Skip to 0 minutes and 46 seconds You may have read or heard a lot about those bodies of water, but probably not had your attention drawn to the Yellow Sea in the same way. But as far as our topic is concerned, if you think about it, the Korean peninsula doesn’t exist if it weren’t for maybe 20,000 years ago when this body of water starts to form the carves out a different space. And that space eventually becomes this country I’m living in now, Korea. So the Sino Korean relationship is very quintessentially also the story of the Yellow Sea. As a historian, the Yellow Sea is also sort of an alluring space.
Skip to 1 minute and 26 seconds Because by going out there onto the water we’re able to move away from something that exercises almost a kind of tyranny over the discipline of history, and that is the modern nation state. Without digressing too much into how historical science started or restarted in modern times, just suffice it to say that a lot of the way that I practise historian as a modern trained practitioner is from practises that developed in the 19th century that really grew along with the nation state. And so if you look at the way that history is organised as a discipline, traditionally it was country by country.
Skip to 2 minutes and 10 seconds And even today you would ask someone like me, well, do you do Chinese history or do you do Korean history? And those very questions reflect these biases that are actually built in to the way that we think about the past, where we make it reflect the present. We live in a world of nation states and so when we research the past we assume we should be researching a world of nation states. There’s a great 20th century historian, Fernand Braudel, who revolutionised a lot of this field. And he’s most famous for a book maybe some of you have heard of called The Mediterranean.
Skip to 2 minutes and 47 seconds And he used the sea, he used the Mediterranean Sea as a way to sort of liberate himself and his historical work from what I’m talking about, this kind of nation state hold that it has on the discipline. Braudel also used mountains. And so in his great book The Mediterranean he took the reader on a tour of all the mountains around the Mediterranean and had a very interesting insight, again about the state. And he said the state almost gets a form of altitude sickness. It’s hard for state power to move uphill, or traditionally it was very hard for the state to move uphill. And I find the same is true when we study the Yellow Sea of water.
Skip to 3 minutes and 31 seconds States get seasick, just like they get altitude sickness. And so when you look into the Yellow Sea it’s a wonderful new lens on our topic of Sino Korean relations. Because it’s a place where these powerful states, the Ming dynasty, the Joseon Dynasty, suddenly their reach is quite limited. They lose control. And instead, who do we find on the sea? We find illiterate fishermen, we find pirates, we find merchants, some of them working legally some illegally. And so it opens up a new vista. That vista is critically important for understanding the topic of this week, the Black Dragon War.
Skip to 4 minutes and 13 seconds Because one thing you need to understand about the origins of the Black Dragon War is that for the decades proceeding this, one of the major, you could say national security problems faced by both the Chinese and the Koreans was piracy. In Chinese history the mid 1500s are known as the era of piracy. Piracy was a constant problem running up and down the China coast. And it was also a major problem for the Koreans. Now interestingly, in those days Chinese and Koreans used terms for Japanese and for pirates interchangeably. Pirates were Japanese and Japanese were considered to be like pirates. Historians have discovered, in fact, piracy was a multinational operation back then, like it usually is today.
Skip to 5 minutes and 4 seconds So many of the so-called Japanese pirates, in fact, had Chinese members of their crew, Korean members of their crew. It’s a fascinating world that Maritime historians have been discovering, the world of piracy. And it infested the Yellow Sea, the waters of the Yellow Sea throughout the 16th century. So what’s the connection between the Imjin War and piracy? Well, one way to understand it is from a Japanese perspective. Why were they pirates? They were pirates because the Chinese, the Ming rulers and Joseon, the Joseon rulers of Korea, weren’t giving Japanese merchants the kind of trade opportunities that they wanted it on the coasts.
Skip to 5 minutes and 48 seconds And so someone who may have been a merchant had he been allowed to be became a pirate or he joined a pirate outfit. And then the governments, the Chinese and Korean governments, tried to stop the problem and so they would for periods of time bar all seafaring, which of course only exacerbated it. Because then even their own merchants and fishermen suddenly became pirates. So when we think about why did Hideyoshi launch the war, the Black Dragon War, and why was it, as we’ll be discussing, something called a revisionist war? This is one of the things that the Japanese wanted to revise.
Skip to 6 minutes and 25 seconds They wanted to revise the definition of the Yellow Sea as a place controlled by China and Korea, a place limited in its opportunities for merchants, especially Japanese merchants, therefore creating pirates. And instead, Hideyoshi wanted to get control, not just of the Korean peninsula, not just of the territory of the Ming, but also critically of the bodies of water along its coasts. So given Japan’s prowess in piracy, one of the ironies in hindsight of the Black Dragon War is that the gaping hole, the Achilles heel in Hideyoshi’s war plan was that he depended upon opening up a Yellow Sea supply route.
Skip to 7 minutes and 11 seconds He had to have that Maritime link where he could send supplies, more food, more weapons, ammunition, everything to reach the front line troops up in the north of Korea to then start phase two of the war which would press on into the capital of the Ming. However, what he didn’t really do is anticipate the kind of naval defence that the Koreans initially on their own and then with help from the Chinese would be able to muster. With the initial invasion force in the spring of 1592 it was mostly a transport armada. And the amount of naval assets that Hideyoshi provided to give protection to that armada was enough to fend off a disorganised and weak Korean Naval resistance.
Skip to 8 minutes and 3 seconds So he sort of got away with it, as far as the initial landing in Pusan. However, this is when one of the great war heroes of the Black Dragon War and actually of Korean history and now East Asian history comes into the picture, Admiral Yi Sun-sin. Under Admiral Yi’s leadership, the Korean Navy put up a really extraordinary defence on the seas, denying the Japanese access to the Yellow Sea. This happened twice, actually. The first in the series of conflicts, the most famous of which is the Battle of Hansando or Hansan Island.
Skip to 8 minutes and 44 seconds And if you study the Battle of Hansan Island you can see Admiral Yi Sun-sin in a really impressive way combining strategies like luring Japanese ships who are superior in numbers and therefore over confident, luring them into a trap where he defines the battlefield. Of course, this is on the water. But Admiral Yi was very effective at determining where a conflict would be fought and then using the geographic contours to his advantage. So you can see him in the Battle of Hansando luring out a larger Japanese fleet and then using tactical brilliance. For example, the crane wing formation, which became famous to naval historians, where the Korean Navy used a sort of enveloping movement to basically surround.
Skip to 9 minutes and 37 seconds Even though there was a much larger Japanese fleet, they were able to surround and overpower it using their technological superiorities. And this is where you get into the story which we’ve been learning about this week of military technology, of the way all three warring parties, the Chinese, the Koreans, and Japanese, were quite avariciously adapting cutting edge weaponry from as far away as Europe. So the Koreans tended to have longer range and bigger cannon, usually on Portuguese models. And so using that advantage, Admiral Yi was able to, in a series of conflicts like Hansando, crush a much larger Japanese enemy. By doing this, it wasn’t just a victory there on the sea.
Skip to 10 minutes and 28 seconds It was critically blocking phase two of Hideyoshi’s grand plan. And so Hideyoshi was never able to open that resupply line. It actually really saved China, the Korean defence. In the last stages of the war you’ll be learning how Hideyoshi actually attempted a second invasion in 1597. And it was really, in terms of sea, a repeat of the first one. The most famous battle there which is now known to every moviegoer in Korea was The Battle of Myeongnyang Straits, which was the blockbuster film of 2014. And we’ve uploaded a link so you can watch the official trailer via FutureLearn. It’s actually a fun film. I encourage you to check it out.
Skip to 11 minutes and 18 seconds And that movie dramatises Admiral Yi Sun-sin and the really extraordinary victory, again, using many of the same techniques, luring a much larger Japanese troop. The movie exaggerates a little bit. But he lures a larger Japanese fleet and then uses the treacherous currents in that part of the Yellow Sea to his tactical advantage and destroys and pushes back the Japanese attempt to again open up that Yellow Sea supply line. So it’s a rather dramatic story. It’s of great interest to naval historians still to this day. But also, if we look at the final stage of Yi Sun-sin you see it’s also a testament to the strength of the Sino Korean relationship.
Skip to 12 minutes and 9 seconds Admiral Yi Sun-sin cooperated quite effectively and was good at getting Ming support. And in the last stages worked closely with the Ming Naval commander to insure denied access to the Japanese to the Yellow Sea right up until the end.
Pirates and sailors
Piracy was endemic to the China coast for a good part of the 16th century, and the Ming rulers attempts to eradicate it, for example by banning all maritime activity entirely, only fueled the problem. For Japanese, the line between pirate and merchant was often a thin one, and buccaneering was at least in part a kind of protest against the inferior position in the trade system dominated by Beijing and Seoul– and one of Hideyoshi’s war aims was to reconstitute the maritime trade order completely, with plans, after the conquest of China, to move to the entrepot of Ningbo where he would act as overlord. Koreans and Chinese had improved their naval capabilities in order to respond to piratical attacks, which came of use in the epic struggle to prevent Japanese ships from using a Yellow Sea route to reinforce troops in the northern part of the peninsula. Korea’s great war hero, Admiral Yi Sun-shin, almost singlehandedly denied Japan’s access at battles like Hansando and Myeongnyang Straits.
Hideyoshi war plan hinged on Yellow Sea supply line. As one of his commanders, having taken pyongyang, threatened the Korean king– ‘more than a hundred thousand japanese navy are now on their way to the west sea. where can your royal carriage move to now?’ Yu, corrections, 123. But Yi Sunshin’s victories threw it all off.
© John Delury