A Dragon's Head and a Serpent's Tail: Ming China and the First Great East Asian War, 1592-1598

A Dragon's Head and a Serpent's Tail: Ming China and the First Great East Asian War, 1592-1598

by Kenneth M. Swope Ph.D

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The invasion of Korea by Japanese troops in May of 1592 was no ordinary military expedition: it was one of the decisive events in Asian history and the most tragic for the Korean peninsula until the mid-twentieth century. Japanese overlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi envisioned conquering Korea, Ming China, and eventually all of Asia; but Korea’s appeal to China’s Emperor Wanli for assistance triggered a six-year war involving hundreds of thousands of soldiers and encompassing the whole region. For Japan, the war was “a dragon’s head followed by a serpent’s tail”: an impressive beginning with no real ending.

Kenneth M. Swope has undertaken the first full-length scholarly study in English of this important conflict. Drawing on Korean, Japanese, and especially Chinese sources, he corrects the Japan-centered perspective of previous accounts and depicts Wanli not as the self-indulgent ruler of received interpretations but rather one actively engaged in military affairs—and concerned especially with rescuing China’s client state of Korea. He puts the Ming in a more vigorous light, detailing Chinese siege warfare, the development and deployment of innovative military technologies, and the naval battles that marked the climax of the war. He also explains the war’s repercussions outside the military sphere—particularly the dynamics of intraregional diplomacy within the shadow of the Chinese tributary system.

What Swope calls the First Great East Asian War marked both the emergence of Japan’s desire to extend its sphere of influence to the Chinese mainland and a military revival of China’s commitment to defending its interests in Northeast Asia. Swope’s account offers new insight not only into the history of warfare in Asia but also into a conflict that reverberates in international relations to this day.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806185040
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 03/20/2012
Series: Campaigns and Commanders Series , #20
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 432
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Kenneth M. Swope is Professor and Director of Graduate Studies at the University of Southern Mississippi. He is the editor of Warfare in China since 1600 and the author of The Military Collapse of China’s Ming Dynasty, 1618–1644.

Read an Excerpt

A Dragon's Head and a Serpent's Tail

Ming China and the First Great East Asian War, 1592â"1598

By Kenneth M. Swope


Copyright © 2009 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8504-0


Wild Frontiers

Emperor Wanli and the Military Revival of the Ming, 1570–1610

In mid-April 1619 at the Battle of Sarhu, three of the four Ming columns sent against the forces of Nurhaci (1559–1619), the upstart khan of the nascent Latter Jin state, met destruction. Sarhu was located in Liaodong, a territory northeast of the Great Wall (and therefore outside China proper) long claimed by the Ming but rather lightly administered through a system of hereditary chieftains. Nurhaci was one of these chieftains and was considered loyal until he declared the establishment of a rival state in the northeast in 1616. Despite probable Ming involvement in the deaths of his father and grandfather, Nurhaci was an adopted son of the redoubtable Ming general Li Chengliang (1526–1618) and had even offered to send troops to aid Ming forces in ousting the Japanese from Korea in the 1590s.

By 1619, however, the political and military situations had changed, and Nurhaci's Jurchens (later known as Manchus) were in the process of expanding their state and its influence just as the Ming empire was going into decline. As historian Ray Huang notes, "The Liao-tung Campaign of early 1619 brought to an end the Ming empire's unchallenged dominance in that region, while it raised the Manchus to the status of formidable rivals." Nurhaci defeated a Ming force of 100,000 with around 60,000 Jurchens by keeping his more mobile units together, while the Chinese divided their troops into four advance columns, which Nurhaci isolated and annihilated one by one. In doing so he made optimum use of his superior knowledge of local terrain and weather conditions along with his army's superior mobility. The only Chinese field commander to survive was Li Rubo, son of Li Chengliang (and incidentally a veteran of the war in Korea). Questions unsurprisingly arose in Beijing, and Li was charged with both collusion and cowardice in battle, even though he actually received word to retreat from Supreme Commander Yang Hao (d. 1629) and was merely following orders when attacked. Rather than face these charges, Li Rubo hanged himself and was posthumously rehabilitated by Emperor Chongzhen (r. 1628–44).

While most scholars recognize the seminal importance of Sarhu in the rise of the Manchus, far fewer recognize its importance in the broader scope of late Ming military developments. The battle is generally recounted as just one more nail (albeit a large one) in a Ming coffin that had been built over the previous several decades. Such an interpretation, however, is more a case of revisionist history rather than a sober assessment based on surviving primary sources. It was in the interest of the Manchus for Sarhu to cast a shadow over preceding Ming military accomplishments, making them look better and the Ming more corrupt and incompetent. Although the Liaodong campaign was a debacle of colossal proportions, it is better viewed as the end of a five-decade era of Ming military rejuvenation and international intervention as opposed to another episode in the dynasty's decline.

In the fifty years prior to Sarhu, the Ming managed to make peace with the Mongols, intervened in border disputes in Burma on multiple occasions, launched destabilizing raids and surgical strikes into Jurchen and Mongol territories in the northeast and northwest, suppressed a major troop mutiny in the northwestern garrison city of Ningxia, sent tens of thousands of troops on two occasions to oust the Japanese from Korea, mobilized another 200,000 plus troops to crush an aboriginal uprising in Sichuan province in the southwest, and conducted numerous other smaller military actions against a variety of bandits and aboriginal groups. In the process the Ming maintained its political, military, and economic primacy in East Asia.

After the defeat at Sarhu, however, the increasingly factionalized Ming court engaged in endless rounds of scapegoating, finger-pointing, and partisan wrangling. Concerning the Liaodong campaign itself, among the fall guys was Yang Hao, the supreme civil commander of the expedition, who had been embroiled in controversy during his tenure as commissioner of Korean affairs in the 1590s. Accordingly, Yang's defeat was viewed as part of a pattern of failure by the Ming military during the previous decades. Accounts of Ming victories were dismissed as overblown attempts by eunuchs and their lackeys to curry favor with corrupt and shortsighted monarchs, while defeats were magnified by righteous literati circles to effect administrative changes that advanced their own interests. At the center of much of this controversy was Emperor Wanli, whose reign was the longest and one of the most controversial of the entire dynasty. Wanli has become synonymous with imperial lassitude and avarice, eunuch abuses, bureaucratic factionalism and infighting, military reverses, and general dynastic decline. Yet in spite of all his faults, or perhaps because of them, a number of biographical studies of this enigmatic ruler have appeared in Chinese in recent years. Unfortunately, with the exception of Fan Shuzhi's thorough and well-researched Wanli zhuan, most publications have remained wedded to the traditional interpretations. For example, historian Cao Guoqing calls Wanli "a muddleheaded emperor at the head of a rotten state."

Western scholars of Wanli have echoed these sentiments, most being content to perpetuate common stereotypes of him as a selfish, disinterested profligate. Even the more sympathetic treatment of Ray Huang notes that Wanli "earned a reputation as the most venal and avaricious occupant of the imperial throne in history," a charge that could certainly be leveled at any number of Chinese monarchs. The influence of Huang's portrayal on subsequent scholars in the West is undeniable. As one prominent historian notes in a recent work, "It is almost superfluous to write at any length about the Wanli reign because it has been so effectively portrayed and analyzed in the writings of Ray Huang."

But for all his faults, Wanli was very interested in and devoted to maintaining Ming military supremacy in Asia. Following in the footsteps of Zhang Juzheng, the emperor sought to curb the power of civil officials, limit the influence of factions, and generally circumvent the cumbersome bureaucracy by turning to prominent military officials and their families. He viewed military affairs as one of the areas in which he could assert his will and did so fairly often, especially in the first three decades of his reign. Even toward the end of his reign, Wanli remained concerned about the growing Manchu threat and approved the release of funds and the dispatch of the aforementioned Ming expeditionary force to meet the Manchus in Liaodong in 1619. Although, as we have seen, the expedition was a disaster, it involved a number of military officials Wanli had patronized. Even in the wake of defeat, he sought to protect Li Rubo.

Before going into more detail concerning Wanli's political and military leadership, a few general observations about Chinese military culture and the Ming military establishment are in order. One of the pervasive myths is that Chinese dynasties, especially in the late imperial period, were staid Confucian bureaucracies that eschewed war. In imperial times it was in the interest of both the state and its official historians to hide the value or coercive effectiveness of warfare as a tool of politics. In modern times "it has been equally important to establish the historical reality that a weak or fragmented China is subject to exploitation or even conquest by foreigners."

Thus, writing in the early twentieth century as China was in the process of being carved into spheres of influence by Western imperialists, scholar Lei Haizong contended that China possessed an "amilitary culture" that had stifled creativity and social mobility since the Qin era (221–206 B.C.). This resulted in an ossified governmental structure that made China vulnerable to foreign conquest. Conversely, early modern European visitors were initially impressed with China's civil bureaucracy, which seemed much more pacifistically inclined and cultured than contemporary European nobilities. Later, however, these same qualities encouraged predatory intentions on the part of some foreign expansionists.

Within the broader scope of Chinese history, native Han dynasties were generally perceived as less militarily inclined than their steppe-based counterparts and therefore more prone to defensive actions and isolationism with respect to foreign affairs. Generally smaller territorially than the "conquest dynasties," even modern historians have typically denigrated their martial prowess until very recently. The Ming military, for example, has widely been decried as one of the weakest in the long history of imperial China. As historian Jacques Gernet, echoing the sentiments of the Jesuit Matteo Ricci (1552–1610) notes, the Ming armies were "the refuse dump of society and consisted of idlers, rascals, jailbirds, and highwaymen." While the Ming military establishment certainly had its share of problems, such observations obscure the fact that the institution was a dynamic and vital component of the government for most of its existence, ensuring the overall peace and stability of the world's most populous empire for more than two and a half centuries. Ming officials continuously sought to improve the effectiveness of their forces while endeavoring to meet a bewildering variety of military challenges.

While the Ming period is often lauded as being one of the most stable and peaceful in all of Chinese history, historian Fan Zhongyi identifies some 275 large and small wars the Ming engaged in from 1368 to 1643, not counting the final wars of resistance against the Manchus. Iain Johnston likewise notes that there were on average 1.12 foreign wars per year during that period. Arguing that the empire was in fact a very aggressive military power, he finds that Ming actions were in accordance with the teachings of the Seven Military Classics of China, which "share a preference for offensive strategies over static defensive and accomodationist options."

Such activity necessitated constant advances in military technologies, most notably in firearms. The Ming created firearms-training divisions in the early fifteenth century and eagerly imported superior foreign models in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They used cannon for attack and defense and for both mobile and stationary warfare. The Chinese also made more limited use of a variety of muskets, some domestically produced and others adapted from foreign designs such as the Dutch-inspired "red barbarian cannon." Smaller firearms, however, were seldom if ever used on horseback because of their general ineffectiveness. Ming forces also made extensive use of firearms on warships, a practice that would serve them well in the fight against the Japanese.

According to Fan Zhongyi, the increased use of firearms was perhaps the single-most important aspect of Ming military development as a step toward a more modern style of warfare. Sun Laichen has gone further, calling the Ming the world's first true gunpowder empire, making a case for China being the primary exporter of this technology throughout Asia prior to 1500. He asserts that the Ming should be credited with initiating the global "Military Revolution," countering claims made by scholars in the West for its origins in early modern Europe. In support Sun finds that as early as 1450, most Ming frontier units were equipped with guns. In addition Chinese weapons had reached Europe in the late 1320s, around the same time gunpowder technologies reached Korea and a few decades before these technologies reached Japan. The Ming also pioneered tactical changes, utilizing volley fire as early as 1387 against the Maw Shans in Burma. Thus, as Kenneth Chase has observed recently, in many ways the Ming military was arguably more "modern" than its Qing successor, though the latter made more adept use of cavalry in conjunction with firearms.

The extent of Ming military activity is also evidenced by the sheer volume of military treatises, training manuals, and the like produced during the dynasty. By one count an astounding 33 percent of all military texts produced in China date from that period. The most impressive of these works include Mao Yuanyi's Wubei zhi [Encyclopedia of Military Preparedness] of 1601, Zhao Shizhen's Shenqipu [Treatise on Firearms] of 1598, and Zheng Ruozeng's / [Gazeteer of Coastal Defense] of 1562. All these works include technical descriptions of the development and application of military technologies along with illustrations and maps. Zheng also includes extensive descriptions of actual campaigns and battles, though others produced a plethora of works to chronicle specific wars or campaigns.

Training manuals produced by Ming general Qi Jiguang were disseminated to Korea. In them Qi gave detailed instructions in the use of small-group tactics, psychological warfare, and other "modern" techniques. Qi recognized that the hereditary military system used by the Ming up to his time was in dire need of revamping and therefore advocated the use of private soldiers with better pay rates and more systematized training. The general advocated training men in units, divisions, and formations and dividing them into strong and weak soldiers. He emphasized repetitive drilling, and his manuals contained extensive drawings of formations and discussions of drilling techniques far ahead of their time. Qi believed that by creating different types of small units and integrating them into larger companies, battalions, and armies, they could operate like ears, eyes, hands, and feet, thus constituting a whole military "body." He also stressed using different weapons together and favored utilizing different tactics depending upon terrain, skills, and weaponry.

Qi realized that instilling courage and discipline in his men was paramount and that even getting men to fight at half their real ability could make an army unmatched on the battlefield. He even made extensive use of mythological creatures and fierce animals on banners to inspire and embolden his troops, who were generally of peasant stock. Placing an emphasis on training the heart over training the spirit, because the spirit comes from outside but the heart is the root of everything, Qi's instructions reflected his Confucian influences and may explain why his ideas also became popular in Korea, where such virtues were extolled to an even greater extent than in China.

Another important development of the late Ming period was the transition from a hereditary to a largely mercenary army. The original reason for creating a hereditary military lay in the dynasty founder's desire to construct an idealized agrarian empire. He divided society into hereditary occupational classes, including the military. But within a few years the system started breaking down, and by 1500, Ming military strength may have been as low as 3 percent of prescribed levels in some garrisons, with desertion rates as high 85 percent in some areas despite numerous efforts by the government to ameliorate the problem.

Organizationally, the largest unit of the Ming military was the guard (wei), which consisted of 5,600 men. Guards were divided into battalions (suo) of 1,120 men. Each battalion contained ten companies of 112 men. Each company had two platoons of 56 men, and each platoon typically had five squads comprised of 11 or 12 men. In terms of overall strength, military registers from the 1390s indicate an enrollment of approximately 1.3 million, a figure that rose to more than 2 million in the Yongle (1403–24) reign and to more than 3 million during the sixteenth century (though according to contemporary estimates from the 1570s, the actual number of troops was around 845,000). This number allegedly swelled to more than 4 million by the turn of the seventeenth century.

Such a state of affairs would have distressed Hongwu (r. 1368–98) to no end. To him hereditary soldiers were to provide their own food via military farms (tuntian) and then rotate to training and military posts where needed. Ideally most troops would receive operational training in a variety of locales and weapons, and special-training divisions in the capital would provide elite training, most notably in firearms. This practice continued throughout the Ming period, with troops en route to Korea first going to Beijing for training under firearms drill instructors. Yet because of a bewildering number of factors—including corrupt officers who used their soldiers as construction gangs, oppressive and duplicitous officers, old or weak men hindering the training of younger recruits, and the improper observation of rotation schedules—the military capacity of the hereditary forces declined precipitously. Some have blamed the increasing reliance upon eunuchs in military decision-making and as the actual leaders of campaigns, while others point to the general trend of diluting military authority after the discovery of a treasonous plot by the prime minister during Hongwu's reign.


Excerpted from A Dragon's Head and a Serpent's Tail by Kenneth M. Swope. Copyright © 2009 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
Stylistic Conventions,
Chinese Weights and Measures,
Timeline of the War,
Introduction: The Unforgotten War,
1. Wild Frontiers: Emperor Wanli and the Military Revival of the Ming, 1570–1610,
2. Dark Sails on the Horizon: Prelude to War,
3. A Dragon's Head: The Japanese Onslaught, May–December 1592,
4. A Serpent's Tail: The Rescue of Korea, 1593–94,
5. Caught between the Dragon and the Rising Sun: Peace Talks and Occupation, 1593–96,
6. Back into the Gates of Hell: The Final Japanese Offensive, 1597–98,
7. Aftermath and Legacies: The First Great East Asian War in Context,
Dramatis Personae,
Selected Chinese Character List,

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