This research project aims at explaining Ming government’s policy in the Korean War (1592-1598) in terms of court politics of the Ming dynasty. Ming China alone could not dictate the terms of war and peace alone, as after all it was Japan which invaded Korea, it was Korea which resisted Japanese invasion while sustaining heavy losses, and it was Ming China which helped Korea. However, Ming court politics is an important context within which the Ming government decided to go to war, to negociate, and then to go to war again, with Japan. Ming China’s policy and decisions during the seven years of Korean War cannot be satisfactorily explained by simply highlighting such vocabulary of tributary system like “celestial dynasty”, “vassal states” and “permission to pay tribute”.
As news of Japanese invasion of Korea reached Peking in late 1592, a consensus of rescuing Korea and driving the Japanese out of the Korean Peninsula was quickly established. However, by early 1593, as the Ming counterattack was checked by Japan’s ambush in Byeokjegwan, a peace talk that was to last for four years began. The Ming court was split into the hawkish and the dovish camps. Shi Xing 石星, Minister of War and leader of the doves, with the tacit agreement from his superior, Zhao Zhigao 趙志臯 the Grand Secretary, advocated for a peace deal that would have granted Japanese overlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi the title of “King of Japan” in return for the retreat of Japanese force from Korea. Unsurprisingly, doves invited hawks, and Shi Xing was confronted by his hawkish colleagues like He Qiaoyuan 何喬遠. Very soon the issue of Korean War became part of the court politics and factional conflicts that was to dog the Ming government till its very last day.
This research project unveils the complex process through which the Ming government formulated its Korean policy during these critical seven years. It explicates how a hidden network weaved Shi Xing, Zhao Zhigao and other dovish officials together, only to throw them against their hawkish colleagues. It also argues that emperor Wanli’s ambiguous attitude and inaction during the Korean War were a deliberate and conscious choice of governance style, and this style can be better understood by taking into consideration the political climate of Ming China in late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.