Book Title: China’s Hegemony Book Subtitle: Four Hundred Years of East Asian Domination Book Author(s): JI-YOUNG LEE Published by: Columbia University Press. (2017) Stable URL:

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I n 1368, the Ming empire was established in China, ending the Mongols’ Yuan empire (1279-1368). Within two years, the Ming and Koryo Korea had exchanged envoys. By 1370, Koryo Korea

terminated its tributary relations with the Yuan and pronounced itself a Ming tributary.1 That same year, Koryo Korea sent military forces to the Liaodong region of Manchuria, the northern border area adjacent to the Ming empire, and recovered territory lost to the Yuan empire. 2

Eighteen years later, upon learning that the Ming intended to claim the northeastern territory of the Korean peninsula, Koryo Korea sent armed forces to strike at the Ming empire. This fateful decision became the de facto end of the Koryo dynasty, but not because overwhelming Ming military power retaliated against Koryo Korea. Rather, it was because Koryo’s deputy commander, Yi Song-gye, turned the army back at the border, ousted the Koryo king, and founded a new dynasty. The day after Yi Song-gye officially founded a new state in 1392, he sent his tributary envoy to Ming founder Hongwu to seek Ming recognition.3

But within a few years, Yi Song-gye’s Choson Korea again embarked on military preparations in the Liaodong region against the Ming.

Around the same time, across a sea passage known today as the Korea Strait, Muromachi Japan sent a delegation to the Ming empire to establish friendly relations and offer tribute. In 1402, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the most powerful ruler of]apan during the Muromachi

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So The Making of Ming Hegemony

period (1336-1573), bowed three times and, while kneeling, read the Ming imperial rescript to “king of]apan” that instructed him to adopt the Chinese imperial calendar. Yoshimitsu’s 1403 letter to the Ming emperor, written in perfect Chinese literary style, is remarkable. A Japanese ruler addressed himself to the Ming emperor as “Your sub- ject, the King of Japan.”4 This marked the first occasion since the mid-ninth century where Japan officially acknowledged the superior Chinese position by becoming China’s tributary. 5

Korea’s military actions against the Ming empire and Japan’s accep- tance of the Ming investiture mark two striking fluctuations and out- lier behaviors in the usual patterns of Korean and Japanese responses to imperial China described in chapter 2. Exactly for that reason, they offer an important insight not just into how the tribute system func- tioned in conjunction with Chinese hegemonic order building but also how it was not always linked to peace. Scholars such as David Kang typ- ically cite the Ming tribute system as evidence supporting the peace- ful effect of the tribute system while explaining Asia’s two hundred years of peace under the Ming through the liberal lens of Confucian culture.6 However, a measured look into the process of building hege- mony shows that the Ming empire, although it refrained from using brute force, employed coercion through tribute practices to establish stability.

The tribute system was not an antithesis to the use of military power in East Asian relations during the Ming and Qing periods, either by China or by the tributary states? Calling itself a Ming tributary did not prevent Korea from sending armed forces to the Liaodong region, de- spite knowing that this action would mean a military confrontation with the Ming. There were domestic considerations behind both the decision to accept tributary status and the decision to undertake mili- tary action. Regarding Japan, although scholars have suggested that Japan’s behavior under the Chinese empire is evidence of either the nonexistence of the tribute system or its predominantly commercial nature, this chapter shows that Japan’s responses to Chinese hegemony were based on Japan’s domestic political context as well as economic considerations. This chapter analyzes the role played by Japanese and

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The Making of Ming Hegemony 8 I

Korean concerns with consolidating their internal authority and legitimacy in shaping early Ming hegemonic order building.

This chapter first discusses how the Ming empire attempted to pres- ent itself as a hegemon in its early years, with varying degrees of success. The reign of the first Ming emperor, Hongwu, provides rich examples of how tribute practices regulated and controlled interac- tions with neighboring countries. The chapter then examines Korea’s puzzling military confrontation with the Ming empire over the Liao- dong region and discusses Japan’s behavior of receiving the Chinese title in the early fifteenth century. It shows that the compliance deci- sions of both states were a product of leaders’ manipulation of the symbolic power of the Ming empire as hegemon to enhance their position at home against domestic rivals. The concluding section links these examples to the major argument of the book: that Chinese hege- monic authority was a product of the domestic political legitimation strategies of its neighboring states.


The notion of the tribute system and the practices associated with it during the Ming period contrasted with imperial practices during the Yuan and late Qing periods, for interactions between China and its tributary states in the Ming period took place while maintaining the autonomy of those states participating in such practices. Many schol- ars have thus concluded that the Ming tribute system contributed to Asia’s long peace and prosperity, which lasted until Japan’s invasion of Korea in 1592.8 In truth, the Ming tribute system was as much an in- strument of coercion as it was a mechanism for peace, especially in the early years, as the Ming empire consolidated its geopolitical position.9 Despite his forceful delegitimization of the Yuan empire as “barbarian” Mongols against the “civilized” Han Chinese,10 Ming founder Hongwu adopted some of the most notorious Mongol prac- tices, including demanding human tribute as well as large amounts of

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82 The Making of Ming Hegemony

goods. Whereas most arguments about the Ming tribute system tend to focus on the period of stability and the regionwide effect of tribute practices, this chapter shows that early Ming insecurities led it to use the tribute practices of gift exchange and investiture to coerce its neighbors into accepting Ming interests regarding important foreign policy issues.

Early Ming interactions with other states followed two patterns. One was a series of diplomatic exchanges and processes through which the Ming empire sought recognition from its counterparts about its identity as a superior in bilateral relations. During the reigns of the first three Ming emperors, Hongwu, Jianwen, and Yongle, the official Ming policy was to have its neighboring countries accept Ming claims of authority over other rulers and to make the neighbors the Ming empire’s official tributaries.U The Ming empire initiated diplomatic contacts with its neighboring states by sending envoys and urging those states to pay a visit to the Ming capital (in other words, to send a “tribute-bearing” mis- sion as a sign of accepting Ming tributary status). In these early inter- actions with foreign countries, Hongwu typically asserted his identity above all other rulers as the Son of Heaven, a recipient of the Mandate of Heaven to rule over the world. This action was an attempt at legitimating his identity as hegemon while specifying how social interactions be- tween the Ming empire and its neighbors should be carried out.

When the Ming empire sent its first envoy just after its founding in 1368, Koryo king Kongmin immediately terminated existing tributary relations with the Yuan, sent a tribute-bearing mission to the Ming, accepted the Ming emperor’s investiture as king ofKoryo, and switched to the Ming era name. The Ming regarded Koryo Korea’s swift decision highlyY With Japan, Hongwu’s efforts proved futile, as the country was in the midst of a civil war between the Northern Court and the South- ern Court that lasted until1392.U The opening of official tributary re- lations between the Ming and Muromachi Japan did not come until a unified Japan sent a tribute-bearing delegation to the Ming empire in 1401, which was followed by a visit by a Ming envoy. Between 1401 and 1408, the ruler of]apan accepted the Ming investiture, calling him- self “the king of Japan,” accepting the Ming calendar, and sending tribute-bearing envoys to the Ming.14

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The Making of Ming Hegemony 83

An interesting consideration is how the Ming empire responded when Koryo Korea and Muromachi]apan did not act the way the Ming empire wanted them to. Because the Ming used tribute practices for coercion, the line between imperialism and the benign hegemony of respecting the autonomy of lesser powers became blurry. There were two occasions where the Ming empire’s Korea policy became highly coercive: in the early Ming period (the late fourteenth century) and in the late Ming period (the late sixteenth and early seventeenth cen- turies).15 Both instances correspond with periods of an acute sense of insecurity regarding the border area with Korea, the strategically important Liaodong region of Manchuria, which led the Ming to at- tempt to directly control Korea’s policy to Ming advantage. For Koryo Korea, such behavior had historical precedents; the process of consoli- dating power under the dynasties of Han (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), Sui (581- 618), and Tang (618-907) had invariably involved military actions in the strategically located Liaodong region (see map 3.1) and invasions of the Korean state(s), the Song dynasty (960-1279) being an excep- tion. Thus, Korea’s immediate reaction to the Ming empire’s rise in the late fourteenth century was the fear of possible Ming invasions of Korea.16 Feeling threatened by the Ming empire’s rise, even after be- coming a Ming tributary, Koryo Korea vacillated between alignment with the Northern Yuan (previously the Yuan empire) and the Ming. The Ming became increasingly suspicious ofKoryo Korea’s motives and feared that Korea might join hands with the Ming empire’s enemy, the Northern Yuan, to strike at itY

The Ming empire’s responses to the territorial dispute with Korea over the Liaodong region are indicative of how the tribute system worked. The Ming hegemonic style, which was founded on coercive diplomacy based on a Nee-Confucian cultural script, is displayed in its relations with Korea. The Ming founder refrained from using force against Korea18 and tried to reassure Koryo Korea by repeatedly tell- ing it that it had no intention of invading. Hongwu declared a policy of noninterference in other states’ internal matters and tended to abide by it.19 At the same time, when confronted with a national security threat over the Liaodong region and tension in the triangular relation- ship involving China, Manchuria (the Liaodong region), and Korea,20

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84 The Making of Ming Hegemony

&a of Japan/East &a .P’yongyang

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from Warren I. Cohen, East Asia at the Center: four Thousand Years of Engagement with the World. Copyright© 2000 Columbia University Press. Reprinted with permission of the publisher

the Ming employed coercive diplomacy through tribute practices to extract Korean compliance.

One way of extracting compliance was to withhold recognition of a newly enthroned Korean ruler by using the practice of investiture. Unlike in Japan, the practice of Chinese recognition of a new Korean ruler had existed for centuries and had habituated, and the lack of such recognition had negative implications domestically while undermin- ing the legitimacy of the new ruler. In the aftermath of the 1370 Liaodong expedition, as Ming suspicions grew, none of the Koryo envoys sent to the Ming returned. 21 As Koryo Korea sought and received investiture from the Northern Yuan, this gave more reason for Hongwu to withhold his recognition. Koryo king U received Ming investiture

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The Making of Ming Hegemony 8 5

after ten years of enthronement only after Koryo Korea sent large amounts of requested goods as tribute. 22 A similar pattern was repeated when Hongwu was suspicious of a newly founded Chason Korea’s mili- tary preparations for the Liaodong expedition; notwithstanding re- peated requests for the recognition of a new ruler of a new dynasty, 23

the Choson founder Yi never received investiture from Hongwu. 24

Relations between the Ming and Korea remained tumultuous. In Koryo Korea, there were rumors of impending Ming invasions through- out the reign of Hongwu. In addition to withholding investiture, Hongwu repeatedly told Koryo and Chason kings that they should send him those who were responsible for the murders of Koryo king Kong- min and a Ming envoy, as well as the officials who drafted state letters to him that he thought contained frivolous characters insulting him.25

Beyond the traditional boundaries of the tribute practices, Hongwu demanded unbearably heavy “tributes” that were reminiscent of the Mongol imperial practices, and he even declared the end of relations with Koryo Korea at one point.26 During this period, Hongwu tried to limit Koryo’s Ming tributary missions to once every three years, and he blocked many Koryo envoys from entering Ming territory for fear that they were collecting intelligence about the Ming. 27 Mixing up the threat of military action and a conciliatory gesture designed to in- duce compliance in the target states is another pattern frequently found in the Ming’s coercive diplomacy. 28

The Ming empire’s responses to Japan between 1401 and 1408 showed a similar pattern of using threats as well as conciliatory gestures to shape Japan’s acceptance of Ming hegemony. Whereas the territorial dispute over the Liaodong region was what plagued early relations be- tween the Ming empire and Korea, with Japan, the issue of curbing Japanese piracy along China’s coastal area was a potentially volatile situation. According to Ming records, during the first seven years of Hongwu’s reign, between 1368 and 1374, there were twenty-three pi- rate raids. In particular, Hongwu was concerned that the Ming em- pire’s former rivals induced and collaborated with pirates for incur- sions into China, posing a menace to the empire’s coastal defense.29 In 1369, Hongwu dispatched a second delegation to Japan inquiring into the reasons for such incursions: “If you wish to pay us respects, then

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86 The Making of Ming Hegemony

come to the [Ming] court; if not, tend to your own military matters and protect yourself. But if you are to engage in piracy, I should at once order my generals for your subjugation.”30

After the death of pro-MingJapanese ruler Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, the Ming granted investiture to his successor as the new “king of]apan,” but Japan essentially withdrew its endorsement of the Ming empire as its superior. How did the Ming respond to this act of defiance? Accord- ing to Yi-Tung Wang, they considered the use of force but decided against it. 31 Japan’s response was to deny responsibility for the piracy; by 1419, Yongle had stopped attempts to restore relations with Japan. Thus, the process of building a new political order centered on forming relations in which the interactions were acceptable to the Ming by using the mechanisms of recognition and socialization inherent in trib- ute practices.


What made Korea’s policy unusually aggressive against the powerful Ming empire in 1370, 1388, and 1398?32 At first glance, it seems outright irrational for a smaller state like Korea to risk military confrontation with the Ming empire. Koryo Korea had accepted Ming tributary sta- tus at the time of the 1388 campaign against the Ming, and Korea’s responses to early Ming hegemony are a sharp contrast to those of later years that gave Choson Korea the reputation of a model tributary. What does this tell us about the workings of the tribute system and Chinese hegemony in early modern East Asia?

Although these military episodes should be viewed as connected to each other,33 scholars have tended to treat them separately. When taken together, the military maneuvers show that Chinese hegemonic author- ity vis-a-vis Korea weakened when China’s behaviors deviated from the East Asian diplomatic practice boundaries of socially acceptable be- haviors. Korean motives behind them all had to do with fending off Chinese imperial control while pursuing Korean autonomy and terri- torial sovereignty.34 For example, Koryo Korea’s 1370 Liaodong cam- paign was conducted to recover the portion of the Koryo territory lost

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during the Yuan empire’s imperialism. The newly established Chosen Korea’s 1398 preparations for a Liaodong expedition were a continua- tion of the 1370 campaign. In between these two episodes, the 1388 Liaodong campaign was undertaken in reaction to the Ming announce- ment of its intention to incorporate the northeastern Korean peninsula and people under Ming control,35

Simply focusing on Korean desire for territorial sovereignty vis-a-vis imperial China, however, obscures many important details. To under- stand why Korean responses to the Ming fluctuated the way they did at those specific times, one must turn to Korea’s domestic conditions and what Ming hegemonic authority meant for the groups vying for power within Korea. More specifically, Korea’s attempts to build new political orders first in late Korye and then in early Chosen Korea, in conjunction with shifts in the power balance in China from Yuan to Ming, explain important aspects of these campaigns and provide answers to some key questions: Why did Korea embark on the 1388 Liaodong campaign, which was waged explicitly to strike at the Ming, and then stop at the border? Why did the new Korean state begin preparing for military ex- peditions in the Liaodong region only six years after its founding? Why was this 1398 military preparation halted abruptly?

The 1370 Liaodong Campaign

The fall of the Yuan empire and the rise of the Ming empire had impli- cations for power struggles within Korea. As Korye Korea had sensed the decline of Yuan power beginning in the mid-fourteenth century, Kongmin resorted to armed forces of 5,000 cavalrymen and 10,000 soldiers in the infantry to recover the Tongnyeng Administration, which had been under direct Yuan control.36 The founding of the Ming em- pire in 1368 represented the possibility of an alternative order in which Korye Korea could free itself from Yuan grip.37 As an official Ming tributary, Korye Korea hoped that the Ming would see its military ac- tions as an anti-Yuan campaign.38 But even after an indirect and yet clear warning from the Ming, Korye Korea embarked on attacks on the Liaodong region.39

As historian Wen-ho Pak has argued, however, actions of rolling back the Yuan imperial rule were only the external part of what Kongmin

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had in mind. More broadly, Kongmin sought to pursue a series of re- form measures to challenge the pro-Yuan faction, whose influence came from their ties to the Yuan empire.40 The 1370 Liaodong campaign, which followed the abolition of the Eastern expedition field head- quarters, the organ of official liason between the Yuan and Koryo near Pyongyang, was intended to eliminate Koryo intermediaries, es- pecially relatives of the Yuan empress Ki and their associates, as well as other powerful families who represented the old political order con- trolled by the Yuan empireY

Because Kongmin’s goal was to restore kingly authority much debili- tated during the Yuan imperial rule, a new tributary relationship with the Ming was a welcome development to the extent that the Ming did not repeat the kind of imperial control that the Yuan empire had exerted over Koryo Korea. According to Yong-su Kim, even while ac- cepting a Ming tributary status, Kongmin wanted to be considered an equal to the Ming empire within Korea. Kongmin performed a me- morial service to Heaven, which was allowed only to the Son of Heaven (meaning an emperor as opposed to a king); when the Ming founder sent his envoy to erect a tombstone and perform a memorial service that signified Koryo Korea’s status as a Ming tributary,42 Kong- min denied the reception of the Ming emperor’s edict on the pretense of sickness. Upon the Ming envoy’s departure, Kongmin had the tomb- stone pulled out and thrown away.43 Therefore, it is through the lens of domestic concerns that one can explain why Koryo king Kongmin’s decision to become a Ming tributary came in the same year that he or- dered a military campaign in a strategically important area to the Ming to regain the lost territory.

The 1388 Liaodong Campaign

In 1388, Koryo Korea launched a second military campaign in the Liaodong region, this t ime stopping at the border. Why did Koryo Korea try to at- tack a much more powerful great power only to suddenly change course? This campaign triggered the fall ofKoryo and the founding of the Choson dynasty, which lasted until 1910. Whereas the 1370 campaign had not been directed against the Ming empire per se, this one was.

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In 1388, a year after the Ming military successfully suppressed the Mongol chieftain Naghachu in the Liaodong region, it announced plans to lay claim to the formerly Yuan-controlled area in the northeastern quadrant of the Korean peninsula, the same territory that King Kong- min had recovered in 1356 from the Yuan empire.44 Koryo Korea took this action as a serious challenge. No official in the Koryo government wanted war with the Ming, but none was willing to give the territory over to them either.45 Within two months, in a direct challenge to Ming power, about 50,000 Koryo military forces, led by Yi Song-gye and Cho Min-su, were marching toward the Sino-Korean border.46 But when the army reached Wihwa Island at the border, Yi Song-gye turned the army back to the capital, where he dethroned King U. Within four years Yi founded a new dynasty.

Scholars have explained this remarkable turn of events by focusing on the coalition of two pro-Ming groups that newly emerged in late Koryo, Neo-Confucian scholar-bureaucrats and Yi Song-gye’s militaryY They note that it is these groups’ embrace of Neo-Confucianism that accounts for Choson Korea’s overall compliance behavior toward the Ming tribute system. Yi Song-gye’s “Four Reasons Against Invading Ming” is often referred to as strong evidence for this position, because the Confucian principle of serving the great power tops his list. It is argued that Yi Song-gye opposed Koryo king U and commander-in- chief Ch’oe Yong’s plans for the Liaodong campaign “because it was wrong for a small state to go against a great state” (the notion of sadae).48 However, upon careful reading of the list, one realizes that all except one ofYi Song-gye’s justifications focused on the Koryo mili- tary’s internal circumstances.49 For example, Yi was concerned that Koryo Korea did not have sufficient supplies to sustain the victory, even if the attack on the Liaodong was successful. 50

For a more complete picture of why Koryo Korea launched military forces against the Ming empire in 1388, one should consider how do- mestic groups within Koryo Korea engaged in power struggles in ways that took advantage of relations with the Ming and the Northern Yuan. According to Tang-t’aek Kim, the 1388 campaign was an attempt by Ch’oe Yong and U to eliminate the increasingly powerful Yi Song-gye and his supportersY Yi had the most to lose in this campaign: if the

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campaign were to fail, the Liaodong region “would likely be his tomb.”52

At a minimum, failure would have provided Ch’oe Yong and U with a pretext to remove Yi from power. 53 The 1388 campaign was waged because the status-quo-prone political force represented by Ch ‘oe Yong prevailed over Yi Song-gye and his group’s push for reform.

At this critical juncture in Koryo Korea’s history, different groups- especially those that wanted to reform the corrupt Koryo society and those that wished to maintain the status quo and to protect their inher- ited privileged positions-pursued different visions about how Koryo politics should operate. 54 Of particular importance were a group of scholar-bureaucrats known collectively as the literati, who were push- ing for reform. Members of this group viewed Neo-Confucian doctrines as a guide for a new social and political order and advocated a pro-Ming policy as a realistic alternative to the old ways of doing politics. 55

In the years leading up to the 1388 campaign, Koryo Korea’s indeci- sive zigzag pattern of switching its tributary status between the Ming and the Northern Yuan cannot be explained without understanding the balance of power in the domestic realm between this new pro-Ming group joined with Yi Song-gye on one side and powerful pro-Yuan families on the other. After King Kongmin’s assassination, the newly enthroned King U was helpless; with Kongmin’s reform efforts in ruins, the powerful pro-Yuan families came to dominate Koryo politics.56

Three years into U’s reign, Koryo Korea became a Northern Yuan tribu- tary, a switch from Kongmin’s earlier acceptance of Ming tributary status. This decision was made because Yi In-im, who headed the pro- Yuan families in the Koryo government, feared Ming retaliation after killing Ming envoys. 57 Many of the literati voiced protest against the pro-Yuan policy under Yi In-im and were sent into exile.58 Relations with the Ming continued on a downward spiral, hitting bottom with the 1388 military campaign.

After he turned the army back to the Koryo capital, Yi Song-gye restored the Ming-era name Hongwu and Ming attire, signifying are- turn to a pro-Ming policy. 59 In the four years between the 1388 cam- paign and the founding of Choson Korea, new power struggles emerged within the new literati focusing on how to pursue reforms between moderates such as Yi Saek and progressives such as Yi Song-gye, Cho

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Chun, and ChOng To-jon.60 During this period, different groups at- tempted to take advantage of the authority of the Ming empire to en- hance their own agendas.61 For example, Yi Saek volunteered to visit the Ming empire as a Koryo envoy; in his meeting with Hongwu, he re- quested that the Ming send an official to supervise the Koryo domes- tic situation. This move was intended to constrain the growing power ofYi Song-gye and his comrades.62 Upon founding a new state in 1392, Yi Song-gye sent his tributary envoy to Ming founder Hongwu the next day and sought Ming recognition. The position ofYi Song-gye and his group in the Koryo capital had not been consolidated, and having founded the new state through a military coup in the midst of power struggles, they had difficulty earning support for their cause.63 Yi Song- gye was therefore in great need for the Ming empire’s recognition for this new state and him as a new ruler.64

Preparation for the 1398 Liaodong Campaign

In the process of establishing a new political order, the newly founded Choson Korea began military preparations in 1397 with a campaign in the Liaodong region in mind. Facing an increasingly powerful thirty- year-old Ming empire that had just eliminated the Mongol forces of the Northern Yuan, why would six-year-old Chason Korea plan an ex- pedition? Equally intriguing is the fact that the preparations were put on hold, only to be resumed a year later. Chason Korea was aware that a campaign in the Liaodong region would mean a military confronta- tion with the Ming.65 In terms of military power capabilities, Chason Korea was far behind the Ming empire. At that time, the largest possi- ble number of men that Choson Korea could enlist would have been 200,000,66 whereas the Ming could call on more than 500,000 men, based on the number Emperor Jianwen mobilized a year later in a civil war against his uncle. 67

Such military ambitions in the Liaodong region, despite the appar- ent irrationality on the part of Chason Korea, nonetheless made sense to late Koryo/early Choson contemporaries. Records show that the military exercises were pursued as a government policy and were also supported by Choson founder T’aejo Yi Song-gye himself.68 Support

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for the campaign preparations came from several places. King U’s own words after Yi Song-gye turned the army back in 1388-“how can we give up the territory inherited from our ancestors over to the Ming?”- convey the prevailing sentiments ofKoryo officials.69 For scholars such as Sok-ho Sin, the campaign was a continuation ofKoryo Korea’s policy of recovering Koguryo territory/° Further, political and military ten- sions were already high in relations with the Ming, which drove Chason Korea to spurn military training for defense against the Ming empire.

Hongwu had deep suspicions about Koryo Korea’s intentions toward the Liaodong region. By 1397, Chason envoys were denied entry into Ming territory.71 Chason Korea learned that Hongwu had executed Chason envoys.72 Chason Korea’s repeated requests to grant investiture to Chason founder T’aejo Yi Song-gye were ignored. Instead, on several occasions, Hongwu insisted that ChOng To-jon appear before him on the grounds that a letter drafted by ChOng included frivolous characters insulting him/3 Hongwu requested that Chason Korea send Chong to him (perhaps to get rid of him) because he had become aware that ChOng was in charge of the Liaodong campaign preparations.

But to understand why preparations were planned, put on hold, re- sumed, and later discarded, one must consider what Hongwu’s coer- cive actions meant for power struggles within Chason Korea. More specifically, we should look at the kind of vision that Chong To-jon had for a new Korean state, and the political threats that such poli- cies posed to other domestic groups within Chason Korea/4 To central- ize the new state’s domestic authority structure in the hands of the king, Chong To-jon embarked on consolidating various private military forces/5 Military exercises toward the Liaodong naturally enabled the military reforms required for the new state, especially since Chason was feeling increasingly threatened by Ming coercion/6

However, other domestic players, such as Cho Chun, Kwon Kun, and Sol Chang-su, had different priorities, which focused on tackling do- mestic issues/7 These doves within Chason Korea, although lacking support from the king, were working to increase their influence on Chason policy while joining forces with members of the royal family. ChOng To-jon’s push for the Liaodong campaign faced serious challenges from within the government (most prominently from Cho Chun)78 and

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among royal family members because his plans involved the dissolu- tion of private forces that these groups had long held as the basis of their power and wealth. Preparations for the Liaodong campaign came to an abrupt end when one of Yi Song-gye’s sons, Yi Pang-won, who opposed ChOng’s military reforms, murdered Chong.79 It is no co- incidence that, a few years later, Yi Pang-won was enthroned as the third Choson kingT’aejong and, once enthroned, employed Nee-Confucianism practices to strengthen his domestic authority. 80


If Korea’s military ventures during the early years of the Ming empire had been unusual, Japan’s conciliatory posture toward the Ming was equally unusual during this period. For the only time in early modern Japanese history, a Japanese ruler called himself “Your subject, the King of Japan,” thereby acting out the kind of symbolism that Japan had been avoiding since 839. 81 Many historians have singled out this period as a “mistake” in Japan’s diplomatic history. Tsuji Zennosuke notes that Yoshimitsu “violated the national tradition, acted disloyal to the imperial throne of]apan, and brought great disgrace and shame uponJapan.”82 Kuroita Katsumi argues that Yoshimitsu “degraded the national standing of Japan and brought disgrace and injury upon his nation.”83 Interestingly, it is not just twentieth-century prewar Japa- nese historians but also Yoshimitsu’s contemporaries that rebuked his policy on China. His successor suspended Japanese embassies and wrote to the Ming that “ever since antiquity our country has never called itself a vassal of a foreign land.”84 Zuikei Shuho, a politically ac- tive, influential Zen priest and the author of Zenrin Kokuhaki, Japan’s first diplomatic document published in the mid-fifteenth century, considered Yoshimitsu’s actions as improper.85 According to Zuikei, “our dignitaries customarily use the word ‘your subject’ (shin) but only to show their allegiance to our own sovereign [the Japanese emperor].”86 Japan’s official acceptance ofMing investiture was a rare deviation from the typical pattern of Japanese responses to Chinese hegemony. Contemporaries understood what it meant for a Japanese

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ruler to receive investiture from the Ming emperor in terms of]apan’s status vis-a-vis China in Asian hierarchy. None ofYoshimitsu’s succes- sors performed tribute practices as Yoshimitsu did.

There are several explanations for Japan’s behavior under Yoshim- itsu. Some have argued that Yoshimitsu’s behavior stemmed from his ignorance of East Asian diplomatic protocol-that is, he did not under- stand what it meant to use the title “king of]apan.” Others suggest that Yoshimitsu’s use of the title “king” was a mere formality, with no po- litical significance attached to it. 87 Yet, the strong disapproval and cen- sure among Muromachi Japan’s politically active constituencies and actors, including the imperial court nobles, indicates that it is not likely that Yoshimitsu acted out of ignorance of the significance of the symbolism surrounding investiture. Japanese authors had in fact been writing about the meanings of tribute practices since medieval times,88 and Confucian classics served as the foundation for the edu- cation of Japanese imperial aristocrats. In other words, Japanese rul- ing elites had learned about the ancient Chinese worldview, the notion of appropriate rituals, and the idea of hierarchical relationships between ruler and governed.89 Yoshimitsu himself read all four basic Confucian classics: the Analects and the Mencius (as recommended by the Japanese imperial court scholars) and the Doctrine of the Mean and Great Learning (under the instruction of Gido, a renowned Zen priest and a scholar of Neo-Confucianism).90 Even while considering Yoshi- mitsu’s overall lack of interest in international affairs, it is difficult to believe that he was completely unaware of the meanings of his actions vis-a-vis the Ming empire.

A second explanation, advanced by many early twentieth-century historians, is that Yoshimitsu was mainly interested in the trade prof- its that official tributary relations would bring him, especially in light of his luxurious spending habits.91 According to Takeo Tanaka, in 1401 a Japanese merchant from Hakata who had returned from China convinced Yoshimitsu that he would reap handsome profits from con- ducting trade with the Asian mainland.92 Yoshimitsu’s interest in com- mercial profits was in fact an important consideration in opening of- ficial relations with the Ming. Per the rules of the tribute system, if Japan wanted to open trading relations with the Ming, the only way to

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obtain such opportunities was to send official]apanese tribute-bearing missions to the capital of the Ming empire. Yoshimitsu’s acceptance of Ming tributary status actually resulted in a commercial agreement between Muromachi Japan and Ming China in 1404. From this agree- ment, the ruler of Japan received valuable gifts from the Chinese em- peror in return for submitting local products as tribute. His official tribute-bearing delegations were permitted to bring supplementary goods to trade with China and to sell to the Chinese court at a price fixed by the two parties or on the open market. After Yoshimitsu opened relations with China, he sent Japanese embassies of trade ships to China nearly every year until his death in 1408. Under the agreement known as the kango, or tally trade system, seventeen tribute-bearing embassies were sent from Japan to China over the next 150 years.93

The trade argument seems to be validated by Japan’s behavior after Yoshimitsu’s death. None of his successors complied with tribute prac- tices as Yoshimitsu did. In 1433 during the reign ofYoshinari, the sixth shogun of the Muromachi period, Japan resumed the dispatch of offi- cial embassies to the Ming. The initiative came from the fifth Ming em- peror, Xuande, in 1423, when he relayed a message through the king of Ryukyu, who was a Ming tributary, urging Japan “to obey the Heavenly will” and “to dispatch envoys to the Ming court.”94 When Japan deci- ded to resume relations with the Ming, commercial interests based on tally trade sustainedJapan-Ming relations.

Japanese rulers had to strike a balance between their pursuit of trad- ing interests and political reluctance to be a Ming tributary. The Ming would not accept Japan’s embassies unless they met requirements of the tribute system. For example, during the initial period ofMuromachi- Ming relations, between 1368 and 1401, Hongwu refused to meet Japa- nese embassies or accept tribute from them, because they did not carry a memorial from the king of]apan or the wording of the document was defiant and rude, not in a Chinese style.95 When a local leader, Shimazu Ujihisa of southern Kyushu in Japan, sent tribute items to the Ming, Hongwu reprimanded him for being “improper and beyond his posi- tion.”96 To have their embassies accepted, the Japanese shoguns after Yoshimitsu used the words “your subject” but not the title “king.” Ac- cording to Wang, the Japanese were willing to take a humble tone in

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their memorial to the Ming court because it was “necessary in order to insure good profits.”97 Between 1433 and 1547,Japanese delegations visited China eleven times for commercial activities only.98

A third explanation for Japan’s behavior under Yoshimitsu focuses on domestic politics. This line of argument views that Yoshimitsu used foreign policy as a tool for enhancing his shogunallegitimacy, as he faced the task of consolidating his domestic authority vis-a-vis politi- cal rivals, shugo daimyo (regional military houses). According to Ken- neth Grossberg, although Yoshimitsu’s acceptance of the Chinese title placed him under the Chinese emperor in the hierarchy of Asian international relations, it enabled him to construct “a new sense of]apa- nese nationhood with respect to the outside world, with the shogun- not the emperor-as its primary symbol.”99 By accepting the title “king of Japan,” Yoshimitsu showed that he was Japan’s head of state, thus expanding shogunal authority. John Hall similarly argues that Yoshi- mitsu’s behavior had to do with his efforts “to gain recognition as a member of the wider East Asia community” and that, as chief of the military, he had full control of Japan’s foreign affairs.100 According to Tanaka, Yoshimitsu’s decision to accept investiture was “not simply a whimsical or willful act by an upstart military dictator, but rather an important step in the establishment of]apan’s position in East Asia.”101

He argues that this was “an epoch-making event” not just for East Asia but “for the place of the shogunate within Japan itself.” An Ashikaga shogun’s decision to accept the title “king” demonstrated a new author- ity of warrior rulers. The shogun, not the Japanese imperial court, would be in charge of]apan’s foreign policy.102

Although all of these arguments have merits, a domestic politics lens has greater explanatory power. Consider that it was during Yoshimit- su’s reign that the civil war between the two imperial courts ended, thereby making him the first ruler of a unified Muromachi Japan. He is widely considered to have been the most powerful ruler ofMuroma- chi]apan.103 Yoshimitsu was in the process of establishing his own do- mestic political order and Muromachi authority after the Nambokucho civil war period, and he used the practice of investiture from China to further his domestic goals. In this paradigm, the focus is on how Mu- romachi Japan’s leaders sought to legitimate their military victory to

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become the rulers of]apan at the national level. Yoshimitsu’s actiones- tablished the position of shogun (the top warrior ruler at the top of samurai hierarchy) above the japanese emperor and shugo daimyo in national politics. In other words, to a new warrior ruler of Japan that consolidated Muromachi japan’s rule, the japanese imperial institution itself had been on the other side of the war and was therefore a politi- cal rival. Under Yoshimitsu’s rule, japan was transitioning from impe- rial rule to warrior rule.104 Within the broader historical context of japanese history transitioning from imperial rule to warrior rule, Yoshimitsu had to find a way that would enhance his position vis-a- vis the japanese emperor while consolidating warrior rule in japanese politics and society.105

Building a New Muromachi Order

To understand Yoshimitsu’s foreign policy with China, one must con- sider Japan’s domestic political context at the time. The founding of Muromachi]apan by Ashikaga Takauji in 1336 marked the second of three military governments in japan’s late medieval and early modern history-Kamakura (1185-1333), Muromachi (1336-1573), and Tokugawajapan (1603-1868). The task ofbuilding a new political order for Muromachi]apan involved the establishment of domestic authority not only by defeating enemies based on military power but also by le- gitimating the hold on power as a national ruler in the eyes of former enemies, warrior peers, and the public.106 Early Muromachi shoguns, especially the first shogun, Takauji, the second, Yoshiakira, and the third, Yoshimitsu, paved the way for Muromachi Japan’s rule for the next two hundred years. In their struggles for military domination and domestic legitimacy, early Muromachi rulers faced the challenge of prevailing over their rivals, including the Japanese emperor and powerful military houses known as shugo. The succeeding Muroma- chi shoguns expanded the boundaries of their control and jurisdic- tion, thereby emerging more powerful than their counterparts in previous eras.107 just before this transition from the Kamakura to the Muromachi governments, the Kemmu Restoration of 1333-1336 marked an attempt by the japanese emperor Go Daigo to restore an earlier

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form of government between the eighth and twelfth centuries that had centered on direct imperial rule.108

By 1335, Ashikaga Takauji’s political opponents in the field were those warriors who supported the emperor Go Daigo’s cause, such as Nitta Yoshisada. The resulting civil war between military houses sup- porting the Northern Court and the Southern Court in exile lasted for some sixty years until1392, when Ashikaga Yoshimitsu successfully put an end to the rivalry between the two courts. When the third shogun, Yoshimitsu, came into power, Japan was still in the state of civil war. This division of the imperial court between the Northern and Southern Courts and Yoshimitsu’s subsequent military success in suppressing these military houses are significant in terms of Yoshimitsu’s China policy initiatives in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. As noted, when the Ming emperor Hongwu sent his second mission to Japan in 1369, after Japan’s silence over his first embassy a year earlier proclaiming the founding of Ming China, his envoys went to Go Daigo’s Southern Court in the northern Kyushu area. In other words, control over the Kyushu provinces and foreign relations of Japan was in the hands of Yoshimitsu’s rivals, the emperor Go Daigo’s Southern Court and his son KaneyoshU09 Therefore, one area of control that the Ashikaga shogunate and the Northern Court backed by the Ashikaga did not have until the 1392 victory was the shogun’s hold over foreign affairs. Yoshimitsu’s rival, the Southern Court, was the ruler of]apan in the eyes of outsiders, China. It is not hard to imagine that Yoshimitsu would have wanted to assert that right to represent the whole of Japan vis-a-vis others outside JapanY0

Shugo was a group of powerful provincial officials whose closest Eu- ropean counterparts would be medieval counts.111 The Ashikaga house itself had been among the powerful shu go military houses that served the Hojo under the Kamakura bakufu’s lord-vassal relationships.112 In the process of building a new government, the Ashikaga faced a politi- cal imperative to make its warrior peers believe and accept that the Ashikaga deserved to be the ruler of]apan. As the provider of order and peace at the national level, the Muromachi shoguns held the power to issue orders of appointment and distributed shugo posts as rewards for loyal service in battle.113 The shogun’s ability to suppress provincial un-

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rest or punish a recalcitrant shugo depended on his continued success in motivating a critical number of shugo to obey his commands.114

Many historians note that the tension, cooperation, and political ri- valries between the Muromachi shoguns and the shugo are the most important defining political features of the Muromachi period.U5 Ac- cording to Grossberg:

From the founding of the [Muromachi] Bakufu right up to Yoshim- itsu’s coming to power [in 1368], the most serious obstacle to Muro- machi sovereignty remained unaltered: how to bind the shugo close enough to the central government to guarantee at the very least their compliance and at best their cooperation, without allowing their very proximity to the centers of power to encroach on the shogun’s privileges.116

Similarly, Hall notes that the interests of the Muromachi shoguns and the shugo “were at odds with each other” and that the shoguns had to assert their primacy over the independence of the shugo.117

Yoshimitsu and the japanese Emperor

Japanese rulers who were tasked with building political order after periods of war and chaos tended to resort to the symbolic authority of the Japanese emperor and the court once they amassed military power. Following tradition, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu actively sought titles from the Japanese imperial court and enjoyed a more prestigious position than any other warrior ruler in Japanese history. Yet, in the wake of the civil war, Yoshimitsu also defied that tradition, turning to the Chinese Ming emperor rather than the Japanese emperor. In Yoshimitsu’s case, the country was transitioning from imperial rule to warrior rule. To the new warrior ruler of]apan, the Japanese imperial institution had been a political rival; thus, the warrior ruler had to find a way to enhance his position vis-a-vis the Japanese emperor in the process of consoli- dating rule in Japanese politics and society.

The Muromachi shogunate never discredited the institution of the Japanese emperor and the imperial court itself, and it continued to seek

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titles and ranks from this traditional source of political legitimation in Japanese society. Yoshimochi, Yoshimitsu’s successor, notes in a letter to the Ming rejecting the offer to be a Ming tributary:

When my late father was sick, the fortuneteller said: “the gods have cursed him.” Consequently, we hurried about making pious prayers. At that time sacred gods said through the agency of a man: “ever since antiquity our country has never called itself a vassal of a foreign land. Of late, you have changed the way of the former sage sovereigns; you have accepted the Chinese calendar and Chinese seal and have not declined them. This is why you have incurred illness.”118

The desire that Japan should not be a Chinese tributary is linked to a sense of legitimacy derived from the Japanese imperial institution. Zuikei’s commentary on Yoshimitsu’s China policy echoes the same message. He argues that Japan “has used our own era names since an- cient times. Therefore, the appropriate thing would be to use the era name of our country.”119 He further argues that Yoshimitsu “should have written his Japanese office title and noble rank in the usual [Japanese] format.”120 There is a strikingly similar sense of disapproval among Yoshimochi, Zuikei, and other prewar Japanese historians when it comes to the symbolism of the Japanese emperor specific to Japanese society and culture and the social impossibility of a Japanese ruler comply- ing with Chinese tributary practices under the circumstances.

The key now is to seek an answer as to why Yoshimitsu turned to the Chinese Ming emperor rather than to the traditional method of resorting to the Japanese emperor. As noted, Yoshimitsu did not dis- regard the Japanese emperor while seeking Ming investiture. However, in Yoshimitsu’s case, unlike in other periods, domestic conditions were such that the country was in the midst of transitioning from imperial rule to warrior rule through the civil war of the Nambokucho period. By 1335, Ashikaga Takauji faced political opponents comprising warriors who supported Emperor Go Daigo’s cause. After Yoshimitsu came to power in 1368, Ming emperor Hongwu sent a mission to Japan in 1369; his envoys went to Go Daigo’s Southern Court. In other words,

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in the eyes of China, the Southern Court was the ruler of Japan, and Japan’s foreign relations were in the hands ofYoshimitsu’s rivals,121 a situation that Yoshimitsu was eager to change after he successfully negotiated an end to the civil war.122 To a new warrior ruler of Japan, the Ashikaga, the Japanese imperial institution itself had been on the other side in the war and thus was a political rival. Therefore, its war- rior ruler had to find a way to enhance his position vis-a-vis the Japa- nese emperor while consolidating warrior rule in Japanese politics and society.


The ways in which Korea and Japan responded to the rise of the Ming empire mark puzzling fluctuations that deviate from the usual patterns of Japan’s defiance and Korea’s compliance with Chinese hegemony. Korea embarked on military actions over the border area called the Liaodong, risking the Ming empire’s military intervention on three occasions: in 1370, 1388, and 1398.123 Korean behavior during this time at the beginning of the Ming empire provides evidence against the standard neorealist expectation that compliance with Chinese hege- mony was a function of relative military weakness and geographical proximity. In 1370, Korea appeared to bandwagon with the Ming by becoming a Ming tributary against the declining Yuan empire. But soon Korean responses vacillated notably: from compliance (1370), to a failed challenge (1388), back to compliance (1392), and then again to an at- tempt to challenge (1398).

During these early years of Ming hegemonic order building, Japan’s behavior was also marked by a remarkable deviation from the usual pattern. Japan became an official Ming tributary-a one-time event in Japan’s early modern history-as Yoshimitsu accepted the Chinese title in being designated “the king of Japan” and called himself a subject of the Chinese emperor. From the realist point of view, it is puzzling that Japan’s compliance came at a time when its material power was at its strongest during the entire Muromachi period.

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I 02 The Making of Ming Hegemony

From a rationalist point of view, one could argue that Yoshimitsu was mainly interested in trading profits that only an official tributary could offer, but such a view is not supported when weighed against empirical evidence.

This chapter has shown that in both the Korean and the Japanese cases, their compliance decisions were primarily an outcome of domes- tic politics considerations. More specifically, the rise of the Ming em- pire not only signified a shift in the power balance at the international level but also had important implications for domestic power balances within Korea and japan as leaders attempted to manipulate the Ming empire’s symbolic power to their advantage against their own politi- cal rivals. Korea’s campaign in 1370 grew out of King Kongmin’s efforts to weaken his domestic opponents, who were associated with the au- thority of the Yuan empire. By forming a new tributary relationship with the newly founded Ming empire and terminating the relation- ship with the Yuan empire, Kongmin removed the pro-Yuan faction in Koryo, particularly the Korean relatives of the Yuan empress Ki and her associates, as well as other powerful families who represented the old political order controlled by the Yuan.124

Korea’s 1388 campaign was triggered by the Ming’s plans to place the northeastern part of the Korean peninsula under its control. But Korea’s decision to strike at the Ming was a product of Korea’s internal power balance tilting toward the pro-status quo Koryo king U and his general, Ch’oe Yong (associated with the pro-Yuan families), against Yi Song-gye and his supporters.125 The plan did not materialize because when the army reached the border, Yi Song-gye turned the army back, dethroned King U, and, four years later, in 1392, founded a new dynasty, called Choson.126 With Yi Song-gye having founded a new state through a military coup, Choson Korea’s compliance resulted from his domestic legitimacy as well as external security considerations, because he was keen on receiving recognition from the Ming emperor in order to secure his position against those who were still loyal to the previous dynasty. Korea’s 1398 plan to send an expeditionary force against the Ming similarly confirms that Korea’s compliance decision was determined by its own domestic conditions rather than only the Ming’s power.

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In Japan, Yoshimitsu’s decision to become a Ming tributary had a great deal to do with his effort to legitimate his position as sovereign within Japan, especially above that of the Japanese emperor. Having completed the negotiations that ended the civil war between the im- perial Northern Court and the imperial Southern Court, Yoshimitsu was in the process of establishing a new domestic political order in Muromachi]apan. Unlike other Japanese rulers, Yoshimitsu’s political rivals were therefore not just the powerful military houses known as shugo127 but the Japanese emperor himself.128

A consideration of the actions not just of the Ming empire but of Japan and Korea shows that the tribute system was not always linked to peace. The Ming empire used tribute practices as a means to put pressure on Korea to steer the course of events in its favor. At the same time, Korea’s actions toward the Ming show that being a tributary state does not mean losing the ability to use force against the hegemon. Rather, Koryo and Choson Korea used tribute practices to ensure and protect their political independence and autonomy against Chinese control.

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