David C. Kang


On his book East Asia Before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute

Cover Interview of January 24, 2011

The wide angle

In 1592, the Japanese general Toyotomi Hideyoshi invaded Korea with over 160,000 troops on approximately 700 ships.  Intending to conquer China after first subduing Korea, he eventually mobilized half a million troops.

In the “Imjin War,” as it was called in Korea, over 60,000 Korean soldiers, eventually supported by over 100,000 Ming Chinese forces, defended the Korean peninsula.  After six years of war, the Japanese retreated.  Hideyoshi died, having failed spectacularly in his quest to conquer China and Korea.

The Imjin War easily dwarfed its European contemporaries, involving men and material five to ten times the scale of the Spanish Armada of 1588, often described as the greatest military force ever assembled in Renaissance Europe.  That in itself should be sufficient cause for us to explore the causes and consequences of the Imjin War.

Yet even more important for the study of international relations, Hideyoshi’s invasion of Korea marked the only military conflict between Japan, Korea, and China for over six centuries.  For three hundred years before the Imjin War, and then for another three hundred years after it, three of the major powers in East Asia coexisted peacefully—despite having the military and technological capability to wage war on a massive scale.

China was clearly the hegemon—a dominant military, cultural, and economic power in the system.  But China’s goals did not include expansion against its established neighboring states with which it had stable borders.  These smaller Sinicized states emulated Chinese practices and to varying degrees accepted Chinese centrality in the region.

However, my central claim of East Asian stability does not imply that violence was rare in East Asia.

There was plenty of violence.  But it tended to occur between China and the semi-nomadic peoples on its northern and western frontiers—not between China and the other Sinicized states.  This violence occurred in the form of border skirmishes, piracy, and the slow expansion and frontier.  These helped consolidate states such as China at the expense of non-state units.

The peoples in these non-state units differed vastly in worldviews and political structures from the Chinese state encroaching on them—and they resisted Confucian cultural ideas.  The frontier was only turned into a border when China expanded westward, and other states such as Russia began to expand eastward, which left the nomads with nowhere to move.

I became interested in this era because many of us who study the international relations of East Asia focus almost exclusively on the 20th century.

Furthermore, specialists of international relations tend to know far more about the Spanish Armada, the Holy Roman Empire, Napoleon, and European history than they do about the Chinese tributary system or Japanese foreign relations in the Tokugawa era.

The research presented in this book should make us cautious about assuming that the European experience is universal.  China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam are still around in the twenty-first century—and they are recognizably the same states from five hundred years or even one thousand years ago.

Because the European system of the past few centuries eventually developed into a set of rules and institutions and norms now used by all countries around the world, we have tended to assume that this was both natural and inevitable, and that all international systems behave the same way.  With the increasing importance and presence of East Asian states in the world, it has been common to apply ideas and models based on the European experience in order to explain Asia and to assume universality to the European experience.

This study exposes us to the variety of relations that are possible in the world; it will hopefully widen the readers’ expectations for what international relations may be like.