Thursday, January 03, 2008

Snobbery, Fear and Loathing in the Imjin War

I’ve been leading a small discussion group on the Samurai Archives Citadel forum on the topic of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s invasions of Korea. We’ve been having a great time and learning a great deal about this conflict. We recently had a discussion about some of the books covering this topic available in English. Never a dull topic, this 1592-1598 conflict has managed to spark debate among Chinese, Korean and Japanese scholars for quite a long time. Now, it seems the scholarly sniping has reached the English speaking world as well.

In the past six years or so, it seems that Hideyoshi’s Korean wars, henceforth called the ‘Imjin War’ have caught the attention of native English-speaking scholars. First on the scene was Stephen Turnbull in 2002 with his ground breaking book, Samurai Invasion, followed by Samuel Hawley with The Imjin War. Kenneth Swope, currently an Assistant Professor of History at Ball State University, came out with some papers and articles on the conflict, most notably “Crouching Tigers, Secret Weapons: Military Technology Employed During the Sino-Japanese-Korean War, 1592–1598” published in The Journal of Military History 69 (January 2005) and then “Beyond Turtleboats: Siege Accounts from Hideyoshi’s Second Invasion of Korea, 1597-1598” published in the Sungkyun Journal of East Asian Studies Vol. 6, No. 2. 2006.

First a few words on Turnbull. Let’s face it. Dr. Turnbull has been a whipping boy in many circles for a variety of reasons ranging from recycling Papinot nearly word for word, sloppy mistakes, and then regurgitating his own works in “new” books at a pace that rivals the output of the slurpee machine at the corner Seven-Eleven. But I’m not here to bury Dr. Turnbull today in heaps of scorn, but to praise him. Faults aside, Turnbull deserves a great deal of credit for bringing the Imjin War to the forefront as his name is a big draw in the samurai history mass media market. In the West, the Imjin War is really the truly ‘forgotten’ Korean war and Turnbull has pulled this topic out of the shadows and into the light in what I feel is probably his best major work. Turnbull gives a very good, agenda-free account of the conflict that left me hungering for more.

Luckily for me, Samuel Hawley came out with the meaty The Imjin War. At over 600 pages, this book is a feast for one looking for a well-rounded narrative of the war. I was hooked as soon as I started reading about the pre-invasion diplomatic posturing and blundering. Well researched and documented, Hawley deserves a big round of applause for this work. While Turnbull is better at focusing on the purely military aspects of the Imjin War, Hawley excels at telling the “story behind the story” in an easy-to-follow format. Hawley and Turnbull’s books nicely complement each other kind of like an appetizer and a main course. But what’s for dessert?

Unfortunately it looks like “sour grapes” are on the menu. As previously mentioned, Swope has written some articles (actually more than two) on the Imjin War, and a book entitled A Dragon’s Head and a Serpent’s Tail: Ming China and the First Greater East Asian War, 1592-1598, is due to be published later this year as part of the University of Oklahoma Press’s “Campaigns & Commanders” series. But even long before the publication of his book, Swope has taken it upon himself to go on the offensive against both Turnbull and Hawley.

Here is what Swope had to say about Turnbull’s Samurai Invasion in his “Crouching Tiger” article:
“Stephen Turnbull published the first popular account, which, although it provides a solid general narrative of the war, has a number of shortcomings. First of all, Turnbull relies entirely on Japanese- and English-language secondary materials, augmented by a few translations of primary sources. He uses virtually nothing written from the Chinese perspective, not even widely available English-language reference works or monographs. He also leaves out much important Japanese scholarship, most notably the works of Kitajima Manji, who has published extensively on the subject. As a result the work is one-sided and presents a rather flawed interpretation of the war. Turnbull repeats the conventional view that Hideyoshi’s death in 1598 was the primary factor in Japan’s defeat in Korea. He also seems to adopt a pro-Japanese slant throughout, such as glossing over Japanese atrocities by blaming them on “lesser soldiers not in the first rank of samurai heroes.” Nevertheless, Turnbull does deserve credit for making a larger audience aware of this war and its historical importance...erroneously refers to the Battle of Pyŏkchegwan as the largest or most important conflict of the entire Korean campaign.”

It doesn’t seem all that professional to attack another author like this in an article such as “Crouching Tigers”. Turnbull’s book may have some flaws and is by no means perfect, but I cannot agree completely with Swope’s criticism of Turnbull. Was “Crouching Tigers” meant to be an op-ed or review of other works or a vehicle for Swope to put forth his theory that technology was the single most important variable in determining the outcome of the war?

Turnbull has trooped on with his Imjin research and has published additional titles for Osprey that touch upon the Imjin War, most notably Fighting Ships of the Far East 2 and the newly released Japanese Castles in Korea 1592-98. I think it is safe to say that Turnbull’s level of scholarship is improving, but again, his previous works have brought himself a lot of criticism in the past, some of it deserved. People may have a negative thing or two to say about Turnbull, but one thing you cannot deny is that he has been a gentleman in the face of Swope’s criticism. In the bibliographical section of Japanese Castles in Korea, Turnbull praises Swope as being a ‘particularly fine contributor’ to the study of the Imjin War and singles out “Crouching Tigers” as one of these outstanding articles. I thought this was classy, especially after what Swope wrote about Turnbull’s book in that article.

In the case of Hawley’s book, Swope goes to work on him in perhaps one of the most public of places in the world-- In a scathing swipe at Hawley in a review on the book’s website, Swope writes:

“While this book has the trappings of an academic monograph, it is in fact little more than a basic narrative cobbled together from translated sources. The author provides little real analysis and has only a limited grasp of the actual historical source base, instead working through the translations of others. The result is a well-intentioned, but ultimately unsatisfying work full of both minor and major mistakes of fact and interpretation. It is perhaps slightly better than what might be available in English (in one volume) at this point, but those seeking a serious and nuanced understanding of this conflict, should best look elsewhere.”

Oh, the snobbery drips from Swope’s review like snot from a bratty kid’s runny nose! Hawley’s book was a six-year labor of love in the making, and the painstaking research he did to weave this book into a coherent and excellent overview of the Imjin War deserves to be commended. For an academic aspiring for Imjin ‘greatness’, a blatant attack of this nature is despicable.

What is Swope looking for? Absolute perfection? In a topic such as the Imjin War where the truth lies somewhere between what is written in the contemporary primary sources of the Japanese, Koreans and Chinese, it is going to be hard to find perfection—let alone write a book that satisfies people who have ulterior agendas aimed at defending or glorifying the actions of any one of the combatants in this multinational conflict.

I don’t know what Turnbull and Hawley have done to deserve such public attacks by Swope. Perhaps they didn’t heap enough praise on the Ming nor pay the proper level of respect to the Middle Kingdom’s role in pushing the Japanese ‘robber dwarfs’ off the continent. Whatever the case, I certainly hope that this isn’t Swope’s way of doing pre-publication self-promotion. Swope’s swipes at both Turnbull and Hawley sorely detract from the merit of his own research and writing—and that is too bad, because I think Swope has a lot of interesting things to say, whether one agrees with everything he writes or not. Instead, Swope has taken us on a snobbish detour into his personal fear and loathing of his peers. Perhaps it is just a case of Imjin envy?

In any event, Swope’s criticisms, like an old fashioned Chinese fo-lang-chi firearm, lack any decisive battlefield punch and could make him look like a true paper tiger. Swope himself will have to run the gauntlet of peer reviews when his new book, A Dragon’s Head and a Serpent’s Tail is published. Swope’s attacks on Turnbull and Hawley could actually blow up in his face like a poorly made Ming copy of a Portuguese arquebus if his book misses the mark. All we can do is wait and see.


  1. Hi,

    This is Wangkon936. You may be familiar with me on the Chinese History Forum and my reviews in Amazon. I'm the featured user reviewer for Sam Hawley's Imjin War.

    Any ways, I thought your analysis of the current status of English language studies on the Imjin War was done very well.

    I'd like to have a dialouge with you if possible. Please send a message through my profile on the Chinese History Forum. Thanks.

  2. Just FYI - Columbia University is now offering a course titled "The Imjin War: The Emergence of a New East Asia." It has been put together by the Korean Scholar Dr. Ja-hyun Kim Haboush.

  3. Oh I think Stephen Turnbull heaped enough praise on the Ming Chinese in his book, outrageously titling one section "The Chinese Liberation of Korea."

  4. You are referring to Turnbull's new Osprey book, "The Samurai Invasion of Korea", right? At the time I wrote this entry, the book was not yet published. Turnbull's now out of print "Samurai Invasion" which was published in 2002, figured prominently in the blog.

    Regarding Turnbull's latest effort on this subject, it looks like Swope's criticisms and perhaps some comments by some 'hardcore' China History Forum members may have rattled his cage. One can't deny that Chinese intervention did affect the strategic situation on land, however, labeling the Ming forces as ‘liberators’ is taking it a little too far. The most overriding reason why the Japanese lost this war had to do with the fact that they couldn't adequately reinforce or resupply themselves from Japan. The Korean navy did a good job of seeing to that.

  5. Hehe. Looks like somebody is in denial. Why would a renowned scholar like Dr. Turnbull be swayed by opinions from someone with "sour grapes" or whiners on an online forum? Maybe, just maybe, it happens to be the truth. Come to think of it, if the Korean navy did such a fine job fighting the war, why did the Korean court even bother begging the Ming Emperor for help? It is true that the Ming armies didn't manage to push the Japanese all the way to the sea, but the fact of the matter is that the Chinese's entry into the war turned what would have been a Japanese sweep through the pennisula into a stalemate, pullng Korea from the brink of extinction and recovering half of her lost land in the process. That, my friend, is what really mattered. The Korean navy under Yi was certainly a bright spot in the war, but what they did was like putting the last nail in the coffin of the Japanese invaders. The Chinese intervention did more than "affecting" the strategic situation on land; it was the *deciding* factor in changing the course of the war, not unlike what happened on the very soil again 350 years later. To downplay its significance is nothing but in denial.

  6. Turnbul and "renowned scholar" in the same sentence. lol

  7. "The Chinese intervention did more than "affecting" the strategic situation on land; it was the *deciding* factor in changing the course of the war, not unlike what happened on the very soil again 350 years later."

    Afraid not. The Ming army was poorly led, routinely underperformed in battle, and did little except speed up the end of the war. However, their 'support group' among those of Chinese descent in the west has done wonders for their reputation. And as the previous poster indicated, if you consider Turnbull a 'reknowed scholar', you really need to start choosing your reading matter more intelligently.