April 28, 2022

Conference Paper: The Imjin War and Military Innovation

Dr Barend Noordam gave a talk at the 88th Annual Meeting of the Society for Military History, Chinese Military History Society Meeting. The talk, entitled “How Relevant was the Imjin War for Military Innovation?” took place on 28th of April 2022 in Forth Worth, USA. 


A persistent idea among military historians concerns the importance of interstate competition as a driver for military innovation. This geopolitical precondition is thought to have privileged the early modern European state system over other regions of the world in this respect. It is also often invoked to explain the eventual lagging behind of China, which started to manifest itself during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) in areas such as firearms technology, fortifications, and ship design. The Ming was certainly not a peaceful dynasty, but it mostly fought nomadic horsemen, pirates, ethnic minorities, and peasant rebels, challenges which are not thought to have generated sufficient stimuli for innovation. The Imjin War (1592-1598) seemingly forms a crucial exception: during this conflict Ming armies came to the aid of ally Chosŏn Korea against a large Japanese invasion of more than 150,000 troops. This was arguably a very “European” confrontation between centralized sedentary states, albeit on a vastly larger scale. The question this paper endeavours to answer is whether this conflict can be said to have accelerated military innovations and manifested them according to early modern European patterns to any meaningful extent in China? This topic will be approached from a number of different angles: evidence of technological innovation and dissemination between the three belligerents; the predilections for certain weapons, techniques, and tactics as they manifested themselves during and after the war; and the impact on the production and circulation of military knowledge. Last, but not least, this paper will assess the importance of the conflict in purely military terms as perceived in contemporary historical writings.