March 1, 2023

Conference paper: War and the Non-Combatant in the Late Ming

Dr Barend Noordam will give a talk “War and the Non-Combatant in the Late Ming: The Case of the Imjin War (1592-1598)” as part of the panel “Unexpected Voices Against Military Excess: Mitigating State Violence in China, Korea, and Myanmar, 1592-2020,” at the Association for Asian Studies Conference, Boston, March 16-19, 2023.


Concern for the welfare of civilian non-combatant populations was only scantily addressed in the military classics, yet during the Tang dynasty the idea of not abusing civilians during military action was established in theory, if not in practice. By the late Ming, this concern was established on a firmer basis in theory and praxis. Among the troops from China that entered the Imjin War, fighting with Korea against Japan, it was specifically soldiers from the southern reaches of the empire that were known for their disciplined restraint. This paper argues that these southern forces had been trained to fight an enemy which often blended in with the civilian population, or indeed was part of it. To quell such disturbances, sixteenth-century Ming officials aimed to entice civilians to side with imperial forces by minimizing the damage military campaigns did to civilians and their livelihoods and by imposing collective civilian self-surveillance. These approaches were elaborated in mid-sixteenth-century military manuals, especially those composed by commander Qi Jiguang (1528-1588), renowned for his campaigns against coastal pirates and for his military achievements on the northern frontier. I trace the development of the idea of minimizing violence against civilian communities, its articulation in military regulations, and its disciplinary enforcement, by analyzing military manuals, reports, and campaign ordinances composed up through the Imjin War. These sources provide a detailed view of the measures Ming officers took to enforce the necessary discipline on their soldiers, and the normative relations between combatants and non-combatants they strove to achieve.