Supply Lines in Choson Korea


A review of Provisions and Profits in a Wartime Borderland: Supply Lines and Society in the Border Region between China and Korea, 1592-1644, by Masato Hasegawa.

“When armies march, provisions follow.” (師行) So runs the Chinese idiom describing the immense importance of logistics in warfare. Although, as Masato Hasegawa rightly points out on page 250 of his dissertation, Provisions and Profits in a Wartime Borderland: Supply Lines and Society in the Border Region between China and Korea, 1592-1644, provisions rarely followed troops in such an orderly and consistent manner. While the excitement of the battlefield and armaments may sell popular history books, the success of military campaigns themselves are frequently determined by such quotidian matters as food, shelter, transportation, and community relations. Should one transport goods by ship, cart, or wheelbarrow? On horseback, camelback, muleback, or on the backs of soldiers or conscript labourers? Alternately, should one leave soldiers to purchase or plunder supplies on their own? Such decisions can determine the success of a conflict as much as, or more so than, stratagems, new weapons, or heroic generals. The logistics of campaigns also tell the historian a great deal about the societies in which the wars occurred and the governments which pursued these wars.

The Imjin War (1592-1598), in which the Japanese under Hideyoshi (1537-1598) invaded Chosŏn Korea (1392-1910) and prompted a massive military response from the Ming (1368-1644) on behalf of their Korean ally, is a subject of significant interest from Korean, Japanese, and Chinese scholars, but was barely discussed in English language scholarship. This has begun to change with two recent narrative histories of the war, a survey of the war as a whole by Samuel Hawley (Imjin War: Japan’s Sixteenth Century Invasion of Korea and Attempt to Conquer China. Seoul: Royal Asiatic Society, Korea Branch, 2005) and a discussion focussed on the Ming involvement by Kenneth M. Swope (A Dragon’s Head and a Serpent’s Tail: Ming China and the First Great East Asian War, 1592-1598. Norman: Oklahoma University Press, 2009). Both books are primarily concerned with surveying the key battles, not the supply lines. In South Korean scholarship much has been published about the war by both academic and popular writers. In popular history, the Imjin War attracts as much attention as the Korean War (1950-1953), but is much more unifying, lacking as it does the painful political scars that are associated with the latter. The famous admiral, Yi Sunsin (1545-1598), is a national hero, and a key naval battle in the war, the 1597 Battle of Myŏngnyang, was the subject of a popular 2014 movie entitled The Admiral: Roaring Currents in English.

However, as Hasegawa confirms here, there is much more to say about the war than battles and heroic generals. So important were supply lines in the conflict that, as Hasegawa points out in the introduction, well after the frontlines of the war had retreated to the southern coast of the peninsula, the civilians of P’yŏng’an and Hwanghae provinces, far from the frontlines but on the main route connecting the Ming empire with Chosŏn, were still heavily burdened by demands to provide logistic support for military units further south (pp. 1-2). Building on considerable research in Korean, Japanese, and Chinese, even while fully considering work on border studies and logistics written in English and other languages, Hasegawa in this dissertation reveals the extensive and detailed efforts made by Ming military planners to provide logistic support for its armies in Chosŏn while limiting, as much as possible, damage to and conflict with Ming and Chosŏn civilians.

The first chapter, “Provisioning Armies in a Borderland: Ming Quartermasters in Wartime Korea in the Late Sixteenth Century,” explores the problems of supply lines during the early Imjin War via the specific struggles of two Ming officials in charge of supply, Ai Weixin and Zhang Sanwei. In particular, the chapter is centered on one controversial incident, namely the 1593 beating of three Chosŏn civil officials at the command of Ai, who accused them of failing to maintain the timely movement of supplies to the Ming military. Although Chosŏn civil officials did not normally suffer corporal punishment, Ai’s action received significant support from some Chosŏn officials. His action was criticized by some of his Chinese colleagues, including the famed Ming military official, Li Rusong (1549-1598), who saw Ai as an ignorant civil official with no understanding of the situation. Another colleague, Zhang Sanwei, a military official from the Liao region, alleged that Ai administered the beating in part because he felt personally slighted by the Chosŏn officials. As Hasegawa ably points out, this conflict was hardly a minor episode, but is in fact highly informative of the complexities of supplying the Ming armies in Chosŏn. From the beginning of the Ming military intervention, Zhang had recognized that Chosŏn did not have sufficient supplies to support the Ming forces as they advanced south toward P’yŏngyang and had expressed this judgement in reports provided to the Chosŏn court and to Military Commissioner Song Yingchang (1536-1606), the high official who commanded the Ming war effort in Chosŏn as a whole. The Ming thus imported additional supplies, but still relied on Chosŏn subjects to transport them. Although Ming officials like Zhang could calculate quite precisely the quantity of supplies required for each soldier and mount, the fine calculations of these officials could be thrown into disarray by the difficulties of moving goods in an alien cultural environment ravaged by war. The Japanese invasion of P’yŏng’an Province had driven many Chosŏn subjects into hiding. Those who remained along the supply routes were terribly burdened by frequent demands to transport supplies. Worse, Ming soldiers could not, as they had become accustomed, use silver to purchase goods, as the Chosŏn people did not employ silver for commercial exchange. Ming soldiers were thus forced to depend on bartering goods (such as cotton cloth and leather boots) for such supplies they sought to purchase in Chosŏn. Unequal power relations between Ming military forces and Chosŏn officials also resulted in some Ming officials making excessive demands on their Chosŏn counterparts. Under these circumstances, supplies did indeed fail to arrive on time, potentially with disastrous results, and these troubles could be made much worse by incompetence or corruption at all stages of the transportation of goods. Whether or not Ai’s beating of the three Chosŏn officials was justified, Hasegawa ably points out that his action reflected genuine logistical problems in the war effort.

The second chapter, “Merchants Cross the Yalu River: Chinese Merchants and the Ming’s War in Korea,” deals with the Ming military’s use of private merchants to transport supplies. In addition to transporting goods under direct central government authority, Ming officials also sought to move goods by manipulating prices. By paying more than market price for grains, beans, and other foodstuffs, the Ming army sought to compel Ming merchants to transport goods to the frontlines of their own volition. These economic exchanges were fraught with potential problems. It was not always easy to manipulate the price of goods, and at the very beginning of the war, the price of grain was actually higher west of the Shanhai pass in part because of the pressure on the grain supply caused by Ming soldiers passing through the region en route to Liaodong on the Chosŏn border. As a result, for a time merchants were not moving grain eastward to the military encampments on the Korean border but westward away from Korea. Another problem was that Ming soldiers at times engaged in forcible purchases at low prices from both Ming merchants and Chosŏn subjects, causing discord between locals and the advancing Ming force, and potentially discouraging Ming merchants from selling goods in the peninsula.

Despite these difficulties, the advantages of employing Ming merchants to transport supplies was considerable, as they could bring vital grains and beans to Chosŏn, which was suffering serious shortages, and could sell goods to Ming soldiers in exchange for silver. Ming merchants became a significant presence in Chosŏn during the war and for some time after it, and various techniques were employed to administer their presence, including the establishment of a periodic market on the Yalu River. Yet, vital though the merchants were, they were often a disruptive force. Because they had the power of the Ming army behind them, they engaged at times in predatory behaviour and drained vital resources from an impoverished Chosŏn (for instance, purchasing cast iron pots, which they sought to resell in the lower Yangzi river where cast iron was in demand to make iron farming tools), while the market on the Yalu became a conduit for the buying and selling of contraband between Chosŏn and Ming Liaodong.

Chapter 3, “Searching for a Semblance of Ordinary Life: Ming Soldiers in Chosŏn Society in the Late Sixteenth Century,” goes beyond the issue of the transportation of goods to discuss the difficulties in providing housing and entertainment for soldiers, as well as the challenges involved in facilitating the preparation of food. In this chapter, Hasegawa employs to good effect not only the Veritable Records of the Chosŏn Dynasty (Chosŏn wangjo sillok) and Song Yingchang’s Summary of the Restitution of Korea by the Military Commissioner (Jinglue fuguo yaobian), upon which much of the preceding chapters are based, but also Lü Kun’s (1536-1618) observations concerning the logistics of warfare in his Record of Effective Service (Shizhenglu). Hasegawa engages in a detailed analysis of Lü’s work. Notably, Lü was concerned with the problem of cooking while on the march, including such issues as the construction of ovens, locating wells, obtaining firewood (notably sparse in those regions which made use of coal), the need to carry flint to light the fires, the difficulty of cooking during rainy weather, and the impossibility of cooking noodles under military conditions. Despite these difficulties, Lü pointed out the necessity of facilitating cooking in the field as the alternative brought soldiers into villages, where there was a danger that they would pillage civilians and rape civilian women. To protect against such disastrous developments, Lü called not only for the establishment of strict discipline, but also for the provision of emergency food such as buns to prepare for those times when cooking was not possible, and the careful calculation of travel distances to allow for advanced food preparation at the army’s destination. Lü drew up detailed lists of necessary supplies (with recommended quantities) as well as procedures to be followed. He also argued that soldiers should never be allowed to camp in villages, as only market towns of at least three to five thousand families could effectively provide supplies for passing armies. He also specified in great detail the advanced preparations needed to prepare a camp for the arriving soldiers. When soldiers camped in cities, Lü argued for strict measures to ensure that soldiers paid above market price for any provisions purchased within the city, in this way encouraging civilian-military harmony. To raise military morale, he also called for the organization of regular feasts for soldiers.

To what extent were such policies put into effect? Usefully, Hasegawa compares Lü’s guide to military logistics with the actual policies pursued by Song Yingchang. Hasegawa finds significant echoes of Lü’s disciplined approach to organizing soldier communities in Song’s concern to provide allowances to the families which the soldiers left behind, including providing cotton quilts to allow for the construction of soft-walled enclosures (which were sufficient to block bullets fired from a long distance). He also promulgated long lists of required supplies, notably including dried food to provide sustenance when cooking was difficult. Song also was most concerned to prevent conflict between Chosŏn civilians and Ming soldiers, in part by implementing a strong code of conduct which harshly punished violence against the former, but also through the careful organization of proper supplies.

In Chapter 4, “Enlisting the Labor of Carters, Bearers and Animals: The Cross-Border Transport of Provisions and Society during Wartime,” Hasegawa deals with the vital issue of methods of transport. At the beginning of the Imjin War, it was considered possible to bring supplies to the border of Chosŏn by cart, then move goods within Chosŏn on horseback. Yet, whether in Liaodong or Chosŏn, all transport techniques had disadvantages. Song, from early on, found the purchase of carts troublesome, perhaps because the size of the army dispatched would deprive Liaodongese farmers of too many carts, and so instead directed resources to the purchase of oxen and, if oxen were not available in sufficient numbers, mules. Of course, oxen and mules also needed to be fed, so beans and grass fodder also had to be purchased. Mules, depending on road conditions, could haul fewer supplies than could oxen drawing ox carts. Even if carts were obtained, along with the needed draft animals, it was necessary to employ carters, who not only required wages, but who could also not always be trusted to operate honestly, and at times sold the very supplies which they were supposed to transport. Otherwise, the Chosŏn court conscripted Korean civilians, both men and women, to act as porters when draft animals were not available or as packers when they were. This process was made more difficult by the loss of discipline in the courier stations following the Japanese invasion. Moreover, both human porters and oxen were otherwise required for farming, and the burden of transporting goods to the military seriously interfered with agriculture when Chosŏn was already suffering from serious shortages caused by the disruptions of war. Some of these problems could have been solved by using boats for transportation, which Chosŏn officials actively explored, but this suffered from its own disadvantages, as it was vulnerable to bad weather and frequently impossible during winter.

In Chapter 5: Calculating the Costs and Benefits of Wartime Transport of Provisions: The Case of Mao Yuanyi (ca. 1594-1641),” Hasegawa turns away from the Imjin War to consider a discussion of military logistics after the Imjin War by Mao Yuanyi in his Record of Military Preparedness (Wubeizhi). Mao, who was concerned with logistic problems in the war against the later Jin in Manchuria during the early seventeenth century, was especially interested in issues surrounding transportation. Thus, his Record of Military Preparedness discussed river transportation and the four key sea lanes leading from southern China to Liaodong, although he provided little detail. Far more precise was his discussion of overland transport. He discussed the advantages of cart transport, and the different types of carts, including single-wheeled wheelbarrows, which required humans; ox carts, which required both oxen and humans; and mule carts, which required both mules and humans. Each type of cart could carry different quantities of goods, with mule carts able to carry the most (although Mao rejected this as very expensive). Finally, Mao also described the “supply cart,” which could not only carry provisions, but could also carry cannons and provide shelter to soldiers, although they required a significant team of both carters and mules.

Other methods of transportation discussed by Mao included horse transport without carts, which Mao saw as one of the least efficient since the horses still needed to be fed, but could not even carry as much as a wheelbarrow; camels (which would have been good but for the difficulty in obtaining sufficient camels); and human porters. Human porters, especially, could be employed in relays to move goods overland. Mao especially praised this method but acknowledged its weaknesses (as in the case where porters engaged in pack-swapping to sell their packs). In particular, teams of human porters could move goods in areas otherwise inaccessible by cart more cheaply than could unassisted draft animals.

This dissertation, in addition to offering considerable original analysis of primary documents, brings the contributions of Korean, Japanese and Chinese scholarship into the English language. It goes without saying that all who study the Imjin War will find this work – and any books and articles based on it – immensely useful, as no war can be understood without a thorough understanding of supply lines. The dissertation should also be of interest to the broader community of military historians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries who lack a reading knowledge of East Asian languages but who wish to understand military developments beyond Europe. Reading this dissertation, I am impressed by the numerous directions into which this work may be expanded. Historians of the Sino-Korean border and of Sino-Korean relations will find this work fascinating. Economic historians, especially, should take note, as the dissertation is filled with references to prices and economic interaction in Ming China. The administration of the military economy can be understood in the context of the overall economic history of the era, and provides historians new insight into the political economies of both Ming China and Chosŏn Korea. One specific and fascinating detail which might be worth pursuing is the export of cast iron pots from Chosŏn to the lower Yangzi. This should surely attract the interest of economic historians interested in the fate of iron production during the Ming and Qing periods.

Adam Bohnet
Department of History
King’s University College at Western University

Primary Sources

Chosŏn wangjo sillok 朝鮮王朝實錄
Jinglüe fuguo yaobian 經略復國要编 by Song Yingchang 宋應昌
Shizhenglu 實政錄 by Lü Kun
Wubeizhi 武備志 by Mao Yuanyi 茅元儀

Dissertation Information

Yale University. 2013. 338 pp. Primary Advisor: Jonathan D. Spence.

Image: Qi Jiguang 戚繼光 (1528-1588), Lianbing shiji zaji 練兵實紀雜集 [Miscellaneous notes concerning military training], fascicle 6, leaf 22.

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