Monday, September 13, 2010

Book Review: A Dragon's Head and Serpent's Tail

A Dragons Head and a Serpent’s Tail:
Ming China and the First Great East Asian War, 1592-1598
Kenneth Swope
Norman Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009.
34.95 hardcover
978-0-8061-4056-8
432 pages, 31 B&W Illus., 12 maps
Volume 20 in the Campaign and Commanders Series


This is a new series of reviews I am doing for Oklahoma University Press about various military and Mormon themed books. While these are not explicitly connected to warfare in The Book of Mormon, I'm confident you can extract the necessary material for your personal study.


A Dragon’s Head and a Serpent’s Tail by Kenneth Swope seeks to introduce this lesser known conflict from East Asian history to a “broad academic community” and dispel the largely Japanese created concept of a weak and decadent Chinese ruler.(p.xi) His book presents a detailed narrative surrounding the origins, conduct, and aftermath of the war. As a professor of History at Ball State and active member of the Chinese Military History Society, his narrative takes advantage of his extensive use of current scholarship from multiple languages and widespread analysis of primary sources. He also adds depth and color to his narrative with frequent use of vivid details (like a mound of severed ears) and translated poetry from eyewitnesses. The ability of Chinese logisticians to move and supply an army in Korea far away on short notice and with other pressing threats is Swope’s main argument revising the opinion of the Emperor Wanli. While “broader academic community” can be a loose term, outside of comparative gunpowder revolution and less experienced historians, Swope superbly fulfills this goal.

Chapters 1 and 2 provide a broader commentary of the East Asian world on the eve of the war, and explain the tributary system and recent political relations between Korea, Japan, and China. Swope’s discussion of Japan’s motivation for starting the war displays his impressive use of secondary scholarship as he evaluates each theory. However, Swope’s extensive listing of theories from secondary research dilutes the two reasons that he presents.

Chapters 3 and 4 describe the events of the first phase of the war. His account moves swiftly through those events and again displays an impressive use of primary sources. He starts with the initial advance of Japanese forces to the Chinese border to guerrilla warriors, to the Korean naval victories, to the Ming response and finally back to the advancing Japanese land forces. Each topic represents an important contribution to Sinologists’ study of warfare and is impressively illustrated with primary sources.

Chapter 5 details the extended period of negotiation between Chinese and Japanese officials. As with previous chapters, Swope does an excellent job of weaving primary sources and secondary scholarship into his analysis. He also sprinkles his account with vivid details that describes how each of the three parties felt about the negotiations. Swope’s detail is commendable, however with Swope’s goal of providing a broader context for the non specialists I would have liked to have seen a greater connection between the details of his analysis and the larger picture of East Asian tributary relations and historiographic topics that enthusiasts and novices may not recognize.

Chapter 6 continues to the end of the war in 1598. In particular I commend Swope for his vivid account of the siege of Ulsan. The account highlights a little known battle outside of a select group of specialists and does so in both a scholarly and incredibly entertaining manner.

Chapter 7 examines the aftermath of the conflict. In particular he examines the resumption of trade between Korea and Japan and the reintegration of Japan into the Chinese world order. He then discusses the political issues that this war left in the participating countries. This has special poignancy since many of the biggest legacies of the war, such as the atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers and the reassertion of Chinese power in Korea and Vietnam, still have meaning today.

The book is strongest with it focuses on a chronological narrative and connects these events to larger issues. The narrative is based on copious amounts of primary sources and well used secondary scholarship. To date, he provides the most thorough, well rounded, and well written account of the war. He provides a list of important people, Chinese characters and a detailed index to help those that are new to the field or who wish to pursue further research.

There are several minor flaws that could be more like a wish list. He fails to provide enough maps to adequately accompany his narrative. He explains how his study adds an important tactical dimension to an account of the war,(p.xii) and he mentions several pivotal battles but he only provides one tactical map of a secondary battle. (p.122) Swope also provides several references to contemporary European armies, but those looking for detailed comparisons will have to make their own. Finally, as said above the amateurs in the field may not appreciate the full extent of Swope’s analysis.

Those wishes notwithstanding, this book provides an excellent introduction the First Great East Asian War. The author’s exceptional use primary sources, secondary scholarship and his often times vibrant prose commend this work to Sinologists and those from other fields as well as those from non academic backgrounds looking for a detailed narrative of the war. With this strong entry from Kenneth Swope and Oklahoma University Press students, scholars, and enthusiasts will have excellent resource for beginning and further study of this war.

2 comments:

David J. West said...

Very interesting Morgan, this will be one I'll look for.

Morgan Deane said...

I'm glad you enjoyed the review. His book doesn't seem to be as well stocked as the other accounts of the war.