Education About Asia: Online Archives

East Asian International Relations: Peaceful and Stable for Centuries

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How did international relations function in East Asia from the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries—that is, before the arrival of the Western colonial powers? We typically use European history and European ideas as the basis for thinking about world history and international relations. Ideas that emanated from the 1688 Peace of Westphalia include the independent sovereignty of each nation-state, the inherent equality of those nation-states, and “balance of power.” But, it may be that the European experience was not that universal. In fact, many other regions of the world have functioned in quite different ways. This article draws from my recent book, East Asia Before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute, published by Columbia University Press in 2010.

In 1592, Japanese General Hideyoshi invaded Korea with more than 160,000 troops on approximately 700 ships, eventually mobilizing a half million troops, intending to conquer China after first subduing Korea. Called the Imjin War in Korea, more than 60,000 Korean soldiers, eventually supported by more than 100,000 Ming Chinese forces, defended the Korean peninsula. After six years of war, the Japanese retreated, and Hideyoshi died, having failed spectacularly in his quest to conquer China and Korea.


Gordon, Stewart. When Asia Was the World. Cambridge, MA: De Capo Press, 2007.

Kang, David C. East Asia Before the West: Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.

Reid, Anthony. Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 1450–1680, Volume 2: Expansion and Crisis. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

Swope, Kenneth. A Dragon’s Head and a Serpent’s Tail: Ming China and the First Great East Asian War, 1592–1598. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009.

Woodside, Alexander. Lost Modernities: China, Vietnam, Korea, and the Hazards of World History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006.

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