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Confucian Understanding of International Stability: The Imjin War


Confucian doctrine is not just a world-known moral theory, which lies in the basis of numerous codes of ethics all around the universe. Its significance for the humanity goes beyond the spiritual implications, because the Confucian norms and principles can be successfully applied to the majority of human activities, including international relations. International affairs as no other area are inextricably linked to the individual moral choice of the ruler, who presents the interests of the state and serves the voice of the nation. A successful interaction between the rulers predetermines the social order and stability in the world. Due to this fact, understanding of Confucian legacy in relation to the individual values, principles of governing that base on the cultivation of virtues, treatment of the conflicts and their reconciliation play a crucial role in understanding the notion of international stability as well as the history of the East Asian World. Thus, the paper seeks to explore the Confucian understanding of the international stability and the way, in which it can help to explain the Imjin War.

Historical Preconditions for Confucian Doctrine

Confucius (551 – 479 B.C) was born and lived in the period of disorder and chaos, triggered by constant conflicts between the Chinese’s states. During his life, seventy states existed within the Chinese Empire. Apparently, the majority of the thinkers were trying to understand the reasons of this situation and find possible solutions for them. Confucius was one of these philosophers, who were strongly involved in the process of solving the issue and aspiring to establish stability in the native lands. He considered that “the decay of the rituals and propriety” was the primary reason for the disorder, so a return to shared norms and values can help to establish peace to Chinese’s society. According to Confucius’ vision, these rituals as well as moral principles could help to create a proper social order that is the ground for stability. Due to this fact, he devoted his whole life to restoring the value of rituals and promoting the rules of propriety.

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Harmony as the Highest Virtue That Promotes International Stability

As it has been already mentioned above, the notion of stability is the antithesis of war, and it is inextricably linked to the order and peace, which could not be reached without cultivating the best virtues. This explanation can easily display the correspondence between the stability and Confucian Way of Harmony that shows the way of attaining balance at all levels of social interaction, starting from the individual and ending with the international area.

Harmony is viewed as a result of changes and reconciliation of conflicts. Confucius emphasized three levels of relationship namely interpersonal, family, and politic, which should be harmonized in order to reach the peak of harmony. In the political dimension, the establishment of the human government, which is guided by virtues rather than by selfish contentions, was considered by Confucius as a way of diminishing the possibility of international conflicts. Selfish interests and choosing the life position only according to the profitable motivation leads to permanent wars between the peoples as well as to conflicts between them. Such behavior causes the decline of moral norms and promotes violence and murders.

Underlying the political dimension of the international conflicts reconciliation does not undermine the importance of two other levels of relationships. Confucius emphasizes the significance of internal harmony and harmonious relationships with the others as well as within the family, which is a crucial precursor for universe harmony. According to Confucianism, people who have lost harmony in their hearts are responsible for the disorder in the world.

By taking into account the economic factor as the most widespread ground for conflicts, Confucius also emphasized the need for harmony between the material and the moral aspects of life. Fair redistribution of the sources and decreasing the gap between those, who are rich and those who are poor, was considered as the most efficient and right way of avoiding conflicts, based on the economic ground. In term of the interstate relations, the tributary system perfectly demonstrates this principle.

War as the Violation of Stability

War between states is the highest level of violent conflict demonstration and the major destroyer of the social harmony. Due to this fact, it was not welcomed by the Confucian doctrine, which condemns killing people, even when they violate the established moral principles. In reality there is observed practical inefficiency of such an approach of regulating the interstates relations and it greatly influences Confucian’s treatment of this phenomenon. Thus, the notion of just war appeared to be a single necessary measure for punishing the tyranny and consoling the people. Such war implies positive moral causes, moral obligations to the other people, and high moral rules. According to the Confucian’s respect of the human rights that implies the avoidance of the human rights violation and invasion of the other states’ territories, the wars and expansions are not justified. Thus, maintaining peace was considered to be the dominating form of international relations. Therefore, just war is possible only if there is the war for people, not people for the war.

It is worth admitting that justifications of the fair war do not undermine the Confucian moral theory but, most likely, demonstrate its military implication. Confucian theory emphasized the need of maintaining the peace as the core element of the universal order. Alongside with it, strengthening the borders and training the soldiers is considered to be a significant way of saving social harmony and peaceful international relations. Such military doctrine does not imply preparing for the attack but rather serves as an element of war prevention.

Good governing in home country is the primary warranty of stability that helps to avoid the outside aggression. A satisfied nation is the only method that can prevent both internal and international conflicts. Therefore, strengthening the trust of people is the priority that is more important than the army’s capacity.

Family Principle and Good Governing as the Basis of International Stability

Among the fundamental moral norms and principles, Confucians considered the family virtues to be the cornerstones of the social order and world peace. Confucius believed that the family is the primary unit of the community, so he claimed that harmonious relations within it certainly lead to the harmonious relations in society and promote the harmony in the world. According to the Confucian theory, this kind of relations is close to the principle of governing, and those who can take care of the family members can also rule over the other people. Due to this fact, the significance of family affairs was especially emphasized by Confucius.

The state is an enlarged form of a family. However, there is a difference in terms of responsibility for solving the conflicts. Sons are responsible for reconciliation of the family conflicts, whereas within a state this is the responsibility of the ruler. Both political and moral requirements were based on “Tree guiding principles”, in which subordination implied the loyalty of the ministers to their rulers, sons to the fathers, and wives to their husbands. The “Five Constant Regulations” coincides with the Confucian virtues of humaneness, righteousness, propriety, wisdom, and faithfulness that were considered to be the unchanged natural laws that can regulate the other virtues.

Thus, taking care of people as if they were the members of the family and cultivating moral virtues is the best way of governing. It is the most desirable way of maintaining the order in the native lands and around them, because the ruler “who governs the state through the virtue is like the pole star which stays put while the other stars revolve around it”.

Mandate of Heaveb as the Ground for Empire's Supremacy

Such an allegory concerning the ruler and a pole star is not accidental in the context of governing, which is also inextricably linked to the Confucian Way of Heaven. The way of Heaven is the central principle of Confucian doctrine, according to which the Heaven is identified as “Ultimate Supreme”. Heaven is considered to be a power that guarantees the harmony between the metaphysical and physical, between the spiritual and secular, as well as between a human and destiny. There is no surprise that the ruler is a person, who is endowed with the role of implementing and holding the will of Heaven. This phenomenon is known in Confucianism as Mandate of Heaven. Only those, who are blessed by the highest powers, can be the rulers. In order to fulfill the Mandate of Heaven a ruler should undertake self-cultivation and extend their virtues to the others and the whole world.

One can see that initially Mandate of Heaven is aimed not only at regulating the internal state affairs but mostly at the international issues, for which the question of Supreme Ruler (Son of Heaven) was especially urgent. The Heaven was the most significant basis for the international stability, as well as the obedience to the royal house that adopted the Mandate of Heaven was equated to a religious act. In such way, rituals that were strongly related to the religious life were strengthened and gained influence on the international arena.

Thus, the Way of Heaven has in some sense legitimatized the emperor’s authority that had the decisive voice in all the affairs, which occurred within the states. Alongside with this fact, the person in power had to provide good governing and was obliged to treat all the states as the elder members of a joint family. Confucian doctrine underlines the fact that this authority was mainly moral and aimed at spreading high ethical values and controlling their implementation. Indeed, from the modern point of view, it seems to be quite an unjustified hegemony that could not remain unnoticed and sooner or later would result in the international conflict.

Imjin War as the Protest Against Confucian Hegemony

Having observed the most significant aspects of the Confucian doctrine that are related to the area of international stability, one can see that the Way of Heaven, principles of good governing, and the family principle were firstly aimed at spreading the Chinese political influence in the East Asia. Although it was mostly the moral power, it was inextricably linked to the secular matters such as contributory hierarchy that implied the domination of China. The fact of establishing dominance by means of Confucianism as a moral code and religion did not soften the political meaning of the hegemony. The changes in the world could not cause the transformation in the East Asian region, and the Empire did not strive to changes, as it was satisfied with the strict hierarchy that existed under its ruling. It could not be said about the vassals, for example, Japan that needed the power to change something. The government of Japan strived for modernization, as its power had been gradually rising, so that the country showed a desire to choose its own political path. There was a gap between the Confucian understanding of the international stability and the other states’ vision of it. It explained the reasons and the character of Imjin War, which became the first demonstration of the mentioned ideological conflict.

The Japanese invasion of Korea, known in the histoy as Imjin War (1592 – 1598), became a predictable reaction to the supremacy of Chinese royal house. It was the first serious challenge to the international order, established by Ming’s Dynasty that was grounded on the Confucian vision of the international stability and implied the hegemony of China. There is no surprise that Japan, Korea, and China were three first sides that engaged in war. From the very beginning, Japan and Korea were much more closely to the Buddhist traditions, so the Confucian doctrine was slowly spreading on these territories. Apparently, the desire to depart from the Confucian traditions has also appeared earlier and it was intense and inescapable. Imjin War started due to the conflict between the rising power of Japan and the status quo of the hegemonic Ming Empire.

Although the Japanese were defeated in war, it revealed the weaknesses of Confucian political position in terms of the international relations. The problem of hegemony became the primary point that did not allow the Chinese Empire to perceive vassals as equal players on the international arena and to pay attention to the changes that had occurred in the military structure of Japan. Fundamental traditions and rules that were firmly rooted in the consciousness of society, governors, and the emperor made the country inflexibility and deprived it of the political sensitivity. All these factors became the major reasons for war and its aftermaths. Despite of the victory of Korean and Chinese forces the existing system of international relations and the Confucian traditions were greatly undermined.

Confucian understanding of the international stability is valuable legacy for the modern policy. Its core principles are grounded on high moral individual values that should not be ignored today, because people are the primary influencing factor in the international affair, regardless of the role they play. Moreover, proper social order, good governing, family principle, and the high value of maintaining peace and harmony are as relevant today as they were centuries ago. Indeed, Imjin War, as the majority of wars in the world, has revealed the threat of hegemony as well as an urgent need for changes and political flexibility. Unfortunately, this experience was not applied properly, so today there is again a desire of establishing a hegemony that causes new wars.

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