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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

Mar 13, 2023

Last time we spoke about the Dungan Revolt. Yes it was a grand little side story that only encompassed something that should have required at minimum three podcasts, but I do my best. Northwest China was a wild place and multiple groups on the frontiers of other nations saw an opportunity when the Taiping Rebellion kicked out to try and rebel themselves. Multiple muslim groups and some foreign leaders like Yaqub Bek fought the Qing, the Russians and other groups to try and consolidate control over key areas. However when the Taiping were finally quelled, the Qing sent Zuo Zongtang northwest to deal with the Dungan problem. Zuo Zongtang led a brutal campaign to reclaim Xinjiang and was successful, a large part to muslim chinese defectors. Now we need to venture back to the issue of Japan, China, Korea and a truly stressful situation for poor old Li Hongzhang.


#39 This episode is the imo uprising


Welcome to the Fall and Rise of China Podcast, I am your dutiful host Craig Watson. But, before we start I want to also remind you this podcast is only made possible through the efforts of Kings and Generals over at Youtube. Perhaps you want to learn more about the history of Asia? Kings and Generals have an assortment of episodes on history of asia and much more  so go give them a look over on Youtube. So please subscribe to Kings and Generals over at Youtube and to continue helping us produce this content please check out If you are still hungry for some more history related content, over on my channel, the Pacific War Channel where I cover the history of China and Japan from the 19th century until the end of the Pacific War.

The 1880s were an extremely turbulent time for China, Japan and Korea. Each nation faced the same anxiety, that of western encroachment, the danger of colonization. Each of these nations would face challenges from the west and this would affect all 3 of them and in turn their relations to another. There were leading figures in each nation that sought to cooperate together to resist western colonialism. At the time the greatest threat was Russia. The Russian empire was beginning the process of building the grand trans-siberian railway. The railway would only begin construction in 1891, but by the 1880’s settlers were being pushed east into Siberia and discussions were being held to push the process forward.

Now when Japan pulled the sneaky maneuver of getting Korea to sign treaties acknowledging her independence from China, both Korea and Chinese officials were deeply concerned and no wonder. Japan had kept pressing the buttons and this was a major red flag moment. But the Chinese and Koreans had a multitude of problems at the time taking up much of their attention. Thus the Chinese and Koreans tried to ignore the implications of the Japanese treaties in the hopes they could be stamped down later thus easing Japan back into a passive role. 

You might be asking yourself why are the Chinese and Koreans backing down so much and allowing Japan basically to stomp over them, to put it simply, they had too much to deal with. You might remember when I barely talked about some of the rebels going on in China during and after the Taiping Rebellion. One of those known as the Dungan Revolt of 1862-1877, well that little guy was not such a little guy. If you go on wikipedia for example and look up the Dungan revolt you will notice a few things right off the bat, the first most likely the death toll which was in the millions, possibly up to 21 million. It hit Shaanxi, Gangsu and Xinjiang provinces very hard. But alongside the death toll, you would probably notice secondly the participants list which is extravagantly long and holds many surprising participants. The Ottomans, British, Russians, Uzbeks all hands their hands in the Chinese cookie jar. While the Dungan Revolt is certainly a big one, it gets even bigger, much bigger. The Dungan Revolt basically is part of “the Great Game”. Now you're probably asking yourselves what game? The Great Game was this mashup of conflicts between the British and Russian empires of multiple territories spanning the middle east and Asia. They fought for and over numerous things, for example the British believed Russia had plans to invade India. The Russians thought Britain wanted to expand into central asia. This led to countless wars such as the 1st anglo-afghan war of 1838, the first anglo-sikh war of 1845, the second anglo-sikh war of 1848, the second anglo-afghan war of 1878 and theres even more than that. Now for China this cultivated the Dungan Revolt somewhat and Russian began encroaching in Xinjiang. From 1871 to 1881 the Qing dynasty and the Russian empire were on the verge of a massive war over Xinjiang. Now I am literally pulling out my hair as I write this series because I planned to write a single podcast explaining how the situation in Korea led to what will be one of the most important wars, the first sino-japanese war of 1894-1895 and as I do so I keep skipping over major events, such as the multitude of rebellions in China, and this “great game situation”. Oh and its not just the great game, in the 1880s emerges another fantastic war known as the Sino-French War of 1884-1885 first involving Vietnam and France and then China gets mixed in. Needless to say I face two options, option number 1; I give a summary of these events and gloss right over them to carry on with my intended little narrow narrative about Korea, China and Japan. Option 2) I carry on as I am and write two separate episodes, “the great game” and “the Sino-French War of 1884-1885”. I am electing to do option 2, so please bear with me for the time being I imagine those 2 episodes will come right after I am done with the Hermit kingdom. Stating that I keep glossing over major events, but its simply impossible to hit them all, so if there are some you just are dying to hear about, or simply other things you want to hear about that I can’t hit here please let me know on the Pacific War channel discord, comment my Youtube channel or become a patreon, if ya do I promise I will make content just for you, that's why it’s there.

So needless to say, these major events were hitting China at an extraordinarily bad time. These were major variables thwarting China from seeking a firmer hand against Japan when it came to Korea. China was waiting for things to simmer before they confront the Japanese. And do remember despite Japan’s actions, they still represented the greatest possible ally against the looming Russian bear to the north who were gradually expanding into Asia. The prospect of large numbers of Russians moving into East Asia concerned Korea, Japan and China all the same. On top of this the Russians began plans in 1882 to start a steamship line from Ukraine to Priamur, on the coast of Siberia and this also meant a large development of Priamur.

Korea had the great misfortune of being what one author has called ‘a shrimp among the whales”. The whales being China, Japan and Russia. Korea had a long history of being fought over, in 661 the Japanese sent troops, then the Yuan Dynasty forces of Kublai Khan used Korea to try and invade Japan in the 1190’s and in the 1590s Hideyoshi invaded Korea. So Korea had this unfortunate history of simply being stuck in the middle. In 1882 China still held suzerainty over Korea…well from their point of view, the Japanese certainly did not see it that way. Korea was grasping at straws, trying to avoid conflict, but she was playing a game between two tigers.

Now in 1881 Korea began expanding its relations with all 3 major players, Russia, China and Japan. Awhile back I mentioned that Korea sent Kim Hong-jip to Japan and after his journey he strongly suggested Korea send more envoys to learn more from Japan. In 1881 this led Korea to create the Gentlemen’s sightseeing group. These were 12 young Koreans who went to Japan to learn more about the Meiji restoration efforts. The mission was akin to Japan’s Iwakura Mission, the Koreans inspected administrative agencies, military facilities, education facilities, everything they could. The Koreans were very impressed by what they saw and when they came back home they sought ways to push Korea onto the same path as Japan’s modernization efforts. Amongst the 12 gentleman was one Kim Ok-kyun. After the tour had ended Fukuzawa Yukichi one of Japans top liberal minded intellects arranged for Kim Ok-kyun to remain an extra 6 months at Keio university. Kim Ok-kyuns stay convinced him that the Meiji restoration was the essential path for Korea to self strengthen and thwart western encroachment. 

Now Kim OK-kyun will be a key player in many things to come, but I bring him up now just to signify the efforts of Japan to win over Korea. People such as Kim Ok-kyun began championing Japan as Korea’s savior and this prompted King Gojong to look to Japan for some assistance in modernizing, such as the employment of Lt Horimoto Reizo who trained the Pyolgigun. But while Japan was making inroads to circumventing China, China was not sitting idly by. 

Li Hongzhang had emerged probably as the most influential person in all of China by the 1880s. The Qing government authorized the man who was the Grand Minister for the Northern Sea, the governor general of Zhili province, Commander of the Huai Army, associate controller over the board of admiralty and Grand secretary, yes China was continuing the practice of placing as many titles as possible onto a single man. Above all else Li Hongzhang was responsible for Korea. As much as I have talked about Zeng Guofan’s pupil I have not really talked all that much about the man himself. Li Hongzhang dominated Chinese foreign policy for nearly quarter of a century. He was 6 feet tall and quite a lot of western diplomats noted him to have a fine physique, a vigor to his nature, piercing eyes, a commanding presence and a no-nonsense approach. As a Qing official he wore multicolored silk robes, a large triangular hat with the traditional three-eyed peacock feathers. As noted by his mentor Zeng Guofan “Li Hongzhang possessed a bearing and manner of speech sufficient to bring men to their knees”. Li Hongzhang was frankly a go-getter as we say in the west. George F Seward, a minister of the US to China called him “a giant among his fellow Chinese and the best foreigners who have met him in affairs will not hesitate to accord to him intellectual powers, which would command admiration in any cabinet or council”. Russia’s count Sergei Lil’evich Witte, the architect of the empires industrialization program for over two decades and a man not known to overstate others said this of Li “I have met many notable statesmen in my career and would rate Li Hongzhang high among them. In fact, he was a great statesman; to be sure he was Chinese, without any kind of European education, but a man of sound Chinese education, and what is more, a man with a remarkably sound mind and good common sense." The socialist French newspaper, Le Siecle, called him "the yellow Bismarck." I particularly like that last one, yellow Bismarck thats a flavourful one isn't it. 

Li Hongzhang was Han Chinese, from 6 of 7 generations that passed the imperial examinations, a scholar through and through. He passed the third highest out of 4000 other students for the highest imperial degree and built up the Huai army with help from Zeng Guofan quickly becoming one of if not the dominant military ruler in China. It was in fact his rule over the most powerful army in CHina that led to many of his appointments as the Qing needed to try and rein him in somehow. He and Empress Dowager Cixi would have a long-standing relationship. Li Hongzhang aided her in installing her nephew as Emperor in 1875, though in reality he would not actually rule anything it would be Cixi and Li was loyal to her.

On the note of Cixi, Li Hongzhang was criticized heavily for corruption and indeed he became fabulously wealthy. Yet I do not think you can point fingers simply at Li, as it was not just him but the Qing bureaucracy that was corrupt. A foreign employee under Li had this to say about him and corruption “The Viceroy was a diplomat of world-wide fame; but to his countrymen - before the war - he was chiefly reputed as a great military and naval organizer. He was not nor could he be that; for the corruption, peculation and nepotism which infested his organizations had their fountain-head in himself, and to an extent which was exceptional even for a Chinese official. He was himself enmeshed in the national machine of organized inefficiency; to him also it was a normal condition, and any other, had it been indicated, would have been incomprehensible to him.” You have to understand at this time in the Qing dynasty corruption was simply the status quo. Bribery was the normal source of political influence. The Qing salaries were insufficient, so all officials bribed and embezzled to make ends meet. To get anything done politically in China at this time one had to bribe whether it was for good means or bad, Li was no different. Li’s activities were some of the largest in scope China would ever see and thus required enormous sums of money. None the less Li was a Han, and the Manchu were never going to let the Han simply run the show, so even if Li had idea’s about reform to stop the corruption they would not allow him to do so as it would put a Han in the drivers seat. And so Li was a master operator within the corrupt system of Qing politics, he had to grease the corrupt wheels of power. Unlike the Meiji restoration which took daring reforms backed by the Genro of Japan, Li had major shackles. 

I think I already said this before, Li Hongzhang is one of my favorite characters of modern Chinese history, but he is also a terribly tragic character. One would call him a man before his time. He showed great foresight about how China could modernize but he was hampered by the system. Yet despite all of that he did an incredible amount to help modernize China nonetheless. He also never got a chance to really see the outside world until late in his life unlike most of his Japanese counterparts. He would also take the lionshare of the blame for the many humiliations CHina would receive, literally right until his death he just kept fighting bitterly. Many champion those who do great feats during good times, but we often forget those who lived in dire times who struggled to do great feats, and Li is one of those.

Now as the man responsible for Korea Li Hongzhang advised his Korean counterpart in 1879 "There is no human agency capable of putting a stop to the expansionist movement of Japan: has not your Government been compelled to inaugurate a new era by making a Treaty of Commerce with it? As matters stand, therefore, is not our best course to neutralize one poison by another, to set one energy against another? You should seize every opportunity to establish treaty relations with Western nations, which you can use to check Japan." The advice was carried to King Gojong who in 1822 solicited Li Hongzhang to negotiate on Korea’s behalf for a treaty with the United States. The Josen-United States Treaty of 1882 or Treaty of Peace, AMity, Commerce and Navigation would be signed in 1882 heavily influenced by Li Hongzhang. It was Korea’s first treaty with a western nation, albeit an unequal treaty. It established mutual friendship with the US and mutual assistance in the case of attack. The treaty became the template for others as soon Germany signed one in 1883, then Russian and Italy in 1884 and France by 1886. The idea obviously being, Li Hongzhang trying to bolster up Korea so Japan would not try to invade her. Now despite the fact these treaties were intended to counterbalance Japan, they also indirectly undermined China. Combined with the Japanese treaties they all worked collectively to shatter Korea’s isolation and severed China’s suzerainty over her. To be blunt, while China could continue to scream about how Korea was still her tributary, now a collective group of other nations saw her as independent. This also began a process of creating pro-Japanese and pro-Chinese factions within the Korean political system. There were those who missed the times of the Daewongun reign. They believed the current actions of Korea were unfaithful to Confucianism. And then in 1882 a small problem would evolve into a larger one.

Remember the Japanese military attache, Lt Horimoto Reizo? Well in January of 1882, his work ended up reorganizing the existing 5 army garrison structure into the Muwiyong “palace guards garrison” and the Changoyong “capital guards garrison”. But alongside that he also created the Pyolgigun “special skills force” which was basically the yolk of a new modern Korean army. This is all fantastic and good fun, however Korea held a very tight budget and was forced to reduce the number of her old-style troops. For those of you who know your Satsuma Rebellion that occurred in Japan, here in Korea a similar event unfolded. In July of 1882 many Korean soldiers were retired against their will. They protested that for over a year after the forced retirement they had not received back pay. 1000 men, mostly the old and disabled were let go, and they were not paid their stipends of rice for 13 months. They began to protest, and who wouldn't. Hearing about this, King Gojong ordered that a months allowance of rice be given to the soldiers and he directed one Min Gyeom-ho, the overseer of the Joseon’s government finances to see to it. Min Gyeom-ho was the nephew of Queen Min, and that is an important fact as the Min family would be seen as culprits. Well Min Gyeom-ho handed the job over to his steward who sold the rice he had been given for the soldiers and used that money to buy millet which was further mixed with sand and bran, the good classic old case of embezzlement, like cutting cocaine with baking powder. Well the the substance by the time it got to the soldiers had gone rotten and as you might imagine it really pissed off the already pissed off protesting soldiers.

So on July 23rd of 1882 a riot broke out in Uigeumbu. Pissed off soldiers marched upon the residence of Min Gyeom-ho who they suspected was the culprit swindling them all. Min Gyeom-ho heard of the incoming rioters and ordered the police to arrest their ringleaders and have them executed the next day. The rioters received word of these orders and broke into Min Gyeom-ho’s home, but by that point he had fled so they simply trashed the place. Without the man to exact their vengeance upon the rioters marched to the armory and began stealing arms and ammo. Then they went to a local prison, overwhelmed its guards and released the arrested ringleaders alongside other political prisoners. At this point Min Gyeom-ho was hiding at the Royal palace. He panicked and ordered the army to quell the revolt, but by this time the revolt was snow balling.

The armed rioters then turned their attention to two different groups of people, the first were the Japanese and second Korean progressives aka the reformers supporting the new changes to Korea propped by Japan. A group of rioters headed to Lt Horimoto’s quarters where they grabbed him and took turns stabbing him to death. Another group of over 3000 rioters marched upon the Japanese legation. Over at the legation were the minister to Korea Hanabusa Yoshitada alongside 17 staff members and 10 legation police. The legation was quickly surrounded prompting Hanabusa to order all the documents within to be burnt. As the smoke and flames increased, many of the legation staff used it as a cover to escape through the rear gate. The Japanese fled to the nearest harbor where they took a boat down the Han river enroute to Incheon. From there they thought they would be safe, but Korean soldiers continued to hunt them down, soon they were fleeing to another harbor, but this time the Koreans caught up to them. 6 Japanese were killed with another 5 severely injured. The survivors got onto a boat and made a break for open sea, eventually running into the British survey ship HMS flying fish which took them in. 

The rioters certainly did not stop at the Japanese legation, on July 24th they took to marching upon the royal palace still hunting Min Gyeom-ho. They got their hands on Min Gyeom-ho killing him alongside a dozen high ranking Joseon officials including Heungin-gun Yi Choe-Heung, the older brother of the Daewongun. It should be noted that while he was the brother to him, he was also publicly critical against his isolationist policies and could be seen as an ally to the Min clan. The rioters also hunted for Queen Min, intending to kill her as well. They saw the Queen and the rest of the Min allies as the main culprits behind the corruption going on in the government. Queen Min managed to escape the palace being carried literally away on a guards back dressed as a commoner. She fled for refuse in the home of Min Eung-sik in Chungju of Chungcheong province. Meanwhile the rioters managed to kill an official of the Min family and the entire ordeal became known as the Soldiers Riot of 1882 or the Imo uprising. 

Now the Imo uprising was sort of a symptom of something else going on in Korea. I had mentioned previously that the Korean politics had created sort of a faction situation. It was not necessary one side was Pro Chinese and the other Japanese, a lot more was going on, but I will try to summarize it as best as I can. During the reign of the Daewongun, many of the Korean literati, you know the political, scholar, high society types, well they considered a lot of what the Daewongun was doing to be unfaithful to confucianism. However when the Daewogun was kicked out, they began to see all the grand reforms and treaties emerging under King Gojong as even worse. In fact they never really saw it as “King Gojong’s” but rather Queen Min and her entourage of family members in high positions taking Korea to hell in a handbasket. 

During the Imo uprising incident there was a rather important figure amongst the rioting troops, Prince Waneun, the illegitimate son of Daewongun and one of his concubines named Kyeseongwol. He was the older half brother to King Gojong. Now When the Daewongun was “forcefully retired” he actually did not go without a fight and attempted a coup, which just saw him getting deported to China, and this greatly upset Prince Waneun. But he bide his time, entering the Korean military as a low ranking officer. When the rioters struck in 1881, Daewongun had sent agents to instigate them, one of which was Prince Waneun. It seems the Daewongun was trying to replace King Gojong with his illegitimate son, but the riots failed. When they arrested the rioters many of their leaders were executed, one of which was Prince Wanuen. Who ordered his specific execution is unknown, myth has the Korean politician Yi Yun-yong being responsible, but there is also evidence he did so under orders from Queen Min and King Gojong. On October 28th of 1881 he was poisoned to death while in prison at Jeju. The reason I bring up this minor part of the story is to highlight that there were serious efforts being made by political factions to usurp King Gojong and steer Korea in certain directions.

The Daewongun clearly supported the rioters and their cause. In fact it is known the Daewongun exhorted the rioters to specifically bring down the Min clan and expel the Japanese. Daewongun was very much in the China camp politically. King Gojong clearly did not support their cause, but he saw the writing on the wall. King Gojong asked his father to return to the palace, who promptly showed up with 200 of the rioters backing him up. King Gojong capitulated to their demands, one of which was to restore his father to power. King Gojong basically said this to his father when he showed up to the palace “put an immediate end to the wild melee and I will give power over the small and large matters of the government”. And thus the Daewongun was back in power.

His first order of business as you might imagine was to remove from office all officials of the Min family, he even had his own brother executed because he had allied to them! At the time it was believed Queen Min had been killed, thus he had a funeral process begun for her. Now in response to the killing of the Japanese officials, well Japan was not too happy about that. The foreign office under Inoue Kaoru ordered Hanasuba to return to Seoul to hold a meeting with senior Korean officials to get them to bring the rioters responsible to justice. If any more of these rioters were to attack Japanese, Japan was going to bear military force against them, regardless of whatever the Korean government did. Inoue instructed Hanabusa, that if he saw the Koreans making any attempts to hide the perpetrators and not punish them, or if they refused simply to comply at all with their demands this would constitute a breach of peace and thus the IJA would be rolling in. Japan also sent an official letter to the Korean government with an envoy, indicting it for the crimes that had been done to the Japanese and that Japan would be sending forces to occupy the port of Chempulpo. Hanabusa meanwhile was instructed that if China or another nation attempted to mediate on behalf of Korea, he should refuse this, but to reiterate none the less that Japan still believed her relations with Korea were friendly and that they best restore that friendly relationship. Thus Hanabusa was to go to Seoul with IJA and IJN forces to protect him and other Japanese officials. Now while Japan was doing all of this, in the background they were also calling up reserves for their military in advance and Inoue Kaoru made sure to notify western ministers in Tokyo they were sending IJA/IJN forces to Korea to “protect their citizens”. He strongly emphasized this was all in good faith and that their intentions were peaceful, but when the Americans offered to mediate he declined this off the bat, not a great look.

As for the Chinese reaction, Li Hongzhang who was in charge had left his post just before the crisis had broken out, taking a leave of absence because his mother had just died. How fate tosses the dice sometimes eh? Thus China’s de facto foreign minister was left out of touch and Korea did not have a Chinese legation on hand. Li Shuchang, the Chinese minister in Tokyo received word of the situation and sent word home. On August 1st, Zhang Shusheng dispatched 3 warships of the Beiyang Fleet under the command of Admiral Ding Ruchang to Korea with the Qing official Ma Jianzhong to assess the situation. 4500 Qing forces led by General Wu Changqing arrived and they quickly aided the Korean government in quelling the rioters thus thwarting a full blown rebellion. The Qing forces took control over Seoul. This was the first time that China had military intervened in Korea since 1636 and constituted a major departure in her foreign policy over Korea. Would this situation ignite a war between the Qing and Japan?

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The imo uprising was going to escalate things for China, Japan and Korea, simply boiling the pot of war gradually over time. How long could the diplomats and politicians keep those rattling the sabers of war?