Review: Na Man’gap – the Diary of 1636

The Diary of 1636Na Man’gap’s Diary of 1636, as George Kallander explains in his informative introduction, is the longest known private account of the second Manchu invasion of Korea. Na (1592 – 1642) was a senior scholar-official who was with the King and court inside Namhansanseong – he was in charge of military rations – throughout the siege and was close enough to the centre of things to witness first hand the debates around the King for and against surrender.

Joseon Korea was in an impossible situation. It had a long-standing relationship with Ming China, the fount of civilisation – without whose assistance it would not have survived the Japanese invasions of 1592-98. But the reality was that the Ming were in decline, and the Manchu Qing on the rise. With the Manchu on Korea’s doorstep, Korea had some difficult decisions to make. Joseon had already had to deal with one complex situation: a request from the Ming for troops to fend off Manchu attacks. Joseon’s approach was to send the troops, but give them instructions to surrender to the Manchu before blood was shed.

The 1627 Manchu invasion of Korea had been to ensure that Joseon was firmly aligned to the Manchu. But pro-Ming factions in Korea remained stubbornly hostile. When Na Man-gap’s diary opens, we are presented with two diplomatic snubs by Korea which prompted the second Manchu invasion whose objective to bring Korea firmly into obedience so that they could then turn their attention on the Ming.

The invading army sped southwards, and the amateurish Joseon resistance did not slow them down one bit. The first military engagement went as follows:

Military Guard Officer Yi Hŭngŏp was first dispatched with roughly eighty cavalry units to go and confront the enemy. As they were saying their farewells and leaving, they drank too much of the rice wine bestowed by His Highness and the farewell drinks from their relatives and friends. From the guard officer on down, there was no one who was not intoxicated. They arrived at the hills of Ch’angnŭng and climbed toward the frontier. The enemy annihilated them, and only a few survived. (p11)

At this point it would have been nice to have had a map to illustrate where the engagement took place to get a feel for the distances being covered, and I felt this lack at a number of points in the text. Although this publication is not designed as military history there is enough detail in the narrative to appeal to that readership. One particular detail I found telling towards the end of the siege was that, because of the damage inflicted on the fortress walls by the Manchu cannons, the Koreans needed to reinforce their defences with baskets of soil reinforced with frozen water: it will be remembered that the siege took place in Korea’s bitterly cold winter. Neither the invading army nor the Koreans can have had a particularly comfortable time.

You cannot take everything Na says in his diary at face value. For example, in troubling times immediately preceding the invasion he reports as follows:

At this time, natural disasters and unusual events took place. The rocks of Pupyong and Ansan shifted. The mallards of Yongnam and Kwanso fought each other. The cranes of Taegu grouped for battle. The frogs of Chongpa went to war. The toads of Chungnyong marched in procession. (p5)

… and many more portents besides. But this is an unusual flight of fancy for our observer, and more often than not he is bogged down in detail.

Inevitably, there is a bewildering array of names to get to grips with. Even with George Kallander’s helpful dramatis personae section, with potted biographies of the key actors, there is a temptation for the generalist reader to despair of following it all, and start to skim-read. And some of Na’s narrative is not wholly clear in meaning. But then individual passages stand out and grab you with their immediacy. For example the suicide of “former right state councilor Kim Sangyong”, who climbed on top of a key of gunpowder and lit a fire, bringing about a messy end for himself and two officials. The suicides did not end there. One of those officials, Kwon Sunjang, had a sister and a wife, both of whom hanged themselves as a result, and the wife killed their three daughters first. “These were all women who made the correct decision,” judges the author.

Possibly the most valuable part of the account is the transcriptions of the diplomatic letters exchanged between the Manchu and the Koreans setting out, on the one hand, the reasons why the Manchu were now demanding Korean submission, and on the other the reasons why the Koreans had in the past decade not been wholehearted supporters of the Manchu. As the Korean situation grew more desperate the Manchu turned up the pressure, requiring key language in the Korean letters to indicate their new subject status. The Manchu spared King Injo the most humiliating form of surrender.

“The grade-one procedure is too cruel to be adopted. Following the grade-two procedure would be proper”. The so-called grade-one procedure included “the person who surrenders holding a piece of jade in his mouth as an act of submission and carrying an empty coffin as an act of courtesy” (p81)

The shopping-list of annual tribute items that Korea was to send makes for interesting reading: apart from gold and silver, there was to be paper, ramie cloth, silk, cotton, “one thousand packets of tea; four hundred otter skins, two hundred Eurasian red squirrel skins” and much more. Later, the Koreans were required to erect a stele to mark their submission, with inscription written in “Chinese seal script characters and Qing and Mongol barbarian scripts” (p140). Today, you can find it beside a lake near the foot of the Lotte World Tower.

The diary is an interesting read not just as an eyewitness account of a major event in Korean history, but also for the introduction and notes by George Kallander. It’s probably not for the casual reader, but maybe you should read it as background before visiting the UNESCO-listed Namhansanseong fortress where the action takes place, or as a prelude to watching the 2017 movie that bears its name: needless to say, the key characters in the movie – Ch’oe Myŏnggil (leader of the realist faction, played by Lee Byung-hun) and Kim Sanghŏn (leader of the Ming loyalists, played by Kim Yun-seok) – loom large in the diary’s narrative too.

Na Man’gap: The Diary of 1636 – The Second Manchu Invasion of Korea
Translated and with an introduction by George Kallander. Columbia University Press, 2020.
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