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The Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Ecumene

The rise of Asia, especially China, has raised a unique challenge for western political scientists in trying to understand and predict whether civilizational conflict and war will transpire.[1] In understanding China as a type of spiritual and pragmatic ecumene, Voegelin can help political scientists in their endeavours. For Voegelin, China has traditionally understood itself as both a spiritual (representing the unity of all humankind) and a pragmatic (an imperial empire) ecumene in a cosmological form: the pragmatic is an analogue of the spiritual, just as human politics is an analogue of the cosmic existence.

This chapter recounts Voegelin’s account of the Chinese ecumene and sees whether the theory provides a useful way to understand civilizational conflict and war. By looking at the Imjin War (1592-98), we can see how Voegelin’s theory of ecumene works with competing cosmological accounts by the Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans. If successful, this in turn will aid political scientists in better understanding and predicting the international relations between West and East.

The Chinese Ecumene

According to Voegelin, China, like other civilization in the Middle East, understood itself as occupying the center of the cosmos and accordingly symbolize its order as a cosmic analogue; but, unlike these civilizations, China was not surrounded by societies of comparable civilizational rank.[2] For example, Moses and the foundation of Israel broke the cosmological form of Egyptian existence through the revelation of a world-transcendent God.[3] The revelation of God in the covenant relationship with the people of Israel was experienced as divine intervention beyond the cosmos itself. This event contradicted the cosmological order of Egypt as a universal ecumene.

The Chinese situation was different because during its founding period it was not surrounded by societies of comparable civilizational rank and did not have contact with India or the Middle East (CW 17, 353). The structure of the Chinese consciousness therefore was different from the Middle Eastern because it associated its ecumene with the identity of China itself. The history of China consequently is the history of humankind in both its pragmatic and spiritual sense: the known inhabited world united under imperial and spiritual rule of the Chinese emperor. As Voegelin remarks, Chinese history is similar to the history of Israel’s chosen people which representatively carries the burden of humankind under God, although Chinese ecumenism never broke from its cosmological form (CW 17, 354).

This fact bewilders western scholars who study China, with one side claiming that China neither has philosophy, logic, or science, and the other arguing the opposite (CW 17, 355-56). What these scholars fail to see is that the cosmological form of the Chinese ecumene, its civilization understood as an analogue to cosmic order, resists the analytical theories and tools of non-cosmological societies, such that reside in the West.[4] Because of its geographical isolation and encompassing a single society, China cannot be understood in the same conceptual framework as one understands the West. The collapse of one society is not absorbed into another one in China (e.g. the Greeks by the Roman Empire); rather, one dynasty succeeds another in the same ecumene.

Thus, when spiritual breakthroughs do appear in China, they are manifested in the cosmological form of the ecumene, thereby lacking the precision and analytical clarity that one finds in the West (CW 17, 365). For instance, when the emperor rules with virtue and righteousness, heaven and earth are combined harmoniously. The theoretical advance of good political rule associated with the emperor’s character immediately backslides into the cosmological language of heaven and earth. This is not a criticism of the Chinese ecumene but instead an acknowledgement why western scholars have such difficulty understanding its civilization.

To make sense of its own cosmological order, Chinese thinkers articulated their experiences as historical cycles: the dynastic cycle, the five-hundred year cycle, and the cycle of ecumenic decay (CW 17, 366). The first cycle, the dynastic, is the family who acquires the necessary virtues, the appointment from Heaven, to rule until they have exhausted them and are overthrown. The five-hundred cycle belongs to those who are the “uncrowned kings” of China, the “sages” of the Confucian and Taoist movements who provide an independent authority to royal rule. The third, the cycle of ecumenic decay, is the collapse of the ecumene in both its pragmatic and spiritual form.

For Voegelin, the Chinese ecumene was unique from its Middle Eastern, and later Western, counterparts because of its identification of humankind with a single society and its manifestation in cosmological form. But what happens to the Chinese ecumene when it is confronted with societies of comparable civilizational status, such as Korea and Japan in the sixteenth century? This chapter examines the consequences of such a confrontation by examining the Imjin War (1592-98) and see what the effects to the Chinese ecumene were when challenged by Japan and Korea who had conceived of their own societies as ecumene.

The Japanese and Korean Ecumene

By 1591 Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537-98), the son of a peasant from an obscure village, had unified Japan and was its supreme ruler. His next ambition was to conquer China, as he stated in a letter to one of his vassals, “I am going to not only unify Japan but also enter Ming China.”[5] The motivation to conquer China was partially to maintain his control over Japan by redirecting the energy and attention of his lords towards an external enemy with promises of larger fiefs obtained by new conquests.[6]

But more importantly, after unification, Hideyoshi saw Japan as a spiritual ecumene in cosmological form and therefore required a pragmatic empire to fulfill its spiritual promise. In diplomatic correspondence to Asian nations before the Imjin War, Hideyoshi viewed himself to be conqueror of the world: “After my birth, a fortune-teller said that all the lands the sun shone on would be mine when I became a man, and my fame would spread beyond the four seas . . . I will make a leap and land in China and lay my laws upon her.”[7] The conquering of China was critical for Hideyoshi not only for his fame but also to justify the spiritual ecumene of Japan with the pragmatic world empire.

This need to justify his spiritual ecumene explains why Hideyoshi was not content to conquering Korea and leave China alone, for Korea is a more realistic objective than the mastering the vast territory, population, and military might of China. But Hideyoshi’s invasion of Korea was not sufficient because he needed to conquer the center of the world, the “middle kingdom,” to justify Japan’s spiritual ecumene. When China ceased demanding tributes from Japan in the beginning of the fifteenth century, it only exacerbated Hideyoshi’s ambition.[8] Instead of perceiving this neglect as China not caring about its relationship to Japan, Hideyoshi instead viewed it as a sign of weakness: China lacked the power to keep its tributary states obedient.[9]

Whereas Japan began to see itself as a spiritual ecumene, Korea viewed itself as subordinate to China, “the civilized center,” due to its geographical proximity and relative weakness. However, Korea began to rank foreign nations according to their visiting envoys with Korea as “the small civilized center,” second only to China with all other nations evaluated lower according to their perceived level of Chinese cultural attainment.[10] In exchange for sending tributes and expressing loyal submission, Korean rulers were recognized by the Chinese emperor as receiving the Mandate of Heaven and thereby legitimized as the ruler of Korea.[11] The Korean ecumene is what we would call today an ethno-nationalist community, not claiming to represent all of humankind but all of Koreans as the second most civilized people in the world.

We can summarize the three forms of ecumene in cosmological form below.

Pragmaticcenter of tributary systeminternal unification; outward expansioninternal unification;

part of tributary system

The Chinese ecumene saw itself as spiritually representing all of humankind with its pragmatic empire at the center of a tributary system. China would send and receive of envoys, exchange gifts, and receive and grant titles to other nations.[12] The Japanese ecumene also saw itself as spiritually representing all of humankind but pragmatically was only unified internally. To fulfill its spiritual mission, it had to conquer China. Finally, Korea’s ecumene (if it can be called that) was limited to its ethno-nationalist community with the country being internally unified but content to be part of the tributary system of China.

The Imjin War (1592-98)

Besides China, Japan had built the largest military in the world at that time, invading Korea with 158,800 troops with another 250,000 men as a reserve force in Japan.[13] A military coalition of 60,000 Koreans and 100,000 Chinese soldiers fought the Japanese military on Korean soil.[14] The war itself was conducted into two phases: the first was from 1592 until 1596 that was followed by an unsuccessful peace negotiation between Japan and China in 1596-97; the second was Japan invading Korea again with its eventual withdrawal after Hideyoshi’s death in 1598.[15]

Hideyoshi’s invasion of Korea marked Japan’s outright challenge to the Chinese ecumene, as he wrote to his generals: “It is not Ming China alone that is destined to be subjugated by us, but India, the Philippines, and many islands in the South Sea will share a like fate. We are now occupying the most conspicuous and enviable position in the world.”[16] Wanting to replace the Sino-centric world with a Japanese-centric one, Hideyoshi understood that there could not be two spiritual and pragmatic ecumene. Thus, in his attempt to establish hegemony, Japan sought to supplant China as both the spiritual and pragmatic ecumene.

In a 1593 document to the states of the Ming Empire, Hideyoshi reinforced his view of Japan as a spiritual ecumene: “Japan is a divine nation. Our divinity is the Heavenly Emperor. The Heaven Emperor is our divinity. There is no absolutely difference between them.”[17] Hideyoshi asserted that Japan is superior of all nations, even writing to the ruler of India that “The imperial commands of the Japanese emperor may soon be transmitted to all corners of the world.”[18] Because Japan, like China and Korea, experienced the world in cosmological form, the spiritual ecumene must correspond to the pragmatic ecumene in order for it to make sense. That is, the spiritual representative of all of humankind must also have an analogue in the pragmatic existence of empire. What makes the Imjin War an interesting case is that we have the first time in East Asia China’s ecumene challenged both spiritually and pragmatically by another nation.

When Korea refused to pay homage to the Japanese emperor and rejected Japan’s request to let passage of the Japanese military thorough its land to attack Ming China, Japan invaded Korea and quickly conquered the country.[19] Once the Ming rulers cleared Korea of collusion with the Japanese, they decided to join the war, although they had forces committed elsewhere in Ningxia against the Mongols.[20] After a defeat by the Japanese, the Ming decided to collect more intelligence about the Japanese and offered a truce, with the Japanese to withdraw from Korea and to resume their tributary relationship with China. The rejection of the offer led the Korean-Chinese forces to drove the Japanese out of the northern Korean peninsula. The result was a stalemate with China and Japan agreeing to an armistice in spite of Korea’s desire to continue fighting.

In mid-1593, Chinese negotiators arrived in Japan to negotiate a peace. Hideyoshi requested the following: 1) the daughter of the Chinese emperor is to be a consort of the Japanese emperor; 2) the resumption of Japanese’s trading relations with China; 3) the state ministers of Japan and China to exchange statements of friendship; 4) Japan’s annexation of the four provinces of Korea south of Seoul is to remain its territory; 5) high-ranking Korean hostages are to be sent to Japan; 6) the return of Korean captive royal princes to Korea; and 7) Korea’s proclamation never to oppose Japan again.[21]

As Lee notes, these demands reflect Hideyoshi’s domestic practices to establish an internal hierarchy centered around him.[22] In his exchange with China, Hideyoshi envisioned a new hierarchical order with Japan at its top and the adoption of tributary practices based on Japanese domestic practices, as just the Chinese had done with its own tributary system. Thus, the practices, rituals, and values of Japan were now to be exported in its empire so that pragmatic ecumene would reflect its spiritual aspirations.

Hideyoshi’s demands clearly reflected the difference perceptions that both the Chinese and Japanese rulers had: China expected Japan to return to its traditional role as a tributary state and withdraw from Korea, whereas Japan demanded to be seen if not a superior than at least as an equal to China. Granted the title, “king of Japan,” was not the reward Hideyoshi expected because he had saw Japan as representative of all of humankind. A return to the status quo was not only pragmatically possible but also not spiritually feasible for Hideyoshi. Likewise, the Chinese emperor could not accept Japan as either a superior or equal because Ming China was seen as both the spiritual and pragmatic ecumene of the world.

Both Japanese and Chinese diplomats understood that the Chinese emperor would not accept Hideyoshi’s terms, so they instead forge a letter from Hideyoshi to make it acceptable to China. In the forged letter, Japan is “a child of the Heavenly court of China” and Korea was to be blamed for not letting Japan pass thorough their land to pay tribute to the Chinese emperor.[23] Japan only wanted the investiture, “the king of Japan,” and would return the Korean lands and not even ask for trading privileges.

When the Japanese envoy arrived in China with this forged letter, the emperor agreed that Japan would withdraw from Korea, not demand trade with China, and proclaim never to invade Korea again.[24] The Ming assumed that the best reward Japan would want is to return to the tributary system of China. Based on this forged letter, a peace agreement was concluded.

When the Chinese officials arrive to Japan to confer Hideyoshi the title “king of Japan,” he noted that none of seven conditions had been met and exclaimed: “Why would I want to be king of Japan? . . . I’ve already taken Japan in my grasp. If I wanted to be king then I would be king. What is this investing me like a bearded caitfiff?”[25] This led to the second Japanese invasion of Korea in 1597 with an additional Japanese army of 141,500 men to the existing 78,600 in Korea.[26]

Just as in the first invasion, a series of battles between Korean-Chinese and Japanese forces were fought on the peninsula until a military stalemate resulted in the south. It was only the death of Hideyoshi in 1598 that concluded the war, with the Japanese Council of Five Elders issuing orders for a withdrawal of all forces from Korea.[27] Hideyoshi’s death itself was kept secret to preserve the morale of the army. Thus, Japan’s first attempt to establish an ecumene in East Asia had failed.


Estimates of military and civilian causalities are between 250,000 and 300,00 with 185,000 Koreans killed and another 60,000 held captives by Japan. The aftermath of the war had repercussions throughout East Asia with the Tokugawa clan reunifying Japan, the supplantation of the Ming dynasty with the Qing, and Korea taking decades to recover, a devastation that was perhaps even greater than it had suffered during the Korean War (1950-53).[28]

After the war, Korea and Japan restored diplomatic relations. For Japan it was a way for the Tokugawa claim to legitimatize its authority as the “king of Japan” whereas for the Koreans it provided a rationale for Chinese soldiers to withdraw from the peninsula and provide a peaceful southern front and concentrate on the chaos on its northern border.[29] This was a result of the collapse of the Qing dynasty which the Imjin War had weakened such that the Manchus emerged as the victorious power, establishing the Qing dynasty.

However, the Qing enjoyed less authority than the Ming in the tributary system: it had to invade Korea twice for it to become a tributary state and Japan ignored its authority entirely, forming its own self-proclaimed miniature tributary system. Because the Manchus were considered barbarians by the Han Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, and other East Asians, their rule was seen as violating the boundaries and norms of diplomatic practice. Both Korea and Japan used this perceived cultural inferiority of the Qing dynasty to their own domestic political advantage. Korea initially supported a declining Ming against the growing Machu threat because the new king needed legitimacy from the Ming to cement his rule, while Tokugawa Japan (1603-1868) claimed itself the new center of East Asian politics to unify the country and enhance its own domestic legitimacy.

Thus, the spiritual and pragmatic politics of East Asia remained unchanged after the Imjin War.

Pragmaticcenter of tributary systeminternal unification; outward expansioninternal unification;

part of tributary system


The cosmological form of the East Asian ecumene makes it that the spiritual and the pragmatic order are analogue of each other. When there is more than one civilization that adopts the spiritual ecumene, the result is civilizational conflict, for those societies want to have their pragmatic empires correspond to their spiritual aspirations. Voegelin’s insight therefore is to recognize that conflict among civilizations therefore is not merely about power, resources, or values but a spiritual worldview that seeks to have its pragmatic counterpart manifest in the world of power politics. The Imjin War is a clear example of this.

The current rise of Asia, particularly China, has raised questions not only about the West’s place in the future of global politics but how should we understand and analyze it: Is civilizational conflict inevitable? Can the West and East have a peaceful coexistence? At what costs?[30] Voegelin’s account of the ecumene as both a spiritual and pragmatic reality provides us a way to understand the West’s encounter with Asia. It is a civilization that traditionally understands itself in a cosmological form where its spiritual and pragmatic ecumene must coincide. This is different than the West which, accordingly to Voegelin, has adopted a soteriological and Gnostic account of self-interpretation.[31] That is, we in the West have at times organize our societies by separating the spiritual and the pragmatic (soteriological) or collapsing them into one (Gnostic).

If it is the latter, then conflict between the West and East appears more probable, since there can only be one representative of humankind both spiritually and pragmatically. But if it is the former, cooperation is a possible avenue because the West’s aspiration for spiritual unity in humankind does not have to be mirrored in the pragmatically way people organizes themselves. The example of human rights is instructive in this regard.[32] In the West, human rights is the symbolization of the universal spiritual history of humankind but it does not require a single pragmatic organization for them to be established, for the type of government a country is (e.g., liberal democracy, one-party state) matters less than whether individual rights are respected by that government. By contrast, if a Gnostic were to claim that respect of human rights equated into a certain type of government (e.g., liberal democracy), then it would be incumbent upon that person to export democracy and make the world safe for it so the spiritual and pragmatic ecumene are one and the same.

It would seem then that to avoid civilizational war with Asia it is incumbent upon the West to see itself in soteriological rather than Gnostic terms. This is not to guarantee that conflict and war would not transpire but it would lessen the chance of it. To understand our own spiritual and pragmatic ecumene, as well as others’, is key for peaceful co-existence. To recognize this Voegelinian insight can contribute to our better understanding of Asia and international relations.



[1] Graham Allison, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape the Thucydides’ Trap? (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017).

[2] Eric Voegelin, Order and History Volume IV: The Ecumenic Age (The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin Volume 17), Michael Franz, ed. (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2000), 352-54. All subsequent citations will be in-text as CW17.

[3] Eric Voegelin, Order and History Volume I: Israel and Revelation (The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin Volume 14), Maurice P. Hogan, ed. (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001), 431-80.

[4] An exception to this is Filippo Marsili, Heaven is Empty: A Cross-Cultural Approach to “Religion” and Empire in Ancient China (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2018).

[5] Hur Nam-lin, “The International Context of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s Invasion of Korea in 1592,” Korea Observer 28/4 (1997): 691.

[6] Samuel Hawley, The Imjin War: Japan’s Sixteenth-Century Invasion of Korea and Attempt to Conquer China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 22.

[7] Hideyoshi to the King of Korea, Tensho 17 (1589) in Homer Hulbert, Hulbert’s History of Korea Volume I (New York: Hillary House, 1962), 347.

[8] For the Chinese (and the Koreans), Japan was seen as an outpost of civilization, filled with barbarians, and an object of disdain. Etskuo Hae-jin Kang, Diplomacy and Ideology in Japanese-Korean Relations (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), 66.

[9] Ji-Young Lee, China’s Hegemony: Four Hundred Years of East Asian Domination (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 56-78.

[10] Kang, Diplomacy and Ideology in Japanese-Korean Relations, 50-51.

[11] Donald Clark, “Sino-Korean Tributary Relations under the Ming,” in The Cambridge History of China Volume 8, The Ming Dynasty 1368-1644 Part 2, Denis Twitchett and Frederick Mote, eds. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 272-300.

[12] For more about the scholarly debate about the Chinese tributary system, see Lee, China’s Hegemony, 27-55.

[13] Hawley, The Imjin War, xii; Yoshi Kunno, Japanese Expansion on the Asiatic Continent Volume I (Port Washington, NY: Kennikat, 1967), 321.

[14] Kang, Diplomacy and Ideology in Japanese-Korean Relations, 107.

[15] For more about the Imjin War, see Hawley, The Imjin War and James B. Lewis, ed., The East Asian War, 1592-1598: International Relations, Violence, and Memory (New York: Routledge, 2017).

[16] Cited in Kunno, Japanese Expansion, 325.

[17] Kuno, Japanese Expansion, 329.

[18] Ibid., 313.

[19] Hawley, The Imjin War, 131-262.

[20] Ibid., 254-56.

[21] Ibid., 365; also see Kuno, Japanese Expansion, 328-29.

[22] Lee, China’s Hegemony, 112-13; also see 113-23.

[23] Cited in Lee, China’s Hegemony, 110-11.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Hawley, The Imjin War, 439-560.

[27] Ibid., 531-60.

[28] Ibid., 561-86.

[29] Ibid., 573-75

[30] Jacques Martin, When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order (New York: Penguin, 2012); Yuen Yuen Ang, How China Escaped the Poverty Trap (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016); Parag Khanna, The Future is Asian (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2019); David Shambaugh, ed. China and the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).

[31] For more about Voegelin’s Gnostic and soteriological theories, see my introduction to Political Symbols in Russian History: Church, State, and the Quest for Order and Justice (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2007), 1-10.

[32] David Walsh, The Politics of the Person as the Politics of Being (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2016). For more about whether human rights is an appropriate symbolization of the spiritual ecumene, see Macon Boczek, “The Politics of the Person as the Politics of Being,” VoegelinView October 3, 2016. Available at; David Walsh, “In Defense of Human Rights,” VoegelinView October 5, 2016. Available at; Macon Boczek, “A Response to Professor Walsh,” VoegelinView October 7, 2016. Available at


This excerpt is from Eric Voegelin’s Asian Political Thought (Lexington Books, 2020). Ying’s review and Thompson-Uberuaga’s reviews are available as are the introduction and chapters by Todd Myers and John von Heyking.

Lee Trepanier

Lee Trepanier is a Professor of Political Science at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama. He is author and editor of several books and also is the editor of VoegelinView (2016-present) and editor of Lexington Books series Politics, Literature, and Film (2013-present).

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