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Big Heads and Buddhist Demons: The Korean Musketry Revolution and the Northern Expeditions of 1654 and 1658

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Boosted by superior firearms and competent riverine transportation, Cossack explorers of the Muscovite empire encountered little resistance in their eastward expansion across Siberia until they reached the Amur frontiers. The Cossacks arrived in 1643 and gained notoriety as Buddhist demons (luocha 羅剎) for plundering the Mongol-Tungusic tribes of the region during the latter half of the seventeenth century. There ensued an effective military counterthrust by continental East Asians, including the Manchus, a new rising power in North China; Amurian natives such as the Daurs, Juchers, and Nanais; and Korean musketeers hailing from the Chosŏn dynasty. During the battles of 1654 and 1658, disciplined Korean musketeers known as Big Heads (taeduin 大頭人) outgunned the Russians and helped repulse their incursions into the inner reaches of the Amur region. These marksmen were products of the Korean Musketry Revolution during the seventeenth century, which revamped the Chosŏn army around en masse infantry tactics and firearms units. These tactical changes sparked broader institutional changes within and beyond the Korean military apparatus, triggering a drastic growth in army size and challenging existing practices of commerce, conscription, census taking, and taxation. These reforms, though decelerated around the mid-eighteenth century, attest to the capabilities of seventeenth-century Chosŏn to successfully adapt to the challenges of early modern warfare, which increasingly harnessed the power of firearms and disciplined soldiers. This narrative of the Big Heads and Buddhist Demons explores new ground in understanding transcultural trends of musket-based warfare and joins Korea to the burgeoning field of global military history.

Affiliations: 1: Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Harvard


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