Yi Sun-sin was born on April 28, 1545 in the aristocratic neighborhood of Geonchondong, Hansung (now Seoul) as the third son of Yi Chong and his wife Byun. Although he was of good ancestry, his family was not well off because his grandfather had been embroiled in a political purge during the reign of King Joong Jong and Yi's father stayed away from seeking a civil service job. When the economic situation worsened for his family, they moved to Asan, the country home of Yi's maternal family.
At the age of 21, he married a woman from a neighboring town and had three sons and a daughter. Like any other young man of aristocratic family, he studied Confucian classics from an early age. But he began to train in the military arts when he turned 22. Although Yi was fully aware that the literary tradition was more highly regarded than the military tradition in his society, he chose the military service because of his personal conviction. But the refined writings in his dairy, reports, and poems demonstrate that he had remarkable literary talent as well as the valor and brilliance of a warrior. In 1572, when he was 28, Yi took a military service examination. During the exam, he fell from horseback and broke his left leg. The crowd was astonished when they saw him quietly get up on one leg to bind the broken leg with a branch from a nearby willow tree. Four years after his first trial, without giving up, he took the exam again and, at the age of 32, he passed the military service examination.
Thereafter, he was always true to his duties as a military officer while stationed at various locations. However, because of his unwillingness to compromise his integrity, he did not seek favors from those in power. As a result, Yi's military career languished and his accomplishments went unnoticed. Once, he was even relieved of his post for refusing to participate in unlawful activities solicited by his superior. Also, he experienced a harsh demotion to a common foot soldier as result of false accusations by another officer who blamed Yi for his own mistake. Then, just a few months before the outbreak of war, he received an exceptional promotion and became the Commander of Cholla Left Naval Station thanks to the vigorous recommendation from Prime Minister Yu, who had known Yi since childhood and firmly believed that Choson Korea was in need of his abilities.
As soon as he became a naval commander, he took up the task of reviving and restoring the Korean Naval Force. He straightened the administrative system, improved the condition of weapons and tightened sailors’ discipline even though it was not yet clear that war was imminent. He also put his efforts in making warships and completed building a Turtle Ship just a day before the Japanese invasion.
In the following seven years, Yi saved his homeland and his people by leading all his 23 naval engagements to victory with his unshakable loyalty, brilliant tactics, and indomitable spirit that transcended life and death. While he accomplished unbelievable feats at sea as an Admiral, Yi suffered continuous tragedies and hardships in his personal life, which makes his life even more remarkable. Even when he was faced with a King who tried to kill him, his loyalty to his country never wavered. He did not harbor a grudge against Won Kyun and his enemies at king's court for falsely accusing him of treason. When the Korean Navy he had built with so much care was from Won Kyun's disatrous defeat against the Japanese Navy, he did not allow his anger and resentment to stop him from carrying out his duties. His absolute loyalty to his country and people enabled him to achieve a maritime miracle of uninterrupted victories. In 1598, at the age of 54, he died gloriously in his final battle at Noryang, which concluded the Seven Year War. He was posthumously titled Chung Mu Gong (Duke of Loyalty and Art of Chivalry).
The closing years of sixteenth century found Choson Korea beset with considerable political and economical difficulties. Incessant conflicts between political parties had led to corruption, which in turn had led to confusion in the tax system. The effects of inter-party wrangling had inevitably spread to regional governments, destabilizing national politics as a whole. The unjust and unreasonable appointment of officials, and the poor administration which naturally followed, stirred up feelings of distrust and resentment in the people. As a result, there was a decline in military discipline, and national defense was put seriously at risk.
Meanwhile, across the Korea Strait, Toyotomi Hideyoshi had in the year 1590 put an end to 150 years of civil conflict by successfully unifying Japan under his rule. As he was dealing with the task of unification, he had looked for a way to dilute the power of feudal lords (daimyo), who at that time represented the most serious threat to his authority, and thereby reinforce the power of the central government. With this end in mind, he planned the invasion of neighboring countries so that he would be better able to control their internal feuding and divert the energy and attention of the daimyos abroad. At first, he requested the Korean King to permit free passage through Korea for the swift movement of his army into Ming China.
Korea sent two-man mission to observe Hideyoshi's true intention and the likelihood of Japanese invasion, but they returned with conflicting opinions. Hwang expressed the possibility of invasion, while Kim thought little of the possibility. The King and the ruling classes were not alarmed. They laughed away the Japanese approaches and ignored the possibility of war. When his overtures met with steadfast refusal, Toyotomi Hideyoshi resolved to invade the Korean peninsula. Korea, a nation for centuries accustomed to peace, was therefore completely unprepared when Japan presently invaded with 160,000 troops, in the April of 1592. Before the Japanese, with their superior numbers, training, and new arms called muskets, the poorly-equipped Korean military were as good as helpless. The southern defense perimeter was breached with a matter of days, and the forces of Japan began to make their way the north without facing any serious difficulty.
The Korean King, Son Jo, fled with his son to Pyung Yang on April 30; two days later the Japanese reached the capital Seoul, only eighteen days having passed since their unopposed landing in Pusan. As the Japanese army continued their relentless advance northwards, defeating every Korean force which had the courage to face them, King Son Jo and his Court abandoned the defense of Pyung Yang and fled again to Uiju, at the northern tip of the Korean peninsula. The Korean people were furious with the incompetence and irresponsibility of King and his Court. After only two months, the entire country had all but fallen to its victorious Japanese invaders.
In Korean history, which spans over five millennia, there have been many national heroes, but none compares to Yi Sun-sin who saved Choson Korea from the brink of collapse during the Japanese invasion of 1592. He is still dearly cherished in the hearts of Koreans today. In a nationwide survey conducted by Soonchunhyang University in April 2005, Yi Sun-sin was chosen as the greatest figure in Korean history by 43.8% of the vote (The Chosun Daily, April 15, 2005).
It is, therefore, very regrettable that Yi's noble life and the marvelous deeds he performed for his country and people are not well-known outside of Korea. Admiral Yi achieved a battle record that no one in history has ever matched. Genghis Khan lost two battles out of the twenty that he fought, Napoleon Bonaparte four battles out of twenty three, Emperor Frederick four battles out of twelve, and Hannibal one battle out of five. Yet in all of the twenty three battles that he fought at sea, Admiral Yi was never once defeated.
Overcoming formidable odds in terms of numbers of ships and troops, he led his navy to victory in every engagement he fought during seven years of war with the Japanese, losing in total only two ships of his own.
In his book, The Influence of Sea on the Political History of Japan, George Alexander Ballard, (1862-1948), a vice-admiral of the British Royal Navy, summarized Yi's life and victories as follows.
It is always difficult for Englishmen to admit that Nelson ever had an equal in his profession, but if any man is entitled to be so regarded, it should be this great naval commander of Asiatic race who never knew defeat and died in the presence of the enemy; of whose movements a track-chart might be compiled from the wrecks of hundreds of Japanese ships lying with their valiant crews at the bottom of the sea, off the coasts of the Korean peninsula...and it seems, in truth, no exaggeration to assert that from first to last he never made a mistake, for his work was so complete under each variety of circumstances as to defy criticism... His whole career might be summarized by saying that, although he had no lessons from past history to serve as a guide, he waged war on the sea as it should be waged if it is to produce definite results, and ended by making the supreme sacrifice of a defender of his country. (p. 66,67)
The following is an extract from a paper published by the Japanese Institute of Korean Studies
"Yi Sun-sin, Next to him, I am little more than a petty officer."-Admiral of the Japan Navy Togo, Heihachiro, (1847 - 1934)
Togo returned from the victorious Battle of Tsushima(1905) in which he had defeated the Russian Baltic Fleet, at that time the world's most powerful naval force. He had been instated as Admiral of the Japanese Navy, and at a celebratory gathering, a member of the company exclaimed, "Your great victory is so remarkable that it deserves an everlasting place in history. You can be regarded the equal of Admiral Nelson, who defeated Napoleon in the Battle of Trafalgar; you are indeed a god of war." To this Admiral Togo replied "I appreciate your compliment. But,...if there ever were an Admiral worthy of the name of 'god of war' , that one is Yi Sun-sin. Next to him, I am little more than a petty officer."
Japanese scholar Hujizka Akinao mentions in his essay In Admiration of Admiral Yi Sun-sin ("Kyung Hee" Vol. 8. 1977) that Togo regarded Yi as his master, and held a ceremony for him before the Battle of Tsushima (it is a Japanese custom to hold a ceremony for ancestors or historically significant figures before important occasions). Few of the world's great war heroes have been able to avoid criticism and censure, least of all from those they fought against, enduring such taunts as 'brutal oppressors' or 'starving wolves'. Admiral Yi, in contrast, has been held as an object of admiration and reverence even among the Japanese, whose minds were swayed by his pure and absolute loyalty to his country and people, his brilliant use of strategy and tactics which led invariably to victory, his invincible courage that overcame every adverse circumstance, and his unbending integrity.
This admiration is apparent in the many speeches and writings by Japanese military officers and historians which speak of Admiral Yi, and following are some examples.
Throughout history there have been few generals accomplished at the tactics of frontal attack, sudden attack, concentration and dilation.
Yi Sun-sin a great naval commander, and compared him to Lord Nelson of England -The Influence of Sea on the Political History of Japan, a vice-admiral of the British Royal Navy George Alexander Ballard, (1862-1948)
Napoleon, who mastered the art of conquering the part with the whole, can be held to have been such a general, and among admirals, two further tactical geniuses may be named: in the East, Yi Sun-sin of Korea, and in the West, Horatio Nelson of England. Undoubtedly, Yi is a supreme naval commander even on the basis of the limited literature of the Seven Years War, and despite the fact that his bravery and brilliance are not known to the West, since he had the misfortune to be born in Choson.
Anyone who can be compared to Yi should be better than Michiel de Ruyter from Netherlands. Nelson is far behind Yi in terms of personal character and integrity.
Yi was the inventor of the iron-clad warship known as the Turtle Ship (Geobukseon). He was a truly great commander and a master of the naval tactics of three hundred years ago.
Sato Destaro (1866-1942), a vice-admiral of the Japanese Navy,
A Military History of the Emperor, p. 399.
Yi Sun-sin is a famous Korean general who defeated the Japanese in every one of the battles at sea when Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s troops invaded Choson Korea. He was unique among Choson civil and military officers for his honesty and incorruptibility, and in terms of leadership and tactics, as well as loyalty and courage, he was an ideal commander almost like a miracle.
"Yi-Sun Shin was one of the greatest general of all time in human history who was a legendary hero once in thousands years" -Admiral of the USA Navy Chester William Nimitz, ( 1885~ 1966)
He was a renowned admiral before the time of Nelson, and has never yet had an equal in world history. Although the existence of this figure grew to be almost forgotten in Korea, the admiration of his memory was handed down in Japan through generations so that his tactics and accomplishments were researched and subjected to close study when the Japanese Navy was established during the Meiji period.
Siba Ryotaro, "Clouds over the hill", Sankei Newspaper, March 27, 1972.
Of Admiral Yi's twenty-three sea battles, the most crucial were the Battle of Hansan and Battle of Myongnyang. In the Battle of Hansan, considered as among the greatest naval engagements in history, Yi, by means of his famous 'Crane Wing' formation, achieved a great victory by sinking and capturing fifty-nine of the seventy-three Japanese ships which opposed him, thereby frustrating Hideyoshi's plan of advancing along the coast. The Battle of Myongnyang, in which he defeated 130 enemy ships with 13 ships his own, is regarded among maritime historians as nothing less than a miracle.
Yi is often compared with Admiral Nelson and Admiral Togo. All three men were heroes who fought for the destiny of their countries and saved their countrymen from foreign invasion by the securing of key naval victories. However, the circumstances of Nelson's Battle at Trafalgar and of Togo's Battle at Tsushima differ strikingly from those of the Battle of Myongnyang fought by Admiral Yi.
At the Battle of Trafalgar, England, a nation traditionally strong on the sea, was facing an enemy who was at that time inexperienced in naval warfare, and who commanded a fleet not much larger than her own (27 English ships against 33 French and Spanish ships). In the case of the Battle of Tsushima, also, the Japanese navy had the upper hand in many respects.
The Russian crews of the Baltic fleet which opposed them were exhausted after a seven-month voyage which had taken them halfway round the world; the Arctic-born Russian crews had suffered greatly from outbreaks of disease as they sailed through the equator area.
Taking this into account, it is of little surprise that an intensively trained Japanese Navy, in high morale and fighting near the mainland of Japan, emerged victorious over the dispirited Russian forces. The battles discussed above may be summarized in a chart(page20) as follows:
Admiral Yi achieved a truly legendary naval record. His greatness, however, lies not in mere battle figures, but rather in the great and noble sacrifice which he made for his country. The Seven Years War, to which he dedicated both his life and his death, was not a war driven by a politician's desire for imperial expansion, but by his pure wish to defend his country and people against a foreign invader.
Sitting alone under lighted candle, I took thought of the present state of our nation's affairs; I found the tears rolling down my cheeks. (War Diary, January 1, 1595)
"According to the principles of strategy, 'He who seeks death will live, and he who seeks life will die'.
And again, 'If one defender stands watch by a strong gateway, he may drive terror deep into the heart of an enemy coming up by the ten thousand.' To men in our condition, these sayings are worth more than gold.
You, my Captains, are expected to render strict obedience to my commands. If you do not, not even the least error will be pardoned, nay, but severely punished according to Martial Law".(War Diary, September 15, 1597) times, he agonized in tears as he watched his soldiers train while enduring starvation. He sacrificed himself and tended to the needs of his soldiers and people before his own. He carried out his love to them.
With his uncompromising loyalty, his dauntless will and steadfast courage, he saved his country when its leaders were lost in the crisis of war.
He firmly held on to honest principles, put an end to evil customs, and led his men with thorough preparation and a pioneering spirit.
He possessed unshakable conviction, achieved repeated successes in battles by means of brilliant tactics and strategy, and by his unselfish devotion, gained the absolute trust of his men.
He had no experienced, well-trained navy as Admiral Togo and Admiral Nelson had, nor was he himself trained as an admiral.
His country was small and weak and unable to support him. However, even the Heavens were moved by his noble spirit of loyalty, and he attained the legendary record of 23 consecutive victories.
He raised up fruit from barren earth. Indeed, he created everything from nothing.
To Koreans, he is not a hero, but a holy hero: He is Admiral Yi Sun-sin.