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Yi Sunshin

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PD Image
Portrait of Admiral Yi, drawn in 1952.

Yi Sunshin[1] (이순신:李舜臣, April 28, 1545 – December 16, 1598)[2] was a Korean admiral renowned for his naval victories against the invading Japanese during the Korean War of 1592-1598. Yi's role during the first invasion was critical in preventing the Japanese from reinforcing their land invasion by sea, which resulted in their southwestward retreat to near Busan by mid-1593. He is noted for deploying the heavily-armed turtle ships and the "crane-wing formation," as well as his decisive "fire tactics" using cannons and arrows to overwhelm the enemy. He was fatally wounded by a stray bullet in the final battle at the Noryang strait, when a combined Korean and Chinese fleet defeated the enemy approaching in rear action against their naval blockade on the Japanese commander Konishi Yukinaga.

Early life in Seoul and Asan

Yi Sunshin was born on April 28, 1545, in the Geoncheondong[3] area near Seoul. Yi was the third child of the four sons begot by Yi Jeong[4] and Chogyae Byeonssi (Mrs. Byeon of Chogyae).[5][6] Despite their aristocratic yangban lineage, the family lived with modest means because Yi's father avoided pursuing the promising path of a Joseon Dynasty scholar official. The reason for Jeong's withdrawal of ambitions was his unpleasant memory of a violent political purge 20 years before, in which many government officials were killed, and many others, including Sunshin's grandfather, Yi Baek-rok,[7] were demoted to the lower ranks.[8][9][9][10]

The eldest son of the family was Heuishin;[11] the second eldest, Yoshin;[12] and the youngest, Ushin.[13] When Chogyae Byeonssi was pregnant with her third child, Yi Baek-rok, who was now deceased, appeared to her in a dream and said, "that child will turn out to be extraordinary, so name him 'Sunshin'."[14] Thus, like his brothers, Yi Sunshin was named a "vassal" (shin) of one of the sage kings of ancient China (in his case, Shun).[15][16]

As not much is actually known about Yi's early childhood, the only significant detail regarding the time he grew up in Seoul is that he became friends with Yu Seongnyong,[17] who later became a high ranking scholar official and would contribute to Yi's appointment to the admiralty.[16] After about 9 years in the capital city, Yi Sunshin's family moved to the Bem-bat-ma-eul village[18] in Asan,[19] where their economic stress could be better managed with support of their maternal relatives.[20]

It was said that Yi was well-liked by the other children in the village, and in war games he was consistently picked as a captain.[15] Around this time, Yi started practicing archery, which was a popular sport and an essential prerequisite for a military career. These outside pursuits were contrasts to his strict rearing at home, where he studied Chinese classics with his brothers.[20]

When Yi was around 20 years old,[21] he married Sangju Bangssi (Mrs. Bang of Sangju),[22] who was the only daughter of Sangju Bangjin.[23] With the backing of his father-in-law, who was a high-ranking military official, Yi quit his Confucian studies and began preparing for the military exam.[24][25] During the 6 years that he trained, Yi fathered 2 sons: his first son, Yi Hwae,[26] in February 1567 and in February 1571, Yi Ull,[27] whom the father would rename as Yi Yer during the war.[28][19]

Yi took the Byeolshi[29] exam in August, 1572, in Seoul. In one of the tests, Yi made a huge blunder by falling off a horse while trying to string his bow. Although he finished the remaining tests after tying twigs of willow around his hurt leg, he was unable to pass because of the accident. Yi prepared again for 4 more years and passed the much more difficult, triennial Siknyeonmoogwa[30] exam in February, 1576, thereby beginning a military career at a relatively advanced age of 31.[20]

Pre-war military service

Yi Sunshin began his military service with his assignment to the very cold and remote region of Samsoo[31] in the Hamgyeong Province. For 3 years, Yi was to maintain a small fort by the northern border and protect the civilians from the constant threat of the Jurchen tribesmen. Although Korea was at peace, and the expectations were generally relaxed within the military, Yi fulfilled his duties with due diligence. At the end of his term, Yi was recommended by the provincial inspector[32] and promoted as a magistrate of the military training center at the capital city.[33] Yi's various responsibilities included administrating military exams, training the troops, and overseeing employment and promotion. As Yi was strictly fair and uncompromising, he flatly rejected a special request from Seo Ik[34] for an unwarranted promotion of another colleague. Yi's incorruptibility was further demonstrated when the defense secretary Kim Gwee-yeong[35] offered Yi a marriage with a woman of his family, only to be courteously denied with the excuse of avoiding unfair political advantage.[36] Later in October, Yi was made an assistant to the army commander of the Chungcheong province,[37] and, in June 1580, Yi was transferred to the Jeolla province, where he handled naval affairs for the first time.[38][39]

The first of Yi Sunshin's trials with the bureaucracy began when some malicious rumors spread about him, which prompted his being summoned by the provincial governor Son Sik[40] out on an inspection tour. Son's attempt to drill Yi with questions about various military strategies merely proved Yi's competence and revealed that the rumors were false.[39] More difficult situations followed involving the two men who, one after the other, occupied the position of the Jeolla Left Naval Commander, a position later to be held by Yi himself.[41] The first of the adversaries was admiral Saung Bak, who ordered Yi to fell a large Odongnamu tree[42] in Yi's official residence to make a Gaumoon-go, a stringed musical instrument.[43] Much to Saung's ire, Yi rejected his request on the ground that any personal use of national property was forbidden, and, in the end, the matter was dropped with the tree intact. But, soon afterwards, Saung was replaced by Yi Yong,[44] who was also hostile to Yi Sunshin, possibly due to Saung's influence. Admiral Yong hastily proceeded on an inspection tour to the 5 navy posts under his command. Although he witnessed a considerable amount of shifts that were absent in Yeodo, Sado, Nokdo, and Bangdap, the admiral only reported Yi Sunshin for just 3 such cases that were found in Balpo. Yi Sunshin responded by conducting his own investigation including the 4 other posts, which forced the charges to be dropped against him. Unrelentingly, Yi Yong again tried to discredit Yi Sunshin in an official evaluation, but this time he was barred by the provincial inspector general, who intervened and nullified the report. Nevertheless, it was only a matter of time before Yi's stubborn refusal to play the political game would have terrible repercussions. In February 1582, Yi Sunshin was expelled from his post after he was falsely denigrated through a weapons inspection by Seo Ik, who still held grudge against Yi for denying him favors in the past.[39]

After four months of dismissal, in May 1582, Yi Sunshin was allowed to return to his former post at the training barracks in Seoul. A chance to further mend his degraded situation came in December of that year when he was visited by his old time friend, Yu Seongnyeong. Yi learned from Yu that he would be able to make acquaintance with Yi Yulgok,[45] who was then the minister of war and also a very prominent scholar official of the time. Even with Yu's urging to accept, Yi Sunshin refused in order to avoid corruption as he had previously with Kim Gwee-yeong.[46]

In summer of the following year, Yi Yong was promoted as the general of the Hamgyeong province, whereupon he requested Yi Sunshin to be transferred to his command. Despite being at odds with each other in the past, Yi Yong came to have a considerable respect for Yi Sunshin.[46] Yi was instated in October 1583 to the position of a border outpost commander that he had previously held at the start of his career. His new outpost was located 10 miles south of Gyeong-won, in the northernmost part of the Korean peninsula, where the Jurchens posed a major threat. On November 14, Yi staged a successful ambush on the Jurchen raiders and captured their leader. Although the Joseon court initially considered rewarding Yi quite generously for this feat, one of his superiors denied this prospect by complaining that the attack was carried out without any prior consultation. Instead, Yi was given a small promotion to the office of overseer at the local training barrack, but he withdrew from service in January 1584 when he received news of his father's death, and spent the next 3 years in ceremonial mourning.[47][48]

Due to the persistence of Jurchen attacks at the borders, the Joseon court repeatedly inquired when Yi would cease his mourning for his deceased father. In January 1586, Yi Sunshin, who was already by then 40 years of age,[49] was appointed the chief custodian of transportation at the royal palaces but was soon re-assigned to an outpost in Gyeongheung (present-day Undok) in Hamgyeong province upon recommendation by Yu Seongnyeong. In August 1587, Yi was sent to a fort across the Tumen River, on the island of Noktundo, where he was to carry out inspection of the garrison farms.[50] Upon arrival, Yi Sunshin reported that the island was not adequately defended and requested assistance from general Yi Il,[51] but he was unable to obtain help. Noktundo was soon invaded by a group of Jurchens while Yi Sunshin and deputy officer Yi Gyeong-rok[52] were away with the troops harvesting in the fields. The 11 that remained to guard the fort were killed along with one of the Jurchen chiefs. The raiding party then proceeded to take 160 civilians and 15 horses with them, but at least 50 abductees were rescued in the subsequent pursuit by Yi Sunshin and Yi Gyeong-rok, with 3 more Jurchens being killed. Afraid of being held responsible for the incident, Yi Il sent a false report to the Joseon court, which resulted in Yi's demotion to the rank of a private, although he would have been executed had not his previous achievements been taken into consideration. In January 1588, general Yi Il led a retaliatory campaign with 400 troops into the present-day area of Linjiang[53] in northeast China, where the raiding parties originated. The campaign reaped tremendous success, leaving 380 enemy combatants dead and 200 houses burnt, as well as confiscating 30 horses and 20 cows. Yi Sunshin took part in the action as a common soldier and was able to redeem himself by luring and killing one of the Jurchen leaders.[54] Yi was officially restored after the campaign, and in June he returned to his home in Asan.[50][55]

In February 1589, Yi Sunshin was appointed the lieutenant general upon request by the Jeolla provincial governor Yi Gwang, who was formerly the inspector general of the Hamgyeong province. This occasion marked the first time in 7 years that his promotion was significant. Going forward in his career, Yi was assigned to the ministry of war in November 1589 and to the regional administrative office in Jeong-eup of Jeolla province the month after. Around this time Jeong-eup experienced a civilian uprising, in which one of Yi's acquaintances and the governor supervisor of Jeolla province, Jo Dae-jung,[56] was involved complicitly. While reporting to Seoul, Yi coincidentally met the king's investigator, who offered to exclude the letters between Yi and Jo from the investigations for fear of risking Yi's reputation, but Yi refused this bending of practices.[57]

Then before his rise to the admiralty came a flurry of new appointments that never had chance to take effect. In July and August 1590, Yi Sunshin was assigned as the chief magistrate at Gosarijin (lit. "bracken fort"),[58] and the naval director at Manpo respectively, but both decisions were reversed due to the unwritten rule that an upper ranking magistrate should keep his post for at least 1 year. Again in February 1591, Yi received appointments as the county magistrate of Jindo and then the naval director at Garipo, but these were displaced by his appointment as the Jeolla Left Naval Commander in anticipation of the Japanese invasion. Yu Songnyeong played a helping hand in realizing Yi's lofty appointment, although Yu's recommendation was originally for a different position. [59]

As the admiral of 1 of 4 fleets in the Korean navy, Yi proceeded without delay to implement reforms on a wide scale that were crucial to his success during the war. He made the training regime more rigorous and strict and made regular inspection tours to check on the officers and the conditions of the facilities. By meting out severe punishments, Yi consolidated control over and instilled a sense of awe among the troops, which was a defining characteristic of his admiralty. Equally important was his study of the geography of the waters under his jurisdiction, which shaped his naval deployments and strategies.[59] Yi tried to compensate for his lack of experience in naval warfare by studying a military treatise[60] that was sent to him by Yu Seongnyeong. The "fire tactics" explained in the treatise, which involves concentrated firepower to overwhelm the enemy, would be an important part of his success. Finally Yi had a turtle ship built, which would complete in time for the second campaign of the war. The turtle ship was covered with wood on all sides, and in battle it would be able to break enemy lines and attack the mothership.

PD Painting
Turtle ship being depicted in a Korean painting.

1592 - 1598

On May 25th, Yi received news of 350 Japanese ships arriving near the port city of Busan. Unfortunately the two Right navies were dismantled and abandoned by their admirals who fled in panic rather than engaging the Japanese at sea, and the next day Yi heard that Busan fell to the invaders. On the 28th, Yi heard the news that Tongnae fell.

On June 6th, Yi received order to coordinate an attack against Japanese ships with the other admirals. On June 10th, Yi Eokgi's ships gathered at Yi's base at Yeosu, and the combined fleet set eastward on the 13th to meet admiral Won Gyun of the Gyeongsang Right navy. They rallied near Hansan Island on the 15th, only to see 6 warships join them as Won had dismantled the 80 other ships under his command. The strength of the fleet totaled 91 ships, including 27 panokseon-class warships and smaller vessels.

The Battle of Okpo happened the next day on the 16th when scouting vessels fired rockets to signal the presence of a nearby enemy fleet which were anchored at the harbor.


A survey conducted by Sooncheonhyang University in 2005 indicated that Koreans in general regard Yi Sunshin to be the greatest figure in Korean history.[61]


  1. Note 1: For Korean names, the western equivalent of the last name comes first, and the first name comes last. There is no middle name in Korean - "Sun" is not a middle name. Note 2: Yi is pronounced as one would say the letter E in the English alphabet.
  2. Note: Korean sources which are based on the lunar calendar say Yi Sunshin was born on March 8 and died on November 19.
  3. Note 1: 건천동:乾川洞 (Hangul/Hanja) Note 2: A part of present-day Inhyeon-dong (중구 인현동) in Incheon.
  4. Note: 이정:李貞 (Hangul/Hanja)
  5. Note: 초계변씨:草溪卞氏 (Hangul/Hanja)
  6. Note: Korean women keep their last name upon marriage
  7. Note: 이백록:李百祿 (Hangul/Hanja)
  8. 이내원. "선비가문, 지혜에 담력 갖춘 지장." 한국일보 (Korea Times) 29 Apr. 2003. 한국일보. Web. 23 Oct. 2010. <>.
  9. 9.0 9.1 최이돈, 2010.
  10. *"이순신(李舜臣){1}." 한국역대인물종합정보시스템. The Academy of Korean Studies. Web. 23 Oct. 2010. <>.
  11. Note: 희신:羲臣 (Hangul/Hanja)
  12. Note: 요신:堯臣 (Hangul/Hanja)
  13. Note: 우신:禹臣 (Hangul/Hanja)
  14. "이순신의 탄생과, 그 무렵의 국내 정세." 성웅이순신. Web. 27 July 2008. <>.
  15. 15.0 15.1 "소년시절." 성웅이순신. Web. 28 July 2008. <>.
  16. 16.0 16.1 Hawley, 2005. pp. 118-122.
  17. Note: 유성룡:柳成龍 (Hangul/Hanja)
  18. Note 1: 뱀밭마을 (Hangul) Note 2: Present-day Bek-am-ri (백암리) part of Asan.
  19. 19.0 19.1 "연대표." 성웅이순신. Web. 23 Oct. 2010. <>.
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 "'제 2의 고향', 아산." 성웅이순신. Web. 28 July 2008. <>.
  21. Note: In Korean customs, a person is already one year old at birth. Therefore, Korean sources actually say that Yi was 21 when he married.
  22. Note: 상주방씨:尙州方氏 (Hangul/Hanja)
  23. Note: 상주방진:尙州方震 (Hangul/Hanja)
  24. 박혜일, 2010.
  25. "명장의 자질을 읽은 방진." 성웅이순신. Web. 28 July 2008. <>.
  26. Note: 이회:李會 (Hangul/Hanja)
  27. Note: 이울:李蔚 (Hangul/Hanja)
  28. Note: 이열:李悅 (Hangul/Hanja)
  29. Note: 별시:別試 (Hangul/Hanja)
  30. Note: 식년무과:式年武科 (Hangul/Hanja)
  31. Note: 삼수:三水 (Hangul/Hanja)
  32. Note: Yi Hoo-baek - 이후백:李後白 (Hangul/Hanja)
  33. "관직생활 - 함경도 동구비보 권관 (종9품) 1576 / 하사." 성웅이순신. Web. 11 Sept. 2009. <>.
  34. Note: 서익:徐益 (Hangul/Hanja)
  35. Note: 김귀영:金貴榮 (Hangul/Hanja)
  36. "관직생활 - 한성 훈련원 봉사 (종8품) 1579 / 주사보." 성웅이순신. Web. 11 Sept. 2009. <>.
  37. "관직생활 - 충청도 병마절도사 군관 (종8품) 1579년 / 주사보." 성웅이순신. Web. 11 Sept. 2009. <>.
  38. Note: Transfer between the army and the navy was a familiar pattern to the Koreans, since the Joseon army and navy of were not separate branches of the military.
  39. 39.0 39.1 39.2 "관직생활 - 발포 수군만호 (종8품) 1580년 / 해군소위." 성웅이순신. Web. 11 Sept. 2009. <>.
  40. Note: 손식:孫軾 (Hangul/Hanja)
  41. Note: 전라좌수사:全羅左水使 (Hangul/Hanja)
  42. Note: 오동나무 (Korean), a Korean tree of Paulownia genus.
  43. Note: 성박:成博 (Hangul/Hanja)
  44. Note: 이용:李鎔 (Hangul/Hanja)
  45. Note: 이율곡:李栗谷 (Hangul/Hanja)
  46. 46.0 46.1 "관직생활 - 한성 훈련원 봉사 (종8품) 1582년 / 주사보." 성웅이순신. Web. 11 Sept. 2009. <>.
  47. Note: Yi Sunshin's father passed away on November 15, 1583.
  48. "관직생활 - 함경도 건원보 권관 (종9품) 1983년 / 하사." 성웅이순신. Web. 11 Sept. 2009. <>.
  49. Note: According to the Korean sources, Yi was 42.
  50. 50.0 50.1 이상배, 2010.
  51. Note: 이일:李鎰 (Hangul/Hanja)
  52. Note: 이경록:李慶祿 (Hangul/Hanja)
  53. Note: 추도:楸島 (Hangul/Hanja)
  54. Note: 우을기내:于乙其乃 (Hangul/Hanja)
  55. "관직생활 - 조선보만호 (종4품) 1986년 / 중령, 군수." 성웅이순신. Web. 22 Oct. 2010. <>.
  56. Note: 조대중:曹大中 (Hangul/Hanja)
  57. "관직생활 - 정읍현감 (종6품) 1589년." 성웅이순신. Web. 19 Feb. 2011. <>.
  58. Note: 고사리진:高沙里鎭 (Hangul/Hanja)
  59. 59.0 59.1 "관직생활 - 전라좌수사 (정3품) 1591년 / 해군사령관." 성웅이순신. Web. 19 Feb. 2011. <>.
  60. Note: 증손전수방략:增損戰守方略 (Hangul/Hanja)
  61. Citizens Name Admiral Yi 'Greatest Korean', Chosun Ilbo, 2005-04-15, date-accessed: 2008-07-24