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Admiral Yi Sun-shin

Throughout history, there have been many great military leaders honored for their service to their countries. The great Korean commander, Admiral Yi Sun-shin, of the late sixteenth century, belongs with the best of the military leaders in any part of the world.

In 1592, Toyotomi Hideyoshi gave the order to invade Korea. His plan was to sweep through the peninsula and then conquer China. Hideyoshi's plans may have been accomplished if it weren't for the leadership of Admiral Yi of the Korean Navy. He alone was responsible for turning the tide of this important era of Asian history.

One cannot speak of Admiral Yi without mentioning the kobukson, or turtle ship that he designed. These were the first ironclad warships, and played a significant part in the war against the Japanese invaders. To illustrate the effectiveness of these ships and the brilliant tactics of Admiral Yi, we need only look at one of the many battles he won. On September 16, 1597, he led 12 turtle ships against 133 Japanese ships in the Myongnyang Straits. The Koreans sank 31 enemy ships and sent the others fleeing in this victory.

Unfortunately, Admiral Yi Sun-shin never got to see the rewards of his heroic efforts and brilliant strategy. On November 19, 1598, Admiral Yi was shot during the final battle of the war. He commanded that his body be hid by a shield so his enemies could not see that he had fallen. To his oldest son, he whispered, "Do not weep, do not announce my death. Beat the drum, blow the trumpet, wave the flag for advance. We are still fighting. Finish the enemy to the last one." He was 54 years old when he died.

Yi Sun-shin kept a careful record of daily events in a diary, and it is from these entries, along with the reports he sent to the throne during the war, that much about the man has been learned. These works have been published in English as Nanjung Ilgi: War Diary of Admiral Yi Sun-sin, and Imjin Changch'o: Admiral Yi Sun-sin's Memorials to Court. (Translated by HA Tae-hung, Yonsei University Press.)

In these writings, we can find many useful lessons for today. Admiral Yi wrote that a warrior must master three roads, four obligations, five skills, and ten keys to security.

"The three roads are knowledge of the world; understanding of things as they are; and wisdom toward humanity.

The four obligations are to provide national security with minimal cost; to lead others unselfishly; to suffer adversity without fear; to offer solutions without laying blame.

The five skills are to be flexible without weakness; to be strong without arrogance; to be kind without vulnerability; to be trusting without naivete; and to have invincible courage.

The ten keys to security are purity of purpose, sound strategy, integrity, clarity, lack of covetousness, lack of addiction, a reserved tongue, assertiveness without aggression, being firm and fair, and patience."

These are some of my favorite entries from Admiral Yi's War Diary (Nanjung Ilgi), and I feel they are as relevant today as they were in the sixteenth century when he wrote them.

Besides being remembered as a tactical genius, Admiral Yi is also remembered as a man of personal integrity. His posthumous title, Ch'ungmu-kong (Lord of Loyalty and Chivalry) is used in Korea's third highest military honor, the Order of Ch'ungmu.

He believed in three essentials for the warrior: humility, discernment, and courage. He embodied all of them and lived with integrity throughout his life. When Admiral Son Ko-i died in 1598, a letter was found among his possessions. It was from Yi Sun-shin, and in it he wrote, "My life is simple, my food is plain, and my quarters are uncluttered. In all things, I have sought clarity. I face the troubles and problems of life and death willingly. Virtue, integrity and courage are my priorities. I can be approached, but never pushed; befriended but never coerced; killed but never shamed."

Admiral Yi Sun-shin is truly one of the great warriors of the past, and his legacy and teachings are a blueprint for success for any modern martial artist and warrior. His patriotism and integrity can be a role model for all.

There is a statue of Admiral Yi Sun-shin in the middle of Sejongno in downtown Seoul next to the Kyobo building. Each time I visit the Kyobo Book Center to look at the English section of books, I stop to admire the statue and reflect on Korea's greatest warrior.

This was originally published in the March 19, 1997 issue of the Korea Herald.

The Tao Warriorship Art

Article reprinted from Alain Burrese's web site The Tao of Warriorship focusing on body, mind and spirit.

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