The Admiral, My Hero: Yi Sun-Shin
When the movie, “The Admiral: Roaring Currents,” was first released, I was taken aback by the worldwide response it got. To me, it was just a war movie, and I didn’t fully understand what the movie was truly about. I had always been interested in my cultural roots, but the extent of my knowledge on Korean military history was little to none. However, after seeing all my friends and family touched by the film, I decided I should just go ahead and watch it as well. I expected to learn a lot from it, but what I didn’t expect was to feel thoroughly changed by the man the movie highlighted: Admiral Yi Sun-Shin.
While and after watching the movie, “The Admiral: Roaring Currents,” I sobbed. Reading articles on the arrest of General Yi Sun-Shin, I grieved. Learning of the admiral’s lifelong persistence and love for country? I beamed. I had never felt a pride so deep and wide within my soul, a pride so vast it ached. Throughout years of history classes, I had learned a lot about great men who were written in the books to be memorized and acknowledged forever. But, I had never learned of a person who could move me to love my country more than anything in this world the way that the Admiral did.
For many years, since I was a mere toddler until now, I have been asked, “Who’s your hero?” My answers used to range from Barbie to Justin Bieber. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of those beautiful, wealthy, and adored. However, over the years, I have come to learn that a true role-model is not simply a person who is successful by the worldly definition. My own understanding of a person I look up to has been refined and shaped into someone who puts the needs of others in front of himself, who perseveres despite the toughest of obstacles, and fights for what they believe in with everything he has. The entire time I was researching the life of Yi Sun-Shin, I was overwhelmed learning the kind of person he had been. He was, and continues to be, a true hero worth emulating. This is why I aspire to be like Yi Sun-Shin. Evident not just in his lofty military achievements but in his everyday lifestyle, he had the mindset and morale of a warrior.
Out of all the things I admire about Admiral Yi Sun-Shin, I most respect his steadfast devotion to his nation. Because many of his colleagues and superiors doubted that there would be a war against the Japanese, he alone was urgently gathering troops and supplies that would help protect Korea against the Japanese threat. Following the start of the Imjin War that the Admiral had gravely predicted, there was little support backing Yi Sun-Shin because the country was in an uproar of chaos. (Great Teachings of Yi Sun-Shin). He was faced with countless obstacles in his life, including being demoted to the lowest position, baekuijongkun, twice in his military career, which meant he had to serve with the lowest commoners in the fields (A Brief Study of Yi Sun-Shin). Despite the backlash he received from those around him, such as rival generals or jealous commanders, Yi Sun-Shin did not give up fighting for Korea. Instead of giving up when his circumstances proved unfavorable, he pushed on and worked even harder to rise in rank again. What he strove for was defending his country to the best of his abilities. He never strayed from his ultimate goal in life, which was to protect his country even in the hardest of moments.
I aspire to follow in the footsteps of general Yi Sun-Shin not merely because of the gains he made in the Chosun navy, but because he fought for what he believed in despite the rewards and spoils. While he was alive, Yi Sun-Shin never received the praise he deserved. Instead, he protected the country even when his fellow soldiers, friends, and king turned away from him. I believe that it is innate human behavior to want to be well-liked in the eyes of others. Yet, even facing the wrath of King Sunjo and severe punishment, Admiral Yi Sun-Shin stood his ground and refused to be led into a Japanese trap that could destroy the Chosun Navy (A Brief Study of Yi Sun-Shin). There were instances where he could have received much recognition if only he had succumbed to the corruptness of his superiors who manipulated the patronage system to give promotions to the high generals’ friends (A Brief Study of Yi Sun-Shin). However, he chose to be honest and was punished instead. In a time where the military had been centered around corruption and greed, Yi Sun-Shin remained a beacon of integrity and honor. It was only after his death that people realized the degree of his sacrifices and devotion to the nation and give him the credit he had always deserved (Yi Sun-shin: A National Hero of Korea).
His character was something that made Yi Sun-Shin well respected throughout all the nation. Even though he was undefeated in sea battles (23 wins and zero losses) (Yi Sun-shin: A National Hero of Korea), the Admiral was very humble. The promotions that he was rewarded over the course of his famed naval command seemed to embarrass him and he modestly stated he “had been awarded fame for nothing,” (Great Teachings of Yi Sun-Shin). He never basked in the glory of his wins, although all of them were remarkable by anyone’s standards. Quick to take the burden and weight of his mistakes and failures on his own shoulders, Yi Sun-Shin did not brandish his successes in the same manner. In this way, he showed the true aspects of a leader- humility and humbleness. Many times, humans focus on success, which can quickly convolute into greed. To be someone as decorated as he but have the humble heart of a peasant or commoner, is something I believe people, including me, should strive for in their lives.
Yi Sun-Shin was not only a great commanding military officer, but he was also the epitome of a master innovator and thinker. There is a reason he was called the Choson’s kingdom’s Savior. He exuded brilliance in his military techniques and in the formation of a formidable navy and the gobuksun, a turtle shaped war boat (A Brief Study of Yi Sun-Shin). This warship gave an advantage to the Chosun navy because it was the first iron-clad ship, and a development in naval technology that had other countries had little experience fighting against (Yi Sun-shin: A National Hero of Korea). The admiral truly transformed the Korean navy into a powerful group of smart, fiercely loyal men. Even faced with doubt that the small navy could go against the heavily armed and huge Japanese fleet, he never lost faith that his country could succeed. Despite not having prior naval training or combat experience, he managed to lead the Korean navy to an extraordinary number of undefeated battles.
The admiral's ability to continually beat the odds was not simply a matter of luck. His tactical skills on the water paired with his courage to directly face the amass of enemies made for countless wins during the Korean/Japanese Imjin War. One of these surprising wins was the focus of the “The Admiral: Roaring Currents” movie, the Battle of MyungRyang. Although the once powerful Korean navy had been destroyed and wiped out under the authority of commander Won Kyun at a previous battle in the port of Pusan, the Admiral managed to round up an unimpressionable amount of men and ships to defend the capital of Hansung. In this historic battle, Yi Sun-Shin’s weak, small fleet of 13 panoksun ships managed to obliterate the Japanese fleet of over 130 warships (A Brief Study of Yi Sun-Shin). Against the criticism and doubt he received from people, including the enemies who belittled him for trying to win a battle he was destined to lose, the Admiral persevered and showed great strength, emerging victorious.
I believe one of Yi Sun-Shin’s greatest features was the power to encourage and inspire his fellow soldiers. He showed the characteristics of a true leader- fighting side by side with his men, and leading by example. Rather than just exerting power and authority, the Admiral showed his men through his actions that he was a soldier too. This fighting spirit he had instilled the will to fight, even to the death, in the men working with him. He did not hide or cower behind the soldiers under him, even as the tongjesa, the Supreme Commander of the Navy. Charging at the head of the battle, he never failed to motivate those around him to fight with everything they had. Being a true leader is what led many people to respect, love, and admire him throughout his lifetime.
Another of the various attributes of Yi Sun-Shin that compelled me was the sacrifices he made to serve his country. He exemplified the spirit of choongmu-gong, “a way of thinking that values others and their happiness over most things including one’s own self” (Great Teachings of Yi Sun-Shin), both on and off the military field. The final battle of the seven year-long Imjin War occurred at Noryang Strait, where Yi Sun-Shin joined forces with the Chinese navy to attack the Japanese fleet of 500 ships that was en route to the city of Soonchun (A Brief Study of Yi Sun-Shin). It was during this fierce battle where a lone bullet shot through the Admiral’s chest, killing him in a matter of moments. But before the heroic commander died, his last words to his nephew and son who were fighting alongside him were, “We are at the height of battle. Don’t let anyone know about my death!” Even in this extremely personal and painful moment, Yi Sun-Shin spent his dying breath thinking for the betterment of the nation. This was always his mindset- he always put his country, and his love for it, before anything else in his life.
Of all the things a person can leave behind in his lifetime, I believe his legacy is the most important. The beloved memory and achievements that Yi Sun-Shin accumulated throughout his life is something that happens only once in decades. To be a person as adored and remembered as the Admiral is one of the most amazing goals in life. This veneration was not unwarranted- Yi Sun-Shin was a man who truly deserved the title of being a celebrated hero. Although I may not have hundreds of successful naval battles under my belt, I hope to emulate Yi Sun-Shin in the way he is, till this day, known as one of the greatest people who lived a life of honor and integrity.
Even hundreds of years after his death, Yi Sun-Shin continues to be a man revered and respected, not just in his homeland of South Korea, but throughout the entire globe. 472 years after his birth, there are still celebrations throughout the country commemorating his life. His entire life is a testament to the work he put into saving the country he loved so much. The accumulation of his many skills and talents were first and foremost put into helping his country. His sacrifice, loyalty, and dedication to his country and to becoming a righteous person has left him a permanent spot in the books as one of the greatest heroes in Korean history. In the hearts and minds of the Korean people, the Admiral remains a symbol of nationalism and a hero in the truest sense of the word.
Lee, Nae Won, and Joung Eun Lee. A Brief Study of Yi Sun-Shin. Yi Sun Shin USA.
---. Great Teachings of Yi Sun-Shin. Yi Sun-Shin USA.
Jo, Sung-do.Yi Sun-shin: A National Hero of Korea. South Korea: Choongmoo-kong Society. 1984.