A quick and easy read setting out the achievements of Admiral Yi in the Imjin war against Japan. As well as telling Yi’s story (sometimes using Yi’s own war diary and memorials to the throne), the book tries to compare his achievements with events which might be familiar to foreign readers — Nelson at Trafalgar; the Japanese victory over the Russian fleet in 1905 — and makes a very convincing case that Yi’s victories were more remarkable. Maybe if the authors get around to a revised version they should also include a comparison with another naval victory often credited with turning the course of history: the Greek victory over the Persian fleet at Salamis. The book quotes from British and Japanese authors who admire the achievements of Yi.
The authors highlight the superiority of the Korean ships (robust construction, manoeuvrable because of twin sails and flat bottom, armed to the teeth with heavy long-range cannon; and, in the case of the few “Turtle ships”, metal armour-plating and sharp spikes to inconvenience enemy boarding parties) over the Japanese (light construction, poor manoeuvrability, armed with a couple of pop-guns and relying on ancient grapple-and-board tactics for victory — if they could ever get close enough to the Korean ships without getting blown out of the water first). With such a naval advantage favouring the Koreans it’s a wonder the Japanese got as far as Busan in the first place, until you realise that Yi was also having to deal with a paralytic and incompetent Korean governance structure; and also that technological superiority does not guarantee victory, as was shown when the Korean fleet was virtually wiped out in a bungled sea battle commanded by another Korean admiral.
Yi reminds me of one of those early Roman heroes you find in the rose-tinted pages of Livy: invincible in battle, displaying levels of traditional moral virtue, nobility, loyalty and endurance verging on sainthood, possessing great intelligence and judgement but also great humanity towards his men, often not fully appreciated by his contemporaries, and blessed with a noble death. Every nation needs a hero, and Yi is Korea’s.
Available free at www.koreanhero.net
My slightly lukewarm rating reflects my uncertainty as to who the book is designed for. It’s not designed as a heavy-duty history book. I think it’s probably best suited as a lightweight introduction for children / teenagers, particularly those of diasporic families who want to get back in touch with their roots.