2012 Travel Diary 7: Yi Sun-shin — military genius, hero, poet

Tongyeong, Gyeongsangnam-do, Monday 26 March 2012. The brief ferry ride from Tongyeong to Hansando traverses the sheltered sound where Admiral Yi Sun-shin won a famous victory over the Japanese navy on 14 August 1592. On the day I crossed, it was difficult to imagine the tumult of a battle in which 47 Japanese ships were sunk and 12 captured, with no Korean losses. Oyster farms now stretch across the quiet waters where injured Japanese sailors would have been struggling ashore.

The peaceful view across to Hansando from the ferry
The peaceful view across to Hansando from the ferry

The Battle of Hansando

Hansando was Yi’s 8th engagement with the Japanese fleet since the Japanese invasion earlier that year, and the biggest so far. Already 109 Japanese ships had been sent to the bottom since his first battle at Okpo two months earlier. All the other battles had gone Yi’s way, and the Japanese were keen to rid the seas of the tiresome admiral, particularly as their land forces, who had now advanced up the peninsula as far as Pyongyang, were increasingly dependent on the sea for their supplies.

Oyster farms on the approach to Hansando harbour
Oyster farms on the approach to Hansando harbour, where injured Japanese sailors would have been struggling ashore

This was the first battle in which the Japanese, with 73 ships, outnumbered the Koreans, with 56, and the Japanese had something to prove. Yi had made his base at Yeosu, while the Japanese were based at Angolpo (안골포 [Map]). More or less midway between the two bases was the straight of Gyeonnaeryang (견내량), a narrow strip of water which separates Geoje Island from the mainland just north of Tongyeong. The Japanese stationed themselves there, but the location was unsuitable for the Koreans to engage. They preferred the more open spaces in front of Hansando. Yi’s approach was to try a little cunning – drawing close to the Japanese fleet with a handful of ships and then running away, encouraging the Japanese to pursue. The Japanese sailed straight into the Korean crescent-shaped “crane-wing” formation and were soon in trouble from the superior Korean fire power.

A map of the battle of Hansando, on display in Tongyeong harbour
A map of the battle of Hansando, on display in Tongyeong harbour (with additional English annotations in red). The Japanese (in red) are crushed by the Korean crane-wing formation

The Korean ships, though heavier (and thus more able to carry the artillery which was their main weapon) were more manoeuvrable than the Japanese vessels which were built more for speed. The Korean hulls were flatter underneath (designed to sail in the shallows of the Jeolla tidal flats), allowing the ships to turn more quickly. The Korean tactics were aimed at disabling or sinking the enemy ships with their longer range firepower; the Japanese tactics were more primitive – relying on boarding the enemy ships and engaging the sailors and marines in combat. Provided the Koreans had enough ammunition, they were always going to win a battle, particularly if they had turtle ships, which were more or less immune to boarding. But with only around three turtle ships in the Korean fleet at the time, it was the panokseon which won the day1.

A turtle-ship lighthouse and a beacon on the hill above guard the entrance to Hansando harbour
A turtle-ship lighthouse and a beacon on the hill above guard the entrance to Hansando harbour

The Korean victory (which was followed by a mopping-up operation at Angolpo a couple of days later) assured that the Koreans had mastery of the seas, with Hideyoshi ordering an immediate halt to active naval operations.

Admiral Yi’s command centre on Hansando

The ferry ride from Tongyeong is a perfect way to get a sea-level view of the geography of the area. The only signs that a battle took place 420 years ago is the monument at the top of the nearest promontory on Hansando, and a little lighthouse sat on top of a turtle as you approach Hansando’s main harbour.

The red pines of Hansando
The red pines of Hansando

The ferry stops at the slipway, enabling cars to drive off, and the pedestrians follow. Turn right when you get off the ferry and follow the path around the cost to get to Hansando’s main historical attraction: the collection of buildings which Yi Sun-shin used as his command centre against the Japanese from 1593 to 1597 [Map]. The buildings were restored by Park Chung-hee in 1975 and 76, and seem to be a popular tourist attraction. The compound is a pleasant stroll along the shoreline.

The secluded path that leads to Admiral Yi's command centre
The secluded path that leads to Admiral Yi’s command centre

The red pine trees towered above, and the green water alongside the path was calm and clear. At the entrance to the compound a busload of pensioners were posing with their village banner for a photo to remember their team outing. Inside, all was peaceful. An elderly couple sat on the steps quietly sipping a celebratory soju together.

The Jeseungang hall, Admiral Yi's command centre on Hansando, with (right) the Suru lookout pavilion
The Jeseungang hall, Admiral Yi’s command centre on Hansando, with (right) the Suru lookout pavilion

The main building of the compound is the Jeseungdang Hall. Inside are various memorabilia: standing on the well-polished floor are a couple of canons such as once armed Admiral Yi’s fleet; on the wall are rather free artist’s impressions of some of his battles; there’s a small model of one of the famous turtle ships; and resting against the back wall is an 8-part folding screen on which Yi’s gifts from the Chinese emperor are depicted. The original gifts themselves are displayed in the Chungryeolsa shrine dedicated to Yi on the hillside above Tongyeong (see below).

Inside the Jeseungdang Hall
Inside the Jeseungdang Hall

As its name – Making of Victory – indicates, all military affairs were handled here, including the drawing up of battle strategies and the production and distribution of arms.

An artist's reconstruction of the Battle of Hansando decorates the inside of the Jeseungdang Hall
An artist’s reconstruction of the Battle of Hansando decorates the inside of the Jeseungdang Hall

Many of the poems and entries in Admiral Yi’s War Diary (Nanjung Ilgi 난중일기) were written while he was residing here.

The view over Hansando's natural harbour and back to the mainland from the Suru lookout pavilion
The view over Hansando’s natural harbour and back to the mainland from the Suru lookout pavilion

Overlooking the approach to the harbour, and with a view back to the mainland, is the Suru pavilion where Yi composed his famous Song of Hansando:

In the bright moonlight of Hansando Isle
I sit alone upon a lookout pavilion
Wearing a long sword at my side
Full of cares about the fatherland
I feel my heart torn to pieces
As I hear a shrill grass-flute from down below

The archery practice range at the Hansanjeong Pavilion
The archery practice range at the Hansanjeong Pavilion

Continuing to the far side of the compound, behind the Jeseungdang Hall, is the Hansanjeong Pavilion. It was here that Admiral Yi established an entertaining archery practice ground for his troops. The soldiers had to shoot from the pavilion at some targets 145 metres away the other side of a small inlet. This is said to be the only archery range in Korea that spans over a stretch of water. In his war diary, Admiral Yi wrote many times about the archery competitions held here. The losing team would buy rice cakes and wine for the winners.

A small shrine to Yi Sun-shin in his command centre. The blue roof of the entrance gate is reflected in the glazing of the memorial portrait
A small shrine to Yi Sun-shin in his command centre. The blue roof of the entrance gate is reflected in the glazing of the memorial portrait

A small shrine to the great admiral completes the ensemble of buildings. In fact, Admiral Yi is well-commemorated in Tongyeong. Apart from the shrine on Hansando, there is the Changnyangmyo (착량묘) shrine on the mainland overlooking the so-called Tongyeong Canal, which was built in 1599. Further up the hill there is the more significant shrine, the Chungryeolsa [Map]. Having had a pleasant morning in Hansando, that’s where we are headed next.

The Tongyeong Chungryeolsa (통영충렬사)

Yi Sun-shin died fighting, at the battle of Noryang, which was the last major sea battle of the Japanese invasion, on 18 November 1598. The combined fleets of Korea (83 ships) and China (63 ships) obliterated a Japanese fleet of 500 ships, only 50 of which managed to escape. Yi was cut down by a stray bullet at the height of the battle. It is said that his dying words were an instruction not to tell the rest of the Korean fleet about his death until the battle was over. His son and nephew, on the same ship as him, fought on.

The entrance to the Chungryeolsa
The entrance to the Chungryeolsa

After his death he was given the title Chungmugong (충무공, roughly, Loyal Duke of Warfare)2. In 1606, King Seonjo commanded that a shrine be built for the great admiral, and commemorative ceremonies were held there every spring and autumn. In 1663, King Hyeongjong built the entrance gate and bestowed the name of “Chungryeolsa” on the shrine.

Inside the main memorial shrine of the Chungryeolsa
Inside the main memorial shrine (Jeongdang) of the Chungryeolsa

As time went on, a number of other structures were built in the same compound. Later in the 17th century a school, the Gyeongchungjae (경충재), was founded to teach young scholars the lessons from the life of the admiral. When the Daewongun issued a decree for the nationwide abolition of private schools in 1868 the only school to escape the axe was the Gyeongchungjae. Opposite the Gyeongchungjae is the Sungmudang, also built in 1695, designed as an administrative hall. All these buildings and ceremonies needed maintenance and funding, and so the shrine was granted land to earn revenues for its upkeep.

The Sungmudang administrative hall in the Chungryeolsa
The Sungmudang administrative hall in the Chungryeolsa

It is not just Koreans who have honoured Yi Sun-shin over the centuries. Even the Japanese have too. It is said that when Admiral Togo defeated the Russian fleet in 1905, one of his company said:

“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.” [Source]

And during the course of 1592-1598 Japanese invasions, the Wanli Emperor of the Ming Dynasty had his eye on Yi. He was so impressed with the reports of Yi’s achievements that he sent him eight royal gifts (the Palsapum – 팔사품). These gifts, now Treasure No 440, are stored in an exhibition hall at the Chungryeolsa3:

Some of the eight royal gifts (palsapum) given by the Ming emperor to Yi Sun-shin
Some of the eight royal gifts (palsapum) given by the Ming emperor to Yi Sun-shin

Swords and seals, banners and bugles form part of the imperial gift.

The Tongjeyeong (통제영) and the Sebyeonggwan (세병관)

After Yi’s death, it was perhaps natural that Tongyeong should become associated with Yi Sun-shin, and also that it should become a naval headquarters for the region, though it was not until 1604 that the admiralty of the Three Province Naval Force (the three provinces being Gyeongsang, Jeolla, and Chungcheong) made its home there in a compound known as the Tongjeyeong.

A view of the Tongjeyong from the road near the Chungryeolsa. The Sebyeonggwan is the largest building visible
A view of the Tongjeyong from the road near the Chungryeolsa. The Sebyeonggwan is the largest building visible

The centrepiece of the headquarters was the Sebyeonggwan (National Treasure No 305), a majestic hall built in 1605 designed to accommodate members and visitors of the naval forces.

The Sebyeonggwan: a majestic 9 kan by 5 kan guest house
The Sebyeonggwan: a majestic 9 kan by 5 kan guest house

It is claimed to be the third biggest building constructed in the Joseon dynasty, after the Gyeonghoeru Pavilion (National Treasure No 224) in Seoul’s Gyeongbok Palace and the Jinnamgwan guesthouse in Yeosu (National Treasure No 304), which was also used as accommodation for the navy. At least, that’s what it said on the notice board outside, but where that leaves the main part of the Jongmyo Shrine I’m not sure.

The Hansan Daecheop festival, held throughout Tongyeong every August
The Hansan Daecheop festival, held throughout Tongyeong every August (Photo: KTO)

Each August, the Hansan Daecheop Festival is held, four or five days which celebrate Yi Sun-shin’s victory at the battle of Hansando. The festival includes performances outside the Sebyeonggwan Guest House of a martial dance said originally to have been performed to raise the morale of soldiers during the Japanese invasion. August does not seem to be the best time to be dressing up in traditional costume and dancing, but Admiral Yi did not really have a choice about the date he fought the Japanese navy.

Yi Sun-shin in the Nammangsan Sculpture Park (남망산 조각공원)

There’s a little bit of time before we need to return to the hotel to freshen up before the evening concert. We have a quick scoot round the Tongyeong museum which is just outside the main entrance to the Sebyeonggwan. My companion is interested in some of the items of furniture – in particular a low lacquered table is just like one she remembers her grandmother having (and throwing out) – while my eye is caught by a couple of fighting kites.

The statue of Chungmugong Yi Sun-shin above the Tongyeong Citizens Art Centre and the Nammandsan Sculpture Park
The statue of Chungmugong Yi Sun-shin above the Tongyeong Citizens Art Centre and the Nammangsan Sculpture Park

We then take a quick look round the Nammangsan Sculpture Park which provides the setting for the Tongyeong Citizens Art Centre. Right at the top of the hill is a majestic bronze statue of Yi Sun-shin, which was erected in June 1953. Nearby is the Yeolmujeong archery field where the Hansan Military Service Examination used to be held twice a year during the Joseon dynasty. From his vantage point at the top of the hill, Yi Sun-shin can gaze out across the sea to Hansando, the site of his most famous victory.

Chungmugong Yi Sun-shin supervises a re-enactment of the Battle of Hansando
Chungmugong Yi Sun-shin supervises a re-enactment of the Battle of Hansando (Photo: KTO)

And with that, it was time to get ready to go to the concert.

Links & sources:

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  1. See the previous article in this series for more on the panokseon. []
  2. The home of the Korean film industry, Chungmuro, is said to be named in his honour. []
  3. Confusingly, in the system of classifying state-designated heritage, the top category is “National Treasure”, while the next one down is simply a “Treasure”. There is a separate, city or provincial classification system. So the Palsapum is a state-designated Treasure. See http://english.cha.go.kr/ for more detail of the system. []

7 thoughts on “2012 Travel Diary 7: Yi Sun-shin — military genius, hero, poet

  1. Hi there, Philip! Thank you for sharing so much information about the history of Hansando.

    I am planning a 3day 2night stay at Tongyeong, and heading to Hansando for a day trip. May I know if I need a car to get around Hansando? Or is it possible to get around by foot?

    And do you remember when is the last ferry going back to Tongyeong Passenger Ferry Terminal?

    Appreciate your help. Thank you!

  2. Hmm. The bits that I saw were walkable from the ferry. But from recollection the island was a bit bigger than that, and you could probably easily spend more than a couple of hours there. I suggest you look at google maps and plan what it is you want to cover. If you’re focussing on Yi Sun Shin then you don’t need a car from what I remember. And I think the ferries were pretty frequent, but I don’t know when they start or finish. Sorry, it’s a while since I was there 🙁

  3. The place I describe is probably only about 15 minutes stroll from the Hansando ferry. Just turn right when you land!

    But be aware that half of this post relates to sites on the mainland.

  4. Thanks Philip! I did look it up and you are right, Hansando is big 🙂 Some areas are not reachable by foot. I guess I’ll have to skip those and only focus on the command centre.

    Have a nice day!

  5. Enjoy. I think I took a leisurely ferry at around 10:30 in the morning, strolled to the command centre, had a look round, had lunch, and was back in Tongyeong by around 3pm. Maybe there was more to see but if so I missed it.

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