Monday, May 04, 2009

Admiral Yi Sun-shin Festival

Today I went to Asan, which is just a fifty minute ride by KTX train from Seoul, for a festival celebrating one of Korea's most famous military heroes, Admiral Yi Sun-shin.

Yi Sun-shin was born in 1545, in an area of Seoul now known as Inhyneon-dong. In 1552 his father decided to move to the village of Asan and it is here that here spent much of his youth until he passed his military exams at the age of 32.

Many of his early assignments were confined to army posts and included the command of border garrisons along the northeastern provinces of Korea. In 1591, at the request of the prime minister Yu Seong-yong, he was appointed as Left Admiral of the Naval Fleet in Jeolla.

Foreseeing the threat and imminent invasion of Japan he trained his officers in preparation, providing them with guns, ammunition and other supplies. He was also responsible for the design of the revolutionary iron-roofed ships called Geobukseon, or turtle ships. Geobukseon ships were probably the first warships to use iron plates as defensive armour. They measured about 33 metres in length and 8 metres in width, with roofs made of hexagonal metal plates. This made them impossible to board and also provided substanial protection against attacking gunfire.

In 1592 Japan, led by the armies of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, invaded Korea in hope of sweeping through the peninsula and using it as a base to conquer China. Due to Yi Sun-shin's great skill as a military tactician he defeated the invading forces of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, forcing a Japanese retreat.

When the Japanese forces attacked Korea again 1597, they once again failed to gain control of the seas. Thanks to the strategies of Admiral Yi the Japanese were forced to retreat on numerous occasions, cutting off their supply lines which left their armies unable to advance from their base in the Busan area of southern Korea.

On November 19, 1598, attacking the final remnants of the Japanese retreat at Noryang, Admiral Yi Sun-shin was shot. He is said to have then asked his son to cover up his body with a large shield and keep on fighting.

Horseback Spear Throwing

The festival was definitely my best experience in Korea so far. There was so much to do and see I barely managed to fit everything into the whole day.

Arriving at just after twelve o'clock in the afternoon I first got to see a battle recreation with people dressed in tradional military costume and although it was a slightly overacted performance for the crowd with it's seventies kung-fu music and back flips, it was very enjoyable all the same.

Wandering around festival there were lots of traditional crafts on display from pottery to wood carving. I even tried my hand at traditional Korea calligraphy and I also got to sample some free traditional alcohol which was very nice, though it did go straight to my head in the afternoon sun.

Most exciting of all were the demonstrations of martial arts that were part the Joseon period exam for military service. I got to see sword fighting, people throwing spears and archery all on horseback. Definitely something I'd love to try one day, although I doubt if anyone is going to let me on the back of a horse with an instrument that can maim or kill anytime soon.

I also visited Hueonchungsa, a shrine dedicated to Admiral Yi that was erected in 1598 by King Sukjong, a hundred years after he was killed in the battle of Noryang. Here you can also see the Admirals's house and numerous historical military artifacts in the museum, including Admiral Yi's war diaries written during the Hideyoshi invasion and his long sword.

Hueonchungsa is well worth a visit, not just for the sense of history but also for it's tranquility and beauty. After living on the outskirts of Seoul for nearly two months it was nice to get away to a place where I could breathe fresh air and I couldn't hear the constant drone of traffic.

You can see all the photos here.