For a description and video of each of the colour belt patterns go to the colour belt patterns page or navigate to the pattern from the menu. Below are some more in depth patterns histories written by Simon Cox.
The Origin of Chon-Ji
Chon-Ji was named after Lake Chon-Ji, a lake that fills the crater on top of the extinct volcano Paektu-San on the border of North Korea and China. It is 2,749 metres above sea level, covers 14.4 square metres and is 384 metres deep at its deepest point, making it possibly the deepest volcanic lake on earth. It is said that General Choi, Hong-Hi named the pattern after the lake because the water is so clear and calm that you can literally see the Heaven meeting the Earth.
The Legend of Dan-Gun
October 3rd is celebrated in Korea as a national holiday to commemorate the founding father, Dan-Gun. The legend of his life is as follows:
When heaven and earth were one and when animals could speak like humans, the god Hwanin sent his son Hwang-Ung to the East to build a new country. Hwang-Ung settled in what is now called North Korea, at the highest point on the peninsula. This was in the 25th reign of the Yao Emperor in China, approximately 2,333 BC.
One day a tiger and a bear appeared in front of Hwang-Ung and asked that they be made into human form. After great thought Hwang-Ung informed the animals that their wish could be granted, but it would be difficult and would take much patience. The animals agreed that they would do whatever it took to become human. Hwang-Ung gave the tiger and the bear twenty garlic cloves and some mugworts. They were told to eat these, stay in a cave and pray earnestly for 100 days.
After twenty days the tiger became hungry and could no longer continue, so he left the cave in search of food. But when the 100 days were almost at an end, the bear began to lose its fur and its rear feet began to change, until at the end of the 100th day the bear had fully transformed into a beautiful woman. She became known as Ung-Yo, which means “the girl incarnated from a bear”.
Hwang-Ung then married Ung-Yo, and she gave birth to a son, who they named Dan-Gun. This child gave rise to the first Korean Dynasty, called Go-Joseon.
Dan Gun is said to have built the first altar on Kang-Wha Island in 2265 B.C. This altar today is atop the island’s highest peak, Muni-San, and is known as Dan-Gun’s Altar. Dan-Gun lived with his wife, Pi So-Ap, and his sons, who are said to have built the fortress of Sam- Nang at Chung-Dung Island.
In 1122 the uncle of the Shang King of China, Ki-Ja, escaped the overthrow of the Shang Dynasty and migrated to Korea with 5,000 followers. After reigning for 1,211 years, Dan-Gun fled from Ki-Ja’s army to the town of Mun-Wha, resumed his spirit form and disappeared from the earth.
The Life of Do-San
Ahn, Chang-Ho was born on the island of Bong-sang-do in South Pyongahn-do on November 10, 1878, the third son of the farmer Ahn, Heung-kuk. His year of birth was the year in which the Japanese forced a series of Western-style trade agreements on Korea, which was the start of some years of increasing Japanese influence that would lead to Japan’s eventual annexation of the country in 1910.
He abandoned traditional learning in his home town and studied for two years at a missionary school operated by the Salvation Army. He became a Christian and felt that although he opposed the Japanese occupation, he couldn’t hate the Japanese as men. He decided to seek a source of national strength and cultivate it to regain national independence and prosperity.
In 1894, at the age of 18, Ahn became a member of the Tongnip Hyophoe “Independence Association,” which promoted independence from Japan and worked to reform domestic affairs and reduce dependence upon foreign countries. But the group’s activities were interrupted by the conservative ruling class, so Chai-pil, the leader of the group, was forced into exile in the United States. This strengthened Ahn’s belief that Koreans themselves were to blame for their failures and that victory must therefore come from within.
In 1899, Ahn established the Cheomjin (“gradual progress”) School in Pyongyang, the first modern and co-educational private school ever established by a Korean. The name of the school seemed to reflect his political philosophy of evolutionary social changes through education.
Ahn, Chang-Ho was one of the first Koreans to emigrate to the United States. He arrived in America in September 1902 with his newlywed wife, Lee Hae-Ryon, and, as the steamship approached Hawaii, Ahn resolved to stand tall above the sea of turmoil existing at that time in Korea, and decided to call himself “Do-San” (meaning “Island Mountain”). While living in San Francisco, he organised the San Francisco Social Meeting on September 23, 1903, and initiated a social reform movement that was desperately needed by the Korean American society. An accomplished orator and leader at the age of 24, Ahn guided his countrymen to form a respectable community for Koreans in the United States. He organised a society that became the Kungminhoe (Korean National Association), which inspired Korean immigrants to hope for national independence.
In 1906, following the Russo-Japanese war, Ahn learned of the Japanese “Protectorate Treaty” that had been enforced on Korea, which gave the Japanese the legal right to occupy the country, and returned home. He organised an underground independence group in Pyongahn-do called Shinmin-Hoe (New Peoples’ Association), an organisation dedicated to promoting Korean independence through the cultivation of nationalism in education, business and culture.
In 1908 the Shinmin-Hoe founded the Tae-Song (“large achievement”) School in Pyongyang. This school was designed to provide Koreans with an education based on national spirit. Ahn, Chang-Ho worked a ceramic kiln as a commercial enterprise to raise funds for the publication of books for young people. The political environment of the time, however, was not conducive to the founding of such a school; in fact the Japanese were in the process of eradicating education for Koreans, in order to ensure illiteracy and essentially create a class of slave workers.
With Yi Kap, Yang Ki-tak and Shin Chae-Ho, Ahn embarked on a lecture tour of Korea, warning of the national crisis being incurred by the Japanese and urging the people to unite and resist the Japanese. Ahn repeatedly told Japanese leaders that Japan would profit more with Korea as a friend rather than an enemy.
The Shinmin-Hoe had amassed around 300 members by 1910, and it represented a palpable threat to the Japanese occupation. The Japanese occupiers were actively crushing such organisations, and the Shinmin-Hoe soon became the focus of their efforts. In December 1910, Terauchi, the Japanese Governor General, was due to attend the dedication ceremony of a new railway bridge over the Amnok River. The Japanese used this to pretend to uncover a plot to assassinate Terauchi on his way to this ceremony; 600 innocent Christians and all of the Shinmin-Hoe leaders were arrested. 105 Koreans were brought to trial following severe torture, which left many of those arrested dead. The world community was so concerned that the alleged plot was such an obvious fabrication that international pressure grew, and eventually most of the defendants had to be set free.
By this time, the Japanese had become fairly successful at detecting and destroying resistance groups. They were not successful, however, in suppressing the Korean desire for freedom and self-government. The resistance groups moved deeper underground, and guerrilla raids from independence groups based in Manchuria and Siberia increased.
After the passage of an Education Act in 1911 the Japanese began to close all Korean schools. As a result of this, the Tae-Song School was forced to close in 1913, and, by 1914, virtually all Korean schools had been shut down. This amounted to cultural genocide, and the chances of survival of Korean culture rested in the hands of a handful of dedicated patriots working outside of Korea.
When Japanese Governor-General Hiro-Bumi Ito was assassinated by Ahn, Joong-Gun, Japan tightened its grip on Korean leaders. Ahn, Chang-Ho was forced to go into exile in Manchuria, then Siberia, Russia, Europe, and finally the United States. In 1912, Ahn was elected chairman of the Korean National People’s Association, which had emerged as an organisation for Koreans living abroad, and played an active role in negotiations with the US government. Around this time he also established Hungsadan, a secret voluntary group of ardent patriots. These and other organisations pressured President Woodrow Wilson into speaking on behalf of Korean autonomy at the Paris peace talks, and, in 1918, a representative of the Korean exiles was indeed sent to these talks.
In 1919, when the Yi Dynasty was forcefully absorbed into the Japanese Empire, Ahn established underground activities designed to regain Korean independence. He travelled to Shanghai in April 1919 to be part of the provisional Korean government in exile there and was involved in the drawing up of a Democratic Constitution for Korea. This document established the freedom of the press, speech, religion, and assembly. An independent judiciary was created and the previous class system of nobility was abolished. After two years, despite the progress he had made, Ahn became disillusioned with the infighting amongst these provisional Korean leaders in Shanghai and resigned from his position.
On March 1 1919, the provisional government in Shanghai formally declared its independence from Japan, and called for massive general resistance from the people of Korea. During the ensuing resistance demonstrations the Japanese police opened fire on unarmed Korean crowds, killing thousands. Many thousands more were arrested and tortured. Even after this, Ahn, Chang-Ho continued to work on in the United States on behalf of his country of birth. He created a village in Manchuria for wandering Korean refugees, and in 1922 led a commission which compiled all historical materials relating to Korea, particularly concerning the Japanese occupation.
In 1932 Ahn, Chang-Ho was arrested by the Japanese following a bombing carried out by Yun, Pong-Gil (although Ahn himself was not involved in the incident) and he was placed in prison in Taejon. After briefly being released he was arrested again by the Japanese police and stayed in prison until 1938 when, in poor health, he was allowed to leave the prison on bail. He died in a hospital in Seoul on 10 March 1938.
Won-Hyo was born in the town of Za-in-myon in Kyongsang Province in 617 AD. Legend has it that Won-Hyo’s mother, while pregnant with him, was passing by a sala tree when she suddenly felt birth pangs, and, without having time to reach her home, gave birth to him there and then. The sala tree is significant, as it is usually only found in legends of highly revered figures.
The name given to him at birth was Sol Sedang. He derived the pen name Won-Hyo (meaning “dawn”) from his nickname, “Sedak” (also meaning “dawn”). He assumed this pen name in later years, after he had become more accomplished as a Buddhist philosopher and poet.
Civil war amongst the Koguryo, Silla and Paekche kingdoms marked the period of Won Hyo’s birth and childhood, and indeed it was not until 668 that the Silla dynasty unified Korea. Legend asserts that Won-Hyo, as a young man, took part in these bloody civil wars and saw many of his friends slaughtered, and it was this that drove him to turn his back on violence and become a monk. Most sources agree that he became a monk at the age of 20.
One story says he remodelled his home as a temple which he named Ch’ogae-sa; another says he simply shaved his head and went into the mountains to live as a monk. It is not even clear under which teachers he studied Buddhism; some say it was Nangji on Yong-ch’wi Mountain, others say he was a disciple of priest Popchang at Hungnyun-sa. Yet another legend has it that he learned the Nirvana Sutra from Podok, a Koguryo priest exiled in Silla. Buddhism was not a popular religion in Silla at that time, though; although it had been introduced into the kingdom of Koguryo in 372 and Paekche in 384, the general population of Silla was reluctant to accept it.
In 650, when Won-Hyo was 33 years old, he set out for China in the company of his friend Uisang; both of them had been inspired to study under the famous Buddhist scholar Huan-Tchuang. Their journey was smooth, except near the Chinese border in Liaotung, Koguryo, when they were mistaken for spies by sentries and barely escaped being captured. One of the most famous stories in Korean Buddhism concerns Won-Hyo’s enlightenment during this attempted journey to China:
“One evening as Won-Hyo was crossing the desert, he stopped at a small patch of green where there were a few trees and some water. He went to sleep. Toward midnight he awoke, very thirsty. It was pitch-dark. He groped along on all fours, searching for water. At last his hand touched a cup on the ground. He picked it up and drank. Ah, how delicious! Then he bowed deeply, in gratitude to Buddha for the gift of water.
The next morning Won-Hyo woke up and saw beside him what he had taken for a cup. It was a shattered skull, blood-caked and with shreds of flesh still stuck to the cheek-bones. Strange insects crawled or floated on the surface of the filthy rainwater inside it. Won-Hyo looked at the skull and felt a great wave of nausea. He opened his mouth. As soon as the vomit poured out, his mind opened and he understood. Last night, since he hadn’t seen and hadn’t thought, the water was delicious. This morning, seeing and thinking had made him vomit. Ah, he said to himself, thinking makes good and bad, life and death. And without thinking, there is no universe, no Buddha, no Dharma. All is one, and this one is empty.
There was no need now to find a master. Won-Hyo already understood life and death. What more was there to learn? So he turned and started back across the desert to Korea.”
His friend, Uisang, continued on to China and learned the doctrines of the Chinese school Hua-yen and later established this in Korea – as the Hwa-om school – when he returned.
Following his return, Won-Hyo undertook prodigious amounts of scholarly work, and his writing was not the only area in which he gained recognition. He was well-known both to the general population and to the members of the royal family and their court. He was often asked to conduct services, recite prayers, and give sermons at the royal court.
In 660 AD, King Muyo became so interested in Won-Hyo that he asked him to come and live in the royal palace of Yosok. A relationship with the royal princess Kwa developed, and marriage and the birth of their son Sol-Ch’ong soon followed. Shortly after his son was born, though, Won-Hyo left the palace to travel the country, and he became highly respected by the people of Korea. He hated the fact that different religions argued with each other over their different beliefs, so he created his own ideology in which the conflicts between various religions could be reconciled.
In 661 AD, he experienced a revelation in his Buddhist philosophy and developed the Chongto-Gyo (“pure land”) sect. This sect did not require study of the Chinese Buddhist literature for salvation, requiring instead merely diligent prayer. This fundamental change in Buddhist philosophy made religion accessible to the lower classes, and as such it quickly became very popular among the entire population.
In 662 AD, Won-Hyo left the priesthood and devoted the rest of his life to travelling the country teaching his new sect to the common people. Won-Hyo’s contributions to the culture and national awareness of Silla were instrumental in the unification of the three kingdoms of Korea.
Won-Hyo died in the year 686 aged 70, nine years after the unification of the Korean peninsula under the Silla dynasty. His body was laid in state by his son, Sol-Ch’ong, at Punhwang-sa temple.
It is said that during his lifetime Won-Hyo authored some 240 works on Buddhism; of these, 20 works in 25 volumes still exist. One of the forms he chose to use was a special Silla poetic form, Hyang-Ga. These poems were mainly written by monks or members of the Hwa-Rang and concerned patriotism, Buddhism, and praise of the illustrious dead. Won-Hyo’s poem “Hwaorm-Ga” is said to be among the most admired of these poems.
During his lifetime Won-Hyo dominated the intellectual and religious arenas both inside and outside Korea, and made extensive commentaries on all the different schools of Buddhism that were competing for supremacy at that time. He set the shape and form of Silla Buddhism and was also the dominant figure in the Korean Buddhist tradition. Along with two other famous Korean Buddhists, Chinul and Sosan Taesa, Won-Hyo was one of the most influential thinkers Korea has ever produced.
The Life of Yul-Gok
Yi I was born on 26 December 1536 in Pukp’yong, in Kangwon Province. He was a child prodigy who knew Chinese script at the age of three and composed poems in Chinese before he had reached his seventh birthday. By the age of seven, he had finished his lessons in the Confucian Classics, and he passed the Civil Service literary examination at the age of 13.
At the age of 29, Yi I passed a higher Civil Service examination – with full marks – and he started government service. He wrote a thesis on the subject of Ch’ondoch’aek which was widely regarded as a literary masterpiece, displaying his knowledge of history and the Confucian philosophy of politics, and also reflecting his profound knowledge of Taoism.
He took the pen name Yul-Gok (meaning “Valley of Chestnuts”) and continued his studies to grow into a great Confucian scholar, revered as the “Greatest Teacher in the East”.
At 34, Yul-Gok authored “Tongho Mundap”, an eleven article treatise devoted to clarifying his conviction that righteous government could be achieved even within his own lifetime, showing his aspirations and also measures to achieve it.
Yul-Gok temporarily renounced the world by secluding himself in the Diamond Mountains following his mother’s death when he was 16. It is not known why he did this, although it is thought that either: he sought three years of lamentation until the Buddhist phrase, “life is transient”, eased his sorrow; he may have understood that the Confucian teaching, “preserve your mind and nurture your nature”, was synonymous with the Buddhist teaching, “open your mind and see your nature”; or he may have regarded it as a pleasure simply to retire to the countryside to rest.
Following his return to society, he authored “The Essentials of Confucianism” in 1576, which was considered to be a most valuable book, showing examples for a good Confucian life.
Yul-Gok died in 1584, and the valuable Yul-Gok Chônjip (“The Complete Works of Yul-Gok”) was compiled after his death on the basis of the writings he bequeathed.
The Life of Joong-Gun
Ahn, Joong-Gun was born in 1879 in the town of Hae-Ju in Hwang-Hae Province. His family moved to the town of Sin-Chun in Pyongahn Province when he was about ten years old. When he grew up he became a teacher and founded a school, called the Sam-Heung (“three success”) School. The Japanese occupation of Korea would mean that his school, like all others in Korea at that time, would come under great hardships. Due to its location, it would also become caught up in a Japanese power play.
Korea was dragged into conflict as a result of trouble erupting in China in 1900. In response to the Boxer rebellion, the colonial powers descended upon the Orient in force to protect their interests. Prompted by the movement of Russian army units into neighbouring Manchuria in 1902, England formed an Anglo-Japanese Alliance, and a Russo-French Alliance was subsequently established in 1903, quickly followed by a movement of French and Russian troops into northern Korea. The Japanese saw this action as a threat to their intention to claim Korea for the Japanese Empire and demanded the removal of all Russian troops from Korea. When Russia rejected this demand in 1904, Japan initiated a naval attack. Korea claimed neutrality, but was invaded by Japan nonetheless; in autumn 1905 Russia surrendered and Japan was firmly established in Korea. This invasion was not viewed as an act of aggression anywhere outside of Korea.
Long-term occupation of Korea required the takeover of the Korean government. Hiro-Bumi Ito, one of Japan’s leading elder statesmen of the time, masterminded a plan to complete the occupation and political takeover of Korea, and was named as the first Japanese Governor General of Korea in 1905. From Japan, Ito pressured the weak Korean government into signing the “Protectorate Treaty” on November 19, 1905, which gave the Japanese the legal right to occupy Korea. Ito arrived in Korea in March 1906 to take the reins of power and ordered all foreign delegations in Korea to withdraw, leaving Korea at the mercy of the Japanese. The new Japanese puppet government passed laws that allowed Korean land to be sold to Japanese, although land was just taken anyway.
The Korean people were incensed by this, and waves of anti-Japanese violence swept the country. A number of guerrilla groups were formed to attack the Japanese occupation forces, but they were crushed by the much larger Japanese army. Popular violent unrest continued to spread as many loyal Korean government officials committed suicide, and Korean signatories to the Protectorate Treaty were assassinated.
In the face of this oppression, Ahn, Joong-Gun went into self-imposed exile in Manchuria where he formed a small guerrilla movement. His force, of about 300 men, carried out raids across the Manchuria-Korea border in order to maintain pressure on the Japanese.
In June 1907, the Korean emperor, Ko-Jong, secretly sent an emissary to the Hague Peace Conference in order to expose the aggressive Japanese policy in Korea to the world. When Hiro-Bumi Ito found out about this, he forced Ko-Jong to abdicate the Korean throne. Following this, in July 1907 the Japanese officially took over the Government of Korea. This led to severe rioting throughout Korea, involving many Korean army units. The Japanese responded by disbanding the Korean army and police force. The Korean army retaliated by attacking the Japanese troops, but were quickly defeated.
In response to increased Japanese activity in the Kando region on the border with Manchuria, Ahn, Joong-Gun led his guerrillas on a raid there in June 1909. The raid was a success, resulting in many Japanese deaths. Despite such guerrilla activities being planned and executed from within China, the Japanese arrived at an agreement with the Chinese and signed a treaty with them on September 4 1909. This treaty granted the Japanese access to connect to the Southern Manchurian Railway, allowing them to exploit the rich mineral resources in Manchuria. In return, the Japanese gave China the territorial rights to Kando. This act of selling Korean territory to another country was the final straw for patriots like Ahn. He retreated to his headquarters in Vladivostok, Siberia, to plan the assassination of the man he saw as responsible – Hiro-Bumi Ito.
Ito had planned to meet with a Russian official called General Kokotseff in Harbin, Manchuria on October 26 1909, to calm Russian fears over Japan’s intentions to annex Manchuria and invade China. When Ito’s train arrived at Harbin train station at 9:00am on the day of the meeting, Ahn, Joong-Gun was waiting for him. Even though he knew that he would be tortured if he was captured by the Japanese, Ahn shot Ito as he stepped off the train. He was indeed captured by Japanese troops, and imprisoned at Port Arthur. Whilst in the Japanese prisons, he suffered five months of barbaric torture. Other prisoners told that despite this unbelievable treatment, his spirit never broke. At 10:00am on March 26, l9l0, Ahn, Joong-Gun was executed at Lui-Shung prison at the age of just 30.
Ahn, Joong-Gun’s scarifice was one of many in this chaotic time of Korea’s history. His attitude, and that of his compatriots, symbolised the loyalty and dedication that the Korean people felt towards their country’s independence and freedom. Ahn’s devotion to his country was captured in the calligraphy that he wrote in his cell in Lui-Shung prison prior to his execution, which said simply “The Best Rivers and Mountains”. This can be interpreted to mean that he felt that his country was the most beautiful on earth. His life took him from educator to guerrilla leader, but above all this he was one of Korea’s great patriots.
The Life of Toi-Gye
Yi Hwang was born in On’gye-ri (now Tosan), North Kyôngsang Province, on November 25, 1501. He was a child prodigy. At the age of six, he started to learn the Book of One Thousand letters from an old gentleman in his neighborhood, and at 12 he learned the Analects of Confucius from his uncle, Yi U. At the age of 19, he obtained the two-volume Sôngni Taejôn, a great compendium of neo-Confucianism by Hu Guang, and experienced a process of great awakening. He became devoted to Song thought.
He came to Seoul when he was 23 years old to study at the National Academy, and passed the preliminary provincial Civil Service examination with top honours at the age of 33, continuing his scholarly pursuits whilst working for the Korean government. Indeed, he continued to work for the government throughout his life, moving through 29 different positions. His integrity made him relentless as he took part in purges of corrupt government officials. In a report to the king following an inspection tour of Ch’ungch’ông Province as a royal secret inspector, he ruthlessly condemned a provincial official who, ignoring an order from an honest magistrate, busied himself in illicitly building a fortune by taking possession of government articles. On numerous occasions he was even exiled from the capital for his firm commitment to principle.
In 1549 he retired back to his home and lived there until his death, thereby justifying his chosen pen name of Toi-Gye (meaning “retreating stream”). There he began to build the Tosan Sowon, a private Confucian academy offering instruction in the classics and honouring the sages with regular memorial rites. Unfortunately he died in 1570 and never lived to see the opening of his academy open, although his students continued to work after his death. Tosan Sowon opened in 1574, and remains in use to this day.
On his death, Yi Hwang was posthumously promoted to the highest ministerial rank, and his mortuary tablet is housed in a Confucian shrine as well as in the shrine of King Sonjo. He was the author of many books on Confucianism, and he also published a “shijo” collection, a short poetic form popular with the literati of the Choson period. During forty years of public life he served four kings (Chungjong, Injong, Myôngjong and Sônjo), and his interpretation of the “li-chi” dualism gained him fame in Korea and beyond.
The History of the Hwa-Rang
During the 6th century AD, the Korean peninsula was divided into the three kingdoms of Silla, Koguryo, and Paekche. The smallest of these kingdoms, Silla, was constantly being harassed and invaded by its two more powerful neighbours, and so in 576 Chin-Hung, the 24th king of the Silla dynasty, established the Hwa-Rang (meaning “flower of youth”) warriors from groups of talented young noblemen who were exceedingly loyal to the throne, who could be extensively trained in all forms of warfare and then successfully go into battle to defend the kingdom.
Each Hwa-Rang group consisted of hundreds of thousands of members chosen from the young sons of the nobility (some as young as 12) by popular election. The leaders of each group, including the most senior leader, were referred to as Kuk-Son. These Kuk-Son were similar to the legendary Knights of the Round Table of King Arthur’s reign.
Trainees learned the five cardinal principles of human relations (kindness, justice, courtesy, intelligence and faith), the three scholarships (royal tutor, instructor and teacher) and the six ways of service (holy minister, good minister, loyal minister, wise minister, virtuous minister and honest minister). After completing their training, which usually lasted around ten years, candidates were presented to the king for nomination as a Hwa-Rang or Kuk-Son.
The Hwa-Rang trained to improve their moral principles and military skills. To harden their bodies, they climbed rugged mountains and swam turbulent rivers in the coldest months. The youths were taught dance, literature, arts and sciences, and the arts of warfare, chariot driving, archery and hand-to-hand combat.
The hand-to-hand combat was based on the Um-Yang principles of Buddhist philosophy and included a blending of hard and soft, linear and circular techniques. The art of foot fighting known as Subak, practised by common people throughout the three kingdoms, was adopted and transformed by the Hwa-Rang. They intensified it and added hand techniques – it was said that the Hwa-Rang punches could penetrate the wooden chest armor of an enemy and kill him, and that their foot techniques were said to be executed at such speed that opponents frequently thought that the feet of Hwa-Rang warriors were swords. They called this new art Taek Kyon.
The Hwa-Rang code was established in the 3Oth year of king Chin-Hung’s rule. Two noted Hwa-Rang warriors, Kwi-San and Chu-Hang, sought out the famous Buddhist warrior-monk Wong-Gwang Popsa and asked that he give them a set of commandments that men who could not embrace the secluded life of a Buddhist monk could follow. These commandments, based on Confucian and Buddhist principles, were divided into five rules (loyalty to the king and country, obedience to one’s parents, sincerity, trust and brotherhood among friends, no retreat in battle and justice in the killing of living things) and nine virtues (humanity, justice, courtesy, wisdom, trust, goodness, virtue, loyalty and courage).
The Hwa-Rang were the first group of trained warriors ever to posses a spiritual attitude toward warfare. This spiritual warrior code was passed on to Japan in the late 6th century AD, and it was from these roots that the famous “Bushido” Samurai tradition was eventually born.
The zeal of the Hwa-Rang helped Silla to become the world’s first Buddhist kingdom, and eventually led to the unification of the three kingdoms of Korea. The battles won by the Hwa-Rang brought about the unification, but history would not be served, however, if it were not acknowledged that this unification was only achieved by a series of very bloody conflicts in which a large percentage of the Korean population was killed.
After the unification of Korea and the defeat of the invading Chinese Tang dynasty, the thoughts of the Korean people began to move away from conflict and on to more philosophical ideas. As warriors, the Hwa-Rang fell into decline by the end of the 7th century. Their refined knowledge of healing caused them to become known as a group specialising in Buddhist philosophy, healing and poetry, but no longer did they enjoy the exalted status of royal warriors.
The Life of Choong-Moo
Yi, Soon-Sin was born in Seoul on the 28th April 1545. After his father left his job as a government official, the family moved to Asan, Chungcheongdo province and the young Soon-Sin started his education. He at first chose to study the liberal arts, but later decided to take the military course. He passed the entrance examination at the age of 32 and was appointed as a lower officer of Hamgyeong-do province to begin his military service.
After rising through the ranks, Yi was appointed as naval commander of the Left Division of Cheollado in 1591, when he was 47 years old. It was at this time that he came up with the idea of the armoured battleship “Kobukson”, or “turtle ship”, a galley ship decked over with iron plating to protect the soldiers and rowers. It was so named because the curvature of the iron plates covering the top decks resembled a turtle’s shell. It had a large iron ram at its prow in the shape of a turtle’s head with an open mouth, from which smoke, arrows and missiles were discharged. There was another such opening in the rear, and six more on either side, all for the same purpose. The armored shell was fitted with iron spikes and knives that were disguised with straw or grass and designed to impale unwanted boarders. It was truly revolutionary, the most highly-developed warship of its time, and it was to play a crucial part in the ensuing war against Japan.
When the Japanese Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi came to power in 1590, his priority was the conquest of China, as he knew that a war with China would drain the financial resources of his rival fuedal lords of Japan and cement his hold on power. In 1592 he approached Korea and requested her aid in this conquest. When Korea refused, he ordered two of his generals, Kato Kiyomasa (the Buddhist commander) and Konishi Yukinaga (the Christian commander), to attack Korea. His plan was to sweep through the peninsula and on to conquer China.
Thanks to their larger army and superior technology (the Japanese had imported muskets from Europe and developed their own, whereas the Korean army was armed with swords, bows and arrows and spears), the Japanese troops reached Seoul in just 15 days and occupied the entire country by May 1592.
In early 1592, at the start of the conflict, Admiral Yi Soon-Sin, in charge of the Right Division of Chulla Province, made his headquarters in the port city of Yosu. It was in Yosu at this time that he constructed his famous Kobukson; the first one was launched and outfitted with cannons just two days before the first Japanese troops landed at Pusan, and in May 1592, Admiral Yi engaged the Japanese at Okpa. In his first battle, Yi led 80 ships against a Japanese naval force of 800 aiming to re-supply their northern bases from their port at Pusan. By the end of the day, Yi had set 26 Japanese ships on fire and forced the rest to flee. Giving chase, he sank many more, leaving the entire Japanese fleet scattered.
Several major engagements followed in which Admiral Yi annihilated every Japanese squadron he encountered. Courageous and a tactical genius, he even seemed to be able to outguess the enemy. In one incident, Yi dreamed that a robed man called out to him “The Japanese are coming”. Seeing this as a sign, he rose to assemble his ships, sailed out, and surprised a large enemy fleet. He burned 12 enemy ships and scattered the rest. In the course of the battle, he demonstrated his bravery by not showing pain when shot in the shoulder, revealing his injury only when the battle was over, when he bared his shoulder and ordered that the bullet be cut out.
In August 1592, 100,000 Japanese troop reinforcements headed around the Pyongyang peninsula and up the west coast. Admiral Yi confronted them at Kyon-Na-Rang, among the islands off the southern coast of Korea. Pretending at first to flee, Admiral Yi then turned and began to ram the Japanese ships with his sturdy Kobukson. His fleet copied his tactic and they sank 71 Japanese vessels. When a Japanese reinforcement fleet arrived, Admiral Yi’s fleet sank 48 of them and forced many more to be beached as the Japanese sailors tried to escape on land. This engagement is considered to be one of history’s greatest ever naval battles, and it utterly crushed Japan’s ambitions of conquering China.
In a brilliant move, Admiral Yi then took the entire Korean Navy of 180 ships, small and large, into the Japanese home port at Pusan harbour. There he proceeded to attack the main Japanese naval force of more than 500 ships, that were still at anchor. Using fire boats and strategic manoeuvring, he sank over half of the Japanese vessels, but, receiving no land support, was eventually forced to withdraw. With this battle, Admiral Yi completed what some naval historians have called the most important series of naval engagements in the history of the world.
Admiral Yi, Soon-Sin’s dominance over the sea was so complete that no Japanese supply ships could reach Korea, and the Japanese forces began to dwindle. The stalemate naval blockade forced Admiral Yi into many months of inactivity, during which he prepared for the future; he had his men make salt by evaporating seawater, and used it to pay local workers for building ships and barracks, and to trade for materials his navy needed. His energy and patriotism were so great that many men worked for nothing. Having heard not only of Yi’s military feats, but his contributions to the navy as well, the king conferred upon him the admiralty of the surrounding three provinces.
Unfortunately, a Japanese spy named Yosira managed to ingratiate himself to the Korean General Kim, Eung-Su, and convinced the General that the Japanese General Kato was due to attack Korea with a great fleet. He convinced General Kim to send Admiral Yi to lie in wait and sink the fleet, but Yi refused on the grounds that the area given by Yosira was studded with rocks and highly dangerous. Admiral Yi’s refusal to follow orders was seized upon by his enemies at court, and they insisted on his arrest. As a result, in 1597 Admiral Yi, Soon-Sin was relieved of command, placed under arrest and taken to Seoul in chains, where he was beaten and tortured. It was only the fervour of his supporters in promoting his past record that prevented the king from having him executed. Spared the death penalty, Admiral Yi was demoted to the rank of common foot soldier. He responded to this humiliation as a most obedient subject, going quietly about his work as if his rank and orders were totally appropriate.
When Hideyoshi learned from Yosira that Yi, Soon-Sin was out of the way, the Japanese attacked Korea again with 140,000 men in thousands of ships. Admiral Yi’s replacement, Won Kyun, led the Korean navy to a humiliating defeat that almost resulted in its total destruction. Fearing for his country’s security, the king hastily reinstated Yi, Soon-Sin as naval commander, and, in spite of his previous treatment, Yi immediately set out on foot for his former base at Hansan. There, with a force of just 12 ships, he repelled a Japanese fleet of 133 ships sailing through the Myongyang Strait at night by hiding, spread out, in the shadow of a mountain and firing constantly as they passed, convincing the Japanese that they were facing a vastly superior force. The next day more Japanese ships arrived, but Yi fearlessly sailed straight at them, sinking 30 and causing the remainder to flee in panic as they recognised the return of the fearless Admiral. Yi gave chase and destroyed the fleet, killing the Japanese Commander Madasi.
Korea was relatively weak at that time and relied heavily upon troops supplied by her close ally China (who had helped to drive Japan back following their initial occupation in 1592), and, in 1598, the Chinese emperor sent Admiral Chil Lin to command Korea’s western coast. Admiral Chil Lin was an extremely vain man and would take advice from no one. Knowing this to be a serious problem, Admiral Yi made every effort to win the trust of the Chinese admiral, and his political skills proved to be as effective as his military ones as he allowed Admiral Chil Lin to take credit for many of his own victories. He was willing to forgo the praise and let others reap the commendation in order to have the enemies of his country destroyed.
Yi, Soon-Sin was soon in charge of all strategy while Admiral Chil Lin took the credit. This arrangement made the Chinese seem successful, which so encouraged them that they gave Korea more of the aid she desperately needed. Admiral Chil Lin could not praise Admiral Yi enough, and repeatedly wrote to the Korean king So-Jon that “the universe did not contain another man who could perform the feats that Yi, Soon-Sin apparently found easy”.
Unfortunately Admiral Yi, Soon-Sin never lived to see the rewards of the heroic efforts and brilliant strategies of his that led, finally, to the Japanese withdrawal at the end of 1598. On November 19, 1598, Admiral Yi was shot by a stray bullet during the final battle of the war. Even as he lay wounded on deck, he commanded that his body be hid by a shield so that 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.
Although known primarily for his invention of the Kobukson, he also developed other military devices. One of his little-known inventions was a smoke generator in which sulphur and saltpetre were burned, emitting great clouds of smoke. This first recorded use of a smokescreen struck terror in the hearts of superstitious enemy sailors, and, more practically, it masked the movements of Admiral Yi’s ships. Another of his inventions was a type of flamethrower, a small cannon with an arrow-shaped shell that housed an incendiary charge, that he used to set fire to enemy ships. Along with his inventions, the tactical manoeuvres that he pioneered, such as his use of the fishnet “V” formation and the use of two-salvo fire against ships, demonstrate Yi’s brilliance as a naval tactician.
Admiral Yi, Soon-Sin was one of the greatest heroes in Korean history. He was posthumously awarded the honorary title of Choong-Moo (meaning “Loyalty-Chivalry”) in 1643, and the Distinguished Military Service Medal of the Republic of Korea (the third highest) is named after this title. Numerous books praise his feats of glory and several statues and monuments commemorate his deeds. His name is held in such high esteem that when the Japanese fleet defeated the Russian navy in 1905, the Japanese admiral was quoted as saying “You may wish to compare me with Lord Nelson, but do not compare me with Korea’s Admiral Yi, Soon-Sin…he is too remarkable for anyone.”