Heroes of Korea’s Golden Ages – Admiral Yi Sunshin and King Sejong

“Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797)

I think Edmund was onto something here – Knowing the past (not worrying about it – that’s different) isn’t a bad thing, it’s a good thing if you use it to help in the present!

And Koreans love their heroes – and two of the most famous, and most revered are King Sejong and Admiral Yi Sunshin. There are statues of them here and there, just about every museum mentions something about them, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that they each rate an entire free exhibit, interestingly enough located in the basement of the Seoul Museum of Art. I’d seen signs for these exhibits when we’d first hit Seoul – but it took us almost our entire visit to get up the energy to go. I’m really sorry we waited. The exhibit on Admiral Yi Sunshin is fabulous, and while King Sejong’s isn’t quite as outstanding – it is remarkably informative.

First King Sejong. He was the fourth King of the Joseon Dynasty, he reigned from 1418 to 1450 (31 years!) and is most famous for having created the Korean alphabet (Hangeul). Just imagine that – until King Sejong – despite having their own language, Korean were using the Chinese pictogram system with its thousands of different images. King Sejong declared that Koreans deserved something better – and he created it with the help of advisers. He even wrote books and music in the new alphabet to help make it popular.

The Koreans went from having to learn tens of thousands of different symbols to learning just 28. Those 28 symbols (only 24 are in use today) were created by King Sejong, based on the way Korean is spoken. They are said to resemble the way your mouth moves when you are speaking Korean.

This I knew from countless other museum exhibits – what I didn’t know about the reign of King Sejong was that it was a golden age of invention. Under his inspiration, uniquely Korean musical instruments were created, uniquely Korean music was born, rain gauges were invented to help farmers, he had a manual written in his new alphabet to help farmers, there were multiple military advances, he inspired people to create astrological instruments, etc., etc.

Comparison note: Queen Elizabeth I reigned from 1533 to 1603 – 100 years later!

King Sejong passed many laws that were – for the time – extremely revolutionary, including one that allowed new mothers, even if they were slaves, time off work to care for their babies.

If you are inspired to learn more about King Sejong – and can’t hop on a plane to fly to Korea and visit this exhibit – at least check out the Wikipedia article about him:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sejong_the_Great
He is amazing. Exhibit was pretty good too.

But it was the exhibit on Admiral Yi Sunshin that I found the most intriguing. Remember – the Intrepid Traveler is a Docent in Montreal – so how museum exhibits are designed is almost as important to us as the information they are trying to convey. This exhibit neatly demonstrated almost all the newest ideas about how to ‘teach history’ – in one relatively tiny space.

Quick history – Admiral Yi Sunshin lived from 1545 to 1598. He created the ‘Turtle Ship’, a completely new warship and was instrumental in defeating the Japanese at sea during the Imjin War (the Japanese Invasions of Korea 1592-1598). In one of his most famous sea battles – he faced 131 Japanese war ships with only 13 of his own – and won. Not only did he win, but he didn’t lose a boat – and his ships destroyed 33 of the Japanese vessels before the Japanese retreated. Clearly an outstanding strategist.

He was demoted several times (not the easiest guy to get along with I’m thinking), he was actually stripped of his rank and imprisoned at one point, and yet he came back again and again to fight for his country. He was killed by a bullet during his last battle.

But it’s not this history, neat as it is, that made this exhibit so impressive – it was how they tried to make it interesting that most impressed me.

There was an interactive electronic picture book that was appeared in the language of your choice, and was read to you – in your language, as you ‘flipped’ the pages electronically. Cool.

There was an interactive game that put you and a friend on the rowing oar of a ‘turtle ship’ – invented by Admiral Yi Sunshin – chasing a fleeing Japanese vessel. There was a wooden model of a turtle ship (50% size) that you could enter to see what if felt like inside (very claustrophobic), there were 2 very realistic guns and 2 slow loading cannons of the period that you could ‘fire’ at attacking ships, there was a movie about one of his famous battles with sound effects on multiple screens with English sub-titles that ended with the screen disappearing and the model of the turtle ship suddenly appearing (remember – it’s huge), in front of you – as if you were being attacked.

There was even a 4D battle movie, about 8 minutes long, that featured puffs of air, water spray and moving chairs while you watched a naval battle unfurl in front of you. Well worth waiting to see.

2 Impressive Exhibits – both free, one opened on October 9, 2009 (Hangeul Day), the other opened on April 28, 2010 in honor of Admiral Yi Sunshin’s date of birth – and both running continuously since then. I’d rate these a must see if you visit Seoul – and I wouldn’t be alone there – they have had at least 230,000 visitors since they opened!

Signing off to go watch a Korean version of Glee (see tomorrows blog) – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s