Admiral Sunshin Lee was born on 8 March, 1545, at Geuncheun-Dong, Seoul, as the third of four children of Jeung Lee. It is told that his mother had a very auspicious dream when she laid him. His first name, Sunshin which means a good subject, was given by the inspiration of the dream.
As a boy he showed distinguished talents(abilities) in all the fields, scholarly attainments and martial arts. At first, he chose liberal arts, but it was impossible as his social position according to his father's demotion. He had to choose military arts in 22, and passed the entrance examination of the military course at the age of 32.
He was appointed as a lower officer in Hamkyung state, the border state with Manchuria, China, to carry out his first military service as the frontier guard. Then he was promoted to a local top officer of Balpo, Cholla state, at the age of 36 to defend the southern coasts after 3 years in the border line and one year in the training school as a instructor. But he was fired from the top officer after 2 years due to the tricks of the comrades who disliked him. In 39, his father died and he was reappointed in Hamkyung to guard the people from the Manchurian barbarians who often crossed the border line.
As he stayed in Hamkyung, he had to have a lot of combats to protect the dwellers and their farmland. He guarded them successfully from the barbarians. In a combat, he had caught Uljinae, the chief of the barbarians, and he had been hurt in the waist by the arrow in a combat to save the 60 people who were kidnapping by the barbarians.
At the age of 45, he was promoted to the governor of Jeungeup, Cholla state. When he was in Jeungeup, the political situation of Korea was in turmoil. The government was filled with the vulgar officials and the politicians. The king, Seunjo, was not wise and had no power to carry out the administrations. Furthermore, Lee heard that the Japanese spies had been arrested in many places. He felt the huge crisis coming over the sea. He predicted the Japanese invasion.
Fortunately, in 1591, at the age of 47, he was appointed as the commander of Cholla Left Navy in Yosu by the recommendation of Seungryong Ryu, the prime minister. It was just one year before the war. In Yosu, he prepared for the war for himself without asking help to the government because his opinion was not accepted by anyone in the government. He reinforced the weapons, trained the soldiers, and built the typical war ships, the turtle ships. The turtle ships would be the saver of the Korean navy in the war.
The Japanese navy invaded Pusan port on 14 April, 1592, when he was 48 and occupied it in a day. They collapsed Dongrae on 16 April and even Seoul on 3 May. Informed that Pusan was occupied and Kyungsang Right and Left navys were collapsed, Lee held the urgent military meeting in his base to make the strategy. In the meeting, he made a conclusion to move his fleets to Kyungsang state to have the battles although most of the officers did not agree. They insisted that they had to protect their own sector, Cholla state, because they were not stronger than the Japanese. Lee stood firmly by his idea and ordered to concentrate all his fleets in Yosu port. He executed Okcheun Whang, the lower officer of his fleets, who tried to run away and headed to Okpo with 24 war ships on 1 May. This was his first movement and gained a great victory in the Okpo Battle. In this movement, Kyun Won, the commander of Kyungsang Right Navy, joined with Lee and carried out the battles together. He survived with just 6 or 7 war ships when the Japanese invaded.
In the second movement, he continuously beat the Japanese fleets in Sacheun and Dangpo, Kyungsang state, on 29 May and on 2 June. Next, in the third movement, he destroyed the Japanese fleets which tried to advance to the western coasts in Hansan Island on 8 July. He also attacked Pusan port, which was reinforced as the headquarter of the invaders, in the fourth movement on 1 September. He gained the victory in this battle, too.
On 15 July, 1593, he moved the headquarter from Yosu to Hansan Island, Kyungsang state, to block effectively the invaders who tried to advance to the western coasts. Then, the government appointed him as the chief commander of three southern states, Chungcheung, Kyungsang, and Cholla on 15 August to reinforce his position as a commander. This promotion caused the disharmony with Kyun Won.
Won complaint and was jealous of Lee's promotion. But Lee had never paid attention to Won's complaint and just continued to carry out his duty. In that time, in 1596, Japanese invaders made a trap to get rid of Admiral Lee. Konishi Youkinaka, one of the commanders of the invaders, spreaded the rumor that Kato Kiyomasa, the Japanese general, would come to Korea with the reinforcements. Then, he secretly had informed Lee and some of the government officials of the sea roads that Kato would take. Lee thought it was a trap, but the officials thought they gained a good information. Lee did not move to beat Kato and, after he arrived in Korea with the army on 21 January 1597, Lee was arrested to be imprisoned on 26 February 1597 as the charge of delinquency. Won succeeded the title of chief commander.
After 26 days in the jail, he was set free by the strong petitions signed by the generals and the officials who worried about the war. As he was in the jail, his mother died and the Korean Navy led by Won was totally collapsed by the overall attack of the invaders in 1597. Even Won died in the battles. Just 12 warships and hundreds soldiers which survived retreated to the west sea of Cholla state. Yosu was also occupied and Jinhaeroo, the building of the headquarter, was bunt. Lee was reappointed as the chief commander in such worst situation. He had to face the invaders with only 12 ships and the hundreds soldiers. When the invaders moved to the west, he decided to have the vital battle in Uldolmok in the west Cholla state, the narrow channel which has the extremely rapid currents of the water.
On 16 September, 1597, unbelievably, he terminated the 133 Japanese ships into the water in the channel. He made a trap there. He induced the invaders to the channel and passed it. When the invaders followed him, the rope obstacles blocked the narrow channel to turn the ships over. The Japanese ships which were after Lee's fleets crashed to one another for themselves by the obstacles and the rapid currents. It was the Myungryang Battle. After this battle, he moved the headquarter to the east and reinforced his soldiers. After he reinforced his fleets, he joined the Chinese Ming navy. Admiral Jin, the Chinese commander, greatly admired the Myungryang Battle and respected Admiral Lee.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the ringleader of the war, died of disease on 17 August, 1598. Due to his death, the Japanese invaders began to retreat from Korea. Lee could not allow the invaders to retreat safely from Korea. He moved to the east and faced the 500 Japanese ships in Noryang of Namhae Island. The invaders were led by Konishi Youkinaka who stayed in Suncheun about for one year after he failed to advance to the north. He had just left from Yosu area by the ships to retreat to Japan. This battle was continued for two days and both sides had huge damages. This battle, the Noryang Battle, was the last which Lee had in his life. He commanded the battle for all day and regretably died by the shot in the morning early on 19 November, 1598. Just before he died, he told "Do not notify my men of my death not to make them frustrated. Just let them continuously fight the enemies." His men knew the death after they beat the invaders. He died in the battle field as a soldier at the age of 54.
In his last battle, Japanese fleets lost about 450 war ships. Just about 50 ships retreated to the direction of Pusan, and finally they backed to Japan. The seven-year war was finally ended and the Korean people recovered the peace.
After the war, the King Seunjo bestowed the posthumous title of the prime minister on the death to show his respect for him. Also, the King Jeungjo did the title once more after 200 years.