Ryu Sŏngnyong, Chancellor of Chosŏn Korea

Ryu Sŏngnyong, Chancellor of Chosŏn Korea

On the Battlefield and in Memory (KRM 39)

Choi Byonghyon

Publication date: 2022
ISBN-13 (print): 978-1-55729-199-8
ISBN-10 (print): 1-55729-199-3
ISBN-13 (e-book): 978-1-55729-200-1

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This biography of Ryu Sŏngnyong presents a new view of his childhood and education, his career as a government official, and his scholarship during retirement. The narrative includes descriptions of the Imjin War between Hideyoshi’s Japan and Chosŏn Korea, and their negotiations with imperial China.

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Title information

With the Japanese invasion of Chosŏn, King Sŏnjo’s court was thrown into panic and disarray. Ryu Sŏngnyong alone stood out,  negotiating with Ming China for military aid and leading the Korean people through the crisis. Sŏnjo was the king, but Sŏngnyong was the leader. His mission could be described thus: “Though horses are lost, the stable must be repaired.” Ryu’s last battle was to put the war on record so that its bitter memory could survive. His agonizingly detailed records and admonitions for posterity were no less fierce and stirring than Yi Sunsin’s last battle at the Noryang strait. Yi’s tragic death made his star shine bright, but Ryu had to choose a different path to recognition than that of a warrior. His sacrifice was to persevere until he could finish recording his history. 

Pages: 560
Language: English
Publisher: Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California, Berkeley
OCLC: 1322444486

Choi Byonghyon

A professor of English and American literature for more than twenty years, Choi is also a prolific novelist and poet.


PhD, City University of New York


Ryu Sŏngnyong, Chancellor of Chosŏn Korea

Preface ix
Acknowledgments xv
Author’s Note xvii
Ryu Family Tree xxi
Maps xxiii
1. A Child Named “Accomplished Dragon” 3
2. Ancestral Lineage 7
3. Family Portraits 9
4. Learning and Growing 12
5. The Grand Tour 19
6. Excursion into Practical Rationality 29
7. Humble Hut and Western Cliff 35
8. Reading the Classics 41
9. Master T’oegye 48
1. A Heart Divided 59
2. Entering the Service 66
3. Diplomatic Mission to China 79
4. Lecturing to the King 92
5. Factional Strife 100
6. Reluctant Partisans 109
7. Leave-takings 120
8. Riptides 131
9. Downfall of the Easterners 142
10. The Man in Command 154
1. Scholars and Warriors 161
2. Japanese Envoys 163
3. Contradictory Reports 169
4. Sharing Information with China 173
5. Recommending Yi Sunsin 176
6. Generals Unable to Foresee War 179
7. The Japanese Invade 183
8. Fortresses Fall One after Another 186
9. Criminal Charges against Kim Sŏngil 191
10. Commander Yi Il Flees as Sangju Falls 194
11. Sin Rip and the Fall of Ch’ungju 197
12. Get the Horses Ready 202
13. A Day of Wailing 210
14. The Fall of Seoul 218
15. The Defenses Collapse 223
16. Reinstatement 229
17. The Royal Party Leaves P’yŏngyang 237
18. The Fall of P’yŏngyang 244
19. The King Arrives in Ŭiju 249
20. The Shocking Defeat of the Celestial Army 255
21. Yi Sunsin’s Victories at Sea 262
22. The Righteous Armies 270
23. China Negotiates 277
24. The Ming Army Recaptures P’yŏngyang 282
25. A Setback at Pyŏkchegwan 290
26. Korea Fights on Its Own 300
27. A Painful Stalemate 307
28. No Retribution 317
29. A Rare Opportunity 327
30. Saving the Throne 343
31. A Precarious Calm 355
32. Caught in the Crossfire 361
33. Breakdown of Negotiations and the Second Invasion 382
1. Yi Sunsin’s Trials 393
2. The Fall of Namwŏn 409
3. Arrogant Generals, Servile King 412
4. Loyalty and Filial Piety 422
5. Fall of the Dragon 429
6. Chingbirok: Admonitions for Future Generations 444
7. Turning Down Royal Favors 450
8. A Nation in Mourning 461
1. Disciples and Descendants 469
2. History Written by Adversaries 475
3. Sŏngnyong’s Legacy 489
Notes 493
Bibliography 525
Glossary-Index 533


“As a statesman, strategist, and scholar, Ryu Sŏngnyong played a vital role in the history of Korea and of Asia at large. In this painstakingly researched, elegantly written, and analytically profound work, Choi Byonghyon brings this important historical figure back to vivid life. The author quotes Ralph Waldo Emerson’s aphorism “There is properly no history; only biography,” and this book draws on the best of both traditions—the sweep of history and the intimacy of biography—to shed light on an overlooked chapter in the history of an ancient nation and to tell the story of the self-effacing yet heroic Ryu Sŏngnyong. Highly recommended!” ~Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer and Rogers Chair in the American Presidency, Vanderbilt University

“Ryu Sŏngnyong, Chancellor of Chosŏn Korea is a monumental scholarly achievement. This biography of Ryu Sŏngnyong presents a great deal of new and insightful materials for the English-reading world. But the book is much more than a biography of Ryu Sŏngnyong. It is a window into premodern Korean politics, society, and worldview during one of the most important periods of East Asian and global history.” ~George Kallander, Professor and Director of Graduate Studies, History Department, Syracuse University

“Choi Byonghyon, a well-known translator of Chosŏn-dynasty texts, has switched gears and become a biographer. His narrative of the life of Ryu Sŏngnyong provides us an opportunity to view one of the most tumultuous periods in Korean history through the eyes of a top official at that time. There is nothing else in English offering this type of insider’s look at both the factional politics and the war with Japan at the end of the sixteenth century.“ ~Donald Baker, Professor of Korean History and Civilization, University of British Columbia