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Shin Saimdang, Mother, Poet and Artist (1504 – 1551)
Written by Mark Peterson
Professor of Korean Studies, Brigham Young University
The most famous woman of Korean history is Shin Saimdang (1504 – 1551). She is honored today with an award in her name, which is basically the “mother of the year” award. Recently she was selected to appear on the new monetary denomination, ₩ 50,000 note. She was an artist and a poet and the mother of one of the two great scholars of Confucianism in Korean history — Yi I (also known by the penname, Yulgok).
Shin was born in 1504, died in 1551. She married a man named Yi Wonsu who originally was from Paju, just north of Seoul. Although she was a remarkable woman in her own right, her fame was linked to that of her famous son, Yulgok, Yi I. Yi was one of the most famous scholar-officials in the Neo-Confucian vein, and Koreans have come to think of Yulgok and his mother in the same way they think of the great Chinese scholar Mencius who also had a famous mother. In a parallel to the life of Mencius, who was taught by his mother, Yulgok was taught by his mother as a young child. And in the same way that Mencius came to be regarded as a great scholar of Confucianism, in large measure, because of his mother, Yulgok became a great scholar and his mother is credited with his early education.
Poet and Artist
She was famous as a poet and artist. When she left her native Kangnung after bearing seven children and went with her husband to Seoul, she penned one of her most-famous poems. Later, in the late seventeenth century onward, in a fully Confucianized society where women were required to leave home at the time of marriage, women identified with the sentiments of Shin Saimdang on leaving one’s mother behind. At the time of Shin Saimdang, however, her husband had moved into her home in her village and she did not leave as a young bride, but rather as an older woman accompanying her husband who was a government official. She wrote:
늙으신 어머님을 고향에 두고
외로이 서울로 가는 이 마음
이따금 머리들어 북촌을 바라보니
흰구름 떠있는 곳 저녁산만 푸르네
Looking Back at my Parents' Home while Going Over Daegwallyŏng Pass
I leave my elderly mother behind in Kangnung
Wracked with emotions, I am alone on the road to Seoul
I look back at my home, and for a moment take hope.
The white clouds flying below shroud the mountain green.
Mother of a Famous Confucian Scholar
She died young, only fourth-seven years old. Her famous son, Yulgok, was only fifteen, but had already passed the provincial level of a lesser civil service exam. He went into mourning and even retired to a Buddhist temple for a time. Later, he took the rest of the battery of exams, passing the three levels of each exam, the two lesser exams, the Saengwon and the Chinsa, and the High Civil Service exam, the Munkwa. Three levels of three exams — few applicants took all three exams, but Yulgok did. Not only did he pass at each level, he took first place in all nine exams. Extraordinary!
In many regards, although there was another candidate — T’oegye, Yi Hwang — Yulgok is the finest scholar in all of Korean history. And in a way that speaks to the heart of Confucianism, his career is parallel to the great master from China, Mencius. He had a mother who spent extraordinary effort to educate her son in much the same way as Saimdang taught her young son.
Today, Saimdang’s home is now a national shrine. Located on the northern side of the east coast city of Kangnŭng, called Ojuk-hŏn, the “Black Bamboo Manor,” is visit by school children from all over the country every year. It was formerly the image on the reverse of the ₩ 5,000 note — with Yulgok, Yi I’s image on the obverse. Now the reverse of the new issue ₩ 5,000 note has some of her artwork — she specialized in a kind of still life with plants and insects.
The ₩ 5,000 note with Saimdang’s art on the reverse. This is the new issue and the Ojuk-hŏn image is on the obverse — see the bamboo and the building below, both in the center of the obverse side.
The selection of historic personages for the honor of being on the currency came to the family of Yi Yulgok again when Korea decided in 2009 to print a larger denomination, a ₩ 50,000 note (about $50.00). The powers that be chose Yulgok’s mother, Shin Saimdang.
The selection of Shin Saimdang as the first woman to be recognized as a major historical figure worthy of being honored on the nation’s currency is momentous. Her accomplishments were remarkable, as a mother, as a wife, as a woman, as an artist, as a writer, and as a teacher. When someone, a child or a visitor to Korea, asks whose image is this on ₩ 50,000 note, the door opens to a wonderful opportunity to respond and tell the story of a truly exemplary and remarkable woman.