Shin Saimdang possessed talents rarely seen in the world and hardly since her death in 16th century Korea, then the Joseon Dynasty. Yinsun (her real name) rose to fame as a writer, poet, and calligrapher but her paintings have reached legendary status. One story that’s been passed around involves a younger lady who’d spilled some tea on her skirt, which was borrowed and too expensive for her to replace. Shin learned of the woman’s plight and decided to help. You can read about Shin Saimdang’s story and more at her old home—Ojukheon House in Gangneung, Gangwon Province.
Continuing the story, Shin took the skirt and constructed a beautiful painting of leaves and grapes that attracted eager buyers at a nearby market. The woman was able to replace the skirt and even buy one of her own. It’s interesting that I’m walking around a place where such a talented person once lived. It’s not the original. Officials tore down Ojukheon House and replaced it with the current reconstruction.
The “Ideal” Woman
It’s yet another unfortunate truth found throughout South Korea—safety and/or aesthetics trump authenticity. Regardless, it’s important to remember the person and the fact that they were here, I say. Many circles refer to Shin Saimdang as the “ideal” woman, a loyal mother, and wife. It’s a characterization that drew intense criticism from Korean feminists when Shin was chosen to be one of the faces on South Korea’s monetary notes. But I still can’t get over the legend that surrounds her and the talent that came out of this home.
Her son was no normal man, either. Yi Yi or Yulgok rose to “boy prodigy” status at a very young age. I stare at his recreated living quarters and think about how important this household was to Korean society. But his story didn’t stop there.
Fighting for Change
Yulgok attempted to make big changes and implemented codes that would hopefully steer Joseon education in the right direction. It seems that the things he fought against (rote memorization, books over applied knowledge, etc.) are still an endemic problem in today’s Korea. I can vouch for that after years of teaching various levels of students in the country.
Nevertheless, his books and words on educational reform are preserved today. They’re hailed as a compass that the education should strive towards, yet it ignores. Of course, Shin Saimdang and her son Yulgok didn’t just fade away. They are two of the faces featured on Korea’s monetary notes, with Shin on the 50,000 won note while her son features on the 5,000. Perhaps people think more of the mother than the son after all?
What’s more interesting is that the people selected to appear come from a small time period and one far removed from modern Korea. Two closely connected figures remain important parts of Korea’s final dynastic period. The fact that they shared a home at Ojukheon House makes the relationship even more interesting.
What do you think of this important family’s story? Ever visited their home? Let me know in the comments section below:)
The Korean Spirit and Culture Project helped immensely with Shin Saimdang’s backstory. The Ehwa Voice also helped with understanding the dissent surrounding Shin’s fame and status as Korea’s ideal woman.