Posted by: rbbadger | February 13, 2009

Behind every great scholar is his mother

The Bank of Korea has, at long last, decided to offer us a higher denomination of currency, namely the 50,000 won note.  It will make its debut in April, though it has not been without controversy.

The Bank of Korea has generally favoured putting scholars on the money.  In the beginning of the Korean Republic, the image of the first president, Rhee Syngman, was on all the money.  However, they eventually decided to feature persons from history and settled mostly on Korea’s scholars.  The 1,000 won note features an image of the Confucian scholar Yi Hwang, known by the pen name of Togye.  Togye was among the greatest scholars of his day and a private academy erected in his honour still survives near Andong, Gyeongsangbuk-do.  The 5,000 won note features Yi I, better known by his pen name of Yulgok.  Yi I was a frighteningly bright prodigy, having mastered Chinese script at age three (!), was able to write poetry in classical Chinese by age seven, mastered the entire Chinese classics at the same age, and passed the state examination at age 12.  The 10,000 won note features that greatest of all Korean scholars, King Sejong the Great, a man of austounding accomplishments ranging all the way from linguistics (his alphabet he invented is still in use here today), to music (some of his compositions are still played as well as an instrument he helped develop), to philosophy, to practical science, to literature.  The Bank of Korea could have conceivably issued another set of currency with King Sejong’s face on it, but they decided this time to feature one of Korea’s great women instead.  And indeed, King Sejong the Great is highly honoured.  He not only appears on the money, but also has the Sejong Center for the Performing Arts in Seoul named after him and the King Sejong the Great class of naval destroyers as well.  And of course, there is the Sejong Administrative City, a place once intended to be Korea’s new capital city, that was until the Constitutional Court ruled the plans of moving the capital unconstitutional.  Still, some government ministries will relocate to Sejong City once it is finished being built.

Shin Saimdang, a 16th century woman, will appear on the 50,000 won note in April, is perhaps the ideal of Korean motherhood.  Her son, Yi I (known as Yulgok), whom I have written about above, profited greatly from her guidance.  She helped him to become one of the greatest scholars in Korean history.  Additionally, one of her daughters and another of her sons were talented painters.  Her youngest son, Yi Wu, was a very talented artist, calligrapher, and musician.  But she also excelled herself in a number of areas herself.  She was a highly accomplished painter and many of her paintings still survive.  Shin Saimdang was also well known as a poet.  Additionally, she excelled at what is considered to be the scholastic art par excellence in East Asia, namely calligraphy.  The importance of calligraphy in East Asia cannot be stressed enough.  Former President Park Chung-hee (president from 1961 to 1979) did a fair amount of calligraphy in his day, as did Chung Ju-yung, founder and late chairman of the Hyundai Group.  Some of my students still study it, though I rather suspect that their calligraphy doesn’t use Chinese characters but is all in hangeul, the Korean alphabet invented by King Sejong.  In China, Chairman Mao was highly talented with the calligrapher’s brush as was his later successor, President Jiang Zemin.  A truly learned and refined person in China, Korea, or Japan, would be able to execute truly beautiful calligraphy as well.  Probably no other region in the world, with the exception of the Middle East, shows quite the same devotion to beautiful writing as does East Asia.  And Shin Saimdang excelled at it.

She was perhaps the example of a supermom, one who could excel in a multitude of areas but one who was also a devoted wife and mother.  In addition, because her family had no sons, she bore the difficult tasks of caring for her aged parents along with caring for her own family.  The feminists have not been happy at all with the choice of Shin Saimdang to appear on the 50,000 won note, as they look at her selection as a stereotype of traditional Korean feminimity and something out of the bad old days of patriarchy.  Still, if we are to honour one of Korea’s greatest women, Shin Saimdang would naturally be at the front of the group along with the Empress Myeongseong and others.  In an age where women were generally not taught to read or write, she excelled in scholarly pursuits that were generally considered the field of men alone.  Her family was unique for its time in that her mother was well educated.  Her father insisted that she, his eldest daughter be educated as well.  But through it all, she was a wise mother and a devoted wife.

There is also a Saimdang Prize, awarded to women who excel professionally, but who are also, above all else, good mothers.



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