Most of the figures who predominated the stream of history in the past were men. A very limited number of women were on the forefront of history in most societies. But we know very well that behind many of those prominent men were their mothers, who were great women.Shin Saimdang (1504-51) was the mother of Yi I, a renowned neo-Confucian philosopher and statesman of the 16th century, who is better known by his pen name, Yulgok. Obviously, she owes much of her reputation to her distinguished son. But at the same time we can say that only a great woman like her could bring up a great man like Yulgok. Lady Saimdang had a personality and attitude of life that, ranscending time and space, fully deserve to be presented as a model of success for women of today. She lived in an age when Korean society was under the overwhelming influence of Confucian ideology and moral principles. At the time a strict male-centered moral code confined the Korean woman with the so-called "way of three obediences." i.e., obedience to her father during the early years of her life, obedience to her husband after marriage, and then obedience to her son in old age. Lady Saimdang, however, did not submit herself to unconditioned subservience and meaningless virtues, sacrificing herself to no cause. Saimdang fulfilled her various roles in life with almost incredible perfection. She was an exceptionally good daughter for her parents, an intelligent partner of conversation and reliable adviser for her husband, and a wise and loving mother for her children. Besides, she made constant efforts to cultivate herself, attaining a remarkable standard of learning and artistic endeavors. She was loved and adored by her family and relatives during her lifetime. Today, after more than four centuries, she is widely respected not only as a model of wise and virtuous woman but also as a prominent artist who successfully displayed the potential of the Korean woman. Saimdang was born on October 29, 1504, at Pukpyong village in Kangnung, a coastal city in Kangwon-do Province in central eastern Korea. Pukpyong nowadays is a quiet village, but in remote ancient times it had been a center stage of the activities of Yemaek tribe, ancestors of the present-day Koreans. It has a beautiful natural environment, with the rugged Taekwallyong Pass soaring above white clouds to the west and a clean, billowing sea to the east. The scenery is excellent enough to have drawn ancient geomancers to predict the coming of a great man. A major historical asset of this village is Ojukhon, or the House of Black Bamboo, where both Lady saimdang and his son Yulgok were born. The traditional Korean-style house was recently repaired and opened as a memorial hall for the mother-son duo of excellence, with a selection of their calligraphic works and paintings displayed for year-round viewing by visitors. The name of the house was derived from a mysterious grove of black bamboo in its garden. Saimdang came from a family of respectable scholarly tradition. Her father was Shin Myong- hwa, the 18th generation descendant of Shin Sung-gyom, who was one of the top aides and meritorious subjects of Wang Kon, the founding monarch of the Koryo dynasty. Her mother was the only daughter of Sa On, a scholar of notable repute. She was second among all female five siblings. With a fine appearance and excellent talents, she was particularly endeared by her parents. She displayed unusual talent in painting at an early age. At seven, she amazed her family by practicing landscape painting by herself with a painting by An Kyon, a master painter of the 15th century. She continued to make progress in her artistic endeavor to achieve a style of her own. She particularly enjoyed depicting flowers, birds and fruits, the motifs she could easily find in her daily life. Grapes, watermelons, little insects, birds, orchids and assorted flowers that often appear in her pictures are characterized by shrewd observation and mature brushwork with a delicate feminine touch. There is a well-known episode about her brilliant skill in painting. While she was still living at Kangnung, one of her neighbors held a big party where many women from the village were invited A young girl among the guests happened to spill water on her skirt during the party. She almost cried when a big stain appeared on her red skirt. The fact was that she had borrowed the skirt from a friend of hers because her family was too poor to buy her new clothes for the gathering. Upon finding the young girl in a baffling situation, Saimdang used her wisdom to ask for a brush and ink, and then asked the girl to take off her skirt. Then she spread the skirt on the floor and began to draw lovely bunches of grapes and leaves all over it. The picture was so fascinating that a rich woman among the guests instantly offered to buy it. It was sold on the spot at a high price, which was sufficient to buy a new skirt to replace the stained one and more dresses for the poor girl. Saimdang was married at 19. Her husband, Yi Won-su, came from a ranking noble family in Seoul. According to the custom at the time, she was supposed to leave for Seoul with her husband after holding a wedding ceremony at her house in Kangnung. But her father loved her so much that he was reluctant to send her away. Therefore, he suggested to the groom after the wedding ceremony that she would be allowed to stay with him for a while even though she was now married and he knew very well that she had to leave. According to a biography of Saimdang written by Yulgok, her father said to his son-in-law: "I have other daughters, but I particularly endear this child who became your wife. I find it so hard to part from her, so what do you think of living with us for a while?" It was totally against the custom, but the young man agreed. This is why Saimdang lived with her parents after she got married unlike other women of her time. Her father died soon afterwards. He was 47. After her father passed away, however, Saimdang found it even more difficult to leave her mother in sadness. She stayed with her through the formal mourning period of three years before she came up to Seoul and held a second wedding ceremony in front of her parents-in-law. By this time Yulgok had already been born. When she was 38 years old, Saimdang took over the duties for home management from her mother-in-law who had grown too old and weak to carry on with the demanding chore. Overlooking the large household and assisting her husband who was serving as kamchal, a sixth-rank official at Sahonbu, the Office of the Inspector-General, she now found it extremely hard to take time to visit her mother at Kangnung. This made her so sad that, on her way back to Seoul from her last visit to her mother, she wrote the following poem: Leaving behind my aged mother at home
My heart aches on this lonely joumey to Seoul.
looking bacm toward Pukcfron far away
I see the white clouds drifting above a mountain
This is one of the only two poems written by Lady Saimdang, which are handed down till today. The other piece also depicts her deep love for her mother.
My home is one thousand li away
over mountains one upon another.
But I yearn to go back day and night.
in sleep or awake.
The solitary moon over Hansongjong pavilion.
A streak of wind past Kyongpodae beach,
Seagulls scatter from the sand
and again scatter together.
Fishing boats sail in and out on the sea.
When could I ever again tread
the path Kangnung
To sit beside my mother and sew with her?
These two poems tell us that Lady Saimdang, in spite of her perfect womanly virtues as required by the rigid Confucian moral decorum, was not all cool wisdom and intelligence at all. Probably due to her innate artistic sensitivity, she was prone to tears of uncontrollable homesickness and love for her aged mother from time to time. But such an emotional spree seldom interfered with her performance of duties as a wife and a mother. Not only her family members but all servants in her household respected her from the bottom of their hearts because she was a stem but loving mother and mistress.
Her husband discussed important matters with her and listened attentively to her advices. Once a cousin of his father. Yi Ki, was serving as the supreme state councillor (yong-uijong) commanding enormous power. His house was crowded with many visitors all the time and Saimdang's husband, being a close relative of his, naturally visited him frequently. Saimdang did not like this and said to her husband one day: "I understand you know that your uncle indulges in power and conducts many misdeeds. Even though he is a close relative of yours, I do not think it is right for you to visit him so often when you are aware that he is not a righteous man. A man like him will never remain in power for long."
Considering this advice to deserve respect, her husband restrained himself from visiting his powerful uncle thereafter. Thus, he could avoid the impact of a political convulsion which soon took place.
From this episode we can discern the straightforward character of Saimdang, if not necessarily her insight to foresee the future. She did not hesitate to speak out her thought before her husband if it was needed to guide him along the right path. In a society dominated by a deeprooted notion of male supremacy, Lady Saimdang and her husband established an example of the ideal conjugal life, respecting each other as equal human beings and assisting for mutual growth.
They had four sons and three daughters and educated all of them successfully. Yulgok, who was the third son, established a neo-confucian theory initiated by the Sung Chinese philosopher Chu Hsi, emphasizing ki (ch'j in Chinese), the energizing and concretizing element in the universe, as opposed to i (li in Chinese), the patterning or formative element. He was famed not only as a philosopher but also for many reform proposals he put forward in regard to government, the economy and national defense: Eldest daughter Maechang inherited her mother's literary talent and achieved fame as a poetess. The fourth son, U, excelled in the arts of painting, calligraphy, poetry and music.
The government of Choson, in recognition of the couple's exemplary roles in the society and family, posthumously granted them the honorary titles of Chonggtong puin, the highest rank given to the wives of noblemen in government service during the Choson period, and Sungjong daebu Uijongbu chwachansong, an assistant state councillor. In modern-day Korea, in May every year, women's associations present the Shin Saimdang Award to an exemplary housewife who has attained a notable standard of artistic endeavor and at the same time made outstanding social service. The award ceremony, held in an ancient royal palace in Seoul, is followed by contests in calligraphy, painting, embroidery and poetry and prose writing, the arts in all of which Lady Saimdang distinguished herself, where all women are invited to demonstrate their skills.