Among many famous Korean women throughout Korean history, no one would fault the suggestion that Shin Saimdang should stand at the top for she garnered the three most gracious titles that Korean women could ever hope to have: filial piety to her parents, a good wife to her husband, and a loving mother to her children. Shin Saimdang, a mirror for Korean women, was born in Pukpyong, which is now Kangnung, in 1504 to a family that had five daughters. To the west of the village stood the high rising mountains called Taegwallyong and to the east the endless east sea opened up creating a perfect landscape for the folk who lived there.
As her parents had no son, it was understandable that the second child, who had a distinguished face and had shown brilliant talents from early childhood, received special attention not only from her parents, but also from her maternal grandparents. Contrary to the strict customs of the time, her mother was allowed to live on in her mother’s home after her marriage as she was the only daughter in the family. At the age of seven, she began drawing landscapes by modeling her art after Angyon’s works. He was the most famous landscape painter during the rein of King Sejong who invented the Korean alphabet. Her delicate drawing techniques favored the drawing of grapes, insects, butterflies, and dragonflies. 400 of Angyon’s works survive to this day.
In addition to laying a good foundation of artistic skills along with sewing and embroidery, she began to read many classical books written by both Korean and Chinese scholars, a habit passed down to her from her grand parents. Her father, Shin Myong-hwa, had passed a secondary grade civil service examination at the age of 41 in 1516, when Shin Saiimdang was sixteen years old. In the spring of 1521 her grandmother died and her father, who worked in Hanyang, was travelling to Kangnung to visit his family.
Upon hearing the news on his way home, he was so shocked that he could neither eat, drink, nor hear, which made him fall critically ill. When his wife and daughters rushed his aid, he began to vomit blood. Realizing that his life was in peril, his wife begin praying non-stop for seven days and nights, but she saw no change. Then, she made an altar in front of her grandparents’ tombs and kept praying by cutting two of her left finger tips. Her prayers were finally heard and her husband was miraculously cured. People started to say her sincere prayers moved heaven itself.
Even after Shin Saimdang was married to Yi Won-su, her father asked him not to take her from her home as it had become a family tradition and he had grown used to her presence. It didn’t take long for her to realize that no man, including her husband, could compete with her level of culture and knowledge. For the sake of the marriage, she asked him to go to Hanyang and study there for ten years while living apart.
Quite reluctantly, her husband agreed to this plan after a few false starts. On the first day he went only 8 kilometers and waited for sunset to return home under the cover of darkness. Seeing her husband’s wavering resolve she didn’t talk to him. On the second day he ventured only 12 kilometers before turning back. She, however, remained steadfast in not talking to him, but did her duty as a wife. On the third day he covered 16 kilometers before losing his resolve.
Catching sight of his failed third attempt, she grew furious and said, “How will you ever become a man of refinement when you haven’t shown the resolve to do that?” She gave him an ultimatum – she would cut off all her hair and become a Buddhist nun or she would commit suicide. Following this threat, he girded himself up and went to Hanyang as promised and studied there for three years.
In the royal court, there was a man by the name of Yi Ku who had gained his power the wrong way. Through serial intrigue, he rose to the position of Prime Minister. She saw her husband frequently visiting his house in pursuit of political connections, and she advised him to stop visiting him. His initial reaction to the request was one of puzzlement, he couldn’t understand why he shouldn’t visit his high-ranking relative, and he took great pride in belonging to the same family line, of Admiral Yi Sun-shin. She had told him, however, that this relative had brought about the death of many innocent citizens and scholars. He took her advice, which proved to be sound. Shortly thereafter, the prime minister was toppled and his inner circle were arrested and executed.
One night she felt very tired and went to bed early. She had a strange dream that an enormous dragon soared from the east sea and ascended to heaven. Its image was hanging under the eaves of the house where she slept. It was December of 1536 when Yul-gok, the greatest scholar, politician, and thinker was born. Interestingly enough, he was born in the same room “Ojukkon” where her mother was born too.
No one can say for sure if Shin Saimdang was the greater figure for bearing the greatest Choson scholar or whether Yul-gok was the greater figure for having Shin Saimdang as her mother. It’s truly a chicken or egg dilemma.