A scholar gives birth to a revered geniusKorea has a tradition of great and admirable women: Queen Min, the “Last Empress”; Queen Seondeok of the Silla Dynasty, as famous for her wisdom as Solomon in the West; the loyal and beautiful Chunhyang; Ryu Gwan-sun, brave martyr of in-dependence.
But one figure, many say, towers above all, for she was great not in one, but in many ways.
If you go into Sajik Park in downtown Seoul, just west of Gyeongbok Palace, and stroll behind the altar to the Earth and Harvest (Sajikdan), you will meet her. Here you will see two tall statues, one of a man, another of a woman. Koreans can recognize them instantly.
The woman is Shin Saimdang. The man, to the south, on a lower pedestal, is her son, Yi Yi or Yi Yulgok. Together, mother and child, they form Seoul’s unofficial Monument to Motherhood.
Shin Saimdang (1512-1559), born in Gangneung on the east coast, learned to paint by age 7. As she grew, she grew into fame as a painter, poet, embroiderer and calligrapher. Some of her work is still preserved in her home, Ojukheon, Gangneung’s most famous attraction.
She was also an authority on the Confucian classics and on Confucian philosophy. Yet she accomplished this while still having a very full family life. She married at 19. She raised seven children, while also caring for her widowed mother. Throughout, her personal conduct was said to be exemplary.
The children of genius often fare poorly. Joyce had one daughter, a schizophrenic, and one son, a lifelong alcoholic. Ernest Hemingway’s family has seen five suicides in three generations. The bizarre schizophrenia of Victor Hugo’s daughter was the subject of a recent movie. One of Einstein’s two sons was schizophrenic. Woody Allen’s adopted daughter ... well, never mind Woody Allen.
And so there is a Korean saying: “Genius costs a family three generations.”
In Shin Saimdang’s case, this did not happen. That is one important reason for seeing her genius as a mother as her greatest artistic and moral accomplishment.
Her third child, Yi Yi, not only survived and thrived, but became, under her instruction, a figure to rival her. He read Chinese by age 3, knew the Confucian classics by age 7, wrote poetry by age 8, passed the civil service exam with, it’s said, the highest grade, at age 13.
He served as the minister of justice and the minister of defense, turning down more government positions to continue his studies. He became one of Korea’s two greatest Confucian scholars, the founder of an entire school of thought, a writer so influential he made Korea, as it remains, the intellectual center of world Confucianism. His fame extends well beyond Korea, into China and Japan. His face is on the 5,000 won note; his and his mother’s home in Gangneung on the obverse.
It is in honor of her skills as a mother that Shin Saimdang’s shrine is here in Sajik Park. Sajik is sacred to earth and harvest. Symbolically, the Earth is mother to us all, and the harvest is her issue. So, behind Shin Saimdang’s image is carved in stone a “Mothers’ Charter.” The entire valley, like all valleys, is comfortably womb-like. There is no chance this was lost on the Korean geomancers who located the shrine here.
To see this Korean Madonna, take subway line No. 3 to Gyeongbokgung Station and walk west from exit No. 1. The gate to Sajik Park will appear after a block or two, just around a bend and to your right. Enter and walk west, past the fenced-in shrine.
by Stephen K. Roney
Stephen K. Roney teaches at University College of the Cariboo, Kamloops, British Columbia, Canada.