[Viewpoint] To emulate three women’s sacrifices

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[Viewpoint] To emulate three women’s sacrifices

When President Lee Myung-bak gave a speech celebrating Liberation Day on Aug. 15, he mentioned four people: Korea’s first president, Syngman Rhee; the late Joseon period reformist Yu Kil-chun; the calligrapher Kim Jeong-hui; and Kim Man-deok.

President Lee did the right thing by publicly mentioning a relatively unknown figure like Kim Man-deok at such a significant event. There are not many people we can take as examples, and we often try to find fault in those who deserve respect. It is refreshing that the chief executive of the country made an effort to find and praise inspiring role models.

Kim Man-deok (1739-1812) was a successful merchant on Jeju Island. She was born to a poor family, and her parents passed away when she was 12. She was raised by a gwangi, or a female entertainer attached to the government office, and she became an entertainer as well. Her attractive appearance fascinated many men, and she was said to have “the sun on her forehead, the moon on her back and stars on her shoulders.”

However, she was not tempted to take advantage of her looks but instead worked hard to save money and escape the entertainment world. She opened up an inn, which was also a center of trade, and accumulated an enormous fortune. The climax of her life came in early 1770, when Jeju Island was hit by a severe famine. She bought 500 sacks of rice with her personal funds and saved countless locals from death.

King Jeongjo learned of her generous deed and invited her to Seoul. When asked what her wish was, she said she wanted to visit Mount Kumgang. Distinguished writers and poets at the time such as Chae Je-gong and Lee Ga-hwan praised her in poems and biographies, and Kim Jeong-hui wrote of her during his exile in Jeju Island, “The light of grace overflows in the world.”

Thirty-six years after Kim Man-deok’s death, Baek Seon-heang (1848-1933) was born to a poor peasant family in Pyongyang. Her father passed away when she was seven, and her mother raised her by herself. Baek got married at age 14, but her husband died of an illness after only two years. The two widows worked very hard to make money, selling soy sauce and weaving. Their motto was “eat what you don’t want to eat, wear what you don’t want to wear, and do what you don’t want to do.”

When Baek was 25, her mother passed away. She was left alone, yet she devoted herself to the business.

She was often robbed and attacked by burglars. In 1908, she turned 60 and started her philanthropic work. She invited masons from Seoul and built a stone bridge to replace an old wooden one. People no longer called her “Widow Baek.” They started to refer to her as “Good Deed,” and the bridge was named “Baekseon Bridge.”

But the bridge was only the beginning. She donated money and land to Gwangseong Elementary School, founded by Methodist missionaries, to Sunghyeon Girls School, affiliated with the Presbyterian Church, to Changdeok Elementary School and to Sungin Commercial School. She donated a total of 316,000 won, which would be worth about 31.6 billion won ($26 million) in today’s money, and thus became the most influential philanthropist of the Joseon era.

In 1931, Gimcheon High School opened. It was the second high school in North Gyeongsang Province and the first private one. The school was founded thanks to the generosity of Choi Songseoldang (1855-1939). A Gimcheon native, she donated her fortune of 327,000 won to build it. According to Jeon Bong-gwan’s “Lucky Gyeongseong,” she was also the last female poet of the Joseon period, writing 258 poems and 50 songs.

When Korea was struggling in the late Joseon Dynasty and during the Japanese occupation period, these three women gave back to society when men with vested interests slowly drove the country into chaos. They all came from difficult situations but accumulated enormous fortunes. And they did not hesitate to use that money to help others. They lived the most fashionable and admirable lives. I am sure the old ladies who give back their hard earned money to society today inherited their DNA.

The United Nations designated October 17 as the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. For the occasion, the Kim Man-deok Foundation is holding a drive to raise 10,000 sacks of rice. The rice will be delivered to welfare centers and underprivileged children. Unlike with the A(H1N1) flu, we have to make sure this “donation virus” spreads everywhere.

*The writer is an editorial writer and a senior reporter on cultural news for the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Noh Jae-hyun
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