Korea’s own Renaissance Woman: Shin Saimdang

Shin Saimdang is recognised as the greatest female artist in Korean history. In an era demanding Confucian female values, Shin Saimdang developed her own world, and continues to be a source of inspiration to poets and artists throughout Korea.

From February 2011 Korea.net magazine

Portrait of Shin Saimdang

Portrait of Shin Saimdang

On June 23, 2009, Korea issued its first ever 50 thousand won bill, and the first new currency denomination of any kind since 1973. Intense debate had surrounded the issue of whose face would adorn the new bill, with Kim Gu — a prominent political leader during the Japanese colonial period and a symbol of Korean independence — narrowly beating Korea’s greatest female artist, Shin Saimdang.

50 thousand won note, with Shin Saimdang

Following consultations between the government and the Bank of Korea, it was announced that Kim’s face would be reserved for the forthcoming 100 thousand won bill, while Shin would appear on the 50 thousand won bill. Shin was chosen not just for her numerous works of poetry, calligraphy and painting, but also for her role in overcoming discrimination and the limitations set on women at that time.

Shin (1504~1551) was born in the town of Gangneung, eastern Korea. She showed promise in poetry, painting, calligraphy and embroidery from a young age, but her greatest talent emerged in painting. She began painting at the age of 7 without any teachers, and mimicked the landscape paintings of Ahn Gyeon, the most prominent painter of her time.

Shin approached a range of subject matter in her works, which include such masterpieces as Pododo, Sansudo, Chochungdo and Jarido. Among all her paintings, however, Chochungdo, a depiction of grasses and insects drawn on an eight-fold folding screen, is considered her magnum opus.

Watermelons on the vine, from Shin Saimdang's Chochungdo

Watermelons on the vine, from Shin Saimdang's Chochungdo

In Chochungdo, Shin combines trivial everyday subject matter and transforms it into a work of art. Each fold includes plants and insects from which the name Chochungdo is derived: eggplants, grasshoppers, watermelons, field mice, cockscombs, dung beetles, poppies and lizards. One story has it that Shin’s creations were so elaborate and true-to-life that when, as a child, she painted a grasshopper on a ground cherry, a chicken came along and tried to eat it.

Shin painted a number of works with similar subject matter and used expression techniques. A technique called Molgolbeop (drawing the subject matter directly without outlines) was used for all the works containing grass and insects, with Shin drawing two or three plants in the center with a few insects surrounding them. Simple subjects, concise and stable composition, detailed and feminine expressions, and sense of color are all characteristics of Shin’s works.

Shin achieved considerable renown in her own lifetime, garnering praise from scholars and even from the king, Sukjong. In his book Paegwanjapgi, Joseon Dynasty scholar Eo Suk-gwon lavished praise on Shin’s work, saying: “Saimdang’s paintings of grapes, mountains and rivers are miraculous. Who shall rebuke such incredible paintings, and who shall say that such work is not fit for a woman?”

Shin was also a prodigiously talented calligrapher, famous for the traditional calligraphic style of Jamdumaje (literally, silkworm’s head and horse’s hoof). In 1868, Yoon Jong-eui, a late Joseon Dynasty scholar, engraved replicas of Shin’s calligraphy that were then stored in the Ojukheon residence. His postscript read, “Indeed one can see in the handwriting. Sincerity in each stroke, but with a style that is also deep, elegant, clean and calm.”

ART AND LIFE Shin’s real name was Shin In-seon. The pen name Saimdang, which she chose herself, was comprised of three Chinese characters: Sa meaning teacher, Im standing for Tairen and Dang meaning lady. “Tairen” was a legendary koreanwoman from Chinese history, who raised her son to greatness through prenatal education and rigorous schooling. Her son went on to become King Wen of the Zhou Dynasty.

In what was a severely restrictive environment for women, Shin flourished thanks to her inordinate talent and the influence of her family. In a society where boys typically received the lion’s share of educational opportunities, she enjoyed a tremendous amount of attention from her family, and was able to study to a very high level.

Shin’s mother stayed with her own parents after giving birth, which gave her a relatively free hand to educate her daughter. Shin also enjoyed encouragement from her husband, Lee Gong, who understood his wife’s artist talents and often showed her paintings to his friends. Though she married at the age of 19, Shin never submitted to Confucian notions of male superiority but rather stressed the importance of a relationship based on mutual respect.

Today, Shin is portrayed as a female role model for her artistic talent, education and character. As the mother of the great Joseon Dynasty scholar Yi I, she is also revered for her parenting skills. Shin’s fiercely independent life shows us that the human spirit can prevail over the social attitudes of a given time. It was precisely this truth of spirit that Sin pursued so tirelessly in her wonderful works of art.

Waterfowl from Shin Saimdang's Chochungdo

Waterfowl from Shin Saimdang's Chochungdo

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