What’s in a Banknote: Controlling Legacy and Shaping the Ideal Confucian Woman

by Joe Nickols

The legacy of Korean women artists has been historically controlled and manipulated by men, and this has often overshadowed appreciation of their attributed works. In 2007 the portrait of Sin Saimdang (1504-1551), arguably the most prominent woman painter of the Joseon period (1392-1897), was selected to feature on the redesigned 50,000-won banknote (Fig. 1). Saimdang was selected to raise awareness of gender equality within Korea. However, this choice caused great controversy amongst many feminist commentators, who saw the selection as a way for the government to promote historic Confucian notions of gender identity and patriarchal expectations of women. [1] The debate questioned whether Saimdang was placed on the note for their independent creative talent, or to celebrate Saimdang as “the best example of motherhood in Korean History”, which was how Saimdang is described by the Korean government website.[2] This article explores the manipulation of Saimdang’s legacy as a painter and the wider issue of women painters in Confucian Korea.

Fig. 1: 50,000-wŏn banknote issued June 2009 by the Bank of Korea, illustrated with an imagined portrait of Sin Saimdang based on a painting by Yi Chongsang (b. 1938). Photograph: Burglind Jungmann, 2017.
Fig. 2: Postage stamp issued in 2000 by Korea Post with an imagined portrait of Sin Saimdang based on a painting by Kim Ŭnho (1892–1979). Photograph: Korea Post.

This is not the first time Saimdang’s image has been used in public to convey a socio-political message. In 1965 a portrait of Saimdang by Kim Ŭnho was placed on a stamp during the dictatorship of Park Chung-hee. Saimdang was selected not to celebrate historical women in society but rather to synthesise gender expectations within a known figure. The banknote features an historic elite hairstyle, but the stamp shows a woman in an unadorned manner, exemplifing the expectation of women under Park’s regime (Fig. 2). There are no physical descriptions in any of the contemporary documents concerning Saimdang; both the banknote and stamp faces have been completely imagined to suit the underlying purposes of the picture.[3] 

These paintings facilitated the romanticisation of the historic gendered body and the roles they were expected to uphold. As Saimdang was the mother of one of the most celebrated Confucian philosophers in Korean history, Yulgok (1536- 1584), she became the anthropomorphic icon of “good wife, wise mother”.[4] The celebration of Saimdang was intrinsically connected to Yulgok and not any independent creative talent. Saimdang as allegory was used to encourage women to produce educated sons for the growth of South Korea. This may not be surprising, as in Confucian Korea the celebration of the individual was rare. However, the legacy of Saimdang had been used and manipulated for centuries to further the socio-political agendas of different politicians.

Confucianism has dominated the political and social landscape of Korean history, including its cultural production. Joseon Confucianism contained a highly gendered matrix that historically confined women to the interior of the home and prevented public access. This impacted the arts that women were permitted to produce and consequently few pieces by women creatives have passed down to us in the present. In recent years there has been resurgent discussion about the representation of women creatives from the Joseon period (1392-1897), and the contemporary control of their imagery. Commentators have challenged the hegemonic manipulation that many Joseon women painters received over time. Women artists, including Saimdang, have had artwork ascribed to them with minimal contextual evidence, as well as having works contested. Political and social motivations led many Joseon Confucian scholars to contain the legacy of women artists to particular genres and styles.

Only seventeen named Joseon women, predominantly of high rank, are known to have produced creative work. Of these seventeen, only five women have attributed extant work: Sin Saimdang (1504-1551); Yi Maech’ang (1529-1592); Lady Yi (1584-1609); Heo Nansurheon (1563-1589); and Chukhyang, a nineteenth Century Gisaeng.[5] It is important to note that this only reflects producers of works that were known publicly. Due to the gendered social regulations, the historical record prioritises men and their output. Attribution of works occurred despite little evidence for authorship and were often based exclusively upon colophons and contextual evidence written by male literati, frequently centuries after the work’s creation.[6] The material’s attribution is additionally contentious as it often does not fit with stylistic dating, or conflicts with written descriptions dating from the time period of creation. The conflicting and changing attribution of these various works to suggests a politically motivated containment of women artists under Confucian conduct over time. In Lacanian terms it highlights the quilting point of a social convention that concerns the containment of women’s creativity. Due to the repeated reassignment of images and genres to particular women there must have been an impetus of control on behalf of the chronicler.

As the Joseon period progressed, Neo-Confucian scholars, like Yi Ik (1681-1763), sought to further limit women’s engagement with modes of expression, including writing, painting, and political engagement.[7] Yi opposed women engaging in cultural pursuits, writing that “women are not supposed to have time to read and to memorize poems”.[8] Furthermore, under Naewoebeop law, spaces of men and women were officially separated; with elite women sequestered to inner realms of the home. [9] Consigned to domesticity, it became nearly impossible for women to engage with the physical external realm. These conditions created a structure in which women were validated through maintaining the domestic sphere, specifically being a good wife and mother.[10] Conversely, Gisaeng were women educated in cultural pursuits, including painting, to entertain the Yangban elite.[11] Gisaeng were not bound by the Confucian norms confining women to public invisibility, and therefore were associated with subversive behaviour.[12] As Gisaeng possessed low status, this subversion came at a cost. Elite Yangban women did not seek association with Gisaeng, and simply engaging in cultural pursuits could draw unwanted parallels.[13]

Fig. 3: Attributed to Sin Saimdang, Screen Landscape, (Joseon Dynasty). The first panel of the two-panel screen. Ink and colour on paper. National Museum of Korea, Seoul.

Literate Yangban women were occasionally trained in literati pursuits by family members, rather than through official academies, and this was the case for Saimdang who was surrounded by and engaged in literati culture.[14] Saimdang was educated by a high-ranking Yangban father, had a literate mother, and was married to a husband Yi Wonsu (1501-61) would proudly display Saimdang’s paintings.[15] The talent of Saimdang is evident from several contemporary sources. The courtier O Sukkwon (active 1525-54) wrote that “[Saimdang’s] paintings of landscape and grapes are so excellent that people say they only come next to those by An Gyeon (active 1440-70)”. Interestingly, Sukkwon’s praise extends to the subversive nature of Saimdang’s work: “how can we scold her for having done what a woman is not supposed to”. These sentiments are bolstered in the Yulgok’s eulogy where it is mentioned that “[Saimdang’s works] were so wondrous that no one could dare imitate them.” Yulgok also confirms that Saimdang painted scrolls and screens (Fig. 3), typical formats for literati work.[16] There are further accounts of Saimdang’s descendants actively displaying their works posthumously.[17]

However, it is also posthumously that Saimdang’s story begins to warp. As with the images on modern banknotes and stamps, an imagined legend was formed. First, Saimdang’s name was transformed in later centuries from Madam Sin into the sobriquet “Mother of Yulgok”, as Yulgok had become the most eminent Confucianist philosopher of the time. Subsequently, even the type of artworks attributed to Saimdang changed. Most of the extant material attributed to Saimdang is not of the high literati style that sixteenth century scholars celebrated, but rather the ‘lowlier’ Grass-and-Insects category (Fig. 4). This style was not mentioned in any contemporary sources concerning Saimdang, nor was it a genre that was executed during Saimdang’s lifetime.[18] Consequently, only two attributed works appear legitimate as the rest employ stylistic features of later periods.[19] As Confucianism’s strict grasp on society deepened in later centuries, Grass-and-Insects painting became an acceptable pursuit for women as it depicted objects women could find in their cloistered quarters and courtyards. The poetry of Heo Nansurheon (1563-1589) corroborates this containment of women’s cultural pursuits, as it rarely refers to nature and when it does it is of moments that could be observed within the home, such as a lotus pond.[20] Nansurheon engaged in many cultural pursuits but burnt many of their artworks before death, limiting our comprehension of appropriate painting for women.[21]  Other women creators, such as Chukhyang, have predominantly had Grass-and-Insect works attributed to them (Fig. 5) indicating the preference within Joseon society to contain women to this genre.

Fig. 4: Attributed to Sin Saimdang, Painting of Mice Nibbling on Watermelon, (Joseon Dynasty). Ink and colour on paper. National Museum of Korea, Seoul. Accession Number: Sinsu 3550.

Many works were verified as having been executed by the “Mother of Yulgok” for political reasons. The followers of Yulgok sought to use the legacy of Saimdang to solidify their school of thought. [22] This may explain why, of the other named women artists, two more are relatives of Yulgok: Yi Maech’ang and Lady Yi, sister and daughter respectively.[23] This reframing of Yulgok’s family as refined and intelligent people intensified the aura of genius associated with Yulgok. In turn, this minimised the contradictions of the women’s connections with literati pursuits as it only served to increase Yulgok’s innate ability. Song Si-yeol (1607-89), a noted follower of Yulgok, was integral to this process. Song attached a colophon to a Saimdang painting of orchids emphasising the image as evidence of Saimdang’s comprehension of harmonies within Confucianism and therefore that “it is fitting that [Saimdang] gave birth to… Yulgok”.[24] This indicates that producing artwork was almost a form of prenatal education provided by Saimdang for Yulgok.[25] Having disconnected Saimdang’s output from literati talent, Song dismissed later landscape paintings owned by Saimdang’s great-great-grandson Yi Tongmeong as forgeries.[26] This further separated Saimdang from the literary genre of monochrome ink painting. Cho Kyu-hee’s 2013 research confirms that these actions by Yulgok’s followers were executed to secure structural power.[27]

Fig. 5: Attributed to Chukhyang, Day Lilies, Daisies, and Butterfly in the Style of Chen Chun (1483–1544), from Plant and Insects, a ten-leaf album, (19th Century). Ink and colours on silk, 24.8 × 25.4 cm. National Museum of Korea, Seoul.

This leaves Saimdang’s legacy in a muddle. Many paintings appear to be attributed to Saimdang’s over a century after their lifetime. Whilst the few paintings of Saimdang’s that appear in the literati style offer valuable insights into the compositional development of early Joseon art, their legacy is more strongly associated, almost inseparably so, with Yulgok. The aura surrounding Saimdang has consolidated around motherly care – the behemoth of Confucian ideology – not independent creativity. This legacy challenges Saimdang’s usage on the banknote to celebrate ‘gender equality’, hence the backlash. There are other Joseon women whose creative and intellectual output has survived, such as the poetry of Hwang Chini (c. 1520–60) and the writings of Im Yunjidang (1721–93). However, even Yunjidang wrote that women’s cultivation should not take priority from wifely duties.[28] The Grass-and-Insect works (Fig. 5) of Chukhyang has also been greatly celebrated, yet as a nineteench century Gisaeng, Chukhyang held a social position that was connected to social corruption rather than edification. The representation of equality through a historical figure may be as polemical as the Joseon period was entrenched in patriarchy. It begs the question as to whether Saimdang’s legacy can ever be returned to that of an individual, or if it is eternally bound to gender discourse.  


[1] Burglind Jungmann, “Changing Notions of “Feminine Spaces” in Chosŏn-Dynasty Korea: The Forged Image of Sin Saimdang (1504–1551).” Archives of Asian Art 68, no. 1 (2018): 47.
[2] Reuters Staff, “‘Best Mom’ Chosen as Face of Currency,” Reuters (Thomson Reuters, November 6, 2007), https://www.reuters.com/article/idUSN0635408920071106.
[3] Yi Sŏng-mi, “Sin Saimdang: The Foremost Woman Painter of the Chosŏn Dynasty”. Chapter. In Creative Women of Korea: The Fifteenth Through the Twentieth Centuries, edited by Young-Kee Kim-Renaud, 58-77. London: Taylor & Francis Group, 2003, 70.
[4]Codruța Sîntionean, “The Appropriation of Sin Saimdang as a Symbol of Modernization During the Park Chung Hee Era,” Studia Universitatis Babeș-Bolyai Philologia 65, no. 1 (2020): 90.
[5] Song-mi (2003), 58.
[6] Song-mi (2003), 51 and 59.
[7] Kim, Sunglim. “Defining a Woman: The Paintings of Sin Saimdang.” Essay. In Women, Gender and Art in Asia, c. 1500-1900, ed. Melia Belli Bose, (Oxon: Routledge, 2016), 203.
[8] Horlyck, Charlotte. “Questioning Women’s Place in the Canon of Korean Art History”. In Gender, Continuity, and the Shaping of Modernity in the Arts of East Asia, 16th–20th Centuries, ed. Kristen L. Chiem and Lara C. W. Blanchard, (The Netherlands: Brill, 2017), 231.

[9] Horlyck (2017), 203.
[10] Sŏng-mi (2003), 59.
[11] Byong Won Lee, “Evolution of the Role and Status of Korean Professional Female Entertainers (Kisaeng).” The World of Music 21, no. 2 (1979): 76.
[12] Horlyck (2017), 228.
[13] Kim (2016), 204.
[14] Horlyck (2017), 231.
[15] Kim (2016), 220.
[16] Jungmann (2018), 52-3.
[17] Jungmann (2018), 54.
[18] Jungmann (2018), 61.
[19] Song-mi (2003), 62.
[20] Song-mi (2003), 62.
[21] Kim (2016), 223
[22] Jungmann (2018), 55.
[23] Jungmann (2018), 59.
[24] Song-mi (2003), 71.
[25] Sîntionean (2020), 88.
[26] Jungmann (2018), 54.
[27] Jungmann (2018), 54.
[28] Horlyck (2017), 232.

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Joe Nickols


Joe is an art historian specialising in East Asia, with a particular focus on Japan. Joe’s research mainly engages with queer and gender discourse, particularly focusing on the representation, significance, and development of of Japanese gender construction within society.  Joe is also a freelance curator and works closely with contemporary artists.

Instagram: @joenickols
LinkedIn: Joe Nickols

SOAS History Blog, Department of History, Religions and Philosophy, SOAS University of London

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