King Sejong, 1397–1450: 10,000 won
King Sejong is the most well-known and celebrated ruler in Korean history. Even though he lived more than 500 years ago, the Korean people continue to honor him for his relentless efforts to improve the lives of the common people. He governed with compassion and wisdom and led Korea into a golden age of cultural and scientific progress.
In his youth, Sejong became known as “the reading prince” and began his lifelong quest to learn everything he could about the world around him. At the age of twenty-two, he became king and established the foundation of a royal household that would last into the early twentieth century. He believed that good government was based on selecting and training intelligent men to administer the various branches of government. He selected twenty of his most able scholars and allowed them to essentially devote all of their time to advanced learning. He also sought out talent in the countryside by establishing a system to select the most qualified people to serve in government positions, according to their abilities. To protect his homeland from invaders, he selected technicians to develop improved forms of cannon and artillery.
One of King Sejong’s main goals, and the one for which he is most famous, was to make his people more educated by making it easier for them to learn to read. At this time, Koreans used the Chinese system, which involved the memorization of thousands of characters that were complicated and difficult to learn. Literacy was also restricted to the ruling class. Wanting the best for all of the people, the king came up with the revolutionary idea of inventing a new writing system that would be easily learned by the common people. By 1433, he and his scholarly officials had created the hangul alphabet, a phonetic writing system that greatly increased the ability of the common people to become educated. In addition, he directed scholars to write books to improve farming techniques and increase production. Under his direction, a medical dictionary and an eighty-fivevolume encyclopedia were completed, which included medical treatments, acupuncture, and herbal prescriptions to treat nearly 1,000 diseases. King Sejong also promoted art, music, astronomy, science, and improved printing techniques; and he is credited with inventing the rain gauge.
Shin Saimdang (Shin- Sa-im-dang), 1504–1551: 50,000 won
Shin Saimdang is considered the most respected and memorialized woman in Korean history. She is regarded as the ideal mother, exemplary wife, and dutiful daughter; and she is known for her artistic talents in calligraphy, embroidery, painting, and poetry. Shin Saimdang was also a scholar well-versed in the Confucian classics and other great works of the literary tradition. She was also praised as the mother of Yulgok, one of Korea’s most famous philosophers. Considering the firmly held belief of female inferiority and oppressive customs to which women were subjected during the Chŏson dynasty, Saimdang must have been a woman of great inner strength and determination.
Shin Saimdang came from an aristocratic background. Her parents believed that their five daughters should be educated at an early age. It is believed that she started painting at the age of five. When she was as young as six, she surprised her parents by creating a nearly perfect replica of a landscape by a renowned landscape painter. In time, her landscape paintings became her most treasured works.
When she was nineteen, in the same year that she married, her father died. Because she came from a family where there were no sons, she had to balance her responsibilities between her duty to her mother and her own family. In spite of the fact that it was difficult to visit her mother because she did not live nearby, she remained a dutiful daughter and divided her time between visiting her mother and being a devoted mother of seven children.
Because Saimdang appreciated the fine education she received from her parents, she felt it was one of her familial obligations to be productive and utilize her artistic and literary skills. She also believed that she should make sure that her children were well-educated and constructive members of society. Her third son, Yulgok, reportedly mastered the Confucian classics at the age of seven, wrote poetry at the age of eight, and ultimately became one of Korea’s most famous philosophers.
Saimdang’s sense of devotion to her family, along with her artistic achievements, required a great investment of time and energy and may have contributed to her relatively early death at age forty-seven.
Yi I (Yulgok) 1536-1584: 5,000 won
Yi I is known for his wisdom and for being one of Korea’s most famous Confucian scholars. Commonly known by his pen name, Yulgok, he was a disciplined and dedicated scholar, statesman, philosopher, and devoted family man.
He was fortunate to have been born to an educated family. His father was a scholar and a high government official, and his mother, Shin Saimdang, was highly regarded for her knowledge of the Chinese classics and her talent as an artist and poet. With the good guidance of his mother, Yulgok completed his basic studies of the Confucian classics by the age of seven. He began writing poetry at age eight, and by the early age of thirteen, he passed the literary civil service exam and became acknowledged as a chinsa, a kind of titled scholar. He continued his education by studying Buddhism and Daoism.
After his mother died when he was sixteen, Yulgok went into mourning for three years in the Kumgang Mountains, studying Buddhism. After his retreat, he returned to continue his studies in Confucianism and received top honors in exams, and by the time he was twenty-nine, he passed his last civil service examination and was ready for service in government. He rose in the ranks of governmental service and became one of the central figures in politics by the time he was forty. His work, Book on the Way to Heaven, was considered a literary masterpiece and revealed his knowledge of history, Confucian philosophy, and Daoism. Another of his famous books was titled A Key to Annihilating Ignorance.
Aside from being a philosopher, Yulgok was also a social reformer. He thought it was important to implement Confucian values in government administration. He emphasized learning and self-cultivation as the basis for good government. Although he espoused a society based on the Confucian social order, he appreciated the dignity of every human being, regardless of his or her position in society. He also had great foresight about national security. He feared that the Japanese might invade Korea and proposed a policy to strengthen the army, but it was rejected. His concerns were wellgrounded because, soon after his death at age forty-eight, the Japanese invaded Korea in what is known as the Imjin War (1592–1598).
Connor, Mary. The Koreas: Asia in Focus. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2009.
Saccone, Richard. Koreans to Remember. Elizabeth, NJ: Hollym International Corp., 1993.
Editorial Board of the Diamond Sutra Recitation Group. King Sejong the Great: The Everlasting Light. Pohang,Korea: Yong Hwa Publications,2007.
——.The Practice of Hongik Ingan: Lives of Queen Seondeok, Shin Saimdang and Yi Yulgok. Seoul, Korea: Jae-woong Kim Publisher, 2011.