Shin Saimdang

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Shin Saimdang
Stamp honoring Shin Saimdang
Stamp honoring Shin Saimdang
Korean name
Hangul 신사임당
Hanja 申師任堂
Revised Romanization Sin Saimdang
McCune-Reischauer Sin Saimdang

Shin Saimdang (신사임당, 1504 – 1551) was a famous Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) Korean painter and calligraphist. She also the mother of seven children and was also known as Eojin Eomeoni (어진 어머니; "Wise Mother") and for over 500 years has been a model of both excellent mothering skills and filial piety. Her eldest son, Yulgok, was a well-known Joseon scholar.

Shin Saimdang had more responsibilities than most of her peers. She had her seven children to raise, and at the same time, she also had to care for her aging parents, since she came from a family without any sons. (In Joseon Korean culture, the oldest son in a family, along with his wife, would traditionally be responsible for providing and caring for his parents until their deaths, usually living in the same household with the parents, even after marriage.) In addition, her father had invested in giving her a good education, and she felt one of her duties as a good daughter was to produce the fruits of her education—poetry, painting, and calligraphy. Balancing all of these responsibilities required a great investment of time and energy, and it is easy to imaging that the heavy load contributed to her relatively early death. Her success in fulfilling her duties as a mother, wife, and daughter, and at the same time succeeding as an artist has brought her great respect in present-day Korea.

Family and early years

Shin Saimdang (1504-1551) was born in the village of Bukpyong, Kangneung, Kangwon Province. She was a descendant of the Shin family from Pyeongsan. The Pyeongsan Shin clan founder was General Shin Sunggyeom. King Taejo of Goryeo granted Shin Sunggyeom 300 gyul of land for his hunting skills and the clan name Pyeongsang Shin in return for his loyalty and bravery in battle.

Saimdang’s father, Shin Myeonghwa (1476-1522), was a scholar and had earned the Chinsa ("presented scholar") title in 1516, but did not serve at the court of King Jungjong because of political conflicts. Having no sons and five daughters, Saimdang's father invested in his daughters' education.

Saimdang's father taught her the Chinese classics and gave her the name Saimdang in honor of Tairen (Taeim in Korean) the mother of King Wen of China (Western Zhou Dynasty), who was revered as a good mother and good wife. In Lenü zhuan, translated as Biographies of Exemplary Women, the author, Lui Xiang, mentions that Tairen was capable in "fetal instruction;" meaning that she followed a specific Confucian regime in preparation for her pregnancy and during her pregnancy. She refused foods that might disturb the fetus, and she was careful not to see or hear disturbing sights or sounds. Tairen also had blind musicians chant odes at night, much like mothers in the twenty-first century play, Mozart, for their fetuses. Like Confucius, Tairen aligned herself with Li Rites as outlined in the Book of Rites. By doing these things, Tairen gave birth to healthy children who were gifted; superior in talent and virtue.[1] Tairen was one of the ancient practioners of tai jiao, instruction of the embryo, and fetal education was considered a profound act of filial piety toward Heaven.[2] Tairen was credited with the rise of the Zhou dynasty, because she was the mother of the founder, Wen.[3]

Saimdang’s mother was from the Yi clan of Yongin in Gyeonggi province that developed a base in Gangneung. Saimdang’s mother was the only daughter of scholar, Yi Saon. Yi Saon educated Saimdang’s mother in the classics.

Saimdang married Yi Weonsu (1501-1562) of the Toksu Yi clan in 1522, at the age of nineteen. The Toksu Yi clan had established their home town in Yulgok village, Paju, Gyeonggi Province (Yul-gok means Chestnut Valley, and is the pen name chosen by her son, the Confucian scholar, Yi I known as "Yulgok") Yi Wonsu was a scholar and governmental official. The tombs of Saimdang, Yulgok, and several family members are located in the village.


Saimdang had seven children. She lived with her parents at their Kangwon Province ancestral home, Ojukheon, until the birth of her first son, Yulgok. Ojukheon was built during King Jungjong’s reign. The house and property was named Ojukheon, after the black bamboo that grew prolifically upon the grounds. Twenty-first century Ojukheon is a large complex of yangban buildings of noted architecture, a small park, and two museums. Ojukheon was originally owned by Choi Chi Wun (1390-1440) and was bequeathed to his son, Eung Hyeon. Yi Saon inherited the property from Eung Hyeon, his father-in-law. In turn, Yi Saon bequeathed the property to his son-in-law, Shin Myeong Hwa, Saimdang’s father. Saimdang’s father gave the property to his son-in-law Gweon Hwa. When Saimdang’s widowed mother died, she distributed her property to her five daughters.

Shin Saimdang's artistic work

Paintings Although Confucianism had replaced Buddhism during the Joseon Dynasty, Buddhist symbolism (like the “Four Gentlemen," bamboo, plum orchid, and chrysanthemum) was still popular in art forms. Animals and insects held to a certain order of behavior in nature, just as human relationships did in Confucian Choson society and the paintings attributed to Saimdang reflect the natural affinity and order between insect and plant life.[4]


Saimdang painted landscapes and garden scenes of insects, vegetation, and flowers. She was known for her calligraphic-style monochrome grapevine renderings in ink; painted in literati style. These were contemplated in the sarangbang, the study and living quarters of male heads of yangban households.[4]

Saimdang is perhaps best known and loved for the colorful and realistic genre paintings attributed to her. These mimetic paintings, studies of nature scenes most probably from her own gardens, were called Chochungdo, comprise one form of Minhwa or Korean folk painting. Legendary tales arose about the realism of Saimdang’s paintings; chickens mistook her painted insects for real ones and pecked holes in one painted screen, only where the insects were painted.[5]

In all, some 40 paintings have been attributed to Saimdang. Proving what Saimdang actually painted is more difficult. Attribution of several paintings may have been given granted to Saimdang in order to help establish political legitimacy for the Neo-Confucian order that her son, Yul-gŏk, initiated. Song Si-yǒl (1607-1689), a disciple of the Yul-gŏk's Soin faction, wrote about the painting, Autumn Grasses and Multitude of Butterflies:

This painting was done by Mr. Yi [Wonsu]'s wife. What is in the painting looks as if created by heaven; no man can surpass [this]. She is fit for being the mother of Master Yulgok.[6]

Song’s main disciple, Kwon Sangha, wrote his own colophon in 1718, about a set of four ink paintings (flowers, grasses, fish, and bamboo) that he attributed to Saimdang (that are now in the Pang Iryŏng Collection). The variety of technique and style of the later genre paintings attributed to Saimdang can thus be explained. By inference, the mythological proportions of the legends surrounding Saimdang, may have actually originated with Saimdang's namesake, Tairen, and embellished by Song and Kwon, in order to elevate Yul-gŏk and his philosophy by “creating the myth of an exceptional woman worthy of being his mother.”[7]

Historical records that discuss Saimdang’s paintings are scarce, but two sources remain. Firstly, mention of her work by her son, Yulgok, and his contemporaries. Secondly, the colophons about the paintings that were written later.[8] Yul-gŏk wrote about her in his biographical obituary, Sonbi Haengjang (Biography of My Deceased Mother):

When she was young, she mastered the classics. She had talent in writing and in the use of the brush. In sewing and embroidery, she displayed exquisite skills…From the age of seven, she painted landscapes after Kyon (active ca. 1440-1470), and also painted ink grapes. There were so wondrous that no one could dare imitate them. Screens and scrolls [she painted] are around today.[8]

O Sukkwon (court translator and author of the P’aegwan Chapgi) wrote of her paintings: “Today there is Madam Sin of Tongyang, who excelled in painting since her childhood. Her paintings of landscapes and grapes are so excellent that people say there come only next to those by An Kyon. How can one belittle her paintings just because they were done by a woman, and how can we scold her for doing what a woman is not supposed to do?”[8] Unlike many artists, Saimdang was famous in her own time. Her painting,” Autumn Grass,” was so popular that it was used as a pattern for court ceramics.


Stamp honoring Shin Saimdang.

Embroidery was a popular art form in Joseon Korea. All items of apparel were embroidered, even table coverings. Pojagi, cloths used by both yangban and peasant women for wrapping and carrying items, were also embroidered; as were silk screens. Yi Seong-Mi, suggests an embroidered screen in Tong’a University Museum in Pusan, South Kyeongsang Province may have been done by Saimdang.[6]


Saimdang transcribed poems into calligraphic Hanja art forms and wrote her own poetry. Two of her poems are left and are about her parents. "Yu Daegwallyeong Mangchin Jeong" ("Looking Homeward From a Mountain Pass") and "Sajin" ("Yearning for Parents"). Daegwallyeong Pass along the old Daegwallyeong Road is mentioned in the first poem.

Looking Homeward From a Mountain Pass
Leaving my old mother in the seaside town,
Alas! I am going alone up to Seoul,
As I turn, once in a while, to look homeward on my way,
White clouds rush down the darkening blue mountains.[9]


Very few examples of Saimdang’s calligraphy remain. The most significant is a large paneled screen, a Gangwon Province Tangible Cultural Property. Transcribed poems from the Tang dynasty are written in quatrains with 5 Chinese characters to each line, in cursive style. The screen was given to the son of Saimdang’s fourth sister, Gwon Cheongyun. One of his daughters inherited it upon her marriage to Ghoe Daehae and remained in the family for generations. It was donated to Gangneung City in 1972 and is currently on display at Ojukheon Museum.


Saimdang’s artistic legacy extended for 3 generations. Her first daughter, Maech’ang, was known for her paintings of bamboo and plum in ink. Her youngest son, Oksan Yi Wu (1542-1609), was a talented musician, poet, calligrapher, and painter who specialized in painting the four gentlemen (bamboo, plum, orchid, and chrysanthemum), and grapes in ink. Oksan’s daughter, Lady Yi (1504-1609), was recognized for her ink bamboo paintings.

Siamdang's intellectual and moral legacy has survived more than 500 years and is immeasurable. Just as Tairen was credited with the rise of the Zhou dynasty because she mothered its founder, Wen,[3] Saimdang can be given credit for the rise of the Kiho hakp'a tradition of Confucianism, because she mothered Yul-gŏk. Yul-gŏk became an eminent Confucian scholar and held royal appointments as minister of war and rector of the national academy.

Yulgok's contempory, ToeGye (1501 1570) stressed the primacy of li, or principle, while Yulgok emphasized that li and ki, or material force were inseparable entities that existed in reciprical relationship acting upon one another. Yulgok was able to apply his philosophy and was active in many areas of social reform. Yulgok's Neo-Confucianism continues to to impact twenty-first century Korea through ancestor worship, respect for elders, and concepts of filial piety, and the willingness to embrace social reform.

Yulgok spent three years in a mountain retreat when his mother died, an important act of filial piety, yet he wrote in his Sunbihangjang about his mother; "She was not eager to educate her children or support her husband, but she was not a bad mother.”[10]

Confucian Joseon Korean laws governing women's behaviors were rigid, but Saimdang managed with family support and servants to create beautiful works of art and talented children who were productive in society. For all the cultural limitations of the time, Saimdang made a number of her own choices. She lived in her parents home, caring for her parents, since they had no son to care for them. When her husband took a concubine, she went to Mt. Kumgang to meditate, when at that time yangban women could be punished with 100 lashes for going to the mountains.[10]

Twenty-first century Korea honors Saimdang by granting the annual Saimdang Award to a woman who is successful professionally, but who is, above all is else, a good mother. There is a street in Seoul named after Saimdang and a bronze statue of her was placed in Sajik Park in downtown Seoul. She has been chosen to become the first woman to be featured on a Korean banknote, on the new 50,000 won bill scheduled for issue in 2009. There is also a Korean line of cosmetics called Saimdang.



  1. Anne Behnke Kinney, Representations of Childhood and Youth in Early China (Stanford University Press, 2004, ISBN 978-0804747318).
  2. David R.Knechtges, Court Culture and Literature in Early China (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002, ISBN 978-0860788843).
  3. 3.0 3.1 Susan Mann and Yi Yin Ching, eds, Under Confucian Eyes: Writings on Gender in Chinese History (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001, ISBN 978-0520222762).
  4. 4.0 4.1 Saehyang P. Chung, Turning Toward Each Other: Warmth and Intimacy In Chosŏn-Dynasty Animal Paintings (Pohang University of Science and Technology.)
  5. Jung Yeon Ma, The Virtuality and Reality of Augmented Reality (Dept of Image Engineering, GSAIM, Chungang University, Seoul, Korea).
  6. 6.0 6.1 Yi Seong-Mi, Sin Saimdang: The Foremost Woman Painter of the Choseon Dynasty. (London: M.E. Sharpe, 2004). ISBN 978-0765611888
  7. Yi Seong-Mi, 70-73.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Yi Seong-Mi, 60-61.
  9. Peter H. Lee, The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Korean Poetry (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002, ISBN 978-0231111133).
  10. 10.0 10.1 Stuart J. Foster and Keith A. Crawford, What Do We Tell the Children? National Perspective on School History Textbooks (South Korea text books).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Kim-Renaud, Young-Key. Creative Women of Korea: The Fifteenth Through the Twentieth Centuries. Routledge, 2003. ISBN 978-0765611888
  • Kinney, Anne Behnke. Representations of Childhood and Youth in Early China. Stanford University Press, 2004. ISBN 978-0804747318
  • Knechtges, David R. Court Culture and Literature in Early China. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002. ISBN 978-0860788843
  • Lee, Peter H. The Columbia Anthology of Traditional Korean Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. ISBN 978-0231111133
  • Mann, Susan & Yi Yin Ching, eds. Under Confucian Eyes: Writings on Gender in Chinese History. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001. ISBN 978-0520222762
  • Yi, Seong-Mi. Sin Saimdang: The Foremost Woman Painter of the Choseon Dynasty. London: M.E. Sharpe, 2004. ISBN 978-0765611888


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