[My article, reprinted from Jeju Weekly]
Jeju’s Female Icon of the Joseon Era
How the businesswoman, philanthropist and role model Kim Man Deok saved the island’s people
Ask any Jeju native – especially a woman – about local heroes, and there is one name that is sure to be invoked.
Kim Man Deok (1739-1812) is arguably Jeju’s most famous historic figure and remains well known throughout Korea.
Kim was born at a time during the Joseon era when Jeju was used as a place of banishment for political enemies of the state. If you offended the king, you were sent to Jeju.
For 200 of those years, Jeju natives were also not prohibited to leave the island.
Many of these exiles, almost exclusively from the Yangban, or noble class, took second wives while on Jeju. Local families – knowing that the dissident would return to Seoul once their term of exile had ended – were reportedly in favor of this practice.
The children of such unions were typically taken to the mainland by their father, on whose registry they were listed, while the mother remained on Jeju.
Kim Man Deok was born of a Jeju diving woman (haenyeo) and an exiled Yangban government official. She was thus born into nobility, though her father did not know of her existence, and she remained on Jeju with her mother.
At the age of 12, following her mother’s death, she was fostered to the owner of a gisaeng house and ultimately, she too became a gisaeng. Similar to the geisha of Japan, gisaeng were highly educated in the traditional arts and served as entertainers, often, though not always including sexual favors for government officials and nobility.
By the age of 22, Kim was able to extract herself from the profession, a highly unusual act, by successfully petitioning the Jeju government to remove her name from the gisaeng register – which placed one among the lowest rank in society – on the basis of her noble paternal line.
She became a merchant, actively trading goods between Jeju and peninsular Korea.
Kim was quite talented at her new-found profession. As a result of her gisaeng years, she was well-connected in Jeju government and society, a factor which she utilized to her advantage.
At this time in Korean history, great social and economic changes resulted in a notable increase of women in business. Kim was one of only two, however, recorded to have achieved great wealth.
Kim never married. Her history as a gisaeng rendered her ineligible for marriage within Korea’s Confucian society.
Her status as a single woman placed her on the margin of society, a position which she courageously challenged in her career as a merchant.
By the age of 50, Kim was one of the wealthiest people on Jeju.
In 1794, a famine struck the island. Extreme weather conditions had destroyed crops and, coupled with other social factors, the people were starving. Ultimately, one-third of Jeju’s population died during this time.
Kim, in a great gesture of sympathy for her people, sold all of her assets. After giving 10 percent to her relatives, she donated the remainder to the inhabitants of Jeju for the importation of food.
There is no way to calculate the number of lives she saved with her philanthropic and heartfelt efforts.
King Jeongjo, in recognition of her extraordinary contribution, offered to reward her. Though she could have asked for material goods or an elevated position in society, Kim instead made only one request.
She wanted to be able to leave Jeju despite the ban, in order that she might tour the king’s palace in Seoul and the 12,000 peaks of Geumgang Mountain to the east.
Her request was granted.
Additionally, the king awarded her a government post and accompanying residence in Seoul. She served her term and then returned to Jeju.
Kim was initially buried in Hwabuk-dong. In 1977, due to development in that region, her grave was moved upon the agreement of Jeju citizens and is presently located on Sarabong, the hill overlooking the sea in Geonip-dong, Jeju City.
She is buried now on the grounds of Mochung temple, where a memorial was dedicated to her in 1978.
Her grave is a site of pilgrimage for countless Korean women.
Many artists, writers, and scholars have created works in praise of Kim, in a tradition which began while she was still alive and continues to this day.
Since 1980, an annual commemoration for philanthropy or community service has been awarded in her name at the Tamna Cultural Festival.
In 2003, a commemoration committee was created which performs beneficent acts in her name.
According to scholar Moon Soon Deok of the Jeju Development Institute, a new committee was formed earlier this year to determine how best to further memorialize Kim’s contribution to Jeju society.
While a museum and other physical tributes are being discussed, it has also been suggested that a scholarship in her name be established at Jeju National University for young female business students.
In June of 2009 Korea issued the 50,000 won banknote which depicts the image of Shin Saimdang, a 16th century artist and mother of scholar Yi I, whose image appears on the 5,000 won banknote. It is the first depiction of a female on Korean currency.
Kim Kyung-ai, scholar of women’s studies at Dongduk University in Seoul, spearheaded the ultimately unsuccessful campaign to depict Kim Man Deok’s image on the banknote instead.
“She was a successful businesswoman, the first female CEO, and also a remarkable philanthropist who literally saved her people,” Dr. Kim said. “I still feel that she would have been the best choice [for the banknote].”
Kim Man Deok has served as an early model of feminism for the women’s movement of Korea. She lived her life with courage, entering areas of society and commerce in ways that women had not previously done.
She achieved remarkable success in business and accumulated great wealth – only to give it all away in a gesture of compassion at a time of great need for her people.
She remains a model for all – not just in Korea, but around the world.