[Note: This is part two of a two-part article. For part one, please see here.]
By 1789, at the age of 50, Kim Mandeok had become one of the two wealthiest women in Korea.
It is noteworthy that great social and economic changes were taking place at this time, particularly in areas of commerce and industry, and there was a marked increase of women in business and trade, including merchants. Jeju became a center of the fishing and maritime industries, complete with port trade and commission agencies.
It is also of note, however, that in the Joseon class structure, merchant or trade work was considered lowly, fit for commoners and fallen nobility. Mandeok never married, perhaps due to her former gisaeng status, but eventually fostered an orphaned boy, a custom not uncommon on Jeju at that time.
In the 1794 famine brought about by extreme weather and social factors, ultimately 1/3 of the Jeju population was decimated. Due to local government complications including corruption, food relief was not reaching the people; ultimately, Mandeok took a pragmatic approach and used most of her wealth for the importation and distribution of food, primarily rice, to Jeju people.
Significantly, Jeju is a "society culture” as locals have termed it, and "gye” or collective economic societies based on mutual aid have long been the norm. (The local practice of referring to one's elders within a village as “samchun,” literally “uncle” but used regardless of gender, stems from this structure of informal money-lending.) Within this context, while surely hers was an act of great compassion and charity, Mandeok would have been compelled to give what she had to those in need.
When offered reward, Mandeok stated her desire to leave the island in order to visit the king's palace and make a pilgrimage to the 12,000 peaks of Geumgang Mountain in the mainland, considered a sacred site.
In consideration of what was ultimately a 200-year legal ban against Jeju women leaving the island, this seemingly humble request was actually quite powerful: Mandeok was asking for something that only the king could grant, and which distinguished her from all other female residents of Jeju Island at that time.
Her request affirmed, the king also ordered people along her route to greet her and provide food, thus creating a "cult of Mandeok" well beyond the grateful people of Jeju. Poems and other works of art and scholarship were created in her honor, a custom remaining to this day.
Quite an accomplished life, considering her humble beginnings, yet particularly in Joseon-era Korea this could only have happened within the context of her extraordinary constellation of circumstances.
Following her visit to the mainland, the court's chief-of-staff, Chae Jegong, wrote a biography of her entitled, "Mandeok-jeon." His rendition of her life story is one of very few documentations of same, and includes these words:
"Mandeok is a highly commendable woman from Jeju: at sixty she has the face of a woman of forty. She paid 1000 bars of gold to purchase enough rice for all the people to eat. Because of this, she crossed the sea and saw the palace for the first time. All she wanted was to see Mount Geumgang just once...."
In the Annals of King Jeong Jo [the "20th year of his reign," or 1796], an official court record, there is one notation about her:
"The Jeju governor reported that Jeju gisaeng Mandeok used her wealth to save the hungry people from starvation. When she was offered a reward, she refused and instead asked to cross the sea to the mainland and visit Mount Geumgang. His Majesty approved of Mandeok's request and ordered villagers along Mandeok's path to provide her food for the journey."
It is deemed highly unusual for a royal record to include the accomplishment of a woman, particularly a former gisaeng from Jeju Island – as such, triply marginalized.
Beyond these two documents and the poems and artwork in her honor, there is little documentation regarding Mandeok's life, and separating fact from legend and hyperbole can be difficult. Nevertheless, her story strongly relates to two of the UN Millennium Development Goals: gender equality and global poverty eradication.
Themes to be gleaned from this Jeju legend include: (1) the value of diligence, strong will, and perseverance; (2) independent, self-directed, self-made hero; (3) community aid and responsibility; (4) redemption; (5) compassionate pragmatism; (6) success as defined by charity, philanthropy, and humanitarian aid; and, (7) women's empowerment.
The message of Kim Mandeok's life is both timeless and universal, and while her act of compassionate yet pragmatic philanthropy is to be commended, it is her self-actualization and empowerment that have the potential to inspire and empower women around the world.
Dr. Hilty is a cultural health psychologist from New York who now makes Jeju Island her home. The above represents a presentation she gave at the 2012 Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity.
Anne Hilty firstname.lastname@example.org
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