South Korea // Gyeonggi and Gangwon //

Yi-Yi: star of the W5000 note

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Lee Yulgok (1536–84), more commonly known by his pen name Yi-Yi, is one of the most prominent Confucian scholars in Korea’s history, and once lived in the Ojukheon complex in Gangneung. A member of the country’s yangban elite, he was apparently able to write with Chinese characters at the age of 3, and was composing poetry by the time he was 7 years old, much of it on pavilions surrounding the glassy lake at Gyeongpoho just down the road. At 19 he was taken to the hills to be educated in Buddhist doctrine, but abandoned this study to excel in political circles, rising through the ranks to hold several important posts, including Minister of Personnel and War. At one point, he advised the King to prepare an army of 100,000 to repel a potential Japanese invasion – the advice was ignored, and a huge attack came in 1592, just after Yi-Yi’s death. His face is on one side of the W5000 note, while on the other is the famed “Insects and Plants”, painting from his mother, Sin Saimdang (1504–51), who was a well-known poet and artist; you’ll find her on the W50,000 note. Her selection, interestingly, managed to ruffle feathers with traditionalists and liberals alike – Confucian-thinking men were aghast that a woman should be on the front of Korea’s most valuable note, while feminists were similarly distraught that this role model of “inferior” Confucian-era womanhood should be chosen ahead of more progressive ladies.

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