Saimdang It!

Just wait until you’re older.  You’ll change your mind.  But you have to!  You haven’t met the right guy yet.  You’d be missing out on so much.  That seems kind of selfish.  What’s wrong with you?  Are you one of those career women?  No one will marry you.  And my favorite, you’ll die alone.  All these (horribly cis- and hetero-normative) things and more are said to women who dare to express that they don’t want to have children.  Let’s translate these comments into what is really being said: how could you, a baby maker, reject baby making?  Women are repeatedly told that their value lies in their relationships with men, in their ability to have men’s babies and to nurture and meet men’s needs.

Modern women are still viewed as baby factories-where men deposit their oh-so-special raw materials and then kachunk, kachunk, an oh-so-special baby plops out.  But as we continue to fight for reproductive rights (and protect the rights we’ve already won), women are allowed to have somewhat more say in the matter.  In the 1500’s, not so much.  Our art warrior goddess of the day, Korean creator Shin (alt. Sin) Saimdang, was a painter, poet, calligrapher, writer, and happened to be the mother of 7 children.


In researching this post, I excitedly came across several article/essays that had titles that lauded her art, poetry, and writing.  When I began to read them, I sadly found out that while the first sentence or two talked about her as an individual and as a gifted artist or poet, the rest of the article was all about her amazing sons and their amazing accomplishments.  ___ was a brilliant scholar.  ___ was a government official.  ___ founded a new Confucianism.  Honestly, I don’t give a rat’s ass.  The authors then all ended by applauding not her skills and artistic legacy, but by gushing over what a good mother she was to all these important men.  Ugh.  Even more ugh is that there is an award given out named after and honoring Saimdang, but it is not for art or writing.  It is given to women as a mother-of-the-year award, pooh-poohing their professional and personal accomplishments.  You run a company, rescue dogs, and discovered a new branch of mathematics?  That’s cool and all, but we really only care that you are a good mother.  I think I just threw up a little.  I am not ok brushing her art and innovation aside because she had kids in a time when she had no reproductive choice at all.


Saimdang was born in 1504 in Korea.  Her real name is not known, her pen names also included Saim, Inimdang, and Imsajae.  She grew up with four sisters and received the education that a male would have received.  In the strict Confucian society of the time, this was practically unheard of.  She began painting at age seven.  At 19, Saimdang married, but continued to live with and attend to her parents.  Despite being required to care for her aging parents, husband, and ever-increasing brood of children, she continued to paint, write poetry, and do calligraphy.  Badass.  Her work was known and praised during her lifetime.  She began a type of painting called Chochungdo, which depicts insects and plants.  Saimdang painted landscapes or garden scenes featuring insects, plants, fish, and animals.  They are bright, detailed, and so visually accurate, legend has it, that chickens once poked holes in the screen trying to peck at the bugs.  The tiny holes in the work were only where the insects were.  There are 40 of her known works surviving, though she did many more.  Being a woman meant she did not have a seal or signature, which makes it difficult to identify or trace her works.  Plus, a lot of shit can happen in 500 years and many have also been lost over time as well.  In 2017, there was an exhibition of her work at the Seoul Museum titled “Saimdang, Her Garden.”  Other non-artistic distinctions have been made that highlight her motherhood and femininity, and I don’t really care about those.  Saimdang died in 1551 at the young age of 46.  Saimdang was a brilliant and innovative artist who found a way to create in a society that told her not to.  Her legacy continues, for me and I hope for you, in her beautiful art and words and not in her children.