Women can Become Saints
Joseon society was deeply rooted in Confucianism. At the time, women blessed with great talent couldn’t display their abilities properly due to barriers of gender discrimination.
Even in the male-dominated era, however, some women did overcome restrictions and made their presence felt. Im Yunjidang was one of those brave and intelligent women. She maintained that there was no difference between men and women in characteristics they were given. She struggled to free herself from the shackles worn by women and took a leap into her dream.
Im was born in 1721 in Yangseong(양성) in Gyeonggi province. After her father Im Jeok(임적) died in 1728, she moved to Cheongju with her family.
There, Im learned Confucian classics and history from her second elder brother Im Seong-ju(임성주), who became a prominent Confucian scholar in the late Joseon period. Her eldest brother Im Myeong-ju(임명주) was also a man of great learning, who served as the official of the Office of the Censor-General.
In a family with renowned tradition in erudition, Im Yunjidang also showed outstanding ability in her studies. She stood out among her siblings for her logical thinking and deep insight. They even lamented that she hadn’t been born as a man.
It was her brother Im Seong-ju who gave her a penname ‘Yunjidang.’ The title derived from Chu Hsi’s comment, “I respect Tairen and TaiSi.” Tairen and TaiSi were King Wen’s mother and wife, respectively, in the Zhou Dynasty of China. They were considered highly respected women of ancient China.
Im’s life as a woman was lonely, though. She married Shin Gwang-yu(신광유) in 1739 when she was 19 years old. But her husband, who was a year younger than her, died eight years after they got married. She had a baby after a difficult delivery but the child died very young. The childless widow adopted a son of her husband’s younger brother, but the boy also preceded her to the grave. Im sublimated her lonely life into scholarly attainment.
Concentrating on Studies All her Life
An episode tells how deep Im’s philosophical insight was. When she stayed at her brother’s house, her nephews came to her in the evening to say hello to her. She asked them how they were doing with their studies. They said it was so hot that they used fans to cool off. Im scolded them, saying “If you concentrate on reading, the feeling of the cool air will naturally permeate into your hearts. You are just chanting an empty prayer only by your lips.”
To better understand the profound principle of the universe and people’s true nature, Im logically explored the theories of ‘reason and energy’ and the ‘Four Beginnings and Seven Emotions,’ which comprised the key of Neo-Confucianism.
She cultivated her mind constantly and built high character through moral practice before she died in 1793 at the age of 73. Three years later, Im’s younger brother Im Jeong-ju(임정주) and her husband’s younger brother Shin Gwang-woo(신광우) collected materials and compiled [The Remaining Writings of Yunjidang], which is viewed as the essence of Im’s philosophy.
[The Remaining Writings of Yunjidang]
The book contains her research of Confucian classics, interpretations of the theories of Neo-Confucianism, comments on Chinese historical figures and instructive verses. The well-written texts with high literary value merited great attention. In particular, Im believed that people can all become saints as long as they restore their good and pure nature. In practicing the universal character, she didn’t differentiate between men and women. Rather, she thought men and women were in complementary relations, like yin and yang. Her idea was as progressive as today’s view of different genders.
In contrast to other female intellectuals in the Joseon era, who wrote mostly about love or the suffering of life, Im wrote her opinions about Confucian classics or great Confucian scholars. She led a lonely life as a woman, but her hard life inspired her to devote herself to studies all her life. The female Confucian scholar marked her presence in the history of Korean women as a big star that shined brightly amid the ordeals of the times.