Joseon woman Sets out on Journey
1795 was a year of an unusually bad harvest. Kim Man-deok(김만덕), a famous, wealthy merchant in Jeju, spent her own money to save about a thousand starving people. King Jeongjo of the Joseon Kingdom appreciated this and asked her what her wish was. Shedding tears of gratitude, Kim said that she was hoping to see 12,000 peaks of the beautiful Geumgang Mountain. Traveling was a forbidden desire, even for the richest merchant in Jeju, as women in Joseon were not allowed to travel.
Yet, in the 19th century, there was a woman who boldly set out on a journey to see the grand mountains and rivers with her own eyes, and engraved what she had experienced in her heart. Her name is Kim Geum-won.
Girl Dreaming of the Outside World
Kim was born in Wonju, Gangwon Province in 1817. She was the illegitimate daughter of a poor noble family. Although she was beautiful and smart, she was delicate and got sick often. As a result, her father did not teach her needlework or household chores that women at the time were supposed to learn. Instead, he taught her how to read and write.
So, Kim studied Chinese classics, just as men did. But she had very few options other than becoming a concubine of a noble man, marrying an illegitimate son in line with her status, or becoming a gisaeng or female entertainer. She lamented over her restrictions as the daughter of a concubine and always hoped to go out into the wider world.
She persuaded her parents and finally started her journey to Geumgang Mountain in March 1830. She was only 14 years old.
Ascending Geumgang Mountain Alone at 14
Although she managed to get her parents’ permission, she disguised herself as a man before venturing out into the world as it was taboo for women to travel in Joseon society. Her first destinations were the Uirimji(의림지) Reservoir of Jecheon(제천) and eight famous sights in Danyang(단양), which were close to her home. There, she witnessed the beautiful scenery that she had only seen in the paintings of renowned artists, including Kim Hong-do. The following passage is part of her poem describing her deep impression of her first trip.
The weeping willows on a lakeside droop down like blue threads/as if understanding the sadness in spring days.
A nightingale on a tree is chirping endlessly/ Can’t bear the grief of letting my lover go.
Kim enjoyed viewing picturesque spring scenes in Seonam(선암) Valley, Oksunbong(옥순봉) Peak, Sainam(사인암) Rocks and Geumhwa(금화) Cave before finally reaching Geumgang Mountain.
At the scenic mountain, she traveled through Pyohunsa (표훈사) Temple, one of the four representative temples in the mountain, and Manpokdong(만폭동) Valley, where the water sounds like the roll of thunder. After exploring the 12,000 peaks of the mountain, Kim truly understood why painter Choi Buk(최북) said he wanted to die at Geumgang Mountain and why poet Jeong Cheol(정철) praised the mountain for standing firm for ten million years in his poem .
After touring the mountain, Kim traveled around the eight beautiful landmarks of Gwandong provinces, including Samilpo(삼일포) Lake in Goseong(고성), Naksansa(낙산사) Temple in Yangyang, Gyeongpodae(경포대) Pavilion in Gangneung and Jukseoru(죽서루) Pavilion in Samcheok(삼척). Her itinerary also included Seorak Mountain. She then moved to Hanyang, which is present-day Seoul, and visited various parts of the capital, including Nam Mountain and the Changui(창의) Gate.
Geum-won’s Journey Revived in Travel Journal
Kim returned to her hometown Wonju and became a gisaeng, or female courtesan, as it was a custom to inherit one’s mother’s social status. But her famous poetry about Geumgang Mountain became known to people in Hanyang, and her poetic talent was widely recognized. She became a concubine of Kim Deok-hui(김덕희), the second cousin of distinguished calligrapher Kim Jeong-hui(김정희).
She stayed in the Samhojeong(삼호정) area in Seoul with her husband. Together with talented gisaengs and concubines, she later organized Joseon’s first all-female poetry circle named after the area she lived. Her poems were recognized by male poets and she even shared her works with writers in the upper class.
Although she interacted with many friends in the literary community, she didn’t write a travel journal about Geumgang Mountain for a long time. She didn’t want to leave any such writing. But in 1851, about 20 years after she traveled to the mountain, Kim published a travel journal called (호동서락기), where she wrote in verse about what she had seen and experienced during her trip across the nation.
Unfortunately, there is no trace of Kim after 1851. Kim refused to remain behind the double barrier of social restrictions and gender discrimination, and ventured out of doors to move forward. Perhaps, she might be wandering freely over the world like a bird, as expressed in her poem.
The hawk is ready to fly out of its cage and soar up to the sky…
The swift horse on the loose would run thousands of miles
The world is deep, wide and infinite, indeed.