The currency system in Korea has four distinct bills, each with the portrait of a famous Korean figure that made substantial contributions to Korean society. All of these figures were scholars, poets, and philosophers whose basis for leadership was derived from Neo-Confucianism. Our latest design is inspired by this currency in Korea, and we wanted to introduce you to the faces on the Won bill.
Neo-Confucianism is a doctrine that preaches morality and excellence as the highest virtues. Seen as a more secular branch of philosophy, it breaks away from the mysticism of classical Confucianism and adapts its philosophy into practice.
Yi “Toegye” Hwang (1501-1570), the face of the ₩1,000 bill, was a Neo-Confucian politician of the Joseon Dynasty who made substantial contributions to philosophy, poetry, and governance. Considered a child prodigy, he learned the Analects of Confucius at the age of twelve and later readied himself for a career in politics. After becoming a part of the government, he adapted Neo-Confician values into politics as he believed that the government should be in service of the people. He regularly took part in ousting corrupt politicians who embezzled public funds, which eventually caused his banishment from the state capital after he condemned a provincial official whose fortune was made from taking possession of government articles. In 1544, during his exile, he created the Dosan Seowan Academy, which still offers instruction in classic Confucian doctrine today. Upon the time of his death, he was posthumously promoted to the highest ministerial rank ‘Mun Sun’ (meaning 'pure word').
Yi “Yulgok” I (1536-1584) the face of the ₩5000, was a Neo-Confucian scholar and contemporary of Yi Hwang. Like Yi Hwang, Yi I was a genius in his own right; he finished the lessons of Confucian classics at the age of seven and passing the incredibly complicated Civil Service Literary Examination at the age of thirteen. At sixteen years old, he chose to seclude himself in the Kumang-san mountain range for personal study and self-reflection after the death of his mother. He later left the mountains after four years to study Confucianism, passing the special exams with top honors at the age of twenty-two. Yi I also published articles and books calling for a just and fair government, free from corruption. As an advisor to King Seonjo, he also attempted to remain neutral in times of political strife in addition to documenting his efforts to ease political tensions.
Printed on the ₩10,000 is Sejong the Great (1397-1450). Born Yi Do, the fourth king of the Joseon Dynasty was known for introducing sweeping reforms to his kingdom. Following his ascension to the throne as “King Sejong”, he made extensive contributions to philosophy, politics, and science, though he is most famous for introducing Hangul - the Korean alphabet - into Korean society. This helped secure the Korean language as a part of the national identity, since the alphabet used prior to that point was Chinese. King Sejong also ruled his kingdom in a just manner, establishing a direct relationship between sovereign and subject. One of the most memorable examples of this was during poor harvests, where he loaned stored grain to farmers for nominal interest. The royal leader established grants and other forms of support from the government for scholars and students studying Confucianism. To find out more about King Sejong's achievements, check out our blog on him here.
Finally, on the ₩50,000 is Shin Saimdang (1504-1551), a famous writer and poet who was also the mother of Yi I. Her art and poetry captured beautiful and delicate images of insects, flowers, fish, and landscapes. Shin learned a great deal about Neo-Confucianism at a very young age and was so talented that she received an education often afforded only to sons. Throughout her life, she faced a great deal of discrimination, with her artistic creativity and education looked down upon by society since women were expected to take on domestic roles. Despite this opposition, however, Shin persisted in her work and was later praised for her Neo-Confucian art, involvement in her community, and empowerment of women.
All of these figures have made great contributions to Korean society, and it is only fitting that they continue to be remembered. You can identify which eyes of our Korea Bank design match each of these Won bills - check them out below.