Sancheong County, Gyeongsangnam-do, Sunday 1 April 2012. Mun Ik jeom (문익점, 文益漸) was a rare individual who was honoured by the kings of two royal dynasties, first by King U of Goryeo and second by the great Joseon King Sejong. The honour received from Sejong was posthumous, and was in recognition of what started, in modern day terms, as industrial espionage. And some forty years after his death he became prime minister.
Mun Ik-jeom, whose pen name was Samudang (삼우당, 三憂堂), was a scholar-official who lived in the late Goryeo dynasty. He was born in 1329, in Baeyang village in what is now Sancheong County, into a world in which Goryeo was in a tributary relationship with Yuan China. King Gongmin, who came to the throne in 1351, started to try to gain more independence from Yuan.
Mun will have been brought up with this independent mindset, having been a pupil of the Confucian scholar Yi Gok since the age of 10. Yi had been instrumental in abolishing the practice of sending girls to the Chinese emperor as tribute. At the age of 20 Mun entered a national Confucian academy and passed his civil service exams, becoming a government official in 1360. In 1363 he was sent by King Gongmin as part of a diplomatic mission to China. As had happened with previous missions of this kind, the Chinese detained the envoys. Mun was sent on internal exile to the southern area of China.
It was here that Mun’s teenage studies under Yi Gok showed their value. While in China, he came across cotton being cultivated, a practice he knew of from his earlier studies, but had never seen in real life as cotton was not cultivated in Korea. The Chinese tried to make sure things stayed that way, by forbidding the export of cotton seed.
Moon was allowed back to Korea in 1367, and when he left he managed to hide some cotton seeds in a hollow part of his calligraphy brush. Returning to his home town he succeeded in getting the plants established, with the help of his father-in-law Jeong Cheon-ik who was something of an agricultural expert. Being able to spin the cotton into cloth was the next challenge, overcome with the help of a Buddhist monk who was visiting from China and knew of the machines used there.
The combination of the new fabric, together with the start of mechanisation, had far-reaching consequences. Cotton cloth soon became a medium of exchange, even within Mun’s lifetime1 while the availability of a new fabric to supplement the coarser hemp that had been common beforehand improved the comfort and warmth of Korean clothing. The impact was such that in 1440 King Sejong took the unusual step of appointing him a prime minister and granting him the posthumous name (시호) of Buminhu (부민후, 富民侯), signifying his contribution to Korea’s well-being. Mun had passed away in 1398.
At the site where Mun Ik-jeom first planted his cotton seeds a museum has been built. Replicas of the early weaving machines have been built to show how the cotton is turned in to cloth. Every year there is a cotton planting ceremony outside the museum to commemorate Mun’s contribution to Korean society.
Mun transformed the fields around his home town with his new crop. He also unintentionally got its name changed. In 1376, just as cotton was taking off in Korea, Mun’s mother passed away. Being a dutiful son, Mun entered the normal three year period of mourning – and in fact doubled it to six years. It was the time when Korea was being plagued by Wae (Japanese) pirates. Bands of these marauders were laying waste to the villages of Sancheong. Mun ignored the devastation around him and continued his solemn graveside ceremony. The Wae chief is said to have been moved by Mun’s devotion to his mother, and put up a signpost leaving orders for the dutiful son to be left in peace. As a result, the area was spared the worst of the Wae’s destruction. In 1383, the extended period of filial mourning over, a stele for a dutiful son (효자비) was erected at King U’s order, and the village’s name was changed from Baeyang to Hyojari (효자리 – village of the dutiful son).
The stele, 160cm tall and 50cm wide, now stands near the cotton museum, housed in a small gate-like structure. But the village’s name has now reverted back to Baeyang-maeul. Reflecting the significance of cotton to Sancheong and Korea as a whole, the county flower of Sancheong is the cotton plant.
- Information boards at the Mun Ik-jeom cotton museum at 경상남도 산청군 단성면 사월리 배양마을 [Map]
- Some supplementary navering in Korean
This is a long overdue post which nearly completes my travel diaries from 2012. My visit to the Mun Ik-jeom museum in Sancheong was on 1 April 2012. All photos are © London Korean Links except the image of the stele which is courtesy of Sancheong County.
- See Institutional Differences and the Industrial Revolution: An Analysis of the Joseon Kingdom in Comparison with Great Britain, Soh, ByungHee, August 2011 http://web.ias.tokushima-u.ac.jp/naito/No.29(Soh_ByungHee).pdf [↩]