London Korean Links

Covering things Korean in London and beyond since 2006

2012 Travel Diary #23: Mun Ik-jeom: dutiful son and smuggler of cotton seeds

Mun Ik-jeom
A close-up of a portrait of Mun Ik-jeom at the museum devoted to his work in Sancheong-gun

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.

The structure which houses the Stele of the Dutiful Son granted to Min Ik-jeom by King U
The structure which houses the Stele of the Dutiful Son granted to Mun Ik-jeom by King U

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.

Min Ik-jeom's portrait at his museum in Sancheong-gun
Min Ik-jeom’s portrait at his museum in Sancheong-gun

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 site where Mun Ik-jeom planted his first cotton seeds
The site where Mun Ik-jeom planted his first cotton seeds

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).

Mun Ik-jeom's 효자비
Mun Ik-jeom’s 효자비 (Image source – Sancheong County)

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.

The site of Korea’s first cotton farm is Historic Site #108.


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.

Introduction 12: Yun Isang’s music at TIMF 2012
1: Dansaekhwa – Korean Monochrome Painting at the Museum of Contemporary Art 13: Jeon Hyuck-lim, Magician of Colours
2: Suh Do-ho “Home within Home” at the Leeum 14: Mugwort pancakes and bronze age dolmen
3: Bugaksan to Daehakro 15: A visit to Min Young-ki
4: Walking the palace trail with the RASKB 16: Silla pagodas, Korea’s first beautiful village, and Nammyeong’s tomb
5: the Trip to Tongyeong 17: On hiking in Korea
6: Tongyeong harbour 18: The hike to Beopgyesa
7: Yi Sun-shin — military genius, hero, poet 19: Beopgyesa Temple and those Japanese feng-shui stakes
8: Yun Isang, Sancheong and Tongyeong 20: Rabbit Stew and Love Shots
9: Yun Isang — Victim of the Cold War 21: Seong Cheol’s birthday, Park Chan-soo’s museum and Gaya period tombs
10: Mireuksan and meonggae – a morning on Mireukdo 22: The Burial Grounds of the Royal Joseon Placentas, and why underfloor heating is not always good for you
11: The Tongyeong International Music Festival 23: Mun Ik-jeom: dutiful son and smuggler of cotton seeds
Thank yous The Seoul Nuclear Security Summit
LKL in the 경남도민일보 “A Reason to Live” and “Pain”: Two lame films to avoid
Some regional foods in Tongyeong Some regional foods in Sancheong
Park Kyung-ni’s tomb in Tongyeong If aliens landed in Gyeongnam, would they think Koreans worshipped the turtle?
  1. See Institutional Differences and the Industrial Revolution: An Analysis of the Joseon Kingdom in Comparison with Great Britain, Soh, ByungHee, August 2011 []

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