Were there really women merchants during the Chosun Era? With the TV drama <Sang Do> (meaning merchant's code of ethics) gaining popularity, many people have become curious about the unique job of 'female traveling merchant' portrayed in the drama. There is Danyeong, a female merchant from Songbang, Uiju and daughter (or daughter-in-law) of Park Ju Myeong, a wealthy man of the Songsang clan. And there is Woo Yeo Ran, a great traveling merchant from Yusang, Pyongyang. The two women, endowed with talented business skills, head their own merchandising corps as they actively expand their commercial territories. They have their own strong principles about the merchant's code of ethics, which, together with their advice and help, have an important influence on the main character Lim Sang Ok as he launches his own career as a merchant.
Both Danyeong and Woo Yeo Ran are fictitious figures created by the scenario writer's imagination. But historic records show that there really was a woman who, like Lim Sang Ok, amassed great wealth through her business acumen and used that wealth for the benefit of society. Her name is 'Grandma Man Deok.'
Kim Man Deok was born on Jeju Island in 1739, during Yong Jo's reign. Lim Sang Ok was born in 1779, which makes Kim Man Deok exactly 40 years his senior. Man Deok was born into a noble class family, but became orphaned at the age of 12. She was adopted by a prostitute in Seongan, Jeju and had to grow up working as a prostitute, but at the age of 22, she appealed to the authorities and succeeded in freeing herself from the bonds of prostitution and recovering her status in the noble class. With her earnings, Man Deok set up an inn for merchants, and expands her business by helping people find work and commissioning others to sell her goods. She would collect Jeju Island specialties such as seaweed, abalone, flathead and horse hair and sell these goods in the mainland, and then return to Jeju Island with commodities that the islanders needed. Thanks to her business prowess, she became one of the richest persons in Jeju by the time she turned 40. And in her fifties, she became as rich as the millionaires living in the mainland.
Born 40 years ahead of Lim Sang Ok, Kim Man Deok amassed great wealth in Jeju, and even received a title from King Jeong Jo. <photograph courtesy of the Culture and Sports Department, Jeju City Hall>
In the Chosun Dynasty, trade was considered a lowly occupation fit for only peasants and fallen nobility. If Kim Man Deok and Lim Sang Ok had merely become wealthy merchants, their names would not have gone down in history. The 'Jeong Jo Shillok' (factual record of the Jeong Jo dynasty) records that in the 20th year of King Jeong Jo's reign, "a prostitute in Jeju named Man Deok used her personal wealth to save the people from starving to death. When the authorities wanted to reward her, she declined, asking instead to go to the capital and tour Mt. Kumkang. After giving her permission, the authorities distributed food to the villages."
Man Deok was probably the first woman in Korean history to use her personal wealth for the benefit of society. During that time, a bad harvest brought on a severe famine in Jeju that took the lives of one-third of the island's population. Man Deok used her earnings to buy grain from mainland, and gave the food to the authorities to distribute to the starving people. As praises about her began to spread, King Jeong Jo gave her the title of Ui Nyeo Ban Su (equivalent to today's Minister of Health and Welfare). After Man Deok's death, Kim Jeong Hee, a government official living in exile on Jeju Island, wrote the words engraved on her gravestone, and Chae Je Gong, the Prime Minister of that time, wrote a biography on her.
By the late Chosun Era, commerce had developed and expanded, paving the way for women to become active participants in the business circle. Women merchants would have been particularly active in the Northwest region such as Pyeongan-do and Hwanghae-do, where the people were relatively unrestrained by Confucianism and the culture and commerce better developed thanks to trade with China.
Historian Lee Bae Yong (Department of History, Ehwa Women's University) says, "In the Chosun Era, when markets opened every three or five days, people had to apply to the authorities for a license to sell their products. Women also applied for the license and peddled their goods in the market. Women would bring cloths that they had woven or sown, and peddle the goods themselves or sell them to shopkeepers or peddlers." This shows that there is every chance that when wealthy merchant families such as Songsang (from Gaeseong), Mansang (from Uiju), Gyeongsang (from Hanyang) and Naesang (from Dongnae) had no son, the family business was passed down to the daughter, as is the case of Danyeong in <Sang Do>.
So there is every chance that great businesswomen like Danyeong and Woo Yeo Ran did exist in real life during the Chosun Era. Hopefully, the curiosity aroused by the drama <Sang Do> will help highlight Chosun women's business activities and lead the way to discovering more historical women figures like Kim Man Deok.