The Joseon Dynasty (1392-1910) was a time in Korea's history when women's low social status meant they faced severe discrimination based on their sex. Even the expression of an opinion by a woman was, in practical terms, virtually impossible. Yet during this period there was one active woman who overcame these harsh social barriers. This was Kim Man-deok (1739-1812), known as the "Nanum Halmang" (lit: Sharing Grandma), among the people of her native Jeju Island.
A person with many titles--a wealthy merchant of Jeju, a pioneering female CEO, "Ui Nyeo Ban Su" (highest official rank for woman)--Kim Man-deok was born into an unremarkable, but noble family. At a young age, unfortunately, she was orphaned when her parents died of disease and was adopted by a prostitute, who registered Man-deok as a prostitute. She was forced to lead this kind of life against her wishes but at the age of twenty, Man-deok went to the authorities and had her name removed from the prostitute registry. Then she transformed herself into a merchant. The 18th century was a time when nationwide distribution channels were being set up and the lady merchant became rich by effectively trading Jeju's native specialties with commodities from the mainland.
In 1794, when a bad harvest caused a famine in Jeju, Man-deok spent all of her own earnings to buy grain to save the local people from starvation. It is estimated that the wealthy merchant saved from seven to eight thousand people (two-thirds of Jeju's population at that time). The governing official of Jeju reported Man-deok's good deeds to the royal court and, in return, the King asked if she had any wishes. The merchant said, "I would die without regret if I could visit Hanyang [Seoul] and look up at the palace of the King as well as travel to Mt. Kumgang and see its 12,000 peaks." Her wishes were granted and she was able to able to go to Hanyang despite a law that prohibited Jeju women from going to the mainland. Man-deok's pursuit of intangible things such as visiting the royal palace (a rare privilege even for men) or traveling to Mt. Kumgang not only shattered the stereotype of a merchant simply interested in pursuing their financial interests but at the same time, it also showed her enterprising spirit. King Jeong-jo gave her the title of "Ui Nyeo Ban Su" and granted her permission to visit Mt. Kumgang. People who were deeply moved by her deeds wrote stories and poems in honor of the philanthropic merchant.