What is the one item tourists use the most when traveling? The answer is money, of course! Korean currency can be largely divided into four coins and four bills, with denominations of 10 won, 50 won, 100 won, 500 won and 1,000 won, 5,000 won, 10,000 won, 50,000 won, respectively. While traveling, it’s possible all you noticed is how quickly money seems to fly from your hands. However, if you take a closer look at the characters and designs on the bills, you will be greatly surprised! There are many tiny details about the important historical figures they present and their related tourist sites.
Korea’s most common bill is the 1,000 won in a pretty blue color. The front of the bill features flowers, a hanok building, and a portrait of a man, with the back sporting a landscape painting of a river and wooded mountains. Let’s search for the hidden secrets within these images.
Photo: 1,000 won bill (left, Credit: Bank of Korea) / Maehwa blossoms (right)
Photo: Myeongnyundang Hall inside Sungkyunkwan
The figure featured on the 1,000 won bill is one of Joseon Dynasty’s most distinguished Confucian scholars, Toegye Yi Hwang (1501-1570). He devoted his life to the study of literature and put his knowledge into practice on a daily basis. When people think of Yi Hwang, the first place that comes to mind is Dosanseowon Confucian Academy in Andong, but he also has a deep connection with Sungkyunkwan’s Myeongnyundang Hall, the building drawn behind his portrait on the bill. Myeongnyundang was one of the highest centers for education in the Joseon Dynasty, and here Toegye Yi Hwang served as daesasang, a head teacher.
His position at the school explains its inclusion on the bill, but what of the bough of maehwa blossoms? The simple answer is that Yi Hwang loved these flowers above all others, to the extent that his last dying wish was that his son would continue to water the maehwa tree.
Photo: Dosanseowon Confucian Academy
Now let’s flip the bill over and take a look at the back. The scene is a landscape from famous Late Joseon-period artist Kyomjae Jeong Seon (1676-1759), and is a designated treasure. The landscape depicts a two-kan (traditional measurement of building by pillars) house, the early appearance of Dosanseodang, where Yi Hwang retired to improve his learning and teach his disciples. If you look closely, you can see a figure studying inside the building.
Currently Dosanseodang Hall is the oldest building inside Dosanseowon Confucian Academy, which was built after Yi Hwang’s death as a way for his disciples to honor and remember this great scholar. A must-visit place when visiting Andong, you can find many artifacts from Yi Hwang’s life at Dosanseowon.
Photo: 5,000 won bill (left, Credit: Bank of Korea) / 50,000 won bill (right, Credit: Bank of Korea)
The 5,000 won and 50,000 won bills have a secret that cannot be found on any other forms of currency throughout the world! The special point of these bills is in the relationship between the two figures depicted; they are the only two figures to be related as mother and son! Shin Saimdang (1504-1551), featured on the 50,000 won bill, is also the only female on Korean currency, and is perhaps best well-known as being a good wife and wise mother.
Photo: Ojukheon House (left) / Artifact on display at Yulgok Historical Site (right)
When talking about Shin Saimdang and her son Yulgok Yi I (1536-1584), you cannot leave out Ojukheon House, which is featured on the 5,000 won bill behind Yi I. Ojukheon House was named for the grove of black bamboo, ojuk in Korean, growing around the house. The house has the honor of being the birthplace of Shin Saimdang and her third son, Yulgok Yi I. The house was a filming site of the upcoming drama “Saimdang, Light's Diary (2016),” and as such, is expecting to draw in many tourists from overseas.
Photo: Yulgok Historical Site
It is not included on the 5,000 won bill, but if you want to learn more about the life of Yulgok Yi I and his achievements, you should visit the Yulgok Historical Site. Here was where Yulgok lived and taught students at Jaunseowon Confucian Academy. Currently the house displays artifacts from Yi I and his mother in the Yulgok Memorial Hall. A visit here is a great way to learn more about the characters of the 5,000 and 50,000 won bills, Yulgok Yi I and his mother Shin Saimdang.
Now that we have learned about the people, let’s take a closer look at the pictures! The paintings on the front of the 50,000 won bill and on the back of the 5,000 won bill are different but have a similar feeling. This is because they were both painted by Shin Saimdang, who was not only known as a good wife and wise mother but also as an accomplished painter. She generally focused her paintings on plants and insects. Of her many works, the painting of grape vines featured on the 50,000 won bill has an interesting story attached to it. As the story goes, one day at a party, a cup of tea was spilled on the skirt of a fellow party participant. When Shin Saimdang saw the girl’s eyes begin to tear us, she immediately stepped in. Using the shapes of the tea stains to create the image of large leaves on a grape vine, she astonished the people around her, who talked about this event long after.
Our last Korean bill to examine is the green 10,000 won bill! The figure on this bill is Joseon Dynasty’s fourth king, King Sejong (1418-1450). He is known as being a monarch who, when it came to politics, always considered the needs of the people first. Thanks to this love of the people and his many achievements, the people began to attach the title “the great” to the end of his name.
Photo: 10,000 won bill (left, Credit: Bank of Korea) / The word ‘flower’ written in Hangeul (right)
Where the other denominations of Korean currency feature locations that were important to their related persons, the 10,000 won bill showcases some of the most important accomplishments of King Sejong the Great. The front of the bill features one paragraph from the first work written completely in Hangeul, the Yongbieocheonga, meaning “Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven.” Below this is the image of Sun and Moon and Five Peaks, a work that hung behind the royal throne and was a symbol of the king in the Joseon Dynasty. You can see this great work in person at the National Palace Museum of Korea.
Photo: Hangeul Hall at King Sejong The Great Memorial Hall (left, Credit: King Sejong the Great Memorial Hall) / Sundial in King Sejong’s Story (right, Credit: King Sejong Story)
As Korean’s most revered king, there are memorials to King Sejong and his achievements throughout the country. Items related to and materials used in the creation of Hangeul can be seen on display at King Sejong The Great Memorial Hall, and historical records written in Hangeul as well as the life events of King Sejong are on display at King Sejong Story. Many international tourists enjoy visiting King Sejong Story for the fun and free Hangeul experience programs that are available. Of the various programs, the two most popular are writing a letter in Hangeul to send home, and writing one's name in Hangeul.
Like Korean bills, Korean coins also have various images that represent the nation and its history. The smallest coin, worth 10 won, displays an image of national treasure Dabotap Pagoda. This stone pagoda is one of the nation’s most fantastic structures and is located at UNESCO-designated Bulguksa Temple in the city of Gyeongju. The 50 won coin has a single stalk of rice ready for harvest, the 100 won coin features Admiral Yi Sun-shin (1545-1598) who almost single-handedly defeated the invading Japanese force in the Imjin War, and the largest coin with a value of 500 won has a flying crane, which was the symbol of scholars. In addition to these four coins, there are two other coins no longer in circulation. The 1 won coin had an image of a Rose of Sharon, the national flower, and the 5 won coin displayed a geobukseon, or turtle ship which was used by Admiral Yi Sun-shin.
* This column was last updated in October 2016, and therefore information may differ from what is presented here. We advise you to check details from the official websites before visiting.
<Last updated on October 11, 2016>