Portrait of Choe Je-u
|Revised Romanization||Choe Je-u|
Choe Je-u, who used the pen name Su-un (18 December 1824 – 15 April 1864), was the founder of Donghak, a Korean religious movement against foreign invasions and critical of Joseon Dynasty government policies of the time. His teachings led to peasant revolts in Korea which were contemporary with the Taiping Rebellion in China, and he was martyred by order of the Daewongun, only weeks before the death of Hong Xiuquan.
His birth-name was Choe Je-seon ("save and proclaim"). During his childhood, he was also called Bok-sul ("blissfully happy"). He took the name Je-u ("saviour of the ignorant") in 1859. His disciples called him Su-un ("water cloud"), which was the name he used for his writings, and also called him Daesinsa, the great teacher.
Choe Je-seon was born into an aristocratic family on 18 December 1824 (the 28th day of the 10th month) at Kajong-ni, a village near Gyeongju, the ex-capital of Silla and now a city in the south-eastern province of Gyeongsang. He was a member of the Gyeongju Choe clan.
His father Choe Ok was a scholar who had failed to obtain a post in the government, his clan not being in favour with those then in power. He had reached the age of sixty and had been married and widowed twice without gaining a son. He adopted a nephew in order to preserve his own line before marrying a widow named Han. Choe Je-seon was the result of this final union, but he was considered illegitimate in the Neo-Confucian system: the children of a widow who had remarried occupied a low position in the social hierarchy and could not, for example, take the examinations necessary to become a bureaucrat. Despite this he received a good education.
His mother died when he was five years old, and his father when he was sixteen. He married a woman named Park in 1836. She came from Miryang (and originally from Ulsan). He led an itinerant life before finally settling with his family in Ulsan in 1854. In 1856, he began a 49-day retreat in the Buddhist monastery of Naewon-sa, but had to leave on the 47th day to attend the funeral of his uncle. The next year he managed to complete the 49 days at Cheok-myeol Caves, but did not find the experience spiritually fulfilling.
In 1858 he lost his house and all effects in bankruptcy, and he returned with his family to the paternal household in 1859. He spent his time in prayer and meditation and wrote the poem Ipchun ("Spring Equinox"). According to his own account, he was greatly concerned by the public disorder in Korea, the encroachments of Christianity, and the domination of East Asia by Western powers, which seemed to indicate that divine favour had passed into the hands of foreigners:
- A strange rumour spread through the land that Westerners had discovered the truth and that there was nothing that they could not do. Nothing could stand before their military power. Even China was being destroyed. Will our country too suffer the same fate? Their Way is called Western Learning, the religion of Cheonju, their doctrine, the Holy Teaching. Is it possible that they know the Heavenly Order and have received the Heavenly Mandate?
On 25 May 1860 (the 5th day of the 4th month) he experienced his first revelation, the kaepyeok, at his father's Yongdam Pavilion on Mount Gumi, several kilometres northwest of Gyeongju: a direct encounter with Sangje ("Lord of Heaven"), during which he received the mystical talisman, the Yeongju. He threw himself into three years of proselytising. His most remarkable method was the composition of poems and songs in the vernacular gasa style, which lends itself to dramatisation. These he presented to his first audiences of women, who distributed them rapidly. The songs prepared the ground for essays expounding his ideas. He called his doctrine Donghak ("eastern knowledge") to distinguish it from the Seohak ("western knowledge") of the Catholics. It was largely a combination of Neo-Confucianism with Korean shamanism, but borrowed two elements from Christianity, the singular God (Cheonju/Sangje) and the principle of egalitarian aloofness from the rest of society.
He learned that he was suspected of Catholicism and from June 1861 to March 1862 he had to take refuge in Jeolla province to avoid arrest, spending the winter in a Buddhist temple in Namwon. In December 1862 he founded the first Donghak communities, governed by 16 leaders.
The popularity of his movement contributed to the peasant revolts in Gyeongsang in 1862, and he was arrested shortly before 10 December 1863 for sedition and heresy. He was tried, found guilty on 5 April 1864, and beheaded on 15 April 1864 (the 10th day of the 3rd month) at Daegu, at the place today marked by his statue. His grave is in a park at Yugok-dong, a few kilometres north of Ulsan.
After his death, the movement was continued by Choe Sihyeong (Haewol, 1827–1898). The works of Choe Je-u were collected in two volumes, The Bible of the Donghak Doctrine (in Korean-Chinese, 1880) and The Hymns of Dragon Lake (in Korean, 1881).
In 1894, the brutally suppressed Donghak Peasant Revolution, led by Jeon Bongjun (1854–1895), unleashed the First Sino-Japanese War, which placed Korea at the mercy of Japan. Choe Sihyeong evaded capture for four years but was finally executed in 1898. In the wake of this disaster the movement was drastically reformed by Son Byong-Hi (Uiam, 1861–1922), who removed overt political elements, inserted religious ones, and renamed it as Cheondogyo in 1905. Although initially it won the approval of Japanese authorities, this new religion was active in anti-Japanese resistance and a major factor in the March 1st Movement of 1919, which failed and forced Cheondogyo underground until 1945.
His life was the subject of Stanley Park's 2011 film The Passion of a Man named Choe Che-u (동학, 수운 최제우).
His works were proscribed and burnt after his execution, but two canonical books, one of prose and one of poetry, were compiled and published later by Choe Sihyeong:
- Bible of the Donghak Doctrine (동경대전, 東經大全, Donggyeong Daejeon) in Korean-Chinese
- The Hymns of Dragon Lake (용담유사, 龍潭遺詞, Yongdam Yusa) in Korean
- Published at Danyang in July 1881
- Susan S. Shin. "The Tonghak Movement: From Enlightenment to Revolution." Korean Studies Forum, v. 5, 1978–9.
- Beirne, Paul (2009), Su-Un and His World of Symbols: The Founder of Korea's First Indigenous Religion, Ashgate Publishing, ISBN 0754696375