East Asian philosophy meets economic theory
Chondogyo was originally known as Donghak or eastern learning and began as a peasant movement. Today it is celebrating the centennial of its renaming in 1905 by its third leader, Sohn Byung-hee.
Donghak started out in 1812 in Gyeongsang province as a movement against oppressive landlords and the ruling elite at a time when disease and corruption were rampant. It’s teachings and beliefs slowly spread nationwide culminating in an 1894 uprising in Jinju, where peasants killed rich landlords and traders to distribute their property to the poor.
The main idea of the movement was aimed at restoring political and social stability. Under one of its leaders, Choe Che-u (1824-1864), who was alarmed by the intrusion of Catholicism and Anglo-French occupation in Asia, it also sought ways to protect Korea from foreign encroachment.
Later, Donghak evolved into a more religious movement when Choe introduced the idea that all men could become divine through spiritual training. His teachings were soon systematized into a message of salvation. As the movement spread widely among the peasants, he set his religious themes to music so that illiterate farmers could have access to the doctrines.
The principles of Chondogyo, meaning literally “Master in Heaven,” were introduced by Sohn in 1905 based on these Donghak teachings. The renamed religion stated that God resides in every man, not in heaven as Christianity and other religions preach. The central belief, “Jisang Cheonguk,” or “heaven on earth,” is one of striving to turn earthly society into paradise.
Sohn helped to fund and set up underground anti-Japanese movements up to 1918 through a group he mobilized with Christians and Buddhists.
While stressing non-violent protest, Sohn prepared the Declaration of Independence with 32 other national leaders. This gradually led to a public demonstration on March 1, 1919, one of the most important historical events in Korea, in which the group proclaimed the declaration at Pagoda Park. The event sparked public demonstrations, calling for the country’s liberation and as a result, thousands of Koreans were killed by the Japanese government, while Sohn himself was arrested and died in prison.
Today, Chondogyo has 150 churches throughout Korea.
Though the teachings of Donghak were modified with the change of name, the principle of Chondogyo still remains largely nationalistic. The church has been particularly active in the reunification movement with the North.
In a forum held at the Press Center last Saturday, a team of Korean scholars talked of the religious, political and historical significance of Chondogyo.
To celebrate the centennial, a gukak performance will be held today at the central headquarters of Chondogyo based in Northern Seoul.
“Despite the desperate situation, fueled by the tragic collapse of the Joseon Dynasty and the colonial regime, Sohn never gave up,” said Han Gwang-do, the current leader of Chondogyo. “He was a true hero who led the religious movement toward the principle of restoring patriotism. Through him, we learn the teaching of endurance.”
by Park Soo-mee, Lee Hyeon-ik