Who is the founder of the Korean nation?

Tomorrow (i.e., 3 October 2016) is the National Foundation Day in South Korea.  This day is also known as Gaecheonjeol (개천절) which literally means “the day on which the Heaven opens”. This day commemorates the opening up of the sky and the descent of Hwangung (환웅) , son of the Lord of Heaven, from Heaven to earth which laid the foundation of the first Korean nation of Gojoseon established by Hwangung’s son, Dangun (단군), in 2333 B.C..  This day has been designated as a national holiday in South Korea since 1909.  The story of the founding of the Korean nation is based on the myth of Dangun in the Samguk Yusa (삼국유사 – Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms).

The Dangun Myth

Hwanung (환웅), son of the Lord of Heaven, Hwanin (환인), wished to live on the earth to improve the welfare of mankind and descended from the Heaven with 3,000 followers on Mount Taebaek in the Korean Peninsula in 2457 B.C..  With the help of the three gods of clouds, wind and rain, he improved some 360 aspects of human life including agriculture, life and death, health, punishment, virtue, vice, etc..  At that time, a tiger and a bear prayed to Hwangung to let them become human beings. Hwangung told them to keep themselves from the sunlight in a cave for 100 days and eat only mugwort and garlic during that period.  The tiger soon gave up and left the cave, but the bear persevered and was transformed into a woman.  Later, the bear-woman became Hwangung’s wife and gave birth to a son called Dangun Wanggeom (단군왕검).

Dangun later ascended to the throne, and in 2333 B.C., he founded the first Korean nation called Joseon (literally means “morning calm”) covering Manchuria and the Korean Peninsula. It is referred today as Gojoseon (literally means “Ancient Joseon”) to distinguish it from the Joseon Dynasty established later in the 14th century.  The capital of Gojoseon was initially located at the present-day Pyongyang, and was later moved to Asadal.  Dangun ruled for 1,500 years and became a mountain spirit at the age of 1908.    You can watch this video for the Dangun myth.

There has been debate about whether the god-king Dangun really existed.  According to some historians studying the ethnic waves of migration, Dangun might be the leader of a clan chiefdom known as Joseon.  The story of Hwangung might in fact be related to the migration of an ethnic clan called Hwangung from Mongolia to Manchuria and the Korean Peninsula, and the Hwangung clan later dominated the natives there.  Among the natives, the tiger-totem clan resisted this migrant clan whereas the bear-totem clan accepted it.  With the help of the bear-totem clan, Hwangung clan created the first tribal chiefdom called Joseon in the region led by the Shaman-chief Dangun.

In any case, Dangun is now regarded as the founder of the Korean nation and has become a symbol of national identity.  The Dangun myth gives the Koreans a sense of national identity as a distinct race descending from a common ancestor.  One of the taekwondo movement patterns of the International Taekwondo Federation has even been named as “Dangun” after this legendary founder.  You can watch this video for the Dangun taekwondo pattern.

Celebrations in South Korea

On the National Foundation Day, ceremonies are held at the shrines of Dangun in various places of South Korea.  The more popular ones are the ceremony held at the Dangun Shrine at Sajik Park in Seoul, and the Gaecheon Grand Festival at Mount Mani on Ganghwa Island.  There is also an official ceremony held at the Sejong Centre of Performing Arts in which the citizens sang the Gaecheonjeol song together and musical performances were given.  If you are in South Korea on the National Foundation Day, you may participate in these activities.  Happy National Foundation Day! 🙂

Reminder: The date of publication of the next post will be announced on the “Latest News” page of this website when it’s available. Or you can follow my blog by clicking the “Follow” button on the sidebar to receive email notifications of new posts.  Watch this space!

 

References:

Lee Soo-eun, “Celebrating the birth of Korea on Gaecheonjeol, National Foundation Day“, Arirang News, 2015-10-03

Kim Ji-yeon, “Story behind National Foundation Day of Korea“, Arirang News, 2014-10-02

Djun Kil Kim, The History of Korea, California: ABC-Clio, LLC, 2014 (2nd ed.), pp. 20-23

Korea marks 4,345th National Foundation Day“, Arirang News, 2013-10-03

Arirang TV, “Korea Today – The Dangun Myth and the National Foundation Day“, Arirang Issue, 2013-10-02

Suzy Chung, “The day the heavens opened – Korea’s founding myth“, The Korea Blog, 2011-10-03

扈貞煥著,《韓國的民俗與文化》,台北市 : 臺灣商務印書館股份有限公司,2006年版, 249-250

Bruce Cumings, Korea’s Place in the Sun: a modern history, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2005 (updated ed.), pp. 22-25

James Hoare and Susan Pares, Korea: an introduction, London: Kegan Paul International Limited, 1988, pp. 14-16

Korea Tourism Organization, “The legend of Dangun

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