Carl Young



1824:  Ch’oe Che-u, the first Tonghak patriarch, was born near Kyŏngju in southeastern Korea

1844-1854:  After his father’s death, Ch’oe Che-u left his wife and children to wander around Korea. He became aware of the many social problems of the time, threats to Korean sovereignty, and many different streams of thought and philosophy in Korea.

1860:  Ch’oe Che-u had a profound experience with the divine after an illness.  He received a secret symbol (yŏngbu) and a sacred incantation (chumun), as well as the commission to preach a new doctrine of truth. He recovered from his illness and preached his new teaching, Tonghak (Eastern Learning), to his family, friends, and others throughout southern Korea.

1864:  Alarmed at the rise of alternative teachings to official Neo-Confucianism, the Korean government labeled Tonghak a heterodox doctrine and captured and executed Ch’oe Che-u in Taegu (southeastern Korea). Ch’oe Che-u conveyed his teaching authority to a distant relative, Ch’oe Si-hyŏng, before his death.

1870’s and 1880’s:  Ch’ŏe Si-hyŏng, the second Tonghak patriarch, rebuilt and expanded Tonghak’s organization, mainly in the rural areas of the southern provinces of Korea.

1880-1881:  The first edition of the Tonghak scriptures was compiled and printed.

1892-1893:  Tonghak activists launched petitions and demonstrations demanding the posthumous rehabilitation of Ch’oe Che-u and the legalization of Tonghak. The Korean government initially agreed and then rebuffed the petitioners’ demands.

1894 (Spring):  Local Tonghak leader Chŏn Pong-jun led peasants and Tonghak believers in a rebellion that took control of most of southwestern Korea. The Korean government appealed for Chinese troops to help put down the rebellion, which also led to Japanese intervention. A truce was signed between the rebels and the Korean government in June 1894.

1894 (Autumn):  Chŏn Pong-jun and Ch’oe Si-hyŏng led a renewed rebellion over increasing concern about growing Japanese influence on the Korean government. After initial rebel success, government and Japanese forces suppressed the rebellion and exercised a violent crackdown against Tonghak. Chŏn Pong-jun and other rebel leaders were captured and executed, while Ch’oe Si-hyŏng and other Tonghak religious leaders went into hiding.

1898:  Ch’oe Si-hyŏng, the second Tonghak patriarch, was captured and executed by the Korean government.

1900:  Son Pyŏng-hŭi, the third Tonghak patriarch, assumed supreme leadership of Tonghak

1901:  Son Pyŏng-hŭi went to Japan to escape persecution in Korea and learn about the processes causing world change. He remained in Japan until 1906. Tonghak reorganized and expanded, especially in the northern provinces of Korea, during his absence.

1905:  Tonghak was renamed to Ch’ŏndogyo (Teaching of the Heavenly Way) after the end of the Russo-Japanese War and the imposition of the Japanese protectorate on Korea.

1908:  Son Pyŏng-hŭi resigned from his post as head of Ch’ŏndogyo and was succeeded by Pak In-ho. Son maintained a strong doctrinal and organizational authority.

1910: Korea was annexed to the Japanese empire. As a religion, Ch’ŏndogyo was one of the few organizations under Korean leadership to survive repression.

1919:  Ch’ŏndogyo played a central role, along with Protestant Christian and Buddhist activists, in organizing the March First independence demonstrations. The demonstrations were brutally suppressed, and many Ch’ŏndogyo leaders, including Son Pyŏng-hŭi, were arrested, tried and imprisoned for the next couple of years.

1921:  Ch’ŏndogyo’s Central Worship Hall in Seoul was completed.

1922:  Son Pyŏng-hŭi died soon after being released from prison.

1925:  Disputes over leadership and organizational issues led to a split into Old and New Factions. Although there were few doctrinal differences and they shared common buildings, both factions pursued separate institutional arrangements and engaged in different social, cultural, and political activities. Despite brief reunions, this division endured until World War II.

1940:  Under heavy pressure from the Japanese colonial government, the Old and New Factions reunited. Japanese interference and repression increased until the end of Japanese colonial rule.

1945:  Liberation from Japanese colonial rule was achieved. Ch’ŏndogyo activists were important in initial institutions to set up a post-colonial government. The division of the peninsula left the bulk of the membership in the Soviet-dominated northern zone.  Coordination between north and south became increasingly complicated. There was a renewed split between Old and New Factions in the southern zone.

1948: North and South Korea were created. The Ch’ŏndogyo Young Friends’ Party was technically a part of the ruling coalition in North Korea, but it was subverted from within, with the beginning of religious persecution. Ch’ŏndogyo also suffered some repression in the South because of these Northern links.

1949:  The Old and New Factions in South Korea were reunited.

1950-1953:  The Korean War took place. Many northern Ch’ŏndogyo believers fled to South Korea. At the end of the war, Ch’ŏndogyo survived as a religion in the South, whereas it continued to survive as a tightly controlled political institution in the North.  Division, persecution, and economic hardship accelerated the decline of Ch’ŏndogyo in both North and South Korea.

1954-1955:  A new unified Ch’ŏndogyo constitution in South Korea was created to overcome divisions during the colonial period.


Although the present-day membership of Ch’ŏndogyo (Teaching of the Heavenly Way) is relatively small, it has played an important part in modern Korean history, especially in its involvement in social and political movements in the late nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century. This historical legacy has permitted Ch’ŏndogyo to maintain an important social and cultural influence in both North and South Korea despite its reduced membership in the twenty-first century.

Ch’ŏndogyo emerged from the earlier Tonghak (Eastern Learning) religious movement that began in the last half of the nineteenth century in Korea. Tonghak’s founder, Ch’oe Che-u (also known by his religious name Su-un), was born in 1824 near Kyŏngju in southeastern Korea. [Image at right] Although his family line had been fairly illustrious and his father was known in his local region, Ch’oe’s father was poor and likely an impoverished chanban, or fallen yangban (scholar-official. The chanban made up the most impoverished segment of the yangban status group. They usually did not live that much differently from commoners and had lost access to the highest government posts. Ch’oe Che-u’s father was sixty-three at the time of his son’s birth. His mother was a concubine and apparently a remarried widow.  Widow re-marriage was looked down upon in Chosŏn Korea, although vulnerable widows did often remarry. However, the offspring of men of the educated classes and concubines, known as sŏja, were officially discriminated against and did not have access to the highest official posts. As the secondary son of a fallen yangban, Ch’oe Che-u faced a double obstacle for the status conscious elite of Korea for the time. In spite of his poverty, Ch’oe Che-u’s father does appear to have provided his son with an education and arranged a marriage for him before he died when Ch’oe Che-u was sixteen. He had already lost his mother ten years before when he was six years old. When his father died, Ch’oe Che-u was left in poverty, with limited opportunities because of his social background, and with relatively little skill in farming. He did have an education, however, so he taught some local children, and further immersed himself in the study of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism (Beirne 2009:18-21; Kallander 2013:38-41).

After his father’s death, Ch’oe Che-u left his family between 1844 and 1854 to wander around the country, mainly in the southern provinces. It was at this time that he gained a growing awareness of both the domestic and international situation facing Korea and deepened his knowledge of the various religious and philosophical traditions in Chosŏn Korea at that time (Kallander 2013:41-42; P’yo Yŏng-sam 2004:59-60). These years were crucial in forming Ch’oe Che-u’s religious views and his ideas on the interaction of religious values and solving the increasing problems facing Chosŏn Korea. At this time, Korea was undergoing political instability and East Asia was experiencing the growing presence of Western imperialism and religion.

The experience that finally culminated in Ch’oe Che-u founding a new religious movement occurred in 1860. Having returned to his family outside of Kyŏngju, Ch’oe Che-u was seized with an illness. During that time, he had an intense experience with the divine, who called him to teach truth and conveyed to him sacred incantations (chumun) and a sacred talisman or diagram (yŏngbu). After the experience, Ch’oe drew the diagram on a piece of paper and drank the ashes and was healed from his sickness. He then proceeded to convey his experience and teaching first to his family and friends and then more widely in the southern provinces of Korea (Beirne 2009:37-50; Kallander 2013:58-61).

The new teaching mainly attracted peasants and impoverished scholar-aristocrats. These were the people most dissatisfied with the state of society as it was, and they probably saw hope in the new doctrine. Ch’oe Che-u presented his new teaching as the union of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Daoism, all of which had a long history in Korea. However, he also emphasized that his Way was also different from these three teachings in that it was more accessible to people and easier to follow (Ch’ŏndogyo sajŏn 1942:141, 160-61). By combining basic principles from Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, and elements of Korean folk traditions in his new religion, Ch’oe Che-u apparently aimed to create a new Way that combined the best of the main streams of Korean thought to revitalize Korea both spiritually and socially. It was probably for this reason that he called his movement Tonghak or Eastern Learning, mainly to distinguish it from the growing encroachments of Catholicism, which was termed sŏhak or Western Learning (Weems 1964:4-8). Healing ceremonies and incantations also helped to increase its appeal among the common people. This new way of combining familiar ideas would have been very appealing to those still attached to Korean traditions, but who also wanted profound changes in religion and society.

This teaching was anathema to neo-Confucian scholar-officials who dominated Korea’s government. Official government persecution began in earnest in late 1863. In early 1864, the state council proscribed Tonghak, labeled Ch’oe Che-u a moral outlaw and pronounced Tonghak as heterodox. Ch’oe Che-u was arrested soon after in Kyŏngju, along with some members of his family and other followers. They were transferred to Seoul and then to Taegu in southeastern Korea, where Ch’oe Che-u was executed in April 1864. His works were burned, and his body brought back to his home in the Kyŏngju area (Young 2014:12-13).

Tonghak did not die with Ch’oe Che-u, however. A distant relative, Ch’oe Si-hyŏng (1827–1898), [Image at right] reorganized the religion throughout the 1870’s and 1880’s (Young 2014:13-16). Growth was again mainly concentrated in the southern provinces of Korea. Although Tonghak was still illegal and subject to periodic persecution, the Korean government was more preoccupied with political struggles in the capital and increasing foreign incursions.  Since Tonghak growth was far away from the capital, it was able to grow as a secret organization among peasants and disaffected intellectuals in these more remote locations into well-organized networks of believers (Young 2014:14-15).

Ch’oe Si-hyŏng also oversaw the compilation and publication of his predecessor’s teachings. These became two distinct volumes, the Tonggyŏng taejŏn (Complete Eastern Scripture) in classical Chinese, and the Yongdam yusa (Songs of Yongdam), in vernacular Korean. These form the foundational canon of the Tonghak scriptures and were published in woodblock form in the early 1880’s (Kallander 2013:95-96). Ch’oe Si-hyŏng also elucidated his own discourses on Tonghak doctrine that also became an important part of Tonghak/Ch’ŏndogyo scripture.

Discontent at Tonghak’s illegal status combined with general peasant demands for reform of government corruption and taxation led to the Tonghak Peasant Rebellion of 1894. [Image at right] The first phase of the rebellion in the spring of 1894 was centered in South Chŏlla province and was led by Chŏn Pong-jun, the charismatic leader of Tonghak’s Southern Assembly who led the Tonghak army to significant victories over government troops. Ch’oe Si-hyŏng disapproved of military action and was initially opposed to Chŏn’s actions. The rebel success led the Korean monarchy to appeal for aid from China to put down the rebellion. Japan sent troops to protect its interests in Korea and quickly took over the capital of Seoul. This would lead to the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895 that would be instrumental in expanding Japan’s empire in East Asia (Kallander 2013:117-21; Young 2014:21-25).

Seeing the nation’s independence and the king’s security were under threat, Ch’oe Si-hyŏng reversed his initial opposition to the uprising. In the autumn of 1894, the Tonghak peasant armies rose again. However, they were decisively defeated in the battle of Kongju in central Korea in the end of 1894 and Tonghak was subjected to violent persecution that smashed its organization and led to the deaths of thousands of believers (Kallander 2013:121-22; Young 2014:25-27). It should be noted that participants in the rebellion consisted of disaffected people from all levels of society, primarily but not exclusively the peasant class. Most of the rebels were not Tonghak believers, but the rebels relied on many Tonghak believers for leadership and on Tonghak’s religious network for their organization. The rebels, while remaining loyal to the king, were united against government corruption, oppressive and discriminatory practices, as well as Japanese intrusion into Korea’s government. Even though the rebellion eventually failed, it caused large changes in Korea’s and East Asia’s political order. The rebels’ struggle for social justice and national sovereignty has provided an inspiration for later movements in favor of government reform and social justice.

Although the historical legacy of the 1894 rebellion endures to this day, its immediate effect on Tonghak was disastrous. Chŏn Pong-jun was executed in 1895 and other Tonghak leaders were driven underground. The religion’s centers of strength in the southern provinces were subjected to severe repression, which led to the deaths of thousands and the end of organized networks of believers. Ch’oe Si-hyŏng himself was captured and executed in 1898.

Again, Tonghak faced a period of disorganization and uncertainty. It was revitalized by a new charismatic leader, Son Pyŏng-hŭi (1861–1922), [Image at right] who assumed supreme leadership of the movement in 1900. Son was faced with the challenge of reviving the Tonghak organization and modernizing it while ensuring that it remained faithful to the principles on which it was founded, all the time under the watchful eyes of the Japanese authorities. As the result of continuing persecution of the religion by government authorities, Son moved to Japan in March 1901, and continued to oversee the organization during his five-year self-imposed exile in this country. While in Japan, Son continued to hold meetings with Tonghak leaders as well as with Korean political reformers who were living in exile in Japan (Young 2014:40-43, 53-54, 62-67; Kallander 2013:128-32). Discussions with these reformers led Son to the conclusion that Korea’s political, economic, and social structures needed reform and that Tonghak should be at the forefront of this movement.

The Russo-Japanese War broke out in early 1904, and Korea quickly came under Japanese influence and occupation as Japan emerged victorious from the war. Son Pyŏng-hŭi had hoped to use this time of transition to push for political and social reform, but these efforts were quickly repressed. Some Tonghak leaders were co-opted to join the Japanese war effort and support Japan’s protectorate on Korea in 1905. This was strongly opposed by Son and on December 5, 1905, he announced a change of name of the religious movement from Tonghak to Ch’ŏndogyo. This was part of his effort to reassert his leadership of the religion and return it to its focus of following the Way of Heaven to reform the individual and society. (Young 2014:104-06). Son returned to Korea in January 1906 and expelled pro-Japanese elements from the religion and reasserted his dominance over Ch’ŏndogyo’s leadership and direction. He resigned from the leadership of Ch’ŏndogyo in 1907 and was succeeded in 1908 by Pak In-ho (1854–1940) (Ch’ŏndogyo chungang ch’ongbu kyosŏ p’yŏnch’an wiwŏnhoe 2007:136-37). Son continued his teaching activities, however, and was instrumental in setting Ch’ŏndogyo’s direction as a religion emphasizing the reform of the individual through contact with the divine leading to the reform of society.

Although Ch’ŏndogyo doctrine had strong social implications, Son de-emphasized political action in the last years of the protectorate. his proved to be a shrewd strategy since on August 22, 1910, a treaty of annexation was signed between Japan and Korea which inaugurated thirty-five years of Japanese colonial rule over Korea. Only religions were allowed to remain under Korean leadership in the first repressive years of colonial control and because of this, Ch’ŏndogyo survived as a religious organization. In spite of heavy surveillance, Ch’ŏndogyo continued its press and educational activities and was able to walk the thin tightrope between politics and social action successfully during the difficult first decade of colonial rule.

On March 1, 1919, a coalition of Ch’ŏndogyo, Protestant Christian, and reformist Buddhist leaders united to launch the March First demonstrations in favor of Korean independence. [Image at right] Of the thirty-three signers of the Korean Declaration of Independence, fifteen were Ch’ŏndogyo followers, with Son Pyŏng-hŭi as the first signatory. Nation-wide demonstrations were forcibly put down by the Japanese colonial authorities and resulted in a significant number of arrests, injuries and loss of life. Son Pyŏng-hŭi and other prominent Ch’ŏndogyo leaders were among those who were tried and imprisoned for their activities.  While the declaration and the mass support that accompanied it did not achieve independence, it was a powerful display of Korean nationalism and continues to be commemorated to this day, especially in South Korea. Unfortunately, Son Pyŏng-hŭi’s health declined in prison and he was released, but died shortly after in 1922. (Ch’ŏndogyo chungang ch’ongbu kyosŏ p’yŏnch’an wiwŏnhoe 2007:160-85; Hong Chang-hwa 1992:73).

In the aftermath of the March First Movement, young Ch’ŏndogyo activists founded cultural and political organizations that would later evolve into a political party, the Ch’ŏndogyo ch’ŏngnyŏndang (Ch’ŏndogyo Youth Party) on September 2, 1923 (Ch’ŏndogyo chungang ch’ongbu kyosŏ p’yŏnch’an wiwŏnhoe 2007:207-08). This centralized organization, with a variety of local and specialist wings, allowed Ch’ŏndogyo activists to become important actors in the new cultural and social movements that flourished in the 1920s. Ch’ŏndogyo organizations were particularly important in cultural publications, most notably the magazine Kaebyŏk (Creation), which became a forum for cultural and social debate among the wider Korean cultural community. The party’s publication arm, the Kaebyŏksa, also published other specialty cultural magazines in the 1920s, such as Sinyŏsŏng (New Woman), Ŏrini (Youngsters), and Haksaeng (Student) (Yim Hyŏng-jin 2004:191).

Son Pyŏng-hŭi’s death in 1922 led to a debate within the religion about its institutional structure. The arguments became so acrimonious that in 1925, Ch’ŏndogyo split into Old and New Factions (Ch’ŏndogyo chungang ch’ongbu kyosŏ p’yŏnch’an wiwŏnhoe 2007: 217-20). The two factions usually shared the same buildings, but met at different times and ran separate offices. They also ran separate social, cultural, and political organizations. Although organizations connected to Ch’ŏndogyo’s Old and New Factions continued to be active culturally and socially during the relatively more open 1920s, these internal divisions restricted their power and effectiveness.

There was a reunion of the two factions in December 1930 which led to a unification of the social and political movements. Unified action was short-lived, however, as renewed factional division led to the re-emergence of the Old and New Factions by the end of 1932. Political and social action was much more low-key in the 1930s. Growing repression by the Japanese colonial authorities as Japan embarked on its wars of expansion in the Asia-Pacific led to the end of overt Ch’ŏndogyo political and social action by 1939 (Ch’ŏndogyo chungang ch’ongbu kyosŏ p’yŏnch’an wiwŏnhoe 2007: 263). The two factions were reunited under strong pressure from the Japanese authorities in 1940. Along with other religious and social organizations, Ch’ŏndogyo was forced to act in favor of Japan’s war effort.

After Japan’s defeat in World War II in August 15, 1945, Ch’ŏndogyo entered a period of reorganization. Several of its leaders became involved in the new committees set up by the provisional Korean People’s Republic that was formed after liberation (Ch’ŏndogyo chungang ch’ongbu kyosŏ p’yŏnch’an wiwŏnhoe 2007:387). Ch’ŏndogyo’s religious and political organizations were reorganized in October 1945 (P’yo Yŏng-sam 1980a: 20). This included a political party called the Ch’ŏndogyo Ch’ŏngudang (Ch’ŏndogyo Young Friends Party). However, the division of the peninsula into Soviet and American zones and growing tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union made it increasingly difficult to cross the border from December 1945. The growing obstacles in keeping in contact with headquarters in Seoul were clearly brought out when Soviet authorities prevented northern Ch’ŏndogyo representatives on their way to national meetings in Seoul from crossing into the South in April 1946 (P’yo Yŏng-sam 1980a:20-21). From this point on, communication between Ch’ŏndogyo in both zones became almost non-existent, leading to the creation of separate organizations in both north and south.

The North Korean Ch’ŏndogyo Ch’ŏngudang was organized in February 1946. It quickly gained success and managed to sign up nearly 600,000 members by 1947 (Sejong yŏn’guso Pukhan yŏn’gu sent’ŏ 2004: 265). Party members were drawn from Ch’ŏndogyo’s membership, but party affairs and religious organization were kept separate. Religious affairs were coordinated between the Ch’ŏndogyo Disciple Network Association (Ch’ŏndogyo yŏnwŏnhoe) and the North Korean Ch’ŏndogyo Bureau of Religious Affairs (Puk Chosŏn ch’ongmuwŏn). This further solidified the organizational split between northern and southern Ch’ŏndogyo (Ch’ŏndogyo chungang ch’ongbu kyosŏ p’yŏnch’an wiwŏnhoe 2007: 397; P’yo 1980a:23).  In the southern zone, the renewed division between Old and New Factions in May 1946 led to mutual antagonism and further increased the difficulty in having coordinated political and social action. (Ch’ŏndogyo chungang ch’ongbu kyosŏ p’yŏnch’an wiwŏnhoe 2007:395). A final resolution of this dispute in the South would not occur until 1949.

Ch’ŏndogyo in both north and south advocated quick national unification and independence and supported movements favorable to uniting left and right (Ch’ŏndogyo chungang ch’ongbu kyosŏ p’yŏnch’an wiwŏnhoe 2007:407-08). In July 1947, the Northern Ch’ŏngudang issued a declaration calling on the U.S. and U.S.S.R. to follow a course towards independence in Korea and advocated the establishment of a unified provisional government that would be an expression of the people’s democratic will. Even though there was hardly any contact between the northern and southern branches of the Ch’ŏngudang at this time, this was very similar to the position of the Southern Ch’ŏngudang as well. The similarities between the two parties’ platforms led to suspicion on the part of right-wingers in the South which encouraged U.S. authorities to arrest many southern Ch’ŏndogyo activists, mainly from the New Faction, in late 1947 (Ch’ŏndogyo chungang ch’ongbu kyosŏ p’yŏnch’an wiwŏnhoe 2007:413).

In early 1948, Soviet authorities refused entry to the UN commission designed to establish unified elections in both zones. This began the process that eventually led to separate elections in both zones and the creation of two states in August and September 1948. In the south, Southern Ch’ŏngudang representatives became involved in the movement led by the nationalist politician Kim Ku (1876–1949) against separate elections. There were plans to conduct demonstrations against separate elections in the South around March 1, 1948. However, they never really happened as Old Faction members refused to participate in a movement they saw as coordinated by the New Faction that dominated the Southern Ch’ŏngudang (Ch’ŏndogyo chungang ch’ongbu kyosŏ p’yŏnch’an wiwŏnhoe 2007:422-23, 427-28, 436). Similar plans in the North for a Second March First Movement in favor of a united provisional government and peaceful unification in the North led to a split as the leader of Ch’ŏndogyo’s northern political party denounced the plans to the Communist authorities. This led to a wide-ranging purge of Ch’ŏndogyo in the north and the loss of much of its political and religious independence. Many northern Ch’ŏndogyo activists were executed or imprisoned. Many of those who were imprisoned were later executed during the Korean War (Ch’ŏndogyo chungang ch’ongbu kyosŏ p’yŏnch’an wiwŏnhoe 2007:400, 425-427; P’yo Yŏng-sam 1980b:77).

In South Korea, the Southern Ch’ŏngudang’s support of Kim Ku’s movement for a unified government earned the ire of Syngman Rhee’s new government. Some Southern Ch’ŏngudang representatives went to the North as part of this movement and ended up staying there (Ch’ŏndogyo chungang ch’ongbu kyosŏ p’yŏnch’an wiwŏnhoe 2007:436). These links with the North gave the Rhee government a pretext to clamp down on the Southern Ch’ŏngudang. It accused thirty Ch’ŏndogyo leaders of being North Korean spies and arrested them. The Rhee government further consolidated this action by dissolving the Southern Ch’ŏngudang. The fact that the North Korean occupiers tried to revive the Southern Ch’ŏngudang during their occupation of the South during the Korean War further tainted the Ch’ŏngudang in the eyes of southern authorities, and this is one of the reasons there is no Ch’ŏndogyo linked political party today in South Korea (Ch’ŏndogyo chungang ch’ongbu kyosŏ p’yŏnch’an wiwŏnhoe 2007:438-39).

The Korean War was a disaster for the entire peninsula and even more so for Ch’ŏndogyo, especially in the North. Ch’ŏndogyo religious officials were imprisoned when Northern troops occupied Seoul in mid-1950. UN and South Korean troops briefly invaded and occupied much of the North toward the end of 1950 until the Chinese intervention at the end of that year. Many of the remaining Ch’ŏndogyo believers joined the retreating armies and went to the South, where they helped to strengthen the religion there (Ch’ŏndogyo chungang ch’ongbu kyosŏ p’yŏnch’an wiwŏnhoe 2007:443).

Those who remained in the North were quickly subjected to persecution starting from 1951. There were reports of arrests and massacres of Ch’ŏndogyo believers during the remainder of the Korean War. Southern Ch’ŏngudang members who had taken refuge in the North were put on trial, as well as the religious leaders connected with Ch’ŏndogyo’s Bureau of Religious Affairs. Ch’ŏndogyo’s worship halls were closed in 1952, although there were limited rituals that continued within the Ch’ŏngudang until 1954 (P’yo Yŏng-sam 1980c: 20). By 1959, Ch’ŏndogyo was a shell of its former self, with only the Ch’ŏngudang existing on paper (Lankov 2001:118, 120, 122-24). Unification talks that took place in the early 1970s led to a revival of Ch’ŏndogyo’s fortunes as the North found that the Ch’ŏngudang might be useful to open contacts with the South. This led to the reopening of a Ch’ŏndogyo worship hall in Pyongyang, which is more for show than an active community. The Bureau of Religious Affairs in the North was also revived (Sejong yŏn’guso Pukhan yŏn’gu sent’ŏ 2004:270-72).

In South Korea, Ch’ŏndogyo overcame its factional divisions and established a new constitution and governing structure by 1954. This was based on the democratic election of its leaders and a collegial leadership, with the head of the organization elected for a limited three to five-year term. However, division, the chaos and disorganization caused by the Korean War, and persecution in the North where it had the most members, had taken its toll on the religion’s organization. Because of this, Ch’ŏndogyo proved less able than other religions in South Korea of adjusting to a rapidly industrializing society and make itself appealing to new adherents in a radically changed society. Persecution of Ch’ŏndogyo in the North actually improved its image in the South, but Ch’ŏndogyo chose to maintain a low profile politically and socially. This was further accentuated by a lack of human and economic resources. Ch’ŏndogyo has become a shadow of its former self in the twenty-first century, struggling with aging congregations, a lack of conversions, difficulty in retention, and a lack of economic resources.


Ch’ŏndogyo’s doctrine of in nae ch’ŏn (Humans are Heaven) is its best-known principle and is the foundation of its view of the divine. The doctrine was expressed in this form by Son Pyŏng-hŭi in 1907, but the origins of this principle are already apparent in the teachings of the founder of Tonghak, Ch’oe Che-u, and his successor, Ch’oe Si-hyŏng. Tonghak’s doctrine concerning the divine and humans was a process of gradual evolution towards a belief in the immanence of God in creation, with its highest manifestation in enlightened humans. Ch’oe Che-u’s first experience with the divine involved hearing a voice that identified itself as Sangje, an ancient Chinese name for the divine. During this experience, he was given an incantation, the recitation of which remains important in Ch’ŏndogyo today:

Si ch’ŏnju chohwa chŏng yŏngse pulmang mansa chi

“Bearing the Lord of Heaven, I shall become one with all creation; remembering the Lord forever, I shall discern the essence of all things” (Beirne 2009:118)

The concept of “bearing the Lord of Heaven,” later specified as being in the heart and the spiritual energy of the Universe, as well as inside every person, attests to the fact that the basis of the later in nae ch’ŏn doctrine was already apparent in the founder’s teachings.  Ch’oe Che-u emphasized that being a kunja, or noble person, did not depend on learning, but on how well one carried Heaven. This is indicative of Tonghak and Ch’ŏndogyo’s later teaching that the divine or Heaven was carried within the human heart and infused all of creation (Beirne 2009:58, 62-63, 171).

His successor, Ch’oe Si-hyŏng, had more time to expand on the thought of his predecessor.  He made a closer link between human beings and heaven by further emphasizing the founder’s concept of finding God within one’s heart. This eventually led to his teaching of sain yŏch’ŏn, or “serving people as if they were Heaven.”  He taught that natural processes were part of God, thus strengthening the immanent features of Tonghak doctrine (Hwang Sŏn-hŭi 1996:70-76). Proper ethical behavior became a way of showing one’s respect for Heaven. Ch’oe Si-hyŏng associated how one treated Heaven with how humans treated creation and other people. This was the practical manifestation of serving people as if they were Heaven. Sain yŏch’ŏn led to the idea of samgyŏng (the Three Respects). This involved respecting Heaven (kyŏngch’ŏn), respecting people (kyŏngin), and respecting things (kyŏngmul). It was through serving and respecting others and creation that one most respected Heaven, because these were the physical manifestation of Heaven (Young 2014:144-45).

Son Pyŏng-hŭi further consolidated his predecessor’s teachings of the divine residing in the human heart and pervading all creation.  Religious teaching and practice were to help humans realize this fact and help to manifest it within themselves and all creation. Son’s basic message is that Heaven is the origin and fundamental principle of all creation and cannot be found outside of it. People contain Heaven within their very nature, but contact with the physical world and wrong choices leads to a reduced manifestation of Heaven’s light. Through a realization of the fundamental unity of God, humans, and all creation, people can become pure receptacles of this divine brightness through right teaching, ethical behavior, and cultivation of the spiritual life that will permit them to be Heaven’s agents in the physical world and most especially, society. Ch’ŏndogyo teaching thus gave a justification for self-improvement and ethics, but also emphasized the necessity of social action to build an environment in which Heaven’s virtue could illuminate the world (Young 2014:145-52).

When Son Pyŏng-hŭi coined the phrase in nae ch’ŏn in 1907, it was presented as the culmination of a process of world evolution that had progressed from nature worship, to polytheism, to monotheism.  It was Ch’oe Che-u’s special mission to present it to the world (Ch’ŏndogyo kyŏngjŏn 1997:558-59).  Son stated:

The Taesinsa (Great Divine Teacher [Ch’oe Che-u]) is our religion’s founder.  If one summarizes his wide-ranging thought in a concise way, the essential point is that people are Heaven (in nae ch’ŏn) (Ch’ŏndogyo kyŏngjŏn 1997:560).

A late 1980’s doctrinal work sums this up this way:

       Up until now, humans and God were seen as different from one another, with God seen as on high and humans placed low and subordinate to God.

In nae ch’ŏn” meant a generational shift from a thought based on God and focused on God to one based on humans and focused on humans (O Ik-che 1989:44).

In nae ch’ŏn would become the best-known aspect of Ch’ŏndogyo and provided it with the foundation for its later doctrinal exegesis in the 1910’s and 1920’s and its justification for social action. Although Heaven is the divine force immanent within all creation and reaches a high presence in humans, it is often dormant because of corruption in the physical world and wrong choices.  Heaven becomes activated within oneself once one is awakened to the fact that humans carry Heaven within themselves, apply Ch’ŏndogyo’s teachings and rituals into one’s life, and live an ethical life and become a vehicle for Heaven’s work through service and the promotion of well-being, equality, and social justice (Young 2014:149-52; Kim Hyŏng-gi 2004:69-71). This is the basic goal of Ch’ŏndogyo believers in this life. This leads to a this-worldly focus in Ch’ŏndogyo religious life. After death, people return to the great creative force of the universe, and it is unclear what the state of the individual soul is after death. There is no real idea of a heaven or hell, but those who have attained the Way will be conscious of their unity with Heaven, while those who have not will not.  The important thing is to be a vessel for Heaven within one’s mortal body, which means treating the body well to maintain its health until its natural death and pursue one’s own enlightenment to become a vehicle of Heaven’s goodness to those around oneself. One’s legacy after death is through one’s descendants and the legacy one conveys to them, as well as the legacy of one’s good actions to one’s family and society at large (Hong Chang-hwa 1992:30-38).

The eight-character Descent of the Spirt (kangnyŏng) Incantation best describes the interaction between the power of Heaven pervading all creation awakening the Heaven within the individual heart, leading to the desire to become of vessel of divine power and propagating it throughout the world:

Chigi kŭmji wŏnwi taegang

“Ultimate Energy (chigi) now within, I long for it to pour into all living things.” (Beirne 2009:117)

In nae ch’ŏn also motivated the idea of building ‘the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth’ (chisang ch’ŏn’guk) and fostering a new creation (kaebyŏk). This has both spiritual and social implications. Creation had started with the beginning of this world, but a new creation began when the divine revealed itself to Ch’oe Che-u. The purpose of this new revelation was to reform and reconstruct a world that had lost contact with morals and the principle of Heaven.

This idea of a “new creation” motivated much of Tonghak/Ch’ŏndogyo’s social action. Ch’ŏndogyo was better organized than its Tonghak predecessor, and this idea of “creation” came to be most focused on religious propagation and social modernization, especially in the realm of education and the formation of ‘new humans.’ After the March First 1919 movement, Ch’ŏndogyo thinkers and activists used this idea of kaebyŏk to support social action (Kim Hyŏng-gi 2004:64-68, 93, 102). This included political action such as the foundation of political parties and farming cooperatives, a strong focus on education for all, notably for children and women, and social activism. Since division in 1945, however, Ch’ŏndogyo’s social action has been much less evident and organized.

This “Kingdom of Heaven” is not otherworldly, but is focused on constructing a society that can protect the nation and ensure the well-being of the people (poguk anmin). This kind of society will ensure social equality and social justice, providing input from all members of society, protecting their rights to life, peace, and a dignified life, and economic well-being.

The scriptures used today by Ch’ŏndogyo are a combination of the writings and discourses of the first three Tonghak patriarchs (Ch’oe Che-u, Ch’oe Si-hyŏng, and Son Pyŏng-hŭi).  The first compilation of scripture was published in the 1880’s and was focused on Ch’oe Che-u’s original works, the Tonggyŏng taejŏn (Great Eastern Scripture) and the Yongdam yusa (Songs of Yongdam). The discourses of the other Tonghak patriarchs came to be published separately in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These works came to be published together under the title Ch’ŏndogyo kyŏngjŏn (Ch’ŏndogyo Scripture) after the Korean War.  Most of these writings, apart from the Yongdam yusa, are in classical Chinese. This has led to vernacular Korean translations of the classical Chinese discourses alongside the originals in contemporary editions of the scriptures. Ch’ŏndogyo has devoted many resources to commentaries and interpretative works on the scriptures, which are often difficult to read for most believers, to make them more accessible to an audience they may not be well versed in traditional Classical Chinese.


Ch’oe Che-u’s original religious experience in 1860 involved a healing ritual that entailed drinking the ashes of burned paper on which sacred signs had been written.  Early on, Tonghak initiation rituals were held usually on mountain tops on the first and fifteenth days of the month, followed by singing and dancing. The recitation of the Tonghak incantation (chumun), spiritual charms, and the presentation of pure water (ch’ŏngsu) to symbolize Heaven were other practices. When Ch’ŏndogyo was organized in 1905, ritual was reformed and standardized, with a focus on five major practices known as the ogwan (Five Devotions). Some of the ogwan had origins in early Tonghak practice, while others were created to express Ch’ŏndogyo’s focus on institutional unity (Young 2014:158). The Five Devotions are: Chumun (Incantations), Ch’ŏngsu (Presentation of pure water), Kido/simgo (Prayer in the heart), and Sŏngmi (“sincerity rice”).

There are several incantations that are a feature of congregational, domestic and individual worship. The most common incantation is the thirteen-character Original Incantation (pon chumun) revealed in Ch’oe Che-u’s original divine experience in 1860. Another well-known incantation is the twenty-one-character incantation that combines the eight-character Descent of the Spirt (kangnyŏng) Incantation with the thirteen-character Original Incantation (Ch’ŏndogyo kyŏngjŏn 1992:69-70; Hong Chang-hwa 1996:207; Beirne 2009:117-18). This combined incantation is used for domestic devotions, especially for the daily household ritual of presentation of pure water that is described below, as well as in spiritual training exercises, when it is recited both out loud and silently. There is also a fourteen-character incantation known as the Divine Teacher’s Incantation (sinsa chumun) that is recited on Sunday evenings (Hong Chang-hwa 1996:207). The incantations are in classical Chinese and are used as aids in contacting the divine principle within oneself and drawing on its spiritual power.

The presentation of pure water in honor of the divine is a feature of Korean folk religion. [Image at right] Heaven before his death. The presentation of pure water has been an important part of Ch’ŏndogyo worship in its congregational and domestic aspects since that time. It is representative of the purity and clarity of Heaven. The presentation of pure water occurs both in congregational Sunday services (siil, see below) and in domestic rituals that occur every night at home, where it is accompanied by recitation of the chumun and silent prayer (Hong Chang-hwa 1996:208).

Simgo (heart prayer) involves turning inward in silent contemplation to contact the Lord of Heaven that is within oneself, every human being, and all creation. It can also be accompanied by chanting the chumun either vocally or silently and then turning inward in silent contemplation (Hong Chang-hwa 1996:209).

Service Day (siil) is a day of rest designated as Sunday by Son Pyŏng-hŭi in 1906. It is a celebration of the fact that humans ‘bear Heaven’ within themselves. The highlight of this day is an hour-long congregational meeting that involves the presentation of clear water and the recitation of the chumun as mentioned above, as well as congregational and choral singing and preaching (Hong Chang-hwa 1996:208). These services take place when possible in designated meeting houses. The central meetinghouse, which is the largest in the country, is in central Seoul and was built in 1921. [Image at right]

‘Sincerity rice’ (sŏngmi) is the traditional offering and collection of a small portion of rice—originally one small cup a day—from Ch’ŏndogyo members to support fellow practitioners in need of sustenance. This practice was introduced very soon after the organization of Ch’ŏndogyo, as a way of funding the religion’s social, religious, and welfare endeavors (Young 2014:160).  The donation is now more often paid in money rather than rice.

There are also special holidays that celebrate important dates in the lives of the first three Tonghak patriarchs, as well as the foundation of Ch’ŏndogyo and other important historical events. Special services, similar to the regular Sunday services explained above, are held during these special commemorative events.

Initiation into Ch’ŏndogyo involves a ceremony (ipkyosik) that can take place at home or at a meetinghouse  where the prospective convert, a sponsoring Ch’ŏndogyo believer and a Ch’ŏndogyo leader as well as observers come together. [Image at right] Documents are signed and chumun and other teachings are conveyed to the convert (Ch’ŏndogyo annae 2012:38).


In South Korea, Ch’ŏndogyo has congregations throughout the country, with a lot of the congregations centered in the Seoul/Kyŏnggi area that has nearly half of South Korea’s population. Congregations are in most of South Korea’s larger cities and towns, with a few scattered congregations in rural areas, and they can vary greatly in size, although a formal congregation requires at least fifty people. There is also one congregation in the Kobe area of Japan.

Leadership of the congregation is based on elections among the members. The congregations also send delegates to vote for the officials of the Central General Bureau in Seoul, where officials including the head of the organization, are elected for three year terms. There are delegate conferences twice a year, with a large convention every three years that elects the head of the religion and other Central Bureau officials (Kyohŏn 2008:17-21).

In North Korea, most Ch’ŏndogyo activities are centered on the Ch’ŏndogyo Ch’ŏngudang political party, which still exists on paper as part of North Korea’s governing coalition led by the Workers’ Party. The Ch’ŏngudang has twenty-three members in North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly. Ch’ŏndogyo’s North Korean Bureau of Religious Affairs was abolished after the Korean War, but was revived in the 1970’s. There is one formal worship hall in Pyongyang. There are services that take place in the worship hall when there are visitors, but it is uncertain whether they take place otherwise. Religious activity is tightly controlled, restricted, and regulated.

There are contacts between Ch’ŏndogyo in both North and South Korea. This may be one of the reasons the North Korean regime reestablished the Bureau of Religious Affairs and allows limited activities.  There have been around thirty meetings between North and South Korean Ch’ŏndogyo officials since 2005, mainly over commemorations of the Tonghak Rebellion and the March First movement. This is one of the few contacts between North and South Korea and has continued despite strained relations between the two states (Yim 2017).


Ch’ŏndogyo had a powerful influence in modern Korean history. It has struggled, however, to maintain its vigor since the Korean War. As seen in the historical section, division severely weakened Ch’ŏndogyo on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone.  In the North, Ch’ŏndogyo mainly survives through its political party, the Ch’ŏndogyo Ch’ŏngudang, that is tightly linked to the ruling Worker’s Party. In the South, Ch’ŏndogyo’s main areas of activity have been in the areas of historical commemoration and efforts for Korean unification. The religion is highly active in commemorative events of the Tonghak Peasant Rebellion of 1894 and the March First 1919 movement (which is a national holiday in South Korea).

Although there are Ch’ŏndogyo adherents in North Korea and Japan along with the bulk of the membership in South Korea, there has been no concerted, systematic effort by the organization to expand internationally. It is uncertain how many believers reside in North Korea; it is clearly a small number, however. Numbers in the South vary between 20,000 and 80,000; the first number likely denotes active believers while the latter is likely the number of total members. This is also significantly lower than before 1945 and demonstrates that Ch’ŏndogyo has struggled in making its message heard in South Korea’s rapidly changing industrialized society.

In South Korea, the religion faces aging congregations, with problems of youth retention and a lack of converts to make up for the older generation passing away. This has led to economic weakness that has hampered Ch’ŏndogyo’s religious work. Whatever the number of adherents there are in Korea today, Ch’ŏndogyo’s influence reaches far beyond the confines of the religion itself, however. As the first modern Korean new religious movement, Ch’ŏndogyo and its leaders have exerted an influence as prototypes for other Korean new religious movements and their leaders. Other Korean new religions, such as the sects emerging from Kang Chŭngsan’s movement (often known as Chŭngsan’gyo), include certain elements of Tonghak ritual and Ch’oe Che-u in their line of divine messengers (Young 2014:48-49).

Most important is Tonghak and Ch’ŏndogyo’s historical legacy in the creation of modern Korean nationalism, in both North and South Korea. Tonghak and Ch’ŏndogyo’s important involvement in the 1894 Tonghak Peasant Rebellion and in the March First 1919 Movement, as well as its social and cultural activism in colonial times, are seen by both North and South Koreans as seminal movements in the creation of a modern Korean sense of nationhood. The rising of the poor and oppressed in these movements have made Tonghak and Ch’ŏndogyo an inspiration for movements of social justice, democratization, and social equality especially in South Korea. Ch’ŏndogyo in South Korea today invests a lot of resources in commemoration of these historical events that make it shine far more than its present numbers may indicate in Korean society. Despite the widespread admiration for Ch’ŏndogyo’s historical legacy, this has not led to growth in the present for the religion. Indeed, the focus on the historical past may have led to a neglect of the spiritual needs of those in the present and a postponement of a debate about Ch’ŏndogyo’s future and how it can grow and provide new spiritual and community solutions for a rapidly changing South Korean society.

* All of the images displayed in this profile are the property of and used with the permission of the Ch’ŏndogyo Central General Bureau.
Image #1: Ch’oe Che-u.
Image #2: Ch’oe Si-hyŏng.
Image #3: Tonghak Rebellion of 1894.
Image #4: Son Pyŏng-hŭi.
Image #5: The March First Movement.
Image #6: Ch’ŏngsu bowl with pure water.
Image #7: Ch’ŏndogyo Central Worship Hall.
Image #8: Ipkyosik initiation ceremony.


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Post Date:
2 November 2017