National Foundation Day (Gaecheonjeol)


On the Korean calendar, October 3rd marks “Gae-Cheon-Jeol” (literally “to open the sky day”; 개천절), which is often less-beautifully translated as National Foundation Day. This holiday celebrates the legendary beginnings of Korea roughly 4,350 years ago. You may remember from Western history classes that only vaguely interesting things were happening in Mesopotamia at the time, long before Rome or Egypt or Greece showed up. Korea is a very old country.

LEGEND: The story of Korea’s beginning involves gods, plants and animals, and a humanistic philosophy. Thousands of years ago, the Lord of Heaven, Hwan-in (환인), had a son, Hwan-ung (환웅), who wanted to live on earth among humans. Being a good dad, Lord Hwan-in let his son and 3000 of his friends (demi-gods of weather and such) descend to earth at Heaven Lake, Mount Baekdu (located on today’s border between North Korea and China). There, Prince Hwan-ung founded a city, enacted laws, and, with his friends, taught people about farming, health, and the arts.


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Now one day, a tiger and a bear both prayed to Hwan-ung to make them human. He agreed, but as in all good stories, he first required a task: they must only eat garlic and mugwort (쑥) while living in a sunless cave for 100 days. The tiger quit the task early, but the bear persevered and became a woman, named Ung-nyeo (웅녀). Happy to have her prayers answered, the bear-woman gave thanks and offerings to the kind Prince, but still she longed for something more: to have a child (or a husband, depending on the source). Hwan-ung granted her wish (apparently requiring no further tasks) by making himself her husband and giving her a child, named Dangun (단 군, pronounced Dahn-goon, probably a Korean-Shamanic title that meant “altar king”).


In 1233 BC, the grown-up Dangun founded the proto-Korean kingdom of Joseon (조 선; historians today refer to this as Gojoseon (Old Joseon) to distinguish it from the more recent Joseon dynasty.) He ruled this theocratic nation as Dangun Wang-geom (priest-king) for over 1000 years before becoming an ascetic living in the mountains. Subsequent rulers took on his name to emphasize continuity of the lineage. (Interestingly, the political mythology of North Korea places dictator Kim Jong-il’s own birth at Mount Baekdu, undoubtedly to connect his god-like authority with heavenly foundation of Korea.


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Dangun ruled with a humanistic philosophy of hong-ik in-gan (홍익인간; roughly “broadly benefit all mankind”) that emphasized a dedication to living selflessly for the sake of others. Such a spirit of harmony and unity continue to be key aspects of Korea’s identity, and hong-ik in-gan is the national motto of South Korea today.

TODAY: Gaecheonjeol was made an official South Korean national holiday in 1909. The day is typically celebrated with public ceremonies, performances and speeches; government offices and many schools and private businesses are closed. As with many South Korean holidays, this is a designated “flag day” where cities, businesses, and citizens are encouraged to fly the national taegeukgi (태극기). In addition, ceremonies are held to honor Dangun at an altar of rocks he built at Chamseongdan, located at the top of Mount Mani (on Ganghwa Island just north of Incheon airport).   Celebrants may also offer ceremonial rites at the Sung-ryeong shrine in North Chungcheong province, reputed to house the spirit of Dangun.


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As strange as it seems to Western ears, this foundation myth has long given Koreans a unifying story of their people and their way of life throughout numerous invasions, occupations, and dispersions around the world.

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