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CH'ŎNDOGYO (Religion of the Heavenly Way) is an indigenous Korean religion influenced by Confucianism and Daoism. It was founded in 1860 by Ch'oe Suun (Che-u; 18241864) in reaction to the traditional religions of Korea and in an attempt to offer a new religious dispensation to the masses. Originally known as Tonghak (Eastern Learning), the movement was also a reaction to Christianity, known as Sohak (Western Learning). The name was changed to Ch'ŏndogyo in 1905.

Suun was born in Kyŏngju, the ancient capital of the kingdom of Silla. According to Ch'ŏndogyo tradition, he received from God a revelation of ch'ŏndo (the Heavenly Way), a new universal truth. His teaching attracted a large following, but it was regarded as dangerous by the government, and he was martyred. Nevertheless, the movement continued to grow under the leadership of Suun's successor, Ch'oe Haewŏl (Si-hyŏng; 18271898), and under the third leader, Sohn Ŭiam (Pyŏng-hŭi; 18611922), Ch'ŏndogyo became one of the major religions of Korea. The writings of these first three leaders form the Ch'ŏndogyo scripture (Ch'ŏndogyo kyŭngjŭn ). The most important part of this canon is Suun's writings, known as Tonghak Scripture or even Ch'ŏndogyo Scripture.

The antigovernmental Tonghak Revolution of 1894, a popular uprising under Tonghak leadership, helped to modernize Korean society. Ch'ŏndogyo also played a leading role among Korean religions in the Samil (March 1) Independence Movement of 1919 against Japanese colonialism. Since the demise of Sohn Uiam, Ch'ŏndogyo has remained a religion with a democratic system of ecclesiastical government. Currently, Ch'ŏndogyo membership is approximately one million and its headquarters are in Seoul. The church plays no active role in South Korean politics. In North Korea, Ch'ŏndogyo has been persecuted under communism since 1945.

Beliefs and Practices

The common term for God in Ch'ŏndogyo is Hanullim, or Heavenly Lord, although scripture also uses the epithet Ch'ŏnju, a Chinese form of Hanullim. (The latter is related to other Korean names for God, Hanŭnim and Hananim.) Ch'ŏndogyo conceives God as the totality of life or the universe, and his immanence is emphasized more than his transcendence.

The Ch'ŏndogyo view of human nature is expressed in two key phrases, "Si Ch'ŏnju" ("Man bears divinity") and "In nae Ch'on" ("Man is God"). Man is one with God in essence and in potentiality, and realizes this oneness in the practice of sincere faith and morality. These ideas reflect a mystical as well as a humanistic tendency. Since man is essentially divine, one must treat others with the utmost concern, respect, sincerity, dignity, equality, and justice. Thus the injunction "Sain yŏch'ŏn" ("Treat man as God") has been the central ethical teaching of Ch'ŏndogyo. This democratic principle was a revolutionary one in nineteenth-century feudalistic Korean society.

The Ch'ŏndogyo concept of human destiny is basically this-worldly, expressed in terms of a divine life or kingdom of heaven on earth. Ch'ŏndogyo emphasizes a cooperative community of humankind.

In Ch'ŏndogyo, the spiritual life is fostered by observance of the Five Practices (ogwan ):

  1. Incantation (chumun ). Ch'ŏndogyo devotees seek oneness with God by chanting a formula that translates: "Ultimate Energy being here and now, I yearn for its great descent. Bearing God, I become firm and well. Never forgetting, I become aware of all." It is chanted at 9:00 pm every day and also at other times on special occasions. At the Sunday worship service, the second half of the incantation ("Bearing God ") is chanted.
  2. Pure Water (ch'ŏngsu ). In all ceremonies and at 9:00 pm daily, a bowl of pure water is placed on a table and the worshipers meditate on the significance of water as a symbol of spiritual purity.
  3. Service Day (siil). The Sunday worship service includes prayer, hymns, scripture reading, and a sermon.
  4. Sincerity Rice (sŏngmi ). Believers put aside some rice each day and offer it to the church at the end of the month.
  5. Prayer (kido ). Prayer expresses the worshiper's wishes. A silent meditative prayer called simgo (heart address) is also practiced at mealtimes, before and after sleeping, and in all ceremonies.

Finally, Ch'ŏndogyo stresses moral discipline. It requires of its followers that they keep a steadfast mind, avoid materialistic desires, and cultivate sincerity, respect for others, and faith.


My book on Ch'ŏndogyo thought, The Ch'ŏndogyo Concept of Man: An Essence of Korean Thought (Seoul, 1978), contains a glossary and an extensive bibliography. Benjamin B. Weems's Reform, Rebellion, and the Heavenly Way (Tucson, 1964) deals mainly with the role that Ch'ŏndogyo played in Korean politics, but it also contains much of Ch'ŏndogyo history and cites some Ch'ŏndogyo ideas and practices. It includes a useful glossary, bibliography, and index. These two studies are the only books in English that deal exclusively with Ch'ŏndogyo.

The following books in Korean are good sources for understanding Ch'ŏndogyo: Che-u Ch'oe's Ch'ŏndogyo Kyŏngjŏn (Tonghak Kyŏngjŏn ) (Seoul, 1961), Paek Se-myŏng's Tonghak sasang kwa Ch'ŏndogyo (Seoul, 1956), and Ch'oe Tong-hŭi and Kim Yong-ch'ŏn's Ch'ŏndogyo (Iri, 1976).

New Sources

An, Sang-jin. Continuity and Transformation: Religious Syntheses in East Asia. New York, 2001.

Belrene, Paul. "The Eclectic Mysticism of Ch'oe Cheu." Review of Korean Studies 2 (1999): 159182.

Lee, Sang-Chan. "A Critical Study of the Popular View of the 'Righteous Army Movement' of 1896." Seoul Journal of Korean Studies 12 (1999): 124151.

Yong-Choon Kim (1987)

Revised Bibliography