- Su-Un and His World of Symbols: The Founder of Korea's First Indigenous Religion
A newly published book, Su-Un and His World of Symbols, analyses the symbolic images which Ch'oe Che-u (1824–1864), better known as Su-un, the founder of Donghak (Eastern Learning, which later led to Cheondogyo, one of Korea's first indigenous religions) had of himself as a religious and cultural leader to communicate with the Lord of Heaven in unity. The author, Professor Paul Beirne from Melbourne's College of Divinity in Australia, lived and studied in South Korea for fifteen years, and has undertaken various types of research on the Donghak/Cheondogyo religion.
The religious or social movements of Donghak deeply influenced Korean society in various ways. However, it is not well known to Westerners that B.B. Weems' book, Reform, Rebellion and The Heavenly Way (1964), should be acknowledged as the first general introduction to Donghak in English. Since then, there has not been much research and only a few essays in English, which in turn only cover some parts of Cheondogyo. This book, Su-Un and His World of Symbols, provides a lot of information that was not previously available to Western scholars. Dr. Beirne makes good use of a wide range of material and resources that are vital for an accurate depiction of this religion. [End Page 114]
After a brief introduction about the methododogy that the author used, Chapter Two begins to take an analytical look at Ch'oe Che-u's early life. Korea at this time was a country that was both politically and culturally oppressive. As a boy, Ch'oe Che-u had a difficult childhood growing up in a poor household as the son of a remarried widow in a society where women were highly frowned upon if they remarried, and their male offspring were ineligible to hold official government posts. Su-un's early life was spent wandering around Korea, where he labored in various meaningless jobs. This led him to philosophize about his own inadequacy and the ineffectiveness of the Korean government that was mired in strife, and a country that did not have an indigenous religion to provide spiritually for its people. Due to this difficult upbringing, Su-un had a strong desire to rid the world of unfairness and inequality. In the spring of 1860, he laid the groundwork for what is today known as Cheondogyo. Furthermore, Su-un's actions and belief in a better form of social equality for Korean people which removed class distinctions soon gained many followers and was met with extremely positive responses from commoners. His ideas of a world without class suppression were extraordinary and ahead of their time, considering that in nineteenth century Korea, class level was very strictly adhered to in Joseon's Neo-Confucian society. His ideology, called Donghak (Eastern Learning), spread quickly, and fearing loss of control, the Korean government tried to stop him and limit Donghak's effect on the people. Although captured and killed in 1864, Su-un was able to establish Donghak as a new system of religious order advocating self-sufficiency as a way for Koreans to overcome the various forms of oppression.
The third chapter, entitled "Su-un's Encounter with the Lord of Heaven," analyses the three accounts given about how he became enlightened after an encounter with the Lord of Heaven on Mt. Gumi. The author states that two of these accounts appear in the Donggyeong Daejon, and one appears in the Yongdam Yusa.1 The author effectively portrays the similarities and differences between the three accounts, and lists them chronologically. The similarities of the three accounts include: the theme of physical distress; the transformation of Su-un to become a philosophical and religious leader; and the type of epiphany he witnessed, where the deity's choice of him was unconditional. He did not [End Page 115] have to undergo any "tests" to prove his worthiness, and the gifts which accompanied his encounter are given...