Choe Je-u (崔濟愚) (1824 - 1864) emerged as the founder of an indigenous Korean religion, one that had enormous impact on the unfolding of events in the twilight years of the Joseon Dynasty as well as the creation of Modern Korea.
Choe's religious teaching, and the rebellion that many followers of his religion sparked after his death, has been claimed by both South Korea and North Korea as a national heritage. North Korea claims Choe as a champion of the worker (that is, the peasant) while followers in South Korea focus on his religious message.
Choe Je-u's religious message sprang from an authentic dark night of the soul. He distressed over the plight of China and Korea, seeing them as closely bound together by culture, religion, and history. Choe, the son of a yangban by way of a concubine, experienced the yangban society without the privileges of his class. As the son of a concubine, he could not take the national examinations to become a top government or military leader. Instead, he worked the estate inherited from his father as a farmer.
Closely related to the farmers of his region by common labor and rights, Choe thought about ways to improve the plight of the common Korean. Joseon Dynasty Korea had entered into the decline and collapse phase by the late 1800s. He considered ways to revive Korea, ways to bring Korea back to the glory of an earlier time when yangban lived the Confucian classics. He turned his sensitive spirit and keen intellect to a profound study of the Confucian classics, creating a teaching based upon Confucian values simple enough for uneducated farmers to follow. The government officials of his region feared a rebellion against their corrupt rule, so they concocted false charges that led to his execution.
Choe had a short, three year ministry from 1862 to 1864. Yet, in those few years, he laid the foundation for the vital indigenous religious movement in Korea. Cheondogyo (The Heavenly Way), a distillation of key Confucian teachings, struck a cord with the profoundly Confucian Korean society. The Daewongun supported the charge that Choe practiced Christianity, approving his execution. Choe stood first in line for thousands of martyrs to follow in the next seven years at the hands of the Daewongun.
Choe, in addition to closely studying the Confucian classics, paid close attention to Christian teachings. He perceived in the Christian nations tremendous power. Japan had begun to embrace Western modernization without embracing Christianity. Choe looked for elements of the Christian faith that he could incorporate without teaching the Christian faith. He wanted to revive Korea, not accept the Christian teaching of those nations that threatened Korea's sovereignty.
During his intense study and meditations, Choe had a divine revelation in April 1860. The following is Choe's account of the encounter written shortly afterwards:
Then unexpectedly during the fourth month when my heart was distressed and my body trembling from a strange malady, a voice which is difficult to describe, but like that of an immortal suddenly made itself heard. I rose in amazement and questioned [the voice] which answered: "don't be afraid. Mankind calls me the Lord (sangje). Don't you recognize the Lord?" When I questioned the Lord, He answered: "I have no manifestation so I shall send you to teach mankind this way (pop). Have no doubts." I asked, "Shall I then teach mankind the Western Way?" He replied, "No, I have a talisman which is called the elixir of immortality (sonyak) and is shaped like the Great Ultimate (t'aeguk) and also like the characters. Take this talisman from me and cure mankind's' illness. Then you too will experience fullness of life and will propagate virtue throughout the world.
Choe, in December 1861 (approximately one year and eight months after his encounter with the divine), wrote a second account:
Now in the fourth month of 1860, the world was in disarray and peoples' minds were confused, and no one knew where to turn. Strange news spread over the world. The Westerners established a doctrine through whose efficacy they could accomplish all things and no one could withstand their armament. China was burned and demolished, and Korea cannot escape the same fate. The reason for this is none other than that their way is called the Western Way, their learning is called Catholicism or the Holy Teaching. Isn't it that they know the Heavenly order and receive the Heavenly Mandate?
There is no end to the disorder and decline. As I cringed and signed at this, I felt that the vital force of divine power descended and a mysterious teaching came down to me. Though [others] searched, it remained unseen, though others listened, it remained unheard and seemed still stranger. After bracing the mind and renewing the spirit, I asked, "What is to be?"
The reply was: "My heart is your heart (sim). How can mankind know it? though mankind knows of heaven and earth, it cannot understand spiritual beings (kuisin). But I am also a spiritually being. Now that you have understood the infinite Way, practice and refine it, express it in writing and teach it to mankind and set down its practices and propagate virtue. Then you will live long and flourish in your lifetime, and propagate virtue throughout the world."
Doctrine and ministry
By the end of 1861, Choe had begun to attract followers; the first was his wife. He quietly taught and practiced the Heavenly Way. First class yangban, hearing of his life and teaching, visited Choe. Choe's conversations with the first class yangban (that is, yangban qualified to take the state examinations) are recorded in his writing and in the Donghak Bible compiled by his disciples after his martyrdom.
Choe spent the next year studying a twenty on character chant, utilizing the talisman as a healing instrument, reflecting on the commission the spirit had given him, and practicing the way of virtue. He refrained from seeking converts in the first year.
On Propagating Virtue
During the spring of 1861, after one year study of and reflection upon Confucian doctrines, Choe wrote On Propagating Virtue (P'odok Mun). He taught the importance of studying Chinese Confucianism and the need to become a gentleman and sage through following the Way (the Mandate of Heaven). He described in greater detail the talisman given by the Lord (sangje): Shaped like the Great Ultimate (t'aeguk, the symbol on the South Korean flag, the Yin and Yang) and like the characters. Choe found that the talisman cured some people while failing to cure others. He reasoned that the talisman could only heal those who practiced the Way and had faith.
A Discussion of Learning
- Chi-keui Keum-chi won-wi Tai-dang
- Si Chun-chu Cho-hwa Chung
- Yung-sei Pool-mang Man-sa Chi.
Choe described the chant in the following way:
Chi-keui means God (or Infinite Energy). Chi means infinite and Keui means energy or force. This God controls everything and orders all things. He (to It) seems to have some sort of form, but I cannot describe it. One cannot see or hear him. It is a sort of atmosphere.
Keum-chi means to enter into the Doctrine (or the Doctrine into me), and means that the spirit of Chi-keui is abiding in me. Won-wi means to yearn or ask for a thing desired. Tai-kang means, May it generally put down. Si means that the Chi-keui (God, or Infinite Energy) has been honorably escorted into a person by his desire and will, and that he is fitted for his work in life. Chun-chu means the Lord of Heaven (God). Cho-hwa means natural power or Nature itself. Yung-sei means a man's whole life, or forever. Pool-mang means not to forget. Man-sa means all things. Chi means to understand the doctrine and receive the knowledge.
The whole formula has for its purpose the securing of virtue, and never forgetting it, for it is most powerful, most spiritual and most holy.
The chant is a divine invocation, a request that God (chi-keui or Chun-chu) will fill the believer with the Confucian doctrine (virtue), and to maintain an uprightness of mind (virtue) always. The twenty one character chant, which choe modeled after the Buddhist chant, provided a means of worship simple enough for uneducated Korean farmers to practice. The chant became the center piece of worship for the Heavenly Way faithful.
Choe wrote that good and evil in human affairs are the result of men failing to live according to the Way. He left the origin of evil out of his discussion. He proclaimed that "the infinite laws of heaven and earth and the fundamental principles of the Way are all conveyed" in his poems. We will consider his poems below.
On Cultivating Virtue
In June 1861 (lunar calendar), Choe wrote another tract, On Cultivating Virtue (Sudok mun), in which he declared his Way nearly identical with the Way of Confucius. Choe maintained that Confucianism had strayed from the teachings of Confucius and that God had commissioned him to instruct all people in the Mandate of Heaven revealed by Confects and his disciples.
In addition to admonishing the disciple to faith in the Way and sincerity in practice of the Way, Choe taught the following:
Benevolence (in), righteousness (ui), decorum (ye), and knowledge (chi) are the virtues taught by former sages. Cultivating the mind and rectifying the spirit (susim chonggi) are the virtues that I introduced. The initiation rite is a solemn vow to serve God forever as one banishes doubts to attain sincerity. The gentleman dresses correctly; the vulgar (ch'on)eats on the road and folds his hands behind him. In the homes of believers, the meat of bad animals (dogs) is not eaten. sitting in a gushing cold spring is harmful to the health. For men and women to associate is forbidden by our National Codes. To recite an incantation in a loud voice is to neglect our Way. To propagate these rules is to practice the Way. 
In 1863, Choe directed his chief disciple, Choi Si-hyung, the man who would take up the leadership of the [[Cheondogyo|Heavenly Way) movement after Choe's execution, to compile and publish the Donghak Bible from Choe's writings mentioned above. Before Choe could compile the Donghak Bible for publication, the Great Persecution of 1864 erupted, disrupting the task for fifteen years. Although called the "Great Persecution" by Choi, the 1864 persecution had been relatively small in scale compared to the massive persecution of 1866, in which an estimated 10,000 Christians suffered martyrdom. Choi compiled, edited, and published the Donghak Bible in 1888.
The Donhak Bible, in addition to compiling Choe's three writings, summarized above, presented twenty three of Choe's poems and proverbs. Those that have titles are: "What is True and What is Not True;" "Chookmoon, a Supplication;" "Formulae for Various Occasions;" "On the Vernal Equinox;" "Warning to Scholars Who Hurry the Doctrine Too Much;" "A Secret or a Prophecy;" and "Poem of the Night." The poetic writings cover the same themes of cultivation virtue discussed above.
Two writings are especially note worthy: First, "A Proverb:"
- Broad my Doctrine is but condensed,
- About righteousness, we do not say much.
- There is no special truth except what rests upon
- Honesty, Reverence and Faith. 
Second, "Warning to Scholars Who Hurry the Doctrine Too Much:"
- The destiny of the whole nation (three thousand li of mountains and rivers) depends upon the Doctrine. The fountain is deep and its waters of truth come from far. If I hold my mind intently, I can taste the flavour of it. One can do this if he desires. Turn away, therefore, from dark thoughts, and cultivate a calm, judicial mind. Only as the Doctrine fills your mind, may you have a right attitude. when that happens, the spirit will take possession of you, and you will receive Enlightenment concerning the future. Do not worry about the petty faults of others. do good to others. This great Doctrine is not for petty matters. Do your best, and it will help you greatly. A great man understands secret things. If he goes on without haste, in time he will accomplish his work and have a long, happy life.
- The mind of man is naturally pure, and has no scars upon it. If you cultivate your mind, you can understand virtue, and if your virtue be increased, it will be identified with the Doctrine. The Doctrine concerns itself with virtue, and not with man himself. It concerns itself with faith, and not so much with works. It is near and not far off. It may be received by being honest, and not by petitioning for it. Although it seems not true, it is true. Although it may seem far off, it is very near. 
Trial and execution
Choe's growing religious community attracted the attention of the local government officials. In 1862, a local government official imprisoned Choe in an army camp, but released him after several hundred followers petitioned the official. Fearing that Choe intended to use his movement to end their corrupt practices, the local government officials reported that they suspected Choe of planning an insurrection that intended to overthrow the Daewongun himself. In the latter part of 1863, the Daewongun directed the governor of Kyeongsangdo, So Hon-sun, to investigate Choe and the Donghaks.
So Hon-sun, surprisingly, provided a fair picture of Choe's activities. In spite of that fair report, which depicted Choe as a harmless spiritual leader, the Daewongun dispatched Royal Messenger Chong Kuyong to arrest Choe and twenty of his followers. Although warned of the impending arrest, Choe stayed at his home, "put his affairs in order, and awaited arrest." In Daegu, he received a hasty hearing, the prosecutor submitting a report to the throne charging him with holding Catholic beliefs and planning a insurrection, recommending the execution of Choe. The throne accepted the recommendation and on March 10, 1864, government officials in Daegu carried out the sentence of execution.
The aftermath of Choe Jeu
After Choe's martyrdom, Choe Si-hyong, a distant relative of Choe Je-u's, took over leadership of the small band of loyal Cheondogyo followers. The Choendogyo movement continued to suffer persecution at the hands of Confucian government officials, especially during the Catholic persecutions of 1866-1871. Although decidedly a Neo-Confucian reform movement with Buddhist, Shaman, and Christian doctrine and practices infused, the monarchy still treated the Donghaks as outlawed Catholics.
The Donghak movement continued to grow from 1864 to 1892, under the leadership of Choe Si-hyong. Choe Sihyong shifted its headquarters to the northern part of Korea. He constantly sought to clear their founder's reputation by making the government drop the charges of sedition and treason against Choe Je-u. The Donhak movement maintained a spiritual posture in doctrine, practice, and content. Choe Si-hyong, publishing the Donghak Bible in 1888, continued the teachings of his relative, Choe Je-u.
Choe Je-u's Heavenly Way is the first indigenous religious movement, apart from Korean Shamanistic gods like Dangun, to arise in Korea. Similar to the boxer movement in China, the Heavenly Way arose in opposition to the threat of European imperialism. First, and foremost, Choe's Heavenly Way movement intended to strengthen the Korean people to resist the imperial desires of Europe through a return to the teachings of Confucius and his disciples. choe believed that only by returning to the teachings and practices of the Confucian Masters, and gaining virtue thereby, could Korea survive.
The Heavenly Way epitomizes Korean culture and history. By observing the birth and development of the Heavenly Way one can gain a glimpse into the nature of Korean society: Neo-Confucian (with an affinity for Christianity, Buddhism, Daoism, and Shamanism), independence-minded (but inclined to a younger brother position to a protector, preferably China), and nationalistic.
- Susan S. Shin, "The Tonghak Movement: From Enlightenment to Revolution," Forum (Seoul, Korea: Fullbright Commission) vol. 5 (Winter-Spring 1978-1979):20.
- Shin, Tonghak, pp. 63-64
- Tonghak Shin, p. 61-61.
- Tonghak Shin, p. 62.
- Charles Allen Clark, Religions of Old Korea (Seoul, Korea: Christian Literature Society, 1961).
- Shin, Tonghak, p. 69.
- Joseph Chang-mun Kim, Catholic Korea: Yesterday and Today (1784-1884) (Seoul: St. Joseph Publishing Co., 1964).
- Clark, Old Religions, p. 269
- Clark, Old Religions, p. 272
- Tonghak Shin, p. 13-14.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Clark, Charles Allen. 1961. Religions of Old Korea. Seoul: Christian Literature Society of Korea.
- Kallander, George. 2006. Finding the Heavenly Way: Ch'oe Che-u, Tonghak and Religion in Late Chosŏn Korea. Thesis (Ph. D.)—Columbia University.
- Kim, Yong Choon. 1978. The Choendogyo Concept of Man: An Essence of Korean Thought. Seoul: Pan Korea Book Corp.
- Kwon, Myung-Soo. 1998. A Comparative Study of the Experience of the Numinous: Che-u Ch'oe, C.G. Jung, and Paul Tillich.
- Rhee, Hong Beom. 2007. Asian Millenarianism: An Interdisciplinary Study of the Taiping and Tonghak Rebellions in a Global Context. Youngstown, N.Y.: Cambria Press. ISBN 9781934043424
- Weems, Benjamin B. 1964. Reform, Rebellion, and the Heavenly Way. Tucson: Published for the Association for Asian Studies by the University of Arizona Press.
All links retrieved December 10, 2023.
- Chondoism, National Religion North Korean Economy Watch
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