Tour Through Time: Stop 19: Cheongju Si

It’s been a leisurely paced 110 miles as the weather has been very cold and we have been snacking on mince pies, but we have finally reached our next destination of Cheongju in Chungcheong Province. Here on 8th April 1861 Son Byong-Hi was born.

Not a lot is known about his early life, but in the early 1880’s he was introduced to the religion of Donghak by his nephew. Donghak stresses equality of all human beings and training included extensive reading and reciting the “Incantation of Twenty One Letters” thirty thousand times a day. Son Byong-Hi did this for around 3 years, whilst also making straw sandals to sell at the local market, before becoming a student of Choe Si-Hyeong.

High taxes had begun forcing poor farmers to sell their homes to rich land owners just to survive, and in 1894 Choe Si-Hyeong led the farmers in the Donghak Peasant Revolution with Son Byong-Hi as one of his commanders. Unable to control the revolution, the Korean government requested aid from China, but Japan saw this as a threat to their country and also sent troops into Korea. It was the Japanese that eventually suppressed the revolution, trapping and forcing the peasant army into a decisive battle known as the Battle of Ugeumchi on 22nd October. The battle lasted 3 weeks, but the Donghak forces with their bows and arrows, spears and swords were overcome by the superior firepower of the Japanese with their modern rifles and canons.

With the revolution over, tensions rose between China and Japan as neither wanted to vacate Korea first. This led to the Sino-Japanese War, which was eventually won by the Japanese after the Chinese renounced any claim to Korea.

Choe Si-Hyeong escaped, but knew his capture was imminent, so ordained Son Byong-Hi to be 3rd Leader of Donghak and gave him his honorific religious name Eui Am (meaning “Righteousness”). After Choe Si-Hyeong’s capture and execution, Son Byong-Hi asked for political asylum in Japan where he remained throughout the Russo-Japanese War, returning to Korea in 1904.

Upon his return he used Donghak to reintroduce old customs and ways of living and organised the Gapjin Reform Movement demonstrations. The Japanese occupiers prosecuted the Donghak members so Son Byong-Hi decided to change the name of Donghak to Chondo Kyo (Heavenly Way) stablishing it is a modern religious organisiation by 1906.

Yearning for independence from the Japanese he then set up an underground movement, uniting Chondo Kyo, Buddhists and Christians under one cause, and on 1st March 1919, as covered in our stop at the Taewagwan Restaurant, the Declaration of Independence was signed by 33 leaders, including 15 from Chondo Kyo.

Son Byong-Hi was one of the 47,000 Koreans who were arrested, but he was released from prison when he fell ill. His illness worsened and he eventually passed away on 19th May 1922, aged 62, at his home in Sanchunwon just outside the Dongdaemun gate in Seoul. Son Byong-Hi remains to this day a symbol of Korean nationalism.

We will be marking out arrival here with 110 Plank Toe Touches before continuing 40 miles south west to visit a famous statue.

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