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A modern religious painting shows the Founding-King in similar motifs.

The Legendary Founder of Korea, Dangun Wanggeom

According to Korean tradition, Dangun Wanggeom (known also as Dangun or Tangun) was the legendary founder of Gojoseon (or ‘Old Joseon’), the first recorded state in Korean history. This state occupied the northern part of the Korean peninsula and parts of northeast China (specifically the Chinese provinces of Liaoning and Jilin). Evidence for this occupation is supported by artifacts associated with the Gojoseon culture, such as mandolin-shaped bronze daggers and dolmens, found in those areas.

Like many other ancient figures, archaeological records have little to say about Dangun. Therefore, one has to turn to written sources and tradition to know more about this famous figure.

The Legend of Dangun

The earliest recorded versions of the legend of Dangun are found in the Samguk Yusa (‘The Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms’) and the Jewang Ungi (‘Rhymed Chronicles of Sovereigns’). Both of these pieces of writing were produced towards the end of the 13th century AD. The legend of Dangun begins by introducing his grandfather, Hwan-in, and his father, Hwan-ung. Hwan-in was called the ‘Lord of Heaven’, whilst Hwan-ung was one of Hwan-in’s younger sons.

Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms displayed in Seoul National University Kyujanggak Institute for Koreanology Studies.

Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms displayed in Seoul National University Kyujanggak Institute for Koreanology Studies. (Public Domain)

One day, Hwan-ung requested his father to send him down to earth so that he could govern his own land. According to one interpretation of this part of the tale, as a younger son of the ruler of Heaven, Hwan-ung had no hope of succeeding his father. Therefore, in order to be a ruler in his own right, and to avoid conflict with his older brothers, Hwan-ung decided to go somewhere where he could find his own kingdom.

This request was granted by Hwan-in, who surveyed the earth, and determined that Mount Taebaek-san (‘Grand White Mountain’), which is located in modern day South Korea, was the most suitable site for his venture. In some versions of the tale, it was the Paektu (also spelled as ‘Baektu’) Mountain, on the border between present day North Korea and China, which was chosen by Hwan-in.

Map of "Gojoseon Kingdom" printed in the Korea Times in 2011.

Map of "Gojoseon Kingdom" printed in the Korea Times in 2011. (san-shin)

The Establishment of a Government

Hwan-ung then descended onto a sacred sandalwood tree on the peak of Mount Taebaek-san. He brought 3,000 followers and three ‘heavenly seals’ or treasures with him. Additionally, the three spirits of Wind, Rain, and Cloud serve as Hwan-ung’s ministers. Thus, a government was established, laws and moral codes were instituted, and agriculture, medicine, as well as various sciences and arts, were taught. In short, Hwan-ung founded a civilized society on Mount Taebaek-san.

Main peaks of Taebaeksan as viewed from Munsubong, another of its peaks.

Main peaks of Taebaeksan as viewed from Munsubong, another of its peaks. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The Tiger and the Bear

The next part of the story pertains to Dangun’s mother, and involves a tiger and a bear. These two animals came to Hwan-ung’s kingdom, and prayed to become human beings. When Hwan-ung heard their prayers, he decided to give them a chance, and each animal was given a bundle of mugwort and 20 cloves / bulbs of garlic. Hwan-ung instructed them to eat only these sacred foods, and to stay in a cave for 100 days. After this, they would become human beings. The tiger gave up shortly, and left the cave, as a result of its hunger. The bear, on the other hand, followed Hwan-ung’s orders, and 21 days later, was transformed into a woman.

Dangun’s Birth and Rule

The Ungnyeo (bear-woman) was grateful to Hwan-ung, and made offerings to him. Soon, however, she became sad, as she realized that she had no companion. She went to the sacred sandalwood tree on the peak of Mount Taebaek-san, and prayed for a child to accompany her. Moved by her prayers, Hwan-ung transformed himself into a male human and mated with the Ungnyeo. Nine months later, the bear-woman gave birth to a son, and named him Dangun, meaning ‘Altar Prince’ or ‘Sandalwood’.

It is believed that Dangun founded Gojoseon, Korea’s first kingdom, in 2333 BC. In some accounts, the capital of Dangun’s kingdom was Pyongyang, which is also the capital of present day North Korea. Dangun later moved his capital to Asadal, speculated to be on Mount Guwol-san in Hwanghae Province. In other accounts, Asadal is named as the original capital of Gojoseon. According to legend, Dangun ruled over his country for 1,500 years, before abdicating. After this, he hid himself in the mountains, and became a Sanshin (an immortal mountain spirit) at the age of 1908.

A statue of Dangun.

A statue of Dangun. (San-Shin)

Dangun as a God and Inspiration in Martial Arts

Dangun’s influence can still be felt today. For those who follow Korean shamanism, for instance, Dangun is venerated as a god. A number of movements focusing on the worship of Dangun have also been founded over time. This traditional belief system, however, is said to be practiced by a minority of Koreans.

Another influence of Dangun can be seen in the well-known Korean martial art known as Taekwondo. The second pattern in the International Taekwondo Federation (ITF) form is named after this legendary figure, and its moves are said to represent the connection between Dangun, Heaven, and the mountain where he became an immortal.

Finally, October 3rd is known as ‘National Foundation Day’, and is a public holiday in South Korea, as it is believed that this was the day when Gojoseon was founded by Dangun in 2333 BC.

Featured image: A modern religious painting shows the Founding-King in similar motifs. Photo source: San-Shin.

By Wu Mingren

References

Kim, T.-g. & Cawley, K. N., 2011. Korea: in the beginning …. [Online]
Available at: http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/common/printpreview.asp?categoryCode=367&newsIdx=97634

Kim, V., 2014. Dangun, Father of Korea: Korea’s foundation tale lends itself to many interpretations. [Online]
Available at: http://www.korea.net/NewsFocus/Culture/view?articleId=121092

Korea Tourism Organization, 2016. The Legend of Dangun. [Online]
Available at: http://english.visitkorea.or.kr/enu/CU/CU_EN_8_8_3_2.jsp

koreanhistory.info, 2016. Dangun (Tangun 단군왕검 檀君王儉 ) and the Legendary founding of Korea. [Online]
Available at: http://koreanhistory.info/tangun.htm

Life in Asia, Inc., 2015. The Legend of Tan-Gun. [Online]
Available at: http://www.lifeinkorea.com/Information/tangun.cfm

Northeast Asian History Foundation, 2008. Ancient History of Korea. [Online]
Available at: https://www.nahf.or.kr/?sidx=203&stype=2

www.san-shin.org, 2016. The Myth of Gojoseon's Founding-King Dan-gun. [Online]
Available at: http://www.san-shin.org/Dan-gun_Myth.html

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