Smoking and Social Stratification – Part 2


Last month, we learned about the first arrival of tobacco and its immense popularity in Joseon. Today, we will discover the problems it caused and how the practice of smoking changed over time in accordance with the social stratification of Joseon dynasty.

Not Loved by All

Although extremely popular and widespread, not everyone was fond of smoking. Let’s take a look at the series of books called Seong-ho-sa-seol* (성호사설), translated as the “Treaties on Practical Topics”, written by Yi Ik (이익) in 1740. The renowned philosopher and confucian scholar writes:

Portrait of Yi Ik (이익). Source: Seong-ho Memorial Hall, Korea.

“… 안으로 정신을 해치고 밖으로 듣고 보는 것까지 해쳐서 머리가 희게 되고 얼굴이 늙게 되며, 이가 일찍 빠지게 되고 살도 따라서 여위게 되니, 사람을 빨리 늙도록 만드는 것이다. 내가 이 담배는 유익한 것보다 해가 더 심하다고 하는 것은 냄새가 나빠서, 재계(齋戒)하여 신명(神明)을 사귈 수 없는 것이 첫째이고, 재물을 없애는 것이 둘째이며, 세상에 일이 많은 것이 진실로 걱정인데, 지금은 상하노소를 막론하고 해가 지고 날이 저물도록 담배 구하기에 급급하여 한시도 쉬지 않으니 이것이 셋째이다. 만약 이런 마음과 힘을 옮겨서 학문을 닦는다면 반드시 대현(大賢)이 될 수 있을 것이고, 글에 힘쓴다면 문장도 될 수 있을 것이며, 살림을 돌본다면 부자가 될 수 있을 것이다.”
— 이익, 성호사설 만물문 남초 편.

“… Internally it [smoking tobacco] disturbs the mind, and externally it disturbs the sense of hearing and sight; It makes one’s hair turn white (greying of hair), ages one’s face, makes one’s teeth fall out earlier (weakens your teeth), and makes one lose weight, thus expediting the aging process. The reason why I say tobacco is more harmful and not beneficial is because:
Firstly, due to its bad smell, one cannot be clean and neat for the sacred/religious rites and ceremonies.
Secondly, it takes away one’s wealth (people spend money to buy tobacco).
Thirdly, it is truly troubling that there are so much work to be done in the world, but currently, everyone, despite their age, are busy trying to seek and purchase tobacco from sunrise to sunset.
If one transfers this willpower and strength (that they use to get tobacco) to studying, one can certainly become a great scholar; If one can transfer them to writing, they can become a prolific writer; And if one can transfer them into taking care of one’s household (management), they can become a wealthy person.”
— Yi Ik (Author), Seong-ho-sa-seol* (Title of the book; Treaties on Practical Topics) Man-mul-moon* (Part 2 of five parts/topics in the book), Nam-cho-pyun (A section about tobacco).

tl;dr: Smoking tobacco is terrible for you. Spend the time and effort of getting tobacco plants into something productive like studying and managing, and you will surely become successful and rich.

* More about Seong-ho-sa-seol (성호사설):
English translation of the book’s title is: “Treaties on Practical Topics“, according to Sungsil University of Korea.
Written by Yi Ik (이익), a philosopher and a confucian scholar during Joseon dynasty in 1740.
This encyclopedic series, five books in total, is comprised of various topics (astronomy, geography, history, government, military, economy, etc.) and records of things the author learned or heard over the course of forty years.
Yi Ik embraces western knowledge/technology and criticizes the social conditions and the academic trend of Joseon during that time period.

* More about Man-mul-mun (만물문):
One of the five topics covered in the book. This section, Man-mul-mun (만물문), covers 368 topics mostly related to household and ordinary life, regarding clothing, food, agriculture, domesticated animals, plants, money, weights and measures, weapons, and western equipment/instruments.

Seong-ho-sa-seol (성호사설) also known as the Treaties on Practical Topics written by Yi Ik (이익), 1740. All five books in the encyclopedic series. Source: Seong-ho Memorial Hall, Korea.
The inside view of Seong-ho-sa-seol (성호사설) Treaties on Practical Topics by Yi Ik (이익), 1740. Source: Sungsil University Museum, Korea.

Desolation of Tobacco

I See Fire

Smoking brought more trouble besides the obvious health issues. One of many problems were the frequent fire and destruction of buildings and houses. In the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty, it is written:

동래(東萊) 왜관(倭館)에 화재가 발생하여 80칸을 모두 태웠다… 왜인들이 담배를 즐겨 피우므로 떨어진 담뱃불로 화재가 일어난 듯하다.”
— 광해군 15년, 1623년 2월 15일.

“The fire burned all the 80 rooms of the Dong-leh Waegwan* (동래 왜관)… the Japanese enjoy smoking tobacco so the fire from a fallen cigarette is the probable cause of this conflagration.”
— 15 February 1623.

* More on Dong-leh Waegwan (동래 왜관):
Dong-leh (동래) was an older name for the modern day Korean port city of Busan (부산). Waegwan (왜관) was a Japanese office of trade in Joseon. It is equivalent to a combination of modern day Chamber of Commerce and Industry and an embassy. Other office locations were in Jinhae (진해) and Ulsan (울산).

Screen Shot 2017-04-29 at 5.53.44 PM.png
Example of a cho-ga-jib in Yesan, a grass-roofed house, that was very common throughout Joseon, usually for peasants, farmers, and the poor. Source: 예산 오추리 고택, Doopedia.co.kr.
안동 사월동 초가토
Another example of a cho-ga-jib in Ahn-dong. Source: 안동 사월동 초가토담집, Doopedia.co.kr.
View of a village in Nak-Ahn. Source: 낙안읍성민속마을의 초가집, Doopedia.co.kr.

There were many cho-ga-jib (초가집; thatched houses or grass-roofed houses) back then. These buildings were built from cheap but extremely flammable materials such as dried grass, reed, and wood. These houses would often catch on fire (from smoking) and an entire village could be burnt down. So King Injo (인조) put on a national decree which banned tobacco smoking for a while.

In 1717, another fire was caused by smoking in Choong-chung (충청) region. The government realized that this was a serious problem and in March of that same year, King Sook-jong (숙종) officially outlawed smoking tobacco.

Tobacco Plantations

As mentioned in the previous post, many farmers began to plant tobacco because it was a great high-demand cash crop. However, soon, more farmlands were used to grow tobacco plants instead of growing edible plants (wheat, rice, corn, potatoes, beans, etc.).

Furthermore, during famine and drought, some people starved to death because they traded rice with tobacco to smoke. Finally, twenty seven civil servants pleaded in the court of King Jungjo (정조) to establish a national ban on tobacco plantations. But the king, who was an avid smoker, denied the request and left the matters in the hands of the provincial inspectors. In 1732, King Yungjo (영조) ordered a royal decree which forbade planting of tobacco in the three regions of Yung-nam (영남), Ho-nam (호남), and Choong-chung (충청).


Tobacco was indeed a domestic problem but it caused foreign relations headaches too. During this time period, tobacco was banned in the Qing dynasty of China. The demand was still extremely high so Joseon merchants smuggled the illegal plants across the border. The Annals of Joseon Dynasty records of an incident in 1638, when a Joseon man was caught smuggling tobacco and was reprimanded by a Qing general.

Because this brewed unwanted tension with Qing China, Joseon government decided to wield an iron fist. If someone was caught smuggling more than 1 geun (600 g), they were executed (decapitation). The consequence of smuggling anything less than 1 geun (600 g) was imprisonment and other various punishments.

Clash of Confucian Ideas

Nevertheless, throughout the late 17th to early 18th century, popularity of smoking continued.

In the beginning, there were no defined “Rules of Smoking” and the early practice of smoking was relatively free regardless of one’s gender, age, or social class. But due to the influence of Neo-Confucianism, known as joo-ja-hak (주자학) or sung-lee-hak (성리학), special rules of smoking quickly emerged in the late 18th century Joseon.

Chung-Jang-Gwan-Jeon-Suh (청장관전서) written by Yi Duk-Moo (이덕무) in 1795. There are 71 volumes in total. Source: Database of Korean Classics.

Yi Duk-Moo (이덕무), a renowned scholar, wrote in his book Chung-Jang-Gwan-Jeon-Suh (청장관전서) that the sight of children smoking is not good to look at because tobacco is harmful. He was concerned about the children who were already addicted to tobacco. Yi Duk-Moo described the act of children smoking with adults as contumelious and called the adults who offered or encouraged children to smoke contemptible and abject.

King Suk-jong (숙종) and King Yung-jo (영조) deemed smoking before important ceremonies and rituals frivolous and imprudent, thus banned them entirely.

Smoking and Social Stratification

The upper class began to create their own “style” or “etiquette” of smoking, mostly to separate themselves from the lower class. This imposed and maintained the rigid caste system of Joseon dynasty.

There were many etiquette to follow: Offer guests tobacco to smoke and light their pipes for them; do not smoke at important or high-toned events and places; do not smoke in front of people who were older, who held a higher office, or who were in the higher social class; do not discard the ash carelessly (especially while cooking); for women, do not smoke in front of men, etc. These etiquettes were not enforced by law but were strictly kept among the people as a social convention.

The separation of social classes were also evident in the pipes themselves. People distinguished the tobacco pipes by length. The upper class used a long pipe called jang-jook (장죽), and the lower class used shorter pipes (less than 50cm) called gom-bang-dae (곰방대) or sometimes called dan-jook (단죽).

Examples of various tobacco pipes by length. Longer pipes were called jang-jook (장죽) and the shorter pipes were called gom-bang-dae (곰방대). Source: Daum

They were both made up of cupronickel (tobacco chamber and mouthpiece) and bamboo (body shaft, which was replaced once in a while as tobacco resin accumulates over time). Some jang-jook were as long as 2 to 3 m and needed a servant to pack tobacco into the chamber. The upper class had servants called yun-dong (연동; for men) and yun-bi (연비; for women) who were usually young boys or girls who carried not only the tobacco pipes but also all the accessories needed (such as flint, pouch, cases, etc.) for their masters. The upper class also decorated their pipes and made them out of expensive materials such as gold, silver, amber, fossils, etc., things that normal or poor people could obviously not afford.

“Walk in the Night” (Korean title: 밤길) by Shin Yun-bok (신윤복). Source: Gansong Art Museum, Korea.
“Gi-saeng by the Pond” (Korean title: 연못가의 기생)
by Shin Yun-bok (신윤복). Source: Gansong Art Museum, Korea.

Interestingly, the only exception to these strict unofficial rules of smoking were the gi-saeng (기생; Korean geishas). They had a previlege of using long pipes even though they were not nobles or of high social class.

Then during Dae Han Jae Guk (대한제국; Korean Empire) Reformation movements in the early 20th century, the government banned the usage of absurdly long jang-jook to reduce ridiculously ornate luxury lifestyle of the upper class.

Master Hwang Yung Bo and his traditional tobacco pipes. Source: Korea Cultural Heritage Foundation

The pipes are still produced in Korea today. Mr. Hwang Yung Bo (황영보), one of Korea’s national Intangible Cultural Heritage, is the master artisan of cupronickel and bamboo tobacco pipe making. You can see his work and how the pipes are made here (website in Korean).

Hope you found this interesting. Until next time!




  1. “Treaties on Practical Topics” by Yi Ik, 1740.
  2. “Tobacco, a White Fog that Covered Joseon” produced by EBS History Channel e, 2014.
  3. Sungsil University Museum archives.
  4. Seong-ho Memorial Hall.
  5. Database of Korean Classics.
  6. The Annals of Joseon Dynasty (조선왕조실록), 15 February 1623.
  7. Yungmin Lee, Sowon Jung, Soojung Huh, Yerim Hong, Hanyang University.
  8. Chung-Jang-Gwan-Jeon-Suh (청장관전서), Volume 31, Yi Duk-Moo, 1795
  9. Yeol-ha Il-gi (열하일기), Bak Jiwon, 1780.
  10. Korea Cultural Heritage Foundation.

Smoking and Social Stratification – Part 1

Old School Cool

“A Korean man in a traditional robe and boots, wearing a horse hair and bamboo hat”; Source: National Maritime Museum from Greenwich, United Kingdom. 1885.

Several months ago, I came across a reddit post on r/OldSchoolCool. It was a photograph of a Korean man from 1885 wearing traditional robe and boots called han-bok (한복), wearing a horse hair and bamboo hat called gat (갓), holding a staff and smoking a pipe (image above).

One curious user asked, “Stupid question time! Why is his pipe so long?”

Growing up in Korea, I always knew that this is how the old or traditional Korean smoking pipes looked like, but I never realized how peculiar they might appear to others who are unfamiliar.

I thought that it was a great question and provided a short answer for that curious reddit user. It made me very happy that lots of people found the subject interesting.

Another reddit user u/seouled-out suggested the idea of starting a Korean history blog. Fast forward about nine months, here I am writing about how it all began!

Although my original comment, which inspired me to start this blog, was not too long, I thought it would be nice to revisit such an interesting topic and discover much more about this period of Korean history. I decided to make it into a two-part series because there is so much to talk about.

Without further ado, let us explore Joseon Korea in the 17th to 18th century:

The Tobacco has Landed

According to historians, tobacco first came to Korea (then called Joseon 조선; Not to be confused with Go-Joseon 고조선), from Japan after the Japanese Invasions of Korea (1592 – 1598). During this violent and turbulent period of time, known as Im-jin-weh-ran (임진왜란) in Korean, other produces such as chili peppers, squash, and sweet potatoes were also introduced.

The earliest record of tobacco plants in Joseon dates back to 1619, in Nong-ga-wolyung-ga (농가월령가) which was a series of lyrics about farming and agriculture.

In 1635, the second vice-premier Jang Yu (장유) published a literature called Gae-gok-man-pil (계곡만필) which states that tobacco came to Joseon from Japan.

Tobacco had many names, including nam-lyung-cho (남령초), yun-dah (연다), yun-joo (연주), and nam-cho (남초). Now, it is called dam-beh (담배).

Extreme Popularity – But Why?

I Smoke, You Smoke, We All Smoke!

Tobacco and smoking soon became extremely popular because, ironically, it was known as the miraculous panacea. Without proper medical knowledge, people believed that it could cure all sorts of illnesses.

Its immense popularity can also be found in the Annals of the Joseon Dynasty (Joseon-wang-jo-sillok 조선왕조실록: Annual records of the Joseon Dynasty of Korea from 1413 to 1865). Here is an excerpt from the logs written during the reign of King In-jo (인조):


“… 피우지 않는 사람이 없어 손님을 대하면 번번이 차[茶]와 술을 담배로 대신하기 때문에 …심지어는 종자를 받아서 서로 교역(交易)까지 하였다.”
— 인조실록 37권, 인조 16년 8월 4일


“… there was no one who did not smoke [tobacco] and people offered tobacco to their guests instead of tea and alcohol… they even took the seeds and traded with one another.”
— 4 August 1638.

Cheong-geum-sang-ryun (청금상련) by Shin Yun-bok (신윤복). A Nobleman is smoking with a nurse and a Korean giseng (기생; Similar to geishas). Source: Gansong Art Museum, Korea.
Yeon-so-dap-chung (연소답청) by Shin Yun-bok (신윤복). Three couples are out on a date. Source: Gansong Art Museum, Korea.
Boo-hwa-rang-guh (부화랑거) in Gi-san Poong-sok-do (기산 풍속도), a collection of cultural landscapes painted by Kim Jung-gun (김준군). A man is carrying a woman on his back. Showing that smoking is popular even among young women during this time period. Source: Sungsil University Museum, Korea.
Soo-gae-do-gwon (수계도권) by Yu Suk (유숙). Shows how common smoking was during social meetings.

According to Prof. Ahn Dae Hweh, a professor of Chinese Classics at Sung-gyun-gwan University, he predicts/calculates that at least 25% of the population smoked tobacco.

In Hamel-Pyeo-ryu-gi* (하멜표류기), or known as The Journal of Hendrick Hamel, Hamel notes that:

“The people of Joseon smoke a lot and children as young as 4 – 5 take up smoking; And regardless of sex or age, almost everybody smokes.”
— Hendrick Hamel, 1668.

* More about Hamel Pyeo-ryu-gi (하멜표류기):
Also known as The Journal of Hendrick Hamel.
Written by a dutch sailor named Hendrick Hamel who was the first westerner to provide first hand account of Joseon Korea.

Portrait of King Jungjo. Source: Yi Gil-bum, 1989.

Even King Jungjo (정조) was an avid fan of smoking. He was a well known tobacco lover and his passion for the plant can be found in Il-seongnok: Records of Daily Reflections (일성록), a diary written by King Jungjo himself since he was a small child. He wrote that smoking:


“더위를 씻어주[고]… 추위를 막아주[고]… 음식을 소화하고, 자고 싶으나 잠이 오지 않을 때… 시를 짓거나… 다른 사람들과 얘기할 때, 그리고 고요히 정좌할 때 등…”
— 정조, 일성록


“Rids of the heat and blocks the cold; good for: digestion, insomnia, writing a poem, conversing with others, and sitting down in silence.”
— King Jungjo, Il-seongnok: Records of Daily Reflections

The original copy of King Jungjo’s Nam-lyung-cho Chekmun (남령초 책문). Size: 420 cm x 110 cm. Source: Kyujanggak, Seoul National University.

He went so far as to assign this question on the national civil servant examination:


“모든 백성이 담배를 피우도록 할 방안을 제시해 보라.”
— 정조, 남령초 책문, 1796년 11월 18일


“Suggest a plan which will allow all the people to smoke.”
— King Jungjo, Nam-lyung-cho Chekmun (official exam question about tobacco), 18 November 1796.

Professor An Dae-hweh of Sung-kyun-kwan University said that there were many rulers who prohibited smoking throughout the history but no one wanted to find ways to establish a universal smoking plan like King Jungjo.

During gi-woo-jeh (기우제; Rain calling ritual) after his coronation, which calls for a strict “purification” process before praying, King Jungjo prohibited alcohol but still allowed smoking. His excuse was that his mind could not be pure if he stopped smoking suddenly so it is better just to allow it. He even grew tobacco plants in the Chang-duk (창덕궁) Palace backyard and gave them away as gifts.

King Jungjo was also the only king who loved wearing glasses, but more on that later. Fun fact: Jungjo’s son, King Soonjo, hated smoking.

Everybody smoked. Kids smoked in front of their parents and grandparents, servants smoked in front of their masters, kings smoked with the members of his loyal court, school teachers smoked with his students, etc.

High Demand and High Value

Another reason why tobacco was so popular was due to its high value and demand.
Approximately 1 geun (근) of tobacco was equivalent to 1 nyang (냥) of silver. To put that into modern-day context, we need to convert some units.

Here is the brief conversion of units for those who are unfamiliar:

Geun () or widely known as catty or kati is a unit of mass.
1 geun () = 600 g or about 21 oz.

Nyang () was a monetary unit but also a unit of mass.

According to Heng-jeon-jeol-mok (행전절목), the official reference book about the currency units, published under King Sook-Jong (숙종) in 1678, the government decided the exchange rate between currency ($) and goods/commodities, such as rice and silver. It is written:

“1 nyang of silver is equal to 400 mun. 1 dweh of rice is equal to 4 mun.”
Heng-jeon-jeol-mok, 1678

400 mun (; Also known as nip , which was a monetary unit)
nyang (; Monetary unit and also unit of mass. 1 nyang = 37.5 g)

1 nyang of silver divided by 400 mun = 0.09375 g.
∴ 1 mun = 0.09375 g of silver.

1 dweh of rice (되; Unit of volume. 1 dweh = approx. 1630 g of rice)
4 mun (; Monetary unit)

1 dweh of rice divided by 4 mun = 1630 g / 4 = 407.5 g.
∴ 1 mun = 407.5 g of rice.

1 mun = 0.09375 g of silver = 407.5 g of rice.

Silver 0.09375 g : Rice 407.5 g = Silver 1 g : X g
407.5 = X * 0.09375
X = 4346
∴ 1 g of silver = 4,346 g of rice

On 31 December 2013, the Agriculture, Food, Rural Affairs, Oceans, and fisheries Committee of Korea published a report which said 80 kg of rice is approximately worth ₩188,000 (Korean Won) which is about $168 (US Dollar).

80 kg of rice = 80,000 g of rice
80,000 g divided by $168 = 476.2 g/$
1 g of rice = $0.0021

1 g of silver = 4,346 g of rice = 4,346 g of rice * $0.0021
= $9.13 per 1 g of silver

Since 1 nyang of silver = 37.5 g of silver,
$9.13 per 1 g of silver * 37.5 g = $342.38
∴ 1 nyang of silver = $342.38

tl;dr: 600 g of tobacco = worth about $342 today

Soon, as a high value product, tobacco dominated the 17th to 18th century Joseon economy. Furthermore, tobacco plants were easy to grow in difficult mountainous regions (compared to rice) so more farmers began to plant them for profit. Tobacco was so highly valued that during the Qing Invasion of Joseon of 1636, known as Byung-ja-ho-ran (병자호란), it was even used to pay the captives’ ransom, who were taken as slaves and prisoners to Qing China.


At first, there were no set “rules” or strict etiquettes about “how to smoke tobacco” so it was very common for everyone to smoke.

However, smoking in front of elders was prohibited during the reign of Gwanghae* (광해), who was an extreme anti-smoker. Since then, it became a custom to not smoke in front of the elders or in front of those who were higher on the social status ladder of Joseon dynasty.

* More about Gwanghae (광해):
He was coronated and reigned as the 15th king of Joseon (조선) from 1608 – 1623 but was deposed, dishonorably demoted to a status of prince, and was never given an official myeo-ho (묘호 – temple name) after his death. Thus, he is only referred by his prince name, Gwanghae (광해) or Gwanghaegun (광해군; “gun” means “prince” so literally means, “Prince Gwanghae”), unlike other kings who received their myeo-ho (묘호) after their death.
For example, Prince Yi-Do (이 도) reigned as the 4th king and was given the myeo-ho (묘호) of King Se-jong (세종).
I plan to write more about Gwanghae (광해) in the future. He definitely lived such an interesting, dynamic, and tragic life. But I digress.

That’s all for part 1 for now. See you next time with Part 2!




  1. “Coins, Silver Coins, and Paper Money” by Prof. Ki-Ho Song of Department of Korean History at Seoul National University.
  2. “Tobacco, a White Fog that Covered Joseon” produced by EBS History Channel e.
  3. Sungsil University Museum archives.
  4. Gansong Art Museum collections.
  5. The Annals of Joseon Dynasty (조선왕조실록), 4 August 1638.
  6. The Journal of Hendrick Hamel (하멜 표류기), 1668.
  7. Heng-jeon-jeol-mok (행전절목), 1678.
  8. Il-seongnok: Records of Daily Reflections, 1752 – 1910 (일성록), Kyujanggak, Seoul National University.
  9. Nam-lyung-cho Chekmun (남령초 책문), 18 November 1796. Kyujanggak, Seoul National University.
  10. Nong-ga-wolyung-ga (농가월령가), 1619
  11. Gae-gok-man-pil (계곡만필), Jang Yu, 1635.

Etiological Myth – The Origin Story

Founding Myth of Go-Joseon (고조선 건국 신화)

Every civilization has their own “founding” myth story. The Romans have the tale of the she-wolf and the twin brothers – Romulus and Remus. The vikings have their story of Ask and Embla, first man and woman created by Odin.

Today I want to talk about the founding myth of Go-Joseon (고조선), the ancient civilization that existed on the Korean peninsula roughly around the early 100 BCE.

Because there is so much to talk about Go-Joseon, details about it will be saved for next time. I will focus on telling you the founding myth only. Just like other myths around the world, this origin story is very fictional but still extremely interesting.

Dangun Shin-Hwa (단군신화)

This is the story according to Sam-Guk-Yu-Sa (삼국유사 – Collection of the history of three kingdoms, Go-Goo-Ryeo (고구려), Baek-Jae (백제), and Sila (신라), around 1281 written by a buddhist monk named Il-Yeon (일연)):

Long long ago, Hwan-Oong (환웅), the son of god, looked down unto the earth and saw humans. He wanted to help them to live better lives so he asked his father for his permission and blessing to go down to earth. His father knew how much his son loved humans so he gladly granted his permission and also gave his son Chun-Boo-In (천부인 – Three divine treasures/items to represent leadership and authority; Never specifically described as three items but often interpreted and widely accepted as: bronze sword, bronze bell, and bronze mirror).

Hwan-Oong led three thousand heavenly force and descended under the sacred tree called Shin-Dan-Soo (신단수), located at the summit of Tae-Baek Mountain (태백산). He then named the place of his arrival, Shin-shi (신시 – “City of God”) and the people called him Hwan-Oong-Chun-Wang (환웅천왕 – “Hwan-Oong, the king of the sky”).

He commanded Poong-Bek (풍백 – Wind), Oo-Sah (우사 – Rain), and Oon-Sah (운사 – Cloud) and supervised 360 tasks, including agriculture, food, life span, disease, punishment, justice, good, and evil.

One day, a bear and a tiger came to Hwan-Oong saying, “I wish to transform into a human.” Hwan-Oong, after hearing their desperate pleas, gave one bundle of mugwort (very bitter herb) and twenty garlics, and said to them, “If you both eat these and do not see the sunlight for one hundred days, you will be turned into humans.”

Portrayal of the tiger and the bear begging Hwan-Oong to turn them into human. Source: gjdream

In the darkness of the cave, the tiger grew sick and tired and ran away but the bear persevered and was transformed into a woman on the 21st day.

The she-bear was named Oong-Nyu (웅녀 – Literally meaning: bear-woman). She did not have anyone to marry so she went to Shin-Dan-Soo, the sacred tree on the top of Tae-Baek Mountain, and prayed for a spouse. Hwan-Oong, seeing this, temporarily turned into a man and married her. They had a son together and named him Dan-Gun-Wang-Gum (단군왕검, Dangun for short. Literally meaning “king of birch tree”. Dan means “birch tree” + Gun means “king/lord”).

Portrait of Dangun. Source: Chae Yong-sin

It is said that Dangun founded the capital city of Ah-Sa-Dal (아사달 – Literally meaning “bright land”: Ah-Sa means “morning” + Dal means “land/mountain”) and established the first Korean nation which he named, Joseon (조선 – Meaning “land of the beautiful morning” or “the first place where the morning arrives.” Jo means “morning” + Seon means “to be bright, good, beautiful”).

Dangun’s founding principle of Joseon was: Hong-Ik-In-Gan (홍익인간) literally meaning, “Widely benefiting the human world” (humanitarianism).

As a side note, historians call Dangun’s Joseon “Go-Joseon” (Go means “old, ancient”). This is to avoid confusion with the new kingdom established several centuries later by the same name.

Tl;dr: Hwan-Oong, son of god, wanted to come down to earth and help mankind. He was a very good ruler and made everyone happy and prosperous. A tiger and a bear wished to become humans too. Hwan-Oong gave them bitter herb and garlic to eat for 100 days in the dark. The tiger ran way but the bear remained and eventually transformed into a woman. Oong-Nyu, the bear-woman, wanted to marry but had no partner. Hwan-Oong married her and they had a son together named Dangun, who established the first Korean nation named Joseon.

Background Information and Historical Context

From this myth, and with existing knowledge and studies, we can learn few things about the ancient Korean civilization of Joseon:

  • Ethnocentrism
    • God’s chosen people
  • Animism and totemism as the main belief system
    • Descended from a bear
    • Choosing bear as the main totem
      • Another theory: Unification of two rivaling tribes (bear-worshipping tribe and tiger-worshipping tribe)
    • Divinity of nature
      • Importance of Shin-Dan-Soo, the sacred tree. Symbolizes the “tree of life” and the connecting point between the sky (heaven) and the earth
  • Agricultural society
    • Emphasis on agriculture, grains, and farming techniques
  • Unity of Church and State
    • Political leader == Religious leader
    • Some scholars argue that Dangun-Wang-Gum (full name of Dangun) is not a name of a single person, but rather two separate terms that represented the offices of a religious leader and a political king/leader.
      • Dangun -> Religious/spiritual
      • Wang-gum -> Political
  • Value of virtue
    • Patience and benevolence
      • The bear persevered but the tiger did not. Moral of the story: No pain, no gain.
    • Humanitarianism
      • Founding principle of Joseon

This story of Dangun is essential because, similar to founding myths of other civilizations, it helps to develop unified national identity.

Until next time!




  1. Il-Yeon. Sam-Guk-Yu-Sa. 1281.
  2. Lee, Ji-Yeong. Myths of Korea. Sagoonja, 2003. 33 – 57 p.