It’s National Foundation Day in South Korea! Literally translated as the “Festival of the Opening of Heaven,” 개천절 (Gaecheonjeol) celebrates the foundation myth of the Gojoseon state (Ancient Korea). The story places the creation of Gojoseon by 단군 왕겁 (Dangun Wanggeom) at 2333 BC.
The Legend of Dangun
Dangun’s legend begins with Hwanin (환인), or the “Lord of Heaven.” Hwanin’s son, Hwanung (환웅), yearned to live among the valleys and mountains of the earth, so he asked his father to permit him to descend with 3,000 followers. Hwanin gave his son his blessing and permission to descend to the Baekdu Mountains (백두산맥) on the border of modern day North Korea and China. Here, Hwanung founded Sinsi (신시), the “City of God,” where he—along with his ministers of clouds, rain, and wind—taught the humans various crafts and instituted laws and moral codes.
While teaching the humans, a tiger and bear prayed that they may become human. Hwanung heard these prayers and gave them orders. With 20 cloves of garlic and a bundle of mugwort, the two were ordered to eat only this sacred food and remain out of the sun for 100 days. Twenty days passed and the tiger could bear no more, so he gave up and left the cave. However, the bear remained, carrying out Hwanung’s instructions. On the 100th day, the bear was transformed into a woman.
Ungneyo (웅녀 ), the “bear-woman,” was made offerings to Hwanung in her gratefulness. However, she quickly became sad for lack of a husband and prayed beneath the Divine Betula tree (신단수, Sindansu) for a child. Hwanung was again moved by her prayers and took her as his wife. Soon she birthed a son by the name of Dangun Wanggeom (단군 왕겁).
Dangun inherited his father’s throne and built the walled city of Asadal, the first city of the Gojoseon Kingdom (also known as Old/Ancient Joseon.)
Every October 3rd, South Koreans commonly celebrate National Foundation Day with festivals, parades, burning of sandalwood incense, and 잡채 (chapjae). Each year, millions of Seoulites and foreigners flood Youido Park along the Han River to watch a magnificent fireworks display. Each country has it’s own display often with Japan, China, and then Korea as the finale. There is also a ceremony held at Chamseongdan altar at the summit of Mt. Manisan in Dangun’s honor. The altar is rumored to have been built by Dangun himself and is a legendary place of worship favored by ancient Korean kings throughout history.
Although North Korea recognizes 개천절 (Gaecheonjeol), it is not celebrated as a public holiday, but tradition is kept with an annual ceremony at the Mausoleum of Dangun.
오늘의 표현 (Today’s Expression):
이번 주 금요일은 공휴일인 개천절입니다.
i-beon ju geum-yo-il-eun gong-hyu-il-in gae-cheon-jeol-im-ni-da
This Friday is Gaecheonjeol, a public holiday.
개천 (Gae-cheon) — Opening of Heaven
공휴일 (Gong-hyu-il) — Public Holiday
고조선 (Gojoseon) — first Korean kingdom, Old Joseon
단군 (Dangun) — legendary founder of Gojoseon