Korean name
Hangul 천도교
Hanja 天道教
Revised Romanization Cheondogyo
McCune–Reischauer Ch'ŏndogyo

Cheondoism[1] or Chondoism[2][3][4][5] (in Korean 天道教, hangul 천도교, Cheondogyo, "religion of the Heavenly Way") is a 20th-century Korean religious movement, based on the 19th century Donghak movement founded by Choe Je-u that had its origins in the peasant rebellions which arose starting in 1812 during the Joseon Dynasty. Cheondoist theology is basically monotheistic, pantheistic and panentheistic.

Cheondoism has become increasingly popular in both South Korea with the revival of Korean nationalism, and particularly in North Korea, where, according to government's statistics, it is the major religion of the country, followed by 12% of the total population.



Cheondogyo translated literally means "religion of the Heavenly Way", where cheon means "Heaven", do means "Way" (written with the same character as Chinese Tao), and gyo means "religion", "teaching", "-ism".

Cheondoist theology preaches that God (Haneullim, a concept taken from ancestral Korean shamanic beliefs) resides in each of us. It strives to convert our earthly society into a paradise on Earth. It attempts to transform the believers into intelligent moral beings with a high social consciousness. In this respect, it could be seen as a humanistic, socialist religion.


Cheondoism is rooted in Korean shamanism, Korean folk religion and Korean Buddhism, with elements drawn from Christianity.

Choe Jeu formulated the Donghak ("Eastern Learning") ideology in the 1860s to help ease the lot of the farmers suffering from abject poverty and exploitation, as well as to restore political and social stability. His ideas rapidly gained broad acceptance among the peasantry. Choe set his Donghak themes to music so that illiterate farmers could understand, accept, and remember them more readily. His teachings were systematized and compiled as a message of salvation to farmers in distress.

Periodically drought and floods alternately struck the rich rice-producing areas of Korea and caused great famines. Additionally, the Joseon rulers hiked the taxes on farm crops and forced more free labor from the starving peasants. Consequently, anti-government and anti-landlord sentiment boiled over into violent uprisings.

In December 1811, Hong Gyeong-nae, an impoverished scholar-official, led the peasants in the north in Pyongan Province into an armed rebellion and occupied the region for several months. The Seoul government dispatched an army and, after a savage scorched-earth campaign, put the revolt down. In the south as well, peasants continued to defy the king in Seoul, the provincial nobility, and the wealthy landlords.

In 1862, half a century after the peasant rebellion led by Hong was put down, a group of farmers in Jinju in Gyeongsang province, rose up against oppressive provincial officials and wealthy landowners. This uprising was directly attributable to the exploitation of destitute farmers by Baek Nak-sin, a newly appointed military commander who had jurisdiction over the western half of Gyeongsang province.

Yi Yun-myeong and Yu Gye-chun organized the farmers in Jinju to riot against Baek and other corrupt officials and wealthy landlords. The rebels killed local government functionaries and set fire to government buildings. The startled Seoul government hurriedly sent an investigator to the scene. On the basis of his findings of fraudulent practices by the local officials, the government hastily revised the land, military, and grain lending systems in an effort to eliminate such abuses. From the outset, however, it was unrealistic to expect the ruling class in the central government, which was itself deeply involved in such frauds, to make radical changes. But at least a superficial attempt at reform was made.

The agrarian revolt in Jinju triggered peasant uprisings elsewhere. In Gyeongsang, Jeolla and Chungcheong provinces, on faraway Jeju Island and in Hamgyeong and Pyeongan provinces in the north, groups of farmers rose up, took up arms, and attacked government offices in major cities. Many government officials were executed.

The Cheondoist religion evolved in the early 1900s from the Donghak peasant liberation movements in the southern provinces of Korea. Members of Donghak were severely persecuted by the colonial government, and so, on December 1, 1905, Son Byeong-hui decided to modernise the religion and usher in an era of openness and transparency in order to legitimise it in the eyes of the Japanese. As a result he officially changed the name of Donghak to Cheondoism ("religion of the Heavenly Way"). During the waning days of the Joseon Dynasty, King Gojong himself embraced Cheondoism and promoted it nationwide. The King added Buddhist and Christian rituals and codices to the new religion, which was organized into a formal organizational hierarchy similar to that of Roman Catholicism with Pope, Papal Nuncio, formal ceremonies.

Cheondoism Today

In 2005, Cheondoism had about 1.13 million followers and 280 churches in South Korea.[6]

Very little is known of the current numbers or activities (if any) of Cheondoists in North Korea. According to official statistics, Cheondoism had 2.8 million adherents in North Korea (12.9% of the total population) as of 2000,[7] and Cheondoists are nominally represented in North Korean politics by the minor Cheondoist Chongu Party. However, independent religious activity of any kind is not tolerated by the North Korean government, and large numbers of Cheondoist believers fled to South Korea during the Korean War. By 1956, the last year for which any independent figures are available, there were probably no more than 10,000 practicing Cheondoists left in the north. Since 1959, when its original Cheondoist leadership was purged, the Cheondoist Chongu Party has been merely a satellite party of the ruling Worker's Party of Korea intended to appeal to South Korean Cheondoists (the current leader is Ryu Mi Yong, a South Korean Cheondoist who defected to the North) and maintain an illusion of religious freedom and multi-party democracy. The party leadership are appointed by the North Korean government and never oppose the WPK on any issue.

See also


Korea Web Weekly is not an independent source of information but is instead associated with various North Korea government sources.

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