Words by Nathan McMurray, illustrations by Seth Taylor
If you look down at a W50,000 note you will see a stern-looking woman looking back at you. That is Shin Saimdang (신사임당), a noblewoman of Korean antiquity who is considered the archetype for the ideal Korean mother because she reared the great Korean scholar Yulgok (이율곡).
Shin Saimdang is not a bad choice for the note, but they almost chose to put a different iconic Korean woman on the bill: namely Yu Gwan-sun (유관순) or “big sister Yu” (유관순 누나). Sister Yu is symbol of the March 1st Movement, which is a great moment in world history that is sadly unknown to many outside of Korea. The March 1st Movement was when the Korean people peacefully proclaimed their independence from the Japanese.
Japanese colonial rule
For many of us who grew up playing Super Mario video games and watching Japanese cartoons, it is hard to imagine an era when Imperial Japan brutally colonized its neighbors. But not so long ago, the Empire of Japan sought to subjugate much of Asia to its will. Japan’s efforts were especially intense in Korea, which was annexed by Japan in 1910.
Under Japanese rule, Koreans became second-class Japanese citizens. They were forced to take Japanese names and speak the Japanese language, among other serious offenses. Of course, the history of this time is complex. Some Koreans even betrayed their countrymen and worked with the Japanese for their own benefit. To be sure, there were many more who resisted. But most people just tried to survive.
The dawn of Korean independence
By March 1, 1919, many young Koreans were no longer interested in just surviving. They wanted to reclaim Korea as a sovereign independent state. A major catalyst of this sentiment was the Fourteen Points Doctrine set out by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. This doctrine proclaimed that all nations have the right to freely govern themselves and determine their own political destiny with no external compulsion or interference.
In addition to the inspiration provided by Wilson, the last Korean monarch—King Gojong of the Korean Empire, by then of course deposed—was allegedly poisoned by the Japanese in January of 1919. No one can say for sure if this actually occurred, though there was a recent Korean film called Gabi (가비, which is the old Korean word for coffee) which showed how the Emperor’s coffee was poisoned. Yet it is certain that the emperor’s death, regardless of its actual cause, further agitated many Koreans who were tired of the Japanese imposing on their lives.
The new independence movement began at 2 pm on March, 1 1919. At that time, 33 leaders of the new movement gathered at the Taehwagan Restaurant (태화관) in Insadong, right in the middle of Seoul. The restaurant no longer exists today—it caught fire and was destroyed in May of 1942. The building that now stands in its place, however, bears the restaurant’s name (the Taehwa Building).
Notably, the leaders of the movement did not build bombs or assemble stockpiles of firearms. Instead, they gathered to read what they called the Korean Declaration of Independence, which stated “the independence of Korea and the liberty of the Korean people.” After the reading, the leaders called the police and told them of their actions. All 33 were then arrested.
News of these activities spread and soon citizens started to gather in various locations to raise their voices against Japanese rule. Massive crowds formed in Pagoda Park (탑골 공원) in the neighborhood of Jongno, now downtown Seoul. This park is well-known today as a gathering place for crowds of hoary-headed gentlemen looking for something to do, but it is a historic site for many reasons. In March 1919, protestors used the park to peacefully listen to readings of the Korean Declaration of Independence. They also listened to speeches about independence and Korea’s unique national identity.
The brutal response
As the crowds swelled, the Japanese became more and more uneasy. The occupation forces decide to put an end to the demonstrations before it was too late to stop them. The most well-trained military troops were called in. Nearly 100 years later, it is hard to determine what actually occurred. But it is safe to say that the Japanese response was pitiless by any measure.
There are accounts of hundreds (and even thousands) of people being killed, arrested, and tortured. There are stories about people being shot in the streets and even burned alive. The Seodaemun Prison was where many of the protestors were taken. It still stands today as a dark monument to those who suffered in those trying days. If you have never visited the prison (it is now a museum), I urge you to go. It is a solemn place built of red brick that seems to retain the dark stain of Korea’s painful history.
Back to big sister Yu
Sister Yu was a young girl from South Chungcheong Province. A western missionary named Alice Sharp was Ms. Yu’s teacher. She referred Ms. Yu to the prestigious Ewha Woman’s School in Seoul, which later became Ehwa Women’s University. Ms. Yu left Seoul after the Japanese closed the school because of independence protests.
Ms. Yu returned to her hometown, where she decided to get involved in the independence movement herself. She planned a demonstration in the Aunae Marketplace in the city of Cheonan. Protestors shouted the slogan of the day, “Long live Korean independence” or “” and waved homemade Korean flags, which were outlawed during Japanese rule. These joyful celebrations have become symbols of what the March 1st Movement means today, and images of these events have been depicted in numerous works of art, including film.
For her actions, the Japanese arrested Ms. Yu and sentenced her to seven years imprisonment at the dreaded Seodaemun prison. In that awful place she reportedly endured inhuman treatment. The reports and hearsay on the things that were done to her could fill a book. Though the accuracy of these accounts cannot be verified, according to many she endured the most brutal forms of physical and mental torture.
Despite the torturous treatment, Ms. Yu refused to abandon her conviction that Korea should be free. Eventually, the 18-year old girl died from the abuse inflicted upon her. After her ordeal had ended, she finally was able to returned to school. The Japanese in charge turned her body over to the foreign missionaries who were running Ehwa University.
The March 1st Movement did not immediately free Korea. The Japanese continued their brutal rule, but the events that took place embarrassed the Japanese colonial leadership and loosened their grip on power. Also, many of the members of the foreign community then living here (e.g., missionaries who once supported the Japanese) became more supportive of Korean independence. Beyond the borders of Korea, the provisional Government of the Republic of Korea was formed in Shanghai, and Koreans sought other forums to raise awareness for their cause.
Some have attacked the story of sister Yu as nationalistic propaganda. Regardless of the accuracy of every portion of the account, she stands as a powerful symbol of the will of the Korean people who refused to desert their dreams of independence, despite facing the harshest of circumstances. Sister Yu also represents more than that as well. She has been called Korea’s Joan of Arc, but she did not bear any sword in defense of her convictions. Instead Sister Yu and her fellow citizens resisted the Japanese largely through peaceful means. Therefore, she and those who supported her cause are a symbol of Korea’s commitment to the global heritage of passive resistance against oppressive rule. Maybe they should start printing W100,000 notes.
Nathan McMurray has a lengthy background in Korea and China as both a scholar and a legal professional working with global companies on corporate advisory and dispute resolution matters. He currently works for Barun Law and writes a blog about law and politics (and whatever other matters he may be interested in at the moment) at korealawtoday.com.
Where can I learn more about the March 1st Movement?
Korea commemorates the March 1st Movement as a national holiday called samiljeol (삼일절), or “3.1 Day”. Find Samiljeol 2013 events at the following locations.
Yu Gwansun Memorial Hall, Cheonan.
The Aunae Festival is held every year on March 1st in honor of Yu Gwansun and the protest she led at Aunae Marketplace. There are performances, documentary screenings, crafts, Taegukgi flag-making, and finally a torchlight parade at night. 2 pm to 9 pm. 252 Tapwon-ri, Byungchan-myun, Dongnam-gu, Cheonan-si. yugwansun.com 041-521-2821
February 28th – March 3rd
Yeongsan Village, Gyeongnam-do.
The 52nd Changnyeong 3.1 Folk Cultural Festival commemorates the patriots of Yeongsan, the little village that could. Yeongsan is famous for being the site of the first protest for independence. Each year, there are fireworks, parades, and games like mass tug-of-war and soimeori-daegi, a kind of aerial battle of balance. Yeongsan-myeon, Changnyeong-gun, Gyeongsangnam-do. cng.go.kr 055-530-1000
Seodaemun Independence Park and Prison History Museum, Seoul. This former prison has since been converted into a park and museum, with the commanding Independence Gate at its head. Celebrate on March 1st with a large-scale reproduction of the original movement, Taegukgi flag-making, and decorating with Mugunghwa, the national flower of Korea. Dokripmun Station, exit 5. sscmc.or.kr 02-360-8590
Bosingak, Seoul. A commemorative bell-ringing is held every March 1st at Bosingak Belfry. This bell is only rung a handful of times each year, with Samiljeol being one of those special days. The 33 rings honor Korea’s 33 patriot leaders. 12 pm (noon). Jongno Station, exit 4.
Independence Hall of Korea, Cheonan. This original Provisional Korean Government building was relocated to Cheonan City from China in 1945. Now part of a large park, Independence Hall hosts a massive historical re-enactment, a play, and plenty of hands-on activities. Begins 10 am. 230 Namhwari, Mokcheon-eup, Dongnam-gu, Cheonan-si. i815.or.kr 041-560-0114
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