Does anyone know what special public holiday falls on October 3rd in South Korea?
If you said ‘National Foundation Day’, then it’s time to give yourself a pat on the back!
Known as Gaecheonjeol (개천절) in Korean, National Foundation Day in Korea is often confused by foreigners with Korean Liberation Day (광복절, Gwangbokjeol). We’ll explain why they are different. Korean Liberation Day is in August and is concerned with victory over Japan and the creation of the modern Republic of Korea. National Foundation Day is all about the start of Korean history, and Korea’s creation myth.
Many countries have creation myths which help form their national identity. From ancient Rome’s Romulus and Remus who were raised by a wolf, to England’s King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, such myths can be found around the world. Korea is no different!
History of National Foundation Day in Korea
The Korean creation myth goes back to the beginnings of the Gojoseon (고조선) period. This was a period in Korean history that occurred before the more well-known three kingdoms era. Gojoseon’s name literally means ‘old Joseon’ because this period of Korean history came long before the Joseon dynasty. According to the story of Korea’s creation, Korea was founded in 2333 B.C. by Dangun (단군).
Dangun’s parentage is rather surprising in that his mother was a bear. Yes, an actual bear! The story goes that Hwanung (환웅), the son of the Lord of Heaven, wished to live on earth,. Therefore, his dad, Hwanin (환인), allowed him and three-thousand followers to build a city on Baekdu Mountain (백두산). Because of this, Baekdu Mountain, which straddles the North Korea-China border, and is known as Changbaishan in Chinese, is often seen as the birthplace of Korea.
Baekdu Mountain is a volcanic mountain with a lake at its summit. This lake is known as ‘heavenly lake’ and is where Hwanung allegedly descended from heaven. While the mountain now is on the border between North Korea and China, it was in fact near the center of the Gojoseon kingdom which stretched deep into Manchuria at its height.
On the mountain, Hwanung met a bear and a tiger, both of whom wished to become human. To test them, Hwanung set them the rather tough challenge of spending one hundred days living in a cave and only eating garlic and mugwort.
The tiger, as tigers do, completely failed the challenge and gave up after twenty days, presumably much to the bad luck of whichever tasty creature crossed his path afterwards. The bear however, managed to complete the challenge.
After finishing the challenge, the bear got turned into a woman, and then ended up marrying Hwanung and giving birth to a child. This son, Dangun, went on to found the first Korean kingdom.
Although the story of Dangun is a myth, it is said to be based on real events, with the tiger and the bear representing two different tribes that were vying for Dangun’s favor.
Celebrating National Foundation Day in Korea
Korean’s celebrate this founding of the first Korean kingdom on National Foundation Day. The holiday was originally on the third day of the tenth month of the lunar calendar, and was therefore on a different date each year on the solar calendar (like Chuseok).
However, since 1949, its date was moved to the solar calendar, so now National Foundation Day in Korea falls on the October 3rd every year. It is sometimes known as ‘Dangun Day’. The word Gaecheon, which makes up the holiday’s Korean name gaecheonjeol, means ‘opening of heaven’, and refers to how Hwanin opened heaven to allow his son to descend to Baekdu Mountain.
National Foundation Day in Korea is usually marked by a large fireworks display in Seoul. The display takes place in Yeouido Han River Park and it is very popular. Every year, huge crowds gather in the park or on the banks of the river opposite to try and watch the fireworks. With seemingly every person in Seoul packed into a small area to try and watch the fireworks display, Yeouinaru subway station is often closed for safety reasons.
If you wish to watch the fireworks display from Yeouido Han River Park then you will need to arrive early. Otherwise, try and find somewhere along the river with a good view so that you can watch the display without being stuck in such a huge crowd. You can also get a good view of the fireworks display from the top of Namsan Tower.
One might want to celebrate National Foundation Day with a visit to Baekdu Mountain. However, as this is pretty difficult as you would have to go to China to visit there, it may be easier to visit Halla Mountain on Jeju Island instead. Both mountains are volcanos and both mountains have calderas (volcano crater lakes) so from the top of Halla Mountain you could experience the kind of landscape that gives the atmosphere to the Korean creation myth.
Myths are one of the things that help create different cultures and make each culture unique from one another. There are many other myths in Korean culture that add a depth and flavor to life here.
What creation myths does your country have? Please share them in the comments below!