Culture History

Who founded Korea? How did Korea begin? Are Koreans descendants of bears?


According to the founding legend recorded in the Samguk Yusa 삼국유사 (record of history and legends), the Lord of Heaven, Hwanin 환인, had a son, Hwanung 환웅, who descended to Taebaek Mountain 태백산 (modern day Baekdu Mountain 백두산 area which is the highest in the Korean peninsula) and founded the city of Shinsi 신시. Then a tiger and a bear came to Hwanung and asked how they could become humans and they were told that if they went into a cave and lived there for 100 days while only eating mugwort and garlic Hwanung will transform them into human beings.


who founded korea
Illustration of the mugwort-garlic challenge!
dh.aks.ac.kr licensed under creative commons by attribution 4.0 license (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Both accepted the challenge, but about halfway through the 100 days the tiger gave up and ran out of the cave. The bear, on the other hand, successfully restrained herself and became a beautiful woman called Ungnyeo 웅녀, 熊女. Hwanung married Ungnyeo, and she gave birth to Dangun 단군, who became the founding father of Gojoseon 고조선 in 2333 BC.

A portrait of Dangun Wanggeom
Chungnam Cultural Heritage Material No. 369

Today, the said legend is interpreted by scholars as a symbolic representation of a marriage with a member of a bear-worshiping tribe, rather than a literal bear-turned-human woman. The founding date, or Gaecheonjeol 개천절 (“The Heaven Opening Day”) is celebrated as a national holiday in Korea (October 3rd).

RELATED : What are Korea’s official holidays?

Historiographer at the English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons


hong ik in gan

Broadly Benefit Humanity
(Devotion to Human Welfare)

Great resource for further study on Hong Ik In Gan – The Practice of Hongik Ingan Lives of Queen Seondeok, Shin Saimdang and Yi Yulgok [Amazon]

Dangun Founding Legend-Inspired Dramas with Fantasy Elements
Asdal Yeondaegi 아스달 연대기 (Arthdal Chronicles, 2019, tvN) Taewang Sashingi 태왕 사신기 (The Legend, 2007, MBC)

According to traditional Korean calendar system dangungiwon 단군기원 or dangi 단기, year 1 starts on the founding date of the first Korean kingdom Gojoseon (2333 BC, which means 2333 years before the Gregorian calendar was used as the global standard today). So by adding the Gregorian year, you get the current dangi year. For example, the year 2020 in the U.S. would be translated as the year 4353 in dangi. For Korean people, this number is a symbol of pride, as it means that the ancestors of the Korean people have kept their long history and tradition for 5,000 years.

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