It is safe to say that most countries had people accused of
witchcraft or black magic in the past. History tells us that any “non-traditional”
secular group that went against the state was met with scrutiny and, often,
violence. Whether it be cults, sacrilegious practices, or just blending various
religions into one. In the case of Choi Jae-woo, the latter ended up being the
cause of his dreadful fate.
Born in 1824 in Gyeongju, Choi Jae-woo had an unfortunate
childhood that would ultimately lead him to a rather unique life and an unjustified
death. From the day he was born he already had a lifetime ban of ever obtaining
a government job or even a normal day job because his mother was a concubine: a
mistress with limited social status and legal rights (polygamy was normal then).
One can imagine how this would affect the lives of children in the 1800s. However,
Jae-woo had the best (and worst) of both worlds with his father being a yangban.
Yangbans were Confucian male scholars who were responsible for preserving the
morality and education of society. Thanks to this he got to experience the highest
social class but couldn’t reap the benefits. This was ironic in itself as Jae-woo’s
childhood name was Bok-sul which means ‘full of happiness’. By age 18, he had
lost both of his parents.
Alone in the world, he set out to find a way to fix the
problems that were lurking in Joseon society. He had to revive the country and
bring back traditional Yangban customs. At the time, Christianity and
Catholicism were slowly making their way to Joseon after threats from Japan to
enter the country. By then, Japan had already accepted Western modernization.
While Christianity had its advantages, Jae-woo didn’t want to fully adopt these
practices, so instead, he looked for details that he could incorporate into
Confucianism while still keeping its authenticity. The results being a religion
called Donghak, a mixture of Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, and Korean
traditional folk beliefs (the way of the Yangban).
I know you’re still wondering about this tree. Just wait a
So now it is 1861 and Jae-woo’s Donghak has spread nationwide as a valuable alternative to neo-Confucianism. Donghak brought equality to social classes, which is exactly what the sufferers of injustice and poverty needed. But as you know, all good things must come to an end. The Joseon government sought out to denounce Donghak in 1864, arresting Jae-woo and charging him with inciting people to rebel against the authority of the country while holding an opinion that was contrary to orthodox religions. Behind the tree is Jongro Elementary School, the original site of the Gyeongsang provincial government offices where Jae-woo was imprisoned until he was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was beheaded at Amisan Mountain and this 400-year old pagoda tree (named Choi Jae-woo tree) is known as the borne witness to his wrongful, undeserved trial and execution. He left this world the same way he came into it: unjustly.
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