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Posted by on Feb 19, 2010

Seo Sang Don and the Korean National Debt Repayment Movement of 1907

This post is performing some double duty for me. It explains a bit more about my wife’s relative (서상돈), but also is a test to see if the scheduling function is working properly on WordPress. So there you have it.

In keeping with previous posts about my wife’s great great grandfather found here and here, I give you another installment in the life of one 서상돈 (Seo Sang Don).

After looking into it a bit further, it seem as though the information I needed was in front of me the whole time. Rather than look online, I should have been looking at my bookcase. More on that later.

As discussed in the previous posts about 서상돈 (Seo Sang Don), he organized the National Debt Repayment Movement (국채보상운동을), a movement to help build some sort of economic self-reliance apart from the colonial power of imperial Japan. At that time, Korea was a colony of Japan (made official in 1910 with the 한일병합조약).

서상돈, being a leader of the people that he was in Daegu (대구), organized this movement to help repay Korea’s debt. It all kicked off on January 30, 1907. Basically, people contributed whatever they could by way of individual donation. Many Koreans gave up their tobacco to contribute to the cause; it might not be the first anti-smoking campaign Korea (and definitely not the most recent), but it is the first documented example I know of.

It grew to be relatively successful and drew the support of an interesting cast of characters, including a famous 기생 (kisaeng) named 앵무. The movement was seen as an expression of latent Korean nationalism, so it eventually failed (I don’t have the text in front of me right now, so I cannot remember if it was officially disbanded by the Japanese Colonial authorities).

I feel it is a nice example of Korean community/collective behavior at its pragamtic best; everyone rallying together to achieve something for the good of the larger whole. This type of collective solidarity has been expressed more recently (at least in my amateur comparison here) in the New Community or Saemaul Movement (새마을 운동), an initiative launched by Park Chung Hee (박정희) in 1970 to modernize the rural economy. People working together towards common goals; I find that refreshing about Korea and Koreans (sometimes).

An image of a 기생, presumably not 앵무. Taken from http://blog.joins.com/media

So, back to my bookcase. I stumbled across all of this through a book I have had for years and years. It is called A New History of Korea by Lee Ki-Baik (이기백) (another very interesting article from the same author can be found here on Korean artifacts). The New History of Korea is even available on Google Books. Go figure.

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