The Early Life of Ham Sokhon (1901-1923)
The Aim of this Chapter
In this chapter I will discuss Ham's early life (1901-1923); from his childhood in north Korea, North P'yongan Province, through the March First Movement (MFM) of 1919, up to his life at Osan School as a Christian youth. During those periods Ham had a valuable opportunity to meet various distinguished senior contemporaries: including patriotic activists, religious thinkers of Korea and abroad and national leaders. I will examine closely what influences Ham received from his seniors, and how he responded to the crisis of his nation through those influences on him.
2.1. A 'Gentle' Childhood in P'yongan Province (1901-1919)
Ham Sokhon was born in 1901 at Wonsong-dong, Pura-myon (township), Yongch'on-gun (county), near the Yellow Sea in the north-west corner (North P'yongan Province) of north Korea. Pura-myon was a place apart, a tiny district removed from the world of great events, where life was lived much as it had been for hundreds of years. Among his immediate family Ham was the only son amongst one elder and three younger sisters.
Ham's father Ham Hyongt'ak was a well-known traditional herbal doctor (hanui-sa): Many of his patients came not only from P'yongan Province, but also from Seoul, Manchuria and Japan to see him. Although Ham's family lived in a poor village, their living standard was higher than their neighbours'. By the end of the 1920s, Ham's parents had built a Presbyterian church and school in their village and had become elders in that church. Ham's artistic sense and rationality came from his father and his egalitarian principles and open-minded spirit from his mother.
Since Ham grew up with four sisters, he was presumably familiar with the 'strength' of femininity and tenderness and may have absorbed this mentality quite naturally. Throughout his childhood Ham was a somewhat shy child, timid and rarely active in physical play with his male contemporaries.
Korea at that time was on the edge of national disintegration and in a dire political and economic state. At the end of the nineteenth century Korea was an economically destitute and a socially underdeveloped reclusive nation with a population of ten million, separated from the rest of the world apart from China and Japan. Traditional values, Confucianism, Buddhism and shamanistic folk religion did not provide the people with vitality nor did they present a new direction for the despondent populace, but rather they offered strict observances and stagnant rites.
Ham grew up in the grim socio-political climate of Korea, but his home village, and also largely northern Korea, was relatively peaceful and free from the political influence of the outside world and the nation's capital, Seoul. When Ham was four years old (1905) the sovereignty of the nation was removed by Japan and when Ham was nine (1910), Korea fell completely under Japanese rule. After 1910 only one kind of organisation with foreign links remained relatively free from the hands of Japanese control, the Christian churches.
The onset of organised Protestant mission work in Korea dates from 1884, when the American Presbyterian missionaries arrived in Korea. The missionaries were frequently viewed as the bearers of Western enlightenment and the impoverished people experienced momentary alleviation from their burdens under their guardianship. From that time, Christianity, and Protestantism in particular, exerted a great influence on political and modern educational movements. Literacy schedules linked with Christian churches were often the sole educational vehicles accessible to many of the population.
While theologically more progressive and more socially active Christian protests caused considerable unrest and annoyance to the Japanese colonial regime, they could not be so readily put down. Their solid bonds and connections with American missionaries drew notice in the United States, a power which Japan did not wish to displease. Therefore, to be a Christian meant Koreans were able to obtain a non-Japanese international education and to feel themselves in possession of a certain autonomy from Japanese domination.
For certain Koreans, the Christian churches and their educational and social welfare agendas enabled them to reconcile their quandary and uneasiness under Japanese political power. The setting was laid for an intense conflict between the church and the emerging colonial regime. Korean nationalists were eager for a Western education. Private schools, many of them founded by Protestant missionaries, made a key contribution to the development of modern education in Korea. Between 1883 and 1909, throughout the Korean peninsula, 29 private schools were founded including one private lyceum in Kando, (Chien-tao in Chinese), in Manchuria. These schools were founded either by Korean national leaders, who were mostly influenced by Western missionaries, or run by Western missionaries themselves.
The offspring of the yangban (the ruling class) were not attracted to these schools, since all classes of students were allowed to enter without reference to social class or status. Ham's entrance in 1906 seemed to rest with the 'luck' that he was not an offspring of the ruling class.
Although Ham grew up in an impoverished village, his family and relatives were comparatively 'enlightened' and 'well-to-do'. It is not surprising that Ham remembered his early days as a 'happy childhood'. In his youth, Ham was greatly influenced by his uncle Ham Irhyong (c.1862-?), who was an enthusiastic Christian-intellectual and an ardent activist. On several occasions, Ham Irhyong acted as the peasants' speaker when there was discontent within his village. Thus he was often flogged by the local government authorities.
Unlike most of his contemporaries, Ham Irhyong was an enlightened and discerning man. At the beginning of this century he sent his eldest son, Ham Sokkyu (c.1885-?), to Paeje School [the American Methodist mission school] in Seoul, where Syngman Rhee also studied in his youth. Ham Sokkyu, although studying at a Methodist mission school, became the first Presbyterian Minister at Ham Sokhon's village and promoted the new religion, Christianity. Ham Irhyong's second son, Ham Sogun (c.1888-?), studied in Tokyo moving on to became an active and tireless national leader for Korea's independence movement. Since they lived in the same village, young Ham Sokhon was strongly influenced not only by his uncle Ham Irhyong but also by his two elder cousins, Ham Sokkyu and Ham Sogun. Ham was influenced most especially by their sense of Christian morals and their dynamic work for Korean nationalism. An example of this instilled morality is illustrated by the fact that during his childhood when Ham Sokhon absented himself from Sunday morning worship, the feeling of 'tremendous guilt' about this absence stayed with him for several years.
In the meantime in 1909, the "Million Souls for Christ Campaign" was successful in bringing about mass conversions to the Protestant religion. By 1910, 1% of the nation was Protestant. The Japanese Protestant Church, with a longer history, has yet to attain this figure. Korean Christians began to take a leading role not only in the affairs of the church but also in Korean national affairs. Particular evidence of this influence was the Conspiracy Trial of 1912. 124 persons were charged with planning to kill the Governor-General, Terauchi Masatake (1852-1919). Of these men, ninety-eight were Christians including Yi Sunghun (1864-1930), later Ham Sokhon's teacher. The Japanese saw the Christians as the single most established group capable of threatening their complete control of Korea. Missionaries enjoyed some protection owing to Japan's fear of international criticism, and were often forthright in defence of Korean interests; this helped to retain Christianity at the forefront of Korean nationalism. In this light, the Conspiracy Trial Incident reflected the increasing connection between Korean nationalism and Christianity.
The Christian church provided a role for the Korean intelligentsia who were concerned with freedom and the expansion of liberal inspiration. The churches nurtured not only religious leaders, but also social reformers, and educators and Christians appeared as a force for modernisation. The attraction of Christianity in the beginning of the twentieth century was at least closely embraced not only as a religious belief but also for its socio-political enlightenment, cultural exemplars and as a symbol of a nation's progress. The church in this period was truly the beacon of optimism and regarded as the new hope for a downhearted Korean nation. Certain Koreans had a critical attitude toward Koreans' conversion to Christianity; since they were in favour of the Japanese rather than Western domination of Korea. They viewed the conversion to Christianity as the first step toward an alliance and belief in Western attitudes and beliefs. Those Koreans identified themselves more with the same Asian race, Japan, than the West. But Ham Irhyong as an anti-Japanese nationalist, viewed Christianity as a basis for the preparation for national invigoration and advance, for the freedom of Korea from Japanese control.
Western ideas were diffused swiftly by means of Christianity. In particular Protestantism presented the image of 'protest' and American democracy in a vassal state, Korea. Correspondingly Ham Irhyong established a Western-style private Presbyterian school in his village. Ham Sokhon first attended this 'modernised' Christian school instead of the traditional Confucian sodang school. Hence from his early years in contrast to the bulk of his contemporaries, Ham was enormously influenced by the 'new religion', Christianity, and the consciousness of democracy. This is the reason Ham described himself as a "born democrat".
When Ham Sokhon was born, although it was the custom in Korea for the grandfather to select a name, it was his eldest uncle, Ham Irhyong (not even his own father), who named him Ham Sokhon. This was very unusual and is symbolic of the special affection Ham Irhyong held for his newly born nephew. Moreover Ham Sokhon was deeply influenced in his childhood by Ham Irhyong's vivacious patriotism and his spirit of Christianity. Young Ham Sokhon attended Ham Irhyong's primary mission school, where he was taught to harmonise Christianity and Korean nationalism.
After the March First Movement, Ham Irhyong was imprisoned by the Japanese police. Ham Sokhon remembered this uncle as "my first teacher". Therefore, it would not be overstatement to say that Ham's capacity to synthesise the Christian ethic and the value of nationalism, under Japanese imperialism, was largely due to his uncle, Ham Irhyong.
Among the common people the egalitarian premises of Christianity attracted those estranged by the yangban-centred society. The yangban monopolised both socio-political and economic powers. Thus Protestantism was welcomed by the non-yangban intellectuals, the lower class people and by the business community. It was these groups who had suffered under the social environment of hardship and exploitation. This was particularly the case in areas of developing economic activity, such as P'yongan province, Ham's native region.
In P'yongyang where Protestants were predominantly concentrated, the yangban class were under-represented. As late as 1938, it is estimated that close to 75% of all the Christian population, more than 600,000 Protestant Christians were located in P'yongyang alone. Furthermore prior to the end of the Second World War, approximately 80% of the churches and of the Christians in the region of the Presbyterian Mission were in P'yongyang. By this time, the city of P'yongyang had more Christians than any other city of its size in Asia.
The multitudinous Christian (mainly Presbyterian) presence in P'yongan province in part explains the creditable role it played in the independence activity during the early stages of Japanese domination. Confucianism was less influential, compared to other areas and this accounts for the distinctly favourable response to Christianity in that region. This can be linked to the existence of significant social groups who did not have a vested interest in the status quo.
Protestantism thus secured its strongest initial support in north Korea, where it was able to capitalise upon the long-standing grievances of the people of that region opposing the yangban of Seoul. Ham recalled why and how Christianity was more popular in P'yongan, his native area, than in south Korea:
"I had the good fortune to study the 'new education' ---This was because Christianity, which was just beginning to be propagated in Korea, entered my village. My province, of P'yongan was known as Korea's 'heathen Galilee', and for centuries its 'people of low birth' had been the object of scorn and contempt. People of my village especially, like 'Zebulun and Naphtali', were referred to as the 'scum of the sea'. Thus we lived amidst scorn and shame. However, this misfortune became our fortune. Being at the bottom level of society, there was peace even among the prevailing political chaos. Just as we accepted scorn and disdain so also we were quick to accept new things and new ideas. Indeed we stood at the frontier of a new age."
Christianity evidently supplied a motive and a mechanism for a breakout from the social and ideological chains of the Confucian social order and at least pledged to correct the depravities of an underhanded and compromised political order. Moreover, it is a notable fact that Protestantism expanded very swiftly for a time, and claimed the membership of many devoted reform-minded nationalists.
The Presbyterian teaching of this period was puritanical, but Ham recalled this period of puritanical teaching with great appreciation: "To this day I am grateful for this background. If we had not received such Christian education in that critical period of national destruction, the conscience of our society surely would have collapsed." Indeed Ham was a simple Christian youth at this time.
Furthermore, the missionaries brought with them modern scientific and newer knowledge in every field, filling the vacuum created by Korean isolation. Korean people needed, and avidly desired these new ideas if they were to move toward modernisation and achieve their independence. The missionaries were also sympathetic toward Korean nationalism. Because of their involvement in schooling, they developed close ties with many young, intelligent Koreans who would later become leaders of the new Korea. For example, An Ch'angho (1878-1938), national leader, Yi Tonghwi (1873-1935), later the founder of the Koryo Kongsan-dang (first Korean Communist Party) in 1920, and Yi Sunghun (1864-1930), founder of the Osan High School and Ham's teacher.
During this time, while missionaries advocated the 'political neutrality' of the Korean churches, the Japanese authorities saw the Korean churches as the main stronghold of the anti-Japanese movement.
In the midst of the conflict between Korean Christians and Japanese authority, in 1916, Ham graduated from middle school and entered P'yongyang State High School, which was funded by the Japanese authority and was one of the most prestigious state schools in north Korea at this time. Young Ham was undoubtedly an intelligent and faithful boy, but he was not at all a child genius.
The graduates of P'yongyang State High School were supposed to have relatively good and prosperous jobs as junior-bureaucrats with the favour of the Japanese colonial regime. With relatively 'good prospects' for the future, compared with the bulk of other Koreans, the students of this state school tended to prefer to maintain the social and political status-quo. For them, being a bureaucrat under the Japanese regime was a 'realistic' and 'sensible' dream. Ham was no exception. He entered this school with the ambition of becoming a medical doctor, and dreamt of a comfortable life under Japanese colonial rule. Ham's father also wanted Ham to be a medical doctor, considering it to be a better occupation than any other job under the Japanese colonial system. Ham felt many of his established beliefs and innocence begin to ebb away. He admitted that through the education and atmosphere of this state school "I began to lose my childlike purity."
In August 1917, while Ham was engaged in study at the P'yongyang State High School with good prospects for his future, he was married to a girl who had been chosen for him, Hwang Tuksun (1902-1978). Like most of his contemporaries in the Korea of 1917, Ham did not know his 'wife' at all before his marriage - what kind of person she was, or what she looked like. As with most brides in 1917, Ham's wife was illiterate. In those days, marriages were arranged by the parents of the bride and groom. It seems Ham was not keen for marriage in his teenage years, especially whilst he was engaged in study. However, Ham did not want to disobey his parents and deny them their dearest wish. During his 'happy honeymoon', young Ham may have dreamt of a calm life in the future. But a turbulent life was impending, beginning with the March First Movement.
2.2. In the March First Movement as a Christian Youth (1919-1921) Table of Contents