Sun Myung Moon, The Early Years, 1920-53
By Michael Breen
The Moon Village
Sun myung Moon was born in the winter of 1920 in the straw thatched home of a farming family in north-west Korea. The house was one of a line of fifteen which made up a tiny village or ri known as both Sangsa-ri and Dok heung-ri. No one knew which was the official name, although 'Sangsa-ri' was more commonly used. Unofficially, however, the locals called it 'Moon Village' because ten of the households were of the Moon clan, seven of them close relatives.
Remains of the Moon home in Sangsa-ri in present day north Korea (HSA-UWC, Seoul)
A few miles to the west was Jeongju, a town of just under ten thousand inhabitants, and a stop on the country's main railway, which carried travelers and freight north to the Manchurian border and south to the capital, Seoul, and on, down the length of the peninsula, to the southern port city, Pusan. Jeongju county sloped gently down from the mountains and spread over five hundred and fifty square miles of fertile coastal land. It was the leading rice producing county of North Pyong-an Province and also had a thriving fishing industry. The plains were rich in peat, and in the mountains there was gold.
Market day in Jeongju, the town near Moon's village, in the early part of the centry (Kokusho Kankokai Co., Tokyo)
The county town and its small, surrounding villages had their share of prominent sons. During the Yi dynasty, before the Japanese annexed the country in 1910, more students from Jeongju county passed the prestigious higher civil service exam than from any other area of Korea, including Seoul. Two prominent literary figures of this century, the poet Kim So wol and the writer Lee Kwang su, were locals.
The families in 'Moon Village' and neighboring Morum Village farmed the land, growing rice, millet, corn, beans, cabbages and radishes. At least half rented their fields, surrendering half their produce as payment to the landowners. The best quality rice was not for the eating, at least not at local tables. After the Japanese took over, it was taken to Jeongju, where there was a market every five days, processed into
brown rice and sent to Japan. The villagers mostly ate millet in place of rice, with corn, beans and pickled cabbage and radish. They kept chickens for their eggs, and ate beef, pork or chicken on special occasions usually birthdays. It was a difficult life, but nobody starved.
Other villages nearby also consisted almost entirely of clans. One cluster of two hundred households was known as the Lower Chun Village. Another settlement consisted of fifteen Chun families. Further down the road were two Cho villages. Sangsa-ri was a nondescript village with no particular meaning, l in contrast to other more distinguished sounding places nearby like 'Knowing-the-Tao-Village' and 'Giving-Pure-Water-Village.'
One of the Cho villages was a yangban, or upper class, settlement. A yangban person, whose claim to superiority rested with his forbears' success in having once passed the civil service examination in the days before Japanese rule, rarely worked with his hands. To do so was beneath his dignity. He often preferred to live in abject poverty and appear, at least, to concern himself with moral self cultivation. Commoners were supposed to stoop in a gesture of respect when they walked by yangban individuals, or even their villages.
The Moons of Sangsa-ri were commoners, descended from a clan which traces its origins to the fifth century and one Moon Da-song, who lived in Nampyong near the south Korean city of Kwangju. 2 The best known ancestor is Moon Ik-jum who, according to the standard school history texts in south Korea, was the person who introduced cotton to Korea. He was the secretary to a Koryo dynasty diplomat, and in 1363 smuggled the first cotton seeds across the Chinese border inside his writing brushes. His father in law planted the seeds and built a gin and spinning wheel to make the cotton, which became the standard material for clothing, replacing the rough hemp which Koreans had used until then. Sun myung Moon's family is descended from Ik-jum's third son, who moved to the north west to take up a government post in the late fourteenth century.
Aside from the record of the names of the male ancestors in the clan book, little else is known about Sun myung's forbears until the mid 1880s when they settled in Sangsa-ri. Sun myung and his cousins were told that their great grandfather, Jong-ul, was noted for his kindness. He was known as 'Sun ok', which means 'virtuous jewel' 3 It was said that, in Jong-ul's time, the Moons did not have to take their rice to
market as other farmers did. Apparently they gave such generous measures that customers would come to them. They made less money but they earned a good reputation, so much so that their children were high on the matchmakers' lists of marriage candidates. Beggars were also well treated at Moon Jong-ul's house. One poor woman used to go round the county selling dried fish which she carried in a basket on her head. Jong-ul used to give her rice for nothing. Villagers remember hearing a story that Jong-ul once bought a duck and set it free on the way home from market.
"If I hadn't bought it and set it free, someone would have eaten it," he is said to have remarked. 4 It was common in old Korea for people to buy birds, fish, and even turtles, and set them free in the hope that the kindness would be repaid. The point of this anecdote to Koreans is not that Jong-ul was nice to animals, but that he sought good fortune for his family.
An even more significant act, at least as far as his descendants are concerned, was the construction of an ancestral shrine and burial ground. He sold a two acre plot, despite the family's relative poverty, to buy the ground. From the viewpoint of Confucian ethics, such an exemplary act of filial piety ensured that his lineage would be blessed.
When Jong-ul died in 1918, Chi kook, the eldest of his three sons, took over as head of the family, assuming responsibility for the Confucian ancestral observances. Chi kook appears to have been, above all, a man of intuition He was the first to recognize that his second grandson, Sun myung, was special, and instructed the family to support his education, an important decision in a country where most children did not receive even primary schooling. 5 Sun myung's cousins still recall the judgments grandfather passed about him. "He will either be very great or very evil, " he said when word came in the 1940s that the Communist authorities had thrown Sun myung in prison.
Grandfather Chi kook said that the family should not join the exodus northward to Manchuria to escape Japanese oppression during the twenties and thirties. "In the future, America and Japan will fight," he predicted, citing the ancient Korean book of prophecy, the Chung-gam-nok, 6 he said the family should move south, either to the mountains of Kang won Province, or to Mount Gye ryong in South Chungchong Province, which is still considered by some religious sects to be the spiritual capital of Korea. His youngest brother and the younger men of the family
took his advice, as we shall see, but Chi kook stayed put. He was still alive, in his eighties, when the Communists took over north Korea and the border was sealed.
In their old age, Chi kook and his wife lived with their eldest son, Kyung yoo. The house was built in four sections around a court yard. 7 There were rooms for grandparents, parents, the eldest son and his family, and two for the children. In addition, of course, there was a kitchen, toilet, store rooms and a small barn for the farm animals. Kyung yoo was responsible for the sa-dang, the special room where the names of the ancestors were written and where the Confucian ceremonies were performed. Kyung yoo's brother, Kyung bok, and his cousin, Kyung chun, were his next door neighbors. 8
Kyung yoo, who was Sun myung's father, was a gentle, round faced man. Although a farmer, he had received some schooling and was well versed in the Confucian classics. He was fond of the sayings of sages. The Moon cousins say they never heard him say a cross word to anyone in his life, not even to his own children Korean fathers in Kyung yoo's day usually left child rearing and family matters to their wives, and became involved only in major decisions about marriage, education and employment, particularly if they concerned the eldest son. Fathers tended to live on the periphery of family life, drinking with friends and worrying alone about the farm and the future. But Kyung yoo was more devoted to his family than most. He did not smoke or drink. He was kind to the beggars who came round and even invited them to rest in his home. 9 Sun myung Moon referred to this himself in an address to Unificationists:
"My own family had this kind of tradition They never let anybody leave our home with an empty stomach. Our home used to be like a beggars' gathering place: all the poorest people of the vicinity knew they would be well treated, so they came to our home. Not one was mistreated. My mother served our grandparents and she also served the passing beggars. She would feed them whenever they came by. This was a heavy physical ordeal for my mother on one occasion, she did not feed a beggar, so my father took his own meal and gave it to him. So my mother had to feed the beggars, otherwise my father would be hungry. 10
While Sun myung's father was somewhat scholarly and measured in his actions, his mother acted with spontaneity. "My mother intuitively decided what was good, while my father waited and reasoned everything out slowly before making decisions," he once said. So they were always in some conflict over decisions. 11
In both character and appearance, Sun myung took more after his mother than his father. A tall, handsome woman, Kim Kyung gye was born in a nearby village in 1888, 12 one of twelve children. 13 She joined the Moon household in a marriage arranged between the two families around 1905, when the Russians and Japanese were at war over Korea and Manchuria. That she was sixteen and her husband only twelve when they married was not unusual. In fact, it was typical. In those days it was not uncommon to see wives waiting outside school to take their young husbands home after class.
Kim Kyung-gye, Moon's mother (HSA-UWC, Seoul)
Of her twelve children, eight survived. Two daughters died of illness before Sun myung Moon was born. In the absence of modern medicine there was always worry about disease. During her sixth pregnancy, the influenza epidemic of 1918, which took some twenty million lives around the world, struck eighty per cent of the population of north-west Korea, killing many. When she was carrying Sun myung, there was an outbreak of cholera, and a poor harvest due to drought, to add to her fears
Several months before Sun myung's birth, the fortune teller, 'Pak the Blindman', who lived in the next village, had predicted that 'a great man' would be born in the Moon clan. The local shaman, who went by the unusual and resounding name of Dong bang Chang bong, concurred.' 14 The seven Moon households, which were in a permanent baby boom, did not know which pregnant mother was being referred to and did not argue the point. Hope was scarce and the soothsayers, who tapped a mysterious and feared world, were appreciated for the encouragement they provided. For his mother, a prophecy that a baby would survive would have been comfort enough.
The villagers were accustomed to signs and prophecies. Early one morning in the Moon Village, one of the women noticed a gold colored crane in the trees near her house. The next day it appeared again. No one saw where it nested. In fact, it may not have been a real bird at all. Moon's cousin, Yong gi, describes it as a real bird, while his brother, Yong sun, says it was "a phenomenon" which their mother "saw". They
remember being told that every day for three years, it flew off eastward and appeared the next morning. In early 1919 it stopped coming. Villagers took it as a sign, stirring within them a sense that they were not forgotten by God.
Whether it was real or imagined, the unusual bird may have especially inspired Grandfather Chi kook's youngest brother, Yoon kook, who was the local Presbyterian minister, and one of his elders, Lee Myong nyong. Both men were fervently opposed to Japan's colonial subjugation of Korea and longed for their country's freedom. They were typical of the religious activists who were to assume the mantle of moral leadership, lost by the emperor and the nobility after they signed away the country, without a struggle, to Japan.
Moon Yoon kook, the minister, had been a school teacher when he converted to Christianity in 1910, the year Korea became a Japanese colony and was renamed Chosen. In 1918, at the age of forty, he graduated from the Union Theological Seminary in the city of Pyongyang, and became the pastor of three churches, the Dok heung Presbyterian Church in Morum village and the nearby Dosung and Yunbong churches. Elder Lee Myong nyong was the wealthiest man in Morum village, and was to become one of the country's best known nationalist figures.
For the Japanese authorities, the Christian churches presented a looming threat. The churches were the only independent organizations left in the country after the Japanese takeover, and believers became imbued with the foreign ideas of liberty and personal freedoms introduced by western missionaries. The inevitable clash came in l911, when a hundred and five people were tried on a trumped up charge of plotting to assassinate the Japanese Governor general. Ninety eight of the defendants were Christian, half of them from the town of Jeongju. The incident became known as the Conspiracy Case, and it singled out the north west as a strong center of Christian resistance.
On March first, 1919, Christian, Buddhist and Chondo-kyo 15 leaders took the authorities by complete surprise by declaring Korea's independence. The thirty three signatories of the Independence Declaration, who included Elder Lee Myong nyong, were immediately arrested, but in the weeks that followed, over two million Koreans from all social strata backed their call in hundreds of demonstrations throughout the country. It was the greatest mass movement in Korean history. The
Japanese responded to it with savagery. According to nationalist figures, seven thousand, five hundred Koreans were killed, and fifty thousand arrested. "In Tyungju (Jeongju) people were shot down and run through with bayonets like pigs," the Korean Independent newspaper reported. The pastor of the Presbyterian church in the town was "beaten almost to a jelly and his church burned, according to a missionary report. Rev Moon Yoon kook led a rally of ten thousand at the Osan Academy, according to a handwritten life story discovered years after his death. The school was ransacked by police and set on fire.
The national uprising was crushed. It had neither sapped Japanese morale nor won anything more than sympathy from the Christian nations. But despite this political failure, something had changed. Seventeen million oppressed Koreans, dulled by a strict, centuries old caste system, bullied throughout their history by stronger powers, and now deprived of their nation, had struck out with a single voice. Korea had rediscovered its soul. 16
Rev. Moon Yoon kook was arrested, tortured and sentenced to two years in prison. on his release, he returned to the village and resumed preaching. His passion for Korea's independence burned more strongly than before, and would continue to get him into trouble with the Japanese authorities. In the aftermath of the uprising, independence activists had split, some turning to guerrilla activity and some to the new ideas of the Russian, Chinese, and Japanese Communist parties. Yoon kook threw his lot in with the provisional government set up in April, 1919, by nationalist exiles in Shanghai, China.
The exiled politicians badly needed funds. Yoon kook felt the family should give everything it had to support the independence cause, but knew he would not be able to convince them. He decided to trick them into making a donation. He persuaded his eldest brother, Grandfather Chi kook, to sell the family land, saying they should invest the money in a coal mine in Kang won Province. Chi kook agreed, much to the disgust of his daughter in law, Sun myung's mother. She secretly put some of her own money down on some land near her family's village a few miles away. Sure enough, Yoon kook's alleged mine never came through and the family fortune, seventy thousand Won, a considerable sum, was lost. 17 Sun myung Moon's mother sold her new land and the family was able to buy three plots, about six acres, near the house. She had saved them from destitution. As a result of this incident,
she would always look back on the strange golden crane as a harbinger of misfortune. Yoon kook, once the respected Presbyterian pastor, was now no longer trusted by the family. "He was always looked upon as a fool," one of his relatives remembered. Under constant police surveillance, he resigned from his three churches and, in 1928, left the village to hide from the authorities, returning occasionally to see his wife and three children.
It was not until 1965 that the truth of Yoon kook's story came out and he was vindicated. The Moon cousins in south Korea discovered that their great uncle Yoon kook had in fact escaped to the south before the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, and died in a remote village, a penniless calligraphy teacher, in 1959. He left behind a handwritten account of his life from which these incidents are taken. 18 In his testimony, the old Christian independence fighter describes how he found himself up against a new enemy:
"I was separated from my wife, my children and my relatives. With tears in my eyes, I walked toward the South and pledged to God: 'I am separated from my elderly wife and my young son. I pray to you, and will follow the clouds to the South. I will endure and will work for democracy in this country. Even if they kill me, I will never follow the Communists in north Korea.' After a long journey across mountains and rivers, I finally arrived at my cousin's house."
The family fool became the family hero. The Moons petitioned the Seoul government to have Yoon kook recognized for his contribution to the independence movement. Government investigators were able to substantiate all the main elements of Yoon kook's story, except for the donation to the provisional government, which did not record and issue receipts for such gifts. Yoon kook was designated a Special Patriot, and is now buried in the Unification Church Cemetery in Paju, near the border with north Korea.
Sun myung Moon was born, halfway through his great uncle Yoon kook's prison term, on February 25, 1920, which in that year was January 6 according to the lunar calendar by which Koreans record their birthday 19 He was named Yong myung. He was to change his name to
Sun myung in the 1950s after his escape to the south during the Korean War. 20 That first summer, his mother nursed him and laid him on the floor, fanning him and watching his growth as the weeks went by. In the winter, he sat strapped to her back, wrapped in quilted cotton, quietly taking in the wider world. By the time he was taking his first steps, his mother was already pregnant again, and he was given over more and more to the care of his elder sisters. "Yong meng!" they called him in the local accent. "Yong meng a! " and he would come running, his face beaming, burned brown by the summer sun.
As a child, he was strong and wild, just like the stereotypical Pyongan Province character, who is said to be like 'a tiger coming out of the bushes.' This tiger proved difficult to control. In fact, his parents felt that he controlled them. His mother told one of his followers, years later, that she had never been able to discipline him. A cousin remembered that she did smack him once when he was about six years old. She hit him so hard, he fell down and lost consciousness for a while. It shocked her so much she never did it again.
Villagers said they recognized that from the age of five he had an unusual character. 21 When he had tantrums, he would thrash around so much on the rough floor that he would scrape the skin off the back of his hands or the back of his head. When he cried, he would continue for hours or even days. Once, his uncle Kyung chun, who was considered the village elder, came into the house after watching Sun myung playing and said, "That boy will either become a king or a terrible traitor." The family understood his meaning, that under colonial rule it was impossible for a Korean to become king, so Sun myung would probably end up becoming an underground leader and cause a lot of trouble for the Moon clan.
Moon himself has not talked a great deal about his early memories. But he recalled in one talk that as a young child he was intuitive about people and could see them as they were spiritually. 22 He has also said that he felt an acute rage at injustice from an early age. 23 He developed a love of nature. He has told followers that once, as a young boy, after praying outdoors, he felt as if the grass and trees were appealing to him, telling him they were abandoned by mankind. 24 His life was that of the typical poor, farming family. With most villagers being part of the extended family, relationships were close. As an indication of the
earthy intimacy of the atmosphere in which he was raised, he once talked in a sermon to Korean followers how, as a very young child, he would identify the feces of his parents and siblings in the outhouse. 25
Villagers wore traditional, home made white clothes. The men had a waistcoat, jacket, and baggy trousers, while the women wore long dresses. In winter a cotton lining was sown in. The nature of rice farming, and the irrigation and transplanting involved, meant that they had to work together. Some of the best times would be when there was joint project like building or thatching someone's house. All the relatives would join in. There would be much horseplay, and many contradictory orders barked, more out of self assertion than strategy. In the kitchen, women would joke and curse and keep the food and drink flowing. The children scampered around, stopped at times to help or get in the way and then break for wrestling.
The children played tamachigi, a game with beads, and batchi, in which you stack up bits of cardboard and try to win your opponent's stack by throwing a coin on them. If you miss, he gets the money.
Until he was around ten years old, Sun myung was mischievous and wrestled a lot with other boys. They didn't pick fights with him because he was strong and they were afraid he would beat them. Once when he was around nine years old, he got into a serious scrap with a village boy called Lee, who was three or four years older. 26 It began as horseplay and developed into a brawl, with Lee getting the upper hand. The villagers gathered round to watch, knowing Sun myung's character, and curious as to how he would handle a beating. Although he was underneath, Sun myung refused to concede and he kept on wriggling and kicking. Lee couldn't let go and he couldn't stay where he was. He looked at the adults, hoping one would step in and stop it, but no one moved. Lee began to cry and let his opponent go. Unleashed, Sun myung jumped astride the older boy, grabbed his ears and began banging his head on the ground. At that point the adults stepped in to stop the fight.
Shortly after this incident, Sun myung stopped fighting. He became more thoughtful and laconic. "He seemed to weigh his words and be thinking deeply about things," his cousin Seung gyun remembered.
Sun myung was close to his elder brother, Yong soo. "I have a wonderful brother who really loves me," he told American followers in 1965. "He has had some spiritual experiences. In fact, he is the (only) one in
my family who even dimly understood my mission " 27 Yong soo began to feel that his younger brother was very special and later was to share his religious fervor. Once, Yong soo remonstrated with Sun myung's first wife for complaining about his devotion to his religious work. "You don't know about him. You don't understand him," he told her. "He will be a great man." 28 As the elder brother, Yong soo was destined to inherit the farm and did not receive the education which Sun myung had. He stayed with his parents when the Communists took over in 1945. When Moon returned to north Korea in 1991 for the first time since the Korean War, Yong soo's widow told him he had been killed during the Korean War when an American plane bombed the village and partially destroyed the house 29
Sun myung's early schooling was the traditional instruction in Chinese characters, which had been taught in Korea for centuries. The classroom, or so dang, had no desks or chairs. Students sat on the wooden floor and were instructed in the Confucian texts. Cousin Yong sun, who was six months younger than Sun myung, was a classmate. "There were about forty children in our so dang," he recalled. "We started around eight or nine o'clock in the morning, and went till around five p.m., with a break for lunch. We brought our lunch in a box." If the weather was too hot or too cold, they would get the day off and go fishing, or, in the winter, skating. Otherwise it was school seven days a week.
The so dang education lasted seven years. 30 For the first year, they were taught by Moon Hyong chong in the so dang, attached to the church in Morum village, where great uncle Yoon kook was still the minister There Sun myung started to learn the basic one thousand Chinese characters, 31 studying for four years under Pak Chang je and Chong Shin taek at the so dang next to Pak-the-Blind-Man's house. He then studied for two years in Sangsa ri under Pak Ki ho.
By the time he was thirteen, he knew the essential Chinese characters by heart and had studied the sayings of the sages. The study of the philosophical sayings and of history and literature was, in theory, intended to make the pupil an ethical young citizen, and equip him for social advancement rather than a job. He learned that, in the Confucian view, the family rather than the individual is the smallest social unit, and that the virtues that characterize the ideal man are loyalty fidelity, and other virtues that manifest in relationships, rather than individual qualities such as bravery or humility. Confucian morality,
he learned, focused upon proper relationships. The core of the system was filial piety. As the 19th century Korean scholar Chong Yak yong put it: "The studies of the Confucian gentleman begin with attending parents and end with the attendance of Heaven."
Whether Sun myung Moon was a proper little Confucian gentleman as far as his teachers were concerned is another matter. According to cousin Seung gyun, who studied with him, Sun myung was the star pupil in calligraphy, and was often asked to show the class how to write a particular Chinese character properly. He one upped his fellow scholars by mastering two original techniques holding the brush in his mouth and between his toes. "One day we were messing around and he wrote some characters with the brush in his teeth and toes. The other kids wrote by hand and then took the work to the teacher for grading. 'Who's is this?' the teacher asked. This is so and so's, they answered. And this one is Yong myung writing with his toes: The teacher got angry and scolded him."
He grew to be a sturdy adolescent. "Like an alder tree," said one villager. The picture that emerged in interviews was of a child who was highly active, always running, never walking, and into everything. He used to stick his hands into holes in the thatched roofs, searching for birds' nests. In fact, catching birds was a major pastime. At night, the Moon boys would sneak up to firewood piles where sparrows nested One would throw a net over one end of the stack while the others banged the wood at the other end to frighten a bird, which flew straight into the net. There was then a problem of how to hold the bird while they looked for the next one. If they put it in the pocket of their tunic it would fly out. The solution was to put it inside their baggy trousers, which were tied at the ankles. At the end of the evening they would cook the sparrows for the younger children. 32
Once, Sun myung caught a pair of birds and put them in a cage to watch them mate. "I wanted to watch them Sing and express their love for each other," he said. "Of course, later I came to realize that genuine love can only be fulfilled in a natural environment, not in a cage. This was one of the naughty things I did in my childhood . . . The natural world taught me a more fundamental kind of knowledge than school did." 33 He also invented his own gun for shooting birds. It was a barrel made from an umbrella and had a long wooden handle. He put match ends into the barrel and used buckshot.
Another prank was to sneak into his uncle's honey melon field. Instead of just eating one melon, Sun myung in his haste would rip up the vine and hold it up so he could see the melons. When his uncle came to the field in the morning, he knew who was to blame. Sun myung and his cousins were scolded. 34
When they went collecting chestnuts, he always tried to get the nuts at the top of the tree, just for the challenge. He tied sticks together to reach them. Then he gave the nuts to the younger kids. One day when he was about ten or eleven years old, he followed a weasel all night, tracking it through the snow, and caught it. He returned home in the morning, his parents' anger tempered by the fact that they could sell the weasel for the equivalent in today's money of about $150.
In the summer, the local children used to catch fish in a shallow stream. They used a net, but the fish moved so fast it was difficult to catch them. On one occasion, he asked his cousin Seung gyun to run through the water behind him with the net. This way Sun myung disturbed the fish, which regrouped behind him just in time to be scooped up by Seung gyun. With this new technique, they outsmarted the fish and caught two or three with every run.
However, the best display of Sun myung's youthful ingenuity was in the way he caught eels. It was possible to net them, but that was too simple. He liked to grab the small eels, squeeze them till their mouths opened, stick his thumb in their mouths, and then fling them out onto the bank. Another method was to block all the holes they went into, except one, and grab them as they came out. But by far the best technique, for style, was catching them in his teeth. "He would put his head underwater with his mouth near the eel hole," Seung gyun recalled. "The eel would come out tail first and he grabbed it in his teeth. Then he held my head under while I did it. I protested that it made my gums sore and suggested we use a net, but he said it would be too easy." A warning to Seung gyun to be careful, in case the eel darted down his throat, didn't encourage him much. In this way they could catch twenty eels in a day. They would string them on a wire, take them home and stink the village out.
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