Korea’s Children’s Day and Bang Jeong-hwan

Written by on May 3, 2013 in Lifestyle

May is “Family Month” in Korea. Children’s Day comes first on May 5th. It is only natural to have a special holiday for the children as we also have a Parents’ Day (May 8th). In a country where study is emphasized much more than play, it is a very welcome holiday for overworked kids. (It is probably a verrrry long day for the parents.)

Poster for Children’s Day (1923). Photo courtesy of the National Archives of Korea.

Korea’s Children’s Day dates back to 1923, when the country was still under Japanese occupation. At that time, it wasn’t only the well-being of the children that was in plight. Independence activists were trying their utmost to liberate the country amongst severe oppression.
Educator and writer Bang Jeong-hwan (방정환) was part of this liberation movement. He believed that education was essential in order to regain the country; especially the education of children, on which the future of the country relied.

Bang Jeong-hwan. Photo courtesy of The Korea Bang Jeong Hwan Foundation.

Bang Jeong-hwan was born in 1899. A family of merchants, four generations lived comfortably in the same household in traditional style, where Bang Jeong-hwan was greatly influenced by his scholarly grandfather. He was a smart child, entering school at an early age and soon excelling at his studies, showing a talent for writing. He joined youth groups and was incredibly active in them.
Unfortunately, his family’s fortunes didn’t hold up. As the country reeled from unfortunate historical events and disarray shook the Joseon Empire, his family, whose trade relied on royalty, felt the aftermath as well. Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910. The family’s wealth collapsed, and Bang Jeong-hwan soon found himself fighting with poverty. He dropped out of school in order to help with the family’s finances, by working as a clerk-secretary.
The state of the country, yearning for his lost youth, and also his natural personality compelled Bang Jeong-hwan to actively participate in the movement for independence. He married the daughter of Korea’s leading liberation activist Son Byeong-hee (손병희), and was able to resume his studies.
In 1919, he published the magazine “New Youth” (신청년), emphasizing the role of youth in Korea’s (then) situation, and was caught and incarcerated for taking part in the March 1st Movement the same year. He contributed to various literary magazines, worked as a translator, and during this time, constantly studied, wrote, and toured the country giving lectures on children’s rights.

Covers of “Eorini”, the first children’s magazine in Korea. Photos courtesy of the National Archives of Korea.]

Bang Jeong-hwan believed that children should be able to dream, and that children should be respected as much as adults. He is credited as actually creating the word “eorini” (어린이) – literally “young person” – to define children, emphasizing their existence as individuals and not just offspring to be treated like possessions. His translation work included children’s stories (such as the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen), and he helped set up various organizations for child welfare.

Children’s Day Song: Past and Present. Photos courtesy of The Korea Bang Jeong Hwan Foundation and Naver Dictionary.

Several of these groups came together on 1923 to celebrate the first Children’s Day. “Don’t look down on children, look at them” was one of the slogans printed on the flyers handed out that first day of celebration. That year, Bang Jeong-hwan also created the first Korean children’s magazine simply titled “Eorini”. The magazine focused on new stories for children and not only standard folk tales; it also introduced songs specifically made for children.
Bang Jeong-hwan even wrote a special “Children’s Day Song.” [It is not the popular song which is being sung today: that was written by the famous songwriters Yun Seok-jung (윤석중, lyrics) and Yun Geuk-yeong (윤극영, song).]

Bang Jeong-hwan. Photo courtesy of http://kg9403.egloos.com

Children’s Day began to be celebrated in earnest, with more and more children related organizations participating in the festivities. However, as the years went by, the level of Japanese oppression worsened. Because of his activities in the liberation movement, Bang Jeong-hwan was persistently persecuted. The literary magazines where he contributed got suspended or were terminated. By the early 1930s, the Japanese government took over the Children’s Day festivities, and in 1939 all events were halted and banned. Many children’s organizations were forced to disband.
All this took a toll on Bang Jeong-hwan. He died of complications from nephritis and high blood pressure in 1931 at the age of 33, unable to see the country’s liberation become reality.

Stamp commemorating the 20th Children’s Day. Photo courtesy of the National Archives of Korea.

Children’s Day celebrations were resumed in 1946, a year after independence. It has been celebrated ever since. It was observed on May 1st in the beginning, then the first Sunday of May, with May 5th becoming the official date from 1961.
Although it has become somewhat more commercial in the modern age and whatnot, Children’s Day is a reminder of how important children are to society, how they should be nurtured and cared for, how it is the responsibility of adults to look after them, and especially, respect them. It is about children’s welfare and their rights.
Perhaps on this Children’s Day it would be a good idea to take a look at the less fortunate children as well, in honor of Bang Jeong-hwan’s philosophy. If you are a parent or have children around you, it might be a good idea to educate children about other children, too. It would be far more meaningful than showering them with expensive gifts and standing hours in line in an amusement park with other exhausted parents and hyperactive kids. Bang Jeong-hwan’s legacy should be carried on.
Happy Children’s Day!

More information and the writings of Bang Jeong-hwan in their entirety at:
The Korea Bang Jeong Hwan Foundation (Korean only)

About Parents’ Day (May 8th) and filial piety in Korea:

About the Author

Suzy Chung

Multilingual editor, writer, and translator. Coffee addict, bookworm, art junkie, foodie, oenophile, and a billion other things. I tend to talk a lot. @suzyinseoul