This paper is aimed at analyzing the perception of hygiene in Donghak (Eastern Learning) and Cheondogyo (Religion of the Heavenly Way) during the modern transition period of Korea. Westerners who first experienced Korean society after its opening in 1876 recognized it as one that was very far behind in terms of hygienic conditions. This perception was shared not only among the Westerners but also the Japanese immigrants to Joseon. After the port-opening of the nation, an enlightened figure who visited modern civilization such as Japan and the U.S. also felt that hygiene was a measure of a civilized country. Accordingly, he stressed that the government should make active efforts to prevent infectious diseases while insisting on implementing the sanitary law. A new perception of hygiene has also come into being both in the East and the West.
Not only did Su-un Choe Je-u (水雲 崔濟愚), who founded Donghak, relieve mental illness, but also recognized the treatment of diseases, or hygiene, as important. Haewol Choe Si-hyeong (海月 崔時亨), who succeeded this, focused on making hygiene more viable. In other words, Choe Si-hyeong set the five rules of hygiene: “Do not mix old rice with new rice; cook old food; don’t spit saliva or blow your nose anywhere; after emptying the bowels, bury the feces under the ground; and don’t throw away dirty water anywhere.” These were the poplar ways of preventing contagious diseases at that time. By practicing this, Donghak was able to free itself from the epidemic of cholera, typhoid and other diseases that were popular at the time.
Uiam Son Byong-hi (義庵 孫秉熙), who inherited Haewol Choe Si-hyeong’s hygiene rituals, deepened his awareness of modern hygiene through his exile in Japan. He enlightened his perception of hygiene through a Korean language newspaper ‘Mansebo (萬歲報)’ which dealt with such series of articles as “A General Introduction to Hygiene” and “Hygiene Law” as well as “Hygiology,” thus making it easier for not only the believers of Cheondogyo but also the general public to get access to hygiene through enlightenment. In addition to this, Son Byong-hi also issued a sanitary practice ordinance to the believers of Cheondogyo and let them put it into practice.
But the essence of the hygiene of Donghak and Cheondogyo was to relieve mental illness rather than physical diseases. Therefore, from Choe Je-u to Son Byong-hi, the mind-body training based on incantations and hearings, as the core practice of Cheondogyo, was emphasized. It can be said that the perception leading to mental training based on hygiene in the daily life is a recognition of hygiene in Donghak and Cheondogyo.