Koihime Musou Girls and Korean Patriots, Part IV: Xu Huang and Augustine Seo Sang-don (1850-1913) - Generous Korean Catholic Entrepreneur behind the National Debt Repayment Movement a.k.a Gukchae-Bosang Movement

Seo Sang-don (Hangul/Hanja: 서상돈/徐相敦; Born: October 17th 1850 in Jijwa-dong, Gimcheon City, Northern Gyeongsang Province - Died: June 30th 1913 at 6-1 Seoseong Avenue/Seoseongno, Gyesan-dong 2-ga 84-1 beonji, Daegu Jung-gu) was an entrepreneur who specialized in paper, linen, and cotton products. Born in Catholic Family as the son of Seo Chul-soon and Agatha Kim of the Former Royal House of Gimhae Kim during the series of Catholic Persecutions in 19th Century, he received his baptismal name 'Augustine' (Kor: 아우구스티노) and witnessed his relatives martyred for their beliefs. He was responsible in initiating National Debt Repayment Movement (국채보상운동/國債報償運動/Gukchae-Bosang Undong) to repay Korean Empire's Debt as well as a nationwide campaign calling for people to quit smoking.

The family itself has a long history of introducing Catholicism to Korea. Seo Sang-don’s great great-grandfather, Seo Kwang-soo (서광수) entered the Catholic Church in 1784 with his five sons (which is right at the very beginning of Catholicism’s entry into Korea). In March of 1785, he was expelled from Dalseong Seo Household because of this conversion to Catholicism (and presumably had his wealth and title stripped of him) and the family was more or less torn apart.

Augustine Seo's father, Seo Chul-soon (서철순) passed away when he was 9 years old and he lived with his maternal grandfather (Agatha Kim's father - Kim Hoo-sang/김후상/金厚詳) in Daegu (specifically in the Saebanggol neighborhood). He started work very young, initially as an errand boy at a store and, after he turned 18, as a peddler with help from members of the local Catholic community. He worked hard and prospered and by the time he was 35, he was a leading economic light in Daegu. He was wealthy enough to harvest 30 thousand bags of rice each year, a staggering sum for the time.

Soon thereafter, there was another wave of Catholic persecution and Seo devoted himself to thrift, missionary work, and volunteer activities; he also saw his uncles (Seo In-soon, Seo Ik-soon, and Seo Tae-soon) martyred for their beliefs. Eventually, a Father Robert (Kim Bo-rok) moved to the area and Seo Sang-don donated his land and contributed vast sums of money to first build a temporary church and then to build Gyesan Cathedral in 1897. Seo Sang-don also secured the bishop’s seat in Daegu.

With seemingly boundless energy, Seo Sang-don established a Chinese reading school, Haesongjae, and then rechristened it Seonglip School in 1908. He also created a Seonglip Girls School in 1910 (a very progressive move for the time), after having established another girl’s school in 1905. In 1906, he organized Daegugwangmunsa in order to publish textbooks, magazines, newspapers (which roused the suspicions of the soon to be colonial masters, the Japanese). This suspicion was partially based on the fact that Seo Sang-don was very active in the Independence Club of Daegu.

In 1906, a few years before the official annexation of Korea into the Japanese Empire (1910), Korea’s debt to Japan was crushing and Seo Sang-don vowed to reduce this economic yoke. He did so by creating the National Debt Repayment Movement (국채보상운동). The Movement represented an amazingly active grassroots movement to pay down the national debt, with rich and poor alike contributing what they could. This spread into mass movements across the nation where Koreans would donate the money they would normally use to buy cigarettes for the cause. Seo Sang-don hosted mass meetings of the public, some of the first opportunities to witness the changing social dynamics of the incredibly hierarchical Korean nation. Rich, poor, male, female, the King himself, Korean residents abroad, etc, all working together towards debt repayment. 

The movement ultimately failed due to a host of reasons, but not before it united the country in one last defiance of colonization before it was officially absorbed into the Japanese Empire in 1910. Seo Sang-don died on June 30th 1913 surrounded by his family at his home in Daegu. In 1999, he was posthumously awarded the National Pride Medal of Order of Merit for National Foundation (건국훈장 애족장/建國勳章愛族章/Geon-guk Hunjang Aejok-jang - 5th Class) by the Korean Government, the most prestigious civil decoration in the Republic of Korea, for his efforts for saving Korea-Joseon Dynasty from the brink of debt.

His Mansion: 6-1 Seoseong Avenue/Seoseongno, Gyesan-dong 2-ga 84-1 beonji, Daegu Jung-gu
The mansion of entrepreneur and activist Augustine Seo Sang-don is located in the heart of Daegu, just a short three minute walk from Gyesan Cathedral. Seo ran a business manufacturing paper, linen, and cotton products, and briefly managed text crops for the government. In 1907, in an effort to repay national debt and to gain independence from Japan, Seo launched the National Debt Repayment Movement as well as a nationwide campaign calling for people to quit smoking. 

In celebration of Seo's leadership, the Daegu Metropolitan Government restored Seo's old house and opened it to the public. The City also built the National Debt Repayment Park and erected a statue of Seo in his honor. This mansion is accessible by using DTRO Lines 1 and 2 to Station 130/230: Banwoldang Station (Hyundai Department Store Daegu Branch) and go through 18th Exit.

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