25 May 2014

What Was Ahn Joong-Gun's Age at His Death?

Me at the Ahn Joong-Gun Memorial Museum
in Seoul, South Korea, in 2009.
Recently I received a question from a Taekwon-Do friend, Markus Wittebo, from the Swedish Taekwon-Do Federation in Gottenburg:

The Taekwon-Do pattern Joong-Gun has 32 movements and is named after the patriot Ahn Joong-Gun, who was born on 16 July 1879 and died by execution on March 26, 1910. That means that he was 30 years old at the time of his death. However, the description of the pattern Joong-Gun states the following: “There are 32 movements in this pattern to represent Mr. Ahn’s age when he was executed at Lui-Shung prison (1910).” How is this to be explained? 

Was General Choi Hong Hi, who composed the pattern definitions, wrong about Ahn Joong-Gun's age? In this short essay I will explain why Ahn Joong-Gun was both 30 years old and 32 years old at the time he died.

There is no question that Ahn Joong-Gun was indeed 30 years old when he was executed for the assassin of the samurai Prince Itō Hirobumi, who was the Japanese Resident-General of Korea. Ahn Joon-Gun was born in 1879 and died in 1910 over three months before his 31st birthday—making him 30 years when he died. How then can the ITF Taekwon-Do Encyclopaedia claim that the reason the pattern Joong-Gun has 32 movements is in honour of Ahn Joong-Gun's age when he was executed? The answer is that in Korea there is a different way of calculating one's age.

The first important thing to know is that Koreans count the gestation period when calculating ones age, and so according to Korean custom a baby is already considered to be one year old at birth. So during the first year of a baby's life, it is considered one sal (살) and an additional sal is counted for every extra year of life. This is different from the international way of reckoning one's age where one is only considered to be one year old after your first birthday. Keeping this in mind, then Ahn Joong-Gun was 30 years, plus one sal by 1910, when he passed away.

There is another interesting aspect of Korean culture in that all Koreans increase one year in age on “Ibchun” (입춘) the beginning of spring and the start of the Lunar Calendar, which is usually around the beginning of February. In other words, Koreans do not wait for their actual birth date to add a year to their age; instead everyone ages at the same time at the start of the lunar new year. (On a side note, Koreans do celebrate their birthdays, but it is a memorial of their date of birth, rather than a memorial of becoming one year older. Furthermore, some Korean families celebrate their birthdays according to the lunar calendar, while others apply the solar calendar when deciding when to celebrate their birthdays.)

Therefore, even though Ahn Joong-Gun was 30 years old by Western reckoning at the time of his death, by Korean reckoning he would have been 31 (because Koreans add one year at birth), and since it was already after “Ibchun” when he died, he was said to be another year older, making him 32 years old according to Korean custom. Thus, stating that Ahn Joong-Gun passed away at the age of 32 makes sense within the Korean cultural context.

Below is a video of Alexandra Kan performing Joong-Gun Teul. 

No comments: