by Victoria Ten

Similarly to other ki suryŏn groups, GiCheon achieved its maturity as a movement in the 1980s. However, the roots of this cultural phenomenon started appearing in the 1970s. Kouksundo (U Hyeran 2006: 78) and GiCheon were among the first ki suryŏn groups which were established in South Korea in the early 1970s. Ki suryŏn groups often inter-twined, co-influencing each other. In the early 1970s, the first GiCheon teacher Pak Chŏngnyong (later called by his students Taeyang Chinin 大洋眞人 “perfected man Taeyang”) trained and taught together with his “brother” Sŏ Inhyŏk, the leader of Kuksul (국술).1 Four of the seven founding members of Dahn (= Tan) World, originally called Tanhak Sŏnwŏn (丹學仙院 Tanhak Immortality Institute) were GiCheon practitioners, and instructors of Tanhak Sŏnwŏn used to attend GiCheon studios and practice there in the 1980s.2 Also in the 1980s, Kim Chŏngho and Na Hanil, two students of Taeyang Chinin, created Haidong Gumdo (海東劒道 Haedong Kŏmdo) on the basis of GiCheon sword art.

Taeyang Chinin first appeared in Pusan in the early 1970s and started teaching GiCheon positions and martial arts. We do not know when exactly he started using the word Kich’ŏn (or GiCheon 氣天) to identify his practice, but a picture taken in the year 1973 in Tonghwa-dong (동화동, nowadays Sindang-dong 신당동) shows the words Kich’ŏn Sŏnmujang ( 氣天禪武場 Kich’ŏn Chan Martial Arts School) (Kim Hŭisang and Kich‘ŏnmun Ponmun 1998: 6).3 At later stages Taeyang Chinin also called his practice Kich’ŏndo (氣天道 Kich’on Way) and Kich’ŏnmun (氣天門 Kich’on Gate), finally settling for GiCheon ( 氣天 Kich’ŏn).

Taeyang Chinin claimed that he was raised and taught GiCheon in the mountains, by Wŏnhye Sangin (元慧上人), an old man who possessed extraordinary powers.4 According to Taeyang Chinin, Wŏnhye Sangin could run faster than the wind, created a magical boundary in the mountains from which Taeyang Chinin, as a child, could not stray, and, to some extent, communicated with birds and animals (Pak Taeyang and Ch’oe Hyŏn’gyu, unpublished manuscript).5 We can easily identify Wŏnhye Sangin as a traditional sinsŏn (神仙), an immortal mountain dweller, an exemplar of a perfected being, whom GiCheon practitioners are instructed to emulate. This origin myth of GiCheon demonstrates that GiCheon is a part of Korean mountain culture, and is the first among a series of contemporary GiCheon-related legends. These legends started emerging in the 1970s but were mainly composed in the 1980s, and recorded by Kim Hŭisang in the years 1998 and 2000 (Kim Hŭisang and Kich’ŏn Ponmun 1998, Kim Hŭisang and Kich’ŏn Ponmun ed. 2000).

A significant body of contemporary mythology has been accumulated in GiCheon circles over the years, describing the circumstances of Taeyang Chinin’s descent from the mountains, meeting his adoptive mother and transferring from Pusan to Seoul. This fascinating material focused on the interplay of such social and mythic actors as policemen, Buddhist monks and mountain spirits in the context of suspicions of espionage on behalf of North Korea, is not yet fully recorded and awaits further research.6

Taeyang Chinin had numerous followers, of whom the best known among his direct students and friends are Kim Ohyŏng, Yuk Taean, Lee Sangwŏn (Yi Sangwŏn), Pak Sŏngdae, Kim Hŭisang, Pak Sagyu, and Mu Nami. Besides their links to GiCheon, some followers of Taeyang Chinin had connections with “traditionalist” (reconstructed) practices, such as Korean dance (Pak Sŏngdae and Mu Nami), Korean philosophy (Kim Hŭisang), Korean fortunetelling and healing (Kim Ohyŏng), or the production of hanbok, Korean traditional clothes (Lee Sangwŏn).

Just as with other practices that stress the value of Koreanness, in GiCheon too saenghwal hanbok (生活韓服 Korean clothes for everyday use) is the preferred attire. Similarly to some practitioners of Korean traditional dance or music, or contemporary Confucian scholars, the followers of Taeyang Chinin wear this particular type of dress developed by contemporary designers on the basis of traditional attire. The trend to wear this in everyday life is shared by Korean urbanites who associate themselves with some kind of “traditional” or quasi-traditional practice. This way, they are placing themselves in obvious visual contrast to “regular” Koreans who are dressed in Western clothes, thus expressing ideological disagreement with Westernization and the loss of traditional values.

In the 1970s and the 1980s Taeyang Chinin taught GiCheon in an informal way, not insisting on the traditional teacher-disciple relationship, but rather treating his followers, mainly of similar age, as friends and comrades. Kang Oksŏn, the adoptive mother of Taeyang Chinin, and a professional Korean shaman specializing in sinch’im (神針 acupuncture directed by spirits) always welcomed his friends at their home. GiCheon teaching was unsystematic and the practitioners changed frequently. Mostly GiCheon was perceived as a martial art and practiced by people interested in combat.

As the years passed, the practice of Taeyang Chinin was identified in Korean society as martial arts, dance, magic/mysticism, a meditation technique and therapeutic gymnastics. Each of the major followers of Taeyang Chinin developed GiCheon in one of these directions. Lee Sangwŏn established GiCheon as a meditative self-healing discipline. Previously Taeyang Chinin taught GiCheon differently to different people, without order or system. Lee Sangwŏn systematized the teaching method to be applied to all the students more or less equally, though keeping in mind the particular characteristics of each person. Lee Sangwŏn has modified the main GiCheon position, naegasinjang, to fit the body constitution of contemporary Koreans. Besides, Lee Sangwŏn has realized the importance of prolonged standing in the naegasinjang position, and correcting the position of the student, and his method was later adopted by other GiCheon instructors in Korea. The followers of Lee Sangwŏn say that Lee Sangwŏn asked Taeyang Chinin countless questions, and made endless efforts to procure the answers from Taeyang Chinin, information that Taeyang Chinin never transmitted to anyone else.

In the 1980s Taeyang Hagwŏn (대양학원) was opened in Noryangjin (노량진), Seoul. It was an ipsi hakwŏn (입시학원 a private academy for students who have failed their university entrance exams, and are studying for next year’s exams). GiCheon was a mandatory subject, studied and practiced at Taeyang Hagwŏn in order to maximize concentration and improve study results. Teachers such as Kim Ohyŏng, Yi Myŏngbok, Kim Hŭisang and others taught there; Yi Myŏngbok composed a textbook (1988). Taeyang Hagwŏn closed a few years later, though the students of Taeyang Hagwŏn continued to various Seoul universities, where they formed GiCheon clubs.

In the opinion of Kim Hŭisang, as he has written to me in the years 2010 and 2011, it was at Taeyang Hagwŏnthat GiCheon teaching was systematized and classified into practices of warming-up, static discipline, dynamic discipline, breathing techniques and decorum training. The contribution of Kim Ohyŏng to GiCheon development is critical in this respect.

Kim Ohyŏng was a childhood friend of Taeyang Chinin, the son of a neighboring household. In his youth Kim Ohyŏng was an adherent of another discipline, which greatly enhanced what GiCheon calls naegong (內功 inner power) and facilitated his later GiCheon training with Taeyang Chinin.7 Kim Ohyŏng prefers to keep secret the name of that other discipline and the circumstances of his discipleship there. Due to the efforts of Lee Sangwŏn and Lee Kit’ae, static postures taught by Kim Ohyŏng were incorporated into the body of GiCheon training, despite the fact that they did not originate with Taeyang Chinin.8

Lee Sangwŏn met Taeyang Chinin in the early 1980s in Seoul. In 1996 he received the formal title sabu, or sabunim (사부, 사부님 master) from Taeyang Chinin, while Pak Sagyu, who started practicing at a similar time, received the formal title munju, or munjunim (문주, 문주님 director). This caused much controversy, as no one in the GiCheon community could determine which title, sabu or munju, indicated a higher hierarchical status.

In 2000, when I started practicing GiCheon, during official ceremonies Lee Sangwŏn and Pak Sagyu bowed to Taeyang Chinin together, demonstrating their equal status as his two most prominent followers. In later years Taeyang Chinin granted the titles of sabu and munju to many other instructors, thus emptying these titles of their supposed original meaning.

Pak Sŏngdae, the author of a number of books on GiCheon (2000a, 2000b), started Kich’ŏn Corporation (사단법인 기천) in 1992 in Seoul, together with Taeyang Chinin, Pak Sagyu, Lee Sangwŏn and other leaders. In October 1996 another organization, Minjok Sŏndo Kich’ŏn (민족선도 기천 Kich’on Way of Immortality of the (Korean) People), was formed by Taeyang Chinin, Pak Sagyu, Lee Sangwŏn, Kim Hŭisang, Kim Yŏnggi and others.

Though they tried to work together as one unit, many GiCheon leaders had their own followers and supporters, who constituted separate collectives. In 1997 when an economic crisis struck South Korea, Pak Sagyu had to leave Seoul. He settled down at Kyeryong mountain (계룡산) in 1998 and established the Kyeryong Kich’ŏn (계룡기천) organization there. Mt. Kyeryong was considered to be one of the five sacred mountains of Silla (Ch’oe Chin’gu 2013). Its spiritual significance can be seen in the rituals of sansinje (山神祭 festive sacrifice to mountain gods) that have been regularly held there in the Chosŏn era up until today. Mt. Kyeryong has also been important for a number of new Korean religions (Jai-Sok Choi 1967, Han’guk chŏngsin munhwa yŏn’guwŏn 1988: 238-242), so its choice as a GiCheon center is not surprising in this context.

After Pak Sagyu left, Lee Sangwŏn was asked to assume the leadership. Lee Sangwŏn continuously attempted to bring a new unity into GiCheon, working together with Taeyang Chinin, Pak Sagyu, Pak Sŏngdae, Kim Hŭisang and Chŏn Ch’anuk. Lee Sangwŏn changed the name of the organization into Kich’ŏn Chungang Hyŏphoe (기천중앙협회 Kich’ŏn Central Association), of which he became a chairman in 1998.

By the year 2001 GiCheon leaders were already realizing that their attempts to “unite under one banner” were failing. At the meeting in 2001 they agreed to split. In 2001 Pak Sŏngdae changed the name of his own organization to Kukcharang (國子郞, 국가의 아들과 딸들, Sons and Daughters of the (Korean) Nation). Kukcharang has been organizing dance performances on stage in various Korean theaters and outdoors and also given GiCheon classes.

The word 기천 (Kich’ŏn) was transcribed into English as Kichun by Kich’ŏn Chungang Hyŏphoe in 1998. The website http://www.kichun.co.kr was opened and managed by Pak P’yŏngsu on behalf of the Kich’ŏn Chungang Hyŏphoe. In 2001 Lee Kit’ae (Yi Kit’ae), a disciple of Lee Sangwŏn, transcribed Kich’ŏn as GiCheon, in order to differentiate the lineage of Lee Sangwŏn from other branches of the practice. In 2001 Kich’ŏn Chungang Hyŏphoe opened the website http://www.gicheon.com. Lee Kit’ae managed this web-site on behalf of the organization.

Since 2004 Lee Kit’ae has been teaching GiCheon outside Korea, and the term GiCheon has become known within the international community of ki-training, gaining some social capital. As a result, the followers of other leaders, not only of Lee Sangwŏn, nowadays use GiCheon for transcribing Kich’ŏn.

In the year 2002 Kim Sanghwan, the owner of Turtle Press and a professional maker of DVDs on Korean martial arts, contacted Lee Sangwŏn, and informed him that he would like to shoot a commercial DVD on GiCheon in Korea. Though GiCheon had been shown on Korean TV and radio every few years, no commercial DVD was in circulation. By then Lee Sangwŏn had been long experiencing difficulties in managing Kich’ŏn Chungang Hyŏphoe, and the decision to split had already been taken by GiCheon leaders.

In May 2002 Lee Sangwŏn called his major followers to Puch’ŏn for a meeting, where he announced the foundation of a new organization, Kich’ŏn Sangmuwŏn (기천상무원), and distributed new titles to his own followers.9 Kim Hyŏnt’ae and Lee Kit’ae were granted the titles of wŏnjang (원장 director), while Kim Mansŏng got the title of pŏmsa (범사 instructor). In 2006 Lee Sangwŏn also gave me the title of pŏmsa.

Lee Sangwŏn was the most loyal and committed champion of Taeyang Chinin, to whom Taeyang Chinin always turned in times of trouble. Lee Sangwŏn always supported Taeyang Chinin emotionally and economically until the death of Lee Sangwŏn in June 2007.


Ch’oe, Chin’gu (최진구). “Silla Oak kwa Pulgyŏ ŭi sansin sinang yŏn’gu” (신라 五岳과 불교의 산신신앙 연구) (The study on five mountains and Buddhist beliefs in mountain spirits). Silla munhwa (新羅文化) (The journal of the center of research for Silla culture) 42 (2013): 243-268.

Choi, Jai-Sok. “A Socio-religious Study of Sindonae.” Transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society Korea Branch XLIII (1967): 67-91.

Despeux, Catherine. “Daoyin 導引 ‘guiding and pulling’; gymnastics.” In The Encyclopedia of Taoism, edited by Fabrizio Pregadio, 334-337. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Han’guk chŏngsin munhwa yŏn’guwŏn (한국정신문화연구원) (Research institute of Korean culture) ed. Han’guk minjok munhwa taebaekkwa sajon (한국민족문화대백과사전) (Korean encyclopedia of folk culture). Kyŏngi-do, Sŏngnam-si: Han’guk chŏngsin munhwa yŏn’guwŏn (한국정신문화연구원) (Research institute of Korean culture), 1988.

Kim, Hŭi-sang, and Kich‘ŏnmun Ponmun (기천문 본문). Kich‘ŏnmun immun (기천문 입문) (Kich‘ŏnmun Introduction). Seoul: Yŏn’gusa (연구사), 1998.

Kim, Hŭisang, and Kich‘ŏnmun Ponmun (氣天門 本門) ed. Kich‘ŏn (氣天). Seoul: Ch‘orokpaemaejiksŭ (초록배매직스), 2000.

Pak, Taeyang (박대양), and Ch’oe, Hyŏn’gyu (최현규). Sosŏl Kich‘ŏnmun. Unpublished manuscript.

U, Hyeran (우혜란). “Tong side Han’guk ŭi ki suryŏn munhwa wa musok” (동시대 한국의 기수련 문화와 무속) (Contemporary Korean ki suryŏn culture and shamanism). Chongkyo yŏngu (종교연구) (Korean study of religion) 9 (2006): 71-113.

Chinin (眞人 Chinese: zhenren, perfected person) is a term from the vocabulary of East Asian practices of nourishing life and internal alchemy. GiCheon is one such contemporary practice. In GiCheon chinin is simultaneously a title and a formulation of a goal, toward which the trainees are instructed to aspire.

2 At the outset, Dahn World (Tanhak Sŏnwŏn) was also connected to Kouksundo (U Hyeran 2006: 78). This is another example of the inter-connection and co-influence of various ki suryŏn groups.

3 Elements of Buddhism, Chan-Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism and mountain cults are plentiful in the mythology of GiCheon and other ki suryŏn groups (Kim Hŭisang and Kich’ŏn Ponmun 1998, Kim Hŭisang and Kich’ŏn Ponmun ed. 2000). So the word “Chan” in the name of the group is not surprising. Due to particular traditions and complex power relationships within the GiCheon hierarchy, the name of the author Kim Hŭisang does not appear on the covers or inside the books published in 1998 and 2000, and he is not even mentioned as an “editor”. Instead, the credit for the authorship and the edition is taken by the GiCheon organization Kich‘ŏnmun Ponmun (GiCheon Headquarters) as a whole.

Sangin (上人 a superior person) is higher in the GiCheon hierarchy than chinin.

5 The manuscript was circulating among GiCheon practitioners, and I personally received it from the now deceased GiCheon teacher Kim Hŭisang. Kim Hŭisang heard that the writer Ch’oe Hyŏn’gyu held a series of interviews with Taeyang Chinin which lasted for six months, and composed the manuscript on the basis of these interviews. Kim Hŭisang has received the manuscript from other GiCheon practitioners, and assumed that this manuscript was indeed composed by Ch’oe Hyŏn’gyu. I later met the author Ch’oe Hyŏn’gyu, who confirmed that he is the author, and gave me his belated permission to read and reference the manuscript. Ch’oe Hyŏn’gyu has previously submitted the manuscript for consideration to the Han’gyŏre Publishing Company where the manuscript was rejected. However, some of the workers of the Han’gyŏre were GiCheon practitioners, they liked the manuscript and started circulating it within the GiCheon community. The manuscript describes the childhood of Taeyang Chinin in the mountains, his later descent into South Korean society and his adventures there.

6 This material has partially been recorded by Ch’oe Hyŏn’gyu during his interviews with Taeyang Chinin, but has never been published.

7 GiCheon and other similar practices are contemporary manifestations of East Asian culture of nourishing life and inner alchemy. The vocabulary of GiCheon comes from this culture. In GiCheon naegong indicates power accumulated in the lower abdomen. This power is generated through improved circulation of ki in the body and mind, and shows as physical and moral strength and balance. The character kong can be also translated as “achievement” or “result”. I translate it a “power” in order to emphasize its accumulative character. In her article “Daoyin 導引 ‘guiding and pulling’; gymnastics” Catherine Despeux translates naegong (Chinese neigong) as “inner practices”, when she renders the title of a book Neigong tushuo (內攻圖說) of late Qing period as Illustrated Explanations of Inner Practice (Despeux 2008: 336). Therapeutic exercises daoyin (Korean toin) is another term shared by contemporary GiCheon practice with ancient East Asian methods of nourishing life. But GiCheon distinguishes clearly between toin shared by many practices and the six basic positions which are unique to GiCheon. During the GiCheon classes taught by the followers of Lee Sangwŏn, stretching and pulling exercises called toin are performed in the beginning and in the end of the session.

8 Lee Kit’ae, personal communication.

9 The word Sangmuwŏn could be translated as a “General Directorate” (sangmu 常務), or “Academy for the Advancement of the Martial Arts” (sangmu 尙武), but the exact translation is uncertain.