Ahn Changho was born on November 9th, 1876 in Kangso, Pyeongan in what is now North Korea. Ahn was born during the Joseon Dynasty period but throughout his youth witnessed the culmination of Japanese presence on the Korean peninsula which would later lead to annexation. He grew up studying Chinese classics at his local school before moving to Seoul in 1895 in order to broaden his studies. At Gusae Hakdang or Save the World School- a school run by the American missionaries, Rev. F. S. Miller and Rev. Horace Underwood, Ahn studied a wide range of topics including English from which he was taught by Underwood himself. With the assassination of Queen Min by the Japanese, Ahn joined the Independence Association in 1897 from which under he established the Cheongmin elementary school in Pyongyang. Ahn strongly believed education of the Korean people was crucial in order to establish independence for the nation. For 3 year years he even travelled from village to village across the peninsula giving speeches to the common people.
However, Ahn saw a limitation in the type of education he could receive and thus pass on Korea at the time and in order to further his education mission, sought to the United States. Before leaving, he married his fiancé, Lee Hye-reon, in 1902, and the two of them left shortly after on passports King Gojong had given to them- a few of the very limited amount being issued at the time. Ahn and his wife became the first Korean couple to immigrate to America and on the journey there, they docked in Hawaii where Ahn took on the penname Dosan, meaning “island mountain”.
Upon settling in San Francisco, Ahn began earning money by picking oranges in fields while attending an elementary school at age 24 in order to learn English and study the American education system. Ahn also began the Chinmokhoe Friendship Society in 1903 after reportedly witnessing a turf war on the street between two Korean men selling Ginseng and became determined to aid the local Korean-American community. In 1905, he also began the Mutual Assistance Society- the first Korean political organization in America- which later merged with the United Korean Society to form the Korean National Association in 1909.
In 1911, Ahn disembarked from the United States and travelled throughout Russia and China, leaving his wife to care for their five kids. Ahn established Korean branches of the Independence Movement in both Russia and Manchuria and later helped establish the Korean Provisional Government in Shanghai in 1919. Due to his activism and anti-Japanese sentiments, Ahn was arrested on five separate occasions. He was first arrested in 1927, and then later again in 1932 for having ties with Yun Bong-gil, a fellow activist who threw a bomb at Hongkou Park which killed several important Japanese military officials. Ahn was arrested for a final time in 1937 for travelling throughout Korea giving independence speeches. Upon being interrogated, Ahn quoted “When I eat, I eat for Korean independence. When I sleep, I sleep for Korean independence. This will not change as long as I live. As all the Korean people want their independence, Korean independence will become reality; as world opinion favors Korean independence, it will become reality; and as Heaven orders Korean independence, Korea will surely become independent.”
In prison, Ahn was subjected to severe torture and harsh conditions, from which he developed severe internal illnesses. Worried that Ahn’s death in prison would bring about backlash and uprising, Japanese police released him on bail to Kyungsung University Hospital where he eventually died on March 10, 1938.
Throughout Ahn’s activism in China, Russia, and Korea, his wife not only looked after their children but worked multiple jobs in order to help fund his efforts. Among their children is the eldest son, Philip Ahn, who went on to become the first Korean actor in Hollywood, acting in many movies and dramas, including his role as Master Kan on the television series Kung Fu for which he is most known for. His sister, Susan Ahn Cuddy, went on to become the first Asian-American woman to join the US Navy and the first woman Gunnery Officer.
In South Korea, there is a Dosan Park which was erected in Gangnam, Seoul in memorial to him as well as a memorial hall. He also received an honorary diploma from Yonsei University for his studies at Gusae Hakwon as well as his side work at Jejungwon and Severance Hospital (which later became a part of Yonsei University). In the United States, he has had several memorials in his honor including a statue of him in Riverside, California. The Ahn family home was restored by the University of Southern California where the home currently is located. In Koreatown is the Dosan Ahn Chang Ho post office and in the city of Los Angeles is Dosan Ahn Chang Ho Square. There is also a Taekwondo form named after him with 24 movements as well called Do-San. In 2011, the Ellis Island Foundation installed a plaque commemorating his entrance into the US through Ellis Island via Glasgow, Scotland in 1911. In 2012, he was inducted into the International Civil Rights Hall of Fame at the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta, Georgia.