Shin Chae-ho, also known by his pen names Dansaeng and later Danjae, was born November 7th, 1880 in Chungcheong, Sannaeri near the end of the Joseon Dynasty in Korea. He was born into a quite affluent aristocracy and was educated by his grandfather at an early age. He studied Neo-Confucian texts and literature and was often hailed a child prodigy. Later, he enrolled in the prestigious Sungkyunkwan University and earned his doctorate in 1905. However, when Korea became a protectorate of Japan following the Japan-Korea Treaty of 1905, also known as the Eulsa Treaty, Shin became outraged over the forced treaty and left his teaching position at the university to pursue journalism in aid of the independence movement in Korea.
Shin publish several editorials for the Korean Daily Mail or Daehan Maeil Shinbo and wrote several histories, essays, and fictions to inspire a sense of nationalism in the Korean people. However, although writing several fictions, Shin is most remembered as a historian. Shin believed that enlightening the Korean people of famous heroes in history was important in instilling nationalism and a spirit of independence among the masses. Some of his most known historical works include A New Reading of History, published in 1908, and Early History of Korea, published in 1931. He also wrote Dream Sky, a fictional story with a political narrative aimed at exploring the current situation in Korea at the time, however the story wasn’t published until the 1970s, well after his death. The story follows Hannom, a Korean man who navigates heaven and hell, meeting various Korean heroes such as Eulji Mundeok, a general who defeated the Yangdi of Sui China in AD 612 who is featured most prominently in the text. The text although highlights several key figures in Korean history, its messages become the focus. It explores the plaguing effects of the infighting of the Korean people over Japanese colonization of Korea as well as the importance of having a single united nationalistic purpose.
Shin believed that Korea’s independence wouldn’t come with a political revolution but rather a revolution from the people. With a political revolution, the authority would be changing hands, leaving the people at the bottom at the bottom. He argued that a united minjok or people was needed for their own independence. Shin also asserted Koreans were descendants of Dangun Joseon who, with Buyo of Manchuria, came together to form the Goguryeo people. With this, a nation was also not defined by territorial boundaries but by “an organic body formed out of the spirit of a people … descended through a single pure bloodline”.
In 1907, Shin and other independence activists formed the “Shinminhoe” or New Korea Society” and in 1909 Shin and his colleagues together formed the Youth Society, where he began writing his biographies of historical Korean figures. However, in 1910, when Japan officially annexed Korea, Shin exiled himself to China along with the rest of the Shinminhoe. Shin originally avoided political organizations but with the onset of the March 1st Movement in 1919, Shin became more active, even briefly joining the Korean Provisional Government before leaving after become frustrated with the organization and in particular its then leader and later first president of Korea, Rhee Syng-man.
In 1923, Shin drafted the “Declaration for Korean Revolution” and in 1926, joined the Eastern Anarchist Association. Amongst this, Shin also worked on rediscovering Korea’s ethnic roots which also spread into Manchuria. He worked in tandem to correct Japanese historical distortions and continued his work in instilling national pride into the Korean people.
However, in 1929, Shin was arrested by the Japanese police after trying to smuggle 12,000 yuan in forged banknotes out of a then-Japanese controlled Taiwan for the Eastern Anarchist Association. He was subsequently charged and given a 10-year prison sentence to be served out in Lushun Prison. Shin would never serve his full 10-year prison sentence, however, due to a brain hemorrhage which led to his death on February 21st, 1936 while in solitary confinement.
Shin is remembered as a historian and an important figure in creating a Korean national identity and helping fight Japanese occupation of Korea through joint nationalism. He is revered in both North and South Korea for his efforts to the independence movement. In 1962, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Order of Merit for National Foundation by South Korea and his literary works are published in both Koreas. As Shin refused to apply for citizenship under a Japanese-controlled Korea, he remained stateless until he died, however in April of 2013 he was finally granted citizenship in South Korea, 77 years after his death.