Yu Gwan-sun was born December 16, 1902 in Chungnam Province, South Korea as the second daughter among five children in her family. As a young girl, her father brought her up in a Christian household, giving her a strong faith from an early age. A country heavily influenced by Confucius ideas, Yu also grew up with a strong patriotism for her country- one of the key ideals held by Confucianism. Growing up in a Christian household though, she attended the nearby Maebong Presbyterian Church where she was recognized as a talented student by American missionary Alice J. Hammond Sharp. Yu is repeatedly reported to have had excellent memorization as she could remember entire bible passages upon only hearing them once or twice.
Sharp ended up referring her to Hakdang Missionary School for Girls or Ewha School even though education in Korea during this time period for girls was quite unusual. Yu’s father encouraged her to pursue an education despite this and thus she moved to Seoul in 1915 in order to attend and advance her education. After graduating middle school in 1918, Yu moved on to high school and here she witnessed the beginnings of what would lead to the March 1st movement.
In 1919, King Kojong, who had abdicated his throne back in 1907 to the Japanese, died. Rumors quickly circulated that his death was intentional and that he was poisoned by the Japanese government, thus discontent and anger ensued. In March 1st, Yu participated in a mass demonstration at Pagoda Park in Seoul where the Korean public declared for freedom. This led to the many arrests of student and teachers alike and as schools were seen as the meeting places for such demonstrations to be brewed and planned, all schools were shut down by the Governor-General of Korea- one of which included Yu’s.
Since the schools were shut down, Yu ended up returning home to Chungnam. However her patriotic activism didn’t end here. As soon as she arrived home, Yu immediately went to work planning another mass demonstration. She went to 24 villages in the area and gathered up protestors. On March 31st, the night before the rally, Yu climbed to the top of Mount Maebong where she lit a beacon fire, signaling to the villages. An estimated 3,000 people gathered the following day on April 1st in Aunae Marketplace shouting “Mansei!” and “Long live Korean Independence!” Here, the Korean Proclamation of Freedom was read in front of the crowd from a copy Yu had smuggled out of Seoul and flags she had made were handed out to tons of villagers. Japanese military police shut down the protest, opening fire into the crowd and killing 19 people- including both of Yu’s parents- as well as injuring 30 others.
In the aftermath, Yu was arrested by the police and her house was burned in recompense for her rebellious acts. At the Japanese Military Police Station in Chonon, Yu was offered a lighter sentence if she admitted guilt but she refused. She was also later subjected to torture to reveal coconspirators and safe houses but Yu remained silent. She was then later transferred to Gongju police station where she stood trial and where she defended her actions by saying “Your country has invaded another country. You have no rights to judge our guilts.” Yu was subsequently sentenced to five years in Seodaemun Prison.
In prison, Yu was subjected to the torture other women inmates faced. Their cells were also specifically designed for torture as they were approximately 3.3 square meters, making standing upright impossible. However on the 1 year anniversary of the March 1st movement, Yu led her fellow prisoners in a demonstration, leading to her being severely beaten and tortured. On September 28th, 1920, at the age of 17, Yu died as a result of her injuries from the torture. Shortly before her death she wrote “Japan will fall” which ultimately came true 25 years later in August of 1945. She also famously wrote “Even if my fingernails are torn out, my nose and ears are ripped apart, and my legs and arms are crushed, this physical pain does not compare to the pain of losing my nation,” and “My only remorse is not being able to do more than dedicating my life to my country.”
After her death was announced, Japanese authorities refused to release her body, trying to cover up the abuses she had suffered in prison. However after repeated threats from Lulu Frey and Jeannette Walter, the principals of Gwan-sun’s former school who voiced suspicions of torture to the public, they handed over her body in a Saucony Vacuum Company oil crate. On October 14th, 1920, Yu’s funeral was held in a private manner- restricting attendance to family and friends at Jung-Dong Church. She was later buried at Itaewon cemetery which was later destroyed.
Yu, also referred to as Korea’s “Joan of Arc”, is admonished for her brave acts in the March 1st movement and her tenacity at such a young age. Although the movement didn’t immediately result in the liberation of Korea, it forged a sense of unity among Koreans and started the resistance against Japanese occupation of Korea. There is a shrine commemorating her in her hometown of Cheongnam built shortly after Korean liberation in 1948 and she was posthumously awarded the Order of Independence Merit in 1962 as well as given an honorary diploma by Ewha Girls High School in 1996. In 1991, her home was reconstructed on the site it was burned down in 1919.