In this thesis, an attempt is made to determine, as accurately as possible the self-image of Ch'oe Che-u, the founder of Korea's first indigenous religion, Tonghak: Eastern Learning. This task is undertaken because, as Ch'oe's image of himself grew and matured, so also did the image of a new type of religious leader that would influence the founders of the many other new religions in Korea which followed the establishment of Tonghak.
Central to this task is the examination of Ch'oe's scriptures, Tonggyŏng Taejŏn and Yongdam Yusa, particularly those passages which relate to his epiphany on Mount Kumi on the fifth day of the fourth month, 1860. A description and dating of the primary scriptural texts is undertaken in Chapter One, and textual analyses of the revelation passages is undertaken in Chapter Three.
In Chapters Four and Five, a detailed examination of the two symbols which Ch'oe used to define and disseminate his religion, the Yŏngbu, a Korean talisman, and the Chumun, a 21 Chinese character chant, is undertaken. Other religious and archival sources, such as Chŏnggam-nok, an enigmatic book of prophecy written between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, and llsŏng-nok, Records of (the King's) Daily reflection, the great archival record of the Yi dynasty royal court, are analysed to gain insight into Ch'oe's evolving persona as he sought to understand his relationship with the Lord of Heaven, his fellow humans and all creation.
As a result of these examinations, the original shape of the Yŏngbu, which was considered lost, is posited and this shape proves to be an essential component in the assessment of Ch'oe's relationship with both divinity and humanity. Additionally, a Chumun which predates those which appear in the Tonghak/Ch'ŏndo-gyo scriptures is presented as an essential resource in determining Ch'oe's self-image. Finally, in Chapter Six, an assessment of Ch'oe's self-image is made in the hope that through it, a more scholarly evaluation of his role in Korean and north-east Asian history, both religious and secular, will be possible.