Kim was born on August 29 (11th day of the 7th month in the Lunar Calendar), 1876 in Tet-gol (텃골), Bak-un-bañ (백운방), Haiju (해주; 海州), Huañhai Province, Corea, the only son of a farmer Kim Soon-yuñ (김순영) and his wife Kwak Nack-won (곽낙원). His name at birth was Kim Chhañam (김창암; 金昌巖. IPA:kimtɕʰaŋam). When he was nine years old, he started to study Chinese classic texts such as Zizhi Tongjian (자치통감; 資治通鑒),史略, 兵書, and Great Learning (대학; 大學) at local sodañs.
Leader of Doñhak movement
At the age of 16, Kim applied for the Guago (Imperial Examination) of Chosoñ but failed.