The Tonghak Movement

The Tonghak Movement

It was the Catholics who were the catalyst for the creation of the first modern domestic religion in Korea in 1864 called Tonghak. A purely religious movement at the outset, it became the focus of a peasant upris-ing in 1894. The uprising, known as the Tonghak Rebellion, had as one of its aims the end of foreign influence. Ironically, it had the opposite result. It led to war between the Chinese and Japanese on Korean soil and did a great deal to hasten the loss of Korean sovereignty.

In 1864 a man named Choe Cheu (1824–64), who belonged to an impoverished branch of a yangban family, had a vision and began teaching a new doctrine. The doctrine was a blend of Confucianism, Buddhism, shamanism, Taoism, and magic and was called Tonghak, meaning “Eastern Learning,” a direct contrast to “Western Learning”—the Korean term of the day for Catholicism.

Tonghak came into being as a foil of Catholicism, and though it was a syncretism of Eastern philosophies, it did pick up some traits of the religion it set out to counter. For example, followers met for weekly worship service in buildings that resembled chapels. Perhaps this fea-ture alone made the government think that they were more similar than dissimilar to the Catholics.

Although Tonghak was not political, the orthodox Confucian government saw it as not merely heterodox but threatening. The government had already led several purges and persecutions of the Catholics, and it regarded Tonghak, though in name the opposite of Catholicism, as a threat to social stability. After a time Choe was arrested, tried, convicted, and executed in 1864, ironically for being a Catholic (Young 2008).

The death of its founder was not the death of Tonghak, however. In subsequent years it flourished in clandestine cells across southern Korea (Young 2008). Though it began in the southeast, it grew and spread to the southwest. By 1894 peasant discontent and the outlawed religion had melded. Chon Pongjun (1854–95), a Tonghak member though not a religious leader, used the network of Tonghak churches as a means of building a peasant uprising.

Tensions had been building in North Cholla Province, a place that supplied more than its share of government rev-enues. In 1892 a typically corrupt official named Cho Pyonggap had been appointed the district magistrate of Kobu in Cholla Province, and (in the words of Korean historian Han Wookeun) “set about lining his pockets in the usual manner, but with unusual energy.”

Farmers were encouraged to bring waste land under cultivation by promises of tax exemption, and then taxed. The well-to-do were blackmailed by false accusations of crimes. Farmers were forced to work on irrigation projects without pay, the money they should have got going to Cho.

The people complained to Cho’s superiors up to the pro-vincial governor, but without success, the petitioners being dis-persed by force. (Han 1970, 406–407)

The injustices suffered by the peasants under Cho Pyonggap were typical of life in rural Korea, which was therefore ripe for a widespread revolt. In February 1894 Chon Pongjun, convinced by now that appeals to the government were useless, led nearly a thousand farmers in a large-scale attack on government offices, including the armory and the warehouse that contained tax grain, which Chon subsequently distrib-uted to the needy.

The revolt spread quickly. Chon led peasants in the North Cholla province to take over the government granaries located at county magistracies. There they drove off county magistrates, whom they charged with greed and tax gouging—collecting more taxes than required and keeping the extra for themselves.

They continued to distribute the stored grains to the impoverished people. The method of taking control of county offices and granaries spread like wildfire, and other Tonghak rebels took over other granaries throughout North Cholla province and parts of South Cholla and North Kyongsang Provinces.

By the end of May Chon Pongjun and the Tonghak rebels were in control of much of the important agricultural heartland of the southern region of Korea.

The New York Times took note of the revolt and described it in sympathetic terms in a July 1, 1894, article, noting in headlines that “OFFICIAL CURRUPTION IS THE CAUSE OF THE REVOLT: The People, Having Been Long Oppressed and Robbed by Those in Power—Sympathize With the Insurrection” (New York Times, July 1, 1894).

A later article, written when Chinese and Japanese intervention in the conflict had led to the first Sino-Japanese war, reported that the revolt had turned ugly and firmly took the side of the Japanese as the vanguard of modernity and sensible government in Asia: “Tonghak Rebels Burn Villages and Slaughter Men and Women.

TAX OFFICIALS BURNED TO DEATH. Japan Will Put an End to the Revolt if the Corean Dynasty Will Reform Its Administration.” Arguing that “Japan is at present the only power which can put [the rebels] down,” the Times wrote: “Japan is pledged to introduce a more peaceful, upright, and stable administra-tion than has prevailed in Corea for the past ten years, but so far she has met with much double-dealing from the Corean officials” (New York Times, January 20, 1895).