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Tonghak revolution and Chundoism
Korea WebWeekly
12/29/2003



Photo: Choe Si-Hyong upon his capture.

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Profile of a Tonghak rebel
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[Editor's note: This is part 1 of 3 parts.]

Chundo-gyo is a religion indigenous to Korea. Chundo-gyo ('chun' = Heaven, 'do' = path or ways, 'gyo' = religion or 'ism' = Heavenly Way) is often mistaken for Chunju-gyo ('chun' = Heaven, 'ju' = master referring to Christ - Master in Heaven, i.e., the Catholic Church). With the revival of Korean nationalism, this Korean religion is becoming more and more popular in North and South Korea. Chundoism arose from the Tonghak (東學) revolution that began in 1812 in Chosen.

Chundo-gyo evolved in the early 1900's from the Tonghak peasant liberation movements in southern provinces of Korea. To understand Chondoism, one needs to study the history of Korea in the mid-1800. During this period, drought and floods alternately struck the rice bowls of Korea and caused great famines. Making the matter worse, the Chosen rulers hiked taxes on farm crops and forced more free labor on the starving peasants. Consequently, anti-government and anti-landlord sentiment boiled over into violent uprisings.

In 1812, Hong Kyong-nae, an impoverished scholar-official, led the peasants of Kasan in the northern part of Korea into an armed rebellion and occupied the region for several months. Seoul government dispatched an army and only after a savage scorched-earth campaign, the revolt was put down. In the south, all the way to Chejudo Island, as well as in the north, peasants continued to defy the king in Seoul, the local nobility, and the wealthy landlords.

In 1862, half a century after the peasant rebellion led by Hong Kyong-nae was out down, a group of farmers in Chinju, Kyongsang-do province, rose up against their oppressive provincial officials and the wealthy landowners. This uprising was directly attributable to the exploitation of destitute farmers by Paek Nak-shin, a newly appointed military commander who had jurisdiction over the western half of Kyongsang Province.

Yu Kye-ch'un organized the farmers in Chinju to riot against Paek Nak-shin and other corrupt officials and wealthy landlords. The rebels killed local government functionaries and set fire to government buildings. The startled Seoul government hurriedly sent an investigator to the scene. On the basis of his findings of fraudulent practices by the local officials, the government hastily revised the land, military and grain lending systems in an effort to eliminate such abuses. From the outset, however, it was unrealistic to expect the ruling class in the central government, which was itself deeply involved in such frauds, to make radical changes. But at least a superficial attempt at reform was made.

The agrarian revolt in Chinju triggered peasant uprisings elsewhere. In Kyongsang-do, Cholla and Ch'ungch'ong provinces, on faraway Chejudo Island in central Korea and in Hamgyong and P'yongan provinces in the north, groups of farmers rose up with arms and attacked government offices in principal towns. Many government officials were executed.

The Birth of Tonghak - Eastern Learning

Choe Che-U (崔濟愚, 1824-1864) formulated the ideology of Tonghak (Eastern Learning) in the 1860s to help ease the lot of the farmers suffering from abject poverty and unrest, as well as to restore political and social stability. His ideas rapidly gained acceptance among the peasantry. Choe set his Tonghak themes to music so that illiterate farmers could understand and accept them more readily. His teachings were systematized and compiled as a message of salvation to farmers in distress.

Choe was alarmed by the intrusion of Christianity (Chun-ju-gyo), and the Anglo-French occupation of Beijing. He believed that the best way to counter foreign influence in Korea was to introduce pro-democracy, establish human rights (man-min pyong-dung) and create a paradise on earth (ji-sang chun-guk) - all working together and on their own without foreign influence or help.

Tong-hak was pure ideology, void of any organizational and tactical expertise. Choe believed in improvising as events occurred. He had no practical plans or visions of how one would go about establishing a paradise on earth, let alone what "paradise' meant except that all people were 'equal' (and no Japanese) in this paradise. Nevertheless, Choe's pro-democracy, human rights and nationalism struck chord among the peasant guerrillas and Tonghak spread all across Korea like a prairie fire. Progressive revolutionaries waded in and organized the peasants into a cohesive fighting machine.

Choe's songs were a mixture of traditional elements from Confucianism, Buddhism and Songyo (teachings of Shilla's Hwarang), and to these he added modern humanistic ideas. Exclusionism was another characteristic of his religion, which incorporated an early form of nationalism and rejected alien thought.


* Views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those at AFAR.

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