From Tonghak to Ch’ondogyo

Tonghak as a religion underwent vast transformation between its founding by Ch’oe Che-u in 1860 and the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910. Particularly, it saw shifts in its socio-political aims and its spiritual doctrine, made possible by the legalisation of the movement and wider influences upon its makeup. Carl F. Young traces these developments in his work Eastern Learning and the Heavenly Way (2014) in part of a broader narrative which saw the movement become a viable platform for nationalist voices by the 1919 March First Movement. As part of this transformation, the most apparent change is in the organisations “rebranding”, a change in name from Tonghak to Ch’ondogyo, announced in late 1905. This change in name is reflective of the wider developments Young traces, particularly within the religious sphere.

Firstly, the change in name from Tonghak to Ch’ondogyo is representative of the movements desire to separate itself from the negative image it acquired during the 1894 rebellion, which was neither promoted nor led first by official Tonghak leadership, but began as a reaction to local economic concerns. Most involved were of lower social status,  of which Tonghak initially attracted due to the centrality of folk religious elements in its early meetings and worship. Tonghak is described by Young as an almost hybrid or union of Confucianism, Buddhism, Daoism, and native Shamanism – involving aspects of Buddhist meditation and Confucian ethics – and those native folk elements, for example Che’-u’s supposed healing power, or the healing power of the yŏngbu (talisman) were among reasons why many were initially attracted to Tonghak. [[1]] The detachment from its folk elements and practices we see later in the spiritual and doctrinal developments of the religion can be viewed as a response to the 1894 uprising; an attempt to control how it was perceived by the masses. It too indicates a shift in its target audience, from peasant masses it once attracted before and during the 1894 rebellion towards the attraction of those from educated classes, alienated by the Confucian system but attracted by the preaching of its virtues. Young Ick Lew argues that this is what attracted Chon Pong-Jun, leader of the first 1894 rebellion, to Tonghak. [[2]]  Carl F. Young makes the case that a tension between ‘high’ and ‘low’ cultures – folk elements conflicting with Confucian values – may have contributed to divisions within the movement. [[3]] Ultimately, it seems these ‘high cultures’ were deemed a greater necessity to the long term survival of the organisation (something of utmost importance to its highest leadership) due to its appeal to those alienated educated classes who were to assume leadership roles and ensure the continuation of Tonghak dissemination and expansion.

Young applies Benedict Anderson’s concept of ‘imagined communities’ to the reorganisation of Tonghak into Ch’ondogyo, claiming it to be a ‘reimagining and refocusing of the parameters that held together the religious community that had been founded by Che-u’. [[4]] It can be argued that the refocusing of doctrinal aims in the detaching itself from folk religious practices ‘refocused the parameters’ of the movement in terms of its makeup, shifting the extent of its influence but in turn preserving the community. Further consolidation of this occurred in the establishment of Ch’ondogyo’s official teaching: In nae ch’on. This principle emerged officially in 1907 – translated as ‘humans are heaven’- and claimed that the divine resides within humans and pervades all creation. Anyone could attain full contact with the divine regardless of learning or social rank, allowing for potential widespread appeal, while also calling for proper ethical behaviour as a way of showing respect for heaven. The ethical and moral implications of the doctrine may have appealed to those more educated who were attracted to Tonghak due to its promotion of Confucian virtues and ethics. In nae ch’on presented Ch’ondogyo as a rational religion, in contrast to what was perceived as ‘irrational’ folk practices, and served as the foundation for social action the movement promoted.

Finally, the change in name from Tonghak to Ch’ondogyo can perhaps be seen as a reflection of the organisation’s involvement and interaction with foreign ideas via the Japan’s intellectual scene. Its initial name ‘Tonghak’ translates as ‘eastern learning’, a deliberate choice as opposed to ‘western learning’ (Sohak). Here, it presented itself as a ‘national’, Korean alternative to the Christian mission present in Korea in the early twentieth century. The movement was to provide the moral foundations for a transformed Korean society, and fill the apparent spiritual vacuum caused by the ‘discrediting of traditional neo-Confucianism and a weakened Buddhism’. [[5]] The adoption of ‘Ch’ondogyo’ translated as ‘teaching of the heavenly way’ removes the distinction between east and west, a distinction perhaps not needed nor desired following interaction with reformist thinkers in Japan and acceptance of western intellectual currents, political and social thought. Young claims that it was this western political and social thought encountered in Japan via its leader Song Pyong-jun and the movement’s involvement with the Ilchinhoe that allowed for the ‘systematisation and rationalisation of Tonghak ritual and doctrine’, and moved Ch’ondogyo away from aspects which tied it to the 1894 rebellion and negative image. [[6]]

Overall, tracing the development and shift from Tonghak to Ch’ondogyo is interesting in the study of how foreign ideas came to influence religion in Korea, and how its leaders responded to pressures to keep the movement alive and well regarded. We see that the shift allowed for a more universal audience, as indicated in its new meaning. Too, its new doctrine allowed for a new duality, appealing to both those who valued  the teaching of Confucian ethics and virtues but also those who desired a new religious community which allowed anyone to attain contact with the divine. This new apparent widespread appeal is arguably what made Ch’ondogyo a viable but also successful platform for nationalist voices later in the decade.


[[1]] Carl F. Young, Eastern Learning and the Heavenly Way: the Tonghak and Ch’ondogyo movements and the twilight of Korean independence (Honolulu, 2014) pp. 8-9.

[[2]] Young Ick Lew, ‘The Conservative Character of the 1894 Tonghak Peasant Uprising: A Reappraisal with Emphasis on Chon Pong-jun’s Background and Motivation’ in The Journal of Korean Studies 7 (1990), pp. 149-180.

[[3]] Young, Eastern Learning, p. 18.

[[4]] Ibid., p. 114.

[[5]] Ibid., p. xix.

[[6]] Ibid.