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.



Korean Buddhism: Understanding the Key Factors of its Survival.

‘Korean Buddhism was already considered ‘half dead, half alive’, representing ‘nothing more than other-worldly hermits in the mountains.’[1]

There are multiple factors to consider regarding Buddhism within Chosŏn Korea and its fight for modernisation. Darwinism, socialism, the Tonghak uprisings and Japan all influenced Buddhism to reconsider its mechanisms in order to survive this new social demand. However, depending on the historian these factors differ in value. Jin Park[2] and Vladimir Tikhonov[3] both focus on one important historical figure which enabled Buddhism to modernise in a way that would ensure its survival. Han Yongun had a variety of education which differed in forms which was essential to understanding what exactly a modern Korea should look like, and how Buddhism might be able to keep its place within the country’s future.

Jin Park does not give much context regarding why Han Yongun was influential within the modernising of Buddhism other than his open-minded ideas regarding the freedom to marry for monks and nuns, however this does give insight to the influence in which Japan had on Korean Buddhism. In the areas which Jin Park has been unable to highlight Han Yongun’s importance, Tikhonov has been able assess the different factors which enabled Han Yongun to understand how society was beginning to function under Darwin’s concept of ‘survival of the fittest’. With his collaborated text of ‘Selected Writings on Han Yongun: From social Darwinism to Socialism with a Buddhist Face[4], Tikhonov is able to highlight other factors such as the Tonghak uprisings and the aftermath of the Russo-Japanese war, which Han Yongun was able to witness, enabling him to better understand what survival meant for Korea and how the modernising world around Korea may influence it.

Another factor that Tikhonov highlights is the influence of Laing Qichao upon Han Yongun, which is mentioned within both of his texts. Through this Han Yongun was able to obtain a better understanding of Social Darwinism and how it can be used to ensure the survival of Buddhism. ‘The main lesson the Korean nationalists were keen to learn from Liang was the Social Darwinist understanding of evolution as a competitive dog-eat-dog ‘struggle for survival, where the downfall of the ‘weaker devoured by the stronger’ was blamed only on the victims’ ‘failure to strengthen themselves’.[5] Although Buddhism was and is strictly non-nationalist, there were monks like Han Yongun, who were able to disassociate it with Social Darwinism and take the relevant information from it to create the necessary means for strengthening Buddhism’s place within a modernising Korea. This is perhaps why there is such an emphasis on Han Yongun within Tikhonovs texts because through this Buddhist figure there is a variety of factors which all connect to the modernisation of Korea. Han Yongun was educated on nationalism through his experience of the Tonghak uprising and his travels to Russia, however, he was also educated through Confucian and Buddhist teachings. Therefore, he was able to use this knowledge to understand which areas of Buddhism could be changed to adapt better to Korean society which would attract a bigger following and ensure its capability to compete against other religions.

Tikhonov highlights why Buddhism would perhaps struggle to finds its place within the religious competition, especially within Korea. These were factors such as the lack of European language skills which the majority of the Korean Buddhist shared, the isolation which the monks and nuns experienced as a result of Confucianism being more favoured, which therefore lead to Buddhism lacking any form of solid ground within Korea. The result of this meant that toward the late nineteenth century Buddhism within Korea was beginning to experience a decline in followers. However, Yong-u Han, Vladimir Tikhonov and Owen Miller focus their argument on supporting Buddhism and why it could be deemed more suitable to creating progress within the modern world in comparison to  Christianity and Confucianism. The main strength of their argument comes from using figures such as Han Yongun and Laing Qichao to highlight that those who followed the belief were capable of comprehending the modernisation of Buddhism and the route it must take to establish that. By focusing on the inner workings of Buddhism and the influence of Laing and Yongun the argument focuses on the qualities of Buddhism which places it above Confucianism and Christianity. These qualities are the ability to reject self-righteousness and ignorance, which would therefore, ensure progression for those who followed the belief because they would not be swept up by a world based on capital and survival.

[1] Vladimir M. Tikhonov, Social Darwinism and Nationalism in Korea: The Beginnings (1800s-1920s): “Survival” as an Ideology of Korean Modernity (Brill, 2010) p.117.

[2] Jin Y. Park, Makers of Modern Korean Buddhism (SUNY Press, 2010).

[3] Vladimir M. Tikhonov, Social Darwinism and Nationalism in Korea: The Beginnings (1800s-1920s): “Survival” as an Ideology of Korean Modernity (Brill, 2010).

[4] Yong-un Han, Vladimir Tikhonov, Owen Miller, Selected Writings on Han Yongun: From social Darwinism to Socialism with a Buddhist Face (Global Oriental, 2008).

[5] Yong-un Han, Vladimir Tikhonov , Owen Miller, Selected Writings on Han Yongun: From social Darwinism to Socialism with a Buddhist Face (Global Oriental, 2008) p.5.

Were the Ilchinhoe justified in their support of the Japanese, 1909-1910? A look at collaboration in a colonial setting

In December 1909, the Korean organisation the Ilchinhoe proposed a Japanese-Korean ‘merger’ that they believed would instil new life in Korea as a nation with Japan as its saviour.[1] Instead, the merger is attributed to starting the chain of events that led to Korea’s brutal annexation by the Japanese that lasted thirty-five years.

Yumi Moon’s article ‘Immoral Rights: Korean Populist Collaborators and the Japanese Colonisation of Korea, 1904-1910’ explores the idea that the Ilchinhoe, who are remembered in Korean history as ‘notorious collaborators’, need to be considered in a colonial context so that their actions may be explained.[2] This blog post will consider if Moon’s article provides justification to the Ilchinhoe’s support of the Japanese in the lead to up the annexation of Korea in 1910.

To understand why the Ilchinhoe collaborated with the Japanese, Moon urges historians to avoid contemporary moral views as it becomes a ‘major hindrance’.[3] Historians need to consider the setting and conditions of those who are being colonialised so they can grasp why certain groups chose to work with those who are doing the oppressing.

 So, for the context of Korea and the Ilchinhoe, Moon places a great emphasis on the point that the Ilchinhoe movement was populist. She quotes Margaret Canovan, writing, ‘Populists claim legitimacy on the grounds that they speak for the people: that is to say, they claim to represent the democratic sovereign’.[4] Therefore, the Ilchinhoe were doing what they believed was best for the Korean people. They viewed Korea as a ‘backwards’ nation while Japan was a “civilising’ empire’ that could protect Korea’s prosperity.[5]

Looking at the Ilchinhoe’s view with a contemporary mindset will result in a negative judgement of the group. However, using Moon’s argument that the colonial context must be considered allows for one to see that the Ilchinhoe genuinely believed they were doing what was best for Korea. Their logic was ‘Independence through dependence’, and that Korea needed to understand what it was and wasn’t capable of so that Japan could guide them as a ‘friendly ally’.[6] The Ilchinhoe always advocated for the rights of Korean people and did not wish for Korea to lose its independence; what they wanted was for Japan to revitalise their government.

In the end, the Japanese used this to their advantage and were able to annex Korea with ‘relatively little bloodshed’ thanks to the Ilchinhoe’s collaboration efforts.[7] Moon’s final argument urges an understanding that the Ilchinhoe, the colonised, had no agency or control over how the Japanese, the colonisers, acted. Ultimately, the Ilchinhoe may have had good intentions that they believed represented what the Korean population wanted but were misguided in trusting the Japanese. Japan ended up ignoring what was proposed in the merger and used it as proof that Korea was not able to be independent at all which led to the annexation.  So did Moon’s article justify the Ilchinhoe’s actions and shed a more positive light on their organisation? That depends on how naïve one would believe the Ilchinhoe were in thinking the Japanese wouldn’t take complete control over Korea. However, Moon does provide substantial evidence that suggests their collaboration was in the Korean people’s best interest.

[1]Carl Young, ‘Eastern Learning Divided: The Split in the Tonghak Religion and the Japanese Annexation of Korea, 1904-1910’ in Belief and Practice in Imperial Japan and Colonial Korea ed. Emily Anderson (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), p.93

[2] Yumi Moon, ‘Immoral Rights: Korean Populist Collaborators and the Japanese Colonisation of Korea, 1904-1910‘, The American Historical Review 113:1 (2013), p.20

[3] Ibid. p.22

[4] Ibid. p.27

[5] Ibid. p.33

[6] Ibid. p.32

[7] Ibid. p.42

The Motivations of Koreas Peasantry and its connection to the Tonghak Uprisings

‘The Tonghak Peasant Uprising had once been depicted as a spontaneous rebellion of disgruntled peasants that broke out suddenly in reaction to harsh exploitation by the notorious Venal.’[1]

Young Ick Lew and his article: The Conservative Character of the 1894 Tonghak Peasant Uprising: A Reappraisal with Emphasis on Chŏn Pong-jun’s Background and Motivation, puts into perspective the diversity of historiographical thought regarding the motivation behind the Tonghak uprising (1894). It is diverse because according to Young Ick Lew, many historians argue that the uprising was not fully motivated by Tonghak, instead it was formed under the groundings of a divided and corrupt society. This argument holds more strength because of the factors that put Korea into such a weak state, which left the governing system in chaos. One of these factors is the influence in which China and Japan had over Korea, which caused the country to essentially fight to keep its identity and culture in place. This desperation to reclaim Korea from the grasp of China and Japan has created different arguments on what caused the peasants to follow Tonghak and to form a class consciousness. One factor that should be highlighted is the absence of information regarding how these peasants became aware of the corrupt system in which they lived in.

When comparing this to the Russian Revolution the peasantry formed a class consciousness through education, which enabled them to understand their rights and place in society[2]. However, Young Ick Lew does not go into depth regarding why the peasants became highly aware of the injustice they faced. Young Ick Lew, instead uses other forms of debates surrounding class consciousness to explain why the peasants were eager to follow Tonghak religious group. There is an understanding that through more peasants joining the movement, they were becoming more aware of the corrupt politics within Korea.

Furthermore, what also strengthens Young Ick Lew’s argument of the peasantry motivations is what the Tonghak revolt represented to them. The leadership of the movement was also made up of peasant born individuals which perhaps symbolised a sense of hope for the peasantry, allowing them to feel more involved with the revolt and the political system with Korea. However, there are other motivations which are pointed out, which also coincide with other historians’ views within Sources of Korean tradition[3]. The motivations could be argued to be less of a movement and more of a revolution. This was as both articles state, due to the demands that the revolt made, which was arguably fair to all and would diminish all injustices by scraping the class system, but it would also mean strengthening this anti-foreigner state which the Tonghak followers had promoted.[4]

[1] Young Ick Lew, The Conservative Character of the 1894 Tonghak Peasant Uprising: A Reappraisal with Emphasis on Chŏn Pong-jun’s Background and Motivation (Duke University Press, 1990) p.159.

[2] Orlando Figes, The Russian Revolution of 1917 and Its Language in the Village (The Russian Review, 1997) p.324.

[3] Peter H. Lee; William Theodore De Bary; Yŏng-ho Ch’oe, Sources of Korean tradition (Columbia University Press, 2000) p.265.

[4] Young Ick Lew, The Conservative Character of the 1894 Tonghak Peasant Uprising: A Reappraisal with Emphasis on Chŏn Pong-jun’s Background and Motivation (Duke University Press, 1990) pp. 165-166.