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.



Men’s Perverted Use of Women’s Liberation

“Chinese men worship power and authority. They believe that Europeans, Americans, and the Japanese are civilised nations of the modern world who all grant their women some degree of freedom […] by transplanting this system into the lives of their wives and daughters, these men think they will be applauded by the whole world for having joined ranks of civilised nations” [[1]]

He-Yin Zhen in her article On the Question of Women’s Liberation (1907), provides a profound argument concerning the nature of women’s liberation which serves to illustrate the perverted use of women’s issues by men. He-Yin maintains that the promotion of the feminist cause and women’s liberation is only made in ‘men’s pursuit of self-distinction’, and thus questions whether such liberation is truly beneficial for women, or only perpetuates the existing unequal relationship between men and women.

Such ‘pursuit of self-distinction’ was visible not only among the intellectual spheres of China but also Korea, and is evidenced clearly within the Tonghak/Ch’ondogyo movement.  Carl Young in Eastern Learning and the Heavenly Way (2014) unveils this in his brief discussion of the role and status of women within the movement. The religion promoted the education of women as important ‘for the evolution of Korean society’, and one editorial even advocated the notion of equality of authority and rights between men and women. [[2]] Yet another editorial reveals that the movement’s motivation in promoting women’s education was rather a response to the idea of the need for Korea to ‘catch up’, in a comparison between its own female populations’ ignorance and those women in ‘civilised countries’ (Japan in particular) who had access to civilised education for decades, and whose social status did not differ much from men’s. [[3]]

Here we witness women’s issues being manipulated, acting as a supplement to its leaders commitment to their social and national agenda: the social enlightenment of the Korean nation. Their social and national agenda not withstanding the influence of the western intellectual discourse however, in their pursuit to ‘join ranks of civilised nations’. Japanese intellectual discourse enjoyed considerable influence upon the aims, organisation, and doctrine of the movement, both via Son Pyong-hui’s interaction with Japanese reform-minded individuals between 1901-1904, and the movement’s involvement with the Japanese state sponsored Ilchinhoe.

It is therefore not surprising to witness the promotion of women’s liberation within the movement, and the Tonghak/Ch’ondogyo movement itself serves to clearly illustrate the impacts of imperialism upon the intellectual sphere in the east, and its implications in gender relations and ideas on women’s liberation.  The feminist cause was arguably promoted for the self-interest of men, to distinguish themselves as progressive, enlightened men championing women’s liberation in a project of enlightenment and national self-strengthening; perhaps in the face of ‘civilised’ nations and influenced by popular ideas of Social Darwinism.

Women’s liberation as He-Yin suggests was presented as a double edged sword. There came the visibility of women’s issues and rights, primarily concerning education, and provided foundations for later activism. Yet such rights came from men who sought to promote women’s liberation in order to promote their own status as enlightened men in the modern world, and therefore can be questioned as truly meaningful representations of well-intentioned progress. Did men’s views of women as their private property, or their relations in reality shift? Or did women’s liberation only strengthen the existing power imbalance and subordination of women to men, for they would not have such rights to freedom without them. He-Yin’s questioning of the nature of women’s liberation was not unfounded, and her concerns highlight the importance of studying feminist history, or the feminist cause within history, as a study of such gender relations rather than simply aiming to uncover the ‘voices of women’.


[[1]] He-Yin Zhen ‘On the Question of Women’s Liberation’ (1907), in Lydia He Liu, Rebecca E. Karl, Dorothy Ko (ed.) The birth of Chinese feminism: essential texts in transnational theory (New York, 2013), p. 60.

[[2]] Carl Young, Eastern Learning and the Heavenly Way: the Tonghak and Ch’ondogyo movements and the twilight of Korean independence (Honolulu, 2014), p. 169.

[[3]] ibid.

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.

The Tonghak and the Chinese Communist Party: Parallels in Tactics and Historiography

A comparison can be drawn between the evolution of the Tonghak movement from 1894 to 1910 in Korea and developments in the family reform debate in China from 1915 to 1953, particularly in reference to the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) role in this debate. Although these two historical developments might appear unrelated, in both of the periods examined a radical reformulation of important precedents takes place. The Tonghak religion “presented itself as incarcerating the best of Korean and Eastern tradition in a new and accessible way to regenerate both individuals and society.”1 In China, the CCP propagated a new version of the xiao jiating ideal which has been introduced decades earlier by New Culture intellectuals. While the specific policies of the Tonghak and the CCP differed, both groups sought societal regeneration, largely in the form of modernization, as their final goal. Key to both Tonghaks and the CCP was the importance of individual change and societal change. What differentiated the CCP, however, is their linking of these two factors in a casual relationship. 

In both cases, the strategy employed to achieve this goal was ideological manipulation according to what the historical moment made available to that group. In the Tonghak’s case, an ideological repositioning took place under the leadership of the third patriarch, Son Pyong-hui, in which the group abandoned it’s former anti-foreign stance in favor of Japanese intervention in Korea. Carl Young points out that the activities of the Chinbohoe, an offspring of the Tonghak which merged with the Ilchinhoe in 1905, “saw the war between Russia and Japan as an opportunity to advance their agenda by using Japanese support to overthrow the conservative government surrounding Emperor Kojong and take over government”2 The anti-foreign sentiment of the Tonghak gives way to a policy of supporting Japanese rule due to a desire to realize its goal of preserving Korean sovereignty. Just like the Tonghak reformulate their policy in order to best position themselves for success, the xiao jiating ideal is adapted by the CCP to serve their political and social goals. While the Tonghak engaged in ideological repositioning, the CCP re-imagined the ideological underpinnings of an existing ideal in order to subsume the activities of individuals under the interest of the state: “the state became the beginning and the end, the mode of social organization, and the object of all energies and loyalties.”3 This allowed the CCP to exert control in every aspect of its citizen’s lives under the guise of family reform. The ideological manipulation pursued by the Tonghaks and the CCP allowed both groups to formulate policies which were most beneficial to them at the time.  

In addition to similar ideological tactics employed by the Tonghak and the CCP, what this discussion reveals is a tendency to disregard specific historical trends in order to preserve an all-encompassing narrative. In his work on the split in the Tonghak religion, Young observes, “the fact that there were some elements of Tonghak that actively cooperated with the Japanese is disturbing and is often not discussed because it does not fit with the simple structure of history that has often been framed by Korean political ideologies.”4 In relation to Chinese visions of family and state in the early 20th century, Susan Glosser points out that there has been a lack of scholarship which connects the New Cultural intellectual’s linking of the individual and the state in their propagation of the xiao jiating ideal in the early twentieth century, with the CCPs subsequent policy. Glosser argues that this provides the basis for CCP policy, “although the CCP was most effective in lengthening the reach of the state, the invasive potential of the state was not peculiar to the CCP.”5 Despite similarities discussed above, the Tonghak and the CCP are very different organizations which existed in distinct contexts. However, a close analysis reveals a connection between the ideological distortions pursued by each group and the treatment of these in historical writing on the topic. 

  1. Carl Young, ‘Eastern Learning Divided: The Split in the Tonghak’, in Emily Anderson (ed.), Belief and Practice in Imperial Japan and Colonial Korea (Springer, 2016), p. 80. []
  2. Young, ‘Eastern Learning Divided’, p. 83. []
  3. Susan Glosser, Chinese Visions of Family and State, 1915-1953 (University of California Press, 2003), p. 186 []
  4. Young, ‘Eastern Learning Divided’, p. 80. []
  5. Glosser, Chinese Visions of Family and State, p. 200. []