Donghak Peasant Revolution

Donghak Peasant Revolution
Hangul ÍÌš
Revised Romanization Donghak Nongmin Undong
McCune–Reischauer Tonghak Nongmin Undong

The Donghak Peasant Revolution was an anti-government, anti-yangban and anti-foreign uprising in 1894 in Korea which was the catalyst for the First Sino-Japanese War. The uprising started in Gobu during February 1894, with the peasant class protesting against the political corruption of local government officials. The revolution was named after Donghak, a Korean religion stressing "the equality of all human beings". The forces of Emperor Gojong failed in their attempt to suppress the revolt, with initial skirmishes giving way to major conflicts. King Gojong asked China for military assistance to "quell the domestic unrest." When Japanese officials discovered three thousand Chinese troops had disembarked near Seoul in June, Japan's policy makers met to decide how to respond to China's violation of the Tianjin Convention by "dispatching forces without informing Tokyo."[1]


[edit] Origins

Even before foreign intervention and the opening of Korea to the world, the peasants of the Korean Peninsula had become disillusioned with the rule of the upper yangban classes. During the 19th century, drought and floods alternately struck the rice fields and farms of Korea and caused great famines. Making matters worse, the Joseon rulers increased taxes on farm crops and imposed more unpaid labor on the starving peasants. Anti-government and anti-landlord sentiment boiled over into violent uprisings.

In 1812 Hong Gyeong-nae led the peasants of Gasan in the northern part of Korea into an armed rebellion and occupied the region for several months. An army was sent to quell the rebellion and the revolt was only put down after a savage scorched-earth campaign. All over Korea, all the way to Jeju Island, peasants continued to defy the king in Seoul, the local nobility and wealthy landlords.

In 1862 half a century after the peasant rebellion led by Hong Gyeong-nae was put down, a group of farmers in Jinju, Gyeongsang, province rose up against their oppressive provincial officials and the wealthy landowners. This uprising was the result of the exploitation of destitute farmers by the local ruler.

The rebels killed local government officials and set fire to government buildings. In order to appease the rebels, the government hastily revised the land, military and grain lending systems. It was an ineffectual attempt at reform, as many yangban in the central government were themselves deeply involved in such corruption.

The revolt in Jinju triggered peasant uprisings elsewhere all over Korea; groups of farmers rose up with arms and attacked government offices in principal towns. Many government officials were executed.

The uprisings were generally crushed by government troops. In 1862 the peasants of San-nam and surrounding villages took up arms against the elite, but were brutally butchered by troops. In subsequent years, peasants rose up in small groups all across Korea until 1892.

[edit] The birth of the Donghak movement

Choe Je-u (ÌÌÌš, ÅÆ¿Æ„š, 1824–1864) established the ideology of Donghak (Eastern Learning) in April 1860 with the intention of helping farmers suffering from poverty, unrest and of restoring political and social stability.

The Donghak ideology was a mixture of elements from Confucianism, Buddhism and Songyo (teachings of Silla's Hwarang), modern humanistic, class-struggle ideas that today may be considered Marxist. It resembled a religion as well as a political ideology. A rhetoric of exclusionism (from foreign influences) and an early form of nationalism were also incorporated.

Donghak themes were set to music so that illiterate farmers could understand and accept them more readily, and systematized as a message of salvation to farmers in distress. His ideas rapidly gained acceptance among the peasantry.

Choe, as well as many Koreans, was also alarmed by the intrusion of Christianity and the Anglo-French occupation of Beijing during the Second Opium War. He believed that the best way to counter foreign influence in Korea was to introduce democratic and human rights reforms internally.

Nationalism and social reform struck a chord among the peasant guerrillas, and Donghak spread all across Korea. Progressive revolutionaries organized the peasants into a cohesive structure.

[edit] Foreign Intervention

Joseon Korea had been an autonomous tributary state of Qing China since the 1637 Second Manchu invasion of Korea. Apart from this, Korea was isolationist and wary of foreign influence. After several incidents involving the Russians, French and Americans, Korea was opened to foreign trade by the Japanese Treaty of Ganghwa in 1876. China lost its exclusive influence over Korea. Foreign legations were set up at Seoul, and Western ideas and customs were introduced into Korea.

[edit] Donghak Revolution of 1894

In 1892 the small groups of the Donghak movement were united into a single Peasant Guerrilla Army (Donghak Peasant Army) who armed themselves; they raided government offices and killed rich landlords, traders and foreigners. They confiscated their victims' properties and distributed them to the poor. They organized themselves in a mass protest in Cholla province in December 1892 to protest abuses from local officials. The leader Choe Si-hyeong petitioned King Kojong in which he stated:

We the ordinary subjects of His Majesty's benevolent reign, after having read the Confucian writings, living on His Majesty's soil, are determined to follow this new doctrine only because we want people to reform themselves, to be loyal to their king, to show filial piety to their parents, to respect their teachers, and to show friendship to their fellow men.[2]

Choe Si-hyeong's statement reaffirms the Tonghak belief in Confucianism, as well as their loyalty to the king. King Kojong failed to respond to the petition.

[edit] The First Revolution

The Donghak Peasant Revolution, or the 1894 Peasant War (Nongmin Jeonjaeng), witnessed poor farmers in large numbers rise up against the landlords and the ruling elite. The peasants demanded land redistribution, tax reduction, democracy and human rights. Taxes were so high that most farmers were forced to sell their ancestral homesteads to rich landowners at bargain prices. Landlords sold rice to the Japanese and sent their children to Japan to study. As a result, the peasant class developed intense anti-Japanese and anti-yangban sentiments. The rebellion's immediate cause was the conduct of Jo Byong-gap (1844–1911), a government official whose rule was viewed by some as tyrannical and corrupt.

Progressive-minded yangbans, scholars and nationalists also joined the movement. On January 11, 1894, the rebels, led by Jeon Bong-jun (Ì„Ì, Åç«Æ, 1854–1895), defeated the government forces at the battle of Go-bu and distributed Jo's properties to the peasants.

The revolution expanded quickly until March 13, 1894. Its army was eventually crushed by government troops led by Yi Yong-tae, who killed and captured peasant guerrillas, burned villages and confiscated the peasants' properties in Go-bu.

The peasant army regrouped and started a new rebellion, as news of the government's actions in Go-bu helped increased support among the peasants. The central figures were Jeon Bong-jun, Kim Gae-nam and Son Hwa-jung.

With new impetus, the peasant army defeated one government garrison after another and closed in on Seoul. The peasants' objectives were institutional land reform, social reform, the overthrow of Joseon Dynasty (or at least the removal of corrupt officials) and the expulsion of foreign influence from Korea.

The peasants' marching orders were the following:

  • "Do not kill or take the peasants' properties"
  • "Protect the peasants' rights"
  • "Drive out the Japanese and Western people and purify our sacred land"
  • "March to Seoul and purge the government"

At the beginning of May, the peasant army occupied a palace in Jeonju.

The Joseon government asked the Chinese government for assistance in ending the revolt. The Qing dynasty sent troops into Korea, after notifying the Japanese in accordance with the Convention of Tientsin. The Chinese initially did not wish to go to war with Japan, but Japan viewed the Chinese action as a threat to its national security and sent its own troops to Korea.

With the presence of some 3,000 Chinese troops, the government authorities proposed a negotiated truce with the rebels. With the end of the rebellion would come increasing tensions between China and Japan as neither wanted to evacuate Korea earlier than the other. The resulting tensions would lead to the First Sino-Japanese War[3].

[edit] The Second Revolution

While hostilities between China and Japan were beginning, a second uprising erupted in the Korean countryside against a new pro-Japanese government established in Seoul.

In late June 1894 the pro-Japanese forces hatched a plan to wipe out the peasant army in co-operation with the Japanese troops stationed in Incheon and Seoul. On October 16 the peasant army moved toward Gongju for the final battle, which was a trap. The Japanese and the pro-Japanese government troops were in fact waiting for them inside.

The Donghak Army was defeated in the Battle of Ugeumchi. The Japanese had cannon and other modern weapons, whereas the Korean peasants were armed only with bows and arrows, spears, swords and some flintlock muskets.

The vigorous battle started on October 22, 1894, and lasted until November 10, 1894. The poorly-armed peasants stormed the well-entrenched Japanese, but they were beaten back and suffered heavy losses. The remnants fled to various bases. The Japanese pursued the army and eventually wiped it out. Jeon Bong-jun, the Donghak commander, was captured in March 1895. The execution of Choe Si-hyeong followed in 1898.

[edit] Aftermath

The rebellion failed, but many grievances of the peasants would later be addressed through the Gabo Reform. The Korean Empire was established in 1897 as a result of the First Sino-Japanese War and the Treaty of Shimonoseki in 1895. Foreign influence would still be a major aspect, with Japan and Russia later competing over Korea.

In the coming years Korea would fall increasingly under Japanese influence, and after the Russo-Japanese War Russian influence would no longer be a factor in Korea. The Korean Empire would be established in 1897, Korea would in effect (de-facto) become a Japanese protectorate and would later be annexed by Japan in 1910.

Although the revolution failed, it made a significant contribution to Korean modernization that resulted from the peasants' demands for democracy, the expulsion of foreign influence and an end to feudalism. The ideas of the movement lived on in the Cheondogyo religious movement.

[edit] Kim Gu, a Donghak fighter

Kim Gu, one of the most prominent nationalist leaders, was a Donghak military leader. He was born in 1876, the year the Treaty of Ganghwa was signed. He studied the Chinese classics at a seodang (a traditional village primary school). At 17 he applied for the Imperial examination of Joseon but failed. When the Donghak Peasant Revolution broke out in 1894 he commanded a Donghak army regiment, but was eventually defeated and went into hiding.

In 1896 Kim Gu murdered, robbed and abandoned a Japanese merchant named Tsuchida, who was unconnected to the murder of the last Joseon Dynasty Queen Min. Kim was arrested and sentenced to death by Korean court, but escaped and hid out as a Buddhist monk at Magoksa in Gongju near Pyeongyang.

[edit] Sources and Notes

  • Tonghak revolution and Chundoism[1]
  1. ^ James L. McClain, Japan A Modern History, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2002, Pg. 297
  2. ^ Quoted in Lone and McCormack, Korea Since 1850, New York, St. Martin's Press, 1993
  3. ^ Demetrius Charles Boulger, China, The War With Japan And Subsequent Events (1893)

[edit] See also

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