Demands of the Tonghak Rebels

Some fifteen years ago in a Journal of Korean Studies article entitled “The Conservative Character of the 1894 Tonghak Peasant Uprising” Lew Young Ick argued that the famous Tonghak Peasant Uprising of 1894 was not in fact an “anti-feudal (social) revolution” but had strong traditional and Confucian characteristics. The article focuses primarily on a discussion of the background of one of the uprising’s most important leaders, Chŏn Pongjun, and argues that 1) Chŏn consistently identifies himself as a Confucian scholar-gentry, has a Confucian background and education and cultivated ties with the highly conservative Taewŏn’gun 2) Chŏn’s writings during the rebellion uses strong traditional Confucian language and 3) Rebel documents from the uprising use similarly traditional language, and it is difficult to detect any “anti-feudal” or egalitarian language in these documents. Instead the rebels are dedicated to the Yi political order and uses the kind of language, common in many previous rebellions, arguing against specific taxes and widespread corruption, albeit imbued with a strong anti-foreign element.

There are several ways one might argue against this article, which is not the point of this posting. One might, for example, argue that focusing on Chŏn or even the official documents of the rebel goals which were presented to the government doesn’t get you far in rejecting the thesis that the strong egalitarian elements of the Tonghak religious movement, especially after Ch’oe Sihyŏng takes control of it, and other ideological elements among the peasant supporters are important factors in mobilizing support for the rebellion. I’m simply not in a position to argue either way in this debate.

However, one thing of interest which Yew objects to is that “Post-1945 historians almost universally cite” (166) a twelve point document declaring the goals of the rebellion as evidence of its “radical or revolutionary nature”:

1. Eliminate the long-standing mistrust between Tonghak believers and the government in dealing with problems of administration.
2. Investigate the crimes of venal and corrupt officials and punish the guilty severely.
3. Punish men of wealth who owe their fortunes to high-handed extortionate practice.
4. Discipline those yangban in or out of office whose conduct is improper.
5. Burn all documents pertaining to slaves.
6. Rectify the treatment of those engaged in the “seven despised occupations”…and free the paekchŏng outcasts once and for all from the wearing of their distinctive “P’yŏngyang hat”
7. Permit the remarriage of widows.
8. Ban all arbitrary and irregular taxes.
9. In employing officials, break the pattern of regional and class discrimination and appoint men of talent.
10. Punish those who collaborate with the Japanese
11. Cancel all outstanding debts owed to government agencies and private individuals.
12. Distribute land equally for cultivation by owner-farmers (Lew 165-6)

This is some great material! It is full of progressive and modern enlightenment propositions. The problem is, says Lew, that “this program cannot be regarded as authentic.” (166) It comes from O Chi-yŏng’s authobiographical memoir published in 1940 and Lew refers to it as something of a “historical novel” written in the late 1930s when there were strong socialist ideas popular in colonial Korea. More importantly, the rest of the article shows other important rebel documents contemporary to the uprising which bear little or no resemblance to this document.

In an introductory text on Korean history (that I’m reading in order to improve my horrible Korean) called 함께 보는 한국근현대사 and published by the 역사학연구소 just last year in 2004, I found this morning that the only document which is quoted in its description of the Tonghak rebellion has this very familiar looking list of twelve demands:

1. 도인과 정부 사이에는 묵은 감정은 씻어 버리고 서정에 협력한다.
2. 탐관오리의 죄목은 조사하여 하나하나 엄징한다.
3. 횡포한 부호들은 엄징한다
4. 불량한 유림과 양반들은 징벌한다.
5. 노비문서를 태워 버린다.
6. 칠반천인의 대우를 개선하고 백정 머리에 씌우는 평양갓을 벗게하다.
7. 청춘과부의 재혼을 허락한다.
8. 무명잡세는 모두 폐지한다.
9. 관리 채용은 지벌을 타파하고 인재 위주로 한다.
10. 외적과 내통하는 자는 엄징한다.
11. 공사채를 막론하고 지난 것은 모두 무효로 한다.
12. 토지는 평균으로 분작하게 한다. (역사학연구소 ed. 51)

If the document is highly problematic (in a memoir from 1940) and there are other documents contemporary to the rebellion, why is this still being used (this book’s introduction claims to incorporate “new trends” in the historiography, although I really know little about it or the authors, I picked it up almost at random in a Seoul bookstore)? Some of these other documents, of course, show almost none of these enlightenment features, but speak of “fulfill[ing] the duties of loyalty and filial piety” and of “strengthen[ing] moral relationships, rectify[ing] the names and roles, and realiz[ing] the teachings of the Sages.” (167) Another document cited by Lew focuses almost entirely on eliminating corruption and addressing very specific tax and economic related concerns – features common to many pre-modern rebellions around the world. (171)

If the progressive and/or revolutionary egalitarian aspects of the important Tonghak uprising can be shown with other evidence, perhaps the mention of the uprising goals in these official documents should be dropped entirely?

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


  1. Good post! I’ll have to look up Lew’s article. I find it interesting that a great many educated Koreans I talk to regarding Queen Min’s assassination react viscerally when I suggest that the Taewongun was in any way involved. Of course, most of my readings on Korean history are gleaned from the internet, and that poses its own problem. Garbage in, garbage out.

  2. This is certainly an interesting topic. If you want the more classical left-nationalist view on the rebellion you can look at the special anniversary edition of Korea Journal from 1994. I haven’t got it to hand but I’ll dig it out when I’m at home and give you some of the paper titles.

    Another thing that comes to mind here is that even if you accept the 12-point documents as the genuine article then much of what it says is still consistent with a rebellion oriented toward Confucian good governance, the strengthening of the state and rectification of its problems. It should also be noted that certain kinds of egalitarianism and millenarianism had featured in rebellions in China and Korea for hundreds of years before this. As I understand it reference was often made to the Mencian ideal society of equal small landholders both by rebels and people in government who wanted reform (can’t remember the hanmun term for this).

    You might also want to look at Anders Karlsson’s article in the International Journal of Korean History where he deals with the question of ideology in the Hong KyOngnae rebellion of 1812, I think there might be some interesting comparisons to be made.
    (“Challenging the Dynasty: Popular Protest, ChOnggamnok and the Ideology of the Hong KyOngnae Rebellion” IJKH 2 (December 2001)).

  3. That Korea Journal I mentioned was vol. 34 and it has tbe overall title ‘The Peasant War of 1894’. The use of the term ‘peasant war’ is itself interesting, I assume an influence from the German peasant war and presumably from Engels’ treatment of it in his The Peasant War in Germany, written in 1850.

    Here’s a little excerpt from the last paper in the volume to give you an idea of the nature of the ‘minjung’ view of history so popular among Korean historians (at least until a few years ago):

    “It was in the 19th century that the feudal society of the Chosŏn dynasty was dismantled by popular uprisings. It was the process in which the old system was rejected and overcome by the new forces from below. A series of events in the 19th century resulted from the transitional process in which the feudal system was replaced by a new social order.”

    (Ahn Byung-ook and Park Chan-seung. “Historical Characteristics of the Peasant War of 1894.” Korea Journal 34: 101-113)

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