Tonghak and Taiping

I was struck, preparing for class yesterday, that the Tonghak and Taiping faiths were surprisingly similar and arose nearly simultaneously: Syncretic monotheistic faiths drawing on Confucian, Christian and indigenous magical traditions, with anti-foreign reformist programs and a counter-cultural ethos of equality.1 There are obvious differences, too, in teachings and in the leadership, but the structural similarities raise some interesting possibilities for research and teaching.

I’m not the first person to have this insight apparently, though it doesn’t look (from what little I can tell from these links) like there’s any hint of direct connection between them. I’m a little surprised, frankly, that World History textbooks (which love those kinds of parallel moments) haven’t picked up on it. Of course, Korea’s place in World History textbooks overall is pretty pitiful at the moment and the Taiping movement rarely gets more than passing mention in an already busy and traumatic Chinese 19th century. With the rise of religious history, it seems likely that these issues might come closer to the forefront, though, and I’d be curious to know if anyone else out there does something with this confluence.

  1. The Japanese “New Religions” of the 19th century are very heavily Shinto-influenced, with some Buddhism and almost no Christianity, nor did any of them become political movements. It’s not the same.  


  1. I must confess that the obvious differences blinded me to their similarities. I took the Tonghaks to be more akin to the Boxers, but my knowledge of both is superficial. There is certainly a lot more in print in English on the Taipings.

  2. In the sense that they’re both fin de siecle anti-foreign, proto-nationalist religious uprisings, the Tonghak and Boxers have points of comparison as well, but there are more differences, I think: Boxers were a syncretic movement, but much more consistent with existing Chinese religious traditions, not with strong Christian elements, nor is there a single visionary founder. And the Tonghak were founded contemporaneously with the Taiping, and built slowly, rather than being a Boxer-like craze

  3. Wait. Ch’oe Che-u’s teaching only had a very vague element of Catholicism at best (it was largely the government that confused Christianity and Tonghak as “dangerous” religions) and it was more shamanistic (although he’s male), wasn’t it? I want to know if I am wrong. I talked about it with my adviser and we concluded that Tonghak’s origin was much closer to Japanese Tenrikyo and Omotokyo than the Taiping although, as you mention in the footnote, they did not become political movements later. But all focused on healing and daily problems. The uprising after 1893 under Ch’oe Sihyong feels a bit more like the Boxer to me too. Cixi’s support for the Boxers also reminds me of Taewongun’s support for the Tonghak. But again, if I’m wrong, I want to know.

  4. You’re not wrong: I’m not claiming that the comparison goes much beyond some structural similarities, and you’re right that there are parallels elsewhere. I think the “vague element of Catholicism” takes Ch’oe Che-u too much at his word, though. Unless you want to argue that there’s some way the Han-era Taoist movements somehow transmitted their rhetoric to 19c Korea, I don’t see how Tonghak isn’t a very monotheistic revelation. I also find it interesting, from a social history perspective, that Catholicism in Korea was mostly influential in urban populations, while Tonghak was a largely rural phenomenon; this suggests to me that they were filling a similar psychological or theological niche in different social climes.

    Cixi’s support for the Boxers also reminds me of Taewongun’s support for the Tonghak.

    Well, that raises a whole other interesting parallel I talked about with my students a bit: Cixi and Taewongun rank as some of the least constructive national leaders in 19th century history, for many of the same reasons.

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