On this date in 1898,* the second patriarch of the Donghak religion was put to death in Korea.
Like neighboring Japan, Korea was ripe for “new religions” late in the 19th century and into the 20th. And to the concussive effects of modernity were added, for Korea, those of colonialism: a fading dynasty pressured by both western and Japanese empire-building.
“Donghak arose at a time when Korea was on the verge of radical transformations,” writes Kirsten Bell.**
Internally, society was stagnating under a rigid Confucian social hierarchy, which saw destitute peasants over-taxed and generally ill-used by corrupt government officials and landed gentry (yangban). External forces such as the West’s encroachment into the East were also causing considerable alarm. Donghak arose in these circumstances and was … explicitly envisioned … as a rebuttal to the growing influence of the West in Korea; further, Donghak was constructed in explicit opposition to Roman Catholicism, known as “Western Learning.”
Donghak, or Tonghak, was “Eastern Learning” (that’s its literal meaning), a sort of synretic liberation theology for the peasantry in a put-upon peninsula.
This egalitarian movement, light on the dogma beyond the notion that an omnipresent divine inheres to every person, yielded its founder up to the laurels of martyrdom in 1864. That gentleman, Choe Je-u, passed leadership to his kinsman, our day’s subject, whose proselytizing and organizing built the religion over two succeeding generations.
“Despite ongoing government persecution, Donghak proved popular with the disaffected masses,” Bell notes.
Choe Si-hyeong published the Donghak scriptures and planted countless secret Donghak societies around Korea. Rooted as they were in a lower class with an axe to grind, these burgeoning cells tended increasingly towards the revolutionary. In 1894, they tended all the way: the Donghak Peasant Revolution.
In this dramatic affair, a surging peasant-nationalist army marched on Seoul with every prospect of overturning the decrepit monarchy — which unworthily preserved itself by inviting a Chinese intervention.†
This, in turn, precipitated an (uninvited) Japanese response, which became the First Sino-Japanese War, whose titular belligerents had it out all over the Korean peninsula.
Japan, with its modern army, cleaned up in the fight, a signal of its rise as regional hegemon. (It would soon annex Korea altogether.) And just in passing, it routed that ambitious peasant army late in 1894, scattering Donghak adherents to the hills.
Choe Si-hyeong was finally captured and put to death in 1898. Still, that wasn’t the end of the line for Donghak: rebranded Cheondoism after its original moniker became unfortunately affixed to the word “revolution,” the faith is still going strong with well over one million adherents in present-day South Korea.
* The precise date is asserted in Buddhism in the Modern World but generally not extremely easy to come by. I’d rather have access to a clear primary source or a larger consensus of secondary sources or a pony.
** “Pilgrims and Progress: The Production of Religious Experience in a Korean Religion,” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, August 2008.
† The Qing were about to be squeezed by a similar domestic movement, the Boxers.