1898: Choe Si-hyeong, Donghak leader

Add comment July 20th, 2011 Headsman

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.

Choe Si-hyeong is the subjet of the 1991 Im Kwon-taek film Fly High, Run Far.

* 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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,God,History,Japan,Korea,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries

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1924: Not Onisaburo Deguchi or Morihei Ueshiba, Japanese new religion exponents

3 comments June 21st, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1924, a group of Japanese Oomoto* sect members was lined up for execution by a Manchurian warlord — only to be saved at the last moment by the intervention of the Japanese consulate.

These inordinately lucky folk were the remnants of a bizarre “spiritual army” under Onisaburo Deguchi, who set out to plant a utopian colony on the Mongolian steppe.


Onisaburo (left) and Ueshiba, shackled together for deportation after their near-execution. Onisaburo’s part of this image looks a little touched-up.

Oomoto got started as a splinter sect from Shinto with an illiterate peasant woman named Nao Deguchi, who began receiving spiritual visions in the in the 1890’s. Onisaburo was her follower, and then her son-in-law, and certainly the foundling cult’s greatest exponent.

With his guidance, it blossomed as one of the early 20th century’s most successful “new religions”, a term encompassing the dizzying array of novel religious movements in Japan after the Meiji Restoration.**

A born showman and innovative communicator, Onisaburo was a natural to

[mediate] between traditional and modern Japan in a time of national transformation.

… he was no less a master at what Eric Hobsbawm termed the “invention of tradition.” …

Onisaburo’s imaginative rituals and personal presentation (he loved to star in movies, and to dress as a shaman or Shinto deity) combined enough folk tradition to seem familiar, yet always with a new twist suggesting up-to-date modernity and “scientific” awareness to boot.

-Robert Ellwood’s Feb. 2011 review in Nova Religio of Nancy Stalker’s Prophet Motive: Deguchi Onisaburo, Oomoto, and the Rise of New Religion in Japan

In private communication with this site, Ellwood compared the advent of new religions like Oomoto to the roughly contemporaneous advent in the west of movements like Christian Science and Religious Science. Both of these, like Oomoto, explicitly aimed to yoke tradition and modernity together.

“In Japan the leap from a closed-off feudal society to a modern industrial powerhouse was particularly profound, and naturally disturbing to a lot of ordinary people,” Ellwood said. “The new religions tried to combine old and new, giving people baffled by change and the breakup of traditional peasant communities and ways of life something to hold on to. They said in effect, ‘We understand your problems; we can show how it all makes sense, how it will come out good in the end, and how you can fit in, be part of exciting times, and gain power in the process.'”

Onisaburo’s brand of evangelical, grassroots millenialism hit the big time in the 1910s and 1920s.

It also attracted official censure from authorities wary of deviation from the official Shinto religion.

Onisaburo did a short stint in prison for subversion in 1921, and shifted his attentions abroad.

“Onisaburo considered himself strongly internationalist in an idealistic way, and therefore was led to challenge the increasing nationalism of his time and even the Emperor himself, whereas many of the other new religions accommodated themselves to the prevailing political currents,” Ellwood observed. Later, Onisaburo would actually be prosecuted for lese majeste for his insufficient accommodation to imperial authority.

At any rate, as part of feeling out the proper spiritual direction after his first stint as a ward of the state, Onisaburo and some followers quietly slipped out of Japan in early 1924.

They made for Manchuria, then a de facto independent principality under the Tokyo-allied warlord Zhang Zuolin.

There, they recruited one of Zhang’s subordinates on a mission to form up a “spiritual army” to invade Outer Mongolia.

According to Stalker, this adventure initially had Zhang’s blessing — but he quickly soured on the freelance militia, a leader now calling himself the Dalai Lama, and the gang’s escalating aspiration to unite all of Mongolia on his borders. Zhang surrounded and suppressed the expedition, summarily executing most of the Chinese personnel.

On this day, the Japanese too were about to be disposed of. Onisaburo was reciting death poetry.

Even if my body is exposed
on the plains of Mongolia
I will still keep the dignity of a Japanese

Farewell!
I will ascend to Heaven and protect
not only Japan but the whole world

Far away from Japan
I will now join the gods
in the sky of Mongolia

But the execution was dramatically aborted when Onisaburo was fortuitously able to hail a Japanese consular official who protected his countrymen.

Scarcely chastened — indeed, the adventure with its miraculous escape drew romantic media coverage back home — Onisaburo returned to Japan to rebuild Oomoto. He would continue dabbling in both internationalism (Oomoto adopted the sometimes-persecuted artificial language Esperanto) and Japan’s right-wing fringe (Stalker says that Onisaburo wisely declined Ikki Kita‘s invitation to finance a disastrous right-wing revolt).

Oomoto was violently suppressed in the 1930s, but retained many adherents and still exists today.

Martial artist Morihei Ueshiba was one of Onisaburo’s disciples to escape execution this date. Upon returning to Japan, the man parted ways with Oomoto and instead created the martial art form aikido.

* Alternatively, Omoto, or Omotokyo.

** And continuing to the present day. While Oomoto is also a going concern, the “new religion” most widely familiar to most readers will be the Aum Shinrikyo sect — notorious for carrying out the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway.

This master’s thesis (pdf) sets the scene for new religions (and specifically Oomoto) in early 20th century Japan.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Japan,Last Minute Reprieve,Mongolia,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Pardons and Clemencies,Religious Figures,Shot

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