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Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Donghak Peasant Revolution 1894: The Catalyst of Gabo Reformation


We are reaching to Gabo Year, the year of Wooden Horse 2014. Gabo is the 33rd year in Chinese sexagenary cycle; where the Gabo Year occurs every 60 years. In this column, I will talk about the Donghak Peasant Revolution 1894 (Hanja: 東學農民革命) which triggered the Gabo Reformation (갑오개혁/甲午改革).

The Donghak Peasant Revolution (Hangul: 동학농민운동, Donghak Nongmin Undong, Hanja: 東學農民運動), also known as the Donghak Peasant Movement, Donghak Rebellion, Peasant Revolt of 1894, Gabo Peasant Revolution, and a variety of other names, was an armed rebellion led by aggravated peasants and followers of the Donghak religion, a panentheistic religion viewed by many rebels as a political ideology.

In 1894, the magistrate of Gobu, Jo Byeonggap, had created various bogus laws and forced the peasants to build reservoirs and settle in unowned lands in order to get rich from taxes and fines. In March, angered peasants allied under Jeon Bongjun and Kim Gaenam, beginning the Gobu Revolt. However, the Gobu revolt was suppressed by Yi Yongtae, and Jeon Bongjun fled to Taein. In April, Jeon gathered an army in Mount Baek and recaptured Gobu. The rebels then proceeded to defeat governmental forces in Hwangto Pass and the Hwangryong River. Jeon then captured Jeonju Fortress and fought in a siege with Hong Gyehun's Joseon forces. In May, however, the rebels had signed a truce with the governmental forces, and built agencies called Jibgangso that handled affairs in rebel-controlled areas. This somewhat unsteady peace continued throughout the summer.

The frightened government asked the Qing Dynasty for help, and it sent 2,700 soldiers to Korea. Japan, angered that the Qing government had not informed Japan as promised in the Convention of Tientsin, started the Sino-Japanese War. The war resulted in an expulsion of Chinese influence in Korea and also signaled an end for the Self-Strengthening Movement in China itself.

Growing Japanese dominance in the Korean peninsula had caused anxiety for the rebels. From September to October, the Southern and Northern leaders negotiated over the plans for the future in Samrye. In October 12, a coalition army of Northern and Southern Jeobs were formed, and the army, numbering 25,000~200,000 (records differ), went on to attack Gongju. After a number of battles, the rebel army was decisively defeated in the Battle of Ugeumchi, and the rebels were again defeated in the Battle of Taein. Hostility continued deep into the spring of 1895. The rebel leaders were captured in various locations in the Honam Region, and most were executed by a mass hanging in March.

A part of the rebel requests, including the remarriage of widows and the freeing of slaves, was included in the Gabo Reform. However, the reform was not supported because it did not include land reform, which was the peasants' greatest need.

Many rebels later joined the Righteous Army. The 1895 Righteous Army were led by Confucian scholars who killed rebels when they attempted to join the Righteous Army. However, the rebels of 1905 and 1907 were almost entirely composed of rebels . For example, Yu Eunshik of Chungju killed his lieutenant when he revealed himself as a former rebel. Jeon Haesan, the most famous of the Jeolla Righteous Army leaders, was often called the 'son of Jeon Bongjun', and participated in more than 70 battles from 1905 to 1910 against the Japanese before he was hanged in 1910. However, in his War Diary of Jeon Haesan, Jeon Haesan says that he "did not like to be called the 'son of Jeon Nokdu' (Jeon Bongjun's nickname)", presumably meaning he was not Jeon Bongjun's son. However, the current edition of the North Korean history textbook claims that 'the patriotic line' descends from Jeon Changhyeok (Jeon bongjun's father and Gyojo Shinwon leader) through Jeon Bongjun to Jeon Haesan. The South Korean Ministry of Education claims that this is North Korean textbook revisionism, in order to glorify Kim Il-sung by comparing the Kim family to the Jeon family.

Many former rebels became nationalists and independence activists. The tiger hunter Hong Beomdo, who was influenced by Donghak, became a guerrilla leader of Manchuria. Kim Gu the 'Baby Jeobju', who fought at the Battle of Haeju, became a profound nationalist and one of the most respected Korean leaders.

The Donghak religion also experienced a profound change. With the death of Choe Sihyeong, Son Byeongheui became the third patriarch. In order to escape persecution as 'rebels', he renamed Donghak 'Cheondoism' and fully established the 'Human is Hanulnim' doctrine, thus making Cheondoism a fully pantheistic religion (Choi Je-woo seems to have been a panentheist). Cheondoism was legalized in 1905, but Son was imprisoned in 1919 for leading the March 1st Movement and died in prison. Son's son-in-law, Bang Jeonghwan, was also a Cheondoist who became a famous child activist, and founded the Children's Day in Korea. The artist Suh Yong-sun drew a work titled Donghak Peasant Revolution on canvas using acrylic paint.


The Donghak Peasants Revolution Memorial Hall, Jeongeup, Northern Jeolla
Although “Gabo Donghak Agricultural Revolution” that had started from an uprising of the peasants in Gobu in January of 1894 failed with thousands of victims, it is considered as an uprising that had shaped the modern history of Korea.  The revolution was also the biggest resistance of the mass in Korean history that had tried to abolish the feudal system and to fight against the foreign invasion.

The Exhibition Hall which is located at 742 Donghak Avenue/Donghak-ro, Hahak-ri san 8-beonji, Deokcheon-myeon, Jeongeup City, Northern Jeolla Province was built as Korean traditional thatched cottage.  There are offices, supply office, 1st floor exhibition room, 2nd floor exhibition room and planned exhibition hall.  It is used to heighten the spirit and understanding of Donghak Agricultural Revolution.

The memorial hall has on display weapons and other items related to the Donghak Peasants Revolution as well as images of the battle. There is also a permanent exhibition room showing the evolution of the revolution and another exhibition room where special exhibitions are organized twice a year.