- Examining Tonghak:The First Organized Indigenous Religion in Korea
A little more than a century and a half ago, in 1860, an impoverished Korean Confucian scholar in the southeastern corner of the Korean peninsula had an encounter with God. People on the peninsula had been having encounters with gods for millennia. The earliest written account of a shaman interacting with various supernatural beings on Korean soil, by the disdainful scholar Yi Kyubo 李奎報. (1168-1241), dates back to the early thirteenth century. Archaeological evidence suggests that such shamanic interactions with gods and spirits had been taking place for more than a thousand years earlier than that. However, the 1860 incident was different. Ch’oe Cheu 崔濟愚 (1824-1864) reported that his encounter was not with just any god but with God Himself, whom Ch’oe called the Lord of Heaven (Ch’ŏnju 天主) and the Lord on High (Sangje 上帝).
Ch’oe’s report that he had talked with God soon spread beyond his immediate family to his neighbors and then to the Confucian scholar community in his province of Kyŏngsang. As Ch’oe began performing [End Page 427] rituals that he said God told him to perform and preaching religious messages that he said God told him to preach, he attracted the attention of officials in Korea’s staunchly Confucian government. Korea had already begun persecuting its small Catholic community which had emerged seventy years earlier, for challenging the state’s monopoly over the right to declare which rituals should be performed and which should not. Because Ch’oe created his own rituals without the authorization of the state and also used the Catholic name Lord of Heaven for God, he provoked the wrath of the state. In 1864, Ch’oe was executed.
Ch’oe’s teachings, known as Tonghak (東學, Eastern learning), did not die with him. His followers went underground and spread his message farther afield. In 1894, on the other side of the peninsula, a leader of a local Tonghak community instigated what soon became the largest peasant rebellion in Korean history. It is this uprising, known as the Tonghak Rebellion, that has attracted the attention of most scholars, both in Korea and abroad, who have studied Tonghak. Two recent works, George Kallander’s Salvation through Dissent and Carl Young’s Eastern Learning and the Heavenly Way, take a different tack. They move beyond the rebellion to take Tonghak seriously as a religious movement, tracing its path both up to that failed uprising of 1894 and beyond it—to its transformation during the early part of the twentieth century into the modern religion of Ch’ŏndogyo (天道教, Religion of the heavenly way).
There are two common approaches to studying new Korean religious movements, such as Tonghak, that scholars should avoid. The first, quite common among historians of Korea, is to treat much of what has happened in the past as primarily motivated by political or socioeconomic considerations. This assumed primacy of the political marginalizes the religious motives, in this case, of the founder of Tonghak and the tens of thousands who joined that religion in the years and decades after his death. Instead, the appeal of Tonghak is attributed to its purported “antifeudal” insistence that all human beings are worthy of respect. The rapid growth of the Tonghak community at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries is portrayed as a result of dissatisfaction with corruption in the government and inequality in society.1 [End Page 428]
Both Kallander and Young dismiss such interpretations as simplifications of what Tonghak leaders actually taught. They both take aim at the first book to discuss Tonghak in English, a 1964 work by Benjamin Weems, which Kallander (p. xvii) criticizes as “political determinism.”2 Similarly Young (p. xii) criticizes the Korean scholars who describe Tonghak...