by Dae Han Song
The Donghak Uprising marked a pivotal moment in Korean history: in 1894, peasants rose up against a corrupt and exploitative government and declared the equality of all people. Unable to put down the mass uprising, the ruling class betrayed its people and invited Chinese forces into the country, which provoked a Japanese invasion leading to the end of the Donghak Uprising and the beginning of one of Korea’s darkest periods: Japanese colonization. Yet, despite its tragic end, the Donghak Uprising’s struggle for a just and equal society laid the foundation for Korean modernization and democracy.
The uprising took place in a period of growing Japanese and Western intervention and influence, economic polarization between wealthy farmers and peasants, and the growing exploitation and extortion of peasants by corrupt government officials. In response to this unrest, the Donghak (Korean for “eastern learning”) religion emerged in 1860. It preached the equality of all people and a heaven on Earth, thereby gaining great traction among the highly exploited peasantry.
A peasant revolt in the Gobu Province in 1894 (in what is now Jeongeup city) sparked the Donghak Uprising. The Gobu governor extorted high taxes from the peasants and forced them to build the Manseokbo reservoir, even though another water reservoir already existed. He then levied water taxes on its usage. This led to the initial peasant revolt that would lead to the Donghak Uprising.
In 1893, Donghak leader Jeon-Bong Jun and others drafted a plan of revolt to organize and stir the peasants into revolt. The document contains and justifies a plan of action. It is named Sabaltongmun (document of porcelain cup) due to the way the leaders’ signatures were arranged: a porcelain cup was placed on the document and leaders signed around it.
In response to the call for revolt, thousands of farmers gathered at Malmok marketplace around a persimmon tree where Jeon Beong Jun read the Sabaltongmun (the plan for revolt).
As their first act of revolt, the peasants destroyed the Manseokbo Reservoir and then took over the Gobu government office. In response to the revolt, the Gobu governor was replaced and conciliatory gestures were made towards the peasants. However, Donghak followers were persecuted as instigators of the revolt. In response, Donghak leaders Jeon Bong-Jun, San Hwa-Jung, and Kim Gae-Nam gathered together and built a large peasant army. They occupied Gobu castle and set-up camp. More peasants soon gathered, swelling the Peasant Army ranks. The Peasant Army then decided to march to and take over Jeonju castle. On their way, they engaged with Jeonju government troops in Hwangtohyun.
The government’s troops had been stationed on top of Hwangtohyun hill preparing to attack. Below the hill the village bustled with activity, but as night set, it became quiet. Believing the villagers to have retired to rest, the soldiers attempted an attack, only to encounter an ambush by the peasants.
The Donghak peasants scored their first victory in Hwangtonhyun. Fighting with a few fusillades, farming implements, and sharpened bamboo sticks, many peasants died against the more sophisticated firepower used by the government’s troops. However, their greater numbers and the use of a rolling bamboo shield stuffed with rice chaff helped them achieve victory.
After a second victory in Hwangyongcheon, the Peasant Army captured Jeonju castle. In response, the royal court asked the Chinese for reinforcements. Japan then used China’s entry into Korea as a pretext for invasion. Aware of the threat of a war erupting in Korea between China and Japan, the peasants ended their uprising, compromising with the Korean government for reforms, eventually returning home. However, once the peasant army was demobilized, the Japanese attempted to take over the Korean government. The peasants once again rose up to fight, but the Japanese, with their superior weaponry, defeated the poorly armed peasants.
The leaders of the Donghak army were eventually forced into hiding; however, Jeon Beong Jun was captured after being betrayed by a fellow soldier.
Ultimately, the uprising failed, yet the Donghak struggle for justice and equality continues to be a source of inspiration for Korea’s peasant movement still fighting for a society where peasants can live in dignity.