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Cheondogyo and the Donghak Revolution : the (un)making of a religion Bell, Kirsten 2004

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Cheondogyo and the Donghak Revolution:The (un)Making of a ReligionKirsten BellAbstractThis paper explores the reasons why Cheondogyo is lionized in contem-porary nationalist discourse, when it has such a small following inSouth Korea today. I argue that Cheondogyo’s continuing presence innationalist and tourist publications can be readily comprehended inlight of its connection with the Donghak Revolution of 1894. In the post-colonial era, Donghak/Cheondogyo was embraced byboth the North and South Korean states, each seeking to claim a con-nection with the movement in order to legitimize their respective politi-cal goals. More recently, this legacy has also been claimed by the min-jung movement as evidence of an incipient minjung consciousness.These political appropriations have ensured that Cheondogyo main-tains a level of legitimacy denied to other new religions of Korea. How-ever, the political acceptance of Donghak/Cheondogyo has come at theexpense of its religious legitimacy. Thus, while its connection with theDonghak Revolution may have “made” Cheondogyo into a key histori-cal artifact, it has simultaneously been “unmade” as a religious move-ment with any real relevance to the present.Keywords: Donghak Revolution, Peasant War of 1894, Cheondogyo,new religious movements, historical appropriationsKirsten Bell is a lecturer in the Anthropology Department of Macquarie University,Australia. She received her Ph.D. in anthropology from James Cook University in 2000with a dissertation entitled “Entrancing Tensions: An Anthropological Exploration ofthe Korean Religion of Ch’ondogyo.” She has published several articles on Cheondo-gyo including, “Creating a Heavenly Paradise on Earth: Ch’ondogyo and Korea’s NewReligions” (1999) and “The Gendering of Religious Experience: Ecstatic Trance inCheondogyo” (2003). E-mail: Kirsten.Bell@scmp.mq.edu.au.IntroductionIn 1998 I traveled to Seoul to conduct ethnographic field research onCheondogyo (Religion of the Heavenly Way)—one of Korea’s manynew religious movements. Having spent the previous year immersedin library research on the religion, I was convinced of Cheondogyo’scentrality to Korean religious life. This impression had been formedearly on, in part because every major government-sponsored publica-tion invariably includes Cheondogyo as one of Korea’s key religions,along with Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam.1 How-ever, before I had even set foot on Korean soil, my assumptions wererudely shaken. On the airplane ride from Cairns to Seoul, I wassomewhat disconcerted to learn that my friendly Korean neighbor,Mr. Kim, had not heard of Cheondogyo. Little did I realize that thisinitial discussion was to become the prototype for many conversa-tions that followed.Mr. Kim: so why are you visiting Korea?I: to study Cheondogyo.Mr. Kim: (look of blank incomprehension) er... Cheonjugyo(Catholicism)?I: no, Cheondogyo—Donghak.Mr. Kim: ah, Donghak—the Donghak Revolution (hyeongmyeong).I didn’t realize it still existed.Upon arriving in Korea, I quickly discovered that Mr. Kim was notalone in his ignorance of Cheondogyo; the majority of people I metwere unfamiliar with the religion. This subsequently raised a numberof questions about why Cheondogyo is accorded such a prominentplace in state discourses on Korean religion when most Koreans havenot even heard of it.Today the bulk of South Korea’s religious population is eitherChristian or Buddhist. Considerably less than one percent of the pop-124 KOREA JOURNAL / SUMMER 20041. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism’s website (www.mct.go.kr) is a good ex-ample.ulation affiliate themselves with Cheondogyo, government figuresplacing Cheondogyo’s membership at about 26,000 (Office of Reli-gious Affairs 1998, 7). Clearly then, the religion presently has anincredibly small following in South Korea. Another factor that wouldseem to conflict with Cheondogyo’s prominence in state discourses isthe general attitude towards new religious movements in the country.Such religions tend to have an unsavory reputation, and have beenthe focus of considerable press—much of it negative. This generalhostility towards new religions makes the political acceptance ofCheondogyo even more anomalous. This special approbation cannot be explained by any particulardoctrinal appeal that Cheondogyo holds for the Korean public. In itsbasic philosophy Cheondogyo is not too dissimilar from other newreligions in the country, which tend to take the form of revitalizationmovements that focus on the imminent creation of a heavenly par-adise on earth. Furthermore, some of these other new religions areactually much larger than Cheondogyo (eg. Won Buddhism); othersare certainly more nationalistic (eg. Daejonggyo); others still have amuch larger international following (eg. the Unification Church). In this paper I aim to explore the reasons for Cheondogyo’s lion-ization in state and nationalist discourses. I also intend to examinethe effects that this state recognition has had on the religion itself.Considering the present decline in Cheondogyo’s membership andthe general lack of awareness regarding the religion, the question canbe raised as to whether this official endorsement has been beneficialor detrimental to the religion. Cheondogyo: Background and HistoryCheondogyo is the orthodox form of Donghak—a religious revitali-zation movement founded on 5 April 1860 when a man named ChoeJe-u fell into a trance and experienced a revelation compelling him tospread a message of spiritual enlightenment throughout Korea. Dong-hak envisioned a new world order based on human equality: a theme125Cheondogyo and the Donghak Revolutionlater formalized in the doctrine of innaecheon (humans are Heaven),which has become the central tenet of the religion’s theology today.Despite the early martyrdom of its founder and ongoing persecutionby the government, many of the sangmin (commoners) were attractedto Donghak during the subsequent decades (Weems 1964, 7-14). Fol-lowing a name change in 1905 to Cheondogyo, the religion continuedto gain converts, spearheading the March First Independence Move-ment of 1919 against the Japanese colonial regime. However, since itspeak around this period, Cheondogyo has experienced a steadydecline and only a small number of adherents remain in the twenty-first century.I believe that the continuing presence of Cheondogyo in national-ist literature and tourist publications can be readily comprehended inlight of its involvement in a series of uprisings that took place in 1894.These uprisings are often represented as the single most importantpolitical event in the modern history of Korea: largely because theyresulted in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895. Indeed, as early as1895 commentators noted that the Donghak Revolution became thematch which ignited relations between China and Japan (Junkin 1895,56). In hindsight the movement occurred at a pivotal moment inKorea’s history, setting off a chain of events that ultimately culminat-ed in the Japanese colonial domination of the country. Countlessscholars have documented not only the rebellion’s religious origins,but also its nationalistic character. Indeed, it seems clear that theDonghak Revolution has become an important means of demonstrat-ing the existence of Korean nationalism and patriotism at a time whenthe country’s autonomy was threatened by Japanese imperialism. Themovement has been enshrined in nationalist discourse as symbolizingthe birth of modern Korean nationalism; and it is here that Cheondo-gyo’s contemporary recognition starts to make sense.The Donghak Revolution in FocusThe Donghak Revolution occurred at a time when Korea was on the126 KOREA JOURNAL / SUMMER 2004verge of undergoing radical transformations—in many respects therevolution actually helped to precipitate these transformations. Inter-nally, Korean society was stagnating under a rigid Confucian socialhierarchy, which saw destitute peasants overtaxed and generally ill-used by corrupt government officials and the gentry class (yangban).External forces, such as the inexorable Western encroachment intothe East, were also causing considerable alarm in Korea at this time. On 19 February 1894, in response to continued economic abusesby the yangban and government officials, a Donghak adherentnamed Jeon Bong-jun led a popular revolt against the district authori-ties in the Gobu county of Jeolla-do province. This uprising quicklyerupted into a large-scale rebellion that eventually spread throughoutthe whole province (Weems 1964, 37-41). Alarmed by the success ofthe uprisings and the obvious support they engendered, the Koreangovernment called for Chinese intervention. This move was to haveunforeseeably fatal consequences, as Korea’s action in requestingChinese support prompted the Japanese government to dispatchtroops to Korea2 (Cho 1994, 45). With the arrival of the Japanese, therebellion flared anew. Nevertheless, the Japanese army eventuallydefeated the rebels and executed the leaders of the movement; Dong-hak adherents across the country were dealt harsh retribution fortheir suspected role in the uprising (Oliver 1993, 67). During thisperiod, tensions between the Chinese and Japanese troops mounted.Japan demanded that the Korean government order Chinese troops toleave, while Japanese officials announced they would maintain theirpresence in Korea to help the country sort out its messy domesticaffairs. Relations between China and Japan deteriorated rapidly, lead-ing to the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895 and cul-minating in the creation of a Japanese protectorate in Korea in 1905.This was, of course, followed by Korea’s annexation to Japan in127Cheondogyo and the Donghak Revolution2. Although precedent for such an action had been set in the form of the Tianjin Con-vention of 1885, the Japanese removal of troops to Korea under the aegis of thetreaty seems to have been more of a pretext to accomplish the country’s expan-sionist agenda, than the result of any outrage against China’s violation of thetreaty.1910, which signaled the onset of 35 years of colonial rule.This brief description represents the so-called “facts” of theuprising, which are not in dispute. There is general agreement on thedates of the revolution and the basic events that took place. Howev-er, there is disagreement on the motivations of the uprising’s leadersand the larger purpose of the movement. It has become apparent thatseveral parties claim ownership of the Donghak Revolution, each try-ing to establish a connection between their contemporary goals andthis historically significant event.Historical AppropriationsIn the post-colonial era, the Donghak Revolution was taken up byboth the North and South Korean states. During this period each statedesperately needed a means to legitimize its respective regime as therightful government of the country. They also needed to overcomethe national feelings of devastation and hopelessness caused by theKorean War of 1950–1953, the humiliation of Japanese colonialism,and unflattering Western stereotypes regarding the country. Bothstates quickly realized that the key to stimulating nationalism andeconomic growth lay in history, and each regime soon produced offi-cial nationalisms that legitimized their claim to power. Donghak/Cheondogyo became formally connected with the modernizing andnationalist projects of both these states and in this environmentbegan to take on new politicized meanings.South Korea and the Donghak RevolutionIn South Korea, it was during the Park Chung-hee era that the Dong-hak Revolution was systematically taken up as a key political sym-bol. At this time Korea was still recovering from the debilitating anddemoralizing effects of 35 years of colonial rule, and the devastatingimpact of the Korean War (1950–1953). The Syngman Rhee govern-ment had proved to be corrupt and autocratic, and was eventually128 KOREA JOURNAL / SUMMER 2004overthrown by the April Revolution of 1960. Park seized powerthrough a military coup in the chaotic period that followed, andtherefore felt a very real need to establish his government’s politicallegitimacy (Eckert et al. 1990, 360). Under Park’s leadership, Koreansociety began a program of “modernization” marked by rapid eco-nomic growth, and dramatic social and political change. Donghakhad an important ideological role to play at this time, as the move-ment provided a central means of demonstrating the existence of anindigenous, democratic, nationalistic, and modern political ideology.Thus, the movement began to take on new politicized meanings inthis context as part of a general push to downplay the effects ofexternal forces in shaping Korean culture (cf. Song 1999, 63).The revolution became a key symbol of the patriotic and creativeKorean spirit: an important means of refuting Western stereotypesregarding the country, which had allowed the Western world toendorse the Japanese colonization of Korea in the first place. Indeed,Theodore Roosevelt was especially active in his covert endorsementof Japanese colonialism, and his support ultimately culminated in theTaft-Katsura Agreement of 1905 (Beale 1956, 323). This agreementsecretly recognized Japanese suzerainty in Korea in exchange forJapan’s recognition of U.S. interests in the Philippines (Harbaugh1961, 54-55). Donghak became an important rebuttal to Roosevelt’scontempt. As one author writes, “Does Korean history really show acomplete absence of popular resistance? It seems that the Donghakrevolt is a living refutation of such a negative view of Korea as theone held by Roosevelt that the Korean people had never shown thespirit of resistance to their enemies in order to safeguard their ownsurvival” (Shin 1966, 16). In a similar vein, the revolution became ameans of demonstrating that the impetus for Korea’s modernizationwas internally realized, rather than the result of Western influence orJapanese colonial rule. Thus Kang (1968, 48) writes,Until relatively recently, it has been widely thought that the EastAsian symbol system is so particularist [sic] and so orientedtowards self-negation that rationalization of ends could not be129Cheondogyo and the Donghak Revolutionachieved without Western help. Japan may be taken, perhaps, foran example. . . . Of China, it has been said that she had to adopt aforeign ideology [communism] in order to be modernized. ButTonghak [Donghak] shows the possibility of a traditional symbolsystem being redefined in such a way that it can conduce towardan open, modern society.Elsewhere, the rebellion is represented as an indigenous “revitaliza-tion” of Korean culture (Kim H. 1980; Chung 1969, 118): a symbolicrebirth with the potential to transform the nation (Hong 1968, 50; LeeN. 1991) forestalled only by Japanese designs on the country (Wells1990, 8). Park Chung-hee also used the Donghak Revolution to justifypolitical programs—particularly the state’s core policy of “nationalis-tic democracy” (minjokjeok minjujuui). This policy served as anattempt to establish an indigenous form of democracy that would jus-tify the state’s claim to absolute power over the nation in terms ofKorea’s unique social and historical situation. Park thus asserted that“nationalistic democracy” was a form of indigenous democracy thatcould not be measured by political theories developed in the West(Kim 1994, 201). For the administration, historical precedent for this“nationalistic democracy” had been established through the DonghakRevolution. Park writes, As a beginning of a pre-modern popular revolution, at the sametime it [the Donghak Revolution] represented Korean nationalismagainst Japan and Western imperialist countries. . . . Principles forthe construction of . . . the Revolution included the popular Tong-hak philosophy “Man is God” which was the beginning of the Kore-anization of democracy. The principles were not directly importedfrom any Western democracy (1970, 107).Moreover, Park portrays his military coup as an extension of the“unique” Donghak ideology, handed down to posterity through theMarch First Independence Movement of 1919, the April Revolution of1960, and his own “May Military Revolution” (Park 1970). 130 KOREA JOURNAL / SUMMER 2004As I have already noted, official recognition continues to thisday, although the state is careful to downplay the antigovernmentdimensions of the movement. In a telling anecdote, Song (1999, 158)describes the efforts of villagers in Gongsam, Jeolla-do province, toerect a stone monument to commemorate the one hundredthanniversary of the Donghak Revolution. He notes that the govern-ment, “ . . . initially uneasy about the political symbolism behind thepeasant war, . . . persuaded the villagers to drop their plan” (Song1999, 158). However, when it became apparent that the villagersplanned to go ahead with construction anyway, the government co-opted the project and played down the antigovernment aspect of theuprisings.In South Korean history textbooks, the Donghak Revolution iscommemorated for its anti-Japanese legacy (Song 1999, 157) andnationalism. Indeed, Choe Je-u (the founder of Donghak) was desig-nated as a key cultural figure (munhwa inmul) by the Ministry ofCulture and Tourism in 1999, along with luminaries such as thepainter Sin Yun-bok and the naval commander Yi Sun-sin. Accordingto the brochure published at the time (MCT 1998), this recognitionwas provided in acknowledgment of Choe’s efforts to establish areform-oriented and nationalistic social movement. In academic contexts, Cheondogyo’s indigenous origins andnationalistic ideology are also emphasized and are represented to beKorea’s own indigenous ideological tradition. Kim’s description istypical of the stance generally taken. He writes,What is Korean thought? Answering this question might involveseveral traditions such as Buddhism, Confucianism, Shamanism,Christianity, and Ch’ondogyo [Cheondogyo]. However, Ch’ondogyoalone is the major indigenous tradition developed in Korea, whileBuddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity are of foreign origin, andShamanism is relatively common in many parts of the world (KimY. 1989, vii).Clearly, the ongoing presence of Cheondogyo in national culture inSouth Korea is intimately entwined with its value as a potent political131Cheondogyo and the Donghak Revolutionand cultural symbol.North Korea and the Proletariat RevolutionThe North Korean state was established under the leadership of KimIl Sung in 1946. Although his bid for power was sponsored by theSoviet Communists, Kim later broke away from both the Soviet andChinese Communist camps to forge an independent regime based onthe policy of “self-reliance” (juche). However, from the regime’sinception Kim Il Sung had to contend with the accusation that he wasa political “puppet” for the Comintern, which was pulling the stringsbehind the scenes (allegations still commonplace in South Koreatoday). The broader Korean Communist movement itself was subjectto similar criticisms. Indeed, the intense factionalism that hasplagued the history of Korean Communism can be seen as a directresult of the conflict between nationalist concerns and broader loyal-ties to the international Communist movement (Scalapino and Lee1972). The Donghak Revolution became an important means ofmediating this conflict. Since 1922 a number of Korean Communists have openly identi-fied with the Donghak Revolution and have attributed the beginningsof Korean Communism to this uprising (Suh 1967, 39; Ahn 2001, 70).According to Petrov (2001, 12), the Communist historian Baek Nam-un “. . . highly praised the merits of Tonghak [sic] (Eastern Learning)religion and stated that the 1894 popular rebellion of the same namewas the first successful experience of mobilizing the masses underthe banner of ideology.” This discourse effectively transforms KoreanCommunism into an indigenous, nation-wide movement that arosespontaneously in Korea, rather than an alien dogma introduced byforeign powers.This North Korean perspective also critiques the South Koreangovernment’s claim that theirs is the singular ideology of nationalunification. According to the North, the Korean people supported anindigenous Communist movement—as evidenced by the widespreadsupport for the Donghak Revolution, which becomes a proletariat132 KOREA JOURNAL / SUMMER 2004uprising against the corrupt and exploitative yangban. This helped tosupport the claim made by the Kim Il Sung regime that the SouthKorean government had forced its dictates upon the Korean peopleagainst their wishes. Through this historical appropriation Donghakhas been enshrined within North Korea as symbolizing the origins ofan indigenous Communist, nationalistic, and democratic ideology,which developed internally in the country, without outside influence. The importance still placed upon Cheondogyo is demonstratedby the ongoing existence of the Cheondogyo Cheongudang (Cheondo-gyo Young Friends Party)—one of the three major political parties inNorth Korea today. Whether this party actually represents the inter-ests of Cheondogyo is irrelevant here; what is important is that thename obviously carries ideological significance in North Korea. AsLankov (2001) points out, it is not difficult to see why the Cheondo-gyo Young Friends Party was allowed to maintain its existence withthe creation of a North Korean state. He notes, Traditionally Ch’ondogyo [sic] had been a revolutionary, national-ist, antiforeign, and especially anti-Japanese sect which, unlikeChristianity, lacked any traditional connections with the West.Ch’ondogyo adherents had played a remarkable role in an 1894peasant uprising [the Tonghak Revolution] and in the 1 MarchMovement of 1919 against the Japanese. Soviet officers and theirKorean allies perceived Ch’ondogyo as a Korean-type “utopianpeasant movement,” which was a potentially useful ally for theCommunist Party. From the Soviet point of view, Ch’ondogyo wasperhaps the least undesirable religion in North Korea (2001, 106-107).Clearly, Donghak/Cheondogyo is as central to North Korean histori-ography as it is to the official histories generated in the South.The Minjung and Their Antigovernment ForebearsThe political appropriations of Donghak/Cheondogyo are also evidentin the minjung (people) culture movement that arose in South Korea133Cheondogyo and the Donghak Revolutionduring the 1970s. According to Choi Chungmoo (1995, 117), “Themethodology of the minjung culture movement is essentially arereading of history as history of the oppressed minjung’s struggleand a representation of that history as a paradigm of change. In thehistory thus reread, hitherto marginalized people enter the centralarena of history or become agents of history.” Thus, minjung ideo-logues focus on “the people” and place them in opposition to thestate (Song 1999, 143-193; Wells 1995). The Donghak Revolution continued to play a key role in minjungdiscourse, with many minjung historians coming to the conclusionthat the Donghak Revolution provides the birth of minjung spirit andconsciousness (Wells 1995, 27; Abelmann 1996, 20). Nevertheless,there has been an even more extreme refocusing of the goals andagenda of the movement, as the minjung revisionist histories use therevolution as evidence of the growth of peasant consciousness (Abel-mann 1993) and subsume its religious dimensions completely.3“Donghak” is regarded to be simply a convenient label for a revolu-tionary war that at its core involved disgruntled peasants tired of thecorruption and economic inequality endemic to the prevailing socialand political system. Indeed, during the 1990s the minjung increas-ingly labeled the rebellion the “Peasant War of 1894” (Gabo Nong-min Jeonjaeng) for these reasons (Suh Y. 1994; Cho 1994; Lee Y.1994; Ahn and Park 1994).Jeon Bong-jun has had a particularly prominent role to play inthe minjung narratives, which is interesting because of the consider-able controversy surrounding his political and religious affiliations.For several scholars, Jeon was a pious Confucian dedicated toupholding the ideals of the government. Some have suggested thatthe rebellion was actually the carefully staged result of a conspiracybetween Jeon and the Daewongun—the conservative Korean regentof the period then waging a pitched battle with the ruling Min clan134 KOREA JOURNAL / SUMMER 20043. Although minjung theologians have focused on the religious dimensions of Dong-hak thought (Ahn 2001; Lee 1996), their interpretations have been less influentialthan those of the minjung historiographers. 135Cheondogyo and the Donghak Revolution(Lew 1990). Clearly, such a perspective validates the state view thatthe Donghak Revolution was essentially a nationalistic, antiforeignmovement. On the other hand, the minjung movement depicts Jeonas a radical dissident fighting against the government in much thesame way as the contemporary minjung movement opposes the gov-ernment. For this reason Jeon became a key icon of the minjungmovement, and represents the most popular figure in the minjung artof the 1980s (Song 1999, 7). He has also been the subject of numer-ous tributes in the literary genre. Thus, in the minjung movement, the uprisings from a previouscentury are symbolically transformed into a movement against thestate, providing legitimacy to the goals of the contemporary minjung—a group whose interests are also counter to those of the state (Song1999, 157-158). Farmer activists, students, artists, and intellectualshave all evoked Donghak imagery in order to provide continuitybetween their own goals and those of the Donghak revolutionaries.As Abelmann (1996, 24) comments, “In this lineage of minjungstruggle, the Tonghak [sic] Peasant Revolution was widely evokedby the community. . . . In the minjung-as-subject lineage, socialactors who carry the torch of Tonghak are the legitimate nationalsubjects.”4One of the more creative attempts to graft the Donghak Revolu-tion onto minjung consciousness is found in Sin Dong-yeop’s epic1975 poem entitled Geumgang (Geumgang River). As Choi Chung-moo (1995, 112-113) notes, in this poem the historical and social gapbetween the world of the Donghak in the 1890s and the Koreanlabour exploitation of the 1960s is collapsed. The hero of the poem issimultaneously a twentieth-century day laborer in Seoul and a war-rior of the Donghak Peasant War. On a similar note, Lee Namhee(1991, 211) discusses the ways in which the student movementtransformed the Donghak Revolution to provide a sense of legitimacy4. Abelmann directs her comments explicitly towards farmer activists in the socialmovement she explores in her 1996 work; however, I think they also encapsulatebroader minjung appropriations of Donghak.and continuity to its goals. The revolution was seen to represent amovement against the existing system—against the state. Lee (1991,211) notes that, “The precedent of the uprising led and constituted bypeasants . . . has given students a sense of historical legitimacy and asense of continuity, a kind of historical mandate that tells them to‘carry on’.” Nevertheless, by the mid-1990s there was a growing disillusion-ment with the minjung movement. As Abelmann (1997, 251) notes,“Minjung, a noun and adjective that could in the 1980s be combinedwith almost anything—history, music, art, film, religion, economics,etc.—was obsolete by the 1990s with its ‘new generation,’ ‘civil soci-ety,’ and ‘civil movements’.” Increasingly, people want to distancethemselves from the “fascism”5 of minjung discourse and the author-itarianism of previous governments—“from the totalizing projects ofboth the left and the right” (Abelmann 1997, 250). However, despitethe declining popularity of minjung narratives, this movement wasultimately successful in reinforcing the perception of Donghak as apolitical reform movement divorced from religious belief.SummaryDespite their differences, the political appropriations of the DonghakRevolution all emphasize the social and political dimensions of themovement and downplay its religious identity. In the South Koreancontext, the revolution becomes an expression of a Korean movetowards modernization, nationalism, and prosperity, forestalled onlyby Japanese designs on the country. Alternatively, in the North Kore-an version, the Donghak Peasant Revolution becomes the originalwellspring of indigenous Communism. This suggests that the “Ameri-can Imperialists” in the South have implemented a political regimecontrary to the natural impulses of the Korean people, who gravitatetowards Communism.The minjung version goes the furthest in eliminating the reli-136 KOREA JOURNAL / SUMMER 20045. See Song (1999) for a discussion of the fascist dimensions of minjung discourse.gious dimensions of the movement, which becomes an antigovern-ment proletariat uprising, providing continuity between the goals ofthe revolutionary farmers and contemporary minjung objectives. Byclaiming a connection with the Donghak Revolution, the groupsinvolved reinforce, validate, and legitimize a clearly political identity.Therefore, the ongoing presence of the religion in nationalist litera-ture and tourist brochures can be readily comprehended within thiscontext.Other Historical Appropriations: The Gwangju UprisingThe Donghak Revolution is not the only important historical event inKorea to be subjected to such processes of political appropriation.Linda Lewis (2002) has produced an interesting analysis of the waysin which the 1980 Gwangju Uprising has been reimagined in Koreanpolitical culture.6 The processes of appropriation that “5.18” (as theUprising is known) has undergone bear strikingly similarity to waysthat the Donghak Revolution has been taken up. As Lewis docu-ments, the Gwangju Uprising has been reimagined and appropriatedby numerous groups and organizations, each with competing claims,agendas and motivations. In the 1980s the Gwangju Uprising was taken up by the minjungculture movement. In the minjung interpretation, 5.18 became cele-brated as a key symbol of Korean struggle and resistance to theoppressive military government. However, in the late 1990s theSouth Korean government was quite successful in transforming theGwangju Uprising from an antigovernment popular revolt into the“5.18 Democratization Movement.”7 In this framework, the GwangjuUprising was positioned as merely a milestone in the government’sjourney towards democracy. Thus, rather than a massacre to be com-137Cheondogyo and the Donghak Revolution6. Much of the discussion that follows is taken from a review of Lewis’s book I pre-pared for The Australian Journal of Anthropology (see Bell 2004). 7. The political role of naming is also evident in the competing discourses surround-ing the Donghak Revolution.memorated, it became an event to be celebrated—complete with itsown cartoon mascot. Although victims’ associations continue to jostle for a voice inrepresenting 5.18, their memories and experiences appear to beincreasingly irrelevant to the official representations of the move-ment. Thus, Lewis points out that commemorating is also a processof forgetting, as these official histories displace the private memoriesof those who were caught up in 5.18. However, the bodies of thosewho lived through the Uprising contest the official histories that havebeen created. As Lewis (2002, 153) notes, “There are in Gwangjumany whose personal histories are counterhegemonic, whose verybodies even offer a site for resistance to the imposition of a singular5.18 narrative and the amnesia of commemoration in the late 1990s.”Cheondogyo UnmadeLewis raises an important point about the ways those with the mostdirect stake in the Gwangju Uprising (the victims and their families)have been detrimentally affected by the construction of official narra-tives. Similar questions can be raised about the effects that the politi-cal appropriations of Donghak have had on those with the mostdirect stake in the religion—contemporary Cheondogyo adherents.Indeed, in its contemporary form, the religion has clearly notachieved a noticeable degree of “success” in the broader Korean con-text, despite the attention heaped upon Donghak within state, nation-alist, and minjung discourses. Indeed, Cheondogyo is an aging reli-gion—most adherents at the parish (gyogu) where I conduct field-work are well over 50. There is also very little active recruitment intoCheondogyo, and most adherents have belonged to the religion fortwo or more generations. This, coupled with the remarkable declinein the size of Cheondogyo since the 1920s,8 tends to indicate that the138 KOREA JOURNAL / SUMMER 20048. Many adherents attribute this decline to persecution by the Japanese colonial gov-ernment after the March First Movement of 1919. future of the religion in its present form is limited. In light of thisdecline, the question can be raised regarding the effects that thisappropriation has had on Cheondogyo. Has this recognition made thereligion, or been responsible for its undoing?Clearly, there are many dimensions to the relative decline ofCheondogyo over the past 75 years. A lack of active proselytizing,coupled with the remarkable growth of Christianity, seem to be cen-tral factors. However, the role of these political appropriations shouldnot be ignored. Although the aims and agendas of the groups appro-priating the movement differ, they have one thing in common: theysubsume Cheondogyo’s religious dimensions in favor of other attrib-uted goals. Therefore, it would appear that Cheondogyo’s politicaland nationalistic legitimacy has come at the expense of its religiouslegitimacy. Indeed, the emphasis on the social rather than religiousdimensions of the movement has created a perception that Dong-hak/Cheondogyo is not a religion at all. Thus, while the Korea Infor-mation Service (2001) does indeed describe Cheondogyo as a keyKorean religion, it states “Cheondogyo was initiated as a social andtechnological movement. . . .” Popular understandings of Donghak/Cheondogyo echo this perception; the tendency of Korean people tocorrect me when I describe Donghak as a religious movement helpsto demonstrate the pervasiveness of this view.9Interestingly, the small numbers of Koreans who have convertedto Cheondogyo from other religions have often been drawn to it forthese very reasons—its historical significance and nationalist dimen-sions—rather than its theological underpinnings (although in timethese are generally considered attractive too).10 This emphasis on thenationalistic origins of the movement has meant that all too oftenCheondogyo is seen to be a social movement of the past, rather thana religious movement of the present. It has become an artifact of his-tory in the eyes of most Koreans. Cheondogyo may be dusted off and139Cheondogyo and the Donghak Revolution9. Cheondogyo informants have also mentioned the lack of general awareness abouttheir religion, and the perception that Donghak is a “dead” movement.10. Indeed, in a written survey I conducted, one young Cheondogyo informant contin-ued to insist that Cheondogyo was not a religion but a political movement.paraded in public on appropriate occasions as a symbol of Koreannationalism, but is seen to be largely irrelevant to contemporaryKorean culture. However, this antiquation of Cheondogyo is notmerely the product of nationalist and minjung discourses of the post-colonial era; it is an ongoing process that continues today. In otherwords, Donghak/Cheondogyo’s identity as a historically importantantique is not a state achieved in the “past” but is actively being con-structed in the “present.”In a relevant paper, Kendall (1998) explores the ways in whichdiscourses on Korean shamanism esteem practitioners and simultane-ously erase their agency. She notes that while in recent yearsshamans have been celebrated as repositories of national tradition,instead of being seen as the producers of history, they have become“muted artifacts” of it. They have been deprived of a voice, as“experts” on national cultural heritage come to speak for the practi-tioners. Nevertheless, as Kendall also points out, shamans them-selves have been complicit in this process. Indeed, elsewhere ChoiChungmoo (1997) has noted that many shamans compete for theprivilege of being designated as “living human treasures.”Similar is true of Cheondogyo. Whilst lauded as a repository ofnational tradition, it is simultaneously transformed into a “mutedartifact” of it, and is silenced as an active religious movement. How-ever, once again, there has been a certain level of complicity in thisprocess. When Choe Je-u was designated a “Cultural Figure” ofNovember 1998 by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Cheondogyoadherents were thrilled at the publicity. However, while such staterecognition is gratifying, its effects are problematic—as a number ofCheondogyo adherents themselves recognize.In the past few years, many adherents have begun to think morecritically about the religion’s connection with political and nationalistdiscourses. There is growing resistance to these labels, which manyfeel have harmed the movement’s status as a religion.11 Furthermore,140 KOREA JOURNAL / SUMMER 200411. In fact, when I first arrived in Korea, I intended to focus on Cheondogyo’s relation-ship with Korean nationalism and the state. Nevertheless, it soon became apparentit has become clear to a number of adherents that the goals of thepolitical and government groups who seek to draw on them arerather different from their own. Thus, these adherents now stressthat Cheondogyo has been nationalistic incidentally rather than bydesign. They feel that the nationalist aspects of the movement’s doc-trine have been emphasized at the expense of its religious contentand contemporary relevance. However, I would assert that as long as Cheondogyo is held up asan exemplar of incipient nationalism, modernism, or peasant con-sciousness, it must be understood as a relic of Korean history—animportant and valuable relic—but a relic nonetheless. Furthermore,not only has this state recognition led to a particular view of the reli-gion, which keeps it locked in the past and wrapped up in the closet—it appears that the recognition has caused deeper and more disturb-ing fractures in the religion itself. These problems stem largely fromthe contradictory nature of state policy regarding religion in the coun-try. As Keyes, Hardacre, and Kendall (1994) have noted, while mod-ernization demands a rejection of ritual practices, nationalism oftendepends on a celebration of precisely the same practices. Therefore,“the process of creating modern nation-states has . . . entailed tworather contradictory stances toward religion” (1994, 6).Thus, the state attitude towards religion in Korea has been char-acterized by a bewildering and contradictory array of policies, all ofwhich have simultaneously condemned and lauded religions. Forexample, although shamans are held up as exemplars of indigenousfolk culture, as Kendall (1998, 63) points out, they have also beenportrayed as the “superstitious antithesis of modernity.” Indeed, theecstatic and “magical” aspects of shamanic rituals have been heavilycriticized as primitive and ignorant, and by 1972 shamanic ritualshad become the target of state-initiated antisuperstition campaigns(Choi 1997, 26). 141Cheondogyo and the Donghak Revolutionthat officials at Cheondogyo were unhappy with my proposed study; peopleemphasized that Cheondoygo is a “universal” and “international” religion, not anationalistic one. The reasons for their uneasiness with my original project wouldlater become apparent. These contradictory policies towards shamanism are also evidentin the political attitudes towards Confucianism and Buddhism. Theformer has been the target of special criticism; blamed for encourag-ing cronyism, inhibiting innovation, and subordinating women. Yet,while in 1969 the government passed a regulation to abolish symbolsof Confucian ideology in Korea, it simultaneously relied on thesesame Confucian principles to maintain its authority over the Koreanpeople (Choi 1997, 26). Moreover, despite attacks on Confucian ide-ology as an obstacle to economic growth, it has also been cited as thesource of South Korea’s remarkable economic success (Janelli 1993,57). As Choi Chungmoo (1997, 27) notes, the contradictory policiesimplemented in South Korea revealed the dilemmas of “. . . a newstate with old traditions, torn between two modes of thought.”12These contradictory policies have also left their mark on Cheon-dogyo. Although Cheondogyo has been co-opted by the North andSouth Korean states to legitimize their own political and economicagendas, religious practices in Cheondogyo derive their authorityfrom other than the state (cf. Keyes, Hardacre, and Kendall 1994, 5-6). As we have seen, Cheondogyo’s spiritual authority actually stemsfrom the ecstatic religious experiences of the movement’s founder.Several scholars have likened Choe Je-u’s mystical experience in1860 to the possession trance of charismatic Korean shamans (Jor-gensen 1999; Kim C. 1993; Choi D. 1982); certainly, there are “magi-cal” dimensions to Cheondogyo practice that bear similarities toshamanism.13The problem is, of course, that the South Korean state has explic-itly condemned such practices and beliefs as traditionalist and primi-tive. Thus, the same contradictory attitudes that have plagued gov-142 KOREA JOURNAL / SUMMER 200412. See also Kim (1994) and Kendall (1996, 72-73) for similar discussions.13. This is not to suggest that the meaning of the practices in Cheondogyo is the sameas its shamanic forebears—in many instances they have been radically reinterpret-ed. Still, in light of Cheondogyo’s intentionally syncretic roots, there is little doubtthat Choe Je-u drew on existing shamanic beliefs and practices, even while radical-ly transforming them. See Beirne (1999) for a discussion of several similaritiesbetween Donghak and shamanic practices.ernment policy towards religion in Korea have led to certain tensionsin Cheondogyo. The religion struggles with its identity as a modern,nationalistic religion, whilst at the same time being grounded in aspiritual framework, which is deemed by the government to be primi-tive and superstitious. The fact that Cheondogyo has been taken upso completely as a symbol of indigenous modernization and national-ism has only exacerbated these tensions.This state appropriation is partly responsible for the presentproblems surrounding ecstatic trance in Cheondogyo (although otherfactors have certainly contributed). While ecstatic trance continues toform an important dimension of Cheondogyo religiosity, there is ageneral lack of consensus regarding this experience and the meaningsthat can be attributed to it. However, amongst adherents there is acommon perception that ecstatic trance represents a type of shaman-ism and is therefore a primitive, traditional, and even dangerous formof religious experience. Obviously such perceptions stem from exist-ing discourses regarding the nature of shamanism, which have inpart been generated by the state. These same discourses emphasize the modern, nationalistic basisof Cheondogyo—a view held by many Cheondogyo adherents andleaders themselves. Yet to purge the religion of these “primitive,”“traditional,” and “shamanic” dimensions would be to condemn thespiritual basis of their own religion—and to deny its fundamentallyreligious roots. Unsurprisingly, this results in a strong ambivalence,as leaders are torn between a desire to rid themselves of such “primi-tive” and “traditionalist” dimensions in order to retain their identityas a “modern” movement, and the awareness that to do so would beto destroy their movement as a religion.ConclusionCheondogyo has achieved a level of political legitimacy denied toother new religions because of its connection with the Donghak Rev-olution. Thus the religion has been taken up as an important symbol143Cheondogyo and the Donghak Revolutionof indigenous modernization, nationalism, democracy, and evenCommunism. Therefore, despite its current small size, because of thispolitical approbation Cheondogyo remains highly visible in national-ist and tourist publications. However, it is precisely Cheondogyo’spolitical appropriation that may be partly responsible for its presentcultural invisibility. This is because the movement has been lockedinto an identity that emphasizes its political and social connectionwith the past, rather than its religious connection with the present.The religion’s constitution within the framework of the state hasbeen limiting and restrictive in other ways. In some respects, it actu-ally reinforces internal dilemmas within Cheondogyo regarding itsown traditionalist/modernist and spiritual/philosophical dimensions.Therefore, while the Donghak Revolution may have “made” Cheon-dogyo as a respected social and political movement of the past, inmany respects the revolution has unmade it as a religious movementof the present.REFERENCESAbelmann, Nancy. 1993. “Minjung Theory and Practice.” In Cultural Nation-alism in East Asia, edited by Harumi Befu, 139-165. Berkeley: Instituteof East Asian Studies. ____________. 1996. Echoes of the Past, Epics of Dissent: A South Korean SocialMovement. Berkeley: University of California Press.____________. 1997. “Reorganizing and Recapturing Dissent in 1990s SouthKorea: The Case of Farmers.” In Between Resistance and Revolution: Cul-tural Politics and Social Protest, edited by Richard Gabriel and OrinStarn, 251-276. New Brunswig: Rutgers University Press.Ahn, Byung-ook, and Park Chan-seung. 1994. “Historical Characteristics ofthe Peasant War of 1894.” Korea Journal 34.4: 101-114.Ahn, Sang Jin. 2001. Continuity and Transformation: Religious Synthesis inEast Asia. New York: Peter Berg.Beale, Howard K. 1956. Theodore Roosevelt and the Rise of America to WorldPower. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.Beirne, Paul. 1999. “The Eclectic Mysticism of Ch’oe Cheu.” The Review of144 KOREA JOURNAL / SUMMER 2004Korean Studies 2: 159-182.Bell, Kirsten. 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Chung, Chai Sik. 1969. “Religion and Cultural Identity: The Case of ‘EasternLearning.’” In International Yearbook for the Sociology of Religion.Vol. 5.Eckert, Carter J., Ki-baik Lee, Young Ick Lew, Michael Robinson, and EdwardW. Wagner. 1990. Korea Old and New: A History. Seoul: Ilchokak/KoreaInstitute, Harvard University.Harbaugh, William H. 1961. Power and Responsibility: The Life and Times ofTheodore Roosevelt. New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy.Hong, Suhn-kyoung. 1968. “Donghak in the Context of Korean Moderniza-tion.” Review of Religious Research 10.1: 43-51.Janelli, Roger. 1993. Making Capitalism: The Social and Cultural Constructionof a South Korean Conglomerate. 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Keyes, Charles F., Helen Hardacre, and Laurel Kendall. 1994. “Introduction:Contested Visions of Community in East and Southeast Asia.” In AsianVisions of Authority: Religion and the Modern States of East and South-east Asia, edited by Charles F. Keyes, Laurel Kendall, and HelenHardacre, 1-18. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.Kim, Chongsuh. 1993. “Eastern Learning: An Overcoming of Religious Plural-ism.” In Reader in Korean Religion, edited by Kim Chongsuh, 224-243.Seongnam: Academy of Korean Studies.Kim, Hangu. 1980. “Religious Protest and Revitalization Movement amongMinorities.” Korea Journal 20.9: 17-25.Kim, Kwang-Ok. 1994. “Rituals of Resistance: The Manipulation of Shaman-ism in Contemporary Korea.” In Asian Visions of Authority: Religion andthe Modern States of East and Southeast Asia, 195-220.  Kim, Yong Choon. 1989. The Ch’ondogyo Concept of Man: An Essence ofKorean Thought. Seoul: Pan Korea Book Corporation.Korea Information Service. 2001. Religion in Korea. http://www.korea.net(accessed April 3, 2003).Lankov, Andrei N. 2001. “The Demise of Non-Communist Parties in NorthKorea.” Journal of Cold War Studies 3.1: 103-125.Lee, Namhee. 1991. “The South Korean Student Movement 1980–1987.”Chicago Occasional Papers on Korea, no. 6: 204-245.Lee, Sang Taek. 1996. Religion and Social Formation in Korea: Minjung andMillenarianism. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.Lee, Young-ho. 1994. “The Socioeconomic Background and the Growth ofthe New Social Forces of the 1894 Peasant War.” Korea Journal 34.4: 90-100.Lew, Young Ick. 1990. “The Conservative Character of the 1894 TonghakPeasant Uprising: A Reappraisal with Emphasis on Cho˘n Pong-Jun’sBackground and Motivation.” Journal of Korean Studies 7: 149-180.Lewis, Linda. 2002. Laying Claim to the Memory of May: A Look Back at the1980 Kwangju Uprising. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.Ministry of Culture and Tourism (MCT), Republic of Korea. 1998. “Munhwadallyeok 11 wol: Idal-ui munhwa inmul Choe Je-u” (Culture Calendar,November: Cultural Figure of the Month, Choe Je-u). Seoul: Ministry ofCulture and Tourism.____________. 2003. Religion Overview. http://www.mct.go.kr (accessed Janu-146 KOREA JOURNAL / SUMMER 2004ary 16, 2004).Office of Religious Affairs, Republic of Korea. 1998. Current Statistics on Reli-gions in Korea. Seoul: Ministry of Culture and Tourism.Oliver, Robert T. 1993. A History of the Korean People in Modern Times: 1800to the Present. Newark: University of Delaware Press.Park, Chung Hee. 1970. Our Nation’s Path: Ideology of Social Reconstruction.2nd edition. Seoul: Hollym Corp. Originally published as Uri minjok-uinagal gil: sahoe jaegeon-ui inyeom (Seoul: Donga Chulpansa, 1962).Petrov, Leonid A. 2001. “Turning Revolutionaries into Party Scholar-Bureau-crats: Marxist Historians in Colonial Korea and DPRK.” Paper presentedat the conference “Between Colonialism and nationalism: power andsubjectivity in Korea, 1931–1950,” University of Michigan, Ann Arbor,4-6 May. http://north-korea.narod.ru/bureaucrats.htm (accessed Janu-ary 16, 2004).Scalapino, Robert A., and Lee Chong Sik. 1972. Communism in Korea: TheMovement. Vol. 1. Berkeley: University of California Press.Seoul Scope. 1998. “Welcome to Korea.” Seoul Scope, 4-7 June.Shin, Il-chol. 1966. “Donghak Movement and Modernisation.” Korea Journal6.5: 16-21.Song, Changzoo. 1999. “The Contending Discourses of Nationalism in Post-Colonial Korea and Nationalism as an Oppressive and Anti-DemocraticForce.” Ph.D. diss., University of Hawai’i.Suh, Dae-sook. 1967. The Korean Communist Movement 1918–1948. Prince-ton: Princeton University Press.Suh, Young-hee. 1994. “Tracing the Course of the Peasant War of 1894.”Korea Journal 34.4: 17-30.Weems, Benjamin. 1964. Reform, Rebellion and the Heavenly Way. Tucson:University of Arizona Press.Wells, Kenneth. 1990. New God, New Nation: Protestants and Self-Reconstruc-tion Nationalism in Korea 1896–1937. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.____________, ed. 1995. South Korea’s Minjung Movement: The Culture and Pol-itics of Dissidence. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.147Cheondogyo and the Donghak RevolutionGLOSSARY148 KOREA JOURNAL / SUMMER 2004Cheondogyo Cheondogyo CheongudangCheonjugyo DaewongunDonghak Gabo Nongmin Jeonjaeng Geumgang gyogu hyeongmyeong innaecheon jucheminjokjeok minjujuuiminjung munhwa inmulsangmin yangban天道敎天道敎靑友黨天主敎大院君東學甲午農民戰爭錦江敎區革命人乃天主體民族的 民主主義民衆文化人物常民兩班


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