May 11 Anniversary of Tonghak Peasant Rebellion

(Source- SBS/ This historic image of General Jeon Bong Jun, also known as "Nokdu" (mung bean), was interposed with the scene recreated in the 2019 South Korean historical drama "Nokdu Flower." The scene depicts Nokdu for posterity after he and his military staff were sentenced to death. Nokdu was the leader of the Korean peasants' revolt that arose out of the decadence, corruption. violence and poverty of late Chosun. The peasant revolution in the late 19th Century precipitated a pretext for the Japanese invasion and occupation of Korea which didn't end till August 1945.

The May 11 commemoration in South Korea refers to the Tonghak Peasant Rebellion in 1894-5 which ushered in radical changes in the traditional Chosun/Lee Dynasty social and political order. The May 11 anniversary was apparently not determined finally until 2018 sometime. It's difficult to corroborate authoritative statements on the specific event which is being commemorated. It's either the victory over government forces by the peasant "Tonghak" army at Hwangtohyeon (Hwangtojae) or the celebration of the conclusion of the Treaty of Jeonju, the highwater mark of the peasant uprising in May 1894.

One of the most significant aspects beyond its social impact was that the peasant uprising triggered Chinese and Japanese interventions, which ultimately led to China's defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War, and domination of Korea by the forces of Imperial Japan. Difficulty in determining dates is a result of the confusing use of lunar versus Gregorian calendars to mark events in some accounts. The Gregorian calendar was not adopted till 1896. The author below says the key battle was fought at Hwangtohyeon, a peasant army victory on May 11. Yet the subsequent evacuation of Jeonju castle by the peasant rebels under siege is said to have taken place May 7 when the Treaty of Jeonju 전주평화협정 全州和約 was adopted. Some say this was a victory for the rebels, others something more like a ceasefire or truce under adverse conditions due to the local government military leaders not wanting to destroy palaces and buildings important to the royal family in the process of retaking the castle.

Tomorrow, May 11th, is the ‘Donghak Peasant Revolution Anniversary’. The commemoration ceremony commemorating the large-scale peasant uprising of 1894 has been held under the government's supervision for the past five years...

... May 11, the day of the Hwangtohyeon victory, was finally designated as the national memorial day of the 'Donghak Peasant Revolution'. could be enacted. We look back again at the noble intentions of the peasant army that rose up in 1894.

The peasant army led by Jeon Bong-jun was able to be transformed into a national organization of the conscious masses at once by being appropriately guided by the religious ideals and missionary organization of Donghak. These peasant armies waged an armed struggle against the central government and demanded a complete abolition of the feudal ruling system. The peasant army captured Jeonju Fortress, neutralized the feudal power, and then established the Jipgangso and took charge of the government themselves. Through Jipgangso, he attempted to implement revolutionary measures such as the abolition of the caste system and the equal division of land. Many parts of the government reform plan requested by the peasant army were accepted as policies and became legislation, but..

130년 전 ‘농민전쟁’의 의미를 다시 새긴다 [안병욱 칼럼]

The author Ahn Byeong-wook emphasizes the similar significance to the French Revolution in Korean history. When I became somewhat familiar with accounts of this pivotal historical change, I couldn't help but notice the similarity to the peasant uprising in Russia which enabled the Russian "workers" revolution in 2017; the same with the peasant uprising which facilitated Chinese communist party resistance to Japan and the KMT in the 20th Century, and also the nationalist peasant uprising in Vietnam led by Ho Chi-minh. Collectively, I refer to all these peasant revolutionary movements as nongmin banran (농민 반란) or 農民叛亂 (peasant rebellions) or minran for short.

Tonghak was a syncretic movement influenced by Christian beliefs, traditional influences such as shamanism and Taoism, anti-colonialism, and belief in the equality of all persons and the need to tear down the corrupt feudal order associated with the landed yongban aristocracy, slavery, castes, and peasant exploitation. Typically, democratic uprisings against the aristocracy typically in the modern era allied with a foreign power (Japan, then US) tended to arise in the southwest provinces, collectively referred to as Honam in modern terms (South Chungcheongdo, Jeollabukdo and Jeollanamdo). To the present, it is a democratic/progressive stronghold. It was crushed violently by the Chun Du-hwan dictatorship with tacit US support, during the 1980 Kwangju Uprising. The US journalist Tim Shorrock is an expert on the US relationship to the 1980 massacre in Kwangju. All of these events are subject to controversy and dispute with the reemergence of a pro-Japanese authoritarian government in South Korea today.

I know I've probably gone in detail beyond the interest of most westerners, but I'll put the list here of the Tonghak provisions in the Jeonju Treaty from the English language Wikipedia entry-

Accept the Donghak religion.
Punish corrupt officials.
Punish those who became illegally rich.
Punish corrupt Yangban (aristocrats/landlords) and Seonbi (scholar class).
Free all slaves.
Free the Cheonmin (commoner low) class, and cease the branding of butchers.
Legalize the remarriage of widows.
Lower taxes.
Pick politicians based on qualities, not families.
Punish those who cooperate with the Empire of Japan.
Illegalize debts.
Give their land to all peasants.

(added for clarity)

Donghak Peasant Revolution

A excellent fictional adaptation and dramatic presentation of the Donghak peasant rebellion and its leader referred to by his nickname Nokdu, was the 2019 Kdrama series Nokdu Flower. It seems that it is still available on but has quite a few commercials.

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enhydra lutris's picture

be well and have a good one

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That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

soryang's picture

@enhydra lutris

I was prompted to post this by the BT video joesixpack posted in the EBs yesterday with Richard Becker on Israel as a US proxy. Becker's in depth knowledge of the modern history of the Mideast and the connection to western imperialism was remarkable. I was fascinated and watched all of it.

I felt the same way watching the Duran episode JS linked to yesterday, with Jack Matlock, witness to history. I'm amazed at his recall and accounts of the fall of the Soviet Union and NATO policy.

I've been stuck on history since the Vietnam era.

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語必忠信 行必正直

is always welcome in my house!
It is good that these martyrs are remembered and given all due honor.

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"We'll know our disinformation program is complete when everything the American public believes is false." ---- William Casey, CIA Director, 1981

soryang's picture

@on the cusp


I try to keep myself busy following the links to the past in current events, especially in the East because I find it challenging in my old age. The lady across the street from me laughed when I said I was old. She's a hundred. Still living on her own, although her aides and helpers do visit regularly.

I found this analysis interesting-

The Chinese “Hypothetical Enemy”: Japan Rehabilitates A Problematic Prewar Label

Abstract: It was recently revealed that Japan’s Self-Defense Forces now designate China as a “hypothetical enemy”. This phrase has a controversial history that stretches back to the era of prewar militarism. In the 1930s, the Japanese military designated the US as a hypothetical enemy. After World War 2, this designation was identified as a reason for the militarists’ view of war as inevitable. A strong taboo against labeling other countries as hypothetical enemies therefore emerged. But as the collective memory of war has waned, so has the hypothetical enemy taboo. The fact that the label is now attached to China by Japan’s defense establishment does not bode well for Sino-Japanese relations.

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語必忠信 行必正直

if you exchange the concept of 'enemy' with 'competition'
it is closer to realism in this era of financial warfare

thanks for your historical perspectives

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@soryang You would think that Japan shaking hands and being BFFs with the US would be harder than extending a friendly hand to China, but, no.
Picking which hegemony to suck up to requires some insanity.
Follow the money is likely the best way to analyze the situation.

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"We'll know our disinformation program is complete when everything the American public believes is false." ---- William Casey, CIA Director, 1981

Dawn's Meta's picture

These types of events seem to be cyclical, so, what comes next?

The sad thing is the long history of British and US messing with, meddling, murder and mayhem is something that won't be healed or lead to better culture any time soon.

The details are good because they show yet another attempt at creating a better society. We don't seem to have any path or method for making a good place to live especially for the average 'peasant'.

It seems that Korea has been overtaken and strong-armed for millennia.

May we leave them alone. May they have peace.

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A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit. Allegedly Greek, but more possibly fairly modern quote.

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