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Background

Background

Outline

Background
    • Map that shows regions for propagation in
      1855s and 1870s, propagated city of early
      Donghak, propagated cities until 1894, focus
      cities of Gyojo Sinwon Movement, leaders of Donghak

    • Choi Je-u

    • As young kings including Sunjo, Heonjong and Cheoljong in the 19th century ascended to the throne for 60 years, a reign of potentates (abnormal politics in which power was monopolized by external forces) led by Andong Kim’s family and Pungyang Cho’s family was established, disrupting central politics. Disorders of central governance empowered of corrupt officials and led to three misguided policies which concerned Jeonjeong (land tax), Gunjeong (tax paid by adult men aged between 16-60 for not entering the army) and

    • Hwan’gok (system that lends rice in Spring and pays it back in the harvest season). These policies became the means by which local officials cheated and exploited peasants, and brought about the eventual breakdown of rural society. In addition, the expansion of landlord system and development of agricultural techniques rapidly changed the hierarchy of rural communities in the late Joseon Dynasty. Since the exploitive feudal system demanded that each region hand over the full amount of taxes collected, local farmers also had to pay for the local nobleman.

    • Farmers who didn't bear the exploitation went into the mountain and became nomads. Many of them died of starvation. Because of this, the public became angrier and began to address the contradictions of feudal society on their own.

      The late 19th century was the transformative period that witnessed the development of a new society by breaking down the old framework of feudal society with the contradictions in the Joseon Dynasty exposed internally and the encroachment of Western powers with capitalism was apparent externally. Joseon, especially after opening a port in 1876, became a competition venue for the Quing Dynasty and Japan, and the leadership of Joseon was coopted by the Qing Dynasty due to the Military Revolt of Im-O Year (1882) and the Gapsin Coup in 1884.

    • As a result, Japan focused on economic expansionism to make up for its political inferiority in Joseon, and Joseon became a major food source for Japan. As more rice was exported to Japan, the rice price in Joseon greatly increased. Joseon people struggled with the steep prices and lack of food.

      Even in this situation, officials exploited the public by collecting even more taxes than before, and the corrupt practice of buying and selling public office remained commonplace. Officials who bought their position with money would compensate themselves by levying additional fees on a downtrodden public.

    • Farmers’ complaints on the prevailing economic system developed into resistance against the ruthless exploitation of the feudal ruling class and the invasion of foreign capitalism. As the contradictions of feudal system deepened, peasant uprisings occurred in about 70 locations spread across three Southern provinces beginning in 1862 and becoming a nationwide event around 1892.

      It was Donghak that became the organizing principle of these peasant uprisings. Donghak was an ethnic religion founded by Choi Je-u, a collapsed nobleman in Gyeongju, against Western Learning (Catholic) in 1860 when the capitalist powers gradually invaded. The key of Donghak can be summarized in a simple expression: “People are Heaven.”

    • The feudal ruling classes at that time thought of the people only as objects for exploitation, but Donghak presented an egalitarian worldview. This was a seditious concept that would break existing orders of Confucianism and had to be oppressed from the point of view of feudal ruling classes. Instead, it rapidly spread all over the country since it was an ideology that reflected the needs of the public.

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