Cheondogyo and the Donghak Revolution: The (un)Making
of a Religion
This paper explores the reasons why Cheondogyo is lionized in contemporary
nationalist discourse, when it has such a small following in South Korea today.
I argue that Cheondogyo's continuing presence in nationalist and tourist publications
can be readily comprehended in light of its connection with the Donghak Revolution
In the post-colonial era, Donghak/Cheondogyo was embraced by both the North
and South Korean states, each seeking to claim a connection with the movement
in order to legitimize their respective political goals. More recently, this
legacy has also been claimed by the minjung movement as evidence of an incipient
These political appropriations have ensured that Cheondogyo maintains a level
of legitimacy denied to other new religions of Korea. However, the political
acceptance of Donghak/Cheondogyo has come at the expense of its religious legitimacy.
Thus, while its connection with the Donghak Revolution may have "made" Cheondogyo
into a key historical artifact, it has simultaneously been "unmade" as a religious
movement with any real relevance to the present.
Keywords: Donghak Revolution, Peasant War of 1894, Cheondogyo, new religious
movements, historical appropriations
In 1998 I traveled to Seoul to conduct ethnographic field research on Cheondogyo
(Religion of the Heavenly Way) -- one of Korea's many new religious movements.
Having spent the previous year immersed in library research on the religion,
I was convinced of Cheondogyo's centrality to Korean religious life. This impression
had been formed early on, in part because every major government-sponsored publication
invariably includes Cheondogyo as one of Korea's key religions, along with Buddhism,
Catholicism, Protestantism, and Islam.1 However, before I had even set foot
on Korean soil, my assumptions were rudely shaken. On the airplane ride from
Cairns to Seoul, I was somewhat disconcerted to learn that my friendly Korean
neighbor, Mr. Kim, had not heard of Cheondogyo. Little did I realize that this
initial discussion was to become the prototype for many conversations 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 not alone in
his ignorance of Cheondogyo; the majority of people I met were unfamiliar with
the religion. This subsequently raised a number of questions about why Cheondogyo
is accorded such a prominent place in state discourses on Korean religion when
most Koreans have not even heard of it.
Today the bulk of South Korea's religious population is either Christian
or Buddhist. Considerably less than one percent of the population affiliate
themselves with Cheondogyo, government figures placing Cheondogyo's membership
at about 26,000 (Office of Religious Affairs 1998, 7). Clearly then, the religion
presently has an incredibly small following in South Korea. Another factor that
would seem to conflict with Cheondogyo's prominence in state discourses is the
general attitude towards new religious movements in the country. Such religions
tend to have an unsavory reputation, and have been the focus of considerable
press -- much of it negative. This general hostility towards new religions makes
the political acceptance of Cheondogyo even more anomalous.
This special approbation cannot be explained by any particular doctrinal
appeal that Cheondogyo holds for the Korean public. In its basic philosophy
Cheondogyo is not too dissimilar from other new religions in the country, which
tend to take the form of revitalization movements that focus on the imminent
creation of a heavenly paradise on earth. Furthermore, some of these other new
religions are actually much larger than Cheondogyo (eg. Won Buddhism); others
are certainly more nationalistic (eg. Daejonggyo); others still have a much
larger international following (eg. the Unification Church).
In this paper I aim to explore the reasons for Cheondogyo's lionization in
state and nationalist discourses. I also intend to examine the effects that
this state recognition has had on the religion itself. Considering the present
decline in Cheondogyo's membership and the general lack of awareness regarding
the religion, the question can be raised as to whether this official endorsement
has been beneficial or detrimental to the religion.
Cheondogyo: Background and History
Cheondogyo is the orthodox form of Donghak -- a religious revitali-zation
movement founded on 5 April 1860 when a man named Choe
Je-u fell into a trance and experienced a revelation compelling him to spread
a message of spiritual enlightenment throughout Korea. Donghak envisioned a
new world order based on human equality: a theme later 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
persecution by the government, many of the sangmin (commoners) were attracted
to Donghak during the subsequent decades (Weems 1964, 7-14). Following a name
change in 1905 to Cheondogyo, the religion continued to gain converts, spearheading
the March First Independence Movement of 1919 against the Japanese colonial
regime. However, since its peak around this period, Cheondogyo has experienced
a steady decline and only a small number of adherents remain in the twenty-first
I believe that the continuing presence of Cheondogyo in nationalist literature
and tourist publications can be readily comprehended in light of its involvement
in a series of uprisings that took place in 1894. These uprisings are often
represented as the single most important political event in the modern history
of Korea: largely because they resulted in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894?895.
Indeed, as early as 1895 commentators noted that the Donghak Revolution became
the match which ignited relations between China and Japan (Junkin 1895, 56).
In hindsight the movement occurred at a pivotal moment in Korea's history, setting
off a chain of events that ultimately culminated in the Japanese colonial domination
of the country. Countless scholars have documented not only the rebellion's
religious origins, but also its nationalistic character. Indeed, it seems clear
that the Donghak Revolution has become an important means of demonstrating the
existence of Korean nationalism and patriotism at a time when the country's
autonomy was threatened by Japanese imperialism. The movement has been enshrined
in nationalist discourse as symbolizing the birth of modern Korean nationalism;
and it is here that Cheondogyo's contemporary recognition starts to make sense.
The Donghak Revolution in Focus
The Donghak Revolution occurred at a time when Korea was on the verge of
undergoing radical transformations -- in many respects the revolution actually
helped to precipitate these transformations. Internally, Korean society was
stagnating under a rigid Confucian social hierarchy, 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
into the East, were also causing considerable alarm in Korea at this time.
On 19 February 1894, in response to continued economic abuses by the yangban
and government officials, a Donghak adherent named Jeon Bong-jun led a popular
revolt against the district authorities in the Gobu county of Jeolla-do province.
This uprising quickly erupted into a large-scale rebellion that eventually spread
throughout the whole province (Weems 1964, 37-41). Alarmed by the success of
the uprisings and the obvious support they engendered, the Korean government
called for Chinese intervention. This move was to have unforeseeably fatal consequences,
as Korea's action in requesting Chinese support prompted the Japanese government
to dispatch troops to Korea2 (Cho 1994, 45). With the arrival of the Japanese,
the rebellion flared anew. Nevertheless, the Japanese army eventually defeated
the rebels and executed the leaders of the movement; Donghak adherents across
the country were dealt harsh retribution for their suspected role in the uprising
(Oliver 1993, 67). During this period, tensions between the Chinese and Japanese
troops mounted. Japan demanded that the Korean government order Chinese troops
to leave, while Japanese officials announced they would maintain their presence
in Korea to help the country sort out its messy domestic affairs. Relations
between China and Japan deteriorated rapidly, leading to the outbreak of the
Sino-Japanese War of 1894?895 and culminating in the creation of a Japanese
protectorate in Korea in 1905. This was, of course, followed by Korea's annexation
to Japan in 1910, which signaled the onset of 35 years of colonial rule.
This brief description represents the so-called "facts" of the uprising,
which are not in dispute. There is general agreement on the dates of the revolution
and the basic events that took place. However, there is disagreement on the
motivations of the uprising's leaders and the larger purpose of the movement.
It has become apparent that several parties claim ownership of the Donghak Revolution,
each trying to establish a connection between their contemporary goals and this
historically significant event.
In the post-colonial era, the Donghak Revolution was taken up by both the
North and South Korean states. During this period each state desperately needed
a means to legitimize its respective regime as the rightful government of the
country. They also needed to overcome the national feelings of devastation and
hopelessness caused by the Korean War of 1950?953, the humiliation of Japanese
colonialism, and unflattering Western stereotypes regarding the country. Both
states quickly realized that the key to stimulating nationalism and economic
growth lay in history, and each regime soon produced official nationalisms that
legitimized their claim to power. Donghak/ Cheondogyo became formally connected
with the modernizing and nationalist projects of both these states and in this
environment began to take on new politicized meanings.
South Korea and the Donghak Revolution
In South Korea, it was during the Park Chung-hee era that the Donghak Revolution
was systematically taken up as a key political symbol. At this time Korea was
still recovering from the debilitating and demoralizing effects of 35 years
of colonial rule, and the devastating impact of the Korean War (1950?953). The
Syngman Rhee government had proved to be corrupt and autocratic, and was eventually
overthrown by the April Revolution of 1960. Park seized power through a military
coup in the chaotic period that followed, and therefore felt a very real need
to establish his government's political legitimacy (Eckert et al. 1990, 360).
Under Park's leadership, Korean society began a program of "modernization" marked
by rapid economic growth, and dramatic social and political change. Donghak
had an important ideological role to play at this time, as the movement provided
a central means of demonstrating the existence of an indigenous, democratic,
nationalistic, and modern political ideology. Thus, the movement began to take
on new politicized meanings in this context as part of a general push to downplay
the effects of external forces in shaping Korean culture (cf. Song 1999, 63).
The revolution became a key symbol of the patriotic and creative Korean spirit:
an important means of refuting Western stereotypes regarding the country, which
had allowed the Western world to endorse the Japanese colonization of Korea
in the first place. Indeed, Theodore Roosevelt was especially active in his
covert endorsement of Japanese colonialism, and his support ultimately culminated
in the Taft-Katsura Agreement of 1905 (Beale 1956, 323). This agreement secretly
recognized Japanese suzerainty in Korea in exchange for Japan's recognition
of U.S. interests in the Philippines (Harbaugh 1961, 54-55). Donghak became
an important rebuttal to Roosevelt's contempt. As one author writes, "Does Korean
history really show a complete absence of popular resistance? It seems that
the Donghak revolt is a living refutation of such a negative view of Korea as
the one held by Roosevelt that the Korean people had never shown the spirit
of resistance to their enemies in order to safeguard their own survival" (Shin
1966, 16). In a similar vein, the revolution became a means of demonstrating
that the impetus for Korea's modernization was internally realized, rather than
the result of Western influence or Japanese colonial rule. Thus Kang (1968,
Until relatively recently, it has been widely thought that the East Asian
symbol system is so particularist [sic] and so oriented towards self-negation
that rationalization of ends could not be achieved without Western help. Japan
may be taken, perhaps, for an example. . . . Of China, it has been said that
she had to adopt a foreign ideology [communism] in order to be modernized. But
Tonghak [Donghak] shows the possibility of a traditional symbol system being
redefined in such a way that it can conduce toward an open, modern society.
Elsewhere, the rebellion is represented as an indigenous "revitalization"
of Korean culture (Kim H. 1980; Chung 1969, 118): a symbolic rebirth with the
potential to transform the nation (Hong 1968, 50; Lee N. 1991) forestalled only
by Japanese designs on the country (Wells 1990, 8).
Park Chung-hee also used the Donghak Revolution to justify political programs
-- particularly the state's core policy of "nationalistic democracy" (minjokjeok
minjujuui). This policy served as an attempt to establish an indigenous form
of democracy that would justify the state's claim to absolute power over the
nation in terms of Korea's unique social and historical situation. Park thus
asserted that "nationalistic democracy" was a form of indigenous democracy that
could 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 Donghak Revolution. Park writes,
As a beginning of a pre-modern popular revolution, at the same time it [the
Donghak Revolution] represented Korean nationalism against Japan and Western
imperialist countries. . . . Principles for the construction of . . . the Revolution
included the popular Tonghak philosophy "Man is God" which was the beginning
of the Koreanization of democracy. The principles were not directly imported
from any Western democracy (1970, 107).
Moreover, Park portrays his military coup as an extension of the "unique"
Donghak ideology, handed down to posterity through the March First Independence
Movement of 1919, the April Revolution of 1960, and his own "May Military Revolution"
As I have already noted, official recognition continues to this day, although
the state is careful to downplay the antigovernment dimensions of the movement.
In a telling anecdote, Song (1999, 158) describes the efforts of villagers in
Gongsam, Jeolla-do province, to erect a stone monument to commemorate the one
hundredth anniversary of the Donghak Revolution. He notes that the government,
" . . . initially uneasy about the political symbolism behind the peasant war,
. . . persuaded the villagers to drop their plan" (Song 1999, 158). However,
when it became apparent that the villagers planned to go ahead with construction
anyway, the government co-opted the project and played down the antigovernment
aspect of the uprisings.
In South Korean history textbooks, the Donghak Revolution is commemorated
for its anti-Japanese legacy (Song 1999, 157) and nationalism. Indeed, Choe
Je-u (the founder of Donghak) was designated as a key cultural figure (munhwa
inmul) by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism in 1999, along with luminaries
such as the painter Sin Yun-bok and the naval commander Yi Sun-sin. According
to the brochure published at the time (MCT 1998), this recognition was provided
in acknowledgment of Choe's efforts to establish a reform-oriented and nationalistic
In academic contexts, Cheondogyo's indigenous origins and nationalistic ideology
are also emphasized and are represented to be Korea's own indigenous ideological
tradition. Kim's description is typical of the stance generally taken. He writes,
What is Korean thought? Answering this question might involve several traditions
such as Buddhism, Confucianism, Shamanism, Christianity, and Ch'ondogyo [Cheondogyo].
However, Ch'ondogyo alone is the major indigenous tradition developed in Korea,
while Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity are of foreign origin, and Shamanism
is relatively common in many parts of the world (Kim Y. 1989, vii).
Clearly, the ongoing presence of Cheondogyo in national culture in South
Korea is intimately entwined with its value as a potent political and cultural
North Korea and the Proletariat Revolution
The North Korean state was established under the leadership of Kim Il Sung
in 1946. Although his bid for power was sponsored by the Soviet Communists,
Kim later broke away from both the Soviet and Chinese Communist camps to forge
an independent regime based on the policy of "self-reliance" (juche). However,
from the regime's inception Kim Il Sung had to contend with the accusation that
he was a political "puppet" for the Comintern, which was pulling the strings
behind the scenes (allegations still commonplace in South Korea today). The
broader Korean Communist movement itself was subject to similar criticisms.
Indeed, the intense factionalism that has plagued the history of Korean Communism
can be seen as a direct result of the conflict between nationalist concerns
and broader loyalties to the international Communist movement (Scalapino and
Lee 1972). The Donghak Revolution became an important means of mediating this
Since 1922 a number of Korean Communists have openly identified with the
Donghak Revolution and have attributed the beginnings of 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 name was the first successful experience of mobilizing the masses
under the banner of ideology." This discourse effectively transforms Korean
Communism into an indigenous, nation-wide movement that arose spontaneously
in Korea, rather than an alien dogma introduced by foreign powers.
This North Korean perspective also critiques the South Korean government's
claim that theirs is the singular ideology of national unification. According
to the North, the Korean people supported an indigenous Communist movement --
as evidenced by the widespread support for the Donghak Revolution, which becomes
a proletariat uprising against the corrupt and exploitative yangban. This helped
to support the claim made by the Kim Il Sung regime that the South Korean government
had forced its dictates upon the Korean people against their wishes. Through
this historical appropriation Donghak has been enshrined within North Korea
as symbolizing the origins of an indigenous Communist, nationalistic, and democratic
ideology, which developed internally in the country, without outside influence.
The importance still placed upon Cheondogyo is demonstrated by the ongoing
existence of the Cheondogyo Cheongudang (Cheondogyo Young Friends Party) --
one of the three major political parties in North Korea today. Whether this
party actually represents the interests of Cheondogyo is irrelevant here; what
is important is that the name obviously carries ideological significance in
North Korea. As Lankov (2001) points out, it is not difficult to see why the
Cheondogyo Young Friends Party was allowed to maintain its existence with the
creation of a North Korean state. He notes,
Traditionally Ch'ondogyo [sic] had been a revolutionary, nationalist, antiforeign,
and especially anti-Japanese sect which, unlike Christianity, lacked any traditional
connections with the West. Ch'ondogyo adherents had played a remarkable role
in an 1894 peasant uprising [the Tonghak Revolution] and in the 1 March Movement
of 1919 against the Japanese. Soviet officers and their Korean allies perceived
Ch'ondogyo as a Korean-type "utopian peasant movement," which was a potentially
useful ally for the Communist Party. From the Soviet point of view, Ch'ondogyo
was perhaps the least undesirable religion in North Korea (2001, 106-107).
Clearly, Donghak/Cheondogyo is as central to North Korean historiography
as it is to the official histories generated in the South.
The Minjung and Their Antigovernment Forebears
The political appropriations of Donghak/Cheondogyo are also evident in the
minjung (people) culture movement that arose in South Korea during the 1970s.
According to Choi Chungmoo (1995, 117), "The methodology of the minjung culture
movement is essentially a rereading of history as history of the oppressed minjung's
struggle and a representation of that history as a paradigm of change. In the
history thus reread, hitherto marginalized people enter the central arena of
history or become agents of history." Thus, minjung ideologues focus on "the
people" and place them in opposition to the state (Song 1999, 143-193; Wells
The Donghak Revolution continued to play a key role in minjung discourse,
with many minjung historians coming to the conclusion that the Donghak Revolution
provides the birth of minjung spirit and consciousness (Wells 1995, 27; Abelmann
1996, 20). Nevertheless, there has been an even more extreme refocusing of the
goals and agenda of the movement, as the minjung revisionist histories use the
revolution as evidence of the growth of peasant consciousness (Abelmann 1993)
and subsume its religious dimensions completely.3 "Donghak" is regarded to be
simply a convenient label for a revolutionary war that at its core involved
disgruntled peasants tired of the corruption and economic inequality endemic
to the prevailing social and political system. Indeed, during the 1990s the
minjung increasingly labeled the rebellion the "Peasant War of 1894" (Gabo Nongmin
Jeonjaeng) for these reasons (Suh Y. 1994; Cho 1994; Lee Y. 1994; Ahn and Park
Jeon Bong-jun has had a particularly prominent role to play in the minjung
narratives, which is interesting because of the considerable controversy surrounding
his political and religious affiliations. For several scholars, Jeon was a pious
Confucian dedicated to upholding the ideals of the government. Some have suggested
that the rebellion was actually the carefully staged result of a conspiracy
between Jeon and the Daewongun -- the conservative Korean regent of the period
then waging a pitched battle with the ruling Min clan (Lew 1990). Clearly, such
a perspective validates the state view that the Donghak Revolution was essentially
a nationalistic, antiforeign movement. On the other hand, the minjung movement
depicts Jeon as a radical dissident fighting against the government in much
the same way as the contemporary minjung movement opposes the government. For
this reason Jeon became a key icon of the minjung movement, and represents the
most popular figure in the minjung art of the 1980s (Song 1999, 7). He has also
been the subject of numerous tributes in the literary genre.
Thus, in the minjung movement, the uprisings from a previous century are
symbolically transformed into a movement against the state, providing legitimacy
to the goals of the contemporary minjung -- a group whose interests are
also counter to those of the state (Song 1999, 157-158). Farmer activists, students,
artists, and intellectuals have all evoked Donghak imagery in order to provide
continuity between their own goals and those of the Donghak revolutionaries.
As Abelmann (1996, 24) comments, "In this lineage of minjung struggle, the Tonghak
[sic] Peasant Revolution was widely evoked by the community. . . . In the minjung-as-subject lineage, social actors
who carry the torch of Tonghak are the legitimate national subjects."4
One of the more creative attempts to graft the Donghak Revolution onto minjung
consciousness is found in Sin Dong-yeop's epic 1975 poem entitled Geumgang (Geumgang
River). As Choi Chungmoo (1995, 112-113) notes, in this poem the historical
and social gap between the world of the Donghak in the 1890s and the Korean
labour exploitation of the 1960s is collapsed. The hero of the poem is simultaneously
a twentieth-century day laborer in Seoul and a warrior of the Donghak Peasant
War. On a similar note, Lee Namhee (1991, 211) discusses the ways in which the
student movement transformed the Donghak Revolution to provide a sense of legitimacy
and continuity to its goals. The revolution was seen to represent a movement
against the existing system -- against the state. Lee (1991, 211) notes that,
"The precedent of the uprising led and constituted by peasants . . . has given
students a sense of historical legitimacy and a sense of continuity, a kind
of historical mandate that tells them to 'carry on'."
Nevertheless, by the mid-1990s there was a growing disillusionment with the
minjung movement. As Abelmann (1997, 251) notes, "Minjung, a noun and adjective
that could in the 1980s be combined with almost anything -- history, music,
art, film, religion, economics, etc. -- was obsolete by the 1990s with its 'new
generation,' 'civil society,' and 'civil movements'." Increasingly, people want
to distance themselves from the "fascism"5 of minjung discourse and the authoritarianism
of previous governments -- "from the totalizing projects of both the left and
the right" (Abelmann 1997, 250). However, despite the declining popularity of
minjung narratives, this movement was ultimately successful in reinforcing the
perception of Donghak as a political reform movement divorced from religious
Despite their differences, the political appropriations of the Donghak Revolution
all emphasize the social and political dimensions of the movement and downplay
its religious identity. In the South Korean context, the revolution becomes
an expression of a Korean move towards modernization, nationalism, and prosperity,
forestalled only by Japanese designs on the country. Alternatively, in the North
Korean version, the Donghak Peasant Revolution becomes the original wellspring
of indigenous Communism. This suggests that the "American Imperialists" in the
South have implemented a political regime contrary to the natural impulses of
the Korean people, who gravitate towards Communism.
The minjung version goes the furthest in eliminating the religious dimensions
of the movement, which becomes an antigovernment proletariat uprising, providing
continuity between the goals of the revolutionary farmers and contemporary minjung
objectives. By claiming a connection with the Donghak Revolution, the groups
involved reinforce, validate, and legitimize a clearly political identity. Therefore,
the ongoing presence of the religion in nationalist literature and tourist brochures
can be readily comprehended within this context.
Other Historical Appropriations: The Gwangju Uprising
The Donghak Revolution is not the only important historical event in Korea
to be subjected to such processes of political appropriation. Linda Lewis (2002)
has produced an interesting analysis of the ways in which the 1980 Gwangju Uprising
has been reimagined in Korean political culture.6 The processes of appropriation
that "5.18" (as the Uprising is known) has undergone bear strikingly similarity
to ways that the Donghak Revolution has been taken up. As Lewis documents, the
Gwangju Uprising has been reimagined and appropriated by numerous groups and
organizations, each with competing claims, agendas and motivations.
In the 1980s the Gwangju Uprising was taken up by the minjung culture movement.
In the minjung interpretation, 5.18 became celebrated as a key symbol of Korean
struggle and resistance to the oppressive military government. However, in the
late 1990s the South Korean government was quite successful in transforming
the Gwangju Uprising from an antigovernment popular revolt into the "5.18 Democratization
Movement."7 In this framework, the Gwangju Uprising was positioned as merely
a milestone in the government's journey towards democracy. Thus, rather than
a massacre to be commemorated, it became an event to be celebrated -- complete
with its own cartoon mascot.
Although victims' associations continue to jostle for a voice in representing
5.18, their memories and experiences appear to be increasingly irrelevant to
the official representations of the movement. Thus, Lewis points out that commemorating
is also a process of forgetting, as these official histories displace the private
memories of those who were caught up in 5.18. However, the bodies of those who
lived through the Uprising contest the official histories that have been created.
As Lewis (2002, 153) notes, "There are in Gwangju many whose personal histories
are counterhegemonic, whose very bodies even offer a site for resistance to
the imposition of a singular 5.18 narrative and the amnesia of commemoration
in the late 1990s."
Lewis raises an important point about the ways those with the most direct
stake in the Gwangju Uprising (the victims and their families) have been detrimentally
affected by the construction of official narratives. Similar questions can be
raised about the effects that the political appropriations of Donghak have had
on those with the most direct stake in the religion -- contemporary Cheondogyo
adherents. Indeed, in its contemporary form, the religion has clearly not achieved
a noticeable degree of "success" in the broader Korean context, despite the
attention heaped upon Donghak within state, nationalist, and minjung discourses.
Indeed, Cheondogyo is an aging religion -- most adherents at the parish (gyogu)
where I conduct fieldwork are well over 50. There is also very little active
recruitment into Cheondogyo, and most adherents have belonged to the religion
for two or more generations. This, coupled with the remarkable decline in the
size of Cheondogyo since the 1920s,8 tends to indicate that the future of the
religion in its present form is limited. In light of this decline, the question
can be raised regarding the effects that this appropriation has had on Cheondogyo.
Has this recognition made the religion, or been responsible for its undoing?
Clearly, there are many dimensions to the relative decline of Cheondogyo
over the past 75 years. A lack of active proselytizing, coupled with the remarkable
growth of Christianity, seem to be central factors. However, the role of these
political appropriations should not be ignored. Although the aims and agendas
of the groups appropriating the movement differ, they have one thing in common:
they subsume Cheondogyo's religious dimensions in favor of other attributed
goals. Therefore, it would appear that Cheondogyo's political and nationalistic
legitimacy has come at the expense of its religious legitimacy. Indeed, the
emphasis on the social rather than religious dimensions of the movement has
created a perception that Donghak/Cheondogyo is not a religion at all. Thus,
while the Korea Information Service (2001) does indeed describe Cheondogyo as
a key Korean religion, it states "Cheondogyo was initiated as a social and technological
movement. . . ." Popular understandings of Donghak/ Cheondogyo echo this perception;
the tendency of Korean people to correct me when I describe Donghak as a religious
movement helps to demonstrate the pervasiveness of this view.9
Interestingly, the small numbers of Koreans who have converted to Cheondogyo
from other religions have often been drawn to it for these very reasons -- its
historical significance and nationalist dimensions -- rather than its theological
underpinnings (although in time these are generally considered attractive too).10
This emphasis on the nationalistic origins of the movement has meant that all
too often Cheondogyo is seen to be a social movement of the past, rather than
a religious movement of the present. It has become an artifact of history in
the eyes of most Koreans. Cheondogyo may be dusted off and paraded in public
on appropriate occasions as a symbol of Korean nationalism, but is seen to be
largely irrelevant to contemporary Korean culture. However, this antiquation
of Cheondogyo is not merely the product of nationalist and minjung discourses
of the postcolonial era; it is an ongoing process that continues today. In other
words, Donghak/Cheondogyo's identity as a historically important antique is
not a state achieved in the "past" but is actively being constructed in the
In a relevant paper, Kendall (1998) explores the ways in which discourses
on Korean shamanism esteem practitioners and simultaneously erase their agency.
She notes that while in recent years shamans 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 practitioners.
Nevertheless, as Kendall also points out, shamans themselves have been complicit
in this process. Indeed, elsewhere Choi Chungmoo (1997) has noted that many
shamans compete for the privilege of being designated as "living human treasures."
Similar is true of Cheondogyo. Whilst lauded as a repository of national
tradition, it is simultaneously transformed into a "muted artifact" of it, and
is silenced as an active religious movement. However, once again, there has
been a certain level of complicity in this process. When Choe Je-u was designated
a "Cultural Figure" of November 1998 by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism,
Cheondogyo adherents were thrilled at the publicity. However, while such state
recognition is gratifying, its effects are problematic -- as a number of Cheondogyo
adherents themselves recognize.
In the past few years, many adherents have begun to think more critically
about the religion's connection with political and nationalist discourses. There
is growing resistance to these labels, which many feel have harmed the movement's
status as a religion.11 Furthermore, it has become clear to a number of adherents
that the goals of the political and government groups who seek to draw on them
are rather different from their own. Thus, these adherents now stress that Cheondogyo
has been nationalistic incidentally rather than by design. They feel that the
nationalist aspects of the movement's doctrine have been emphasized at the expense
of its religious content and contemporary relevance.
However, I would assert that as long as Cheondogyo is held up as an exemplar
of incipient nationalism, modernism, or peasant consciousness, it must be understood
as a relic of Korean history -- an important and valuable relic -- but a relic
nonetheless. Furthermore, not only has this state recognition led to a particular
view of the religion, which keeps it locked in the past and wrapped up in the
closet -- it appears that the recognition has caused deeper and more disturbing
fractures in the religion itself. These problems stem largely from the contradictory
nature of state policy regarding religion in the country. As Keyes, Hardacre,
and Kendall (1994) have noted, while modernization demands a rejection of ritual
practices, nationalism often depends on a celebration of precisely the same
practices. Therefore, "the process of creating modern nation-states has . .
. entailed two rather contradictory stances toward religion" (1994, 6).
Thus, the state attitude towards religion in Korea has been characterized
by a bewildering and contradictory array of policies, all of which have simultaneously
condemned and lauded religions. For example, although shamans are held up as
exemplars of indigenous folk culture, as Kendall (1998, 63) points out, they
have also been portrayed as the "superstitious antithesis of modernity." Indeed,
the ecstatic and "magical" aspects of shamanic rituals have been heavily criticized
as primitive and ignorant, and by 1972 shamanic rituals had become the target
of state-initiated antisuperstition campaigns (Choi 1997, 26).
These contradictory policies towards shamanism are also evident in the political
attitudes towards Confucianism and Buddhism. The former has been the target
of special criticism; blamed for encouraging cronyism, inhibiting innovation,
and subordinating women. Yet, while in 1969 the government passed a regulation
to abolish symbols of Confucian ideology in Korea, it simultaneously relied
on these same Confucian principles to maintain its authority over the Korean
people (Choi 1997, 26). Moreover, despite attacks on Confucian ideology as an
obstacle to economic growth, it has also been cited as the source of South Korea's
remarkable economic success (Janelli 1993, 57). As Choi Chungmoo (1997, 27)
notes, the contradictory policies implemented in South Korea revealed the dilemmas
of ". . . a new state with old traditions, torn between two modes of thought."12
These contradictory policies have also left their mark on Cheondogyo. Although
Cheondogyo has been co-opted by the North and South Korean states to legitimize
their own political and economic agendas, religious practices in Cheondogyo
derive their authority from other than the state (cf. Keyes, Hardacre, and Kendall
1994, 5-6). As we have seen, Cheondogyo's spiritual authority actually stems
from the ecstatic religious experiences of the movement's founder. Several scholars
have likened Choe Je-u's mystical experience in 1860 to the possession trance
of charismatic Korean shamans (Jorgensen 1999; Kim C. 1993; Choi D. 1982); certainly,
there are "magical" dimensions to Cheondogyo practice that bear similarities
The problem is, of course, that the South Korean state has explicitly condemned
such practices and beliefs as traditionalist and primitive. Thus, the same contradictory
attitudes that have plagued government policy towards religion in Korea have
led to certain tensions in Cheondogyo. The religion struggles with its identity
as a modern, nationalistic religion, whilst at the same time being grounded
in a spiritual framework, which is deemed by the government to be primitive
and superstitious. The fact that Cheondogyo has been taken up so completely
as a symbol of indigenous modernization and nationalism has only exacerbated
This state appropriation is partly responsible for the present problems surrounding
ecstatic trance in Cheondogyo (although other factors have certainly contributed).
While ecstatic trance continues to form an important dimension of Cheondogyo
religiosity, there is a general lack of consensus regarding this experience
and the meanings that can be attributed to it. However, amongst adherents there
is a common perception that ecstatic trance represents a type of shamanism and
is therefore a primitive, traditional, and even dangerous form of religious
experience. Obviously such perceptions stem from existing discourses regarding
the nature of shamanism, which have in part been generated by the state.
These same discourses emphasize the modern, nationalistic basis of Cheondogyo
-- a view held by many Cheondogyo adherents and leaders themselves. Yet to purge
the religion of these "primitive," "traditional," and "shamanic" dimensions
would be to condemn the spiritual basis of their own religion -- and to deny
its fundamentally religious roots. Unsurprisingly, this results in a strong
ambivalence, as leaders are torn between a desire to rid themselves of such
"primitive" and "traditionalist" dimensions in order to retain their identity
as a "modern" movement, and the awareness that to do so would be to destroy
their movement as a religion.
Cheondogyo has achieved a level of political legitimacy denied to other new
religions because of its connection with the Donghak Revolution. Thus the religion
has been taken up as an important symbol of indigenous modernization, nationalism,
democracy, and even Communism. Therefore, despite its current small size, because
of this political approbation Cheondogyo remains highly visible in nationalist
and tourist publications. However, it is precisely Cheondogyo's political appropriation
that may be partly responsible for its present cultural invisibility. This is
because the movement has been locked into an identity that emphasizes its political
and social connection with the past, rather than its religious connection with
The religion's constitution within the framework of the state has been limiting
and restrictive in other ways. In some respects, it actually reinforces internal
dilemmas within Cheondogyo regarding its own traditionalist/modernist and spiritual/philosophical
dimensions. Therefore, while the Donghak Revolution may have "made" Cheondogyo
as a respected social and political movement of the past, in many respects the
revolution has unmade it as a religious movement of the present.
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Kirsten Bell is a lecturer in the Anthropology Department of Macquarie University,
Australia. She received her Ph.D. in anthropology from James Cook University
in 2000 with a dissertation entitled "Entrancing Tensions: An Anthropological
Exploration of the Korean Religion of Ch'ondogyo." She has published several
articles on Cheondogyo including, "Creating a Heavenly Paradise on Earth: Ch'ondogyo
and Korea's New Religions" (1999) and "The Gendering of Religious Experience:
Ecstatic Trance in Cheondogyo" (2003). E-mail: Kirsten.Bell@scmp.mq.edu.au.
1. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism's website (www.mct.go.kr) is
a good ex-ample.
2. Although precedent for such an action had been set in the form
of the Tianjin Convention of 1885, the Japanese removal of troops to Korea under
the aegis of the treaty seems to have been more of a pretext to accomplish the
country's expansionist agenda, than the result of any outrage against China's
violation of the treaty.
3. Although minjung theologians have focused on the religious dimensions
of Donghak thought (Ahn 2001; Lee 1996), their interpretations have been less
influential than those of the minjung historiographers.
4. Abelmann directs her comments explicitly towards farmer activists
in the social movement she explores in her 1996 work; however, I think they
also encapsulate broader minjung appropriations of Donghak.
5. See Song (1999) for a discussion of the fascist dimensions of minjung
6. Much of the discussion that follows is taken from a review of Lewis's
book I prepared for The Australian Journal of Anthropology (see Bell 2004).
7. The political role of naming is also evident in the competing discourses
surrounding the Donghak Revolution.
8. Many adherents attribute this decline to persecution by the Japanese
colonial government after the March First Movement of 1919.
9. Cheondogyo informants have also mentioned the lack of general awareness
about their religion, and the perception that Donghak is a "dead" movement.
10. Indeed, in a written survey I conducted, one young Cheondogyo informant
continued to insist that Cheondogyo was not a religion but a political movement.
11. In fact, when I first arrived in Korea, I intended to focus on Cheondogyo's
relationship with Korean nationalism and the state. Nevertheless, it soon became
apparent that officials at Cheondogyo were unhappy with my proposed study; people
emphasized that Cheondoygo is a "universal" and "international" religion, not
a nationalistic one. The reasons for their uneasiness with my original project
would later become apparent.
12. 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 same as its shamanic forebears -- in many instances they have been radically
reinterpreted. Still, in light of Cheondogyo's intentionally syncretic roots,
there is little doubt that Choe Je-u drew on existing shamanic beliefs and practices,
even while radically transforming them. See Beirne (1999) for a discussion of
several similarities between Donghak and shamanic practices.