The Birth of Tonghak - Eastern Learning

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The Birth of Tonghak - Eastern Learning

 


Choe Che-U (, 1824-1864) formulated the ideology of Tonghak (Eastern Learning) in the 1860s to help ease the lot of the farmers suffering from abject poverty and unrest, as well as to restore political and social stability. His ideas rapidly gained acceptance among the peasantry. Choe set his Tonghak themes to music so that illiterate farmers could understand and accept them more readily. His teachings were systematized and compiled as a message of salvation to farmers in distress.

Choe was alarmed by the intrusion of Christianity (Chun-ju-gyo), and the Anglo-French occupation of Beijing. He believed that the best way to counter foreign influence in Korea was to introduce pro-democracy, establish human rights (man-min pyong-dung) and create a paradise on earth (ji-sang chun-guk) - all working together and on their own without foreign influence or help.

Tong-hak was pure ideology, void of any organizational and tactical expertise. Choe believed in improvising as events occurred. He had no practical plans or visions of how one would go about establishing a paradise on earth, let alone what "paradise' meant except that all people were 'equal' (and no Japanese) in this paradise. Nevertheless, Choe's pro-democracy, human rights and nationalism struck chord among the peasant guerrillas and Tonghak spread all across Korea like a prairie fire. Progressive revolutionaries waded in and organized the peasants into a cohesive fighting machine.

Choe's songs were a mixture of traditional elements from Confucianism, Buddhism and Songyo (teachings of Shilla's Hwarang), and to these he added modern humanistic ideas. Exclusionism was another characteristic of his religion, which incorporated an early form of nationalism and rejected alien thought.

 

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