Original Post: I’ve been reading up on Korean history—not just out of interest in filling in some blanks in my historical knowledge, but also, I’ll confess, because of an ongoing writing project, and because the library at work has a ton of materials to which I previously had no access—and the results have been interesting… for the most part, anyway.
Sometimes, though, that’s not the case. There’s hits and misses, and the book I’ll be discussing today is one of the misses.
A Short History of the Donghak Peasant Revolution by Soonchul Shin and Jinyoung Lee (translated by Rohini Singh and Chongmin Lee) is probably not for you if you’re interested in quality historical discussion of the Donghak Rebellion. Despite the title of this book, I feel it should not be considered a revolution since it was fairly rapidly put down; not even the Taipings earned the title of “revolution,” and they not only took over a third of China, but also kept their movement going for a decade and a half. The comparison is apt: the 1894 Donghak Rebellion actually is the Korean equivalent of the Taiping Rebellion (with a slight seasoning of Boxers Rebellion thrown in), complete with a religious cult, widespread peasant involvement, and a cruddy, oppressive monarchy trying to suppress it. The connection between cult religious groups and peasant uprisings fascinates me, as does the conditions which drive the downtrodden to revolt instead of just putting up with their lot. What could be more fascinating?
Yet somehow Shin and Lee (it would be unfair to blame the translators, I suspect) manage to reduce it to the point where it’s boring, and the problem is completely in how the story is told. No only is its treatment dull, but it is also obtuse at times, and openly partisan.