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A Short History of the Donghak Peasant Revolution by Soonchul Shin and Jinyoung Lee

Note: I’ve appended an update to the end of this post, with information provided to me on Facebook. Read on for more.


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.

The dullness is easy to explain: this is history done as paint-by-the-numbers, where the majority of the book is a litany of supposed facts, with analysis reserved for the conclusion. Not that the telling of the narrative is completely free of authorial interpretation and analysis, mind you—I’ll get to that in a moment—but it’s written so as to look and feel like the recounting of facts upon facts upon facts. There is no real effort to bring the frustrations of the peasants to vivid life, no real effort to paint a clear picture of the major figures involved in the Donghak Rebellion, and not real interest in making the reader feel excited or fascinated with the events: it just rehearses them in the most stale manner possible. If this is indicative of how history is written in Korean academia, well… that would explain why even a lot of smart, thoughtful Koreans I’ve known have had no interest in history.

The analysis, too, is sometimes rather questionable. The stuff that is openly cast as analysis—in the conclusion, basically—amounts to basically saying that the corrupt royals and scholars running the Joseon Dynasty should have listened up when the peasants shouted that foreigners needed to be kept out. The authors go so far as to vaguely suggest that the Japanese occupation might-could have been avoided had the monarchs done so in the 1890s. Sure, they highlight that it’s not a sure thing, but they do broach the question… and hey, it’s an interesting suggestion, which gets no serious discussion at all once it’s suggested. Which is to say, the suggestion isn’t a serious comment about whether the Donghak Rebellion truly shaped the course of Korean history—which it could well have done, and probably did to some degree—but rather just a kind of hagiographic moment of praise for the Donghak slathered on top of disdain for the ruling class. Why not discuss, as Jonathan Spence does in God’s Chinese Son (his book about the Taiping Rebellion) the long-term destabilizing effects of the uprising on the ruling dynasty? Actually, the Spence book is the most apt comparison to make, and one gets the sense that Spence cares about telling history in a way that engages his readers and makes the past vivid for them; Shin and Lee’s sights are set far lower, unfortunately.

Now, I’m all for disdain for the ruling class, I’m all for compassion for the peasants: I don’t have serious problems with historians who have a horse in the race, or who sympathize with one side or another in a historical struggle. But sometimes the partisanship on display in this book results in what seems to me to be obviously skewed claims… like, on page 49, that certain demands made in official documents produced by specific rebel leaders somehow accurately and authoritatively represented “the will of the entire peasant population.” That notion is frankly nonsense: the peasant population is never unitary, and never agrees on anything in a single entirety. There is always a diversity of views, if not about what needs to get done, then about how to do it. And lo and behold, just a few pages after this claim about the will of the entire peasant population, it’s made abundantly clear that consensus of that universal, wide-ranging kind in fact did not exist: peasants were in fact divided about how to protest, what their movement’s goals were, and what would be “too much” or crossing the line.

Why go for the grandiose, unifying claim of the “entire peasant population” when something less extravagant, like, “These demands reflected the general frustration of the peasants, as well as popularly prescribed solutions for problems they faced”? There are other moments where the authors seem to self-contradict in the service of partisanship, too: at one moment taking pride in how many of the Donghak’s demands were reflected in the Gabo Reforms, and in the next complaining that reforms were the handiwork of the meddling Japanese, and that as a result they were no consistently applied over time: Gabo reforms as a result of the Donghak, awesome; Gabo reforms as a flawed piece of legislation, terrible? (Note that practically every other reform mentioned in the book that was implemented by the Joseon’s ruling elite also was inconsistently applied almost immediately, to the point where written laws meant nothing at all in certain areas of life.)

I get it about Jeolla Province, the home base (and ideological home ground) of the authors of this book as well as the hotbed of the the Donghak Rebellion. But that Rebellion was over a decade ago—or, which this book was written, had been just about a decade earlier. Straight up taking-sides type partisanship might be interesting if the authors did it with chutzpah, but here all we have is po-faced insistence. It’s skewed and its boring. That, I’m afraid, makes for unforgivably bad history.

More embarrassingly, the English is not so great: the translator does a passable job, but it needed better proofreading and the Romanization is funny in places; worse, many paintings and photographs seem not to be credited in the text, so you’re left with a name of the person supposedly depicted in the image, and no way of knowing who painted it, where the image came from, who took the photo, and so on. While it may be obvious why the photos of samul nori percussion groups are used for the backgrounds of each chapter’s opening title/splash pages, it’d be nice if this reasoning were made clear for English-language readers. (Samul nori is a modern derivative of traditional folk percussion performance styles, and thus part of the lineage of peasant folk culture; that’s my guess, but the authors don’t seem to think this warrants explaining, so instead one just sees random percussion dancers on the title pages.)

All in all, the book was pretty disappointing,and the only reason I persisted through it was because I couldn’t find any other English-language books about the uprising. One is surely needed, but If you want a collection of facts and historical details and don’t mind skimming and having to question most of a book’s conclusions in ways the authors should have done themselves, well, then this is fine for you. But as a scholarly work of history, the book leaves a great deal to be desired. Personally, I’m still looking for a good history of the Donghak Rebellion, in other words.

All that said, I loved the picture that closes the book, a picture of rebel leader Jeon Bongjun after his capture. Just look at it:

Pretty amazing stuff: Jeon’s on a litter because his legs were broken during an escape attempt, but he still looks like he could kick many an ass. The soldiers look just Keystone Kops enough for humor, and the guys carrying him on the litter look like they’ve led lives the brutality of which none now living here could imagine.

Yeah, the above picture really looks like it could be something out of a black-and-white Western, or for that matter an episode of Deadwood. It makes me think the Donghak Rebellion would make an excellent setting for the next “Kimchi Western,” should anyone want to make another.

(The last one made being 좋은놈 나쁜놈 이상한놈, a film known in English as The Good, the Bad, and the Weird, which I’ve mentioned here a few times—see here and here—but for good measure, here’s that beloved trailer again:

Ah… what a film.)

A Donghak Rebellion-era film, done as a Western? Ah, Korean needs that film more badly than anyone realizes right now, I think… 1

Still, it’s kind of a shame that I feel like I got more out of that one picture than most of the text in the book… well, that and the lyrics to a couple of rebel songs, and a few odd details that intrigued me. This book, sadly, was just history by the numbers, and it saddens me because the Donghak Rebellion seems like it’s as important for modern Korean history as the Taiping is for China’s.

But for the moment, unless I can get my hands on Paul Beirne’s Su-un and His World of Symbols (which seems likely to be more about Donghak theology and scripture, which would also be interesting, but though I imagine it doesn’t say much about the uprising since the eponymous cult founder was dead by that time), Shin and Lee’s book will have to do, since it was the only full-length English-language book I could find on the subject. (Which surprised me, and of course I could be wrong, but I did try to find something, anything, else. If you have any suggestions, dear readers, let fly!)

I guess I’ll have to try request the Beirne through interlibrary loan sometime, maybe this summer…

Update (2 July 2015): Per my plea for suggestions, the indefatigable Minsoo Kang suggested the following, via a footnote from a text he is working now (a new Hong Gildong translation due out next year!):

There is now a substantial literature in English on the Donghak movement. The pioneering work on the subject is Benjamin Weems, Reform, Rebellion and Heavenly Way (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1964). The most recent book-length work is George L. Kallander, Salvation through Dissent: Tonghak Heterodoxy and Early Modern Korea (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2013). Kallender asserts that it is important to look at the difference between the original religion of the 1860s and the political movement that it became in the 1890s under different historical circumstances. See also Young Ick Lew, “The Conservative Character of the 1894 Tonghak Peasant Uprising: A Reappraisal with emphasis on Chŏn Pong-jun’s Background and Motivation,” Journal of Korean Studies 7 (1990-1991): 149-180.

To my tremendous pleasure, all those resources are available to my through work. Two electronically, and one—the Weems—via inter-branch loan! Happy days!

  1. Not just because the wealth and power gap in this society is widening, buut also because and more narratives about historical conflict between Korean haves and Korean have-nots, just to loosen up the whole notion of one ever-unified ethnic identity extending back into history, and constantly oppressed by menacing outsiders; consider such a story something of an ideological laxative, aiding that notion to pass more smoothly and quickly through the cultural digestive system and, eventually—one dares to hope—excreted.

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