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Eastern Bandits or Revolutionary Soldiers? The 1894 Tonghak Uprising in Korean History and Memory



The 1894 Tonghak uprising was a major event for Korea and East Asia. Not only did it serve as the catalyst for the Sino-Japanese War, which marked the ascendency of Imperial Japan and the decline of Qing China and Korea’s Chosŏn dynasty, but more importantly it became a powerful symbol of nationalism in Korean history and memory. This article studies the numerous ideological shifts in the elite, scholarly, and popular history of Tonghak that occurred from 1894 through the twentieth century, in the context of Ch’ŏndogyo and Sich’ŏngyo religions (the offspring of Tonghak), Japanese colonialism, the division of Korea, and various formations of Korean national identity. Where once the event was known as a disturbance, today it is heralded as the ‘Tonghak revolution’ or ‘the 1894 peasant war.’ These transformations of Tonghak illustrate the commonalities between North Korea and South Korea and how they continue to lay claim to the Tonghak legacy for nation building and political legitimation.