Tonghak and Taiping

I was struck, preparing for class yesterday, that the Tonghak and Taiping faiths were surprisingly similar and arose nearly simultaneously: Syncretic monotheistic faiths drawing on Confucian, Christian and indigenous magical traditions, with anti-foreign reformist programs and a counter-cultural ethos of equality.1 There are obvious differences, too, in teachings and in the leadership, but the structural similarities raise some interesting possibilities for research and teaching.

I’m not the first person to have this insight apparently, though it doesn’t look (from what little I can tell from these links) like there’s any hint of direct connection between them. I’m a little surprised, frankly, that World History textbooks (which love those kinds of parallel moments) haven’t picked up on it. Of course, Korea’s place in World History textbooks overall is pretty pitiful at the moment and the Taiping movement rarely gets more than passing mention in an already busy and traumatic Chinese 19th century. With the rise of religious history, it seems likely that these issues might come closer to the forefront, though, and I’d be curious to know if anyone else out there does something with this confluence.


  1. The Japanese “New Religions” of the 19th century are very heavily Shinto-influenced, with some Buddhism and almost no Christianity, nor did any of them become political movements. It’s not the same.  

2 responses

  1. Something I notice is the parallel between Tonghak and the ti/young distinction in China. Yes, Tonghak has the other sorts of religious components that you mention, but the sense of preserving some sort of essential “Eastern Learning” in the face of “Western” onslaught (even if the “West” is Japanese imperialism) is generally what the ti/young idea in China was all about. I usually think of Meiji Japan in these terms as well, only their ti was a lot smaller (reduced basically to the person of the emperor) and their yong a lot bigger than China’s Self-Strengtheners. We could push this to an even higher level of generality, a generic problem faced by all countries/cultures experiencing external imperialist incursion: how do we change to resist the foreigners (xixue wei yong) while also maintaining something essential of our indigenous culture (zhongxue wei ti). Tonghak is obviously a hybrid movement, with its millennial Christianity, but it reaches for an enduring connection to “Eastern learning” against the Westernizing Japanese.

  2. There were Korean thinkers who expicitly address this, most famously Yun Sonhak, who “memorialized urging the adoption of ‘Western implements’ (sogi), while retaining ‘the Eastern Way’ (tongdo).” (Sources of Korean Tradition, v2, 246) In Japan, it’s Sakuma Shozan’s “Japanese ethics, Western technology” which ultimately turns the anti-foreign movement into a reformist one.

    I wouldn’t call the Tonghak “millienial Christianity” — they’re explicitly anti-Christian, for one thing — but there is clearly some influence in their monotheistic approach and language. It’s interesting, though, that the millenial movements — including the Boxers — are anti-foreign, mostly as a result of anti-imperialism.

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