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  3. 1. Origins and background : Upheavals in Korea and the reactions of Japan and China – Donghak Peasant Rebellion

1. Origins and background : Upheavals in Korea and the reactions of Japan and China – Donghak Peasant Rebellion

East Asia in the 19th century – Japan, China and Korea

With the successive arrivals of Western nations– the United States, Great Britain, France, the Netherlands and Russia –in East Asia from the mid-19th century onwards, relations with the West came to have a major impact on the countries of the region.

Following American demands for the opening of ports, the resulting collapse of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and the Meiji Restoration, Japan pushed forward with building a modern state. One of the most important issues in this process was the revision of the unequal treaties concluded with various Western powers during the opening of the country at the end of the Edo Period (i.e. the abolition of extraterritoriality and recovery of tariff autonomy) and gaining an equal footing with these nations on the international stage. To this end, from 1871 to 1873 the Meiji government despatched a Mission under Iwakura Tomomi to Europe and America and embarked on a series of diplomatic negotiations. In the 1890s the movement to revise treaties with Britain gathered pace as the latter became concerned at the expansion of Russian influence. As the relations between states were redrawn through a modern diplomatic system clearly defined by treaties, Japan began to re-assess its own relationship with Korea, with which it had strong historical links, and, as a result, came to strengthen its influence over Korea.

Like Japan, from the mid-19th century onwards Korea under the Joseon (Yi) Dynasty was also subjected to demands from Western powers to open its ports and was faced with the dilemma of what sort of relations to have with these countries. Korea attached great significance to its long-standing tributary relationship with China in which Korea was the vassal and China the suzerain. Meanwhile, China, in addition to attacks by Britain and France during the First Opium War (1840-1842) and the Arrow (or Second Opium) War (1856-1860) and the forced cession of territory to Russia, had also been suffering domestic upheaval in a succession of popular uprisings since the beginning of the 19th century including the White Lotus Rebellion (1796-1804), Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864), Nian Rebellion (1853-1868) and repeated revolts by the Hui People. Given the situation in China, the Korean government strengthened its policy of national seclusion, suppressed Christianity (1866), and fiercely resisted approaches from France and the United States with military force - for example in the French Campaign against Korea (1866), the General Sherman Incident (1866) and the United States Expedition to Korea (1871). Nevertheless, as a result of military conflict with Japan in the Ganghwa Island (or Un'yō) Incident [Document 1], Korea concluded the Japan-Korea Treaty of Amity.(27 February 1876) [Document 2], and came to open its ports through a succession of unequal treaties with Western powers.

Disturbances at the Korean royal court

In this tense atmosphere, fierce antagonism arose at the Korean royal court between the progressive faction (known as the Gaehwapa "Enlightenment Party" or Dongnipdang "Independence Party") which believed that Korea should strengthen itself through modernisation as an independent nation so as hold its own with foreign powers, and the conservative faction (known as the Sugupa "Conservative Party" or Sadaedang, or "Serve the Great Party") which advocated relying on the protection of Qing China.

The central figures in the Enlightenment Party were the family of Queen Min, consort of King Gojong, who wielded the real power at the time. They attached importance to co-operation with Japan which was encouraging Korea on the path of modernisation and put particular emphasis on modernising the armed forces, bringing military advisers from Japan to help set up a new army. However, many leading figures of the Enlightenment Party were assassinated by members of the old army and the general population unhappy with the actions of the progressive faction and with Japan's position. After the Imo Incident (Imo Mutiny) of 23 July 1882 [Document 3], in which the Japanese legation was attacked, members of the legation staff murdered and Minister Hanabusa Yoshimoto forced to flee, power at court shifted to the Heungseon Daewongun, King Gojong's father and leader of the conservative faction. In response the Japanese government despatched troops to Korea to call the Korean government to account over the incident and to protect Japanese residents [Document 4].

These Japanese actions put China increasingly on its guard and when Japan sent troops ostensibly to quell the incident and protect their legation, the Chinese held the Daewongun responsible for the situation and placed him under house arrest.

This demonstration of the impact of Chinese military strength, and the Treaty of Chemulpo of 30 Aug 1882 [Document 5] which forced the Korean government to allow Japan to station troops in Korea, led to both countries' armies being garrisoned in the capital Hanseong and to increasingly strained situation between Japan and China in Korea.

With the Daewongun in confinement in China, Queen Min, who had escaped the Imo Incident unscathed, resumed power and changed her policy to one of increased reliance on China. This strengthened the reformists' sense of apprehension and Kim Ok-gyun and others, anticipating Japanese support, brought about the Gapsin Coup (4 Dec 1884) [Document 6]. With King Gojong's approval they intended to seize power but the Chinese army immeditately attacked the new government and suppressed the coup. At this point, fighting broke out between the Japanese troops, stationed in the palace on the pretext of protecting the king, and the invading Chinese forces. Many non-combattant Japanese were also among the victims of the Chinese attacks, heightening the risk of war between the two countries. However, under the Tientsin Convention of 18 April 1885 [Document 7], Japan and China agreed that each would withdraw its troops from Korea and that in future neither nation would send froces to Korea without prior notification to the other. The imminent threat of war between Japan and China was thus averted but in the years to come the Korean court was unable to control political unrest and both countries remained on their guard.

The outbreak of the Donghak Peasant Rebellion

After the suppression of the Gapsin Coup, the Min clan's government, under Chinese direction, embarked on a process of national reform. Meanwhile, King Gojong sought to establish relations with other countries as an independent state, planning rapprochement with Russia and sending ambassadors to Europe and North America. In response, China tightened its control, restoring the Daewongun and exercising strict control of Korean diplomacy.

Alongside this strengthening of Chinese influence and increasing contact with foreign countries, Korea introduced various policies aimed at modernisation but in the early 1890s its financial situation gradually deteriorated. For the peasants in particular, tax rises, the spread of corruption among officials and cornering of the grain market by Japanese merchants brought poverty and hardship.

In the Spring of 1894 popular uprisings broke out all over the country fuelled, amongst other things, by dissatsifaction with local officials [Document 8]. The armed rebellion was launched by peasants of Gobu in Jeolla Province. The leaders of this revolt - and many of the others involved -were believers in Donghak (Eastern Learning), a popular religious movement widely followed by the peasantry, and the rebel peasant army came to be called the "Donghakdang" or "Donghak Party". The revolution, which espoused the Donghak belief that all men were equal and rejected the feudal class society, aimed to expel the Japanese and overthrow the regime of Queen Min and her clan. It rapidly spread throughout the country and its forces grew in strength. Having destroyed the army sent against them by the Korean government the rebels headed north to the capital Hanseong.

At the end of May the Peasant Army occupied Jeonju, the capital of Jeolla Province [Document 9]. Within the Korean government a debate arose over whether or not to request China to mobilise an army to put down the rebellion. At the same time, concern over China's despatching troops to Korea strengthened the view within the Japanese government that Japan too should send an army to Korea. The result was a sudden escalation in tension between China and Japan who, for almost a decade since the Tientsin Convention, had been keeping a watchful eye each other's actions towards Korea.


Document 1
Reference Code: A01000021900 Title: The particulars of the artillery attack on the gunboat Un'yō in Ganghwa Bay, Korea
This is a digest dated 3 October 1875 of documents relating to the Ganghwa Island Incident. It begins with a report on the provinces and districts of Korea. Then follows a summary of the incident sparked when the Japanese gunboat Un'yō, passing near Ganghwa Island on 20 September, was involved in an exchange of fire with Korean forces. It includes a detailed report by the captain of the Un'yō etc.


Document 2
Reference Code: B13091001400 Title: Japan-Korea Treaty of Amity. Original signed copy
This is the original signed copy of the Japan-Korea Treaty of Amity concluded on 27 February 1876.


Document 3
Reference Code: A03023634400 Title: Outline of the Korea Incident written by Captain Mizuno
This is a record compiled by Captain Mizuno Katsuki, military attaché at the Japanese Legation in Korea, outlining events from the 23 July 1882, the day of the Imo Incident, until 29 July when he reached Nagasaki having fled the unrest in Hanseong [Seoul]. It includes a detailed description of the attack on the Legation.


Document 4
Reference Code: A03023634800 Title: Orders to Minister Resident Hanabusa Yoshitada to return to Korea
In August 1882 it was decided that Hanabusa Yoshimoto, Minister to Korea, who had returned to Japan to escape the upheavals during the Imo Incident, should be sent back to Hanseong [Seoul] as Minister Resident to conduct talks with the Korean government. This document outlines this decision and includes orders to Minister Hanabusa which lay out the matters to be conveyed to the Korean government.


Document 5
Reference Code: B13091006000 Title: Treaty to improve Japan-Korea relations following the riots in Gyeongseong [Seoul] in 1882 (Treaty of Chemulpo) (original signed copy)
Original signed copy of the Treaty of Chemulpo concluded between Japan and Korea on 30 August 1882.


Document 6
Reference Code: B03030193500 Title: 1. Uprising in Korea. 1 [12-19 December 1884]
Images 13 to 15 show the report sent by Takezoe Shin'ichirō, Minister Resident in Korea to the Acting Foreign Minister in Japan on 6 Dec 1884. It recounts that the Gapsin coup had begun on the night of 4 December. King Gojong had requested Japanese troops to protect the royal palace but they had come under attack from the Chinese army and from Korean forces.


Document 7
Reference Code: B13090891700 Title:Tientsin (Tianjin) Convention (original signed copy)
This is the original copy of the Tienstin Convention signed by Japan and China on 18 April 1885.


Document 8
Reference Code: B08090164300 Title: 1. Riots in Haman, Gyeongsang Province
This is a report sent by Murota Yoshifumi, Consul-General in Busan to the Deputy Foreign Minister in Japan on 5 March 1894. It relates how popular dissatisfaction with local officials in Haman, Gyeongsong Province has caused widespread riots.


Document 9
Reference Code: C08040589200 Title: 2 June 1894. Report on the state of the Donghak Rebellion
Telegram dated 2 June 1894 from the Gamchalsa (Korean official responsible for inspecting local government) of Jeonju. He reports that on the previous day tens of thousands of people had entered Jeonju Castle and had then proceeded to Gongju, the leading city of Chungcheong Province.