General Jeon Bong-jun, leader of the Donghak Peasant Movement
A statue was recently erected in Jongno, downtown Seoul, depicting the sitting figure of Jeon Bong-jun, the man at the forefront of the 1894 Donghak Peasant Movement where ordinary people rose up against the rampant corruption of the ruling classes, motivated by the teachings of Donghak.
Founded in 1860 by Choe Je-u, Donghak preached equality between genders and classes, teaching that the Way of Heaven resided within one's own mind, and so by improving one's nature, one attains the Way of Heaven. As the Way of Heaven resided in all people, this also included children, and so Choe, also taught that one must refrain from striking them, and treat them with respect. Many followers would also take it upon themselves to adopt orphans. Under this spirit of respect toward children, Children’s Day would later be established within Korea. As the movement grew in popularity among the peasantry, it sparked several revolts, and eventually the authorities arrested and executed Choe in 1864.
However, the movement lived on, until a Jeon Bong-jun joined in the 1880s. Rapidly rising within Donghak’s ranks, on January 8th 1894 he led a raid of farmers on the government offices of Gobu district, North Jeolla Province, to punish the corrupt practices of the mayor and distribute food among the poor. Following the revolt, the government appointed a new mayor and offered immunity to the peasants, but following a crackdown on the instigators and participants, the wrath of the people reignited.
Jeon promptly sent out notices to other Donghak leaders to rise up with him, along with a series of overarching rules including not to kill or destroy property. On May 4th 1894, roughly 13,000 people gathered again in revolt and within a month had taken over the provincial capital of Jeonju. Soon, the government asked for help from Qing China, prompting the Japanese to sneak more troops into the country to counteract the growing Chinese military presence. Between two fronts, Jeon offered to withdraw if the government accepted his reform plan to punish corrupt officials, free slaves, and distribute land more fairly.
Although the government agreed, not long after the Japanese occupied Seoul and established a pro-Japanese government. Realizing he was the only thing standing between Japan and full control of Korea, he led his army of 12,000 farmers against them, but was swiftly defeated by their modern weaponry and overwhelming numbers. Forced into hiding, Jeon was captured in December 1894 after being betrayed, and a few months later in March 1895, he was executed. Even after his death, his name has lived on as a symbol of steadfast commitment to making people’s lives better, and his loyalty and love for the most vulnerable empowered the Korean resistance movement against the Japanese for decades to come.