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Korea at the Crossroads of Civilizations: Confucianism, Westernization, and the 1894 Kabo Reforms Resources

Korean History

In the 18th century the kings clamped down on factionalism. In Korea trade and commerce flourished. Merchants had low status in Korean society. Confucianism regarded them with suspicion since they did not actually produce anything, unlike peasants and craftsmen.

The first contact with Europeans came in 1656 when a Dutch ship was shipwrecked off the coast of Korea. Then in the 18th century Jesuit priests traveled to China. Koreans visiting China met them and by the end of the 18th century some Koreans had been converted to Catholicism. The new religion slowly spread in Korea despite waves of persecution in 1801, 1839 and 1866.

In the 1850s a new religion spread among the peasants. It was called Donghak (Eastern learning) and it was led by Choe Je-u. The peasants were discontented in the 19th century and in 1864 there was a rebellion. The rebellion was crushed and Choe Je-u was executed.

During the 19th century Korea adopted an isolationist policy. The Koreans refused to trade with Westerners. At first this policy was successful. Some French priests were killed in Korea in 1866. The French sent a gunboat to avenge them but they were driven off by Korean shore defenses. In 1871 Koreans burned a US ship called the General Sherman which came to plunder the coast. The USA sent ships to Korea but they too were fought off.

However Korea's policy of isolation meant she fell behind other countries in technology and industry. After 1880 king Gojong attempted reform. In 1882 he introduced the slogan 'eastern ethics, western technology' but his measures were unpopular and were resisted by conservative officials and by the ordinary people. Confucianism was a very conservative religion or philosophy and made radical change difficult.

Until 1876 Japanese merchants were only allowed to trade in Busan. In that year they forced the Koreans to sign a treaty of trade and friendship. (King Gojong realized that Korea was too weak to fight them). Other ports were opened to the Japanese. There were to be no tariffs on Japanese goods. The treaty stated that Japan and Korea were independent nations. However Japan had increasing power and influence over the Koreans.

Korea signed a similar trade treaty with the USA 1882. This was followed by treaties with Britain and Germany the same year. In 1884 she signed a trade treaty with Russia and in 1886 with France.

In 1882 some soldiers in Imo rebelled. They burned the Japanese legation and killed the Japanese military adviser. Korea was forced to pay compensation to the Japanese and signed a new treaty, the Treaty of Jemulpo, which increased Japanese influence. Furthermore the Chinese used the uprising as an excuse to station their troops on Korean territory.

In 1894 members of the Donghak religion and discontented peasants rose in rebellion. They insisted they were loyal to the king but they demanded certain reforms. The king appealed to the Chinese for help and they sent troops. Japan also sent troops. The king then made a truce with the rebels but the Japanese refused to leave. China and Japan then fought a war, which Japan won easily. For centuries Korea was a 'tributary' state of China. Chinese influence was now ended and Japan began to dominate Korea.

The Japanese installed a regent to rule and under Japanese pressure a Deliberative Council was formed to introduce reforms. From July 1894 to December 1895 the Council swept away much of Korean tradition. There were many Koreans who wanted some reform but the Japanese forced them to introduce these reforms anyway. The regent resigned in October 1894 but the king made no attempt to stop the reforms.

The old rigid division of Korean society into classes was abolished. In the past the Yangban, the scholar-official class, were not allowed to be involved in trade. Now they were free to engage in business. The old civil service exams based on Confucian thought was abolished. New exams were introduced based on modern subjects. A new curriculum was introduced for schools with modern subjects. Slavery was abolished. Widows were now allowed to remarry and child marriage was abolished.

While all this was being done the Donghak started a second rebellion. They were crushed by the Japanese and the movement was destroyed. Their leader was captured and executed in 1895. Some further reforms were undertaken in the years 1895-1910. The first modern textile mill in Korea was built in 1897 and the first railway, from Seoul to Incheon, was built in 1901. However Korea remained an overwhelmingly agricultural nation.

Maps of Korea


Suggested Readings

De, B. W. T. (2008). Sources of East Asian tradition: Vol. 1. New York: Columbia University Press.

“The Evolution of the Confucian Tradition in Antiquity: Mencius,” 69-92.

“Zhu Xi’s Neo-Confucian Program,” 361-374.


De, B. W. T. (2008). Sources of East Asian tradition: Vol. 2. New York: Columbia University Press.

“Civilization and Enlightenment,” 485-498.

“Moderate Reform and the Self-Strengthening Movement,” 629-640.


Lee, P. H., & De, B. W. T. (1997). Sources of Korean tradition. New York: Columbia University Press.

“Political Thought in Early Chosŏn, 279-292.


Lee, P. H., De, B. W. T., & Chʻoe, Y. (2000). Sources of Korean tradition: Vol. 2. New York: Columbia University Press.

“Education,” 34-52.

“Currency and a Growing Market Economy,” 88-98.

“Pak Chega, Memorial of 1876,” 107-112.

“The Tonghak Uprising and the Kabo Reforms,” 261-267.


Ebrey, P. B., Walthall, A., & Palais, J. B. (2009). Pre-modern East Asia: To 1800 : a cultural, social, and political history. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning.

Pages 365-374.

Hwang, K. M. (2004). Beyond birth: Social status in the emergence of modern Korea. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Asia Center.

Pages 17-42.

Hwang, K. M. (2010). A history of Korea: An episodic narrative. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan. Pages 118-137

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