At present, there are two contrasting views on the historical significance of the Tonghak 東學 peasant uprising: first, that the uprising was a step towards a modern society; second, that it was a “conservative rebellion.” Controversies and arguments all narrowly focus on whether or not the Tonghak peasant uprising aspired to modernity, and since researchers have tended to highlight those parts of the statements, actions, and demands of the insurgents that were advantageous to their own cause, our understanding of the uprising has been restricted rather than broadened by this debate. In order to achieve a more balanced assessment, this article probes the motives behind the Tonghak peasant uprising against the background of the governing system and ideology of Chosŏn society, while also considering the varied social customs and experiences of the people at that time. The members of the Tonghak peasant army internalized and appropriated Confucianism to justify their actions with the aim of restoring the Confucian ideology of minbon and injŏng, which had been abandoned by government officials. They did not fundamentally reject or try to overthrow the governing system of the Chosŏn dynasty, nor did they deny the validity of the institution of kingship. In this regard, the political awareness of the armed peasants was far from modernist, as they were still influenced by the existing Confucian political culture of benevolent governance. Yet, in their forceful insistence that they were entitled to benevolent government, they betrayed a mindset that had been lacking in earlier centuries and may be regarded as a precursor of a more democratic consciousness.
II. CONFUCIAN IDEOLOGY REFLECTED IN THE “MANIFESTO” OF THE TONGHAK PEASANT UPRISING
III. THE SPREAD OF CONFUCIANISM AND A CHANGE IN PUBLIC AWARENESS
IV. GROWING ZEAL FOR A NEW POLITICAL ORDER