Cheondogyo and the Donghak Revolution: the (un)making of a religion

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This paper explores the reasons why Cheondogyo is lionized in contemporary nationalist discourse, when it has such a small following in South Korea today. I argue that Cheondogyo's continuing presence in nationalist and tourist publications can be readily comprehended in light of its connection with the Donghak Revolution of 1894.
In the post-colonial era, Donghak/Cheondogyo was embraced by both the North and South Korean states, each seeking to claim a connection with the movement in order to legitimize their respective political goals. More recently, this legacy has also been claimed by the minjung movement as evidence of an incipient minjung consciousness.
These political appropriations have ensured that Cheondogyo maintains a level of legitimacy denied to other new religions of Korea. However, the political acceptance of Donghak/Cheondogyo has come at the expense of its religious legitimacy. Thus, while its connection with the Donghak Revolution may have "made" Cheondogyo into a key historical artifact, it has simultaneously been "unmade" as a religious movement with any real relevance to the present.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)123-148
JournalKorea Journal
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2004


  • new religious movements
  • nationalism
  • modernity

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