The history of Korea in the late nineteenth century encompasses new social, political, theological, and economical ideas that led to modernization and new personal ideology that was apportioned to citizens of all classes in Korea. In the late nineteenth century, there were massive political and social changes that led to a more modern Korea. Many of this political and social changes came from theological-based societal implications that were progressed by Protestant activists in the region. A political activist organization that perpetuated Methodist beliefs and ideologies was the Tongnip hyophoe, or the Independence Club.
The Independence Club was an organization that helped progress Korea into a westernized, independent nation. From 1882 to 1898, Protestantism had helped modernize Korean society by introducing social revisions that eventually led to the founding of the notable Independence Club. The Independence Club was a short-lived organization that was responsible for the dramatic social changes in Korean society between 1896 and 1898. The Independence Club Though the Club was ephemeral, it had an immense impact on Korea and its citizens.
It was established by three activists who wished for Korean westernization through the means of Protestantism in 1896. These three men; Seo Jae-pil, Yi Sang-jae, and Yun Chi-ho, all claimed to be Korean revolutionaries who felt that Korea needed to democratize. The establishment of the Independence Club was formed and organized around the Protestant Church’s views and beliefs. The founders of the Independence Club, all Korean Protestants who converted from Confucianism, believed that Protestantism was the predominant reason countries such as United States were wealthy and prosperous.
Often, the Independence Club’s newspaper, the Tongnip Sinmun, or The Independent, claimed the United States as “a nation of wealth” or “a nation of benevolence and righteousness”. Although Christianity had been introduced to Korea before 1882, never had progressive aspects of religion imposed government and society like Protestantism did. In 1884, Korea was ruled under Chinese control. Many politicians and political activists that believed in Korean independence were exiled as a result. Because of China’s excessive political and social influence in Korea, Japan declared war on China.
Society was adhered to Chinese customs and culture such as Confucianism and an inegalitarian social class that favored men of society. In the same year, Japan was able to force Chinese forces and impositions out of Korea which led to return of exiled Koreans. Out of many Koreans that were forced exile, Seo Jae-pil, Yi Sang-jae, and Yun Chi-ho returned home Christian converts and wished to spread the ideologies of the Protestant Church. In 1896, these three individuals sought an organization that helped build the bridge between societal problems and practical solutions.
Within three months of its establishment, it had reached over 10,000 members in its organization; all ranging from “butchers” or commoners to the upper class aristocracy. While these three men were in exile, they witnessed Western culture first-hand. With the establishment of the Independence Club, there became a bridge between local issues and government enactment. Local Protestant churches held community gatherings to discuss a westernizing ideology that followed Protestant beliefs. The Independence Club can be seen through multiple perspectives during Korean history.
Some historians, like Chung-Shin Park, a professor at Washington, believed the primary purpose of the Independence Club was strictly to modernize and democratize Korean’s citizens. However, other historians like Vladimir Tikhonov, a Russian born Korea and China professor at the University of Oslo, believed that the Independence Club was a critique of China. Tikhonov believed that Korea needed China to be the “archetypical ‘inimical and inferior Other’”. Many of the Independence Club’s accomplishments were a direct response from China’s governance before 1896. Korea’s modernization and self-reliance led to many social accomplishments.
Monuments such as the Independence Gate were erected to show celebrate Korean’s independence and sovereignty. Other social implications that the Independence Club was involved in was their newspaper, the Tongnip Sinmun or The Independent, that spread Korean news in both Modern Korean and English. The Tongnip Sinmun was responsible for publishing work that revolved around the core beliefs and characteristics that the Independence Club lived by. Another perspective the Independence Club can be seen through is as critique of confucianism and shamanism, both Chinese ideologies.
The Independence Club founded a National Script which was the result of many linguistics who studied the Korean vernacular. Koreans believed the Independence Club to be a set of people who followed slightly radical that involved the role of citizens’ accountability in society as well as the government’s duty and accountability to its citizens. Upon the founding of the Independence Club, the activists that established the club believed that their core beliefs and ideology should be straightforward and easily understood by any citizen of Korea.
Previously, because of Korea’s strict inegalitarian society, the rich, men controlled government and politics. However, with the social shift pushed forth by the Independence Club, Korea shifted from Chinese influence to western beliefs that allowed women and the poor to have active participation in government. Because the Protestant church was deeply involved in this transformation, commoners, outcasts, and butchers were all actively involved in westernization. People who were previously insubordinate in Korean hierarchal Confucian society preached equality amongst all.
While westernization was present, the Club also believed that there should be no reliance on other countries for domestic and foreign affairs, “Their goals included protection of the country’s independence from foreign aggression, revocation of all economic concessions, and adoption of a foreign policy that favored none of the rival powers trying to advance their interests on the peninsula”. Often, politicians would be bribed by countries such as China who wished to subjugate Korea. The Independence Club urged that this type of relationship must stop.
Individuality, both at a nation and individual level was extremely emphasized by the Independence Club. Protestantism had been a staple point to the establishment of the Independence Club. The Independence Club’s basic ideals and practices was influenced by the practices and ideals of the Protestant Church. An important component of the Independence Club was the Tongnip Sinmun, or The Independent. The Independent was the Independence Club’s newspaper that reported and spread details of the club and its ideals.
The Independent had also been used to glorify western culture and practices, especially those of the United States. It was the most important tool of the Independence Club. This newspaper, which was founded by Dr. So Jaepil, emphasized modernization of Korea. The Tongnip Sinmun was also seen as a critique and result of China’s overbearing influence and Korea. It was a skeptic of China. The publications of the Tongnip Sinmun bashed the Chinese and needed China to be the archetypical ‘inimical and inferior other”.
In one article, the success and modernization of Korea appeased the Chinese government, and the Emperor of the Qing dynasty wished to write a segment in The Independent, “Congratulations on the independence of Korea from the rule of Qing- King of China English Thanks to the will of the God, Korea, after many suns (years) of serving as a vassal state of the Qing Dynasty, has become a fully independent nation. Now, the monarch of Korea is on equal footing with the world’s leaders, and the Korean people are free. Because of the significance of this auspicious event, this symbol will serve as a reminder to the world and to future generations