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Ages of Conquest: a Kings and Generals Podcast

May 15, 2023

Last time we spoke about the Gapsin Coup. Li Hongzhang snipped the bud of war before it could bloom after the Imo uprising and the Daewongun stole back power in Korea. The Daewongun was spanked and sent into exile yet again, but now Korea had become greatly factionalized. The progressives and conservatives were fighting bitterly to set Korea on a Japanese or Chinese path to modernization. This led radicals like Kim Ok-kyun to perform the Gapsin coup which was terribly planned and failed spectacularly. Japan and China were yet again tossed into a conflict in Korea, but China firmly won the day for she had more forces to bear. Japan licked her wounds and went home, learning a bitter lesson. That lesson was: next time bring more friends to the party.


#48 This episode is the Assasination of Kim Ok-kyun & the Donghak Rebellion


Welcome to the Fall and Rise of China Podcast, I am your dutiful host Craig Watson. But, before we start I want to also remind you this podcast is only made possible through the efforts of Kings and Generals over at Youtube. Perhaps you want to learn more about the history of Asia? Kings and Generals have an assortment of episodes on history of asia and much more  so go give them a look over on Youtube. So please subscribe to Kings and Generals over at Youtube and to continue helping us produce this content please check out If you are still hungry for some more history related content, over on my channel, the Pacific War Channel where I cover the history of China and Japan from the 19th century until the end of the Pacific War.


Now despite the Gapsin coup, Japan and China still tried to cooperate against the west. But Japan was learning much from the outside world, particularly by the actions of imperialistic nations. Britain had begun large scale operations in Shanghai, developing the international settlement there. King Leopold of belgium established the Congo Free state of 1862, and likewise France and Britain were also establishing colonies all over Africa. The Dutch held Java, but then they invaded Aceh in Sumatra in 1873 and other parts of Indonesia after that. The Russians were taking large swathes of land including Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, parts of the Sakhalin, even territory close to Korea in the region of Priamur. Once the ports of Wonsan and Inchon were opened up, Japanese manufactured goods began to pour in. By 1893 91 percent of imports into Korea would be from Japan while 8 percent would be from China. While China tried to keep Japan out, the Meiji restoration had created an industrial powerhouse that made goods, and China had not managed this herself. Of Korea, 49 percent went to China and 50 percent went to Japan. In the eyes of Koreans, even though she was not formally a colony of Japan, the way the Japanese were behaving looked imperialistic. 

Now in 1886 the Beiyang Fleet was responsible for protecting China’s northern coastline and she would make a fateful call to Nagasaki. The purpose of this call was to show off her 4 new modern battleships she had purchased from Germany, the Dingyuan, Zhenyuan, Jiyuan and Weiyuan. These ships were far larger than anything Japan had at the time, a large reason because Japan was following the Jeune Ecole naval strategy. This strategy was developed by France basically to combat the British royal navy. It emphasized using small rapid assault craft, cruisers and destroyers to thwart the might of capital ships like battleships. For my fellow world of warship players, the idea was simple, instead of slamming money into large battleships to fight other large battleships, the French began to experiment more with the capability of torpedo technology. With faster, smaller ships, the French thought they could be used more like raiders, to attack the enemy and cripple them. The Jeune ecole doctrine also sought to use strongly armed fast ships, thus its kind of a glass cannon situation. Anyways the implicit message from China was to show Japan how foolish they would be to go to war with her. On August 13th, 500 Chinese sailors took a shore leave in Nagasaki and they went to the local red-light district. As you can imagine, one thing led to another and some altercations began with the locals. The locals claimed the Chinese sailors got drunk and starting causing havoc, regardless the Chinese sailors began fighting some Japanese cops apparently using swords they bought at some stores. One source I found says over 80 people died during this which is pretty nuts.

The next day a conference was held by the governor of Nagasaki, Kusaka Yoshio and the Qing consulate Xuan Cai which led to an agreement the Beiyang navy would prohibit their men from going ashore for a day. Then on August 15th at 1pm, 300 Chinese sailors went ashore, some wielding clubs apparently and they attacked 3 police officers killing one. A rickshaw saw the conflict and tried to punch a CHinese sailor, and this all snowballed into a riot. More cops showed up, more fighting, and this led to the deaths of 2 more cops, 3 sailors and more than 50 wounded. It was a real shit show, and the Qing decided not to apologize for the ordeal. In fact the Qing made demands to the Japanese government that from then on Japanese cops would not prohibit Chinese from wielding swords and forced the Japanese to make a large sum of reparation payments. 

Now aside from the drunken debauchery, which in the grand scheme of things was not much of a deal, the real deal was the Japanese reaction to the Beiyang fleet. When the Japanese saw the Dingyuan, they basically went 100% in on the Jeune D’ecole doctrine to counter it. They IJN immediately decided to construct 3 large cruisers with firepower identical to the Dingyuan, basically this meant they were making battleship killers. While Japan was aggressively modernizing and pouring a ton of money into their navy by the late 1880s, in China the reconstruction of the summer palace was taking enormous sums of funding. The marble boat pavilion, as I mentioned, was taking funds intended for the Beiyang fleet thanks to empress dowager Cixi and thus no major investments would be made for the Qing navy in the last 1880’s and early 1890s. To give more of an idea, 1/10th of the salaries of for civil officials and military officers in Japan was being deducted to add additional funding for the construction of naval ships and purchase of arms, Japan was not messing around.

Now something that often goes more unnoticed is Japan’s early efforts at gaining intelligence on China. Despite the Sino-Japanese relations falling apart because of the Korea situation, trade between China and Japan was growing in the 1880s. Japanese businessmen expected trade with China to only increase and in preparation for the expansion they began collecting information of Chinese market opportunities. But for those who know a bit about Meiji era Japan, the Zaibatsu driven system meant private business went hand in hand with the government of Japan and this led the Japanese government to ask the businessmen to look at other things in China. What sort of things, military installations, military dockyards, everything military. In 1879 Katsura Taro took a trip to China with 10 Japanese observers to survey Chinese military facilities. He would publish a book describing Chinese military bases, weapons and organization in 1881 and that book would be revised in 1882 and 1889. By the time of 1894, the Japanese military had access to detailed information about China’s geography, her economy, her railways, roads, ports, installations, the whole shebang, thanks to Japanese journalists and businessmen. Of course amongst all of these were full blown Japanese spies, but for the most part China did not do enough due diligence to hide its military capabilities. Rather ironically, the Japanese businessmen who opposed military actions and just wanted to help develop China contributed a lot of information that would hurt China. On the other side of the coin, chinese reports about Japan were a complete 180. China’s consul general in Nagasaki wrote reports on the ships coming and going within Nagasaki harbor. Alongside him, the Chinese ambassador to Tokyo, Li Shuchang who served from 1881-1884 and 1887-1890 sent some warnings about developments in Korea. Other than those two, Japan attracted virtually no interest from Beijing. Just before the war would break out in 1894, the Chinese ambassador to Tokyo Wang Fengcao, reported to Beijing that the Japanese were so obsessed with internal politics they were unlikely to be active externally.

I think its interesting to point out, while Japan was indeed building up its IJA/IJN, she never stopped pointing that gun at Russia. China and Japan right up to the conflict we will be talking about had its tensions, its conflicts, its escalations, but they never gave up the chance at cooperation against the west. Take a legendary figure like Yamagata Aritomo, who led the development of the IJA and was the head of the Japanese privy council. In 1893 he publicly stated Japan should cooperate with China against their main enemies, Russia, France and Britain. Despite all the tensions in Korea, vast amounts of Japanese and Chinese scholars who studied the causes of the first sino-japanese war, came to agree it would not have occurred if not for two key events. The first one is a assassination and the second is a rebellion.

In early 1894, Kim Ok-kyun was invited to visit Li Hongzhang in Shanghai. After living nearly a decade in fear of assassination, he accepted the invitation, perhaps believing this was his only chance to reclaim normality in his life. Well unbeknownst to him another Korean acquaintance of his named Hong Jong-u had actually gone to Japan in 1893 trying to hunt him down and he found out about the voyage. A source claims Hong Jong-u was working for King Gojong and went to Japan befriending him, while trying to lure him back over to Shanghai. Regardless Hong Jong-u got aboard and murdered Kim Ok-gyun by shooting him on March the 27th. Hong Jong-u was arrested by British authorities in Shanghai for his crime, but in accordance with their treaty obligations they surrendered the assassin over to Qing authorities for trial. The Qing instead freed him, whereupon he became quite the celebrity for his actions. Hong Jong-u would return to Korea and would be appointed to a high office position, giving credence to the theory he was working for King Gojong the entire time. When Kim Ok-kyun’s body arrived to Korea it was shrouded in some cloth bearing the inscription “Ok-kyun, arch rebel and heretic”. On april 14th, King Gojong ordered the body decapitated, so the head could be displayed in Seoul while 8 other body parts would be sent to each of Korea’s 8 provinces to be showcased likewise. His severed body parts were showcased in various cities in Korea to display what happens to those who commit treason. Kim Ok’kyun’s father was hanged and his brother, wife and daughter were all imprisoned. Under Korean practice at this time it was common practice for the family of the guilty to be punished as well, that's some hardcore stuff there folks. The wife and daughter would become slaves to the governmental offices, a standard punishment for the female household members of rebels. It was during this time one of Kim Ok-kyun’s traveling companions, a Chinese linguist for the legation in Tokyo claimed to reporters that Kim Ok-kyun had come to Shanghai by invitation from Lord Li Jingfang, the former minister at Tokyo and adopted son of Li Hongzhang. 


The Japanese public was outraged. Japanese newspapers interpreted all of this to mean Viceroy Li Hongzhang had planned the whole thing. It was also alleged Li Hongzhang had sent a congratulatory telegram to the Korean government for the assassination. Many others pointed towards King Gojong since the assassin claimed to be under direct orders from the king. Kim Ok-kyun had been a guest in Japan and the Qing authorities had seemingly done nothing to protect him and made no attempt to bring the assassin to justice. The Qing had likewise handed over the corpse, knowing full well what the Koreans would do to it, as was their custom for treason. From the Japanese point of view, the Qing had gone out of their way to insult the Japanese in every possible manner. From the Chinese point of view, Kim Ok-kyun had committed high treason and deserved his fate. 

Fukuzawa Yukichi led a funeral ceremony held in Tokyo at Aoyama Cemetery for Kim Ok-kyun. He had taught the man, and spoke in his honor reflecting Japan's respect for his efforts to modernize Korea. The Japanese press began to fill with public calls for a strong national response. The Chinese reaction during this time period reflected their deep-seated prejudices concerning the Japanese. Even with official communications, the Qing routinely referred to the Japanese as ‘Woren” which is a racist term meaning Japanese Dwarf basically. Wo is the word for dwarf, and the link to the Japanese was a racial term emerged during the times the Japanese were pirating the waters around China’s coast, the “wokou”. By the way do not use this word today to refer to Japanese haha. During the upcoming war a Qing official expressed these types of racial attitudes, that this quote for example "It took them 48,000 years before they made contact with China, while in 3,600 years they still have not accepted our celestial calendar...illegitimately assuming the reign title of Meiji (Enlightened Rule), they in reality abandon themselves all the more to debauchery and indolence. Falsely calling their new administration a 'reformation' they only defile themselves so much the more." One Captain William M Lang, a British officer who helped train the Beiyang Squadron of the Qing fleet from 1881 to 1890 had noted this about the Chinese and Japanese. "treated Japan with the utmost contempt, and Japan, for her part, has the same feeling towards China." One German military advisor in China said “The Chinese looked upon Japan as a traitor towards Asia”. Thus before the war broke out, the Chinese for the most part considered the Japanese to be another inferior neighboring people, below the status of a tributary since Japan had severed that link to China. The more tense the situation got between the two nations saw the Chinese viewing the Japanese with more contempt. They would ridicule the Japanese for the communal bathing habits, the attire of their women and the way they imitated western culture. The Japanese as you might guess resented this a lot. 

In 1891 Alexander III issued a special imperial rescript announcing Russia’s intention to build a trans-siberian railway. From the Japanese point of view, this amounted to a foreign policy manifesto equivalent to the monroe doctrine of the united states. Just as America had kicked out all other powers from the Americas, so to it seemed Russia would do the same with the Asian mainland. For the great Meiji leadership of Japan, it looked like Russia would seize control over Korea and thwart Japan’s dreams of empire and the ever coveted status of a great power that came with it. Once the trans-siberian railway was announced the Japanese knew they had roughly a decade to resolve the Korea situation before the balance of power would be irrevocably changed and the door would be shut upon them. Yet as bad as the situation was for Japan it was even worse for China. The trans-siberian railway would allow the Russians to deploy troops along the Chinese border in areas that would prove difficult for the Chinese to do the same as they did not have a major railway. On top of this Japan was pursuing an increasingly aggressive foreign policy focused on the Korean peninsula. Qing strategists had long considered Korea a essential buffer for their defenses. With the Russians pushing from the west and the Japanese from the east, Li Hongzhang was hard pressed to take a more aggressive stance in Korea.

Now as I said, two major reasons were attributed to the outbreak of the first sino-japanese war, the first being the assassination of Kim Ok-kyun, the second is known as the Tonghak rebellion. I can’t go to far into the rabbit hole, but the Tonghak movement began around 1860 as a sort of religion, emphasizing salvation and providing rituals to achieve this. It was much akin to the Taiping Rebellion, a sect that was deeply upset with a corrupt government. It was formed by a poor member of the Yangban class whose father had been a local village scholar and it was largely created to give hope to the poor class. It had some roman catholicism and western learning associated with it, again very much like the Taiping. The peasantry class of Korea found this sect very appealing and the Tonghak influence was particularly strong in Cholla province, the breadbasket of Korea. Members of the sect were angry that corrupt Joseon officials in Seoul were imposing high taxes on them. The leaders of the sect were all poor peasants who, because of their inability to pay their taxes, had either lost their land or were about to lose their land.

Their leader was Choe Jeu who described the founding of the Tonghak religion as such 

By 1860, I heard rumours that the people of the West worship God, and caring not for wealth, conquer the world, building temples and spreading their faith. I was wondering whether I, too, could do such a thing. On an April day, my mind was unnerved and my body trembled... Suddenly a voice could be heard. I rose and asked who he was.

"Do not fear nor be scared! The people of the world call me Hanulnim. How do you not know me?" Said Hanul. I asked the reason he had appeared to me. "...I made you in this world so that you could teach my holy word to the people. Do not doubt my word!" Hanulnim replied. "Do you seek to teach the people with Christianity?" I asked again. "No. I have a magical talisman... use this talisman and save the people from disease, and use this book to teach the people to venerate me!" The Joseon Dynasty quickly banned the religion and executed its leader in 1864 for “tricking and lying to the foolish people”. 

Regardless the tonghak spread across Gyeongsang province by the 1870’s under new leadership. However in the 1870’s the rice agriculture in Korea had become increasingly commercialized as Japanese merchants bought more and more of it to ship back to Japan. Korea was not producing enough to meet the needs of its own population as a result. Japanese merchants would begin to lend money to local Korean peasants and when the peasants could not repay the funds, the rice merchants confiscated their land. This obviously was seen as dishonest and exploitative, as it was and the Tonghak gradually became very anti-Japanese. The Tonghaks performed a series of lesser rebellions against excessive taxation. There were revolts in 1885, 1888, 1889, 1890, 1891, 1892 and 1893. By the 1890’s the Donhak’s began a petition to overturn the 1863 execution of Choe Jeu, to stop the ban on them, to expel all western missionaries and merchants and to kill corrupt officials, a tall order. So yeah King Gojong did not want to give in to such reasonable petitions and told them “go to your home, If you do, I may grant your plea”. A lot of the Tonghak wanted to march on Seoul, and they began threatening westerners and Japanese. Soon a group of over 80,000 Donghak believers led by a southern leader named Jeon Bongjun began marching with flags stating “expel westerners and Japanese”.

Now this is a really confusing a large scale event, one of if not the biggest rebellion in Korean history. One thing to focus on though is that a particularly oppressive county magistrate named Jo Byeonggap in Northern Cholla, seemed to have provided the “straw that broke the camel's back”. The magistrate had forced young men to work on a water reservoir and then charged them and their families for use of the water. He overly taxed, fined peasants for dubious crimes including infidelity, lack of harmony, adultery and needless talents, no idea how that last one works out. He also sent spoiled rice sacks to Seoul while keeping unspoiled sacks from himself. Basically this guy was an embezzling scumbag, by today's standards we would refer to him as a member of the US congress. 

By march 22nd tens of thousands of Tonghak rebels destroyed the new reservoir, burnt down the governmental offices and some storage facilities in northern Cholla. They then occupied Taein by April 1st, and a few days later Buan. The local Joseon government sent commander Yi Yeonghyo with 700 soldiers and 600 merchants to quell the rebellion only to be lured into an ambush at the Hwangto pass. Many of the troops were killed, some deserted and the Tonghak rebellion spread further north. King Gojong panicked, because news spread the rebels were being joined not only by countryside peasants but by many of his soldiers! Worried that the Joseon military would not be able to quell the rebellion King Gojong called upon his Qing allies to send reinforcements. 

Now there are two narratives that come into play. The first involved the Qing responding quickly, on June the 7th following the Tianjin treaty’s requirements that if one country sent troops to Korea the other had to be notified, they informed Japan they were sending 2000 troops to Inchon. The Japanese leaders, having bitterly remembered what occurred the last time they sent a smaller force into Korea did not make the same mistake this time. Within just hours of receiving the notification they dispatched 8000 troops to Korea and notified China of this.

The other narrative has it that on june 2nd the Japanese cabinet decided to deploy troops to Korea should China do so. On june the 3rd, King Gojong under advice of Empress Min and Yuan Shikai requested the Qing aid. In doing so he gave Japan the rationale to deploy their own troops. On June 5th the first Imperial headquarters was established and the next day the ministeries of the IJA and IJN instructed the Japanese press to not print any information concerning warlike operations. China notified Japan on june th of their deployments, and within hours the Japanese sent their notifications for the same. There is evidence many Japanese leaders accused China of not sending the notification thus breaching the treaty of Tianjin, but it seems highly likely they did send the notification. Regardless what is a fact is that Japan had already been pre planning its deployment during the end of May, thus it all seemed a likely rationale to start a conflict. This conflict would change the balance of power in asia, and begin a feud between two nations that still burns strongly to this very day.

I would like to take this time to remind you all that this podcast is only made possible through the efforts of Kings and Generals over at Youtube. Please go subscribe to Kings and Generals over at Youtube and to continue helping us produce this content please check out If you are still hungry after that, give my personal channel a look over at The Pacific War Channel at Youtube, it would mean a lot to me.

The endless conflicts between China, Japan and little Korea had finally sprung a large scale war, one that would change the balance of power in the east forever. Little brother was going to fight big brother.