Korea - A Religious History
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Korea - A Religious History

James H. Grayson

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eBook - ePub

Korea - A Religious History

James H. Grayson

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About This Book

This is an historical survey of all the religious traditions of Korea in relation to the socio-cultural trends of seven different periods of Korean history. The book includes a discussion of the history of the study of religion in Korea, a chronological description of Korean folk religion including shamanism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, Islam, and Korean New Religions, and some final observations about the unique characteristics of religious beliefs and practices in Korea.

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1. The Subject and Purpose of this Book
In her justly famous travelogue Korea and Her Neighbours, Mrs Isabella Bird Bishop wrote that when she set out on her journey to Korea in 1894 some of her friends ventured guesses as to the location of this exotic nation. Mrs Bishop commented that ‘It was curious that not one of these educated, and, in some cases, intelligent people came within 2,000 miles of its actual latitude and longitude!’ In the intervening hundred years, the academic world has fared little better in its understanding of this nation on the tip of North-east Asia. Korea’s important role in the cultural and religious history of East Asia is either ignored or passed over with comments to the effect that it was a bridge for the transmission of Chinese civilization to Japan. This latter remark would leave the untutored reader with the feeling that Korea had little to contribute to the general process of cultural development and merely acted as some sort of passive conduit. Statements of this type are wrong historically and in terms of the importance of Korean religions in the modern world.
Korean Buddhism and Confucianism have played significant parts in the development of Korean culture and have made unique contributions to the growth of each of these religious traditions generally. Although much is made of Japanese Zen Buddhism in courses which deal with the history of world religions, Korean S
Buddhism not only was established earlier than the Japanese form of meditative Buddhism, but it has been the predominant form of Korean monastic Buddhism since the tenth century.
In modern times, it is no exaggeration to say that the most dynamic form of orthodox or traditional Buddhism in East Asia is to be found in Korea. Monastic Buddhism in Japan would appear to be nearly dead, while monastic Buddhism in Korea thrives. One indication of this vitality may be seen in the way in which Korean Buddhist orders have been actively promoting the propagation of Buddhism in the West. Although Confucianism is a Chinese philosophico-religious system, it is only in Korea that an entire society became thoroughly Confucianised. Christianity, a late-comer on the Korean religious scene, has made dramatic progress there. The national census conducted in 1995 indicated that more than one quarter of the national population self-identified themselves as a Protestant or Roman Catholic Christian. Thus, Korea is the only nation in Asia where Christianity has established itself during the past two hundred years as a significant component of the national culture.
This book has been written with the intention of redressing the neglect of Korean religions and their history. As any writer would, the author has brought to this work his own points of view and interpretations of history. Firstly, the author is a Christian minister. This means that his interpretation at certain points will be different from that of, for instance, a Buddhist scholar, or an agnostic.
Secondly, the author does not believe that there is such a ‘thing’ as Korean religion, but only Korean religions, or better, Korean religious traditions. Granted that there are certain cultural influences which give religion in Korea a different character from religion in China or Japan, none the less, the author does not think that taken as a whole there is a phenomenon which can be labelled as Korean religion. In this book, the various religious traditions will be dealt with separately.
Thirdly, this is a book of history. The author intends to deal with religion in Korea not as an abstract phenomenon, but as a component of Korean culture which has grown and developed through time. Therefore Korean history has been divided into eight large time periods. The condition of the various religious traditions in each period has been treated separately, and this religious history has been set against the contemporary political and cultural history. In this way, the author hopes to show not only how a particular religious tradition was related to the culture of a particular period, but also how the various traditions related to each other at a certain time.
Fourthly, in each period of Korean history, the writer has tried to indicate that one of the traditions was the predominant force, influencing the other traditions both structurally and doctrinally. In each of the four parts of the book, I have indicated this priority by arranging the order in which I discussed the various traditions according to the influence which I perceived them to have exercised. Because Confucianism was the dominant expressed mode of religion and philosophy during the Chos
n Dynasty, the discussion of Confucianism precedes the discussion of Buddhism or Catholicism. As it is my opinion that currently Protestant Christianity is the most dynamic, if not yet the dominant, form of religion in Korea, the discussion of this tradition precedes the discussion of Catholicism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. Likewise, the other traditions are ranked in order amongst themselves.
Fifthly, it is the author’s strongly held opinion that Korean traditional religion, commonly and mistakenly called shamanism, has greatly influenced all forms of religion in all periods of Korean history, including Christianity in modern times.
2. A Short History of the Study of Our Subject
(a) The Period of Early Contact
Although Europeans have known about the existence of Korea since the late medieval period through such accounts as the travelogue of Marco Polo (1254–1324), knowledge of her manners and customs did not become known until sometime in the late seventeenth century. Perhaps the earliest description of Korean religious life occurs in the account given by the shipwrecked Dutch seaman Hendrik Hamel (1630–92), An Account of the Shipwreck of a Dutch Vessel on the Coast of the Isle of Quelpaert, Together with the Description of the Kingdom of Corea (1668). Among the matters which Hamel discusses are religious practices, but unfortunately his description is too brief and the material which he does include is not clearly described. It is also difficult to compare what Hamel says with what we know of religion in that period from Korean sources. It is, none the less, a valuable account in so far as it is a record based on the author’s own direct observations.
A far better description of certain aspects of Korean religious practices is contained in Père Jean-Baptiste du Halde’s (1674–1743) massive four-volume work, Description géographique, historique, chronologique et physique de l’Empire de la Chine et la Tartarie Chinoise (1735), drawn from the letters of French Jesuit missionaries in China to society headquarters in France. This work, also translated and published in English in 1736, greatly influenced the picture which the European intelligentsia had of China. It contains an entire chapter devoted to Korea—the first time that an extensive description of that country was made available to the Western reader. The legend of the founder of Kogury
, Ko Chumong (see Appendix A. 4), is introduced to the reader of this work. The structure and content of this legend drew the attention of scholars who were beginning to take an interest in the religious traditions of the non-European world, and the story subsequently appeared in collections of world mythology and folklore.
In 1747, Thomas Astley wrote a compilation of various travel accounts entitled Voyages and Travels in which there is a chapter called ‘A Description of Korea, Eastern Tartary, and Tibet’. The material in this chapter is drawn entirely from Père du Halde’s work and Hamel’s account. More influential than this work was a book specifically devoted to religion which included an account of the legend of Ko Chumong, founder-monarch of Kogury
. The Abbé Antoine Banier’s (1673–1741) La Mythologie et les fables expliquées par l’histoire (1738) drew on the Jesuit accounts of Korea and in turn became an important source for later students. It was translated into English in 1739 by A. Millar and was used by subsequent scholars of religion and mythology in Britain. In 1816, George Stanley Faber (1773–1854) wrote The Origin of Pagan Idolatry Ascertained from Historical Testimony and Circumstantial Evidence, in which he recounted for his readers the legend of Ko Chumong. Even though stories such as this were well known in the early nineteenth century amongst students of folklore and mythology, by the end of the century virtually all knowledge of Korea and its religions had disappeared from Western books.
Figure 1 Comparative Schematic Diagram of East Asian History
One exception to this trend was the two-volume work by Père Charles Dallet (1829–78), Histoire de l’Église de Corée (1874) which was based upon letters and other materials written by French missionaries in Korea and sent to the headquarters of the Paris Missionary Society. The first volume of this history of the Roman Catholic Church in Korea is preceded by an introduction of 192 pages which provides the first exhaustive account of the culture, society, mores, politics, and religion of the Korean people to appear in any Western language. Chapter 11 of the Introduction is devoted to the religious life of Korea. In thirteen terse pages it provides the first coherent description of Korean Confucianism, Buddhism, and folk religion. This book became a major source of information for decades, and is still a useful source for historical research. Significantly, it was the first book after Hamel’s account to be based upon the direct observations of people who were working and living in Korea.
(b) The Period of Western Imperial Expansion
With the advent of Western imperial expansion throughout the globe, Europeans in the late nineteenth century more than at any other time took an interest in the culture, customs, mores, and religious beliefs of ‘exotic’ peoples. Often one of the major sources of information for scholarly research came from the writings of foreign missionaries, and in many instances missionaries were the first scholars to study non-European peoples. This was certainly the case for Korea. During the period from the late nineteenth to the middle of the twentieth century, the first scholars of the Korean religious scene came from the ranks of the foreign missionaries.
From the time of their arrival in Korea in the middle of the 1880s, Protestant missionaries studied the religious practices of the Koreans for several reasons, including the evangelistic need to know the beliefs and thought of the people amongst whom they worked, and the theological interest in contrasting indigenous beliefs and practices with the Christian religion. Important early missionary scholars included Homer B. Hulbert (1863–1949), George Heber Jones (1867–1919), James Scarth Gale (1863–1937), Bishop Mark Napier Trollope (1862–1930), and Charles Allan Clark (1878–1961).
Hulbert, a member of the northern Methodist mission, USA, was one of the most original thinkers amongst the first generation of missionaries to Korea. During his editorship of the Korea Review, he published in 1903 a series of articles entitled ‘The Korean Mudang and P’ansu’ which was the first thorough description of the rituals and practices of Korean shamanism. It is still an important source for research into the primal religion of Korea. In 1906, Hulbert wrote a book entitled The Passing of Korea which decries the destruction of an independent Korean state by the Japanese and in which he gives a survey of Korean history and describes the culture and customs of old Korea. Hulbert devotes chapters to ‘Folklore’, ‘Religion and Superstition’, and geomancy. The chapter on folklore in particular is a seminal analysis of the subject and is based upon an earlier article entitled ‘Korean Folktales’ which had appeared in the Transactions of the Korea Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society for 1902. In 1925, years after his expulsion from Korea by the Japanese, Hulbert compiled a popular collection of Korean folk-tales called Omjee the Wizard: Korean Folk Stories.
Like Hulbert, George Heber Jones, who was also a northern Methodist, was one of the first missionaries to express an interest in Korean indigenous religious practices. His classic work is ’The Spirit Worsh...

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