The Christian Explosion and European Imperialism in Korea
Bloodstained priestly garb, sopping with the rape of ideas and the red mutilation of cultures, litters the fields of European interactions with the East in the modern mind. Political imperialists and churchmen play intimate bedfellows in scholarly imaginations, but in Korean historical reality their relationship fades to mere acquaintance, if that. Wi Jo Kang in Christ and Ceasar in Modern Korea and Samuel Hugh Moffett's A History of Christianity in Asia both elucidate the separation between imperialism and the development of Korean Christianity. Moffett holds a stricter position on their separation and even enmity; Kang demonstrates a more complicated view in which Christianity sometimes assists, and sometimes receives assistance from imperialism. In the end, both sources agree on the existence of some major incompatibility.
Before delving into Moffett and Kang, one must, by way of introduction, acknowledge and deflect the possible contention that European imperialism played little role in Korean Christianity at all. After all, the United States seems to have sent more missionaries to Korea than any European nation, and the European nation with the greatest imperialistic aspirations towards Korea, Russia, never finds itself mentioned with regards to missionaries. However, all of the first introductions of Catholicism and even many major Protestant encounters bore relation to Europeans. Germany, Great Britain, the Netherlands, France, and many other nations played a role in Korea's opening to the world and several of these, most notably France and Great Britain, sent missionaries. Even when Europeans did not directly involve themselves, they established a precedent for other Westerners both in imperialism and in missions.
When dealing with these Westerners, different approaches to the same situation reflect different backgrounds. Moffett wrote his book relying on primary sources such as letters, records, and direct experience as the son of an American missionary to Korea. This background does not harm his fairness as a historian, for he carefully writes his account with ample concrete events, but it certainly influenced his positive view of Christianity as directly opposed to imperialism. Kang's slightly more complicated view comes from a Korean ancestry that actually experienced imperialism's receiving end. This often surfaces in fiercely emotional language—only someone with an anti-Japanese history would call work with the Japanese “shameful”1—but it also drives him to examine every angle so that his analysis of historical forces at times goes to greater depth than Moffett's. Moffett's style is more demonstrative; Kang's explanatory.
Moffett distances Christianity from imperialism first of all by demonstrating that any mission-attempts only prospered because of participation of the Koreans themselves. The first two foreign missionaries and martyrs in Korea during the late 1700s came from China, and the second died largely because he refused to allow his Korean followers to continue to give themselves up in his stead.2 Moffett clearly illustrates that the Jesuit Europeans who trained and encouraged Chinese missionaries made no attempt culturally to undermine Koreans but instead sent someone with whom the Koreans could relate. Rather than putting all church leadership in the hands foreigners, the church made a Korean noblewoman catechist.3 Even before Chinese missionaries arrived in China, Koreans themselves first brought home Catholicism after meeting a French mathematician in the Beijing court.4 Even the first Protestants in Korea were Koreans who migrated to Sorae from a Scottish mission north of the Yalu River.5 If anything, Moffett shows, Christian missions directed towards Korea bore the mark of careful nonintervention, not imperialism. He does not analyze whether or not nonintervention occurred because Europeans simply did not care or because of the Korean government's xenophobia, but clearly Koreans, not Europeans, drove Christian expansion.
Moffet shows that a second mark of non-imperialistic Christian European missions in Korea involved cultural sensitivity and even admiration, especially regarding the Korean language and the hangul writing system. Early French missionaries made their intentions clear when they published the first Christian book in Korea in hangul, even though all Korean elites read Chinese, which missionaries already knew.6 The British Anglicans took a much longer time to start actually evangelizing in Korea because, unlike the American Protestants, they wanted to completely master the language first. They did not want to “shame the gospel with improper grammar” and as a consequence, they appealed more to the Korean literati than the Americans did. Moffett points out that their hesitation caused them to fall behind the Americans in gathering converts,7 but surprisingly, despite differences in technique and denominations, Europeans and Americans generally worked together. Accordingly, Moffett groups them together, and from his writing one could believe that the European Protestants would probably have supported the new method of baptism that Americans devised to avoid cultural insensitivity: Korean men and women had to remain separate, so the preacher would put his hand through a hole in a divided curtain to baptize women.8
Moffett cleverly suggests that perhaps one reason the many Koreans did not connect Christianity with imperialism, at least in the case of Protestantism, had to do with Japanese imperialism. The late 18th and early 19th centuries saw the Japanese and the Chinese constantly sending troops and advisors and trade requirements to the Korean peninsula, until King Kojong actually welcomed Russian imperialistic involvement in hopes it could deliver him from his Asian neighbors.9 Moffett never suggests that European nations did not have imperialistic aims towards Korea, of course; merely that the pressure put on the Koreans by Asian imperialism drew possible Korean enmity away from Christianity and towards Japan.
Politically, it is common knowledge that Europeans did force unequal treaties with Korea, as did also the United States. Moffett separates missionaries from the imperialists by pointing out that among some Western imperialists, a view arose that the Christians undermined the interests of their home countries because some missionaries encouraged Koreans to start businesses that competed against foreigners. This kept goods and trade working for Korea instead of for foreign nations.10
Discussion of the 1886 treaty with France clarifies Moffett's standpoint, especially when compared with Kang's analysis. Kang describes for pages precisely how the Christian missionaries advocated in court that Korea sign a treaty with France11, while Moffett instead summarizes the situation by saying that the missionaries hoped that a treaty with France would keep Russia from mistreating Korea.12 Thus, in Kang's work, the missionaries promote the opening of Korean borders, while in Moffett's, they work to suggest the lesser of two evils. Moffett states that when the French sent a warship in response to Korean persecution of Catholics they only worsened the situation for Christians.13 Kang says something similar, but he calls the situation an “invasion”, despite its small scale, and makes it more like a rescue14 than the excuse for border-opening that Moffett seems to describe. Kang even states that to promote the treaty Korean Catholics committed “treason” in order to support imperialistic invasion that would make French Catholic work in Korea easier.15 Moffett in this case actually gives a better, less emotional justification for missionary reasoning than Kang does, probably because he can understand where they come from, and subtly helps to highlight the tensions missionaries felt between their new home and the old. Imperialism in Moffett's view impeded missions; in Kang's view, Christians in Korea sometimes found it useful.
In his discussion of later periods Kang continues to see Western imperialists as coincidentally useful to Christians. After the Enlightenment Coup in the early 1880s, an American missionary-turned-medical-officer saved the life of an injured nephew of powerful Queen Min, convincing King Kojong to allow Christians into Korea. When Moffett describes this scenario, he notes the coup but never examines the forces that caused it, emphasizing the role of the Protestant, Dr. Allen.16 Kang, on the other hand, points out the essential role played by the political upheaval as a result of “a shameful episode in Korea's political history,” as he calls the “alliance with a foreign power”17(Japan) that supported the Enlightenment coup. In other words, by some stroke of luck, the conflict made possible by French imperialism in China18 and Japanese imperialism in Korea brought about the opening of Korea to Protestantism. This does not mean that the Protestants had imperialistic aims, merely that the upheaval caused by imperialism incidentally helped them. Despite Kang's emotionalism, his analysis of the historical forces adds a helpful depth that Moffett sometimes lacks.
Kang's work opposes Moffett's theory that Koreans did not connect Christianity with Western imperialism because they saw Eastern imperialism as a greater threat. He shows that in the Korean mind Western and Eastern imperialism went hand in hand as often as they competed. In the Sino-Japanese War when China and Japan battled for the Korean “sphere of influence”, Britain gave China the use of a British warship, and the Koreans would have noticed this.19 Later during the Japanese annexation of Korea the people saw the West as complicit20 and a Korean assassinated a pro-annexation US official.21 On the other hand, when Russia and Japan vied for influence over Korea, many Koreans did favor the Russians22, as predicted by Moffett's position. Given the overall inconsistency in preference for Western imperialism over Eastern, Kang instead suggests that Koreans drew near Christianity for its own sake, as a tool to defeat Japanese imperialism.23 Rather than seeing Christianity as tied to a 'less-dangerous West,' many Koreans saw it as their own.
Kang emphasizes this ownership of Korean Christianity from the beginning when he shows how the founders of Korean Catholicism “stood firm [against persecution] because they had a strong sense of pride in having laid the foundation of this new religion themselves.”24 He points out that the emphasis the Protestant missionaries placed on Korean-run churches led to an understanding of self-government that planted the seeds of democratic thinking later on.25 Thus, by rite of its very nature, Christianity worked more efficiently for nationalism than for imperialism. Kang sees this played out again as the Bible in hangul that so boosted the spread of Christianity also promoted hangul itself, and the use of hangul promoted nationalism.26 The behavior of foreign missionaries and Korean Christians, as well as the nature of Christian institutions, easily birthed Korean nationalism. During the 1900 period of Japanese incursion, missionaries would use their privileged foreign status to hide nationalistic Korean Christians from Japanese police.27 In fact, Koreans saw their religion so intertwined with their national independence that many political assassins were Christians: the pro-annexation American foreign minister DW Stevens and Ito Hirobumi, the Japanese general who ruled Korea for some years before official annexation, both met their ends at the hands of Christians.28
Thus Kang and Moffett both show that Christianity, in the end, played an essential role in developing the Korean idea of nation and rights in opposition to foreign imperialism, Western and Japanese. Their agreement, drawn out in cohesive, well-written histories, brings a refreshing success story to the table of religious history. The balance between modern industry, medicine, and education that Christians promoted in Korea and the respect for Korean culture did nurse nationalism. From the beginning, when French Jesuits first recognized the value of hangul and ordered that Korean Catholics teach it to their children,29 they made the decision to begin on a path of respect, and respect from one party breeds self-confidence in another. One must agree with Moffett and Kang that the idea that Korea deserved to rule itself, independent of any “older brother” nation, truly found a safe haven and breeding ground within the Christian church in Korea and also in Europe. European Christians led the way for cultural appreciation in Korea when they submitted to Korean Christians, and Christianity survived so well in Korea, despite persecution, for this reason. The works of Moffett and Kang both aptly illustrate the success bred by respect.
Additionally, essential insight emanates from Kang's notes that imperialism sometimes aided the advance of Christianity in Korea. At the least, the ability of a belief system to use different climates of opinion to its advantage speaks volumes for its resiliency. Kang opens doors to an ironic understanding that even systems of thought that subjugate can ultimately serve their own self-destruction. Imperialism protected an institution that supported its later destruction. European nations during the period (1800-1900) may have worked only to benefit themselves, but even selfishness finds itself enslaved to a greater plan. The problem of Christianity's interactions with imperialism also shines light on the open-minded pragmatism of the Korean people. They made brilliant use of Christianity's mobilizing power and demonstrated a true understanding of its messages of equality and freedom. Furthermore, the imperialism discussion can highlight the willingness of Christian Koreans to forgive errors missionaries did make. The story of the Korean church, then, not only speaks of the triumph of freedom and culture, but also shows to all the world the results of unity and tolerance.
1Kang,Wi Jo.Christ and Ceasar in Modern Korea.(Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997)15
2Moffett, Samuel H. A History of Christianity in Asia, Volume II. (New York: Orbis Books, 2005), 313
3Ibid., 313. She protected the foreign missionary in her home and discipled entering converts for communion. Korean law protected noblewomen from physical punishment, but in her case officials suspended the law to torture and execute her.
9Ibid., 315, 537
19 Ibid., 37
21Ibid., 40 Stevens, who had served as foreign minister aiding Japan in the Korean court, made a public statement supporting the annexation, urging that the US follow Japan's example in the Phillipines.
23 Ibid., 37
29Chai, Shin-yu, Ed. The Founding of Catholic Tradition in Korea. (Missisuaga, Ont: Korean and Related Studies press, 1996) 126-129, 128