New Center Book Explores Catholicism in Chosŏn Korea


Catholics and Anti-Catholicism cover
The Cen­ter for Kore­an Stud­ies and the Uni­ver­si­ty of Hawai‘i Press have released the fif­teenth vol­ume in their Hawai‘i Stud­ies on Korea series: Catholics and Anti-Catholi­cism in Chosŏn Korea by Don Bak­er with Franklin Rausch. 

The book is avail­able now from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Hawai‘i Press direct­ly or though book deal­ers. The prin­ci­pal author, Don Bak­er, is pro­fes­sor of Kore­an civ­i­liza­tion in the Depart­ment of Asian Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of British Colum­bia. His co-author, Franklin Rausch, is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor in the Depart­ment of His­to­ry and Phi­los­o­phy at Lan­der Uni­ver­si­ty in Green­wood, South Carolina.

Korea’s first sig­nif­i­cant encounter with the West occurred with the emer­gence of a Kore­an Catholic com­mu­ni­ty in the last quar­ter of the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry. Decades of per­se­cu­tion fol­lowed, result­ing in the deaths of thou­sands of Kore­an Catholics. In this book, Bak­er pro­vides an analy­sis of late-Chosŏn (1392 – 1897) thought, pol­i­tics, and soci­ety to help read­ers under­stand the response of Con­fu­cians to Catholi­cism and of Kore­an Catholics to years of vio­lent harassment. 

Baker’s analy­sis is informed by two impor­tant doc­u­ments trans­lat­ed with the assis­tance of Franklin Rausch and anno­tat­ed here for the first time: an anti-Catholic essay writ­ten in the 1780s by Con­fu­cian schol­ar Ahn Chŏng­bok (1712 – 1791) and a first­hand account of the 1801 anti-Catholic per­se­cu­tion by one of its last vic­tims, the reli­gious leader Hwang Sayŏng (1775 – 1801).

Ahn’s essay, Con­ver­sa­tion on Catholi­cism, reveals Con­fu­cian assump­tions about Catholi­cism. It is based on the scholar’s exchanges with his son-in-law, who joined the small group of Catholics in the 1780s. Ahn argues that Catholi­cism is immoral because it puts more impor­tance on the sal­va­tion of one’s soul than on what is best for one’s fam­i­ly or com­mu­ni­ty. Con­spic­u­ous­ly absent from his Con­ver­sa­tion is the rea­son behind the con­ver­sions of his son-in-law and a few oth­er young Con­fu­cian intellectuals. 

Bak­er exam­ines numer­ous Con­fu­cian texts of the time to argue that, in the late eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry, Kore­an Con­fu­cians were tor­ment­ed by a grow­ing con­cern over human moral frailty. Some came to view Catholi­cism as a way to over­come moral weak­ness, become vir­tu­ous, and, in the process, gain eter­nal life. These anx­i­eties are echoed in Hwang’s Silk Let­ter, in which he details for the bish­op in Bei­jing his per­se­cu­tion and the decade pre­ced­ing it. He explains why Kore­ans joined (and some aban­doned) the Catholic faith and their devo­tion to the new reli­gion in the face of tor­ture and execution. 

These two texts togeth­er reveal much about not only Kore­an beliefs and val­ues of two cen­turies ago, but also how Kore­ans viewed their coun­try and their king as well as Chi­na and its culture.

For more infor­ma­tion about this and oth­er titles in the Hawai‘i Stud­ies on Korea series, fol­low this link.

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