Musical Encounters in Korean Christianity


A review of Musical Encounters in Korean Christianity: A Trans-Pacific Narrative, by Hyun Kyong Chang.

Hyun Kyong Chang’s dissertation, Musical Encounters in Korean Christianity: A Trans-Pacific Narrative, examines Protestant choral music as a rich site for the experience and enactment of Korean Christian modernity. Pursuing an ambitious course thematically, geographically, and methodologically, Chang traces the sociocultural role of hymn singing from the early Protestant mission period in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to the emergence of this musical genre as an emblem of modern nationhood in Cold War South Korea, and finally to the aesthetics and moral significance of Protestant song among members of the contemporary trans-Pacific Korean Christian diaspora. Chang’s study is a major contribution to our understanding of music and religion in Korea, standing out in particular for its combined archival and ethnographic approach. Through the theoretical frameworks of postcolonial and ethnic studies, Chang analyzes mission and church publications, composers’ biographies, musical scores, and data gathered during ethnographic fieldwork in a Korean-language church in Orange County to demonstrate how choral music has mediated encounters with and imaginations of modernity and nationhood among South Korean Christians. Specifically, she shows how authorized forms of singing reproduce an official Protestant Christian conception of modern Korean nationhood that is located after (and yet fundamentally created through) a period of nation-wide suffering.

Following a theoretical introduction and summary of the basic points of the dissertation, the first chapter, “Confessions, Conversions: The Ideology of Protestant Expression in Korea on the Threshold of Japanese Occupation,” takes a close look at the place of hymns and hymnals during the early Protestant mission period. Examining articles in the Korea Mission Field, a missionary publication, as Asian geopolitics were shifting around Japan’s growing colonial presence in Korea, Chang begins a sociocultural genealogy of the emergence of Protestant hymn singing as a tripartite emblem of Westernized “modernity, nationhood, and selfhood.” At the heart of this chapter is the way American musical texts and Korean-language denotational texts (largely translated from English) were fused into an authoritative model of the Korean Christian hymn in the earliest decades of Protestantism in Korea. These texts set the stage for certain interdiscursive and intertextual linkages that would shape and legitimate specific forms of musical worship for the next century of Korean Protestantism. The chapter concludes with a discussion of Christian revivals in the first decade of the 20th century and the place of hymn singing in these early events of confession, conversion, and ritualized Protestant sociality.

Chapter 2, “Exilic Suffering: Music, Nation, and Protestantism in Cold War South Korea” explores how ideologies of modernity and nationality continued to shape Protestant choral music in the context of Cold War South Korea. Focusing on the two decades following Korea’s independence from Japan in 1945, Chang examines the linkage between musical texts produced by South Korean Christian composers and the role of Protestant churches and transnational Christian institutions as “dominant players in South Korea’s anticommunist cultural politics” (p. 10). One particular group of composers—those who fled the North and sought exile in the South—emerge in Chang’s analysis as significant figures (with missionary educations obtained in Pyongyang) who influenced official musical forms in the South. Their status as Christian composers from the North led them to represent anticommunism both within and beyond the church. Stories of oppression and violence waged against Christians in North Korea, Chang argues, merged to produced an ideology of the “authentic Korean Protestant experience” grounded in a foundational narrative of victimization, suffering, and redemption.

“Sounds of Suffering: Korean Christian Syncretism in an Age of Progress,” Chang’s third chapter, moves forward in time to the 1990s and examines neotraditional and “syncretic” musical compositions in respect of the wider and more orthodox postwar Protestant choral canon. Chang shows how these newer choral pieces confronted dominant Christian styles by incorporating indigenous musical instruments and compositional forms, contributing to a more general revival of tradition and celebration of ideologically posited aspects of autochthonous and essential Koreanness. Many of these forms increasingly came to index the progressive political movements for democracy and justice that developed in the 1970s and 1980s under the banner of the minjung or “common people.” Central to Chang’s discussion in this chapter is this counter-hegemonic music’s appropriation of an aesthetic of “suffering” through the Korean cultural concept of han, or a feeling of resentment, torment, and unavenged injustice that is often asserted as a basic ethnopsychological feature of Korean national character. This chapter contains numerous musical and thematic analyses of a variety of compositions to show how composers attempted to capture the aesthetic of han and Korean traditional forms in musical texts and performance.

Chang’s fourth chapter, “The Impossibility of Suffering: The Ideology of Choral Singing in the Christian Korean Diaspora,” is an ethnographic study of a Korean-language church choir in Orange County, California, focusing specifically on the choir members’ responses to different musical styles. By working as a paid piano accompanist from 2008 until 2010 for this Korean church of approximately 500 members, Chang was able to interview and observe the diasporic singers’ resistance to the neotraditional and syncretic choral compositions discussed in Chapter 3. Mostly in their 50s and 60s, these singers expressed a discomfort with—often outright distaste for—neotraditional musical styles. Chang argues that these aesthetic stances stemmed from their experiences of Protestant Christianity as a modernizing, liberating, enlightening force. Their experience of neotraditional musical compositions conjured up the feeling of a time before South Koreans had fully felt the celebrated effects of this perceived Christian modernity—in particular, a time of widespread national suffering and han. The argument of the chapter is crystalized in the responses of choir members to a North Korean migrant/refugee’s performance of a Christian song at an event celebrating multicultural Christianity. In the North Korean woman’s voice, these diasporic South Koreans heard sounds that were “too emotional,” “unnatural,” and in some ways “too Korean,” and thus inappropriate for praising God.

In her conclusion, “Trans-Pacific Memories,” Chang recapitulates two critiques that sustain the individual chapters of her dissertation. First, she asks the reader to reconsider the “fusion of trans-Pacific universalism and Korean nationalism in mainstream Korean church history,” which posits the U.S. missionaries in the early years of Korean Protestantism, and the U.S. mission more generally in the postwar years of South Korean development, as “saviors” of the South Korean nation (p. 220). Chang demonstrates that this fusion has led to a widespread and authoritative perspective within South Korean Christianity that has suppressed progressive and non-Western musical elements in Protestant compositions. Chang’s second critique, building on the first, cautions against viewing the central place of the U.S. in South Korean Christians’ conceptions of modernity as mere latter-day colonialism. To surpass this colonialist reading, she concludes with a series of productive questions for future research framed by what she terms a “trans-Pacific modernity.”

Nicholas Harkness
Department of Anthropology
Harvard University

Primary Sources
The Korea Mission Field
Korean-language hymnals and choral scores (19th & 20th Centuries)
Composer biographies
Ethnographic research in a Korean-language church in Orange County, CA (2008-2010)

Dissertation information
University of California Los Angeles. 2014. 242 pp. Primary Advisor: Olivia Bloechl.

Image: George T. B. Davis, Korea for Christ (London: Christian Workers’ Depot, 1910), 27.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like