Catholicism & Violence in Late Chosŏn Korea


A review of The Ambiguity of Violence:  Ideology, State, and Religion in the Late Chosŏn Dynasty, by Franklin Rausch

Why do governments and those who oppose them use violence to advance their aims? What are their justifications for the use of violence? These are some of the questions that Franklin Rausch confronts in his dissertation centered on two case studies in late Chosŏn Korea between the late 18th and early 20th centuries. They involve two famous Catholics, Alexius Hwang Sayŏng and Thomas An Chunggŭn, and it is in its elucidation of the complex history of Catholicism in Korea that this dissertation particularly shines.

The dissertation is made up of 8 chapters as well as an introduction and a conclusion. It can be divided into two distinct parts: chapters 1 through 3 deal with the case of Hwang Sayŏng in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and chapters 5 through 8 deal with An Chunggŭn in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Chapter 4 is a transitional chapter that explains events in the nearly 100 years that separate the two cases and which helps explain their very different historical contexts. On the surface, there may not seem to be much connecting Hwang and An apart from their common Catholicism. The historical contexts between Chosŏn Korea and its initial contact with Western thought in the 18th century and the last years of Korean independence in the first decade of the 20th centuries are very different.  This chronological separation has a purpose, however. It helps to show how the evolving historical context of Chosŏn Korea changed the uses and justification of violence in the century separating the two cases.

Hwang Sayŏng was one of the most prominent early Korean Catholics. Although Koreans were aware of Catholicism much earlier, it started to have a larger impact in Korea starting from the late 18th century, when Koreans who had converted while on an embassy to China started spreading the religion once they returned home. Originally, the new religion attracted people from the upper and middle classes, chiefly those that were marginalised in the Chosŏn political system. Hwang came from this background as well. Conversion to Catholicism was in part motivated by dissatisfaction with the way that the dominant philosophy of Neo-Confucianism was interpreted in Korea at his time as well as factional conflicts. Many Korean Catholics wanted to reconcile Neo-Confucianism and Catholicism, but the Vatican’s policy forbidding Catholics from participating in Confucian rites for deceased family members made this untenable. The Chosŏn government, who saw Confucian rites as essential to support its political and social structure and the hierarchy that undergirded it, saw the Catholics’ refusal as challenging the political system and treasonous. This would start the beginning of a period of persecution that culminated in 1801, when many Catholics either apostatised or were martyred for their faith. Hwang Sayŏng was one of the few surviving major leaders and in desperation, wrote the famous “Silk Letter” to the French Bishop in Beijing asking for Western military intervention on behalf of persecuted Korean Catholics. Unfortunately for Hwang, the letter was discovered and the Chosŏn government now had further justification for the persecution of Catholics, which continued off and on for the next 80 years. Hwang was executed, but Catholicism continued to survive and grow as an underground organisation. The Chosŏn state justified its violence on the grounds that Catholicism was a danger to correct civilisation and the kingdom’s sovereignty. Hwang justified his appeal for violence on the basis of saving his faith and fellow believers, although he did not rise up and engage in violent action himself. He advocated violent external intervention to save the Catholic faith, which he saw as Korea’s hope for a new spiritual and social foundation.

The 19th century saw the growth of Western imperialism in East Asia as Western nations forced China and Japan into the Western system of international relations. Korea’s ongoing persecution of Catholics did lead to incidents with the French and the Americans in the mid-19th century, but it would be Meiji Japan that would force Korea into the new international political and economic arrangements. Catholicism would become legal in Korea as a result of the treaty signed with France in the 1880’s. However, it would be Meiji Japan that would become the dominant power in Korea, especially after its victories in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. After these victories, Japan imposed a protectorate on Korea in 1905, which would eventually lead to full annexation in 1910. It was under these circumstances in 1909 that An Chunggŭn, a Korean Catholic and modernising nationalist, assassinated the Japanese statesman, Itō Hirobumi, who had just recently resigned his post as head of the Japanese protectorate administration in Korea.

The dissertation investigates An’s background as the son of a respectable elite family in Hwanghae which had converted to Catholicism soon after the Sino-Japanese War and the Tonghak Rebellion. Even though Catholicism was now legal, Catholics were still often harassed and resorted to violent action. Sometimes, this violence was controversial and put Catholics above the law and covered illegal criminal activities. The French missionaries often used their connections with French diplomats to intervene on behalf of Korean Catholics and this may have motivated the use of violence by Catholics to advance their interests. This may have been a precedent for An’s use of violence to advance Korean nationalism through his assassination of Itō. The last years of Korean independence were a time of debate over changing Korea’s political structure, economy, and culture to be in closer conformity to the Western thought that was dominating the world at that time. An was a strong supporter of this and saw his Catholicism as an element of his personal view of national reform. Meiji Japan and its reforms were often put forth as a model for Korea to follow and the Japanese did give support to these Westernising reformers. However, Japan’s protectorate was a betrayal of many of these nationalist reformers, including An. An resolved to assassinate Itō for his role in imposing the protectorate on Korea and in order to gain sympathetic international attention for his case. However, the assassination was generally greeted with revulsion by most international observers and was controversial domestically and within the Catholic Church. An’s trial by the Japanese in their leased territory in the Liaodong peninsula further increased international opinion in favour of Japan because of its following of Western legal procedures. It did generate sympathy for An within Korea and in overseas Korean communities and his execution was greeted with sorrow.

This dissertation does a good job in bringing out the justifications of violence by the state, its opponents and religious believers. It brings out well how the changing historical circumstances brought about by Korea’s incorporation into the Western-style international order affected the justifications and strategies in the use of violence. The dissertation is even more effective in dealing with the history of Catholicism in Korea. It brings out in detail what motivated converts to choose Catholicism, what their relationship was with Westerners and Western thought, as well as their adaptation of their new religion to their native society and culture. The dissertation is a welcome addition in English to these particular issues.

Carl Young
Department of History
University of Western Ontario

Primary Sources and Archives
Chosŏn wangjo sillok (Veritable records of the Chosŏn dynasty)
Sinyu pakhae charyojip (Records of the 1801 persecution)
Han’guk tongnip undongsa (History of the Korean independence movement)
An Chunggŭn yugojip (A collection of An Chunggŭn’s writings)

Dissertation Information
University of British Columbia. 2011. 344 pp. Primary Advisor:  Don Baker.

Image: An Chunggŭn meeting with his priest before his death. Photo in public domain.

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