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    This article traces Chosŏn’s Neo-Confucian encounter with Matteo Ricci’s catechism, known as Ch’ŏnju sirŭi(天主實義) in Korea.1 It explores how this inter-cultural experience culminated in a transformation from philosophical investigation, towards praxis, and its embodiment in a self-evangelizing Catholic Church. It outlines the spiritual metamorphosis which took place as Korean scholars, motivated mainly by Yi Pyŏk, converted to Catholicism without any foreign missionaries, based mainly on Ricci’s ideas about God. This inspired them to convert, and then to proselytize their new beliefs. This article draws upon “deconstruction,” stemming from the work of Jacques Derrida (1930–2004). It deconstructs Korean Neo-Confucian rejections of Ricci’s concept of God (天主, Ch’ŏnju), which undermined their dependency on principle (理, i), and illustrates how the incarnation of Jesus, as God-in-man, also threatened to overturn constructed Neo-Confucian hierarchies, which controlled their modus vivendi. Finally, it deconstructs the earliest Catholic texts written by Koreans, showing how Confucian ideas were supplemented with Christian ones, sowing seeds of social transformation, visible in their writings. These early Catholics would face the wrath of Neo-Confucian authority, which set about oppressing their beliefs, their writings and their burgeoning sense of equality.


    Ch’?nju sir?i , Neo-Confucian hierarchy , deconstruction , Ch’?nju , Catholic texts , equality


    This article explores the impact of Matteo Ricci’s Ch’ŏnju sirŭi on Korean Neo-Confucians during the Chosŏn 朝鮮 dynasty (1392–1897). It draws on Jacques Derrida’s idea of “deconstruction” which attempts to expose how traditional structures have been artificially constructed with the aim of appearing natural. These structures are imposed by tradition, and so deconstruction examines ideas that become hidden, forbidden, or repressed by tradition, opening up new possibilities for thinking and even living (Bass 1978, x). Through this prism of deconstruction, this paper examines attempts by Koreans to dismantle the powerful force of Neo-Confucian orthodoxy, which, with full legal authority supported by violence, dictated how ideas were to be understood and received during the Chosŏn dynasty.

    Firstly, this article addresses the importance of Neo-Confucianism during Chosŏn, representing the ideological arena into which Catholic ideas were at first received, and where the ideas of Yi Hwang 退溪 (1501–1570) and Yi I 栗谷 (1536–1584) dominated intellectually. Next, there is an examination of the reactions to the “Western” religion, Catholicism, and its initial rejection by Namin 南人 (Southern faction) Neo-Confucians such as Yi Ik 李瀷 (1682–1763), and also his disciples Sin Hudam 愼後聃 (1702–1761) and An Chŏngbok 安鼎福 (1712–1783) whose texts are collected in the Pyŏgwip’yŏn (闢衛編) [Collected Writings against Heterodoxy] (Kim (ed.), 1987). Deconstructing these criticisms uncovers their loyalty to a hermetic Confucian tradition and their antagonism towards “Other” interpretations of the world.

    Finally, this article investigates the writings from the early period of religious conversions by later Namin scholars who accepted Ricci’s ideas about God. These texts, in the form of hymns and catechisms by Yi Pyŏk 李檗 (1754–1786), and the Chŏng brothers, Chŏng Yakchŏn 丁若銓 (1758–1816) and Chŏng Yakchong 丁若鍾 (1760–1801), embody their religious transformation, and also reflect their missionary zeal as they sought to proselytize their new beliefs. This encounter also brings us into contact with their more famous brother Chŏng Yagyong 丁若鏞 (1762–1836), known as Tasan (茶山), an important figure at court at this time despite his clandestine participation in the early Catholic Church. These early Catholic texts attempt to supplement a hitherto Confucian concept of Being-inthe-world,2 with a border-dismantling idea, equality, as they ignite a social transformation.

    1As this text is concerned with the Korean context, it uses the Korean transliteration of Chinese terms.  2This term is used repeatedly in Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (2008) and depicts how “Being” is inextricably intertwined with tradition—thrust into it without preparation. In this case “Being” is thrust into a Confucian tradition where even one’s personal interactions are organised and prescribed. Being, in the Heidegerrian sense, encompasses thinking and acting, and how these are shaped by the world around us.


    Neo-Confucianism was a revision of earlier Confucianism that adapted Daoist and Buddhist elements to compete cosmologically and metaphysically, and yet vehemently criticized these “Other” schools of thought, hoping to obfuscate the origins of any borrowings. This development became formulated only after Zhu Xi 朱熹 (1130–1200) synthesized the writings of earlier scholars, adapting the (originally Daoist) “Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate” (太極之圖, T’aeguk chido) of Zhou Dunyi 周敦頤 (1017–1073) as its onto-cosmological centerpiece. In addition, Zhu made the concept of an ideal, all-penetrating, all-governing principle (i), the center of his philosophy. He, too, selected and published the Four Books (四書, Sasŏ) together for the first time in 1190, with his own commentaries, which were transmitted as the only orthodox interpretations. Where the Five Classics (五经, Okyŏng) had abundant spiritual references to “The Emperor on High” (上帝, Sangje), the term is barely used in the Four Books—it is not even used once by Confucius in the Analects.3 Zhu’s philosophy depended on principle, and had no need for a God (Creel 1971, 205; Fung 1983, vol. ii, 438–439; Chan 1987, 107; Fairbank and Goldman 1999, 98).

    Neo-Confucian ideas were transmitted from China to Korea, and were used to bolster the legitimacy of the Chosŏn dynasty, which, from its inception, did not tolerate competing ideologies that could destabilize (or de-structure) its authority. Instead, it sought to suppress any challenge to its supremacy, with violence if necessary, and by inculcating constructed social norms, reinforced by the idea of propriety, codified in rites (禮, ye) (Deuchler 2004).4 These social norms were crystallized by adherence to the Five Relationships (五倫, Oryun), as well as the Three Bonds (三綱, Samgang), which reinforced female inferiority. Adhering to these five relationships was fundamental to the “construction” of harmony within the family, as well as the state. Within the family, filial piety (孝, hyo) underpinned this ideology. These patterns of behavior were instilled through the study of ritual sourcebooks, especially the Zhu Xi’s Family Rites (朱子家禮, Chuja karye), which fostered the development of specific rites, not because they were just or armonious, but because they were all inscribed in law (Deuchler 1992, 110–111). Derrida (2002, 240) deconstructs ideas concerning law and justice in his essay “Force of Law,” and underscores how “One does not obey them [laws] because they are just, but because they have authority.” During Chosŏn, such authority was also reinforced through what Kim (1982, 95) describes as “the rigidly structured stratification system” where “the Confucian school denied that there could be a society of uniformity and equality.”5

    Zhu Xi’s legacy thrived in Korea and his ideas contributed greatly to the Korean interpretation of sagehood (聖學, Sŏnghak). Oh Kangnam (1993, 313) describes the concept of sagehood as “one of the essential components, if not the essence, of Korean Confucianism […] and Neo-Confucianism’s hallmark was its emphasis on sage-learning.” According to Kŭm Changtae (2000, 40) Yi Hwang’s Sŏnghak sipto (聖學十圖) [Ten Diagrams of Sage Learning] written in 1568, and Yi I’s Sŏnghak chibyo (聖學輯要) [Essentials of the Learning of the Sages] written in 1575, were “the two main classical works epitomizing Neo-Confucian learning in the Chosŏn era.”

    Lee Dongkun (2011) illustrates the particular importance of Yi Hwang’s Sŏnghak sipto throughout the Chosŏn dynasty, leading many philosophers to write their own annotations on the text, including Yi Ik and An Chŏngbok who were loyal to its metaphysical infrastructure. The text is a collection of ten diagrams that elucidates the central tenets of Neo-Confucianism, while focusing on kyŏng 敬, “mindfulness.” Yi Hwang incorporates Sangje very superficially into the process of “self-cultivation,” using the term once in the ninth diagram “The Diagram of the Admonition for the Mindfulness Studio” (敬齋箴圖, Kyŏngje chamdo). This reflects the relative importance of Sangje for Korean Confucians as this text embodies Neo-Confucian onto-cosmology on both the macro and micro level. The diagram advises readers to “recollect your mind and make it abide, as if you were present before the Lord on High [上帝]” (Kalton 1988, 178; emphasis added).6 Is this a trace of God? Kim Hatai (1979, 64; emphasis added) explains that, “T’oegye does not recognize a personal deity above and beyond Principle […] the concept of God […] has been denied in the Speculative Philosophy,” which is Neo-Confucianism. This denial reveals a “spiritual” lack that Christianity would later fill for certain Confucian scholars, which centered on a newly re-constructed, theistic possibility for Sangje that would be integrated from beyond Confucianism.

    Yi I’s (2006) text on sagehood deals with the very “Confucian” topics of “Self-Cultivation,” “ordering” the family and “governing” the state. These topics reveal his emphasis on the Great Learning (大學, T’aehak) which exhorts one to “regulate” oneself and one’s family, which in turn “orders” the state (Chan (trans.) 1973, 86). It relies on adherence to structured hierarchies which regulate and order one’s Being-in-the-world, where the world was “Confucian” in structure, and where language itself was used to perpetuate ideas of inequality. Yi (Ch’oe et al. (eds.) 2001, vol. ii, 150) writes that, “Virtuous acts means to investigate principle through reading, learning proper decorum, and learning how to calculate clearly so as to be able to manage one’s household […] respect the law, and to be scrupulous with regard to taxes.” Yi I’s Confucian concept of “virtue” is to be learned through books and through imitating constructed patterns of behavior that were deemed “proper.” As John Duncan (1997, 51; emphasis added) clearly articulates, one should not idealize Confucian scholars, one should instead remember that he (and never she) was “a patriarch in a society that was dominated by an orthodoxy that defined all truths,” and so truth was constructed, and inequality reinforced on many levels. Park Byung-Soo (1992, 25–26), in his essay which deconstructs speech levels, suggests that important factors influencing power relations reflected in Korean speech levels are “age, kinship relation, social status, or other ranks,” reflecting a rigidity he links to a “traditionally Confucian society.” Tradition unnaturally segregated people from each other, reinforcing patriarchal authority which was crafted to conform to Confucian hierarchies, hierarchies that were man-made, and therefore not natural.

    The Confucian scholars themselves were caught up in tradition and perpetuated its codes and orders. Neither Yi Hwang nor Yi I provided a way (道, to) for the poor uneducated masses and women to attain sagehood as both presented their respective texts to a king. Therefore, sagehood was to be “learned” by men from men, and from books written in classical Chinese. Both philosophers reveal a reliance on a solely Confucian intellectual horizon which they themselves had been thrust into. Christianity would de-construct this Confucian Weltanschauung by revealing a new way that sought to dis-enclose people from unnatural hierarchical norms, and where the “lowly” were called to actively participate in society. But first, Christianity and its concept of God would be rejected by leading Namin scholars who held on tightly to Confucianism’s authority to justify its orthodoxy.

    3The Emperor on High (上帝) appears once in the Doctrine of the Mean (Legge, 2005, 404), and again, only once, in the Great Learning (ibid., 375). The term is only mentioned three times by Mencius (Hinton, (trans.) 1999, 25, 127, 149).  4During the seventeenth century Yun Hyu (1617–1680) was forced to take his own life for his “perverse” interpretation of rites, which revolved around the mourning attire of the Queen Dowager Cho (See, Setton 1997, 26–39).  5Lee Sang-wha (2005), in her essay “Patriarchy and Confucianism,” criticises how Confucianism was used to reinforce male superiority at the expense of females, yet at the same time suggesting this blatant discrimination was “harmonious” and reflective of some universal organising principle, which was carefully cast to maintain a rigid patriarchal power structure.  6This is from the Book of Odes (詩經, Sigyŏng), no. 266. The numbers given to the Odes in this text correspond with Bernhard Karlgren’s (1950) Book of Odes, a translation with original Chinese.


    Matteo Ricci’s Ch’ŏnju sirŭi revealed another way to interpret Being-in-the-world. It deconstructed Confucianism by opening it up to “Other” possibilities, supplemented by Christianity and a belief in God, and more significantly, a God who loved (wo)mankind so much that he descended to help them. Such radical ideas unsettled many, which leads us to trace the initial rejections made by Koreans who sought to uphold “orthodoxy,” and thereby, the law. Yi Sugwang 李睟光 (1563– 1627), a Namin scholar, is “especially remembered” for the earliest discussion of Ricci’s catechism in Korea which appears in his “open-minded” encyclopedic work, Chibong yusŏl (芝峯類設) [Classified Writings of Chibong] (Kalton 1975, 31; Kŭm 2000, 132–133). His critique is hardly more than a single paragraph, while Matteo Ricci’s text consists of almost six hundred.7 It is of value as the earliest commentary on Ricci’s text in Chosŏn, but it is questionable if Yi had ever read Ricci’s catechism completely. Yi (Kim (ed.) 1987, 22) highlights that Ricci’s text begins with the idea that Ch’ŏnju created the world, hence was worshipped and praised, and also that the human soul is eternal. In addition, he describes Ricci’s rejection of Buddhist doctrines, his discussions on “good” and “evil” and the concept of retribution for one’s misdeeds. However, he incorrectly indicates that Ricci’s final discussion is on human nature, which he suggests that Ricci, like Confucians, asserts that human nature is originally good. In fact, Ricci (1985, par. 422) highlights that Confucians “never found any uniformity of opinion” on the issue of original goodness of human nature. Mencius thought it was good, while Xun Zi considered it bad. The final discussion in Ricci’s text (1985, par. 521–596) was actually on “Western Customs” as well as an explanation about Jesus 耶蘇 (Yaso), a topic Yi ignores.

    Yi Ik 李瀷 (1681–1763), who became the leader of the Namin school, was a follower of Yi Hwang’s (and therefore Zhu Xi’s) metaphysics. What is interesting is Yi’s willingness to engage with Catholic ideas up to a certain point, displaying intellectual curiosity, but also the freedom to do so—a freedom that later scholars would be deprived of due to bloody persecutions (Kŭm 2000, 135–137). Inevitably Yi was not about to overturn his onto-cosmology by accepting the “weak” idea of God-as-man he encountered in the final passages of Ch’ŏnju sirŭi. This brought God into the human realm as someone who can be followed, without rigorous training in Chinese characters, and without belonging to an elite class in society, irrespective of gender. Unlike Yi Sugwang, Yi Ik focuses on Jesus in his critique entitled Ch’ŏnju sirŭi-bal (天主實義跋) [Reactions Against Ch’ŏnju sirŭi] which is included in the Pyŏgwip’yŏn (Kim (ed.) 1987, 22–23). Whilst Yi Ik opines that Ch’ŏnju 天主 is indeed Sangje 上帝, he acutely notes that “the way he is respected, served and feared is like the Buddhists and Sakyamuni Buddha” (ibid., 22). This plural-singularity represented by the different terms Ch’ŏnju and Sangje echoes what Derrida describes as différance, an idea inseverable from deconstruction, which exposes that meanings attached to words are not fixed, but endlessly defer to other words, even other traditions.8 Hence, différance reflects “the difference that the same contains” as Stocker (2006, 178) so aptly puts it. In Ricci’s opinion, Ch’ŏnju and Sangje refer to the same “Origin”—that is, God— but the terms also reflect the different trajectories the Christian and Confucian traditions have taken.

    Yi Ik, by upholding Yi Hwang’s metaphysical tradition where principle alone governed, is led to reject the incarnation of Ch’ŏnju in the person of Jesus, called Yaso, and views it with incredulous suspicion (which is Ricci’s fault as he does not explain the concept of the Trinity). Korean Neo-Confucians saw the sage-king as representative of triumphant metaphysical forces, whereas Jesus contradicts this through weakness: Yi cannot understand why God would chose to come as a man, severing his metaphysical power, to walk around and to spread his teachings, in one place at a time, to the lower, common people (下民, hamin) (Kim (ed.) 1987, 3). By coming down from heaven, God is no longer a far distant principle, but a man and very real. For Yi Ik, Jesus threatens to “un-do,” or de-construct, the structuring lattices of Confucian power. He is a servant who is moved by compassion and mercy (慈悲, chabi) (ibid., 23), therefore a de-stabilizing force who threatens to undermine the “wisdom” of Neo-Confucian sagehood with a simple, yet boundary-breaking message—the equality of love across social hierarchy, and a call to imitate a simple man who is God. This weak message of love, not just love of the high and mighty, but the lowly and destitute, is a point that Yi (ibid, 23) finds distressing, as well as bewildering, disassembling rigidly defined social borders, and de-constructing gender lines. This de-structuration is signaled by a call (Jesus) calling readers of Ricci’s text to God: away from the world-of-man (in a patriarchal Confucian sense) to the kingdom-of-God (in an egalitarian Christian sense). In the kingdom (to come) things change through the compassionate message of Jesus which transforms the heart (metanoia). As Caputo (2006, 143) explains, “The heart is where things happen in the kingdom, where things turn around” (ibid, 142–143). Yi, on the other hand, is controlled by the structuring insensitivity of principle.

    Some of Yi’s associate Namin scholars were much more critical of Western ideas in general, especially Sin Hudam and An Chŏngbok. Sin Hudam was particularly scathing of Catholic teachings in his critique entitled Sŏhak pyŏn (西學辨) [Critique of Western Learning]. Like Yi before him, he is forced to engage with the classical Confucian concept of Sangje and Ricci’s theistic reinterpretation of it, whereby Ricci presents a different interpretation of the same God, a God marked by différance.9 Kŭm (2000, 156) points out that, “even though Sin Hudam agreed that Tianzhu [Ch’ŏnju] controls and rules heaven and earth, he rejected the idea of creation as groundless.” Sin Hudam (Kim (ed.) 1987, 72) suggests that there are no traces of Sangje as the creative force behind the origin of the universe in the Five Classics. He immediately weaves Sangje into the quagmire of Neo-Confucian metaphysics, citing the source of the Supreme Ultimate (T’aegŭk) in the Book of Changes, overlooking its association with Daoism. Sin presents Sangje as the ruler over what has already been created, which directly contradicts the opening of the Old Testament. Yet, Sin soon compromises, suggesting that Sangje is what presides over man and all creation, not T’aegŭk, and so Sangje has a similar, though différante meaning to Ch’ŏnju. Sin interjects with a lengthy discussion about principle “which is behind [Heaven, earth and] all things,” and which opposes any consideration of God-as-man (Kim (ed.), 1987, 73).

    Sin Hudam (Kim (ed.) 1987, 82), in his evaluation of the final chapter of Ricci’s text, displays the gaps in his knowledge and understanding of Jesus—who (for Christians) is God. Sin (ibid., 82) questions how can the order of the world continue if God became incarnate as man for thirty-three years? During this time was Heaven not deprived of its ruler? This represents an onto-theological rupture for Sin who lacks details about the Trinity (as did Yi Ik) and so he attempts to undermine Ricci’s explanation of God as if it were representative of the totality of Catholic teachings. Of course it was not. In fact, Ricci saw it as an introduction requiring further clarifications from the Jesuits themselves. For Sin, there is a substratum of thought at play here, which hopes to dissuade others from believing in Jesus, who (as God) entirely disengages God from the realm of Neo-Confucian metaphysics. This foreboding is much more urgent in the writings of a fellow Namin scholar An Chŏngbok.

    To understand An’s context, one should be aware that the threat of the unimaginable metamorphosis from philosophy to religion was felt very close to home. His own son-in-law, Kwŏn Ilsin 權日身 (1736–1791), was among the earliest Catholic converts, and what weighs most on his writing, is his fear of it spreading even further. This he sought to prevent by thwarting the young scholars from their study of Catholic texts. These were the incentives behind his two critiques of Catholicism: Ch’ŏnhakko (天學考) [Thoughts on Heavenly Learning], and Ch’ŏnhak mundap (天學問答) [Questions and Answers on Heavenly Learning]. An’s Ch’ŏnhakko has an underlying sense of fear of political repercussions for the Namin due to dabbling in heterodoxy, as well as fear of political attacks from their adversaries at court, the Noron 老論 (Old Faction). A central theme is that “Sangje had descended to the earth as a messenger.” For the young Koreans who were Neo-Confucian scholars interested in Catholicism, if Sangje was a messenger, then they would heed his message which called them to a new way of life. An Chŏngbok obviously understood the importance of the figure of Jesus, and specifically, his message as the focal point of these young Korean scholars, a call to a new life symbolized through baptism, a sacrament that is described in An’s second text. At the end of the Ch’ŏnhakko An (Kim (ed.), 1987, 27) criticizes how the followers of this religion do not serve their parents, but only “serve God,” to whom they “bow […] and give thanks.” He also describes how they pray holding both hands together—An himself is witness to the spiritual metamorphosis of a group deep in prayer to God/Ch’ŏnju/Sangje.

    An Chŏngbok’s second anti-Catholic tract, Ch’ŏnhak mundap, also addresses the Christian concept of Jesus among other concerns. The structure, in the form of a dialogue, is remarkably similar to Ricci’s Ch’ŏnju sirŭi, but with an antithetical twist. An Chŏngbok wants to prevent his readers from believing in Ch’ŏnju. He notes (Kim (ed.) 1987, 29–33) that Confucius did not discuss the supernatural and that he was concerned with this life. However, Ricci’s supplementation of Confucianism was possible exactly because Confucius did not address the supernatural realm of spirits, yet acknowledged its existence (Analects 11:11). The term “supplement” is also important for deconstruction: Derrida (1976, 145) notes that the “supplement supplements,” that it “intervenes,” and that it “is as if [it] fills a void.” In this case, the spiritual void in Confucianism was filled by Christian ideas discovered in Jesuit writings. One can discern from An Chŏng-bok’s text that the information Korean Confucians had read about Catholic ideas had expanded beyond Ricci’s text. For the first time An mentions the crucifixion, a detail even Ricci omitted. An (Kim (ed.), 1987, 32) describes how Christians believe that Jesus was the savior of the world and how he willingly chose to die on the cross taking the burdens of our sins upon himself. An criticizes the cruci-fixion, suggesting Jesus showed complete disregard for his body, something he received from his parents, which from a Neo-Confucian perspective was most unfilial. As Kim Taeyon (2003, 98) explains, “Neo-Confucians believed the body was sacred. Since it was bequeathed by one’s parents, in accordance with filial piety, the body had to be respected and remain unaltered.” In the end, An (Kim (ed.), 1987, 33) provides us with an overview of the rituals adapted by these new practicing Catholics, including the sacrament of Baptism, the use of Holy Water, the confession of sins, and the practice of adopting Christian names, which signified entry into a new family devoid of Neo-Confucian metaphysical hierarchy. This radical new life was symbolized by a rebirth through their relationship with Jesus, by interpreting and spreading his message, which brought them into direct clashes with the law that authorized Neo-Confucianism alone, repressing other possibilities of Being.

    7Ricci’s text consists of 8 chapters made up of 596 paragraphs.  8Derrida’s essay introducing the idea of différance appears in Margins in Philosophy. See, Derrida 1982, 1–27.  9Ricci sees traces of the same God in different traditions, one who is described using different names in different languages, in the same way that this singular God has plural representations in Judaism and Islam, and who can be called using many names.


    Andrew Ross (1994, 146) highlights the important influence of Ricci’s text beyond China, noting that:

    These intellectuals were also Namin Confucian scholars, who, from around the early 1780s, began to accept Ricci’s religion, initially converting their close group, many of whom were also related through marriage and kinship. The key figures among the early Catholic Church were Kwŏn Ch’ŏlsin 權哲身 (1736– 1801) and his brother Kwŏn Ilsin, Yi Sŭnghun 李承薰 (1756–1801), who was married to Tasan’s elder sister, Tasan’s elder brothers Chŏng Yakchŏn, and Chŏng Yakchong. However, Yi Pyŏk, whose elder sister had married Tasan’s half-brother Chŏng Yakhyŏn 丁若鉉 (1751–1821), was the driving force behind the early church. Ricci’s text was read and studied by all these Confucians, and its ideas on God-the-Creator and on the immortality of the soul were the main catalyst for their conversion from a philosophy without God to a theocentric religion. At their meetings, it appears that the Confucian celebrants even tried to conduct, in a loosely appropriated form, Catholic rituals. Even before being baptized, these men saw Christianity as complementing their own Confucian beliefs and made their own leap from theory to praxis, and most importantly, from principle to God. Importantly, this God was incarnate in the man Jesus Christ, someone they could follow and relate to, who had messages they too could preach (Dallet 1874, vol. i, 13–14; Baker 1983, 294–295; Kim 1990, 31–32; Yu 1990, 37).

    Yi Sŭnghun, who, encouraged by Yi Pyŏk, had gone to Beijing in 1784, returned with further documents and religious artifacts, and baptized Yi Pyŏk according to his own experience at the Catholic Church in China. Soon, both of them baptized the other members of the group, who, in turn baptized others. These men all actively participated in Catholic ceremonies as pseudo-priests, and before long the religion had spread as far away from the capital as Chŏlla-do, to all levels of society. Here one can witness the birth of the Catholic Church in Korea, where Koreans themselves spread the faith to other Koreans (Kim 1977, 117; Yu 1990, 42–45; Kŭm 2000, 190; Ch’oe 2006, 25–38).

    As described in the Pyŏgwip’yŏn (Kim (ed.) 1987, 96), the meetings organized by the early Catholics were presided over by Yi Pyŏk who wore a blue cloth over his head while the other participants listened eagerly. Importantly, ideas of equality had started to permeate the Confucian psyche of these elite yangban scholars. Before long, they were meeting in the houses of people who did not belong to their elite class. Below the yangban was a small group known as the chungin (the middle-people), and it was in the house of the chungin Kim Pŏmu 金範禹 (?–1786) that the elite scholars had started to meet to conduct Catholic religious ceremonies, something that again de-structured Chosŏn’s elitist social structures.10 However, in 1785, the authorities took decisive action against these “illegal” meetings. At one meeting all the participants were arrested. Among these men was Tasan, by then a favorite of King Chŏngjo 正祖 (1752–1800), someone who had been a practicing Catholic while writing Confucian commentaries with very different “theistic” interpretations from his contemporaries. The yangban members received strong admonishments for their un-Confucian behavior, but the chungin Kim Pŏmu was condemned and imprisoned. Kim Pŏmu died from the wounds inflicted from his torture in prison after being exiled to Tanyang, becoming the first Catholic martyr in Korea. It can be inferred that this incident drove the Church further underground and served as a severe warning to the noble yangban members of the organization—the next time they might not escape as luckily. Soon afterwards, all Catholic texts were collected and burned, it was also illegal to import any others, and those who did faced harsh punishments and exile (Dallet 1874, vol. i, 26–27; Baker 1983, 307–8; Ri 1979a, 28–29; Cho 1996, 105; Kŭm 2000, 190–91; Ch’oe 2006, 93–94).

    This moment was a severe blow to the fledgling church and two of its most important pioneers Yi Pyŏk and Yi Sŭnghun officially apostatized, after torture, with the latter writing a document rejecting the Catholic religion outright, while Yi died the following year (Kŭm 2000, 191). After an initial period of quiet, the Catholic leaders soon regrouped with Yi Sŭnghun still a key figure in the fledgling Catholic Church, proof that official statements of apostasy reflected fear, not the renunciation of one’s personal beliefs. In 1790, the Bishop de Gouvea in Beijing sent strict orders forbidding the practice of ancestor memorials, an event that would bring more severe repercussions for the early Church (Ch’oe 2006, 42). When Yun Chich’ung’s mother died in 1791, in adherence to the directives received from Church authority in Beijing, Yun and his cousin Kwŏn Sang’yŏn 權尙然 (?–1791), whom Yun had converted, refused to hold the usual Confucian ancestor memorial rites, which were perceived as ancestor “worship,” and therefore idolatrous according to the Catholic Church (Grayson, 2002, 142–3). King Chŏngjo could not refrain from decisive action lest it appeared he condoned such behavior. On December 3rd 1791, he commanded that Yun Chich’ung and Kwŏn Sang’yŏn be beheaded. Soon, the order was carried out, and both heads were left exposed for five days to inspire terror in those who followed the Catholic practices. Soon after, Kwŏn Ilsin, who had escaped punishment in 1785 for his association with the Catholic meetings in the house of Kim Pŏmu, was arrested for his involvement in the church and although he was exiled, he died from the wounds inflicted during his imprisonment. Blood, torture and death would be enough to drive many Catholics into hiding, though of course this does not indicate they no longer believed in the new religion they had been very actively involved in. It is noteworthy that even before these first deaths and initial persecutions, Catholics had always been careful to remain hidden, conscious of the fact that what they were doing was illegal and contradicted the Chosŏn state’s orthodoxy (Dallet 1874, vol. i, 53–60; Baker 1983, 344–354; Kim (ed.) 1987, 109–138).

    It was not until the final days of 1794 that Korea finally had its own priest, Zhou Wenmo 周文謨 (1752–1801), who had arrived from China. This significant event encouraged Catholics and contributed to new growth within the Church. He had brought with him catechisms and other religious texts, and soon set about compiling new texts with the help of his Korean congregation who, for the first time, had the religious doctrine explained to them by a Catholic priest (Yu 1990, 54; Ch’oe 2006, 56). Father Zhou founded the Myŏngdohoe (明道會) [Society for the Illumination of the Way], headed by Chong Yakchong, which organized secret meetings to instruct Koreans in Catholic doctrine, with a female group led by a very brave woman, Kang Wansuk, who later hid Father Zhou in her own home. Kang was eventually executed for her very active role in a public realm that had traditionally been dominated by men. Members of these covert Catholic associations included people of different classes, as well as men and women, reflecting the Christian emphasis on equality (Ch’oe 2006, 48–50). Tasan (DBKC), in his “Memorial to Chŏnghŏn” (貞軒墓誌銘),11 recounts how the Noron faction persecuted Catholics, as “the religion spread day by day, month by month, among men and women, higher and lower.”12 Koreans themselves, particularly friends and family of Tasan, were effectively engaged in the missionary expansion of the Catholic religion, evidenced by the compilation of their own religious texts, many in the language of the masses, accelerating what Cho Kwang (1996, 126) describes as “Han’gŭl culture.”

    10Most people belonged to the commoner, or yangin class, while there was also a huge slave population. In the late eighteenth century around thirty percent of Chosŏn’s population was enslaved (Ch’oe et al. (eds.), 2001, vol. ii, 157).  11Chŏnghŏn was the pen name of the scholar Yi Kahwan 李家煥 (1742–1801) who was also persecuted for being involved with Catholicism.  12See, DBKC (Database of Korean Classics), available online at: Search: Yŏyudang chŏnsŏ: 與猶堂全書, 第一集詩文集第十五卷,文集, 貞軒墓誌銘.


    The earliest Catholic hymns in han’gŭl, written by Yi Pyŏk and Chŏng Yakchŏn, best reflect the religious transformation that was taking place and also help us to understand Tasan’s early intellectual horizon—one that was deeply Christian, one he consciously hid from the king, something very unConfucian indeed. These texts reflect the transformed horizon and acculturated textuality adapted by these early self-evangelizing Catholics whose writings should be regarded as monumental texts within Korea’s rich intellectual history—where, for the first time in history, Koreans accepted and wrote about a Western religion with God at its heart. Unfortunately, they are undervalued and overshadowed by interest in Sirhak (實學), or “Practical learning,” despite the great contribution they have made to Korea’s intellectual history, which also ignores the “practical” implications of Christianity for the early Church. They reflect a uniquely Korean de-construction of Confucianism supplemented with the Christian faith. These hymns, along with Yi Pyŏk’s longer text the Sŏnggyo yoji 聖敎要旨) [The Essence of the Divine Doctrine], were found in a collection called Manch’ŏn yugo (蔓川遺稿) [The Posthumous Works of Manch’ŏn]. This is a collection of posthumous poetry and essays attributed to Yi Sŭnghun, as well as other writings by the early Catholic Church members. In addition, the compiler of this collection used the pseudonym Mugŭk kwanin (無極觀人) [Witness of the Ultimateless], and informs us that he is someone who escaped execution, now writing after thirty years. This is considered by many to be Tasan (Kim 1977, 161; Ri, 1979a, 38; Ha 1985, 146; Thiébault 2006, 286). The writer also describes God as Sangju 上主, the Lord on High—a term used by Yi Pyŏk throughout Sŏnggyo yoji. Curiously, Tasan (1969, vol. i, 125–130) wrote several poems at Chŏnjin Buddhist temple (天眞寺) in the late 1820s, where Yi Pyŏk and his friends had studied long before, mentioning how he has returned there after thirty years, his friend and brothers now dead. His adness is palpable as he describes himself “floating like a single boat in a sea of suffering,” undoubtedly because he is the only member of his close group of friends to have survived the ongoing Catholic persecutions for a belief in God.13

    In Yi Pyŏk’s Ch’ŏnju konggyŏng-ga (천주공경가) [Hymn in Adoration of God], he unveils his worship of God—reflecting the Christian supplementation of his Confucian Weltanschauung (Ha (ed.) 2000, 333). The title of his hymn uses the Catholic name for God, Ch’ŏnju 천주, the han’gŭl form of the Chinese characters (天主). The text urges people to follow the traditional Confucian values of filial piety (효, hyo), loyalty to the king (충성, ch’ungsŏng), and to adhere to the fundamental Confucian principles described in the “Three Bonds” and the “Five Relationships.” However, these bonds and relationships have been transformed by something that Yi pinpoints as more important than everything else—a call to worship God. This idea identifies the core premise of Yi’s supplementation which he incorporated into what had now become a relationship with God, a God who was not an abstract metaphysical principle (i), but who was a re-interpretation of the Confucian Lord on High (上帝), which Matteo Ricci re-conceptualized in Ch’ŏnju sirŭi. Yi Pyŏk reinterprets ideas that are Confucian through his recent spiritual enlightenment viv-à-vis his Christian belief. Yi (ibid.) discusses the immortality of the soul, warns of the horrors of hell, as well as criticizes Buddhism—all in all very Riccian/Christian in nature.14 With the knowledge of God, there is, Yi believes, also a call to action. One must put this newly revised morality into practice, and Yi (ibid.) insists that “if one acknowledges God […] but one does not act, one’s sins increase.” Therefore, from the outset, Catholicism, among its earliest members in Chosŏn, was always a call to action, a call to act with charity towards others, a call to be transformed, but also to transform others. Yi assures his readers that for all things there is a source, just as every child has a father. God can therefore be described as the “original” father, or indeed as the original ancestor, an idea expounded in Ch’ŏnju sirŭi (Ricci 1985, par. 3). This also reflects Yi’s attempt to synthesize the Confucian virtue of filial piety with the idea of God: God is the father of all, therefore deserves to be worshipped even before earthly fathers and ancestors. Yi Pyŏk (Ha (ed.) 2000, 333) highlights that worshipping God leads to “eternal glory and life without end.” This reflects the religious faith that was beginning to flourish among Yi and his companions, but also how his “religious” discourse delicately supplemented Confucian moral philosophy.

    The laws of the Old Testament, the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20: 2–17; Deuteronomy 5: 6–21), would have been widely available to all Neo-Confucian scholars who had read the Western texts of the Jesuits. Chŏng Yakchŏn wrote the Sipkyemyŏng-ga (십계명가) [Hymn in Praise of the Ten Commandments] in praise of the moral teachings in the commandments. In this hymn (Ha (ed.) 2000, 334–336), the initial theme, centered on the first four Commandments, is also in praise of God, who is again called Ch’ŏnju. Readers of the text are urged again to give up belief in false superstitions and spirits, as well as the worship of idols and “pieces of wood” (나무신막, namu sinmak), referring to ancestral tablets. This is significant, in that, already at this early stage of religious penetration, some Confucians were willing to reject their own rituals, before they had ever received directives from a foreign bishop in Beijing. Chŏng also coins a new term for God, “the Lord of Creation” (조물주, Chomulchu). Joseph Ung-Tai Kim (1990, 64) underlines the fact that this title (another name for the same God) supplements the Confucian Sangje, as the Lord on High was never considered a creator.15 In a sense, Chŏng (Ha (ed.) 2000, 334) deconstructs the terms used for God, unsettling rigid interpretations enclosed by traditions, gesturing towards différance which fluctuates between meanings:

    Chŏng suggests that even Neo-Confucian metaphysical ideas reflect traces of God: from a deconstructive standpoint, the same God is the “one” spoken of/written about in different traditions, by different names.

    The commentary on the Fourth Commandment concerning the Sabbath suggests it should be dedicated “in adoration of God,” Ch’ŏnju konggyŏng [천주공경], using the title of Yi Pyŏk’s hymn (Ha (ed.) 2000, 334). The commentary of the remaining commandments emphasizes moral instructions, and carefully points out that breaking them, one runs the risk of hell and punishments, contrasting starkly with the promise of paradise for those who live moral lives (ibid., 335–336). The fifth commandment is emphasized above all the others and is, in fact, inextricably linked with the first four. Yi puts this commandment in the following way, “Among all the things in the world, filial piety is the most important,” and so focuses on an issue which for Neo-Confucians was considered as a fundamental law. Filial piety itself is elevated by its Christian, Neo-Confucian interpreters to the point of a quasi-central commandment, “One who loves his parents, shows adoration for Ch’ŏnju,” (Ch’ŏnju konggyŏng), again repeating the title of Yi’s hymn. As Yi Wŏn-sun (1996, 81) highlights, this hymn also addresses the real issues that were affecting Chosŏn society at that time, and it provides a scathing attack on those in power, and the bitter rivalry between factions. The commandments, in this context, de-structure the hegemonical power by evoking a shocking sense of equality where, from the highest (the king) to the lowest, all are expected to follow the Commandments—without exception—irregardless of social position.

    The salient feature of these hymns is the worship of God-the-Creator, not only a creator of the things in the world, but the orchestrator of its moral laws—laws all must obey, even the king. This reflects the earliest understanding of Catholicism which Ricci anticipated would entice people to seek out more information about the religion. Chŏng Yakchŏn’s text is also important as a critical social commentary. With a more cogent understanding of Catholic doctrine, there is a shift in the focal point of these Catholic “Korean” teachings. This shift is from a distant principle/Supreme Ultimate to a close relationship with God as the “original ancestor,” denoting a relationship that would be consolidated by God-inman—Jesus Christ—and his message to live and act differently. The two most significant texts from this period were written by Yi Pyŏk, and this time, a different Chŏng brother, Yakchong.

    13This can be accessed online at the DBKC: Yŏyudang chŏnsŏ: 與猶堂全書, 第一集詩文集第七卷,詩集, 天眞消搖集  14These early Catholics were influenced by Ricci’s catechism which overtly criticised Buddhism and reflects his own attempt to localize the Christian teachings so that they would appeal to his Confucian audience.  15The term Chomulchu is also used in a hymn by Yi Kahwan (경세가, Kyŏngse-ga). See, Ha (ed.) 2000, 337.


    Kim Okhŭi (1977, 73) describes Yi Pyŏk as “the most important figure during the preparatory stage of the acceptation of Catholicism in Korea,” and goes so far as to state that the Sŏnggyo yoji “is of as similar importance for Korea as the Ch’ŏnju sirŭi of Matteo Ricci was for China” (ibid., 157). As Kim (ibid.) points out, most of the original Christian writings from this period were burned, yet the Sŏnggyo yoji remains attributed to Yi Pyŏk, and is in the Manch’ŏn yugo collection mentioned above. In addition, the Chinese writings of the Jesuits in China were well documented: Kim Joseph Ung-tai (1989, 59) notes that there was a Chinese text with the same title written by Louis Buglio (1606–1682) but it contains only twelve sections, compared with the forty-nine in Yi’s text, and is very different in style and content. Yi’s Sŏnggyo yoji, written in Chinese characters, uses a high literary style that was common for elite Chosŏn scholars to expound moral teachings (Kim 1977, 158). The style is of great significance as it displays Yi’s attempt at winning over elite Neo-Confucian scholars—a goal he undoubtedly fulfilled considering his disciples included Tasan. In addition, as Yi Wŏn-sun (1996, 70) correctly highlights, it reminds us that Yi Pyŏk was an accomplished Confucian scholar, indeed, he had a great intellectual influence on Tasan. Tasan (1969, vol. ii, 61), considered one of the greatest figures in Korea’s intellectual history, describes his admiration for Yi Pyŏk in the preface to his Chungyong kangŭibo (中庸講義補) [Supplement to Lectures on the Doctrine of the Mean], writing how Yi had helped him answer questions on the text that were presented to King Chŏngjo, adding that, “if (Yi Pyŏk) were alive, I could not compare with his level of scholarship and virtue.” Of course Yi Pyŏk’s scholarship reflected his Christian beliefs, something Tasan was clearly aware of, and here, indirectly praising.

    The first verse of Sŏnggyo yoji (Ri 1979b, 61) begins with the idea of God and uses the classical Confucian term Sangje (上帝), as well as Sangju (上主). From the outset Yi discloses a new re-constructed interpretation of the Confucian Lord on High and presents us with “one true God” (一眞神, ilchinsin) whose sanctity is without equal. Sanctity too, incorporates a Confucian term, sŏng (聖), from sagehood (聖學, sŏnghak), but it redirects sagehood towards God. Yi’s horizon now reflects the confluence of his Christian and Confucian ideas. The remainder of the first and second verses (Ri 1979b, 61–63) outlines Yi Pyŏk’s biblical knowledge of Genesis and describes creation, Adam and Eve, original sin, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, but at the heart of Yi’s interpretation is man’s inability to save himself, and he sketches an unflattering depiction of the human condition. Yi’s critique is reflective of his own corrupt and unjust society and would have resonated with his Confucian readers who were only too aware of the inequality and injustices that were rampant in Korea at this time, ideas also highlighted by Chŏng Yakchŏn. Yi (Ri 1979b, 65) focuses on Jesus, depicting him as “the true savior” (斯實救主, sasil kuju) who has come to bring happiness to the world, showing Yi’s understanding of Jesus’s role as redeemer of mankind’s sins. Verses 3 to 14 follow the life of Jesus and adhere closely to passages from the Bible, but rather than presenting the “savior” as a strong, powerful force, Jesus is presented as humble and suffering, in other words, human. Yi Pyŏk, realizing the importance of Jesus to the Catholic faith, attempts to bring his readers close to him.

    Yi Pyŏk (Ri 1979b, 67–76) portrays Jesus as one who forgives and who teaches, and his teachings are what must be transmitted, and, more importantly, put into action. The kerygmatic theme (of preaching the Gospel) is strong in Yi’s text, intertwined with the Confucian concept of sagehood, where the teachings of sages can transform us into more complete human beings. In this text, it is God (in Jesus) who teaches us about God through weakness, which deconstructs power. Yi Pyŏk presents a humble man who rides on a donkey, whose power arises from his teachings. He has not come to rule the world, but to show the way to the kingdom as a sage servant, not a sage king. This imagery diametrically opposes the ideology of Neo-Confucianism in the society Yi was a part of. Yi (ibid., 72) describes the mission of Jesus, open to men and women, whether they be sages or slaves, as a socially de-structuring event. Jesus is portrayed as a filial son, loyal to the father who sent him like any good Confucian, but the characteristics of Jesus that captivate are love, mercy and charity, described in verse 10 (Ri 1979b, 74–5). Of great significance is that the humanity (仁, in) of Confucianism has been reconceptualized into Christian love and reflected in action through charity. Humanity, as a Confucian socio-ethical virtue, was dependent on recognition of familial relations and did not extend into other groups, especially the lower classes. It was a hierarchical, socially-structured obligation that depended on reciprocity. Ri Jean Sangbae (1979a, 126–7) discusses Christian love as the fulfillment of humanity, and depicts the humanity (仁) of Confucianism as “a principle of love, a sort of interior virtue.” This clearly exposes the difference between these two concepts: Christian love (which should be practiced) should be an active externalistic process that can effect true change, deconstructing a hierarchically structured world which segregates and separates.

    Yi (Ri 1979b, 75) describes the world as a place where people always seek “high places,” and this would have struck a considerable chord with Yi’s listeners who were mostly elite yangban, who had competed for the civil service kwagŏ (科擧) exams and high government posts. Kim Okhŭi (1977, 179) considers such ideas as a manifestation of Jesus’ intentions “to reform society and culture.” Interestingly, Yi places much more emphasis on the simple, yet incendiary teachings of Jesus than on his miracles which he discusses in verse 11 (Ri 1979b, 76–8). Again it is the concrete and practical (實, sil), and not the supernatural that triumphs or converts, even the miracles of Jesus are described more in terms of healing and purification than in terms of out-of-this-world experiences. The greatest miracle is that Jesus, instead of punishing sinners, forgives them (ibid.). Forgiveness, a central theme in the Gospels, is found nowhere in Confucianism: here again is a pivotal deconstructive gesture that separates both doctrines, and another case of Christian supplementation of Confucianism.

    Verses 12–14 (Ri 1979b, 78–82) summarize biblical accounts of Jesus’s fulfillment of the prophecies of the Old Testament and also focus on the Passion of Christ. Again, these passages reinforce Christian teachings of God’s love reflected through Jesus’s teachings. Verse 12 (ibid, 79–80), in particular, emphasizes God’s love and describes all people, rich and poor, as belonging to one family as God is a universal father; all beings are related and make up the human family where one’s role is to “serve” each other. It is through service and love that Christians can attain sagehood, or the perfection of humanity, which for Yi is encapsulated in the Confucian term sŏng (誠), often translated as sincerity, a central theme in the Doctrine of the Mean (Chan, (trans.) 1973, 20–26). Again in Ch’ŏnju sirŭi, Ricci (1985 sec. 67) acknowledges the importance of sŏng in the method of self-cultivation, but supplements it with the Christian focus on God, or God’s call to follow God. Yi continues along these lines, but the way of accomplishing sŏng is to imitate the man Jesus, the living embodiment of God, who has been presented in Confucian guise as the perfect sage, who is “total sincerity,” or, sŏng incarnate (Ri, 1979a, 135). Neo-Confucian sagehood is supplemented with a new Christian supplementation achieved by following “the way of Jesus” (耶蘇之道, Yaso chi to), and by meditating on the Passion of Christ, described as yuŏk chŏngt’ong (屡憶釘痛), which literally means, remember often the pain of [the one] nailed (ibid., 96–97). This is swiftly followed by verse 30 (ibid., 98-99), and an exhortation to spread the religion among all people and to forgive, revealing Yi Pyŏk’s missionary zeal and call for equality and charity, thereby destructuring Confucian power and gender constructs where sagehood has become a “practical” pathway leading to God for both men and women.

    Kim Okhŭi (1977, 200) comments that Yi’s Christianity has been viewed through Confucianism, yet despite his limited knowledge of Christianity gained uniquely from books, his understanding of redemption is particularly profound. What flows throughout this text is Yi’s passion for God and his passion to teach others about redemption through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. This helps us to accept the validity of the description in Dallet (1894, vol. i, 20–21) of Yi as a missionary attempting to spread the Good News of a merciful God who has called all to participate in the “rewards of the redemption of the world.” According to Dallet (ibid, 19), Yi taught these ideas to Chŏng Yakchong, Tasan’s elder brother and close friend.


    Chŏng Yakchong is an important figure in this early period of missionary work. His importance is reflected in the infamous “Silk Letter” (帛書, Paeksŏ) in which Hwang Sayŏng (Yŏ, (ed.) 2003) describes the elder Chŏng brother, his noble character and sagacious mind, as well as his profound knowledge, praising his text Chugyo yoji (주교요지) [The Essence of Catholicism]. This text was written in han’gŭl so that “even women and children could understand it at a first glance.”16 The title shows a fuller commitment to a Christian re-conceptualization of sagehood, evident from the use of chugyo 主敎, religion of the Lord, rather than sŏnghak 聖學, or even sŏnggyo 聖敎. According to Kim Joseph Ung-Tai (1990, 174), the text was composed between 1786 and 1795, but considering the in-depth knowledge of scripture, it would appear to have been written after the entry of the first priest into Korea, who taught Catholic doctrine in much greater detail. Cho Kwang (1996, 127) notes that the text was well received and praised by Father Zhou himself, and so may have been composed shortly after his arrival, during the period of Chŏng’s leadership of the Myŏngdohoe. The fact that it was written in the popular script reflects a benevolent and charitable concern for men, women and children who were not yangban, as well as the growing sense of equality: men and women were reading the same texts for the first time, and not texts of East Asian origins, but texts of a Western religion that was universal.

    The Chugyo yoji is divided into two parts. The first part introduces, in detail, the Lord of Heaven, Ch’ŏnju, and the influence of Ricci’s text is evident, not only from the language and terms which have come right out of it, but also its attack on Buddhism and Daoism. The term Ch’ŏnju is obviously the term Ricci chose and reflects the author’s attempt to develop the idea of God that Ricci had introduced. The second part reflects the scriptural knowledge that Chŏng possessed and his deep understanding of Catholic doctrine from the Old Testament and the New Testament. It provides an overview from creation and man’s original sin, to the incarnation of Jesus, where Chŏng provides a deep Catholic understanding of man’s redemption through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ and his resurrection.

    The first part, as mentioned above, has been influenced by Matteo Ricci’s text, but also shows a development in ideas obtained from other texts from China and undoubtedly from the teachings of Father Zhou. Chŏng Yakchong (1986, 11–12) rejects the idea of spontaneous origination (accepted by Confucians), noting that things do not simply “appear” by themselves: just as (wo)men have parents, therefore even the first person must have had a parent—God is represented as our first parent, or “original” ancestor—echoing Yi Pyŏk’s use of similar imagery. Chŏng Yakchong’s text underscores that there is only one incomparable God who creates. Verses 6–12 (ibid., 15–19) reinforce the Catholic monotheistic viewpoint, as well as the Scholastic teachings that God exists originally by himself, without beginning or end. It expresses ideas outlined by Ricci in Chapter One of Ch’ŏnju sirŭi and further develops its scholastic views about the self-evidence of God’s existence and of “Creation as God’s Doing,” as well as that “God is his Own Existence”—ideas delineated by Thomas Aquinas.17 Chŏng Yakchong is careful to balance his arguments between theological doctrine and contextual relativity which respects the people he is trying to educate and convert. He has presented some of the most complicated Scholastic theories in a concise, yet simple language, a task that further underscores his intellectual dexterity, possibly rivaling that of his more famous brother Tasan.

    In Chŏng Yakchong’s text, the reader first encounters a powerful metaphysical God who is everywhere, infinitely powerful, and omniscient (ibid., 18–19), while later, he introduces the humble and suffering Christ. Chŏng (ibid., 20–21) provides us with one of the clearest pictures of the Trinity, with Jesus as the face of God, and God’s love embodied in the Holy Spirit, thereby resolving the ontotheological rupture that Yi Ik, Sin Hudam and An Chŏngbok had lambasted. The text has surpassed Ricci’s explanation, and God has been supplemented with God(-in-Jesus). Chŏng Yakchong (1986, 25) combines the Confucian and Catholic term into one phrase for a singular God, writing that there is only one divine Ch’ŏnjusangje (천주상제), something he contrasts with Buddhist beliefs. In Verses 18–20, Chŏng (1986, 26–52) criticizes the Buddha and all Bodhisattvas, describing them as all men created by the Lord of Heaven, describing Sakyamuni as a man born of human parents, unlike Jesus who he considers born of God, hence divine. Chŏng’s reasoning is if the Buddha is a normal man, then, he has no superior knowledge or divine insights, and so his teachings must be considered as “entirely false” (ibid., 28). Chŏng’s text also reflects the same resolve as Ricci’s to expose and then criticize all similarities between Christianity and Buddhism as entirely superficial, especially where the soul was concerned, which is again, as in Ricci’s text, described in Scholastic terms (ibid., 42–44).18 In the last section of the first part of the Chugyo yoji, what really distinguishes a person is a belief in Ch’ŏnju and the practice of charity—a call to take positive action—reflective of Christian caritas.

    While the first part of Chugyo yoji develops ideas from Matteo Ricci’s influential text, the second part reflects a deeper knowledge of the Holy Bible. In Part Two, verses 1 and 2 (ibid., 55–61) outline the account in the Old Testament of creation as well as the concept of Original Sin, man’s fall from “goodness.” According to this text, since all beings originate from the original parents Adam and Eve, mankind consists of a single human family, implying inherent equality between people of all races and both sexes. Man’s corruption reflects his inability for correct self-cultivation and this becomes the reason for the incarnation of Christ as man—to instruct mankind and to lead us away from sin. Hence, Christ’s function becomes a Confucian one which is perfected by Catholic supplementation and the intervention of God-in-the-world. This intervention hopes to produce a positive deconstructive effect: to perfect (wo)man, dismantling hierarchical Confucian constructions. It also attempts to reaffirm the relationship between God and (wo)mankind, a relationship that Neo-Confucianism has repressed through its appropriation of an insensitive, uncaring principle.

    Chŏng Yakchong (ibid, 62) is careful to present the incarnation (강생, kangsaeng) as a historical event, “God made himself man.” This event, as in Yi Pyŏk’s text, explodes with significance, again dramatizing and reinforcing the humility of God (on high) who lowers himself to be made-man: kang (강), can be interpreted as “to descend” or “to surrender.” This encounter with Jesus, who chooses (who is not forced) to become man, conflicts with the previous image of the all-mighty and all-powerful God. The weakness of man is at variance with the omnipotent forces witnessed above (and those of a Confucian sage-king) and just as John Caputo’s (2006) deconstructive reading of Jesus describes him in terms of weakness, Chŏng draws his readers towards the weakness of God in the lowly form of man: it is as man that God saves and expiates the sins of those who have faith. Chŏng (1986, 66), in section 3, describes Jesus as “truly God and truly man,” who is a mediator (거간, kŏgan) between God and man, as an elder brother (장형, changhyŏng) to all people. Jesus is referred to as the savior of the world, and again, it is not supernatural feats that change men and de-structure the powerful structures of the world, but the words of Jesus and his teachings. This in itself represents a development from earlier texts which glorified the mighty metaphysical and transcendental God. Chŏng (1986, 70) highlights the “humanness” of the suffering Jesus, and as noted above, the term used for the incarnation, kangsaeng, also denotes submission—here is that submission—unto death itself. Section 4 (ibid., 74–80) describes the Resurrection of Jesus who ascended into heaven after forty days, an event which signifies a return to God. Yet again, it is not the supernatural feat of what may be described as God’s greatest miracle, the Resurrection, that embodies God’s everlasting power. Rather, this is embodied by the most submissive and servile symbol, the Cross, which is described as infinitely and spiritually powerful (ibid., 80–81).

    Chŏng (1986, 90–5) presents Jesus as the redeemer (구세주, kuseju), the lamb (고양, koyang) who has come to free all mankind from sin and death through his sacrifice. He explains (ibid., 94) that the incarnation had taken place in Judea simply because the people there had worshipped God, but that now all people could follow the teachings of Christ and be saved. Hence, being saved depended on whether one “practiced” the teachings of Jesus, and one did this by choice, not by force, somewhat ironically insinuating that Koreans had become Confucian under penalty of law, not by choice. Christian self-cultivation reflects a choice open to all—to follow the teachings of Jesus or not. This text ushers in a call for change, a revolution of active charity. Chŏng (ibid., 103) calls for this change to begin now, calling for his Confucian audience to repent and reform (개과천선, kaegwa ch’ŏnsŏn). The text also exhorts caritas, an externalistic approach guided towards others, away from oneself as outlined in section 10 (ibid, 98–101). This practical (sil) theology teaches that all beings are responsible for the well-being of others, by following the Commandments and the teachings of Christ, which call Christians to help and love each other, including women, children, the poor, strangers—and even enemies.

    16Hwang Sayŏng (Yŏ (ed.) 2003) also describes how Yi Sŭnghun and Tasan were still practicing Catholics despite public apostasies, which he insists were made out of fear of torture and execution.  17For a discussion of God’s existence as evident, see, Aquinas (1998), 195–202, and on “Creation as God’s Doing,” see, ibid., 251–262. For Aquinas’s writings on, “God is his Own Existence,” see, ibid., 202–205.  18This Scholastic view of the soul synthesizes ideas that were first discussed by Aristotle with Christian ideas. See Aristotle (1986), De Anima (On the Soul).


    This article has traced the important transformation from mere philosophical curiosity by early Namin scholars who rejected Matteo Ricci’s ideas, to the religious faith embodied by later Namin scholars who formed a practicing Catholic Church. This was a conversion from principle (i) to God. Yi Ik and his disciples refused to supplement their Neo-Confucian onto-cosmology with theistic ideas, viewing Ch’ŏnju and his incomprehensible incarnation as Yaso with contempt and derision. Later Namin scholars, encouraged by Yi Pyŏk and Yi Sŭnghun, commenced their own mission of converting Koreans to a monotheistic God who hovered under different names, like différance, between traditions. This is a most significant point: the other prominent Eastern traditions that had taken root in Korea, Buddhism and Confucianism, lacked such a concept, making these early conversions among different social classes all the more momentous. The initial martyrdom of the chungin Kim Pŏmu, as well as the execution of Tasan’s cousins over the burning of ancestral tablets, and subsequent persecutions, drove the early Church members into greater secrecy. Out of terror and fear some members recanted their faith, at least publicly, though as indicated in Hwang Sayŏng’s letter, in private they remained faithful. The Church, which had begun with imported foreign texts, began to expand and develop by virtue of Christian texts written by Koreans in a Neo-Confucian context, under threat of persecution, or worse, death.

    The hymns by Yi Pyŏk and Chŏng Yakchŏn in han’gŭl are the first attempts by Koreans to concretely express their religious awakening by giving praise to Godthe-Creator, a salient feature of all texts from this period. These texts deconstruct their own tradition vis-à-vis this “Other” one, which supplements, rather than supplants. The longer catechisms by Yi Pyŏk and Chŏng Yakchong, reflect the development of ideas and the ability of Koreans to assimilate and integrate Catholic ideas into their Confucian tradition. Yi Pyŏk’s Sŏnggyo yoji was directed towards the elite, while Chŏng Yakchong’s Chugyo yoji, written in han’gŭl, reflects a radical transformation of the social landscape: a switch from Chinese characters to Korean ones, signifying a movement away from elitism towards equality. The newly enlarged horizon of these early Christians, both male and female, is reflected through their rejection of Neo-Confucian metaphysics, criticisms of their own society, and a desire for barrier-breaking social changes. These unique texts, and this religious context fraught with terror and blood, also provide us with a glimpse into the violent socio-historical position of the early Catholics in Korea, much like the very early Church. Their secrecy and practice of public dissimulation had begun even before the Sinyu 辛酉 persecutions of 1801, which led to martyrdom for hundreds, and exile for hundreds of others, including Tasan and his brother Yakchŏn.

    These early Catholics sowed the seeds of transformation which changed the socio-religious landscape of Korea forever. Their ideas were put into actual practice, making Korea’s first Christians truly sirhak (實學) women and men, who were reading the same texts for the first time, organizing prayer meetings, helping those in need, freeing slaves, and all worshipping the same God as equals. While Neo-Confucianism and its power had started to erode, Christian ideas would eventually spread, despite more violent persecutions. These ideas would influence the Tonghak movement in the late nineteenth century, and contribute to the metamorphosis of Korean society in the twentieth century. But the seeds were planted by the blood of early Catholic martyrs and by a few texts that brought death to many at the hands of Confucians, too often idealized, overlooking their political motives and quest for power, not for sagehood.

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