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    In 1839, on the twelfth day of the fourth month, after suffering torture and an imprisonment of three years, Magdalene Kim Ŏbi, a commoner widow in her sixties, was beheaded for practicing Catholicism. As an elderly widow, she was supposed to receive special protection from her government. How then did the Chosŏn state justify killing her? In order to answer this question, this article will survey public proclamations against Catholicism issued in 1801, 1839, 1866, and 1881. In the course of this article, I will argue that these edicts created an image of Catholics and the religion they followed as such a serious threat that their executions were necessary for the good of the state, the civilization it defended, and the people it governed. In particular, I will contend that Catholics were primarily portrayed as rebels and animals, rhetorically transforming them from subjects deserving protection to dangerous beasts needing to be slaughtered. These portrayals not only justified the violent suppression of Catholicism, but also provided a useful foil against which the state could justify its own rule, presenting itself as the beleaguered defender of true civilization against bestial, rebellious followers of an evil religion and therefore the center around which the people of Chosŏn must rally around and to which they must give their ultimate loyalty. In turn, these extreme images helped drive the suppressions, making them more expansive and intense than they might otherwise have been, leading to a level of state violence directed against the common people not seen previously in Korean history.


    Catholicism , Chos?n Dynasty , Religious Violence , Rebellion , Animals


    In 1839, on the twelfth day of the fourth month, after suffering torture and an imprisonment of three years, Magdalene Kim Ŏbi, a sixty-six-year-old commoner widow with no living children, was beheaded for practicing Catholicism. Not only does she appear, from our perspective today, to be a relatively harmless person, certainly not deserving of death, by the standards of that time, as an elderly widow, she was supposed to receive special protection from her government—a government that frequently portrayed itself as a parent caring for its children and took as its primary duty the spreading of true morality and civilization. How then did the Chosŏn statejustify killing her? In order to answer this question, I will survey public proclamations against Catholicism issued in 1801, 1839, 1866, and 1881.1

    In the course of this paper, I will argue that these edicts created an image of Catholics and the religion they followed as such a serious threat that their executions were necessary for the good of the state, the civilization it defended, and the people it governed. In particular, I will argue that Catholics were primarily portrayed as rebels and animals, rhetorically transforming them from subjects deserving protection into dangerous beasts needing to be slaughtered. These images not only justified the violent suppression2 of Catholicism, but provided a foil against which the state could justify its own rule, allowing it to present itself as the beleaguered defender of true civilization against bestial, rebellious followers of an evil religion, and therefore the center around which the people of Chosŏn must rally and give their ultimate loyalty. However, these extreme images were founded upon a fundamental misunderstanding of who Catholics were and what they were trying to do, helping make the suppressions of Catholicism, which theoretically could have been limited to the execution of key leaders, into exercises of state-sponsored violence heretofore unprecedented in Korean history against people, like Magdalene Kim Ŏbi, whom the government claimed it was supposed to educate, civilize, protect, and nurture.3

    There are many excellent studies of Catholicism in nineteenth-century Chosŏn Korea. However, they tend to be written from a Catholic rather than government perspective and to focus on a limited time frame, such as a single suppression. Therefore, by examining how the Chosŏn state portrayed Catholics throughout the nineteenth century I will build upon this work. Moreover, there has been a call by scholars Mark Juergensmeyer and Mona Sheikh for a “sociotheological” approach to the study of religious violence that unites intellectual studies of a particular worldview with the social context that shapes, and is shaped by it.4 Therefore, while space limitations will prevent me from going into great detail regarding such factors as the court politics that shaped these edicts, by adopting this approach and covering most of the nineteenth century, we will see how the historical context, the needs of the state, and the characteristics of the Catholic community influenced the public justification of violence against Catholics, which in turn shaped the suppressions. In particular, we will see that while there were constants throughout this period, particularly the portrayal of Catholics as rebels and beasts, these images were emphasized to greater or lesser degrees in accordance with the reality the Chosŏn state faced. However, this article is meant more as a beginning than an ending, and it is my hope that others will critique, supplement, and develop this work in the future.

    1For a general overview of the 1801, 1839, and 1866 suppressions, see respectively, Yi Changu, “Sinyu pakhae wa Hwang Sayŏng kwa paeksŏ sakkŏn [The 1801 persecution and the Hwang Sayŏng Silk Letter],” Han’guk Kyohoesa Yŏn’guso (Seoul: Han’guk Kyohoesa Yŏn’guso, 2010), 2:15–117; Ch’oe Sŏnhye, “Kihae pakhae [The 1839 persecution],” in Han’guk Ch’ŏnjugyohoesa, ed. Han’guk Kyohoesa Yŏn’guso (Seoul: Han’guk Kyohoesa Yŏn’guso, 2010), 3:15–103; and in the same volume, Pang Sanggŭn, “Pyŏngin pakhae [The 1866 persecution],” 3:249–86. Though the suppression of 1846 is usually treated with those of 1801, 1839, and 1866, as it did not produce any major suppression edicts, I will not examine it in this article.  2Typically, concentrated periods of anti-Catholic violence during the Chosŏn dynasty have been described in the relevant literature as “persecutions” (pakhae). However, because this term has negative connotations and I am attempting to write more from the perspective of Korean officials of the time, who saw their actions as fully justified, I have decided to use the more neutral term “suppression.”  3I must stress that I am not arguing that this was the only factor; there were certainly others. For instance, Don Baker has argued that Catholics constituted an illegal, foreign religious organization that rejected the “ritual hegemony” that the Chosŏn state claimed thereby challenging its authority. Instead, I am seeking to build on the work of Baker by arguing that the threatening images of Catholics held and promulgated by state officials through public edicts encouraged widespread suppressions against people in non-leadership positions because they made all Catholics appear to be dangerous. See Don Baker, Korean Spirituality (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2008), 64–70.  4Mark Juergensmeyer and Mona Kanwal Sheik, “A Sociological Approach to Understanding Religious Violence,” Oxford Handbook of Religion and Violence, edited by Mark Juergensmeyer, Margo Kitts, and Michael Jerryson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).


    Catholicism was criticizedby Chosŏn scholars before there were any Catholics in the country.5 Most rejected Catholicism out of hand, and even those, like Yi Ik (1681–1763), who found some useful techniques for moral self-cultivation in Catholic books, rejected the religion itself.6 One of Yi’s students, An Chŏngbok (1712–1791), reacted to growing interest in Catholicism among fellow members of the Southerner faction by writing A Conversation on Catholicism (ch’ŏnhak mundap/天學問答), which criticized the religion as causing people to abandon their moral duties in this world and, like Buddhism, scaring people into doing good by playing on their selfishness, promising heaven for the righteous and hell for the wicked, rather than encouraging them to do good for its own sake. An’s A Conversation on Catholicism also sheds light on how animals and humans were differentiated from each other in Chosŏn Korea. An makes it clear that human beings, who, by virtue of their ability to discern between right and wrong and the fact that they consist of purer ki than animals, are on a completely different level of existence from beasts. He therefore understood the relationship between human beings and animalsthusly: “…if there is any living thing on the earth that can be domesticated, we [human beings] may do so. If there is anything that can be killed, we may do that as well. And if there is anything that can be used, we may use it.”7 As we shall see, while Chosŏn officials did not criticize Catholics for having impure ki, they were portrayed as acting immorally in a way that dehumanized them, transforming them into animals that only looked human, and therefore making it morally legitimate to kill them.

    Such critiques spread increasingly throughout Chosŏn after Catholics first began to appear on the peninsula in 1784, leading to the banning and burning of Catholic books. Before long, the state began to use violence against Catholics themselves. In 1785 a Catholic, Thomas Kim Pŏmu (?–1786), died from the interrogation he endured after he was arrested for hosting secret Catholic gatherings in his house. In 1791, two Catholics were executed for burning their ancestor tablets. Peter Wŏn Sijang’s (1732–1793) zeal for spreading his new faith led to his arrest in 1793. He was tortured for several months in an effort to force him to abandon Catholicism. Only after he continually refused to do so was he finally executed.8 In 1795, another three Catholics were tortured to death in an attempt to force them to inform on Father James Zhou Wenmo (1752–1801), a Chinese priest who had snuck into Chosŏn the previous year. While it has been stated that between 1797 and 1800 upwards of one hundred Catholics died at the hands of the state in an effort to find Father Zhou, we only have detailed information on the lives of eight Catholics executed at that time, all of whom were men.9 Moreover, no public edicts justifying violence against Catholics were issued at this time as King Chŏngjo (r. 1776–1800) was hesitant to take further steps since many of his allies were Southerners, from whose ranks elite Catholics (as well as some of the strongest critics of Catholicism) were drawn.

    5For a history of the critique of Catholicism, see Cha Kijin, Chosŏn hugi ŭi sŏhak kwa ch’ŏksaron yŏn’gu [A study of western learning and reject evil discourse in the late Chosŏn dynasty] (Seoul: Han’guk Kyohoesa Yŏn’guso, 2002).  6Don Baker, “Confucians Confront Catholicism in Eighteenth-century Korea” (PhD diss., University of Washington, 1983), 286–288.  7This translation is that of Don Baker, taken from the unpublished manuscript by Don Baker, with Franklin Rausch, The Silk Letter of Hwang Sayŏng: Catholics and Anti-Catholicism in Chosŏn Dynasty Korea.  8Joseph Ch’ang-mun Kim and John Jae-sun Chung, Catholic Korea: Yesterday and Today (Seoul: St. Joseph Publishing Co., 1984), 41–44.  9The information on these eight men was culled from Joseph Kim and John Chung, 49–51 and Han’guk Ch’ŏnjugyo Chugyohoe ŭi Sibok Sisŏng Chugyo T’ŭkpyŏl Wiwŏnhoe, ‘Hanŭnim ŭi chong’ Yun Chich’ŭng Paolo wa tongnyo sun’gyoja 123wi [‘Servants of God’ Paul Yun Chich’ung and 123 other martyrs] (Seoul: Taekyo K’ŏmyunik’eisyŭn, 2003). See also Dallet, 1:399–410 and Joseph Kim, 48–49. More than these eight were probably killed, but as these are the only ones I have been able to locate information on thus far, it is likely the case that the number of one hundred is too high. For a reference to the number of one hundred killed see Kim Chinso, “Sinyu pakhae tangsi sŏyang sŏnbak chŏngwŏn ŭi t’ŭksŏng [The particular characteristics of the invitation of a Western ship during the time of the 1801 persecution],” in Sinyu pakhae wa Hwang Sayŏng Paeksŏ sakkŏn, ed. Ch’oe Ch’anghwa (Seoul: Han’guk Sun’gyoja Hyŏnyang Wiwŏnhoe, 2003), 118–21.


      >  The Edict of the First Month of 1801

    Chŏngjo’s death led to the ascent of his young son Sunjo (r. 1800–1834) to the throne. As a minor, he had as his regent Queen Dowager Chŏngsun (1745–1805), who had been a concubine of Yongjo (r. 1724–1776), and, as Chŏngjo had punished some of her relatives, had no love for him or his Southerner supporters.10 That, combined with her desire to strengthen the position of the young king led her to ally with the powerful Old Doctrine faction, an enemy of the Southerners, the faction most elite Catholics were affiliated with. The anti-Southerner dimension of this alliance, and the fact that Catholicism continued to grow, led the Queen Dowager to launch an intensely violent suppression of its adherents, which she justified in an edict promulgated in the first month of 1801:

    The edict then went on to mandate the establishment of the five-family system of mutual surveillance in order to discover Catholics and prevent the further spread of the religion.

    We can see, through this edict, the basic justification for the use of violence against Catholics. First, Catholics were a threat to morality and civilization, challenging the very reason for the state’s existence and threatening to transform the common people into beasts and barbarians. Second, because Catholics were without “father and king,” that is, they did not act with filial piety towards their parents nor with loyalty to their king, they were akin to rebels and therefore should be executed as such. Third, it followed that since Catholicism transformed people into barbarians and beasts, Catholics who refused to abandon the religion were less than human and therefore it was as acceptable to kill them as one would any dangerous animal. In fact, the threat they posed made it a duty to kill them. Finally, the state itself was virtuous and moderate in its use of violence. King Chŏngjo first sought to bring Catholics back by “illuminating the way.” The increasing need to use violence against Catholics was merely the result of their irrational stubbornness. They had been amply warned by the state and were given an opportunity to abandon the practice of Catholicism before they were killed. The violence they suffered was therefore their own fault.

    Accompanying the edict was an explanation clarifying that the “evil learning” referred to was Catholicism. This was necessary because what was meant by this phrase was not clear as no distinctive Catholic doctrine was noted. Further justifying the violent suppression of Catholicism, the explanatory note described how “Before it came to Korea, the so-called ‘Learning of the Lord of Heaven Jesus’ existed in the West, where it bewitched the people with theories of heaven and hell, taught them not to respect their parents, led them to act out of harmony with the cosmic pattern (li/理), and threw principle (sang/常) into disorder. This strange teaching is completely without morality.” This statement is interesting in that while noting that Catholicism came from the West, it does not explicitly criticize the religion for its foreign origin. Moreover, the threat Catholicism poses is essentially moral, not military. Catholics are understood to be like rebels, but are not accused of actually plotting rebellion.

      >  The Development of the Narrative

    In the midst of the sporadic executions justified by the above edict, Alexius Hwang Sayŏng (1775–1801), a Catholic leader who had escaped the initial round of arrests, wrote a missive to the bishop of Beijing, known to history as the Silk Letter (paeksŏ/帛書), in which he sought to summon a Western armada to force the Chosŏn state to grant religious tolerance to Catholicism.13 He was arrested in the ninth month of 1801 before he could send his letter, and executed in the eleventh month. Chosŏn state officials were profoundly disturbed by the discovery of his letter as it confirmed their fear that Catholics were plotting against the government. Moreover, Father Zhou had been executed by the Chosŏn state on the nineteenth day of the fourth month, and Hwang had described in his letter how that fact could be used to blackmail the government into tolerating Catholicism.14 In light of this new information, it was decided by the Queen Dowager in consultation with high officials that it was necessary to inform China of what had happened by handing over a heavily edited version of the Silk Letter15 and sending a letter of explanation with the winter tribute mission.16

    Though, strictly speaking, not a public edict, the explanatory letter that was submitted to the Chinese emperor is worth examining because it presents the first full-blown narrative of the suppression of Catholicism that sought to justify the use of violence against adherents of the religion.17 It began by stating that a group of evil bandits (sajŏk/邪賊) had stirred up disturbances (sŏnnan/煽亂), but had been destroyed. As a loyal vassal of China, the Chosŏn state was reporting these events. But, before giving the report, the letter affirmed Chosŏn’s Confucian identity, noting how, since the time of Kija, 3,000 years earlier, Koreans had adhered to the principles of righteousness, loyalty, and obedience. They followed Confucianism with their whole hearts, refusing to tolerate any departure from its principles. Such was the devotion of Koreans to orthodox learning that even the women and children in the countryside followed the five relationships and adhered to the three bonds. Never before had they entertained heresy (idan/異端).

    Despite this firm Confucian foundation, there suddenly appeared followers of Western learning who “profaned Heaven, despised the sages, were rebels against the king (paegun/背君) and looked with contempt upon their fathers……ceased performing ancestor rites and did away with their household shrines and ancestral tablets……bewitched the foolish people with talk of heaven and hell……and by means of baptism assembled an evil gang” (hyungdang/凶黨). They also gathered many women together and did “beastly things” (kŭmdok chi haeng/禽犢之行) and, like the Yellow Turbans and the White Lotus sectarians, referred to with the character “賊”(chŏk), meaning bandits, who had threatened China on numerous occasions, sought to stir up the people into rebellion. They took advantage of the death of King Chŏngjo and the succession of his young son to spread their faith so that their numbers grew “like a flood or a raging fire” (manman yŏmyŏm/漫漫炎炎).

    The letter dated the beginning of the suppression, not with the edict of the first month of 1801, but in the third month with the discovery of the letters and Catholic books of Augustine Chŏng Yakchong (1760–1801). This led to the exposure of a band of hundreds of evil cultists, made up of “nobles, base people, and the sons of concubines,” who had been gathered together by the likes of Yi Kahwan (1742–1801), their leader, and the brothers Chŏng Yakchong and Yagyong (1762-1836). The cultists refused to tell where one of their leaders—the one they called “priest”—was, preferring to die rather than inform on him. The Catholic community was described as a “coiled up snake” (saban/蛇盤) or “worm” (in/蚓). Catholicism thus did not simply threaten to transform people into birds and beasts; it had already done so. Catholics were also accused of bearing a grudge against the state for suppressing their religion and therefore “plotted rebellion” (moyŏk/謀逆). Thus, Catholics were not simply like rebels, as they were portrayed in the edict of the first month of 1801, but had actually become rebels.18 Faced with such evil, Chosŏn was in great danger, “Looking back on this situation, it can be seen in what desperate straits we were in. The evil cult had to be torn out at its roots. There was no time to spare.”

    Eventually the priest and other Catholics were captured and executed. One Catholic leader, Hwang Sayŏng, had escaped, but was finally captured after several months.19 Discovered in a letter written by Hwang was the proposal that the “Great West” invade Chosŏn so that it could “overthrow” (kyŏngbok/傾覆) the country. The situation Chosŏn faced was dire, as the “bandits” had encircled and threatened the country “like a vicious beast” (segŭp konsu/勢急困獸) and had plotted to summon Westerners “to cross the ocean and to open the doors of our country and offer it up to them.”

    Having now stated the danger that Chosŏn faced, the author then thanked the emperor for his generosity and stressed that Chosŏn was acting obediently as a vassal state by truthfully reporting these events. After requesting that if any Chosŏn Catholics were captured in China they be sent to Korea, the author confessed that “We have overstepped our authority so greatly that we cannot stop trembling with fear” since, because Father Zhou looked, dressed, and spoke like a Chosŏn person, he was taken to be such and executed. The letter then claimed, falsely, that the Chosŏn state only learned that Zhou might have been Chinese when Hwang was captured, after the priest had been executed. But even then, since Hwang Sayŏng was a follower of evil learning, and therefore a liar, they were not sure if what he said was “true or false, but because our country acts as a feudatory should, we did not dare to remain silent, but have included it in our report.” The letter then asked for pardon for what—if Zhou really was Chinese—was a serious violation of its vassal relationship with China. By presenting the execution of Zhou as an honest mistake made in a life-or-death struggle with the Catholic menace, the author of the letter asked for, and received forgiveness.20

      >  Ending the Suppression of 1801

    Following the death of Hwang, Queen Dowager Chŏngsun stated that it was time for the king to formally report to the royal ancestors the state’s success against the Catholic menace, an act that would end the active search for Catholics to punish.21 A number of officials disagreed and called for continued action.22 The Queen Dowager brushed aside these objections and pushed through the edict, which was to be issued through the ministry of rites.23 However, for unexplained reasons, the official proclamation of the edict was postponed.24 This delay allowed for the submission of further memorials asking that Ch’ae Chegong (1720–1799), a high minister and important adviser to Chŏngjo, be posthumously punished and that people like Chŏng Yakchŏn (1758–1816), a Southerner who dabbled in Catholicism but had long since repudiated it, be interrogated again. As the former was dead and the latter had repudiated Catholicism and had not been active in the faith for about a decade, it was questionable how much of a danger they posed to the state or Confucian civilization. Instead, such attacks were motivated in part by factional interests, which were likely responsible for the delay, as can be seen in the fact that a new date for the ceremony was settled upon only once the order was given to posthumously strip Ch’ae Chegong of office.25

    The proclamation began by asserting the Chosŏn state’s Confucian identity and success at implementing true civilization on the peninsula, and emphasizing its loyalty to that tradition, which it traced back from the sage emperors Yao and Shun to the founders of Neo-Confucianism.26 The proclamation then proceeded to supply a truncated narrative of the establishment of the Catholic Church in Chosŏn, describing the first Catholics as “a number of the low born, the shiftless, and people who resented our country,” who “formed a gang to obtain power and fame” and therefore “gathered together ruffians from the marketplace, farmers, and young women workers (hongnyŏ chi yu/紅女之流) and mixed with them, sullying good customs and right morals.” While at times they would meet together secretly and “meticulously plot their evil plans,” they would also “stir up trouble in the cities in broad daylight.”

    It was the traitor (yŏksaeng/逆甥) Peter Yi Sŭnghun whose “disciples” were described as “barbarians (chinhojong/眞胡種),” who first spread Catholic books, which were criticized as “deluding the world and deceiving the people” and so “threatened to destroy the five relationships and three bonds.” Yi’s adherence to Catholicism was especially disturbing as he had been an official. Even more threatening was the fact that Catholic influence had reached into the highest levels of government, as former high official Ch’ae Chegong, who “esteemed the dregs of Taoism and Buddhism” and had become so greedy that he no longer thought of his country, took part in the Catholic plot against the state.27 Likewise, the plan to smuggle Father James Zhou Wenmo into the country constituted a serious crime, and was made possible by the help Matthew Ch’oe Ingil (1765–1795) obtained from a treasonous member of the royal family and from other Catholic “bandits.” The Catholic rebellion (yŏkpyŏn/逆變) that threatened the young king was worse than the rising against King Injo in 1624 and the one against King Yongjo in 1728. In fact, Catholicism was simply a “pretext” (kat’ak/假托) under which Catholics secretly plotted “the creation of a disaster that threatened to even engulf heaven.”

    While, unlike in the edict that began the suppression in the first month of 1801, Catholics were principally depicted as posing a direct political threat to the dynasty, they were also seen as a moral danger. For instance, Chŏng Yakchong’s whole family became “stained with heresy,” leading to contention between older and younger brothers. Similarly, Ch’oe Pilgong and Yi Chonch’ang were criticized for “destroying their domestic shrines and breaking off proper human relationships.” Catholics were so depraved that they “pulled passages from the writings of the sages and worthies to support their heresy” and therefore had to “stretch out their necks and be punished.” However, the initial criticism of Catholics as being “without father and king” from the edict beginning the 1801 suppression was not repeated in this proclamation. Instead, Catholics were portrayed more forcefully as a direct political threat to the state.

    Distinctly Catholic beliefs were included in the proclamation. For instance, the Ten Commandments, priests, and bishops were all mentioned in passing. However, the primary criticism was the same as that utilized against Buddhism—Catholics “bewitched people with talk of heaven and hell.” The edict was more interested, as we have seen, in showing how strange and bizarre Catholic behavior was rather than in explaining why Catholics acted the way they did. For instance, the proclamation stated that “It is human nature to love life and hate death,” but Catholics treated the implements of execution as “a comfortable place to sleep” and thus, in a sense, were other than human. That Catholics believed that such deaths would bring them to heaven seems to have been ignored. Particularly striking in this discussion of Catholics who died for their faith is a neglect of the fact that many, if not the majority, of Catholics who were arrested chose to repudiate Catholicism rather than die.28 The state could have emphasized this fact to more forcefully assert its claim to be able to morally transform the population it ruled, thereby strengthening its legitimacy. However, the portrayal of Catholics as responsive to state efforts would have made the Catholic menace appear less dangerous, making it more difficult to justify the violence used against those Catholics who refused to give up their religion (and against factional opponents caught up in the suppression).

    Violence against Catholics was therefore justified principally because of the political threat they were seen as posing, and to a lesser extent, the moral danger they constituted. Violence against them was further legitimized by appeals to the past. It was pointed out in the edict that Chŏngjo had tried a gentle approach and forgiven Catholics who had repudiated their religion, but they had not responded to his grace by returning to the Confucian fold. Likewise, in the distant past, it would have been enough to simply destroy Catholic books for the people to learn to stay away from the religion, but people had degenerated, and those who obstinately clung to the cult had to be “treated according to the evil in their hearts.” Strikingly, while the discomfort with killing women and young children (puyu/婦孺) was noted, such actions were defended as necessary because of the great danger that Catholicism posed. In fact, the logic seems to have been turned around—Catholicism was so dangerous that it was necessary to target people who would otherwise be considered harmless.

    One of the defining characteristics of the edict is its use of animal imagery to describe Catholics. Father James Zhou Wenmo, a Chinese priest who had served in Chosŏn, was described as an “insect” (pongch’ae/蜂蠆) who had snuck into the country in someone’s sleeve. Hwang Sayŏng was said to have a “wolf’s heart” (nangch’u simjang/ 狼貙心腸) and a “fox’s face” (homae myŏnmok/ 狐魅面目). Outward appearances also marked one as evil and bestial, as Yi Kahwan’s “buglike eyes” (pongmok/蜂目) and “wolf-like howls” (sisŏng/豺聲) revealed his evil nature.29 The Catholic God was also compared to a “snake god” (sasin/蛇神) and an “ox spirit” (ugwi/牛鬼). However, while animal imagery was used to criticize individual Catholics, and to demarcate the line between properly civilized human beings and animals, for the most part, such images were not applied to all Catholics as such, but rather to particular individuals. At the same time, this edict, like the Chosŏn state’s letter to China, went beyond the proclamation in the first month of 1801 by depicting Catholicism not simply as something that could potentially transform people into beasts, but as already having done so.

    The edict ended by praising the king in the highest of terms for his defeat of the Catholic menace and then proclaimed a limited amnesty for those who had been arrested as Catholics but had not yet been punished, while at the same time declaring that in the future Catholics would be treated with the utmost severity. The edict also called on the people of Chosŏn to return to the fundamentals of Confucian morality by fulfilling the roles proper to their social status, in particular, for scholars to avoid novel ideas and to remain within the bounds of the timehonored teachings of Zhu Xi Neo-Confucianism.

    10Pyŏn Chusŭng, “Sinyu pakhae ŭi chŏngch’ijŏk paegyŏng e kwanhan yŏn’gu [A study of the political background of the 1801 Persecution]” in Sinyu pakhae wa Hwang Sayŏng Paeksŏ sakkŏn, ed. Ch’oe Ch’anghwa (Seoul: Han’guk Sun’gyoja Hyŏnyang Wiwŏnhoe, 2003), 35–54; Tai-sik Jung, “Religion and Politics: Persecution of Catholics in the Late Chosŏn Dynasty Korea” (PhD diss., University of California: Berkeley, 2001), 216–30.  11The reference to a child falling down the well is drawn from the sixth chapter of The Mencius. Mencius contended that human beings were basically good and as proof, argued that should even a very evil person see a child about to fall into a well, without even thinking, he would save that child. The state is the adult, and the child is the common people who are about to fall into the well of “evil learning.”  12Sŭngjŏngwŏn ilgi, vol. 97, 287–89 (Sunjo, yr. 1, 1. 10 chŏnghae). In referring to the Chosŏn sillok and the Sŭngjŏngwŏn ilgi, I will be making reference to the editions compiled by the Kuksa P’yŏnch’an Wiwŏnhoe. Page numbers for the Chosŏn sillok will refer to the photographic edition. Page numbers from the Sŭngjŏngwŏn ilgi are from the printed edition. I also made reference to the Chosŏn wangjo sillok Ch’ŏnjugyosa charyo moŭm [Collection of Catholic historical materials from the Veritable Records of the Chosŏn Dynasty], translated by Cho Kwang and published in 1997, Kojong sillok Ch’ŏnjugyosa charyo moŭm [Collection of Catholic historical materials from the Kojong sillok], translated by Kim Chinso and published in 1997, the three volume series Chŏngjo sidae Ch’ŏnjugyosa charyojip [Collection of Catholic materials from Chŏngjo’s reign], edited by Cho Kwang and translated by Kwŏn Naehyŏn and published in 1999, and the three volume series Sinyu pakhae charyojip [Collection of materials from the persecution of 1801], edited by Cho Kwang and translated by Pyŏn Chusŭng and published in 1999. All were published by the Han’guk Sun’gyoja Hyŏnyang Wiwŏnhoe.  13For a study of this letter in English, see Franklin Rausch, “Wicked Officials and Virtuous Martyrs: An Analysis of the Martyr Biographies in Alexius Hwang Sayŏng’s Silk Letter,” Kyohoesa yŏn’gu 32 (July 2009): 5–30. For an in-depth study in Korean, see Yŏ Chinch’ŏn, Hwang Sayŏng “Paeksŏ” yŏn’gu: wŏnbon kwa ibon pigyo kŏmt’o [The Silk Letter of Hwang Sayŏng: a comparative investigation of the original and alternate versions] (Seoul: Han’guk Kyohoesa Yŏn’guso, 2009).  14Silk Letter, lines 117–18. For a Korean translation of Hwang Sayŏng’s letter, along with the original Chinese, see Yŏ Chinch’ŏn, tr., Nuga chŏhŭi rŭl wirohae chugessŭmnikka [Who will console us?] (Seoul: Kippŭn Sosik, 1999).  15See Yŏ Chinch’ŏn, Hwang Sayŏng Paeksŏ wa ibon [Hwang Sayŏng’s Silk Letter and alternate versions] (Seoul: Kukhak Charyowŏn, 2005), 16–19 and Yŏ, Hwang Sayŏng “Paeksŏ” yŏn’gu, 211–46.  16Sŭngjŏngwŏn ilgi, vol. 97, 434–38 (Sunjo, yr. 1, 10. 15 muo) and vol. 97, 972–74 (Sunjo, yr. 1, 10. 27 kyŏngo).  17For the letter see Chosŏn wangjo sillok, vol. 47, 410 (Sunjo sillok, yr. 1, 10. 27 kyŏngo).  18This transformation had already occurred before the Silk Letter incident as seen in court discussions of the Catholic threat, particularly in the statements of Third Royal Secretary Ch’oe Hŏ. See Sŭngjŏngwŏn ilgi, vol. 97, 353–55 (Sunjo, yr. 1, 2. 5 sinhae).  19Hwang was actually arrested at the end of the ninth month.  20For a more detailed analysis of this mission to China and the Chinese response, see Takemichi Hara, “Korea, China, and Western Barbarians: Diplomacy in Early Nineteenth-Century Korea,” Modern Asian Studies 32, no. 2 (1998): 393–401.  21Sŭngjŏngwŏn ilgi, vol. 98, 25–27 (Sunjo, year 1, 11. 8 sinhae).  22Sŭngjŏngwŏn ilgi, vol. 98, 17–18 (Sunjo, yr. 1, 11. 5 muin); 20–21 (Sunjo, yr. 1, 11. 6. kimyo); 23 (Sunjo, yr. 1, 11. 7 kyŏngsul).  23Sŭngjŏngwŏn ilgi, vol. 98, 28 (Sunjo, yr. 1, 11. 9 imja)  24Sŭngjŏngwŏn ilgi, vol. 98, 49 (Sunjo, yr. 1, 11. 27 kyŏngja).  25See Sŭngjŏngwŏn ilgi, vol. 98, 86 (Sunjo, yr. 1, 12. 18 kyŏngsin); Chŏng Tuhoe, “Sinyu pakhae ŭi chŏn’gae kwajŏng [The course of the 1801 persecution],” in Sinyu pakhae wa Hwang Sayŏng Paeksŏ sakkŏn, ed. Ch’oe Ch’anghwa (Seoul: Han’guk Sun’gyoja Hyŏnyang Wiwŏnhoe, 2003), 70–75.  26Chosŏn wangjo sillok, vol. 47, 419 (Sunjo sillok, yr. 1, 12. 22 kapja).  27Ch’ae Chegong in fact saw Catholicism as a serious threat and strongly criticized the religion. However, as a Southerner, he was afraid that strict action against Catholics, most of whom were from his faction, would harm his party as well as the government itself. He therefore opposed severe punishment of Catholics. See Cho Kwang, Han’guk kŭnhyŏndae Ch’ŏnjugyosa yŏn’gu [A study of modern Korean Catholicism] (Seoul: Kyŏngin Munhwasa, 2010), 197–236.  28Many of the first Catholics would abandon the religion under pressure. For examples from 1801, see Hwang Sayŏng’s Silk Letter, lines 24–28. For examples in 1839, see Andrew Finch, “The Pursuit of Martyrdom in the Catholic Church in Korea before 1866,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 60, no. 1 (January 2009): 104–5.  29Yi Kahwan was a Southerner official who had dabbled in Catholicism but had repudiated the religion long before 1801. During his interrogation that year, he criticized Catholicism and made it clear that he was not a Catholic, a position which should have saved his life. However, his factional enemies made sure that he was executed anyway.


    The beginnings of the 1839 persecution were similar to those of 1801. The king, Hŏnjong (r. 1834–1849), was still a minor and had a Queen Dowager as a regent. In this case, pressure, not so much from one of the traditional political factions, but from anti-Catholic officials and the king’s in-laws, as well as the growth of Catholicism, made possible in part by the arrival of three missionaries in the 1830s, led to the suppression, which took the lives of over a hundred Catholics, including the French clerics. There was no edict like that of 1801 that formally started the suppression, but there was one that ended it.30

    Like the edict ending the 1801 suppression, that of 1839 began by asserting that the Chosŏn state adhered to orthodox Neo-Confucianism, which reflected cosmically-grounded, and therefore proper, moral relationships. The virtues governing these relationships were themselves gendered: Chosŏn men were filial and loyal; women were chaste. However, Catholicism had threatened this orthodoxy, leading King Chŏngjo, a “heaven-sent sage,” to attempt to reform Catholics. Such was his grace that “that even animals as stupid as a pig or fish, or evil as an owl or tiger, would be moved by his benevolence.”31 However, Catholics, rather than responding to his generosity, smuggled Father Zhou Wenmo into Chosŏn and attempted to invite a foreign armada to invade the country, making them less than animals and serving as evidence that they had lost their original human nature. It was therefore necessary for Queen Dowager Chŏngsun and King Sunjo to use violence to suppress the religion. However, despite noting that Catholicism had spread into the government itself, no mention was made of Ch’ae Chegong or Yi Kahwan, who had been portrayed in the 1801 edict as Catholic leaders despite the fact that Ch’ae had never been a Catholic, and that Yi had clearly repudiated his earlier involvement in the religion. While this might be a reflection of a lack of traditional factional politics influencing the content of the edict, it is interesting to note that Hwang Sayŏng, the author of the Silk Letter, was also not mentioned. This indicates that the political danger posed by individual Catholics like Hwang had been subsumed into a general character-istic shared by all members of the community.

    Though the Chosŏn state had taken proper action and suppressed the cult, the remnants of the Catholic community had gone into hiding like a “poisonous worm” (hweyŏk/虺蜮). Having been revealed, it had been necessary to inflict “Heaven’s punishment” (ch’ŏn chi pŏl/天之罰) against them. But punishment was not enough—the state had to clearly instruct the people so that they would not be seduced into becoming Catholics. It is here that we see the main shift between the edict of 1801 and that of 1839, for while the former said very little about Catholic religious doctrines, the latter spent a great deal of time critiquing them. For instance, in addition to the criticism that Catholicism bewitched people with “talk of heaven and hell,” Catholics were criticized for selfishly seeking blessings and the forgiveness of sins through techniques such as baptism, when in fact if they would only fulfill their moral duties to other people then blessings would come of their own accord.

    This new emphasis on religion can also be seen in the detailed attention paid to the person of Jesus. The edict stated that it was impossible to come to any real knowledge about him, or to even know whether he was a human (in/人) or a demon (kwi/鬼). Similarly, the Catholic doctrines of the divinity of Jesus and the incarnation were also attacked. The edict mistakenly stated that Catholics believed that God became Jesus and ceased to be God, and that after Jesus ascended into heaven, he became God again. Such an idea was taken as absurd, not simply because it seemed contradictory on its face (how could God cease being God and then become God again?), but also because the authors of the edict held that there could be no mixing of immaterial Heaven and a corporal human body. The fact that these statements did not engage with Augustine Chŏng Yakchong’s explanation of the Trinity found in his The Essentials of Catholicism (Chugyo yoji), a document widely read by Catholics and available since the late 1790s, indicates that the government was not as interested in convincing Catholics that they were wrong as in constructing an image of Catholicism as absurd in order to inoculate the Chosŏn people against its errors.32

    The Catholic view that Jesus’ death upon the cross brought blessing was also criticized as absurd on its face. Moreover, the Confucian emphasis on orthopraxy revealed itself here, the edict noting that it was this improper glorification of the death of Jesus that led Catholics to die so willingly rather than to obey the state and renounce Catholicism. This Confucian concern with morality was echoed in the dehumanizing critique of the Catholic refusal to perform ancestor rites, since “though tigers and wolves” were “evil beasts” they still understood the correct relationship between father and son, and that even such base animals as jackals and otters knew of the moral duty to conduct the proper rituals. Catholics were therefore less than animals because they failed to fulfill their moral obligations, no longer so much as individuals, as in 1801, but by virtue of their being members of the evil cult.

    Particularly striking in the 1839 edict is that it specifically addressed not only to officials and commoners, but also to women. This is likely a reflection of the fact that women constituted a higher proportion of martyrs during this suppression than other incidents of anti-Catholic violence in Chosŏn and that there were a large number of female perpetual virgins among those executed by the state. Accordingly, perpetual virginity was attacked as threatening the destruction of human society, since if everyone were to practice it, humanity would die out. At the same time, Catholics were criticized for allowing men and women to mix, sullying morals. Catholics were thus attacked for not having enough sex and for having sex with the wrong people. Thus, while Catholics were explicitly compared to White Lotus and Yellow Turban sectarians, and the Catholic connection with high government officials in 1801 was mentioned, the 1839 edict portrayed Catholics as primarily a moral danger that arose from outside the state, rather than a group of rebels who infiltrated the government and sought to overthrow it directly in a coup or overturn it through foreign intervention, despite the presence and execution of French missionaries. While the emphasis was on morality rather than a direct political threat, like its 1801 predecessor, the 1839 edict also portrayed the king as caring deeply about his people, and therefore forced to utilize violence against recalcitrant Catholics in order to protect the rest. Similarly, the edict also used the suppression as an opportunity to call the subjects of the Chosŏn state to more faithful adherence to Neo-Confucianism, and implicitly, to be loyal and obedient to the Chosŏn government that served as its protector.

    30Chosŏn wangjo sillok, vol. 48, 469 (Hŏnjong sillok, yr. 5, 18. 10 kyŏngjin).  31Owls were believed to eat their mothers, making them unfilial.  32See the modern Korean version of the Chugyo Yoji published in 1909: Chŏng Yakchong, Chugyo Yoji [Essentials of Catholicism], ed. Ha Sŏngnae (Seoul: Sŏng Hwang Sŏktu Ruga Sŏwŏn, 1997), 20–22, 62–74.


    By 1866, the Catholic Church in Chosŏn had grown to approximately 23,000 members served by two bishops and ten priests. However, the death in 1863 of King Ch’ŏlchong, who had been content to turn a blind eye towards the growth of this prohibited religion, led to the ascent of King Kojong (r. 1864–1907), and with him, those who saw Catholicism as a dangerous threat to the state. As he was a minor, his father, Yi Haŭng (1820–1898), took the title Taewŏn’gun (prince regent) and became the true power behind the throne, for though the anti- Catholic Queen Dowager Cho was officially Kojong’s regent, she was largely willing to allow the strong-willed patriarch to direct policy. The Taewŏn’gun wanted to strengthen the monarchy against the aristocracy and was also concerned about reports of Russian ships in Chosŏn waters, which exacerbated existing fears of Western incursion into East Asia that arose after China’s defeat by Anglo-French forces in the Second Opium War in 1860. Chosŏn Catholics and the Taewŏn’gun entered into talks about the possibility of the French missionaries arranging an alliance with France to check the Russians. However, when the departure of the Russian ships removed that threat, the Taewŏn’gun decided to suppress Catholicism and maintain a policy of active resistance to any Western efforts to “open” Chosŏn.33 Thus, similar to the suppression of 1801 and 1839, that of 1866 arose before the king began to rule in his own right.

    Though it is often referred to as the persecution of 1866, a couple of Catholics were arrested in the twelfth month of 1865. Several more were taken into custody on the fifth day of the first month of 1866. One of these, the servant of Bishop Berneux, informed on the priests and where they were residing, leading to the arrest of nine of the twelve missionaries in Chosŏn, all of whom were soon executed. An edict was then issued by the Queen Regent on the twenty-fourth day of the first month calling for all Chosŏn people to help in capturing the remaining priests.34 As befitting the large number of Western missionaries discovered in Chosŏn, the edict began by describing how their coming had been an “extraordinary disaster” (pyŏn’gwoe/變怪). These Westerners were an “evil breed” and a “hideously wicked band” (hyungchong ch’uryu/凶種醜類) who practiced the “black arts” (sasul/邪術). They were aided by Chosŏn people who, losing their senses, held a grudge against their country, and loving disaster (akhwa/樂禍), gathered together like a coiled-up worm or snake, called and responded to one another like hooting owls and howling wolves, and plotted rebellion. Moreover, they sullied proper customs and hindered the state’s civilizing mission. The Way of Heaven (ch’ŏndo/天道) could not tolerate such evil, nor could the king easily forgive it. The edict then shifted its focus back to the missionaries, noting that though they wore Chosŏn clothing, their faces, language, and manner would reveal them to be foreigners. Those who informed upon them would be rewarded by the state. The Queen Regent then ordered that the edict be posted throughout the country in formal Chinese and vernacular Korean.

    This first edict of 1866, while justifying violence against Catholics in ways similar to previous proclamations, was primarily intended to alert the populace to the presence of foreign missionaries so that they could assist in their capture. Sporadic killings of Chosŏn Catholics and a few more French missionaries would continue after the edict until the third day of the sixth month of 1866, when King Kojong issued a proclamation similar to those that had ended the suppressions of 1801 and 1839. This edict presented the king as a loving parent, who sought to pull people from the Mencian well, declaring that “there is no one in this country who is not my child.” Like those that preceded it, the proclamation emphasized Chosŏn’s Confucian identity and used the cessation of the suppression as an opportunity to call for greater adherence to the Confucian way and to present the king as a loving parent.35 Thus, Kojong began the proclamation by describing how Chosŏn kings venerated Confucian teachings and illuminated proper rites and customs. Gentlemen-scholars (kunja/君子) helped bring moral transformation, and married women were praised for their chastity and faithfulness. As the true way soaked through society, Chosŏn became a glorious, civilized country that could compare with China. It was to this way, and not to new teachings, that scholars should look.

    In this edict, Catholics were at times described as rebels, but like the proclamation of 1839, the primary focus was on Catholicism as a moral threat, leading again to a critique of Catholic doctrine, ostensibly so Catholics would “rectify their minds” and those who had not “departed from the right road” would learn what error is and thereby grow in filial piety and affection. As in previous edicts, Catholics were criticized for their emphasis on the afterlife, specifically the belief that if they repented before Jesus and prayed to Mary his mother, though they deserved to go to hell, they would be able to enter heaven. Such beliefs were taken to be so absurd that they were clearly wrong, and having been shown to be false before, did not need to be dealt with in detail in this edict. Instead, the main criticism was on the Catholic doctrine of creation, specifically that there existed a God who was a transcendent creator who was wholly separate from the universe he created. After noting that Catholics drew upon the Confucian corpus to defend their beliefs by arguing that the Catholic God was equivalent to the Lord on High (sangje/上帝) and then crediting that Lord on High with creation, the edict explained that they had actually misunderstood those passages, and that those terms referred not to separate entities, a creation and a creator, but rather to two functions of the same thing. This proclamation therefore did a fair job of describing the Catholic position, a shift from the edict of 1839 in which Catholic doctrine was not accurately presented. However, like the proclamation of 1839, it did not attempt to seriously engage with the Catholic teachings on creation and God.36 Thus, the image of Catholics as believing absurd and foolish things was maintained even when their beliefs were described correctly.

    As before, Catholic doctrine was criticized as leading to immorality, rendering believers into creatures that were less than beasts. Since Catholics did not care for their parents while they were alive or perform ancestor worship for them once they were dead, they were less human than even jackals (sidal/豺獺) and crows (ocho/烏鳥). Catholic men and women were accused of bathing together and sleeping in the same room even if they were not married. Lacking human hearts, they had degenerated into dogs and pigs (kuch’e/狗彘). The cult itself destroyed morality and principle, turning people into birds, beasts, and barbarians (ijŏk ikŭmsu/夷狄而禽獸). In the future it would even make them into cannibals (in chang sang sik chi u/人將相食之憂). Adherence to such depraved doctrine in the face of state prohibition and the threat and reality of execution was proof that Catholics had lost their original human nature. In searching for a reason why human beings could believe in something so absurd and counter to morality, it was explained that they were enticed to believe in the doctrine in order to obtain “wealth and sex” (chaesaek/財色). The implication then is that Catholics were either too mentally deficient to make an authentic choice or simply insincere.

    Previous proclamations primarily drew upon the Confucian corpus to glorify the Chosŏn state and dynasty without directly referencing such sources to explicitly justify violence against Catholics. However, the 1866 edict quoted the Classic of History (sŏgyŏng/書經) as saying, “If there are bad and unprincipled men who refuse to obey and contravene orders, then cut off their noses and utterly exterminate them, leaving them without descendants.” The proclamation then commented that, “Heaven cannot tolerate the crimes of such hateful people.”37 It is curious that it would take over sixty years to quote a Confucian source in this way, and might indicate that there was continued discomfort about the use of violence against Catholics, necessitating such a direct appeal. The most important shift was a continuation of the trend seen in the edict of 1839 to treat the Catholics as more of a religious threat to Confucian morality, rather than as a threat to national security through either contact with foreigners or by launching an internal rebellion. This is particularly striking because of the large number of foreign missionaries executed prior to the proclamation.38 This shift in emphasis does not mean that Catholics were seen as nothing more than either bewitched or insincere. The main difference was that rather than being portrayed as seeking power and fame through rebellion, insincere believers were depicted as using Catholicism to obtain money and sex.

    This second edict of 1866, like the ones that preceded it, was also intended to end the suppression. However, one of the French missionaries, Father Felix-Clair Ridel (1830–1884), escaped from Chosŏn with the help of several Korean Catholics, and traveled to China. There he informed the French consul and Admiral Pierre-Gustave Roze (1812–1883) of what had happened.39 Roze left for Chosŏn on the tenth day of the eighth month, taking Ridel with him, in order to scout out the country for invasion. He returned to China on the twenty-fifth of that month, put together an invasion force of seven ships and 1,400 troops, and left for Chosŏn on the third day of the ninth month. Roze landed on Kanghwa Island, on the sixth of that month, and took the fortress there. In response to this act, and the subsequent naval blockade, the Chosŏn government issued two edicts, one on the ninth day and another on the sixteenth day.

    The edict issued by King Kojong on the ninth day began with a reflection in which he criticized himself for not properly respecting the will of heaven and failing to meet the expectations of the Queen Dowager and the people. Now, “foreign barbarians” (oegu /外寇) had invaded and the fortress on Kanghwa Island had not been able to hold out against the bandits. After noting that his virtue was not sufficient to morally transform the whole country, he raised the question of why it was that foreign barbarians from the “far west” would invade the “far east” and answered his query by pointing to the existence of Chosŏn Catholics who, as a “devious and treacherous bunch” (kanse chi yu/奸細之類), had lost their senses and bore a grudge against their country and consequently secretly conspired with the far-off Westerners and “plotted treason” (pŏmsun/犯順). The fact that they had committed such an unforgiveable crime proved that they completely lacked ethics and virtue. The King then called on officials in the government to proclaim this royal instruction throughout the country and so put the people on the right road.

    The edict issued on the ninth day is striking in the fact that Catholics were not portrayed as animals. This changed in the proclamation issued a week later on the sixteenth day. This edict, explicitly aimed at soldiers and the common people, began as its predecessor did with Kojong’s self-criticism. It then noted how “Western bandits and barbarians” (yangjok yangi/洋賊洋夷) were menacing Chosŏn shores and unsettling the hearts of the people, a reference to the effects of Roze’s blockade. The edict then described Catholicism as a teaching like that of people akin to “evil spirits” (kwiyŏk/鬼蜮) and “fox spirits” (homae/狐魅), its followers gathering together like “incestuous deer and sullying ethical principles” (uch’wi itongnyun/麀聚而瀆倫). Kojong then turned back to ancient history, describing how the dynasty had continued the tradition of adherence to true Confucian civilization and ethics since the time of Kija. Chosŏn Catholics were then portrayed as conspiring with evil foreigners to overthrow the government and harm ethics. Moreover, they plotted together in secret, hooting to each other like owls and coiling together like worms or snakes. Kojong then called upon the people to trust the government to defend them and not to listen to rumors and flee their homes.

    The edict of the sixteenth depicted Chosŏn Catholics in animalistic ways, in a manner similar to the proclamation issued in the first month of 1866. Its comparative harshness over that of the edict of the ninth day of the ninth month likely reflects the deteriorating military situation, one that would eventually reverse with Chosŏn’s repulse of Roze’s infantry in the interior, leading eventually to his fleet’s withdrawal. These two edicts were followed by the execution of Catholics, which would continue until the fifteenth day of the tenth month. For the next few years, the cycle of foreign incursion, be it in the form of the Oppert expedition of 1868 or the American invasion of 1871, followed by the violent suppression of Catholicism, would continue, though no new major public edicts would be issued until the proclamation of 1881.40

    Though French clerics were executed in 1839, the edict of that year focused mostly on Chosŏn Catholics, particularly women. The edicts of 1866 represent a new development in how violence against Catholics was justified in their close attention to foreign missionaries, particularly in how violence against Chosŏn Catholics and French missionaries was justified in different ways. While missionaries were portrayed as “Western barbarians” and “Western bandits,” they were not generally depicted as animals, as Chosŏn Catholics were. Moreover, while Western missionaries were portrayed as dangerous, owing to the fact that they led invasions and encouraged Chosŏn people to plot against their own government, it was principally Chosŏn Catholics who were depicted as directly endangering the civilization and morals that the Chosŏn state sought to defend. It would seem then that since Westerners were, as barbarians, already beyond the pale, compunction against killing them was not particularly great, and therefore they did not need to be dehumanized in order to be executed. However, Chosŏn Catholics were too close in language, customs, and ethnicity to the leaders of the state, and therefore, they had to be dehumanized in stronger terms and presented as a greater danger than the French missionaries.

      >  The Edict of 1881

    The Taewŏn’gun’s continued efforts to strengthen the throne led to elite resistance despite the popularity of his anti-Western policies, and in 1874 his son, Kojong, no longer a minor, began to rule in his own right, pushing his father from power. The young monarch faced a difficult situation. The Meiji Restoration of 1868 had led to efforts by the Japanese to form a modern state, and consequently to seek to revise Japanese-Chosŏn relations in line with Western-style international law, in part through claiming equality with China by using the same characters to describe its emperor as were traditionally only used to designate China’s emperor. Chosŏn resistance to such attempts to overturn the Sino-centric diplomatic system led a powerful minority in the Japanese government to call for the invasion of Chosŏn in 1873. Though they lost out, in 1875 a Japanese naval force, ordered to provoke an incident, intruded into Chosŏn waters and was fired on by coastal defense batteries after the flotilla ignored warnings to withdraw. In response, Japanese forces stormed the Chosŏn fort and took it. The Japanese government then formally protested and demanded reparations and a modern treaty. King Kojong was concerned that Japan actually would use force if it was not mollified and believed that a more open and flexible diplomatic posture would suit Chosŏn needs better than the Taewŏn’gun’s isolationist policy. In addition, China encouraged Kojong to sign the treaty with Japan and to sign other treaties with the Western powers, as they would each prevent one single country from dominating Chosŏn. Thus, in 1876, Kojong signed a modern treaty with Japan, opening his country to new political, intellectual, economic, and social forces.41

    The rise of King Kojong to power and the signing of the treaty also meant a change in the treatment of Catholics. In 1876, two French missionaries snuck into Chosŏn, the first in the country since 1866. They were followed by Ridel, now a bishop, in 1877. In 1878, Ridel and some Chosŏn Catholics were arrested. But, unlike the bishop’s predecessors, he was not tortured or killed, but simply expelled from the country. While there was a change in the treatment of Chosŏn Catholics, it is hard to see it as much of an improvement—those who were arrested with Ridel were allowed to starve to death in prison rather than be executed. However, the discovery of the bishop was not connected to a violent suppression as in the past. Instead, in 1880, two new priests were able to join the Chosŏn mission, Nicolas Liouville (1855–1898) and Gustave Mutel, the future eighth bishop of Chosŏn. Liouville was sent to work in Hwanghae province, which, though not a traditional stronghold of the faith, did have some Catholics. He was arrested in 1881 by a magistrate, but then released and tacitly allowed to continue his work, though the Chosŏn Catholics arrested with him suffered the same fate as those taken with Ridel.

    In 1881, under pressure from officials who believed that the comparatively lenient policy the state had adopted towards Catholicism was a mistake, King Kojong issued an edict calling for the suppression of Catholicism. 42 This proclamation began by affirming the goodness of the Chosŏn order, which was by no means inferior to the sage-ruled Three Dynasties of Chinese antiquity. Chosŏn customs were pure, and thanks to the civilizing influence of the Chosŏn kings, not only scholars, but even women and girls venerated Confucius and Mencius. However, this Confucian utopia was disrupted by the arrival one hundred years previously of the Western heresy, which deluded the people and bewitched the world. The king had taken decisive action against it and had reported to his ancestors that the Catholic threat had been completely destroyed. However, the remnants of the evil teaching had arisen again. Catholics disdained Heaven though they claimed they venerated it and spread evil though they claimed to encourage good. Acting in that way, they could not even be considered birds and beasts, but instead were comparable to serpents. In fact, if Catholics really had a human nature, they would never have become Catholic, for human beings instinctively knew they should not draw close to dangerous animals, a metaphor for religious teachings. These “deceitful scoundrels” (muroe chakto/無賴 刁徒) had taken advantage of the times, breaking into people’s homes, causing all sorts of incidents, robbing people in broad daylight, and spreading rumors that unsettled the people.

    The only way to end the Catholic threat and pacify the people was to completely destroy this evil band. But simply killing Catholics had been tried, and it had not worked. Therefore, just as a sick person must have his body reinvigorated in order for him to recover, it was necessary to return to the Confucian foundations of the Chosŏn order. If scholars lectured on the instructions of Confucius and Mencius, and memorized the teachings of Neo-Confucianism, then the orthodox way would be realized and good customs restored. This was in line with Mencius’ teaching that the affirmation of correct principles would end heresy.43 Moreover, such a policy made sense when the increased power and proximity of Western forces made the active suppression of Catholicism a dangerous policy. While the edict ended by declaring that those who fell back into Catholicism would, along with their families, be utterly annihilated, these words were perfunctory. Likely designed as a rhetorical flourish to please conservative Confucians, the edict would not be enforced, and though Catholicism would not receive something akin to official tolerance until the Chosŏn-France treaty of 1886, the days of state-sponsored violence against Catholics were over.44

    33See Pang Sanggŭn, “Pyŏngin pakhae,” 249–57; James Palais, Politics and Policy in Traditional Korea (Cambridge: Harvard University East Asia Center, 1991), 177–79 and 272–88; Ki-Hiuk Kim, The Last Phase of the East Asian Order: Korea, Japan, and the Chinese Empire, 1860–1882 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980), 39–76.  34Kojong sillok, vol. 1, 207 (yr. 3. 1. 24 kapsin).  35Kojong sillok, vol. 1, 227 (yr. 3, 8. 3 kich’uk).  36Chŏng Yakchong, 11–20.  37This quotation is from the section devoted to King Pangeng from the Documents of Shang section of the Classic of History. The quote (my translation) has been somewhat modified. In context it was an order given by King Pangeng. As quoted in the edict, it is treated as a general principle of government.  38Because the Taewŏn’gun had been criticized before the suppression for having sought an alliance with foreigners, it is possible that mention of them was limited in the edict to avoid causing him embarrassment.  39See Chang Tongha, Han’guk kŭndaesa wa Ch’ŏnjugyohoe [Modern Korean history and Catholicism] (Seoul: Kat’ollik Ch’ulp’ansa, 2006), 139–80. For a French perspective of the invasion, see Daniel C. Kane, “A Forgotten Firsthand Account of the Pyŏng’in yangyo (1866): An Annotated Translation of the Narrative of G. Pradier,” Seoul Journal of Korean Studies 21, no. 1 (June 2008): 51–85.  40See Key-Hiuk Kim, 49–76; Pang Sanggŭn, 266–78.  41Martina Deuchler, Confucian Gentlemen and Barbarian Envoys: The Opening of Korea, 1875–1885 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1977). For different Japanese points of view of these same events, see Peter Duus, The Abacus and the Sword: The Japanese Penetration of Korea, 1895–1910 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 29–65.  42Kojong sillok [Veritable records of King Kojong], book 22, vol. 18, 20A (yr. 18, 15. 5 sinsa).  43See book 3, part 2, chapter 9 of The Mencius.  44Chang Tongha, Kaehanggi Han’guk sahoe wa Ch’ŏnjugyohoe [Korean society in the open-port period and Catholicism] (Seoul: Kat’ollik Ch’ulpan’sa, 2005), 135–213.


    How the Chosŏn state justified violence against Catholics changed over the course of the nineteenth century in accordance with transformations in the social and political context, as well as the characteristics of the Catholic community. As the situation warranted, Catholics were portrayed to varying degrees as a threat to morality, rebels against the state, or as fifth columnists in cahoots with foreigners. One constant that held firm throughout the nineteenth century, no matter how the Catholic threat was envisioned, was the depiction of Catholics as dangerous or despised animals. Thus, Magdalene Kim Ŏbi, the widow whose torture and execution this article began with, might appear to be a harmless old woman, but in truth, she was a tiger, red in tooth and claw, ready to devour the people and destroy the state and the Confucian order it defended.45 It was therefore not only acceptable to kill her, it was necessary. While such bestial images of Catholics had generally been confined to individuals in 1801, by 1839, the year Magdalene was executed, this animal imagery was being applied to all Catholics by virtue of their being a member of the religion. It would seem that by 1839, to government officials, membership in the Catholic community meant that one shared in all the characteristics of that community that made it so dangerous. Thus Catholics, young or old, rich or poor, male or female, all came to represent a threat by virtue of their very existence, necessitating that violence be extended to them, not just to the leadership.

    The second iconic image of Catholics was that of rebels who threatened to overturn the state. This image was problematic in that Catholics, unlike the White Lotus and Yellow Turbans, did not seek the overthrow of the ruling dynasty. Generally speaking, their interests were simply too otherworldly, their focus on a kingdom that was not of this world, for them to desire to overthrow the state.46 Even Hwang Sayŏng, who had hoped through his Silk Letter to bring a Western armada to force the Chosŏn state to tolerate Catholicism, still wanted a member of the house of Yi to sit upon the throne.47 Moreover, Hwang, and other Catholics who looked for Western protection, did so in reaction to statesponsored violence, a fact government officials did not mention, and probably in the end, could not be expected to even recognize. However, once people like Hwang acted in the way they did, the image of the seditious Catholic was so powerful that it overshadowed individual distinctions, and having been subsumed into the public image of the Catholic menace, was applied to all simply by virtue of their being Catholic, even if they themselves did not directly take part in any seditious activities. Thus, while problematic, these images of Catholics as bestial rebels were taken seriously by the state, so much so that they justified a level of violence against commoners and women unprecedented in Korean history.

    In justifying violence against Catholics, the Chosŏn state used them as a foil against which to assert its own goodness and legitimacy. That is why edicts frequently began, not with Catholicism, but with the Confucian order, natural and right as it rested upon a foundation rooted in the very cosmos, which the Chosŏn government faithfully followed, protected, and promoted, reminding its subjects why it existed. By depicting Catholics as a dangerous and unorthodox threat to this natural, Confucian civilization, which the state ultimately could control and triumph over, the Chosŏn government portrayed itself as its rightful defender, and in doing so, strengthened its own legitimacy while calling upon the people of Chosŏn to rally around it. The cosmic nature of this narrative meant that, even when foreigners were involved, the Catholic threat was primarily understood in terms of morality, civilization, and the dividing line between human and animal.48

    Moreover, while state officials were perceptive enough to judge that certain Catholic beliefs and practices, such as doctrines of the afterlife and the practice of perpetual virginity, were particularly significant, their criticisms primarily rested upon misunderstandings so that what they criticized was not what Catholics believed. A properly catechized Catholic would have seen through such gross errors. Moreover, the edicts failed to deal directly with the issue of the afterlife, though it was primarily a desire for heaven that made Catholics willing to die for their faith. This was because, functionally speaking, the presentation of Catholic beliefs in Chosŏn official pronouncements were meant to portray Catholics as an irrational other, thereby further justifying violence against them, not to convince them that they were wrong. Moreover, in the eyes of Confucian officials, so absurd were Catholic beliefs, so foolish their errors, that they had to be the result of either gross stupidity or immorality so great that Catholics had fallen to the level of beasts, justifying violence against them. Thus, these proclamations, and much of the violence they justified, were not aimed at Catholics, but at prospective Catholics—they were a vaccine, not a cure.

    Ironically, these portraits of deluded, bestial Catholics rushing to their deaths are similar to those heroic depictions of martyrdom produced by the Catholics themselves in that both fail to show the reality that many if not most Catholics who fell into the hands of the government repudiated their faith, rather than dying for it. It is striking that those who abandoned their faith are not mentioned in these edicts, for each Catholic who, rather than dying, renounced their Catholic beliefs and practices, could have stood as a sign of victory for the state, which, as a loving parent, had faithfully and patiently brought its children home. A narrative of this sort might have led to a suppression that was much less broad in scope and intense in violence. However, such a focus would have portrayed Catholics as too human, and as able to make an authentic choice, and therefore violence (including that necessary to obtain their repudiations) would not have been as easy to justify, nor could they have functioned as such an effective foil to the state and thereby serve to legitimize it. Thus, instead of emphasizing such successes, the Chosŏn state chose, in a sense, to focus on its failures, on those Catholics who maintained their religious beliefs in the face of state power.

    45Catholics of course had a very different view of Magdalene Kim, remembering her as a virtuous and zealous believer who heroically maintained her faith despite torture and the threat of death. She was canonized a saint in 1984 with other Koreans who died in the suppressions. See Hyŏn Songmun, Kihae Ilgi [Journal of 1839], trans. Ha Sŏngnae (Seoul: Sŏng Hwang Sŏktu Luga Sŏwŏn, 1986), 50–51.  46There were some Catholics who desired the destruction of the Chosŏn dynasty, but they looked to God, not to human means, to accomplish it. See Deberniere J. Torrey, “The Record of a Dream of Yi Byeok,” in The Translation Series of the Korean Christian Classics, vol. 1 (Seoul: The Korean Christian Museum at Soongsil University, 2007). There were also a few Catholics among thosekilled in the 1801 suppression who had more this-worldly interests and might have welcomed the overthrow of the Chosŏn dynasty. See Paek Sŭngjong, “Chosŏn hugi Ch’ŏnjugyo wa Chŏnggamnok: somunhwa chiptan ŭi sangho chagyong [Catholicism and the Chŏnggamnok in the late Chosŏn dynasty: a study on the interaction between two powerful subcultures],” Kyohoesa Yŏn’gu 30 (June, 2008): 23–31.  47Silk Letter, lines 103–18.  48An important area for future research would be to compare how the animalistic images used to describe Catholics are applied (or not applied) to other marginal groups within Chosŏn society. For instance, a search on the online version of the Chosŏn wangjo sillok ( reveals many results for the term “birds and beasts” (禽獸) but only a handful for “incestuous deer” (麀聚).

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