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Korean religion , Catholicism , Holy Mother , Son of God , Neo-Confucian society , patriarchal family system

    Why did the number of people who accepted Catholic teachings gradually increase in late Chosŏn Korea, and what is the historical significance of the change known as “the growth of Catholicism”?1 What kind of changes took place among the lower people due to the spread of Catholicism—in other words, what kind of changes were caused by the increase over time of the number of people accepting the new religion and culture of Catholicism? And what did these changes signify? Chosŏn society is understood to have become Confucianized in the latter half of the seventeenth century as a result of the persistent efforts to establish a system based on Neo-Confucianism that had been carried out since the founding of the dynasty.2 In late Chosŏn society, a time when the Neo-Confucian system was well established, there were on the one hand the ruling elite who were strengthening this system, while on the other hand there were also increasing numbers of people who accepted Catholicism as their own religion despite the threat of death. The fact that the state pursued a public political ideology based on Confucianism while some individuals gained faith in their personal lives3 led to ruptures and divisions which developed to such an extent that people would risk their own lives over the issues.

    However, the growth of Catholicism was not made possible due to a onesided method of introduction, but only because it engaged in mutual interaction with Chosŏn society at the time. To analyze the view of Catholicism being able to spread because of its interaction with certain aspects of Chosŏn society, one must first focus on who it was that accepted Catholicism. The people who accepted Catholicism were usually Confucian scholars who were out of favor with the government authorities or common people who had never had any prior access to political power.4

    Neo-Confucianism is a philosophy and involves the pursuit of scholarship, but in Chosŏn society it was also an ideology used to govern the people. Therefore, for common people or Confucian scholars who were excluded from government authority, the need to defend the ruling ideology was, as a matter of course, relatively low. Ordinary people or isolated Confucian scholars tended to study and believe in various ideologies and religions that differed from Confucianism—such as Wang Yangming’s teachings, shamanism, the belief in Maitreya, and Catholicism. Consequently, a variety of religions and cultures that were far removed from Neo-Confucianism, the established ruling ideology, were prevalent in late Chosŏn society.5 Over time, the prevalence of these diverse religions and cultures created some rifts in society’s patriarchal system, founded on Neo-Confucianism. This article examines the significance of the growth of Catholicism in late Chosŏn society by examining the currents that caused these ruptures.

    1For the sake of convenience in this article, I deal with Catholicism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and folk religions within the broad framework of “religion”; however, in specific details, I see multiple differences between premodern Eastern “religions” and Western Christianity. Furthermore, even among Korean religions, today’s “religions” differ from premodern “religions.” To aid in understanding the conceptual differences among these religions, see Cho Hyŏnbŏm, “Sŏn’gyo wa pŏnyŏk: Han-Pul chajŏn kwa 19 segi Chosŏn ŭi chonggyo yongŏ tŭl [Mission and translation: A Korean-French dictionary and religious terminology in nineteenth-century Korea], Kyohoesa yŏn’gu [Research journal of Korean church history],” 36 (2011): 161–276. For views on the Chosŏn-society encounter between Confucianism, which is based on ethics, and Catholicism, based on faith, refer to the following books: Donald Baker, Chosŏn hugi yugyo wa Ch’ŏnjugyo ŭi taerip [Confucianism confronts Catholicism in the late Chosŏn dynasty], trans. Kim Seyun (Seoul: Ilchogak, 1997); and Donald Baker, Korean Spirituality (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2008).  2The patriarchal family system of the Chosŏn period was a ruling system legitimized by Neo-Confucianism. One representative study that analyzes the sweeping takeover of the patriarchal family system, which characterizes Chosŏn society in the latter half of the seventeenth century, is Martina Deuchler’s The Confucian Transformation of Korea: A Study of Society and Ideology (Cambridge, MA: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University, 1992). Refer to the following reviews of this book: Paek Sŭngjong, review of The Confucian Transformation, by Deuchler, Yŏksa hakpo [The Korean historical review], no. 141 (1994): 295–315; and Chŏng Tuhŭi, Yugyo, chŏnt’ong, pyŏnyong: Miguk ŭi yŏksa hakchadŭl i ponŭn Han’guksa ŭi hŭrŭm [Confucianism, tradition, and transformation: The flow of Korean history as seen by US scholars] (Seoul: Kukhak Charyowŏn, 2005). The patriarchal family system is a social system based on the authority of the male head of household. This system supports his rule over family members. Moreover, the patriarchal family unit and the larger social order coexist, complement each other, and are connected one to another. Both the family unit and social order are justified and strengthened through ideology. For a study analyzing ruling systems founded on ideologies of patriarchal family systems, refer to Carole Pateman, The Sexual Contract (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1988).  3“Personal lives” (min’gan) here refers to the day-to-day lives of people outside of official government duties and of those without government posts or military rank.  4Catholicism’s ban on ancestor rites was a shock to Neo-Confucian scholars and created a division in which the Chosŏn dynasty and Catholicism could not come to terms. After the ban, Neo-Confucian scholars (yangban) realized that Catholicism and Neo-Confucianism were incompatible with each other, and the number of yangban believers who left the church increased. As a result, the percentage of “middle people” (chungin) and those of lower status grew among believers in the Chosŏn church. Middle people (chungin) were those who held bureaucratic positions and included accountants, law clerks, scribes, and translators. See Cho Hyŏnbŏm, “Ch’ogi kyohoe ŭi hwaltong kwa kyose ŭi hwaksan [Activity in the early church and spread of church influence], in Han’guk Ch’ŏnju Kyohoesa [Korean Catholic Church history],” vol. 1, ed. Kim Sŏngt’ae et al. (Seoul: Han’guk Kyohoesa Yŏn’guso, 2009), 255–310.  5In one study, Paek Sŭngjong states that during late Chosŏn Korea various subcultures existed that differed from the mainstream culture and that these subcultures functioned as a counterculture. See Paek Sŭngjong, “Chosŏn hugi Ch’ŏnjugyo wa Chŏng Kam rok: Somunhwa chiptan ŭi sangho chagyong [Roman Catholic Church and the Record of Chŏng Kam: Interactions among subcultural groups],” Kyohoesa yŏn’gu 30 (2008): 5–46.


    As Chosŏn Korea constructed a patriarchal family system, traditional myths (sinhwa) or stories (sŏrhwa) about mothers that were passed down from ancient times disappeared or diminished in importance. Though there are differences in each source that has been passed down, beginning in the Chosŏn period, documents rarely depict anything that heroines or mothers of dynastic founders accomplished or attained as mothers or as women. In many instances, such attainments and accomplishments disappeared altogether from myths, with the father’s position being handed down to his son and mothers playing no extraordinary roles. Along with the reinforcement of the patriarchal family system, the importance of women and mothers in stories and myths deteriorated to the point where their roles became extremely passive. Not only were mothers simply beings who passively gave birth, but their principal identities as mothers or goddesses diminished and were forgotten;6 such a tendency was further intensified with the strengthening of the patriarchal family system.7

    On the other hand, however, in late Chosŏn so-called subcultures with their own ideologies, religions, and cultures separate from the ruling culture became more prevalent. A representative example was the subculture surrounding the Chŏng Kam rok (Record of Chŏng Kam). The subculture was a force threatening the ruling order of Chosŏn, and it even had as its goal the building of a new dynasty to replace the Chosŏn dynasty. Its religious phenomena, which included cultural items and practices—from the Chŏng Kam rok, Maitreya’s birth on earth, and prognostication all the way to Catholicism—formed a kind of subculture separate from Confucian culture.8

    One of the characteristics of the subcultures that sprouted up was their emphasis on goddesses or mothers, whose standing had diminished under the Neo-Confucian order. A representative example is the prevalence of acts of faith performed to the mountain goddess Holy Mother (yŏsansin Sŏngmo). To make ritual offerings to the mountain goddess Holy Mother, people set up shrines to house goddess statues that appeared to be wearing white clothing.9

    The mountain goddess Holy Mother was recognized as having supernatural powers over people’s life spans10 and the weather.11 In Confucianism, the weather is controlled by heaven (ch’ŏn) and falls under the jurisdiction of the Lord of Heaven (Sangje, Ch’ŏn, or Ch’ŏnje). Heaven would reprimand people through the weather and would also send down blessings. Honoring and worshiping the Holy Mother as the deity with authority over the weather, therefore, were expressions of a belief that was already separate from Neo-Confucian order. People also believed that the Holy Mother also had control over people’s fortunes and prosperity and that she was a kind of messianic being who would come one day to this earth.12 People respected the Holy Mother, as she was a mother especially to people who focused on the more fundamental beliefs.13 Acts of faith with regard to the mountain goddess Holy Mother were denounced by the state as “licentious sacrifices” (ŭmsa) but were nevertheless part of a representative religious culture that affected people’s lives in late Chosŏn Korea.14

    It is clear that Catholicism had characteristics of a religion that was necessarily separate from the patriarchal society. One cannot be engaged in work analyzing these aspects of Catholicism without focusing on the appearance of a being called the Holy Mother. Through Catholicism, people in late Chosŏn society encountered the Holy Mother Mary, a sacred woman and mother.

    The Shengjing guangyi, a Jesuit publication that circulated in late Chosŏn Korea, states,

    With a focus on the Holy Mother that emphasizes her identity as a mother, the Shengjing guangyi goes so far as to introduce Jesus as the elder brother of humankind. In Confucianism, a mother’s position was established through her son. However, the Holy Mother was a mother whose character itself was worthy of veneration. A religious culture that emphasized as it did the veneration of the Holy Mother—a woman and a mother who was pure and obeyed the Lord of Heaven’s will—was much like a resurrection of the mother and woman who had been diminished under the patriarchal family system. The resurrection of a previously diminished mother led to the emphasis on veneration of the Holy Mother. The Shengjing guangyi continues,

    In contrast to Chosŏn society where the father was the core object of filial devotion (hyo, or xiao in Chinese), veneration of the Holy Mother signified emphasis placed on active filial devotion toward the mother. However, the reason why all filial duties must be performed to the Holy Mother, a mother figure, is that such actions transcend the filial devotion underlying the family ethics children must observe toward their own mother. Carrying the meaning of venerating the sacredness and power held by the Holy Mother, the mother of all humanity, filial devotion toward her was something each person must observe.

    Filial devotion toward the Holy Mother differed from veneration of any goddess prior to her. Goddesses, such as the mountain god Holy Mother, were objects of each individual person’s prayerful desire to obtain blessings. People performed actions to plead for blessings in which they devoted all their hearts to the goddesses, but they did not do so as a duty to fulfill all filial devotions as sons and daughters. In contrast, the Holy Mother was accepted by some in Chosŏn society as a sacred mother who was worthy of receiving acts of filial piety from all people. The Shengjing guangyi states,

    This is a confession that the Holy Mother was the object of veneration as the true mother of Jesus and is the object of respect and worship as a person who prays on behalf of humankind. The Holy Mother, as the mother who brought Jesus into being, was a woman who held the power to pray for people and let them partake of that grace. Although mothers in several late Chosŏn myths had the passive function of a “person who gives birth,” the power and function of mothers under patriarchal thinking sank into oblivion or diminished in importance. In sharp contrast to such cultural trends, the Holy Mother represented a new religious culture in which the mother of all humanity appeared prominently, and this culture resurrected active veneration of the diminished mother.

    Already in late Chosŏn, trends that had broken free from the Confucian patriarchal culture had emerged to a large extent among personal religions. The increase in people who venerated and followed the Holy Mother demonstrates that Catholicism spurred on this kind of non-patriarchal culture. Catholicism’s veneration of the Holy Mother brought back to Chosŏn society the mother who had been driven out of the patriarchal culture. Because Catholicism interacted as it did with trends that had broken free from the patriarchal family order, on the one hand the religion was able to spread to people of the lower classes in Chosŏn society, and on the other hand the ruling class could only become further distanced from it.

    In addition, “Holy Mother” (Sŏngmo) was also an honorific title for the king’s mother and was a title based on Chosŏn-period Confucian ideology. The veneration of the king’s mother and the ancestor rite dedicated to her after her death were in no way linked to personal faith in the Holy Mother. Furthermore, no matter how widely faith in the mountain god Holy Mother spread among the people, and no matter how prevalent memorial services to her became, these services amounted to licentious sacrifices already shunned by the state. The court had little reason to be on the alert for a new concept being added to these licentious sacrifices or for the sacrifices themselves becoming more complex and diverse. Confucianism’s Lord of Heaven or Heaven (Hanŭl, Hanŭnim, Ch’ŏn, or Sangje) was not the same as Catholicism’s Lord of Heaven (Hanŭnim, Ch’ŏnju, or Ch’ŏn). However, Catholicism’s God, although different from Confucianism’s Heaven, became the principal reason for the persecution of Catholicism. In 1839, when the Chosŏn government extensively persecuted Catholicism, a royal edict (yunŭm) critical of the religion was circulated. The beginning of it read, “Catholicism is said to venerate Heaven [Ch’ŏn] and hold it in high esteem, but the Heaven that Catholicism venerates is not the original Heaven that should be venerated.”19 If the Catholic veneration of the Holy Mother had been presented as a concept to substitute or supplement veneration of the king’s mother (as Catholicism’s Lord of Heaven was seen as conflicting with the Confucian Heaven), then it would have collided head on with Confucian ideology, and the Catholic veneration of the Holy Mother would have been severely attacked.

    6Chang Yŏngnan, “Han’guk sinhwa sok ŭi yŏsŏng ŭi chuch’e ŭisik kwa mosŏng sinhwa ŭi chŏnbokchŏk kije: Ŏmŏni ŭi wŏnhyŏngjŏk imiji punsŏk kwa mosŏng ideollogi ŭi pip’an [Women’s subjective consciousness in Korean myths and the subversive mechanism of motherhood myths: An analysis of the archetypal image of mother and a critique of the motherhood ideology],” Han’guk yŏsŏng ch’ŏrhak [Korean feminist philosophy] 8 (2007): 149–152.  7In the exercise of one’s property rights, the mother’s authority (under which her son had to act as a go-between) was weakened. See Cho Ŭn, “Kabujangjŏk chilsŏhwa wa puin’gwŏn ŭi yakhwa—chaesan sangsok punjaeng sarye rŭl chungsim ŭro [Patriarchal systemization and the weakening of wives’ right to inheritance—focusing on disputes over the inheritance of property],” in Chosŏn chŏn’gi kabujangje wa yŏsŏng [Patriarchal family system and women in early Chosŏn], by Ch’oe Honggi et al. (Seoul: Ak’anet, 2004).  8Paek Sŭngjong, “Chosŏn hugi Ch’ŏnjugyo,” 5–10.  9Kim Anesŭ, “Chosŏn sidae sansin sungbae wa Chirisan ŭi sinsa [Worship of the mountain god and ritual shrines on Mount Chiri in the Chosŏn dynasty],” Yŏksahak yŏn’gu [Studies in history] 39 (2010): 86–119.  10Oration delivered by Kim Ilson, in Sŏnin tŭl ŭi Chirisan yuramnok [Our predecessors’ journals of sightseeing on Mount Chiri], by Yi Ryuk et al., trans. Ch’oe Sŏkki et al. (Seoul: Tolbegae, 2000), 86.  11People would enter the Holy Mother’s shrine and pray for clear weather. See oration delivered by Kim Chongjik, in ibid., 29–30.  12Oration delivered by Nam Hyoon, in ibid., 51. According to this oration, around Mount Chiri there was the popular belief that “this goddess is Māyā, the mother of Śākyamuni. She became this mountain’s mountain god, and after she has controlled this world’s prosperity, she will be born in the place of Maitreya at some future time.”  13People accepted the Holy Mother as “the woman who carried the benevolent one in her womb (“yŏ yu sin hyŏn”),” the mother of the son who became the founder of Korea (Haedong). See “Sŏndo Sŏngmo suhŭi pul sa [The Holy Mother of Mount Fairy Peach favors Buddhism] in Samguk yusa [Memorabilia of the Three Kingdoms],” vol. 5, kamt’ong [spiritual resonance] 7. Looking at the orations written by Confucian scholars, one sees that the Holy Mother was the object of their honor and worship not because she was simply the mother of T’aejo, the first king of Koryŏ, but because she was a person who had power to aid in bringing to pass the great feats of T’aejo. The orations contain justifications for this praise. They state that holding memorial services in perpetuity is reasonable if they are done as a token of gratitude for unification or done because the Holy Mother freed people from the pains of strife.  14Kim Anesŭ, “Chosŏn sidae sansin,” 97. See also Song Hwasŏp and Kim Hyŏngjun, “Chirisan ŭi sansin, Sŏngmo esŏ Nogo kkaji [Gods of Mount Chiri, from the Holy Mother to Nogo (Grandma)],” Namdo munhwa yŏn’gu [Studies on the cultures of the southern provinces] 20 (2011): 64–73. The mountain god Holy Mother was a woman, but there are several stories about her identity. For more on the transformation of the Holy Mother’s identity over time, see Song Hwasŏp, “Chirisan ŭi Nogodan kwa Sŏngmo ch’ŏnwang [Mount Chiri’s Nogodan and the statue of the Holy Mother],” Togyo munhwa yŏn’gu [Studies on Taoism and culture] 27 (2007): 245–78.  15Kyohoe wa yŏksa [Church and history], no. 431 (2011): 19. The Shengjing guangyi [Expounding the blessings of the Bible], an explanatory work on the Bible written by the Jesuit missionary Joseph-Anne-Marie de Moyriac de Mailla (1669–1748; his Chinese name was Feng Bingzheng), was published in 1740 in Beijing and was afterward republished several times. Soon after the Catholic Church was established in Korea, this book also found its way to Korea, and by 1790 it was already translated into han’gŭl versions or transcribed. In this paper, passages quoted from the Shengjing guangyi were translated into Korean by a nun named Yu Ŭnhŭi (Cecilia) and appeared each month in the journal Kyohoe wa yŏksa from November 2007 to June 2011. I have cited the Shengjing guangyi passages by journal name (Kyohoe wa yŏksa), issue number, and page number.  16Ibid., 19–20.  17Ibid., 16.  18Kyohoe wa yŏksa, no. 429 (2011): 20.  19“Ah! Those practicing Catholicism [Ch’ŏnjuhak] say, ‘this study venerates Heaven [Ch’ŏn] and respects and worships Heaven.’ Originally, Heaven has been worthy of veneration and deserving of respect and worship. However, because [Catholics’] veneration as well as their respect and worship do not go beyond the washing away of sins, the requesting of grace [ŭnch’ong], and other kinds of trickery, such actions are like deceiving Heaven and holding Heaven in contempt.” Hŏnjong sillok [Veritable records of Hŏnjong] (1839 [Hŏnjong 5, tenth month, kyŏngjin day]), 6:18a.


    While the patriarchal family system was being constructed, myths and stories that had been handed down no longer depicted any special roles for mothers. In the process of the story’s so-called heroic figure exhibiting extraordinary powers and then setting out to accomplish great deeds, the mother was not assigned a significant function. The mother played a kind of biological role in giving birth to the hero, but the aspects of actively carrying out her role as a mother in the public sphere were weak. Rather, there are many instances in which the mother disappears from the hero’s life.20

    However, the Holy Mother Mary intervened more prominently than any mother ever had between the birth of her Son and his final works, and then both of them formed an axis as the object of veneration and faith which led to the “mother-son” concept. The Shengjing guangyi states,

    The proper reason for having to venerate Mary is not only the belief that she is endowed with humility and purity but is also the explanation that the extremely important grace—of Jesus being born, saving humankind from their sins, and ultimately ascending to heaven—came through her. Veneration of the Holy Mother was performed not only because of her purity, humility, and obedience, but also out of thankfulness and veneration toward her active role in everything from her Son Jesus’s birth to the salvation of humankind. The Holy Mother and Jesus brought about the work of salvation for humankind in the inseparable mother-son relationship. This idea is expressed in the following passage from the Shengjing guangyi:

    One result of the emphasis on the Holy Mother’s identity and role as the mother of Jesus is that Jesus is described as our elder brother. Catholicism’s emphasis on the “pure, humble, and obedient Holy Mother, the Jesus of love,” and the axis connecting the “mother-son” concept were characteristics separate from Confucian culture at the time.

    On the one hand, Catholicism’s veneration of the Holy Mother accorded with the concept of filial devotion that was strongly emphasized in Chosŏn society. Catholicism called Saint Mary “Sŏngmo” (Holy Mother) and emphasized veneration of her by bringing in Confucianism’s concept of “filial devotion.”23 However, although filial devotion itself was emphasized in Chosŏn society’s patriarchal family system, aspects of filial devotion toward the Holy Mother that are separate from society immediately stand out. Within the patriarchal family system, filial devotion is an ethic based on hierarchy and is an obligation for one’s children to keep so as to maintain the patriarchal authority connected with patrilineage. Within that sphere, the mother is in a passive situation and is merely attached to the father. Confucianism’s filial devotion was an ethic in which the “father-son” concept held the central position.

    In contrast, filial devotion toward the Holy Mother differed from the one-way, authoritative, hierarchical commands of Confucianism. The supplication for this mother’s prayers and intercession while venerating her as the mother of all humankind, just as the Son Jesus treated his mother and as the Son requested his mother be treated, characterizes the veneration, or filial devotion, toward the Holy Mother.24

    Not only did many believers use the names Jesus and Mary together during their everyday life of faith, but they also shouted the names “Jesus, Mary” at the moment of their final breath before being martyred. Martyrs sought Jesus and Mary together in these difficult situations and called out, “Jesus, Mary! Please help me!” and “Jesus, Mary! I am going alone.” This was a faith and culture far removed from the culture of patriarchal Chosŏn. Of course, Mary in Catholicism was an object of veneration as the mother of Jesus and not an object of faith. However, this was something that arose from the mother-son relationship in which one could not be thought of as being apart from the other, beginning with Jesus’s birth until his resurrection. The fact that the Holy Mother and Jesus were connected and that both mother and son were the objects of veneration and faith were characteristics of Catholicism that accelerated the diversification of and divisions in late Chosŏn society. Differing from the patriarchal family order in late Chosŏn society that connected father and son on a central axis, the Holy Mother and Jesus presented a newly instituted mother-son ideology.

    20In Korea’s heroic myths, most heroes have the wisdom to overcome all trials on their own. There are many cases where he, the hero, becomes a father and a king on his own. Throughout this process the mother plays no particular role or altogether disappears. See Chang Yŏngnan, “Han’guk sinhwa,” 154.  21Kyohoe wa yŏksa, no. 429 (2011): 19.  22Ibid., 19–20.  23“If we truly perform filial duties for and venerate the Holy Mother, then surely there are numerous places for which we can hope.” Ibid., 19.  24On this point, I believe that there is only a weak link between filial duties performed for the Holy Mother and those done in a Confucian context. In my opinion the differences between the veneration of the Holy Mother and the veneration of and filial devotion to parents in Confucianism are greater than the similarities. If one persistently seeks for any commonality between the two, however, I believe it might simply be the universal trait of venerating mothers.


    The identity of Jesus, the “Holy Son” (Sŏngja), was a difficult concept to understand from the point of view of Neo-Confucian ideology or society’s patriarchy. The reason for this is that when first approached from the side of patriarchal society, the understanding of Jesus’s birth was different. In society’s patriarchal family system, a mother giving birth to a child was a biological phenomenon, and people saw mothers as playing a passive role in the process. They believed it was the father who actually “gave birth” to children.25 Because of this, even the Edict Proscribing Catholicism (Ch’ŏksa yunŭm), after criticizing each and every aspect of Jesus, ends with the following words:

    There are two reasons here why the government criticized Jesus. First, he is not a good example to follow because he was executed in a merciless way. In Confucianism, the people who had been presented as exemplary individuals with outstanding virtues, such as the benevolent kings of old and the sages, are figures from the past. In this regard, Confucianism tends to lean toward classicism. From the viewpoint of the government, whose ultimate goal was to make all people put into practice and abide by Confucian ideologies, believing in Jesus and following his example was a difficult thing to understand. Second, how could Jesus have been born without a father? Explanations of Jesus’s birth diverged from the understanding of fathers’ and mothers’ roles in a patriarchal family system. Jesus’s birth, in which a mother has a positive standing, was part of a culture that was new to Chosŏn society.

    With the knowledge that a mother took an active part in Jesus’s birth, a change occurred in the viewpoint from which believers understood themselves. The Holy Mother was not only the mother of Jesus, but she became the mother of all humankind. And all people could become siblings of Jesus and sons and daughters of the Holy Father (Sŏngbu). This idea is expressed in the following passage from the Shengjing guangyi:

    As Jesus’s mother, the Holy Mother became the mother of all people, and they became siblings of Jesus at the moment they believed in the Holy Mother as their own mother. If they venerated the Holy Mother as their own mother, they became siblings to Jesus, and through this people could simultaneously become the sons and daughters of God the Father. Even before Catholicism, people followed the Buddha and sages, but they did not regard the Buddha or any of the sages as their father. The same was the case for the various gods in folk religions. Actions performed to follow their teachings or pray for blessings did not take place within the kind of relationship that exists between parents and children. However, in Catholicism the objects of veneration and trust were not beings that existed apart from oneself but were beings connected to oneself as father and brother. As such, the acceptance of Catholicism signified that a completely different realm had been entered from that based on the ethics that had long sustained the patriarchal family system centered on blood relations and its society.

    Also, the identity of Jesus as “God’s Son” or the “Son of Heaven” (Ch’ŏnja) was a kind of culture shock having profound implications in Chosŏn society. In two ways, this concept was the cause for transformations in the value systems that had broken free from the established order.

    In Chosŏn, the Son of Heaven (Ch’ŏnja, or Tianzi in Chinese) had long held powerful authority as a concept symbolizing the Chinese emperor. This was an ancient authority that would have been difficult to supplant. But in late Chosŏn the Ming dynasty fell to the Jurchens (or Manchus) and as the Qing dynasty was being founded, Chosŏn’s state identity began to be fundamentally shaken. In the end, Chosŏn went on to establish its own identity as a “Small China” (So Chunghwa) and, in accordance with the circumstances of that time, flattered itself that Chosŏn could be nothing but the center of the world. From a culturalist’s perspective, Chosŏn, and only Chosŏn, was the successor of Confucian culture and its protector. The Neo-Confucian ideology and order among the ruling class inevitably became even more firmly established.

    However, although the symbolism surrounding the Son of Heaven (Ch’ŏnja) was immense, after the Qing dynasty had established itself, the authority of the Son of Heaven waned compared to its former glory. Therefore, the possibility, however small, of replacing the Son of Heaven with something else opened up in late Chosŏn. At this time, Jesus, who was introduced as God’s Son or the Son of Heaven, further accelerated the ruptures in the existing Chinese order that had weakened. People encountered a new Son of Heaven in Catholicism. The fact that there were people acknowledging Jesus as God’s Son who descended to this world, even with his limitation of giving up his life, signifies that cracks were beginning to appear in Chosŏn society, founded on Neo-Confucianism.

    The concept of Jesus—a man who died after being tortured and sentenced to death—as the Savior (Kuseju), or sacrificial lamb (hŭisaeng yang), was a belief not found in Confucian ideology and culture. The concept of a Savior differed from the propitious existence of Heaven (Ch’ŏn), which was the sacred entity, and from the sages who are discussed as perfect people in the Neo-Confucian world. Differing from the various sages who long had been objects of honor or other objects that were regarded as sacred in Chosŏn, and even differing from the Buddha, Jesus was introduced as the most mercilessly executed person. This kind of “sacrificial lamb” concept was far from being relevant to Chosŏn’s beliefs and culture. 28 Even in the decree that the government distributed to suppress Catholicism, it asked how Heaven, which is without form, color, or smell, could be mixed with a person having a body. It also criticized the incarnation of Jesus as a principle without precedent.29 The fact that some people nevertheless accepted such culture shocks lies at the heart of the ruptures that occurred in late-Chosŏn society.

    25Chang Yŏngnan, “Han’guk sinhwa,” 154.  26Hŏnjong sillok, 6:18a.  27Kyohoe wa yŏksa, no. 429 (2011): 19–20.  28Jacques Gernet noted that the aim of religious activities in East Asia in general has features in which there is a strong characteristic to gain benefits from a god or an object regarded as sacred. Therefore, a great variety of gods or sacred objects throughout East Asia carried out their roles to protect individuals and the state in the areas of floods, diseases, droughts, and wars. But to these East Asian religions, the acceptance of Christianity brought with it the shock of a “Savior” or “sacrificial lamb.” In other words, differing from gods, who were propitious beings (or sacred objects), or sages, who were discussed as being perfect humans, the concept of a Savior was a kind of culture shock. See Jacques Gernet, Daily Life in China, on the Eve of the Mongol Invasion, 1250– 1276 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1962), 197–204.  29Hŏnjong sillok, 6:17a–18a. Other explanations about Jesus also became points in which a fundamental understanding varied from existing traditions and were not accepted, such as the concept that people have an “immortal spirit” and a “Holy Spirit.”


    It may be difficult to say that the acceptance of Catholicism accelerated rifts in the patriarchal family system. Nevertheless, Catholicism was the wellspring of a new ideology and faith that was discovered by late-Chosŏn people who had broken free from the patriarchal family system.

    Even up to the time prior to the acceptance of Catholicism, the state looked upon religions at odds with the ruling order as merely “licentious sacrifices” and set them at naught. The state did not pay close attention to the religions’ doctrines themselves. The state’s policy was to unilaterally disregard any religious ceremony in which people took part only for the reason that it was not a Confucian ritual. In the case of Catholicism, refusal to perform ancestor rites created immense repercussions. But after the ban on ancestor rites was declared, Catholic believers were mostly comprised of the so-called middle people (chungin)30 and people of lower social status. The state had already decided not to regard their lack of ancestor memorial services as much of a problem. Catholics’ confusing the distinction between men and women, where some of them refused to marry and adhered to celibacy, also was not a problem for which one would face the death penalty. The state flatly rejected the Catholic view of heaven and hell, maintaining that humans strive to lead good lives because of their intrinsic nature to seek after the good and not because they fear an afterworld. Also, the fact that people relied on verbal statements or studied doctrines through books did not run contrary to Confucian rituals.

    However, what was the decisive reason for the state to protest that Catholics had “no regard for father or king” (mubu mugun, or wufu wujun in Chinese), and why did it pay such close attention to Catholicism? It is due to the fact that the spread of Catholicism cast stones that led to a crack in Chosŏn’s ruling system. Catholicism’s God (Hanŭnim, Ch’ŏn, Ch’ŏnju) ran contrary to Confucianism’s Heaven (Ch’ŏn), a politically important concept, and became the main cause of the severe persecution of Catholicism. The concepts of Saint Mary as the Holy Mother and Jesus as the Son of God (the Savior and sacrificial lamb) also could not be fully combined with Confucian society. This signifies that the identity of the Holy Mother and Jesus and their relationship created a rift in Chosŏn society’s patriarchal family system based on Neo-Confucianism. This means that ultimately the growth of Catholicism widened the crack, and the government could not idly stand by and watch it happen. In this sense, Catholicism also tended to interact with other subcultures, which were regarded as a threat to the ruling order.31 The mutual interaction among these subcultures, or underground cultures, characterized the thought and culture that formed in late Chosŏn society. This interaction had more of an effect than anything a particular religion or individual advocated. Already in personal lives, waves breaking free from the patriarchal family system were rising. The increase of people believing in the new religion of Catholicism, even if it meant giving up their lives for it, indicated that the stream of religion, ideology, culture, and thought—that were set at a distance from the ruling system—had become stronger. The more prevalent in people’s lives religious cultures apart from the Neo-Confucian order were, the more they caused rifts in society’s patriarchal family system. The wellspring that availed itself of the ruptures gradually spread into an unstoppable river through the floodgate of Catholicism. Ultimately, Catholicism directed one course of the flow that accompanied social reforms. Accordingly, the government regarded the ideology itself as a “corrupt doctrine” (sagyo) and applied the sword’s edge in its persecution.

      >  GLOSSARY

    Chirisan (Mount Chiri) 智異山

    Ch’ŏksa yunŭm 斥邪綸音

    ch’ŏn (heaven) 天

    Ch’ŏn (Heaven, Lord of Heaven) 天

    Chŏng Kam rok 鄭鑑錄

    Ch’ŏnja 天子

    Ch’ŏnje 天帝

    Ch’ŏnju 天主

    Ch’ŏnjugyo 天主敎

    Ch’ŏnjuhak 天主學

    Chosŏn 朝鮮

    chungin 中人

    Feng Bingzheng 馮秉正

    Haedong 海東

    Hanŭl 하늘

    Hanŭnim 하느님

    hŭisaeng yang 犧牲羊


    kamt’ong 感通

    Kim Chongjik 金宗直

    Kim Ilson 金馹孫

    Kuseju 救贖主

    malsegwan 末世觀

    malseron 末世論

    Ming 明

    min’gan 民間

    mubu mugun 無父無君

    Nam Hyoon 南孝溫

    Nogo 老姑

    Nogodan 老姑壇

    Qing 淸

    sagyo 邪敎

    Samguk yusa 三國遺事

    Sangje 上帝

    sansin 山神

    Shengjing guangyi 聖經廣益

    sinhwa 神話

    So Chunghwa 小中華

    “Sŏndo Sŏngmo suhŭi pul sa” 仙桃聖母隨喜佛事

    Sŏngbu 聖父

    Sŏngja 聖子

    Sŏngmo 聖母

    sŏrhwa 說話

    Tianzi 天子

    ŭmsa 淫祀

    ŭnch’ong 恩寵

    wufu wujun 無父無君


    yangban 兩班

    Yaso 耶蘇

    yŏsansin 女山神

    yŏ yu sin hyŏn 女有娠賢

    yunŭm 綸音

    30For the definition of middle people, see footnote 4.  31After Paek Sŭngjong analyzed the probability of interaction between the Catholic and Chŏng Kam rok subcultures by proposing a connection between the eschatology (malseron) of the Chŏng Kam rok and the so-called last judgment (malsegwan) of Catholicism, he presented a study about interactions between late Chosŏn society and subcultures. He claimed that Catholic believers languishing under the court’s suppression, persecution, and contempt instead received comfort through interacting with different subcultures and in this way could more persistently promote their own aims. See Paek Sŭngjong, “Chosŏn hugi Ch’ŏnjugyo.”

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