우물 안 개구리


Things I don’t know about Korea, part 3

One of the things that I noticed about the materials I used last time I taught Korean history1 is that the texts I chose for my course did not mention, much less discuss in depth, the recently departed Moon Sun Myung‘s Unification Church. The global reach of this uniquely Korean Christian sect would seem to make it a natural topic for discussion, but even works that look in some detail at the religious changes of modern Korean history didn’t address this sect.

The absence was so striking, that I started to wonder if there was some sort of political minefield or cultural taboo at work, or if I had grossly misunderstood the scale and impact of the movement. I haven’t been looking all that hard for answers one way or the other in the two years since, but I certainly would like to have some better sense going in this time.

  1. and I’m scheduled to teach it again in the Spring, in parallel with my Modern Japan course, so it’s on my mind. I’m thinking of adding some literature to the syllabus []


Tonghak and Taiping

I was struck, preparing for class yesterday, that the Tonghak and Taiping faiths were surprisingly similar and arose nearly simultaneously: Syncretic monotheistic faiths drawing on Confucian, Christian and indigenous magical traditions, with anti-foreign reformist programs and a counter-cultural ethos of equality.1 There are obvious differences, too, in teachings and in the leadership, but the structural similarities raise some interesting possibilities for research and teaching.

I’m not the first person to have this insight apparently, though it doesn’t look (from what little I can tell from these links) like there’s any hint of direct connection between them. I’m a little surprised, frankly, that World History textbooks (which love those kinds of parallel moments) haven’t picked up on it. Of course, Korea’s place in World History textbooks overall is pretty pitiful at the moment and the Taiping movement rarely gets more than passing mention in an already busy and traumatic Chinese 19th century. With the rise of religious history, it seems likely that these issues might come closer to the forefront, though, and I’d be curious to know if anyone else out there does something with this confluence.

  1. The Japanese “New Religions” of the 19th century are very heavily Shinto-influenced, with some Buddhism and almost no Christianity, nor did any of them become political movements. It’s not the same. []


Korean (Gender) Studies at ASPAC

In spite of the lovely Korean Studies Center which headquartered the conference, ASPAC 2007 didn’t have a lot of Korean content. In fact, with the exception of one paper on a mixed panel, I think I saw it all.

AAS President-Elect Robert Buswell gave the keynote address at the banquet on Saturday night, speaking on “Korean Buddhist Journeys to Lands Real and Imagined.” Though it was a bit long and specialized for an after-dinner discourse, I found it thought-provoking. I didn’t however, take notes, so you’ll have to wait for the paper (I’m sure there’s a paper in the works) to get the details. I was struck by a few thoughts, though.

  • Given the frequency of Korean Buddhist travel as far as India, and the ease with which they navigated China in particular, I think we need to reconsider travel in Asian history. It’s clearly more of a norm than an exception, at least for certain categories of people. That means a great deal more integration among elites, more awareness of neighboring (and even distant) cultures than our traditional national-limited cultural histories suggest. It also means that western travellers like Marco Polo need to be considered a very small part of a much larger travelling and writing public; yes, I’m reconsidering Marco Polo, somewhat, because narratives like the ones Buswell described put his journies into a much more plausible context.
  • The “imagined” travelogues to legendary and/or allegorical lands constitute a rich fantastical literature which ought to be considered in comparison with work like The Odyssey and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.



Museum: The Korean Christian Museum at Soongsil University

Filed under: — K. M. Lawson @ 9:16 am Print

In my constant search for quiet, smoke-free, and affordable coffee shops to study in, I recently came upon the Starbucks near Soongsil University (숭실대학교), which is only a few bus stops away from the Seoul University subway station. After spending a nice Sunday reading there recently, I wandered about the Soongsil campus and discovered that the university has a Korean Christian Museum. I came back to visit the museum on a less holy day and found that it has quite a bit to offer.

The museum has three floors. The first floor is dedicated to the history of Christianity in Korea, with sections covering Nestorianism 경교 (景敎) in East Asia (with some evidence of its spread to Korea, but I admit I was somewhat suspicious of this), Catholic inroads, and later missionary efforts. There are a number of interesting texts housed here, including very old writings about Korea, bible translations, early Korean language manuals used by missionaries, a text of a 1839 royal decree against Catholicism, and various early missionary periodicals etc.

The second floor has one section dedicated to the history of the university beginning in the late 1890s, and a second section which has little if anything to do with Christianity at all. Called “Modernization and the National Movement” this room has all sorts of exhibits related to early modern and modern Korean history, including a great section dedicated to the development of astronomy and geography in Korea. The standard triumphant tale of Korean ingenuity, enlightenment and growing nationalism is narrated throughout, but the assembled artifacts on display are well worth the visit.

Finally, the third floor has again nothing, that I could tell, to do with Christianity, but instead collects various archeological findings from earlier periods of Korean history.

The museum is quite close to SNU and its offerings are considerably more interesting than the fixed exhibits on SNU’s own campus museum (As my fellow contributor Gyewon has pointed out, however, there are often very interesting temporary exhibits to be found there). While all the exhibits are labeled in Korean, the museum provides a great English language booklet with well-written explanations and pictures of most of the important museum exhibits.

More Info: The museum has free admission and is open 10-16 Monday-Friday and 10-12 on Saturdays. You can reach it by going to Soongsil University subway station, or by bus (751, 752, 753, 501, 650, 5511, 5517).


Bugs, beetles and worldviews

Filed under: — Remco Breuker @ 8:57 am Print

Having been temporarily expelled from my office because of the presence of beetles that merrily eat through the wooden ceiling beams, I had to think of an entry in the History of Koryŏ (Koryŏsa 高麗史) about a similar problem that plagued the pine trees of Kaesŏng. At first sight this entry may look obscure and hardly worth of any serious attention. But I think this passage is more than an anecdote; it offers a fascinating entry into the worldview(s) of Koryŏ. This is the concerned passage:

“In the fourth month of 1102 (the seventh year of the reign of Sukchong) insects were eating the pine trees, so Buddhist monks were mobilized to recite the Flower Garland Sutra (Hwaŏmgyŏng 華嚴經) for five days to stop this disaster. On the kyeyu day in the fifth month the king led some of his ministers in the palace in a celebration of a commemorative ritual for Sangje上帝 and the Five Emperors五帝. A prayer of repentance was directed at T’aejo 太祖, the sun and the moon and was only discontinued in the evening of the third night. On the pyŏngsul day of the sixth month, the ruler decreed that the ministers of state should perform rituals in honour of the spirits of the great mountains and streams of the east, west, south, north and the middle of the country, divided in three separate places of worship. He furthermore decreed that 2,000 monks should be gathered and split in four groups that would tour the mountains around the capital and in the provinces, while reciting the The Heart of the Prajna Paramita Sutra (panyagyŏng 般若經) to the insects to rescue them and stop disasters. In the end, 500 soldiers were mobilized to catch the insects on Pine Tree Peak (Songaksan松岳山).”

The appearance of insects in Kaesŏng’s sacred mountains, eating the pines that were considered essential to the well-being of the dynasty, was not to be taken lightly. Indeed, when this happened later in the dynasty “the people said that [the appearance of the insects in the pine trees] was the foreboding of the emergence of a new dynasty”. The significance attached to this omen, however, is perhaps of less immediate interest than the solutions that the Koryŏ court came up with in this case and in many other, comparable instances. First, it made Buddhist monks perform sutra recitations and in other instances elaborate rituals. When that did not prove to be effective, the king himself offered Daoist rituals to the Ultimate Being and the Five Emperors, to the founder of the dynasty and to the sun and the moon. Then, the spirits of the landscape, of Koryŏ’s mountains and streams were beseeched to intervene. Desperate, one can easily imagine, that the insects did not disappear, 2,000 monks were send out to preach to the pesky little bugs and when that did not work, soldiers were sent into the mountains to engage in close combat with the blasphemous insects. Other instances also record to mobilization of troops of shamans. (more…)

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