Korean Religions in Relation

Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity

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Editor(s): 
Anselm K. Min
SUNY Series in Korean Studies
  • Albany, NY: 
    State University of New York Press
    , July
     2017.
     336 pages.
     $27.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781438462769.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

It is well known that South Korean society has the most diverse religious communities in Asia. This feature can be attributed to the country’s long tradition of allowing Koreans to take part in different religious practices, from shamanistic ceremonies (kuk) to the ancestral memorial services (chesa), regardless of their religious affiliations. As the title Korean Religions in Relation: Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity indicates, this volume explores interrelations between Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity from pre-modern Korea to 21st-century South Korean society. Buddhism and Confucianism are the most influential religions in Korea in that ancient and medieval Korean monarchs used them as tools to maintain their political hegemony. When Catholicism was introduced in Korea in the 18th century it was regarded as a threat to the Chosŏn government because early Korean Catholics denied ancestor worship, a core aspect of Korean Confucianism. These religions were at times hostile and at other times coexistent, and the interaction of religions produced the modern religious landscape of Korea. This volume, edited by Anselm K. Min, is then a welcome contribution to the body of knowledge regarding multi-layered Korean religions. The volume’s ten essays offer different approaches to Korean religions, bringing us one step closer to a contemporary re-thinking of the Korean religious tradition. 

The volume has four different themes. The first is the interaction between Buddhism and Confucianism during the Koryŏ and the Chosŏn periods. The relation between Buddhism and Confucianism is the most exciting topic in the collection as it reveals the ways in which elite religion and popular religion competed and compromised with one another. The second theme involves the conflict and assimilation between Confucianism and Catholicism. Don Baker’s essay in particular depicts how the Korean encounter with Catholicism is significant not only because Catholicism contributed to the shaping of Koreans’ notion of religion as “congregational and confessional” (91), but also because it challenged the Neo-Confucian approach to morality. His essay also explores the reasons that some Confucian scholars who were attracted to Catholicism denied conversion while others died martyrs. Specific examples of such “Catholic Confucians” and Catholic martyrs were Chŏng Yagyong and his brother Chŏng Yakchong. 

The fourth theme is modern Korean society’s re-interpretation of Confucianism. In particular, Namsoon Kang and Un-suun Lee’s two essays deal with opposite views of Confucian values in terms of familism and women’s subjectivity. Namsoon Kang asserts that Confucianism in Asia “has perpetuated and reinforced women’s oppression and inequality” (219), and that Korean Christianity also shares that Confucian value of the father-son relationship. On the other hand, Un-suun Lee maintains that 21st-century women can learn how to develop healthy subjectivity from the Confucian tradition. I think the authors of these two essays oversimplify Confucianism. Confucianism is a very broad concept covering everything from ancient Chinese philosophy to Neo-Confucianism. It is unquestionable that Neo-Confucianism became accepted as state ideology in the Chosŏn society, which transformed into a Confucian ritual-based society. Filial piety and the ancestral memorial service lie at the core of religious Confucianism in Korea. Scholars must be careful to narrow down and define which specific religious aspects of Confucianism they wish to deal with. Both of these essays would have benefited from an examination of the Neo-Confucian aspects of the Chosŏn period. 

On the other hand, as the editor also admits, this volume has two more general problems. First, it lacks consistent romanization of the Korean language, because some of its authors prefer the Revised Romanization and others favor the McCune Reischauer practice. The mixed use of two different romanization systems hinders readers who are not experts in Korean from identifying important terms and names. Another weakness is that the volume pays more attention to major religions than to shamanism and new religions, such as Chŏndogyo. If it had also included essays examining how these indigenous religions have interacted with other major religions, I think the volume would have drawn a more vivid map of Korean religions. Overall, despite its limitations, this volume is a well-constructed collection and makes important contributions to the understanding of relations between Buddhism and Confucianism, Confucianism and Catholicism, Protestantism and other Korean religions, as well as Confucianism and Christianity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jeongeun Park is Assistant Professor in Asian Studies at the University of Prince Edward Island, Canada.

Date of Review: 
July 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Anselm K. Min is professor of religion at Claremont Graduate University and the author and editor of many books, including Dialectic of Salvation: Issues in Theology of Liberation, also published by SUNY Press.

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