The Korean Buddhist Empire

A Transnational History, 1910-1945

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Hwansoo Ilmee Kim
Harvard East Asian Monographs
  • Cambridge, MA: 
    Harvard University Press
    , September
     358 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In The Korean Buddhist Empire: A Transnational History (1910-1945), Hwansoo Kim sets out to complicate a popular image of Korean Buddhism during the colonial era. As he points out, scholars of the tradition have historically trended toward a “binary interpretive paradigm” of its role vis-à-vis Japanese Buddhists and the colonial government; as a result, they deemed contemporary adherents to be either pro- or anti-Japanese, yet rarely allowed or considered them to be capable of crossing between the two. While Kim acknowledges that the broader field is beginning to experience a shift away from this oversimplified approach—particularly through the works of Kim Sunsŏk and Kim Yongt’ae—alternative interpretations have yet to fully gain favor (25-28). This volume, thus, marks the first English-language attempt to highlight the complex nature and development of colonial Korean Buddhism by way of a new theoretical framework: transnationalism. For Kim, it is this transnational perspective that proves vital to understanding the diverse ways in which Korean Buddhists generated their own discourses of nationalism, governmentality, and propagation, and came to understand their position in a modern Buddhist world (5, 11, 24-25, 29). 

The text itself is comprised of six case studies focused on the general themes of material culture, individual narratives or endeavors, and the aforementioned discourses of governmentality and propagation. Chapters 1 and 2 fall into the first of these sub-categories, centering on the elevation of the Koryŏ Canon, and the reinvention of the Buddha’s Birthday Festival. In the former, Kim details the “colonial-era valorization” of the Koryŏ taejanggyŏng—the Korean version of the Buddhist canon—by tracing a dialogic process of Japanese interpretation and Korean reinterpretation through two large-scale printing projects in 1915 and 1937 (36, 54-56, 60-62). The second chapter examines a similar undertaking in the form of the Lantern Assembly—a festival celebrating the birth of the Buddha with roots in both Sri Lanka and Japan (70-82). As with the Koryŏ Canon, the institutionalization of the festival involved the “conscious effort” of Japanese Buddhists, even as it was repositioned to fit a new Korean Buddhist context (90-93, 94-96, 102-104). 

Chapters 3 and 4 turn away from material culture and toward individual narratives of transnationalism. Kim begins with a focus on Yu Guanbin (1891-1933), a Korean-Chinese businessman whose work encompassed both sides of a division between Chinese transnational Buddhism and Korean nationalist politics. A lay student of the monk Taixu (1890-1947), Yu actively worked to promote his master’s Buddhacization Movement, which sought to revitalize East Asian Buddhism by returning to its Chinese Buddhist origins (113-123). At the same time, though, Yu pushed to “build a relationship between Chinese and Korean Buddhism,” and thereby established himself as “a long-distance Korean nationalist in his own right” (123, 127-129, 141-142). Chapter 4 approaches the topic of transnationalism through a Japanese Buddhist lens by focusing on the peninsular travels of the Sōtō Zen monk Sōma Shōei (1904-1971). Sōma viewed himself as an unsui—lit. “clouds and water,” an itinerant monk—and encountered or studied with a number of prominent Korean Buddhists, including the Sŏn Pang Hanam (1876-1951) (153, 166-170). In the process, Sōma developed a deeper understanding of Korean Buddhism that went beyond the “colonizer/colonized paradigm,” and highlighted the value that the tradition could hold for Japanese Buddhists themselves (174-183). 

The final two chapters of the book deal with two of the three prominent discourses Kim outlines at the start of his volume: Buddhist governmentality and propagation. Chapter 5 consequently turns away from the theme of transnationalism to explore the centralization of the Korean Buddhist apparatus through the state-assisted construction of T’aego Temple and the subsequent establishment of the Chogye Order in 1941 (207-211, 220, 229). Chapter 6, on the other hand, provides a particularly interesting view of the complex relationship between the colonizing empire and the colonized subject. Inspired by Japanese Buddhist propagation, and bearing the approval of colonial authorities, Korean Buddhists effectively became “colonized colonizers,” expanding into mainland Japan and the imperial puppet state of Manchukuo (24, 250-257, 260-273). Through these efforts, the combined discourses of governmentality and propagation worked hand-in-hand with a new Korean Buddhist nationalism to transform the tradition from “its premodern marginalized status into a centralized, powerful, modern religion” (275). 

In the end, Kim carefully weaves together a diverse body of sources and discourses into a single coherent and exceedingly well-crafted volume. The framework of transnationalism permeates the entirety of the text—although its presence is somewhat mitigated in the discussion of Korean Buddhist governmentality—and serves to shed new light on transcultural connections stretching from Japan to Sri Lanka and Manchukuo. Even so, Kim makes it clear that the scale of these connections did not undermine the development of a Korean Buddhist nationalism; rather, they actually served to strengthen it by providing members of the community with sources of inspiration, and points of comparison for their own collective identity. Despite his focus on these discourses, Kim does well to acknowledge that Korean Buddhist nationalism did not develop in a vacuum. In fact, he repeatedly emphasizes the presence of Christianity as a cause of anxiety for Korean Buddhists (chapters 2, 4, 6), as well as the existence of alternative nationalisms linked to New Religious Movements like Poch’ŏn’gyo, Suungyo, Taegakkyo, and Ch’ŏndogyo (chapters 5, 6). This is not surprising: for Kim, context matters. Without a firm understanding of both the local and regional contexts, including the myriad ties between social, political, and religious groups, scholars simply cannot hope to gain a complete understanding of the nature of Buddhism in colonial Korea. The Korean Buddhist Empire thus stands as a significant step toward ensuring that this does not continue to be the case.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Darian Shump is a graduate student in Religion at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
July 15, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Hwansoo Ilmee Kim is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University.


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