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from issue no. 10/11 - 2009

CHURCH. Confucianism, Catholicism and the experience of Concreteness

At the dawning of Christian Korea

Meeting with H.E. Francis Ji-Young Kim, South Korean Ambassador to the Holy See

Interview with Francis Ji-Young Kim by Giovanni Cubeddu

Matteo Ricci was a Jesuit missionary in China from 1582 to his death, which occurred in 1610. The echo of his work also reached Korea. We talk about it with Ji-Young Kim, South Korean Ambassador to the Holy See.

Ambassador Francis Ji- Young Kim

Ambassador Francis Ji- Young Kim

Excellency, we start from a brief picture of relations between Korea and China at the time of Ricci’s mission.
FRANCIS JI-YOUNG KIM: At the time of the Korean Yi Dynasty (1392-1910 ed.) relations with Ming China were good, to the point of allowing the entry of delegations four times a year. Korean delegations departed in spring, summer, autumn and winter, and thanks to these opportunities of meeting friendly contacts were maintained, enriched by mutual exchange of needed goods, technology and more generally of knowledge. Subsequently, however, from the 16th century, the Jurchen tribe came to power in Manchuria – who later founded the nation of Keum and changed their name in 1636 to Ch’ing after defeating the Ming Dynasty – and inserted themselves in the relations between the Yi and Ming Dynasties.
To what purpose?
JI-YOUNG KIM: Actually, the Jurchen tribe wanted to invade Ming China and therefore needed the Yi Dynasty to remain politically neutral, both towards them and towards the Ming. King Kwanghaegun of the Yi Dynasty, whose reign lasted from 1608 to 1623, knew how to articulate such neutral policy through a well balanced diplomacy. But afterwards King Injo, in power from 1623 to 1649, changed this policy for the traditionally pro-Ming attitude, even though Korea did not have enough power to resist the Jurchen tribe. This tribe in fact from December 1636 to January 1637 attacked Korea devastating the north of the country.
What was the situation of the cults present in the country?
JI-YOUNG KIM: During the Yi Dynasty Confucianism was the majority religion in contrast to Buddhism which had predominated in Korea during the previous reignsof Silla and Koryo. Although Buddhism and Taoism were still popular among citizens of the lower classes, the royal family and upper caste intellectuals called Yangban for the most part believed in and researched Confucianism. And the Confucian scholars gave great importance to the traditional writings in ancient Chinese, whether these concerned literary works, or studies on the mindset, spirituality, ceremonials and so on. They targeted a higher quality of “mental life”.
The influence that the writings of Matteo Ricci exercised on Korean intellectuals of the time was also due to a school of thought known as Silhak. What was that?
JI-YOUNG KIM: Simply, it was a branch of Confucianism, and its name means “practical learning”, “concreteness”. It aimed at creating a new model of studies and sciences once conflicts and problems still existing in Confucian society were overcome, given that then the teaching of Confucius was improperly used as a tool of struggle between the political parties and the intellectuals of Yangban, to the detriment of the correct use of resources for the welfare of citizens. So the non-conservative intellectuals tried to restore what had been neglected in Confucianism, aiming at good governance of the national economy, particularly by insisting on the teaching of pragmatism, which could enhance productivity and development of social life. The exponents of Silhak refuted the arguments of pure logic as unproductive and focused their attention on the practical sciences, for the benefit of the life of society and production.
Father Matteo Ricci in a portrait of Emmanuel Yu Wen-Hui (known as Pereira), 1610, sacristy of the Gesù Church, Rome; below, the universal geographic map made by Father Matteo Ricci and printed by Li Zhizao in Beijing in 1603, conserved in the Provincial Museum of Shenyang

Father Matteo Ricci in a portrait of Emmanuel Yu Wen-Hui (known as Pereira), 1610, sacristy of the Gesù Church, Rome; below, the universal geographic map made by Father Matteo Ricci and printed by Li Zhizao in Beijing in 1603, conserved in the Provincial Museum of Shenyang

Doctrinal tensions were added to the intense political ones?
JI-YOUNG KIM: From the second part of the 16th century, the Yi Dynasty had to face social and economic difficulties mainly due to the attacks launched by Japan from 1592 to 1598, and subsequently by the Jurchen tribe. First of all, the system of government collapsed, giving rise to many factions battling among themselves: there were disputes and conflicts everywhere. Even the social hierarchy of the citizens was changed. Until then, farmers and merchants were considered inferior, but at that time the progressive intellectuals began to consider them essential elements for the social stability of the entire nation. Secondly, Confucianism had not been able to maintain anymore the role of the Yi Dynasty doctrinal guide, even if some of the intellectual elite continued to be attached to the research of pure logic, living by that time as a body separate from their contemporary civil reality. So the Korean intelligentsia were thus fragmented into groups, creating various political parties.
We come to the main topic: how did the Korean tradition attempt to dialogue with the Christian West?
JI-YOUNG KIM: In fact the knowledge of Western thought in the Yi Dynasty was derived from the books written in Chinese, belonging to the missionaries of the Society of Jesus who from the 17th century lived in China. Before publishing the De Deo Verax Disputatio Matteo Ricci wrote, I pensieri dei credenti [The thoughts of believers], in which he represented, defining them according to categories, the characteristics common to eastern and western cultures and then attempted, in a logically consequent manner, to make them easily understandable. Thanks to this book, Ricci succeeded in conversing with the highest intellectual circles both in China and Korea, focusing precisely on their own ways of thinking of both cultures of East and West. And not only. Attaching importance to relations that could be established among the faithful, Ricci also explained the doctrine of the Resurrection and the authority of God. It was such that, after receiving the teachings of the Catholic missionaries in China and reading their works, the progressive Korean thinkers desired also to draw on modern Western culture, technology, science, to rebuild a healthy and strong Korean nation, overcoming the crisis and the weakness following the Japanese attacks. In this context, Yi Su-gwang (1563-1628), inasmuch as he was a progressive, introduced Western and Catholic knowledge into the country, with the intention of establishing Silhak, at the beginning of the 17th century, in the Yi Dynasty. Later, other famous scholars like Yi Ick (1681-1763) and Jung Yak-yong (1762-1836) brought their theories to completion – through a merger of the Korean tradition with Western thought – in the Silhak of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Korea therefore owes the introduction of the Christian faith to Yi Su-gwang. Who was this thinker?
JI-YOUNG KIM: Yi Su-gwang, known as Ji-bong – he signed himself thus, from the name of his native village – was the Confucian view of the cosmos, a new universal approach and a wider horizon of human affairs. His whole attitude, after all, was the product of his curious nature... He was really a man who looked ahead and understood what the new world that Matthew Ricci’s books revealed was. Moreover, he was prominent to the extent to be appointed to lead three different ministries and later also to become prime minister. We should also remember, however, another intellectual of that Ricci period: Yu Mong-in (1559-1623).
JI-YOUNG KIM: His text Er-woo-yadam is an essay that belongs to traditional Korean literature, whose contents typically aimed at criticism of something, or someone, based on moral values and standards of that time. Yu Mong-in, who signed himself Er-woo, was of the same generation as Matteo Ricci and analyzed and discussed Confucian traditions and Catholicism. He understood the concept of the God of the Catholic faith by comparing it with that of the traditional Confucian society’s Emperor of Heaven. But he was critical of Catholic teaching about hell and heaven because he considered these concepts a simple instrument that served merely to “seduce” people. He likewise refuted the ban on marriage that was imposed on Catholic religious, because he considered it a precept contrary to the sense of humanity. All this was because Yu Mong-in, although curious about Catholic and Western thought, was not so to the point of being able to understand the fundamentals of the Catholic faith...
Geographical map of Korea dating from1682

Geographical map of Korea dating from1682

Leaving the academic field: who were the first Korean Christians?
JI-YOUNG KIM: Certainly Yi Seung-hun. He lived from 1756 to 1801 and was the first Korean to receive baptism, in addition to being one of the founders of the Korean Catholic Church. In 1783 he went to Beijing with his father, who was a member of the “winter” delegation to China. He was taught the catechism by Jesuit missionaries and later was baptized by Father Jean-Joseph de Grammont. The following year he returned to Korea, bringing with him many Catholic publications. He was a teacher and baptized some Koreans, including JungYak-yong, a well-known member of Silhak. In 1794 some of his friends were sentenced to death for organizing the entry into Korea of the Chinese Father Ju Moon-mo, and for the same reason he himself was condemned to exile in a countryside locality. He was then sentenced to death and executed in 1801 in Seosomoon prison in Seoul.
How did the Yi Dynasty consider the presence of Christians?
JI-YOUNG KIM: Christianity, admitted willingly and freely into Korea at the beginning of 1600, interested many progressive intellectuals in the following century, equally desirous of Western culture. They began to believe in the Catholic faith without encountering restrictions. But at the end of the 18th century many political conflicts broke out and the expression of these disputes and battles was that each party tried to harass their political opponents. So, in the 19th century, many Catholics were executed, mostly at the hands of groups who hated Catholicism. In 1846 the first Korean priest, Kim Tae-gun, who in October of 1845 was repatriated to Korea from China, was also put to death at only 25 years of age. He was ordained in Shanghai in August 1845 by the bishop of Beijing Monsignor Ferréol. And like him, in the last part of the Yi Dynasty, Christians had to endure many trials. The Korean faithful today can be grateful to these witnesses.
It was a time of encounter between two universalisms.
JI-YOUNG KIM: The looks that Confucianism and Catholicism reciprocally exchanged with each other found, in that Korean experience of ours, common ground, starting from the idea – and practice – of “concreteness”. Silhak was an experiment that certainly did not include everyone as it would have wanted to, but was significant for relations between civil and ecclesiastical power, which I have enjoyed recalling with you.

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