AAS Annual Meeting

Korea Session 17

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Session 17: Catholicism in Joseon Dynasty Korea: Local and Global Perspectives

Organizer: Franklin D. Rausch, Lander University, USA

Chair: Donald L. Baker, University of British Columbia, Canada

Discussant: Kenneth M. Wells, University of Auckland, New Zealand

When Catholicism was first introduced into Korea during the Joseon dynasty (1392-1910) reactions to the new religion varied. Some found in it a new religious identity that transcended the limits of traditional norms even as it preserved others. Deberniere Torrey will examine one such case, a young Catholic woman who though married, remained a life-long virgin, and expressed filial devotion in the letters she wrote as she waited in prison for her martyrdom. The Joseon state, however, saw Catholicism as a serious threat to Confucian civilization. Pierre-Emmanuel Roux will show how the Korean government’s application of laws from the Great Ming Code to punish Catholics expressed the dynasty’s identity as the only true Confucian civilization in East Asia. In punishing Catholics, the Joseon government tortured and killed commoners, women and the elderly; the very people it was supposed to protect, nurture, and civilize as a Confucian state. Franklin Rausch will examine how the Joseon state justified this use of violence, arguing that by presenting Catholicism as a threat, it rhetorically strengthened its own ruling legitimacy. Finally, Kim Eun-Young will present on how French missionaries in Korea presented incidents, both real and imagined, to their readership in France. She will argue that these sources provide a window into both French religiosity and ethnographic details about life on the peninsula. In these ways, this panel will show the complex reality of Catholicism in Joseon dynasty Korea, and its influence both inside and outside of the peninsula.

Womanly Duty and Immortal Agency: The Prison Letters of Yi Suni
Deberniere J. Torrey, University of Utah, USA

Luthgarde Yi Suni, one of hundreds executed during the persecution of Korean Catholics in 1801, is memorialized by two letters she wrote from prison to her mother and sister-in-law. While giving a vivid account of the arrest and suffering of Yi and her family, these letters also offer a glimpse into the subjective inner life of an individual Catholic woman of the late Joseon period. How did Yi’s Catholic faith set her apart from what was normative for a woman of that time? Yi’s letters are full of admonitions and expressions of filial devotion, themes that were typical of women’s writing of the period. Yet her decision to enter a chaste marriage, which she mentions in the letters, flew in the face of traditional prescriptions, according to which a woman was to fulfill her filial duty by providing heirs to carry on the family name. Also, references to her husband suggest a relationship of equals. Through a close reading of passages from Yi’s letters from prison, this presentation will point out both the parallels and the points of contrast between Yi Suni’s identity as informed by her faith and the traditional Joseon assumptions regarding female subjectivity, and will demonstrate how Yi integrates the traditional female role of moral paragon with her assumption of personal agency through martyrdom.

The Great Ming Code and the persecution of Catholics in Joseon Korea
Pierre-Emmanuel Roux, Universite Paris Diderot, France

It is widely acknowledged that the history of the early Korean Catholic Church was marked by harsh persecutions conducted by the Joseon state. Many scientific and hagiographic works have been written on this topic, especially by focusing on a cultural clash between Confucian Korea and the Christian West, but little has been said concerning the legal basis for anti-Christian campaigns and, in more general terms, concerning the legal system supported by the Great Ming Code (Da Ming lu), i.e. the penal code in use during the Joseon dynasty. Most of the converts who died during the prohibition era (1785-1886) were executed by immediate decapitation, in reference to two different articles of the Code entitled ‘Making magical inscriptions and magical incantations’ and ‘Uncovering graves’. Why did Joseon officials choose to apply such laws to Catholics even though these laws were sometimes unrelated to the so-called Catholic threat to the state? To answer this question, I will go beyond a Korea-centered perspective and argue that the search for orthodoxy and the idea of Joseon as the new center of civilization after the demise of the Ming dynasty in 1644 played a central role in the hostile attitudes Korean literati expressed towards Catholicism, since Western missionaries remained at the service of the “barbarian and heretic” Manchu emperors in Beijing until the early 19th century. In this light, I will try to demonstrate why Catholicism was never referred to as ‘Catholicism’ in Korean sources, but as a magical and heretical sect.

Like Beasts and Weeds: Justifying violence against Catholics in late Joseon Dynasty Korea
Franklin D. Rausch, Lander University, USA

Joseon dynasty officials and scholars had long criticized Catholicism before there were any Catholics in Korea. When Catholics began to appear on the peninsula in 1784 the state first focused on banning Catholic books and “illuminating” the Confucian Way. Much to the government’s frustration the foreign religion continued to spread. Officials turned to violence, arresting and torturing Catholic leaders in hopes that they would apostatize. These efforts failed to stop the Catholic menace, and the state began to target even male non-leaders, executing those who refused to apostatize after shorter and shorter periods of torture. Eventually, in 1801, the first major persecution, even women and the elderly became subjects of the state’s wrath and died as martyrs. As a Confucian state, it was the Joseon government’s duty to civilize and nurture the people; how could it justify torturing and killing them? To answer this question, this presentation will examine the discourse on violence that appeared in the Joseon dynasty during the time of the most active persecution (1784-1866) to justify the use of force against Catholics, both in court debates and public edicts, with a focus on 1801. I will argue that key to legitimizing violence against Catholics was showing that they constituted a threat to the state, and to this end, were portrayed as rebels, birds and beasts, cancers, insects, weeds, and even dangerous monsters. Moreover, I will show that the Joseon state utilized the rhetoric justifying violence against Catholics to strengthen its own rule.

Anecdotes written by French Missionaries in 19th-Centry Korea : Between Edifying and Testifying
Eun-Young Kim, , France

This paper focuses on certain stereotyped episodes that French missionaries in 19th-centry Korea used to write for their French correspondents. These short writings are referred to here as ‘edifying stories’, and correspond to anecdotes that served to give a lesson about Christianity. Usually, missionaries presented their ‘tales’ as real occurrences or even as part of their own experiences. On the one hand, this genre is rooted in the Christian literature tradition (exemplum), and on the other hand, it recalls the Lettres edifiantes et curieuses (1702-1776) of the Society of Jesus. The edifying story is a writing quite familiar not only to the French missionaries but also to their correspondents. Like the traditional exempla, Korean anecdotes are classic and exotic as well as educational and pleasurable, allowing the authors to more effectively move their readers. In addition, whether fiction or not, the edifying story produces and reproduces knowledge on a typical Korea while providing unexpected testimonies about this ‘closed’ kingdom. Therefore, the Korean edifying story might be interpreted at the same time as an exemplum and an ethnographic note. Another reading of the missionaries’ edifying story rests on its stereotyped character because this ‘missionarily correct literature invites us to consider the religious mentality of its author and reader. In sum, to analyze anecdotes written by French missionaries in 19th-century Korea is an interesting way to understand French Catholics’ religiosity, and to find sources of ethnographic material that were not framed as such originally.