The role of missionaries in China and Korea recently came up during the first Nishan Forum on World Civilizations in east China’s Shandong Province.  According to Prof. Yang Sung-moo of Chung Ang University (People’s Daily, September 27, 2010) the entrance of Christianity into Joseon Korea was very violent.

Christianity had come to [this] country “very violently” in the 1880s when missionaries disregarded local Confucian rituals by forbidding believers to kowtow to their enshrined ancestors and destroying Buddhist statues.

There is some truth to that.  I believe it was fiery old Samuel Moore who went to one of the temples outside of Seoul and “accidentally” broke a couple of “heathen idols.”  At first Moore denied it but when confronted with the testimony of a fellow Westerner, he admitted that some of the idols were broken but claimed that the head monk had agreed with him that they should be destroyed.  (You can read some more about Moore’s unwillingness to accept Korean social norms and culture here at JoongAng Daily April 24, 2010). 

There were other ugly foreign missionaries.  I remember hearing during an RAS lecture (I think Donald Clark’s lecture concerning his book  Living Dangerously in Korea ) that a missionary discovered a young Korean man (boy) had been stealing from his orchard and took it upon himself to brand him with a cross either on his forehead or arm.

Fortunately Prof. Yang didn’t include any anecdotes but he did have this to say:

The violent reputation remained until the democratic movement started in South Korea in the 1970s, when churches became a shelter for labor union activists and democrats seeking fairness and justice.

“If Christianity wants to spread across the world, its preaching must respect cultures and cater to the needs of local people.”

But who were these violent Christian missionaries who did not respect Korean culture and the needs of the local people?   

According to Ryu Dae-young’s article, Understanding Early American Missionaries in Korea (1884-1910): Capitalist Middle-Class Values and the Weber Thesis, they were:

….stirred restless, hard-working, success-driven, self-conscious youths of the middling sorts…Typically, middle-class youths [who] were anxious about their socio-economic status: unlike their upper-class brethren they had little to rely on but themselves, yet, unlike the lower-class people, they were filled with the desire to advance to the upper social stratum. This status anxiety made them readily embrace the ideals of personal responsibility and hard work, and missionaries as the epitome of those values. Many of the middle-class youths were also “conscience-stricken” Protestants. They were born in Bible-reading, praying homes and nurtured in Sunday schools. Then they were educated in Christian-“character”-building Protestant denominational colleges…

But if these “hard-working, success-driven, self-conscious youths” were so violent and abusive to Koreans and their culture, why would the average Joseon Korean want to join a Western religion? Ryu provides us with some of the reasons.

Koreans, like other church-goers anywhere in the world, came to the church for all sorts of reasons and motives. American missionaries’ impressive houses, comparatively luxurious life, strange clothes and appearance, among other things, attracted Korean inquirers. Many Koreans joined churches for food and money, for medicine, and for work. A very common question was: “Is there lots to eat in the Way?” or “How much do you pay me for believing in Jesus?” Some Koreans supposed the missionaries’ religion was a philosophy, fine and good, no doubt, which if adopted would bring them in touch with rich and influential foreigners, and find them speedy employment as language teachers and helpers. Some were interested in the Western education that missionary organizations offered and in the prestige that affiliation with missionaries brought. Many, knowing missionary churches were out of reach from the Korean government’s jurisdiction, also wanted to join the church to protect their property. The last two tendencies were particularly noticeable among the Korean middle class.

Well, that might have been so with the Koreans but what about the Chinese?

Missionaries returned during World War I, when China was mired in a crisis of identity as a feudal Confucian country that had prospered for more than 2,000 years and collapsed before Western powers dominated by Christian culture.

“As the Chinese people were in extremely feeble and destitute circumstances, Christian missionaries who prized open China’s doors with opium profiteers under the shield of gunpowder were often associated with scars on the national pride,” said Yan Binggang, director of the Advanced Institute for Confucian Studies of Shandong University.

In the 1800s, a massive anti-Christian campaign ran for more than half a century and climaxed with the Boxer Uprising, and Christianity was disparagingly dubbed “yang jiao” or “foreign religion.”

That also explained why the New China had dedicating itself to building a new church structures on the basis of self-administration, self-support and self-propagation, Yan said.

“The world we face is closely connected by globalization, but cultural diversity is the direction we must strive to preserve,” said Xu Jialu.

That “New China” sounds almost like it could be a state-sanctioned North Korean church….Juche and all.