[KS] KSR 2002-11: _Syncretism: The Religious Context of Christian Beginnings in Korea_, by David Chung.

Stephen Epstein Stephen.Epstein at vuw.ac.nz
Tue Aug 13 02:40:16 EDT 2002

_Syncretism: The Religious Context of Christian Beginnings in Korea_, by
David Chung. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002, 263 pages.
(ISBN 0-7914-4941-6, cloth; ISBN 0-7914-4942-4, paper).

Reviewed by Young-Chan Ro
George Mason University

[This review first appeared in _Acta Koreana_, 5.2 (2002): 135-37.  _Acta
Koreana_ is published by Academia Koreana of Keimyung University.]

This book is a belated publication of Professor David Chung's dissertation
submitted to Yale graduate school in 1959. Professor Chung was arguably the
first Korean scholar who undertook the challenging task of investigating
Christian beginnings in Korea from the perspective of the history of
religions in Korea. Unfortunately, the manuscript of Dr. Chung's
dissertation has been buried for many decades and, thus, has not been
available to the public except for a few serious researchers who have read
it in the University Microfilm International series. This book would have
made an immeasurable contribution to the study of Korean religions in
general and Korean Christianity in particular, if it had been published in
the 1950s or 1960s. Thanks are due to Dr. Kang-nam Oh, the editor of this
book, who not only encouraged Dr. Chung to publish his old manuscript but
also made the publication possible.

Dr. Chung's research in this book is based on primary and secondary sources
in various languages including French, German, and Japanese that were
available at the time. Most references used in this book are now quite old;
some may be traced back to the1910s and the1920s. Therefore, one may feel,
at first glance, that this is an outdated book. After a careful reading,
however, one will learn a great deal from it. In a way, the book itself is
a historical document showing the kind of scholarship that Dr. Chung
undertook in the 1950s to deal with complex issues involved in the areas of
the history of Korean missions, Korean church history, and the history of
Korean traditional religions. Despite a historical gap of half a century,
one cannot fail to notice that Dr. Chung was a thorough and skillful
scholar who conducted first-rate research on the subject at the time.

This book consists of eleven chapters. The first two chapters are a concise
summary of the history of the beginnings of both Catholic and Protestant
Christianity in Korea during the 18th century and 19th centuries
respectively. The author pays careful attention to the historical
background of Korean missions, both Catholic and Protestant, from the
perspective of the role of the Western missionaries in China and their
contributions to the Korean mission. He has made a convincing case to
demonstrate the uniquely Korean phenomenon that both Korean Catholics and
Protestants established churches even before the arrival of foreign
missionaries in Korea. He examines how and why Korean Christianity became
so successful from the beginning. Chapters 3 and 4 investigate the social
environment and cultural contexts of Korea before the arrival of
Christianity in Korea to ascertain the causes of the phenomenal success of
the Christian missions in Korea. Chapter 5 explains the mission strategies:
Matteo Ricci's "accommodation" and John Nevius's "Nevius Method" that had a
direct impact on the "success" of the Korean mission for both Catholicism
and Protestantism. Dr. Chung delineates his methodology in chapter 6 in
order to understand the Korean religious context that is characterized as
"syncretism." According to the author, who follows Pinard de la Boullaye's
understanding of "syncretism," there are three basic patterns of
syncretism, namely, "equivalent," "consensus," and "accidental or
historical" (p. 83). The author applies this methodology to the East Asian
context in chapter 7 to explain the various aspects of syncretism in
relation to Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism and to confirm the "three
religions are one" principle. From this perspective, Dr. Chung shows us how
Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, and shamanism have not only co-existed but
more importantly how they have interacted with each other in East Asia,
especially in traditional Korea:

"To single out a typical case among the host of bizarre practices, in [the]
Korean family, for instance, it is Confucianism [that] dresses the mourners
in sackcloth, while the Buddhist bonzes chant their sutras for the departed
to [reach] the Western Paradise, a Buddhist heavenly kingdom. It is [the]
shaman who exorcises the evil spirits that may annoy or harm the departed
on his or her journey, while Taoist geomancers engage themselves in
supervising the digging of the grave on the site that they believe to be
[the] most 'profitable' location" (p. 92).

Chapters 8, 9, and 10 constitute an examination of the relationship between
Confucianism and Christianity, Buddhism and Christianity, and Taoism and
Christianity respectively. In chapter 8, the author surveys the Christian
missionaries' view of Confucianism and their attempt at syncretism with
Christianity. In this chapter, Dr. Chung made a very useful investigation
into how the early Christian missionaries, including Matteo Ricci,
understood the three religions of China and their influence on the
direction of the Christian mission in Korea. This chapter is a careful
historical description of the Catholic and Protestant missions in East Asia
rather than a direct comparison between Confucianism and Christianity. In
the same vein, chapter 9 examines Buddhism from the perspective of
Christian missions trying to find a theistic aspect in Korean Buddhism.
Here, the author introduces an interesting example of the historical
syncretism of the theistic aspect of Korean Buddhism: "The artificial
equation of the monotheistic Korean deity _Hanžnim_ with the Hindu-Mahayana
deity Indra in the monk Iry™n's version of the Tan'gun legend is a prime
example "(p. 135). According to the author, the theistic tendency in Korean
Buddhism, especially among the lay Buddhists reflects the native Korean
belief in a supreme deity. As seen in the early Christian missionaries'
attempt to relate the Christian God to the Chinese Confucian concept of
_Shang-ti_ as the supreme deity, Korean Buddhists made a similar effort to
ascertain the supreme theistic quality of Buddha in relation to the Tan'gun
legend. The author's intention in these two chapters is clear: there is a
trace of monotheism in both Confucianism, interpreted by the early
Christian missionaries, and Buddhism as understood by Korean lay Buddhists.
This theistic trace or "latent" theism paved the way to the successful
Christian mission in Korea. This assumption is also apparent in the
author's dealing with "Taoism and Christianity" in chapter 10. Instead of
taking philosophical Taoism (_tao-chia_/_toga_), the author uses religious
Taoism (_tao-chiao_/_togyo_) to establish an avenue to investigate how the
monotheistic hierarchy of religious Taoism helped the Christian mission in
Korea. The author analyzes the Tan'gun legend in relationship to the
popular belief in _Hanžnim_ in Korea.

The author's assumption is that the traditional Korean religions and
popular belief systems are congenial to Christianity and it is this
congeniality that makes Christianity so successful in Korea. It seems that
the author's assumption may have pre-occupied his research to the extent
that the underlying theme of this book is to find "evidences" for his
assumption through his readings of the history of Korean religions. In this
respect, those who are familiar with the indigenization theology debate in
Korea in the 1960s will feel that this book would have made an enormous
contribution to that debate. In fact, this book is still a good source for
the development of Korean indigenization theology. This book, however, is
no simplistic equation of traditional Korean religions with Christianity.
On the contrary, this is a fine scholarly work with a sound and careful
examination underpinned with a history of religion approach. For this
reason, this book is not only a good summary of the history of Christian
missions in Korea, but also a concise scholarly survey of the history of
traditional Korean religions. Although some may not agree with the author's
assumption that traditional Korean popular belief was monotheistic in
relationship with the idea of _Hanžnim_, it is still important to consider
his observation as discussed in the last chapter. On a minor note, it would
have served the book better if it had used more recent translations of the
Korean documents including the Tan'gun foundation myth quoted in the

Ro, Young-Chan 2002
Review of _Syncretism: The Religious Context of Christian Beginnings in Korea_, by David Chung. (2002)
Korean Studies Review 2002, no. 11
Electronic file: http://koreaweb.ws/ks/ksr/ksr02-11.htm

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