Korea and Its Literature as a World of Religious Pluralism

  • onDecember 21, 2017
  • Vol.38 Winter 2017
  • byBang Min-Ho

For those who think of the West as the land of Catholicism and Christianity, the Arab world as the Islamic sphere, and East Asia as a region of Buddhism, South Korea might seem like a very strange country. In South Korea, there is a Catholic church in every diocese in the country, the cities are filled with countless Protestant churches, and Buddhist temples dot the mountainsides. In the capital city of Seoul, there is also a central mosque.

If you consider how small the Christian population is in China, and that Japan is almost completely made up of Buddhists and followers of Shinto, the religious pluralism of South Korea seems very peculiar. Korean people are very receptive to new beliefs and enjoy making different belief systems from the outside world their own. In the long process of such religious adaption, a very special social tendency has come about whereby believers of different religions live side by side without conflict or confrontation. This kind of religious pluralism, however, was not achieved overnight.

Located in the northeast of Asia and geographically connected to Siberia, the Korean peninsula is considered to have been traditionally under shamanism’s sphere of influence. Shamanism is a religious consciousness that believes that the living are deeply connected to the dead, especially their ancestors. Even after people end their life in this world, they lead a new life in a spirit form, and continue to influence the world of the living. It is the shaman, or spirit medium, who enables the living and the dead to communicate. It appears that in ancient times shamanism was the only religion in existence on the Korean peninsula, and it is said that while Korean people each believe in their own different religion, it is a shamanist way of thinking that underlies all their religious practices and beliefs even today.

Around 1,600 to 1,700 years ago, during the Three Kingdoms Period of Goguryeo, Baekje, and Silla, Buddhism and Confucianism were introduced to the peninsula from India and China. Throughout the dynasties of the Unified Silla, Goryeo, and Joseon kingdoms, shamanism, Buddhism, and Confucianism continued to compete for dominance in Korean society. It was the introduction of the Catholic Church that finally brought about a massive change in this traditional order of religions.

From around the time of the Japanese Imjin Invasion of Korea (1592-1598) to when Yi Seung-hun traveled to Beijing and was baptized there as a Catholic (1784), a small number of Koreans remained in secret contact with the Catholic Church. Around 1800, the number of Catholic believers in Joseon Korea increased rapidly and they faced severe persecution. A new era then began in 1885, when Methodist and Presbyterian priests visited Korea. Christianity was understood to be a part of Seohak (“Western Learning”) and served as a symbol of the new civilization coming in from the West. The introduction of this new Western religion also brought about an awakening for the need for reform in traditional religions, resulting in the founding of Donghak (“Eastern Learning”) by Choe Je-u in 1860. Today, Donghak is synonymous with Cheondogyo (the Church of the Heavenly Way), a new amalgamation of Confucian, Buddhist, and Taoist principles. Cheondogyo is an interesting modern religion particular to Korea, which states that people are the embodiment of heaven, that all of creation—mountains, streams, plants and grass, men and women, the old and young—are all equal and manifestations of the true form of the universe called “Haneul.”

In this period, in addition to the traditional religious consciousness, Korea became home to modern reformist religions and to new religions from the West, and they all coexisted. This complex mix became even more pronounced during the years in which national sovereignty was lost to Japan (1910-1945). Gaining new independence at the end of the Pacific War, there was a steady growth in Christianity in South Korea given the unprecedented influence of the Western world, and, in particular, America. However, the influence of shamanism, Buddhism, and Confucianism remained deeply rooted in the Korean people and landscape.

The novels and poetry of modern Korea express the religious experiences of Korean society with great insight and intimacy. Indeed, most Korean poets will have a close relationship with more than one of the many religions prevalent in Korea. Even in the works of writers who don’t ostensibly display their religious consciousness, there are instances where, if you look into what lays behind the story, you can find an undercurrent of profound religious thought. It can be said then that modern Korean literature expresses religious pluralism in all its complexity. On the other hand, there are also a large number of literary works that depict soul searching, and express criticism and skepticism of such religious beliefs. The most problematic works symbolically recreate the intense growing pains that Korean society went through in its journey toward modern and contemporary times, brought about by conflict and antagonism between the traditional religions and the new and exotic.

The short story “The Shaman Painting” is a very apt example. Written by Kim Tong-ni, who was born and raised in Gyeongju, the capital of the Silla kingdom, the story portrays the clash between shamanism and Christianity. Woogi, the son of a female shaman named Mohwa, leaves home and comes back having become an evangelical Christian. Mohwa’s family, which includes her mute daughter Nangi, serves as a microcosm for the religious conflict and antagonism that took place in Korean society. In this instance, the conflict results in the death of the son, and later, the death of Mohwa as well. Here, Kim indicates his expectation that the concept of shamanism including its traditional gut ritual, which came down through the ages, will survive into the modern world. Though Mohwa dies at the very end of the story, her death carries the meaning of a sacrificial rite, the victory of the soul.

Buddhism is one of the oldest religions in Korea and teaches that by deconstructing the idea of “I,” the ego, one can arrive at genuine self-salvation. This idea has influenced the inner worlds of many modern novelists and poets. In poet and Buddhist monk Cho Oh-hyun’s Zen poem, “Distant Holy Man,” the speaker expresses the fundamental meaninglessness of life through the image of “gnats,” tiny beings that live only brief lives. Through paradoxical language that elevates these tiny beings to the position of holy men possessing greatness, this Buddhist monk poet seeks to convey the world of Buddhist truth to which he has dedicated his life. The poet Moon Taejun is representative of a relatively younger group of Buddhist poets. In his poem “Naked Foot,” he likens the image of a butter clam seen in a fishmonger’s stall to the Buddha. The clam flesh protruding from the shell harks back to the story of how, when the disciple Kaśyapa came from a great distance to see the Buddha who had already passed away and reached nirvana, the Buddha’s feet stuck out of his coffin to greet his friend. The poem alludes to the fact that all people have the potential to arrive at a state of profound self-reflection if they can perceive the sanctity of the butter clam.

Kim Seong-Dong’s novel Mandala is a controversial work which dramatizes the anguish of youth spent struggling alone to reach Buddhist enlightenment. The mandala of the title refers to an image which represents the stages to be passed before reaching enlightenment in an esoteric sect of Buddhism. The novel depicts the struggle of a young Buddhist monk named Beobun. Having grown up surrounded by darkness after his father’s death in a massacre during the Korean War, Beobun struggles to free himself from the torment of life. In traditional Seon (Zen) Buddhism of Korea, practitioners pose paradoxical or puzzling questions for themselves called hwadu as a means of attaining enlightenment. In the excerpt here, the “bird in a bottle” is exactly that. Beobun seeks the true nature of existence, and hence, enlightenment, through the question, “How can you extract a bird from a bottle?” The question has its origins in a Buddhist fable. In the novel, while mourning the death of a Buddhist monk named Jisan, who died after violating the Buddhist commandments, the protagonist Beobun achieves a new realization regarding the hwadu he set for himself.

The influence that Christianity had on modern Koreans was as strong as the religion was new, and in Korean literature, not only did writers embrace it from various angles, but they also made the nature of Christianity an object of deep introspection. In Yun Dong-ju’s “The Cross” and Kim Hyunseung’s “Autumn Prayer,” the way in which these poets sought to defend their lives purely and beautifully through the form of Christian contemplation and reflection is vividly apparent. Yun Dong-ju was a poet who was killed by a medical experiment carried out on him while held prisoner in Fukuoka, Japan, having been branded a nationalist at the end of the Pacific War; Kim Hyunseung was a poet who created a distinctive religious literary world, having studied at a traditional Christian school. The Christian poems of these two poets can be seen as the product of the will to conquer the tumultuous modern history of Korea by means of the Christian concept of salvation.

The reflection on Christianity found in the works of contemporary writers tends to sharply express the contradictions and conflicts created in the space between Christian ideals and the ethics of real lives. Yi Chong-Jun’s “The Abject” is a controversial work which questions such things as the authority, value, and limitations of religion through the agony brought about by the death of a child at the hands of a kidnapper. The work brings to the forefront a strong challenge to the rationale of Christian salvation, and was later made into the film Secret Sunshine by director Lee Chang-dong. In the excerpt included here, the child’s mother cannot bear the idea that the kidnapper, Kim Do-seop, has attained peace in the arms of a forgiving God, and so decides to end her own life. Lee Kiho’s satirical short story “Choi Sun-dok, Filled with the Holy Spirit” depicts the limitations of the Christian way of interpreting Korean society through the naive inner workings of the character Choi Sun-dok’s mind when faced with a serial flasher. Borrowing the narrative composition and style of the Bible, this short story captures the irrationality of Korean society with razor-sharp insight.

Religion is something which lies at the core of every country, every society, and every cultural tradition. Each of the city states of ancient Greece had their own gods, and the freemen of each city state were able to confirm their status and membership as citizens to a particular state by presiding over worship ceremonies for their gods. Instead of the classical sense of a divine “one and only,” or of an exclusive religious “purity,” modern Korean society took the path of religious pluralism and syncretism. In Korean literature, the complex composition of this social environment and mind-set have been addressed, and many works continue to deeply explore this phenomena. Korean literature has a tradition of various forms of religious literature that express religious awareness and introspection, and through literature, constant attempts are being made to examine modern life on a more fundamental level. 


by Bang Min-Ho
Literary Critic
Professor of Korean Literature
Seoul National University

Art by Yeesookyung
Polaris, 2012.