- Living Dangerously in Korea: The Western Experience 1900-1950
As a son and grandson of Presbyterian missionaries who spent his formative years in Korea, Donald Clark is well-situated to tell his story: the Western missionary experience in Korea through the first half of the twentieth century. With this in mind, it first bears noting that Clark's formidable work of scholarship is both more and less than its title implies. Living Dangerously in Korea concerns itself primarily with the experiences of Western, that is, American, Protestant missionaries rather than the much more general category of Westerners in Korea. In doing so, however, Clark offers new scholarship and insights into Korea's initial fifty-year journey into the twentieth century, from the final years of the Chosŏn dynasty up to national division, but a period spent primarily under Japanese colonial occupation.
Clark sets forth early on that his approach is dual in nature—part scholarly and part personal: "While doing all the typical academic things I have wanted to pursue a more personal study—to learn what my family and the people whom we knew contributed to the story of Korea today . . . to find out how they got there, what they accomplished, what it cost them, and, at some level, whether it was worth it" (p. xi). The result is a colorful weaving of scholarly examinations of the impact of Protestant missionary work in Korea with more personal narratives of individual missionaries, including the author's own parents and grandparents.
Clark divides his study into two broad sections, Japanese-occupied Korea and postcolonial Korea. Part one proves an especially valuable look into the lives and experiences of Protestant missionaries in Korea, almost from the time of their first arrivals in the late nineteenth century. It is a captivating account made more so by Clark's superb use of primary source material in the form of letters, journals, and interviews by and of the missionaries themselves. The reader is privy to the fascinating (and often humorous) lesser details of missionary work. The early realization that proselytizing to the paekchŏng (the lowest Korean caste, composed of butchers and leatherworkers), for instance, posed special challenges to the early American missionaries unaccustomed to such strict social stratification. Other Koreans simply would not tolerate having the paekchŏng in the same congregation, and so sermonizing to them involved segregating them in an entirely separate compound. Or else the peculiar differences in the olfactory sensitivities between Koreans and Westerners. The Koreans felt the Russians smelled like weasels and the Americans like cows. "Don't you drink milk and eat butter and cheese?" the Koreans pointed out to one discomfited missionary. "Why wouldn't you smell like cows?" (p. 96).
From Clark we also get special insights into the unique beings the missionaries [End Page 131] and their kin became. Neither here nor there, with sentimental attachments both to their homeland and to their adopted home (such divided loyalties posed less of a challenge in a Korea under Japanese control than they would in a southern Korea come under American occupation following the Japanese surrender). Clark makes the interesting observation that Western missionaries in Korea became more "nationalized" than their counterparts in Japan, or indeed other areas of the world. Missionaries to Korea became deeply and sentimentally attached to their adopted homeland. The reverse was also true, as the author points out. That is, after Japanese colonial domination, Christianity came to be associated in the minds of Koreans and Japanese alike with Korean nationalism. In the later years of Japanese occupation—with the forced absence of the Western missionaries—communism would largely supplant Christianity as the ideological vehicle of nationalist sentiment, as Christian leaders in Korea became associated more and more with the euphemistic "cultural nationalism." This stark reality would pose special challenges in 1946, when the largely American missionaries returning to Korea found themselves playing the dual roles, whether they liked it or not, of Christian proselytizers and occupiers.