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  • Guest Editor’s Introduction
  • Don Baker

One mark of the modern world is the growing separation of religion and the state. Though such separation is not yet universal, it is increasingly considered behind the times for a government to tell those it governs what sorts of harmless religious activities they should or should not engage in. That was not the case in pre-modern Korea. During Korea’s long Chosŏn dynasty (1392–1910), Confucianism dominated the thinking, and decisions, of government officials. In trying to determine how to act in the present, they often looked to the distant past, particularly China’s distant past, for guidance. There they found a clear statement that government had not only the authority but also the obligation to oversee, and interfere in, the ritual activities of those under its rule.

In a revered Confucian Classic written over two millennia ago, they could read the phrase “the great affairs of state are sacrifice and war.”1 This succinct statement of two fundamental tools of governance became an essential element of the political culture of pre-modern Korea, giving “sacrifice” (ritual) a political importance it did not have in the West. In the modern West, as Max Weber pointed out, a state has been understood as “a human community which successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.”2 In traditional East Asia, on the other hand, that definition must be expanded to read “a human community that successfully claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of ritual and physical force within a given territory.” We might label this state claim to a monopoly of the legitimate use of ritual within the territory it controls “ritual hegemony.”

The five articles in this special issue explore the relationship of the Confucian government of the Chosŏn dynasty with religion and ritual. They reveal how much more that government was concerned with the ritual behavior of its subjects than have been the modern governments of the Republic of Korea. These articles also show that, unless we consider how important ritual behavior was to pre-modern government officials, we will misunderstand or overlook some important developments in the history of the Chosŏn dynasty. [End Page 5]

The issue begins with my own contribution. Here I focus on how the Chosŏn government treated shamans, the ritual specialists of Korea’s folk religion. Confucian officials made clear that they did not respect shamans or their rituals, and the Chosŏn state insisted that shamans accept its ritual hegemony. However, shamans were not hunted down and killed, in sharp contrast to the way witches were treated in parts of contemporaneous Europe. Ritual hegemony meant that shamans and their rituals were regulated, not eradicated. In a sense, Korea during the Chosŏn period could be said to have enjoyed a modicum of religious freedom, at least when compared to Europe over the same period of time.

All this changed in the nineteenth century, when the Chosŏn government launched a full-scale persecution of Catholics that took the lives of thousands of Catholic believers. Why did Korea take that backward step, at the same time that Europe was moving forward into the modern world of religious freedom and separation of church and state? The reason can be found in the fact that the Catholic threat to the ritual underpinnings of state power was much greater than the threat shamans or Buddhists posed. Catholics did not merely try to evade the ritual hegemony of the state, as Buddhists and shamans had done. Korea’s Catholics openly challenged the authority of the state to control how they expressed their religiosity through ritual. Moreover, Korean Catholics had appealed to foreign powers to protect them from the consequences of their departure from centuries of Korean recognition of the ritual and religious supremacy of the government. Because Catholics were much more flagrant in their rejection of their government’s claim to ritual hegemony, they were subjected to much more serious persecution and punishment.

The next article, by Joshua Van Lieu on the Kwan Wang cult in Korea, looks at a different type of challenge to the state’s...


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