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  • Catholics and Anti-Catholicism in Chosŏn Korea by Don Baker with Franklin Rausch
  • Deberniere Torrey
Catholics and Anti-Catholicism in Chosŏn Korea. By Don Baker with Franklin Rausch, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2017, 312p.

One of the most remarkable and controversial documents from late Chosŏn was an appeal for aid written by a Catholic fugitive in 1801 during the first of several large-scale persecutions of Catholics. This letter, which ''allows us to hear the voice of a resister unfiltered by state interpretation'' (p. 101), was composed by Hwang Sayŏng on a length of silk for easy smuggling to its intended recipient, the Bishop of Beijing. Until recently, English translations of the Silk Letter were available only as excerpts or in abridged form.1 When the Academy of Korean Studies asked Don Baker to produce an authoritative English translation, Baker took the opportunity to apply his expertise on Catholicism and late Chosŏn society to the production of a volume that showcases not only this much-awaited translation, but also a discussion of the circumstances leading to the persecution of Catholics, and a translation of A Conversation on Catholicism by Ahn Chŏngbok, an intellectual leader concerned about the spread of Catholicism.2 Franklin Rausch assisted with the translations and with background research for this invaluable contribution to Korean studies and comparative philosophy and religion.

The violence aimed at Catholics in Korea for almost a century beginning in the late 1700s indicates that the rise of Catholicism was seen as a greater threat to society than any previous domestic social development in Chosŏn. Following its indigenous birth in the 1780s, the Catholic movement faced censure and the killing of a few of its lay leaders. But the full ferocity of its enemies was unleashed in 1801, when the political aims of a new regime became enmeshed with ideological opposition to Catholicism, and Catholics became the objects of a year-long series of arrests and executions that nearly decimated their leadership. During this persecution, the arrest and interrogation of Catholics was placed indirectly under the Ministry of War, ''implying that the Catholic community was a threat to national security'' (p. 96). [End Page 173]

The question of how Catholicism came to be perceived as such a threat is addressed in Part One of Catholics and Anti-Catholicism in Chosŏn Korea, where Baker offers a five-chapter analysis of the religious, social, and political factors relating to this conflict, and shows how the early years of the movement unfolded. In this, he returns to themes explored in earlier publications, expanding on them and linking them to broader contextual elements, such as the law enforcement system, factionalism, and social structure, among other subtopics. Baker's examination of these elements through the lens of the conflict with Catholicism is worth reading not only for what it reveals about the history of Catholicism in Korea, but also for the insights it offers into late Chosŏn society. For instance, in showing why King Chŏngjo was unable to stop harsh anti-Catholic rhetoric prior to his death in 1800, Baker draws attention to the unique situation of the Chosŏn kings having to deal with a Censorate that functioned to keep them accountable to Confucian protocol.

Indeed, the primary criticism of Catholicism was that its teachings threatened the foundations of Confucian morality, despite the fact that, as Baker convincingly argues, the first Korean Catholics adopted Catholicism for its potential to make them better Confucians. Although Catholicism eventually found more followers among members of the lower classes, these first converts were young scholars who felt that the Neo-Confucianism of their schooling could not help them achieve moral perfection. Instead, they found hope in Jesuit texts from China, which introduced an omniscient creator involved in human affairs. They felt that accountability to this God would help them overcome moral frailty, as would the rituals of the Church, which they adopted even before the arrival of missionaries. Readers of Baker's Korean Spirituality (Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2008), will recognize this analysis, which, in Catholics and Anti-Catholicism, is supplemented by details about the individual players...


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