Thursday, January 18, 2007

Jesus Loves Koreans

Dear Korean,

Why are Koreans so devoutly Christian, more so than other Asian cultures? Just about every Christian club on my university campus is run by Korean students. Did Korea have a lot of missionaries in the past?

Curious Chinese Chick

Dear CCC,

The first thing that the Korean thought was that maybe CCC was a play on word for CCCP, Chinese Central Communist Party. Remember readers, clever pen name gets a bonus point from the Korean!

Onto the question. Like always, there are two sides we must look at: Koreans in Korea and Korean Americans. Let's look at Koreans in Korea first.

Although it may not seem that way, the history of Christianity in Korea is over 200 years. The first Catholic church in Korea was set up in 1784, and the first Protestant church in Korea was established in 1866. Protestant missionaries were quite influential in 19th century Korea, setting up schools and hospitals that would later become the premier institutions of the country. (For example, Yonsei and Ewha Universities, as well as Yonsei Severance Hospital.)

Christianity began on the same path with respect to East Asian countries (Korea, China, Japan), but the result was quite different for each country because of their particular histories. China, obviously, was communized, and communists don't care for religions. (Karl Marx said religion was opium of the people; CCCP must not have read that passage all that carefully, since Chinese people love opium. They fought a war for it!) Christianity reached Japan much earlier, but it was always seen as a foreign religion, and not too many people caught on. When Japanese nationalism was on the rise, all things foreign were vigorously persecuted, including Christians. (One of Japan's famous treasure-hunting stories involve the hidden treasures, like golden crosses and holy paintings, of kakure kirishitan, the hidden Christians.)

But after an initial period of persecution, Korean Christians did not really have any impediments to proselytizing. It also helped that in the early days, Christian missionaries were not simply the bringers of a new religion, but the bringers of new modernity as well. Many of them brought books on modern science such as astronomy, mathematics or medicine. American missionary Horatio Allen served as the doctor for the Emperor Gojong, for example. In other words, Christianity was associated with cutting-edge technology, which made it even more popular among Koreans.

As a result, currently roughly 4 percent (very rough guess, since no one knows for sure) of Chinese are Christians. About 1 percent of Japanese are Christians. Koreans? Whopping 25 percent, with roughly 16.5 percent Protestants and 8.5 percent Catholics.

But Korean Americans add onto this already (relatively) high ratio, for many reasons.

First, one criterion for being allowed to immigrate is if you're a refugee for political, religious, or other reasons. During the 1960s (which was when Korean immigration to America began in earnest), when Korea was under military dictatorship, many Korean Christians were involved in Christian Socialism, which called for the end of exploiting workers and a democratic government. The Korean government obviously did not take these folks too kindly, and a good number of Christians fled to America and set up churches here.

(-EDIT: 1/20/07- The above explanation is not really accurate, so here is an addendum. Under immigration law, there is a separate category for religious workers to immigrate. The category is under a quota, but it certainly puts religious workers at an advantage to immigrate to America than, say, a doctor. As the Korean said above, there were already many pastors and priests in Korea, so plenty of them immigrated under the "religious worker" category. Once they were here, they set up churches. The Christian Socialism movement certainly existed, but the number of Christian Socialists immigrating to the U.S. was a pittance compared to regular pastors and priests.)

Second, another criterion for being allowed to immigrate is if you have a family member in the U.S. In other words, once a certain number of Koreans were here, the next wave of Korean immigrants were the family members of the first group. More Christians!

Third (and probably the most important reason), since churches became where Koreans congregate, even non-Christian Koreans had to be involved with a church somehow, or they would not know any other Korean. Remember that immigrant life is full of hazard; even the most ordinary problem could be insolvable for an immigrant. Korean churches, in effect, became Korean community centers, which helped recent immigrants deal with those problems. This function of Korean churches is going very strong, and it puts Korean immigrants who are Christians at a distinctive advantage.

For example, one day (about a year into the Korean Family's life in America,) the Korean's house flooded because the toilet backed up, and the carpet got completely wet. The Korean Mother spoke about this at her church, and a church member who was a carpet cleaner brought the proper equipment to get the water out. That was the first time the Korean Family ever had to deal with this kind of problem. (Being from Korea, the Korean Family always had hardwood floors.) If the Korean Mother did not go to church, the Korean Family would have been sitting on wet carpet for days, since no one in the Korean Family ever even heard of such a machine that cleans out water from carpet.

Fourth, remember that thing about Korean Americans out-white-ing white people that the Korean always talks about? Here is another example of that. Like it or not, there are a ton of Christians in America. If you are a minority living in a racist society, being able to say "I believe in the same god as you" to the majority race is a huge advantage.

(Disclaimer: The Korean believes that, on a relative scale, America is actually the least racist country in the world. The reason why the Korean thinks so will take up another entry, so the Korean won't get into it now unless there is a question about it. But on an absolute scale, American society is still pretty racist.)

This wave of Korean Christians is even stronger on the second generation, because these are the kids who began going to church when they were young. Tobacco companies had the right idea all along - you gotta get'em when they're young. So there you have it, Communist Chinese Chica.


  1. Although you don't need to go into "christian socialists" or whatnot, there is something to be said in that vein. My understanding is that there was an effect in Korea that is somewhat comparable to what happened in the early Civil Rights movement here in the U.S.

    In the U.S., because churches were the only place that Black people were allowed to congregate, they became the organization centers when people began fighting more openly for their rights. Likewise, christian churches in Korea had a little more freedom and protection from the government (harder to call them DPRK sympathizers), so people fighting against the dictatorship were drawn to churches and also ended up with more reason to emigrate to the U.S.

  2. What you said is correct, but the Korean thinks it's important not to overemphasize the role of the church in Korea's democratization. Christian churches definitely played a role, at times a significant role (Myongdong Cathedral in particular) in the democratization movement. But comparing its role to the role of Christianity in Civil Rights Movement is an overstatement. Much of CRM's leadership as well as rhetoric was provided by Christianity, easily dwarfing the role of Christian churches in the democratization of Korea

  3. You forgot something. Actually, it's a pretty important detail. There are similarities between Christianity and certain Korean shamanistic myths. Korean shamanism shares interesting similarities with the Christian world view. The first is obviously the believe in one primary divine being. For Korean shamans it was Tangun and for Christians it is God. You know the Korean word for the Christian God, "hananim?" Well, it was the same title given to Tangun.

    There is a lot more to this also, particularly how shamanism affected Korea's particular *style* of Christianity (i.e. such as a emphasis on prayer for material well being as well as morning prayer, etc.). This article does a good job at going through the general background.

  4. Edward,

    It is an interesting point, but the Korean thinks it is ultimately unimportant for the purpose of this post.

    Your point is that 1. the existence of Shamanism in Korea helped the transplant of Christianity, and 2. the form of Shamanism in Korea helped the transplant of Christianity. The Korean thinks point no. 1 is too obvious, and point no. 2 is incorrect. Explanation is below:

    About point no. 1: The way the Korean understood the question was -- What is it about Korean history/culture that turned many Koreans into Christians? In other words, the question focuses on what is unique about the interaction between Korea and Christianity.

    And there is nothing unique about the spread of Christianity by merging with local religion. Why was Jesus born around winter solstice and died around summer solstice? It is a sign of the marriage between early Christianity and European paganism. In fact nearly all successful spread of Christianity required some level of grafting with the local religion.

    So for example, suppose the question was "Why are Dodgers good at baseball?" (Bear with my homerism.) The proper answer would revolve around the strength of their pitching, batting, and fielding. But it would be silly to answer, "Because they play with bats." The fact that Dodgers play with bats is absolutely critical, but it contributes nothing towards explaining the strength of the team.

    About point no. 2: The Korean would actually argue the exact opposite -- that Korean shamanism involves numerous demigods, which facilitated the spread of Christianity.

    Nowhere in Korean spirituality does "hananim" appear in a singular, personified form like the Christian God. Hananim never had any voice or physical form; it was close to the generic understanding of "fate" or "destiny".

    Rather, Korean spirituality involved numerous supernatural entities and god-like figures. After all, the reason why Koreans hold memorial service for all of their ancestors is because they believe that their ancestors would protect them in spirit. In addition, Korean folk stories are rife with spirits of the lake, heavenly maidens, mischievous monsters, virgin ghosts, etc.

    This was in fact very much in harmony with Catholicism, which had numerous saints for every place and every occasion. In fact, Catholicism is precisely the result of early Christianity's merger with European paganism, which also features numerous supernatural spirits. It is little surprise that Catholics were the first and the oldest Korean Christians.

  5. I know this is an old post, but I was still shocked to see this line in here:

    "Chinese people love opium. They fought a war for it!"

  6. This was an enlightening post about all the religious Koreans I see at my college campus, but I am also disappointed by how you write about Chinese people.

    You are completely wrong about Chinese people loving opium and fighting a war for it. Opium was introduced by the British in order to force the Chinese to trade their silk, tea, and china. Before that, the Chinese had no need for foreign goods. The war was to get rid of the British influence and to stop them from corrupting people.

    I am also disappointed in how you blatantly assume the this Chinese girl subtlety refers to communism or that she is communist at all. I think that most people would just see this at an attempt of alliteration rather than implying communist connections. Your actions clearly show that of a typical South Korean who hates communism and Chinese.

  7. Like Victor said, this is really enlightening. It's nice to finally read a well written answer to a fairly common question that's posed to anyone of Korean descent.

    People always ask me questions about Koreans and why do they do this and why do they do that and blahblahblah... from here on out I'm just going to refer them to your blog!

  8. I think it's worth noting that Korea is the only East Asian country to receive Christianity without missionaries. That it was a Korean scholar visiting Peking that brought Christian texts back to Korea well before any missionaries came to the country.


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