In the early 1600s, a Korean diplomat, Yi Gwang-jeong, returned from China with several theological books written by the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci – the first Western literature to arrive in Korea. These books were a sensation among Confucian scholars and stirred up thinking among them, including a few who formed a movement called Silhak (practical learning). Into the 1700s they were advocating more empiricism in the formation of ideas and less of the metaphysics, formalism and rituals of the reigning old guard Confucian scholars. They favored a study of science and favored a move away from the traditional Confucian belief in hierarchy and submissiveness.
Silhak scholars also tended to favor land reforms as relief for common people – poor farmers. They were more nationalistic, against the old guard's submissive attitude toward China, the fatherland of Confucianism. And among these rebel scholars was some sympathy toward Christianity for what they viewed as its egalitarian values – as in all people being equal before God and in Christ.
Largely as a result of the influence of the Silhak school, Christianity in Korea began as an indigenous lay movement. The first Catholic prayer-house was founded in 1784 at Pyongyang by Yi Sung-hun, a diplomat who had been baptized in Beijing. Yi established a hierarchy of lay priests, and the movement gathered converts.
Trouble arose in the 1800s with fears of foreign intrusions. Korean authorities viewed with distaste and fear Britain defeating China in the First Opium War in 1842. In 1846 the French sailed to Korea to order the release of a 25-year-old imprisoned Korean Catholic priest, André Kim. The monarchy had Kim beheaded for practicing what it called a foreign religion. Persecution increased in 1866 when Russia tried to expand into Korean territory, and France that same year appeared off the Korean coast with a fleet of ships. French missionaries were in the country illegally, and Korean authorities had them massacred. And there was the usual blurring of lines between groups, the authorities having Korean Christians butchered also – but not enough to kill the movement entirely.
In 1863, a child inherited the throne: Gojong, the twenty-sixth king of the Joseon Dynasty. His father, Heungseon Daewon-gun, ruled for him as regent until Gojong reached adulthood. And during the mid-1860s Daewon-gun was the main proponent of isolationism and the instrument of the persecution of native and foreign Catholics. France sent a punitive expedition in retaliation for the earlier Korean execution of several French Catholic missionaries. France's navy battled the Koreans for six weeks in October and November 1866 at Ganghwa Island, barely an island, a little north of Inchon harbor near Seoul. The French had one battleship, two cruisers and two gunboats. Three Frenchmen were killed and 35 wounded. The Koreans are said to have suffered hundreds of casualties. The French ships returned to Japan, their commander hoping their action would have a dissuasive effect on the Korean government.
In 1871, sent a naval force to Korea to support an American diplomatic delegation that wanted to establish trade and political relations with Korea, to ascertain the fate of the merchant ship General Sherman, and to establish a treaty assuring aid for shipwrecked sailors. Korean shore batteries shelled two of the US n warships on 1 June, and the US Navy responded launched an attack on Korea ten days later, after having failed to receive an official apology from the Koreans. a punitive expedition was launched 10 days later after the commanding American admiral failed to receive an official apology from the Koreans. About 650 Americans landed and captured several forts, killing over 200 Korean military men with a loss of three American dead. The US had failed to achieve its diplomatic objectives and withdrew.
The US action led Daewon-gun to strengthen his policy of isolation and to issue a proclamation against appeasing foreigners. In 1873, Gojong announced his assumption of direct royal rule. Daewon-gun retired (at 53) and Gojong's consort, Queen Min (later Empress Myeongseong), gained control over the court and placed her family members in high court positions.
In 1876, Korea established a trade treaty with Japan after Japanese ships approached Ganghwado and threatened to fire on Seoul. Treaties with European countries and the US soon followed. In 1882, Korea's government saw advantages in establishing treaties, and it negotiated a treaty with the United States, a treaty of mutual friendship and defense in case of attack. The US accepted Korean immigration and Korea gave the US extraterritorial rights for American citizens in Korea, and the Koreans promised not to interfere with Christian missionaries proselytizing in Korea.
In 1883 Protestant missionaries arrived. They established a network of schools. John Ross, a Scottish Presbyterian missionary in Manchuria, completed his translation of the Bible into Korean. The Presbyterian school for boys was founded in 1885, and a Methodist Ewha school for girls was founded the following year. This led to a rapid increase in the number of Protestants among the Koreans.
The Protestants contributed to an increase in literacy among the Koreans, and the Protestants saw themselves as bringing new values to Korea. Christians favored the social emancipation of women and children. Christians favored allowing widows to remarry. Christians were opposed to concubinage and polygamy, and forbade cruelty by husbands to their wives. Christians opposed arranged child marriages and also opposed the prevailing view that daughters were lesser persons than sons.
In 1894, Korean conservatives rebelled against what they viewed as alien influences and the abandonment of the Chinese classics and Confucian rites. They joined the Dong Hak Rebellion, also called the Peasant War (Nongmin Jeonjaeng). The rebels raided government offices, peasants killed rich landlords, and there were attacks of traders and foreigners. The defeat of the Dong Hak rebels drove ardent Neo-Confucians out of the cities and into the rural and isolated areas of the country. China and Japan were drawn into the conflict, resulting in the eight-month First Sino-Japanese War, which ended in April 1895 with a victory by the one with the most industrialized and most modern military: Japan.
The war ended much of Chinese influence in Korea. Korea announced its independence from China and proclaimed itself the Korean Empire. Japanese-sponsored reforms of 1894-1896 transformed Korea:. Writes Wikipedia: "legal slavery was abolished in all forms; the yangban class lost all special privileges; outcasts were abolished; legal and social equality were established; child marriage was abolished; Hangul script was to be used in government documents; Korean history was introduced in schools; the Ming calendar was replaced with the western (common era); education was expanded and new textbooks written."
The Empress Myeongseong, also known as Queen Min, the first wife of King Gojong, age 43, favored stronger ties with Russia in an attempt to block Japanese influence. The Japanese saw the former king, Gojong's retired father, Daewong-gun, now in his mid-seventies, as more sympathetic to their interests. It is reported that that the Japanese found him willing to lead a coup and cooperated with them. A Japanese regiment attacked the royal palace. They killed three women suspected of being the queen. One of them was. The assassination raised anti-Japanese sentiments, and some Koreans created the Eulmi righteous army and set up protests nationwide. King Gojong and his son, the crown prince fled to the Russian legation in Seoul, from which they governed for about one year. In 1897, King Gojong was able to return to the royal palace, modern-day Deoksugung, and there he proclaimed Korea's independence and creation of the Korean Empire – which was to last to 1910. What happened with his father, Daewong-gun is unclear, except that he is said to died in 1898.
In Korea, Buddhism prevailed, as did some shamanism. By 1900, of Korea's 10 million inhabitants 40,000 are said to have been Christians, with the Protestants at least a little more numerous than the Catholics, and in 1900 Russian missionaries introduced Orthodoxy into Korea and gained a small number of converts.
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