Foreign Perspectives of Joseon Religion and Women

from 1876 to 1905


Shin Hijung

advisor  Ganse



I. Introduction

1.Purpose of Study

They say there are three ways to define oneselfthe one I think I am, the one others think I am and the one I think others would think I am, and the three definitions do not necessarily agree. The same applies for one's country. Foreigners may have a point of view about a nation that is different from that of its citizens. This study attempted to gain a more complete view of the history of Korea by comparing and contrasting the image of Joseon held by foreigners who have visited and written about the country during its opening years (from 1876 to 1905), with the Korean interpretation of the society at that time.

1876 is the year when Joseon was forced to open up by signing the Treaty of Kanghwa with Japan. Since then, the rivalry over Joseon between aggressive colonial powers resulted in rapid foreign encroachment on the country's internal affairs. In the course of these events more foreigners visited Joseon than any other period in its history and left detailed records of their observations.

1905, the year when Japan assumed administration over Joseon, is also the year when Kyungbu-sun was established in Joseon, connecting Seoul and Busan. The opening of the railroad made it much easier to travel across the country than before, when people had to ride on horsebacks or simply walk. Ironically, however, it brought down the quality of the travelogues, as many foreigners started to experience the country only through the train window.

Religion and women were two aspects that allowed Westerners, many of whom came from a Christian society, to view Joseon from a different standpoint. Foreign perspectives of Joseon, regarding its religion and women, at the time period 1876 to 1905 hold both prejudice and objectivity, which can lead us to a better understanding of Korean history and Korea itself.


2.Sociopolitical Circumstances of Joseon from 1876 to 1905

 In the later half of the nineteenth century, foreign attempt to open up the closed gate of the Hermit Kingdom, Joseon, reached its peak. Joseon, however, was a country that resolutely shut itself off from the outside world. Events such as the General Sherman incident in 1866, and a failed attempt at illegal excavation of the royal tomb by a German merchant Oppert (1868), further contributed to the nation's bitterness towards foreigners and led the regent of Joseon, Tai Won Gun, to declare a policy of national seclusion. Thus, in 1871, he had tablets erected throughout the country, calling on the people to drive out the foreigners:


"The barbarians beyond the sea have violated our waters, and invaded our land. If we do not fight we must make treaties with them. Those who are in favor of making a treaty, sell their country. Let this be a warning to ten thousand generations"(translation from The Tragedy of Korea, 1908).


Despite her indomitable will, Joseon could not hold on to its lock against the current of the times for long. In February 27th 1876, Joseon made a treaty with Japan by which three ports in Joseon were opened for trade, thus signaling the opening era of Joseon.

As Joseon could no longer ignore the foreign interference in domestic affairs, the period following 1876 until 1905, when Japan assumed administration over Joseon, was characterized by civil unrest and political upheaval. Confronted by a whole new world, the "Hermit Nation" swayed between two strongly held opinions, one advocating the repulsion of the potentially disruptive foreign intrusion, and the other calling for domestic reform. But, before Joseon could take any significant step towards modernization, it was occupied and overwhelmed by ambitious foreigners.


II. Religion

The Want of a Religion

 "Nothing to show that religion has any hold on the popular mind, constitute a singular Korean characteristic" (Isabella Bird Bishop, Korea and Her Neighbours, 1897).


"There is not a single religious building in the whole of Soul, nor is any priest ever allowed to set foot within the city's gates; and what is true of Soul is true of every walled city of the land (Percival Lowell, Choson: The Land of the Morning Calm, 1886).


 One of the striking features of Joseon that puzzled the foreigners entering Seoul was its total absence of religious signs. This aspect of Joseon's religious culture is mentioned in many sources as "non-religion" or "irreligion." Within the whole city of Seoul there was no evidence of temples of any kind, not to mention monks or priests. Only a few tore down shrines stood by the wayside and that without any trace of worship.

This may well be understood; the Joseon administration adopted a policy of promoting Confucianism while oppressing Buddhism, the most dominant religion until then. The systematic oppression led by the government brought about a significant decrease in the size of the Buddhist order. By the sixteenth century, the Buddhist order ceased to exist in the institutional system and Buddhist monks and nuns were literally chased into the mountains, forbidden to enter the capital.


Depraved Spirit of Buddhism

Tourists who have visited the surviving Buddhist temples in the far off mountains described even those few remaining Buddhist orders as corrupt and doubtful. The following is an account of Buddhist monks from Gilmore's Corea of To-day (1894).


"Men with shaved heads longing about, doing nothing that looks at all like either military or religious duty, except that a number may be found at a dingy temple, in which are disreputable images, before which attendants mumble or chant prayers unintelligible even to themselves. Diligent inquiry would show that these monks are not such upon deep conviction and from religious principle, but that the rice given from the pubic stores suffices to make this mode of life attractive to them."


It appears to be that the monks had a poor reputation among foreigners for their deceptive practices and weak conviction. Savage Landor, an English tourist, even went as far as to say, "[Bonzes] are a very depraved lot, body of men, shrewd, it is true, yet wicked and entirely without conscience, whose only aim is to make money at the expense of weak-minded believers" (quoted from Corea or Cho-sen: The Land of the Morning Calm, 1985).

 Yet, the extent to which these claims are reliable is debatable. Many of the accounts on the rapacity and indifference of the monks seem to have been taken from another persons' report, rather than from one's own acquaintance. A few unfavorable reports, including anecdotes from personal experiences, may have been spread out and overstated to bring charges of gross atrocity against the monks. Angus Hamilton also expressed his doubt about these criticisms: "I confess myself sorely puzzled to discover any substratum of truth in the charges of gross profligacy and irreverence which the agent of an American Missionary Society brings against the monasteries of the Keum-kang-san" (quoted from Korea, 1904).

 Hamilton offers a neutral viewpoint by presenting conflicting incidents from his visit to two of the monasteries, each in different part of the Keum-kang-san.


"Shin-ki-sa is a small monastery. Perhaps its temples have never been comparable with the shrines of Yu-chom-sa in grace and beauty. [] One looks for vain for the courtly dignity of the aged Abbot of Yu-chom-sa, whose humanitarian spirit was so impressive. The principles of consideration, politeness, and devotion that govern his conduct are sadly lacking in the Abbot, the priests, and monks attached to Shin-ki-sa."


 As for the claim that monks have only a shallow knowledge about the Buddhist principles, and mumble prayers unintelligible even to themselves, it may be attributed to several reasons. In terms of official structure, Joseon Buddhism, which had started off under the so-called "five doctrinal and two meditational" schools system of the Goryeo, was eventually condensed down to a single school of Seon(). Thus, while keeping much of the common earlier characteristics, the Buddhism of the late Joseon had to come up with occasional new interpretations of methodology and practices unlike that seen in some Japanese or Chinese Zen tradition. In such a condition, diligent inquiry may have led to miscommunication between the questioner and the respondent.

 It is also possible that the strictly religious services of the early Buddhist ritual gradually secularized with the pass of time, first into solemn chanted renderings of historical music, then eventually into liturgies incomprehensible to even the monks themselves.

Then again, the Joseon administration's strongly held demands for the expulsion of Buddhism and following oppressive policies made it difficult for the monks and priests to commit themselves to meditation and self discipline. In fact, there was a significant decrease in the number of Buddhist literature published by monks or priests compared to the Goryeo period.


Upper Confucianism, Lower Daemonism

Most of the sources commenting on the culture of Joseon refer to three religions Buddhism, Confucianism and Shamanism (or Daemonism) as the prevailing beliefs. Among these, Confucianism stands out as the belief which had a profound influence on the admirable practices of Joseon.


"The main point in the religion of the educated Korean, as of the Chinese, is ancestor worship, and in the courtyard of every large house, where are the tablets of two or three generations" (Emily Georgiana Kemp, The Face of Manchuria, Korea, and Russian Turkestan, 1910).


"One of the best features of Confucianism is the inculcation of respect towards parents and old people, in which respect both monks and nuns do a deal of good ; though, otherwise, I think the country might advantageously be without these institutions" (Savage Landor, Corea or Cho-sen: The Land of the Morning Calm, 1985).


Nonetheless, considering its firm establishment as the political ideology of Joseon, and the many centuries in which it penetrated deeply into the lives of each family, foreign account on the Confucianism of Joseon takes only a small part of the subject. As Landor correctly pointed out in the passage quoted above, Confucianism, despite its moral lessons, lacked practical applications (or at least it seemed so to the foreigners). What the moral guidance and strict laws of Confucianism could not provide, ordinary people sought from Shamanism or Daemonism. The counselor and foreign secretary to the Korean Special Mission to the United States, Lowell, put this by saying, "morality of Confucius for the upper classes, remains of older superstition for the lower" (quoted from Choson: The Land of the Morning Calm, 1886).

Indeed, what roused the curiosity of the tourists most was neither the corrupt Buddhism nor the aristocratic Confucianism, but the widespread practices of Demon worship, as they called it. Foreigners investigated into Daemonism, which had immense power over the people of Joseon, with great interest; they took much effort to write about the legions of spirits and the mu-tang's performances in full detail. At the same time, however, they regarded Daemonism as primitive or superstitious, refusing to accept it as a serious religion, and sometimes even declared the practice injurious or immoral. The following passage is Landor's view of the mu-tang, female shamans.


"[Mu-tangs] are generally people well-informed on the state, condition, and doings of everybody. Acting on this previous knowledge, they can often tell your past to perfection, and in many cases they predict future events-which their judgment informs them are not unlikely to occur. When ignorant, they work pretty much on the same lines as the Oracle of Delphi; they give an answer that may be taken as you please. Then, if things do not occur in the way they predicted, they simply make it an excuse for extorting more money out of their victim under the plea that he has incurred the displeasure of the spirits, and that serious evil will come upon him if he does not comply with their request" (Corea or Cho-sen: The Land of the Morning Calm, 1985).


Contrary to the first impression of Joseon, which was characterized by its want of religion, now, the country seemed to be over-possessed with spirits;


"The very wind itself is supposed to be the breathing of a god-spirit with extra powerful lungs; and rain, lightning, war, thirst, food and so on, each possesses a special deity, who, if not invoked at the right moment, and in the right manner, may, when least expected, have his revenge against you" (Corea or Cho-sen: The Land of the Morning Calm, 1985).


A notable thing about this Demon worship is that, in spite of its omnipresence, or rather, because of its omnipresence, there was no orderly arrangement about it. In other words, something that could rightfully be called "religious doctrines" was missing. Truly, the people of Joseon were quite sure that daemons dwelled in all matter and pervaded all space. When sick, the poor half starved themselves to pay for their exorcisms. Even the queen, who was officially committed to Confucianism, occasionally resorted to shamans in order to anticipate what was to come. The legions of daemons, however, existed, as Bishop put it, as "a horde without organization, destitute of genus, species, and classification" (Korea and Her Neighbours, 1897). There was no single word for Daemonism. Buddhism was referred to as Pulto(佛道), Confucianism as Yuto(儒道), and Taoism as Sundo(仙道), but the termination To(), which stands for "doctrine" had not been affixed to Damenoism.

 Perhaps, this lack of systematic order is natural in the Oriental way of thinking. Whereas Western thinking understands reality as a sequence of static moments, East Asian thinking envisions reality as a constant flow. The Joseon people considered reality in a synthetic way; spirits, or daemons were perceived intuitively. Thus, there was little or no attempt at their arrangement. But, to the westerners, who were used to the dialectic process of analysis, Joseon Daemonism did not seem to be logical and rational. From the point of view of the Western mind, daemons, created out of Korean fancy, debased Buddhism, and Chinese mythical legend, laid a heavy yoke upon Joseon, hampering its modernization.


II. Women

Women Do Not Exist

"In somewhat extensive Korean journeys I never saw one girl who looked above the age of six, except hanging listlessly about in the women's rooms" (Isabella Bird Bishop, Korea and Her Neighbours, 1897).


Regarding the women of Joseon, absolute seclusion was the custom of centuries. Women were seldom allowed to go out, and when they did they wore the chang-ot, a thin white or green cloak, with which they veiled their faces. Then there was the women's hours at night after dark, during which time women were given the privilege to walk about the streets of the town, and pay calls on their parents and lady friends, while the men were confined to the house. In those days, when the reputation of the masculine "foreign devil" had yet to be proved, woman also had the right to open and enter any door of a Joseon house when she saw a foreign man appearing on the horizon. As such was the case, it was only too natural for foreigners to see but little of the shy sex.

Many foreigners felt that Joseon women were subject to restraint and seclusion, far beyond the reasonable point. According to Percival, in Joseon, women practically did not exist. Materially, physically she was a fact; but mentally, morally, socially she was a cipher.

Yet, these words are not sufficient to fully express what the women of Joseon actually felt. For example, in one instance, a Joseon woman talking to Bishop, a female English tourist, said, "we think that your husbands don't care for you very much." It may be that some of the Joseon women believed that they were cared for and protected by being closely guarded.


Ill-bred, Unmannerly Women of Joseon

"The unique fashion of their dress, and its general dissimilarity to any other form of feminine garb the world has ever known, renders it sufficiently characteristic of the vagaries of the feminine mind to be attractive" (Angus Hamilton, Korea, 1904).


It was mostly the women of the lower class, to whom fewer restrictions were imposed, that foreigners had access to. Perhaps it was the clothes that these women were wearing that first caught the eyes of the foreigners. These clothes had a gap between the upper and lower garments, leaving both breasts uncovered, certainly a very curious fashion. Despite their almost instinctive interests in this quaint costume of the lower class women, not many foreigners understood correctly how this style came to be, or what it implied.

Since the women had to nurse their babies,  while being occupied in some other kind of housework, the costume  was devised to suit that purpose. Not only that, but it was a privilege accorded only to women who had given birth to sons; the mothers of daughters were not allowed to expose their breasts proudly.

It is doubtful to what extent we can count on the foreign description about the nature of Joseon women, most of which were derived from observations, rather than personal acquaintance. Still, it must be noted that many of the foreign sources portray them as coarse, rude and violent in temper. Landor recalled that the women of the lower classes seemed to be in a constant state of excitement and anger.

A typical lower class women of Joseon would most likely be uneducated, naive, and know little about the western manners, if at all; she might possess a rough temper, as well, after all the years of domestic suffering she has bore. Taking these into consideration, it is not surprising that Bishop described the women of the lower class as "ill-bred and unmannerly, far removed from the gracefulness of the same class in Japan or reticence and kindliness of the Chinese peasant women."


Laundress of the nation

Slight as was the visible part played by woman in Joseon, yet there was one thing that made her presence essential in the national lifehousework. Despite the contempt with which she was treated, foreigners admired her activity and diligence.

The sight of a Joseon woman kneeling down and pounding white clothes upon the stones, must have made quite an impression to the foreign passerby. Here is Landor's description of the scene.


"[] the poor things on the coldest days and nights of winter, smashing the thick ice in the rivers and canals and spending hour after hour with the fingers in the freezing water, washing the clothes of their lords and masters, who are probably peacefully and soundly asleep at home. [] you soon get familiar with the quick tick, tick, the time as regularly marked as that of a clock, heard from many houses" (Corea or Cho-sen: The Land of the Morning Calm, 1985).


Laundry symbolized the women's diligent integrity, as well as their miserable suffering. That the position of women in Joseon was more deplorable than in any other civilized or barbaric country was a commonly held view by the foreigners. It was a wonder how women could forbear such a wretched state, comparable to slavery, and even seemed to enjoy some of it. The popular explanation for this (although never directly referred to as) was masochism on the part of the Joseon women.


"There is nothing which will make a woman happier than the opportunity of showing with what resignation she is able to bear the weight and drudgery of her duty. If to that she can add complaint of ill-treatment, then her happiness is unbounded" (quoted from Corea or Cho-sen: The Land of the Morning Calm, 1985).


III. Conclusion

One of the major misrepresentation of Joseon, on the part of the foreigners, comes from their failure to acknowledge the role played by Confucianism in the lives of the Joseon people. It is true that Confucianism, although the only official religion of the country, coexisted with Buddhism and Daemonism (or Shamanism). It may also be said that Daemonism had a greater influence on the daily lives and psychology of the common Joseon people. Nonetheless, it must be understood, that Confucianism had been practiced ever since the advent of the Joseon dynasty, and had its root deeply in the whole of the Joseon society, from the lowest peasant to the king, whether they felt it or not.

For example, the Confucian philosophy can be applied to understand the peculiar costume of the lower class women mentioned above. Confucianism did not, from the first, discriminate between genders. But, Neo-Confucianism, developed in the Song dynasty, classified all things as yin or yang, and placed yang above yin, introducing the concept of female (yin) subjection to male(yang).  Joseon introduced Neo-Confucianism as its political ideology, and adopted a patrilineal system to put the philosophy into practice. This explains why the mother of the son, who would carry on the family line, could, at that time when exposure of any kind was forbidden to women, proudly show her  breasts, while the mother of a daughter could not.

As is generally the case for travelers, the foreigners in Joseon lacked the cultural sense  which only comes from accumulated experience, and had difficulty perceiving what lied beyond the surface. Then again, there is always the distinctive personal quality, that renders a subjective viewpoint.

Yet, despite its prejudice and misinterpretations, foreign perspective of Joseon has a meaning of its own. Whether we approve it or not, or whether it is right or wrong, the way we are presented to the outside viewers is an integral part of ourselves. By undertaking studies of how we were depicted by foreigners and why, we may come closer to achieving the maxim "know thy self".



[1] Griffis William Elliot, Corea, the Hermit Nation, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1882

[2] Lowell Percival, Choson: The Land of the Morning Calm. Boston: Ticknor & Co., 1886

[3] George William Gilmore, Corea of To-day, London: T. Nelson and Sons, 1894

[4] Savage Landor, Corea or Cho-sen. The Land of the Morning Calm, London: W.Heinemann, 1895

[5] Louise Jordan Miln, Quaint Korea, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1895

[6] Angus Hamilton, Korea, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1904

[7] Emily Georgiana Kemp, The Face of Manchuria, Korea, and Russian Turkestan, London: Chatto & Windus, 1910

[8] Isabella Bird Bishop, Korea and Her Neighbors, London: John Murray, 1989

[9] F. A. McKenzie, The Tragedy of Korea, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1908

[10] 한국종교연구회(Korean Religion Society), 한국 종교문화사 강의(Lecture on the Religious Culture of Korea), 청년사, 1998

[11] 한국여성연구소(Korea Institue for Women), 새 여성학 강의 (New Lecture on Women's Studies), 동녘, 1999

[12]한국여성연구소 여성사연구실(Korea Institue for Women), 우리 여성의 역사(The History of Korean Women), 청년사, 1999

[13]신복룡(Shin Bok Ryong), 이방인이 본 조선 다시 읽기(Reading Joseon in the Eyes of the Foreigners), 풀빛, 2002