Project Canterbury

 The English Church Mission in Corea:
Its Faith and Practice

Milwaukee: The Young Churchman, 1917.


There is a land where three empires meet, which from her very position has in recent years passed through bewildering changes. Her ship of State has been forced to put out from the quiet backwaters of age-long tradition in which she had lain secluded, and move into the stream of modern civilization. The stream has run rapidly and storms have gathered and burst; the old-fashioned craft has been no match for the struggle, but has been whirled this way and that, till, brought to anchor by other hands than those of her own master and crew, she is now being reconstructed by those other hands. This is a parable of Corea, or Chosen, the Hermit Kingdom which has been hustled into the life of great nations by the pressure of China, Japan, and Russia, and now finds herself part of the Japanese Empire. No longer independent, unfitted by their past to meet the modern conditions of life, the Coreans sorely need inspiration, brave hope of the future, and a sense of national and individual worth. Can any Christian doubt that the Church has the power, and therefore the duty, to give them just what they need? Corea to-day is being re-made, and it is the Christ that truly makes new men and new nations.

First beginnings.--It is hardly possible for those who live among their own people in a land where Christianity has been accepted for centuries to realize the position when a Christian Mission seeks to settle the Church in a strange and non-Christian land. Can we picture England without a Christian place of worship, with the name of Christ and God revealed in Christ unknown, with no Christian thought and tradition interwoven into the nation's thought and action, for interwoven it is in England despite, much ignorance of the faith and much apostasy from it? Can we picture her having lived down the centuries in self-chosen isolation from other nations, so that she knows nothing of their thought or history, literature or manners? Till a few years back Corea was in such a case. The difficulties of mutual understanding between the Corean and the missionary are obvious, and are increased by the fact that the Coreans are a race with an old civilization, proud of it, and setting great store by correct behaviour and obedience to tradition. They accept, too, the Three Ways (Sam Taw)--Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism--as the recognized religions of civilized man, even if they know little of them. Their language is hard for a foreigner to learn, and his task is made no easier by the reverence paid to knowledge of Chinese which has been the sole test of whether a man is or is not educated.

The coming of the foreign missionaries cannot but raise questions as to why they have come? What are they after? A proud, self-contained race will incline to set them down as uneducated barbarians, ignorant alike of civilized customs and speech; who, though they say they have religious teaching to give, are themselves all untaught in any of the great Three Ways. The foreigner must submit to live much in the public eye, a fair specimen for observation when he walks abroad, when he sits in his room, when he plants flowers in his garden. "Right of way" is not understood in Corea, which has great advantages, but deals hardly with the idea that a man's home is his castle, and robs him of refuge behind "Trespassers will be prosecuted." Why, your neighbour's pigs claim free right of entry to grub up your compound. Anyone's business is everyone's business, and a confidential chat on a public road is prey to any passer-by. A Corean never thinks of saying, "Mind your own business and let me manage mine." The foreigner must learn, too, to turn mental somersaults constantly so as to view matters from the Corean point of view, if he is to be of use. For instance, since laughter may not witness to light-heartedness but the reverse, if a deserved rebuke is met with a smile it is unwise to get angry--very likely the smile that irritates you shows that your words have gone home in the way you would wish.

Very much depends on what the missionary is; language teachers and servants are taking careful stock of him, and report at length to their inquisitive fellows. The Corean is astute enough in weighing up a man, and, finding him sound, will make allowance for blunders in etiquette and language.

In time the Mission settlement will cease to be a wonder; after painful hours spent facing a teacher and struggling with uncouth utterances towards a mutual understanding, the language barrier begins to yield before the missionary, and, though it may be with stammering tongue, he can give some explanation of his puzzling self and his message.

Gradually the first enquirers are gathered, and once more the neighbourhood is agog to hear their reports ol the new doctrine and religious practices, and are careful to note changes in behaviour. But these latter will be more clearly marked later on when baptism has involved certain clear breaks with accepted custom. Then, indeed, if the lives of the baptized do not answer for the worth of the new doctrine, it will have hard work to maintain itself against the charge to which it lies open of perverting men from the good old ways. But the answer given is good, and so the Church grows--"And, lo, my brook became a river, and my river became a sea."

The parish priest and his work.--Perhaps it is unfair to stretch the familiar word "parish" to cover a cure of souls in Corea. "District" may serve better, for the parish priest has to supervise work in a stretch of country that may be sixty miles across. He has his headquarters--that is, his Corean house and central church of his district, with possibly schools or hostels for boys and girls. He is lucky if not left single-handed, and to be sure of two fellow workers is beyond his hopes. At the centre two catechists will live, a man and a woman, and others will be stationed in outlying villages. An occasional visit from a Sister is all the foreign help that the women in most districts get; only one or two country centres have had the privilege of resident women workers.

The priest's life is one of constant coming and going. He must map out his time so as to visit his scattered villages at intervals which will vary from once a month to once a year. If a second priest lives at the centre, it will be possible for one always to be there responsible for daily Services in the church^and Christians from a distance can come in for the Sacraments and not depend solely on the priest's visit to their own chapel.

A country round.--We will now follow a priest on his visit to an outlying village. The round on which he is starting may be one of only a day or two, or he may have arranged to be out for a fortnight. Once or twice in the year he will have the good fortune to be with the Bishop who is come to confirm, and incidentally to treat cases for discipline and to advise in the many questions that arise. Visiting a district is not the simple matter it is in an English parish, for many things must be reckoned up ahead. When are the villagers free of work in the fields? Will there be moonlight to guide folk at night on the narrow little paths that wind among the hills and rice-fields? If a boat trip is involved, how do tides run? If it is summer, he must avoid the rains, and will be unwise to land himself with a twenty mile walk in a Turkish bath atmosphere; if it is winter, he may have to face a wind that cuts to the bone while the thermometer plays round zero. But the climate of Corea is exhilarating for most of the year, bright skies and strong pure air prevail, so that an all-day walk, without bite or sup even, is no weariness.

There is an exquisite beauty in the outlines of the ever-present hills and in the lights and shades that play over them. They stand in their naked glory, for trees are few, and for that, the more treasured by the eye where they cluster about a hamlet, or a great man's grave, or a high-perched Buddhist temple. Barren and sometimes snowclad in winter, when floating ice-blocks grind down the rivers and out to sea, the country breaks into flower in the short-lived spring--azaleas cover the hills with pink, and the ground is blue with violets, and peach, plum, cherry, and pear blossom riotously in the valleys. But it is perhaps in late summer and autumn that Corea is most beautiful, lavish in show of rich colours, and it is then that the persimmon tree comes to its rarest beauty of leaf and fruit. And man can live indeed there in October, with its hot yet fresh days and its cool nights, when mosquito nets are taken down and blankets reappear.

It is a fine climate and a fine country the priest walks through on his rounds, and, in their season, he meets pheasant, swan, goose, and duck in startling numbers; he may surprise a flock of scarlet ibis or a company of great turkey bustards feeding in the fields; a golden aureole will flash past; or he will have for company lazily flitting, gorgeous great swallow-tails, or darting dragon-flies, brilliant in scarlet or blue or yellow; snakes slither across the path; big kites hover overhead; at any time of year the jackdaw's gather and curse him in chorus; in summer the cicala shrieks to deafen him and flies buzz round, suggesting what they will do with the help of mosquitoes and other winged beasties to make his home bright when he gets there. And the choirs of frogs, how they give tongue of a warm wet evening!

The start and the country congregation.--Kit is packed--things ecclesiastical, a few personal effects, a quilt and possibly a camp bed, cooking and eating utensils, and a supply of food, including probably a live fowl and a string of eggs--ten of them wound one above another in a trough of straw. All goes on a man's back along with a bundle of charcoal, and away starts the chim (load). The Corean carrier, or jiggey-koon, is a remarkable person. His feet he winds with strips of coarse linen leaving the heels bare, his shoes are of straw, his jiggey is made" of two stout staves, with connecting bars and projecting struts for the burden and with straw ropes to fix over either shoulder; he carries a long forked stick on which the jiggey is left propped when he slips out of it to rest. The load is so piled that the weight falls well on the top of the back. He carries really great loads with ease and for a whole day, walking bent forward at ten li (three miles) an hour, allowing for rests. His good humour is delightful, as are his groans when his trip is done and he settles to a soothing haggle if haply he may melt the heart to paying more than the stipulated wage.

The chitn safely off, the priest will follow at his own time. In some parts of Corea a bicycle is now of real use. It is, as a rule, about sundown when you get to your quarters, as the folk are not likely to be free till after the evening meal. The smoke of the cottage fires hangs hazily over the village when you enter it. Chapel, school, priest's room, and sarang where Christians foregather all stand grouped together, and the inevitable flagstaff witnesses to Holy Church property. What would happen to the Church if there were no flagstaff one trembles to think!

Kit is unpacked, the quilt spread on the floor, and the "boy" sets to work cooking you a scratch meal. The catechist drops in and reports, and registers are run through; one or two Christians, first coughing at the door to announce their presence, come in, pay their respects and withdraw. We cannot work by clock, but "according to the Christians' coming," so when they are gathered in satisfactory numbers, urged by a bell or even a whistle, the evening devotions are held. The chapel is a bare little room with thatched roof, a mat or two lie on the floor and a curtain hangs down the middle to separate men from women, there is a holy table and on it a rough cross and candlesticks; a stool and a box may be all there is to serve for reading desk and credence. Two or three jim-crack oil lamps hang from the roof, and there are some thrilling moments at the lighting of these, for it is an open question whether they will work!

Devotions over and any confessions heard, we make for bed. Corean rooms are eight feet square, and warmed by an under-floor fire. It is a joy to curl up of a bitter night on a nice warm floor, but this way of heating has drawbacks--over-zeal on the fire-lighter's part roasts you, and an adverse wind leaves you fireless.

In the morning the priest washes as best he can and meets the faithful in chapel at the Eucharist. The devotion of the Christians never fails to impress; women and girls are in their white veils first given at baptism, all prostrate and quiet, and men and boys bend forehead to ground in adoration. Shoes have been left outside, while such men as wear Corean hats have them on. The feat, or man's hat, is taken at marriage, and that may be at twelve years old, and is part of Carean full dress; it would be no sign of respect to take off the feat in church.

There is charm in the slow sing-song recitation ol Creed, Sanctus, and Gloria, but none in the singing ol tunes, yet the folk like singing (!) hymns, so some there will be. After the Gospel comes an address, and then catechumens are told to "go in peace" before the Creed.

Breakfast over, it may be the plan is to pack up and move on to another village; or if staying for a day or two in one place there will be visiting and interviews, instructions or examination of catechumens perhaps, school and other business to see to. Troublesome cases, of course, crop up. This man's father died lately, and under pressure from relations he has set up the tablets again in his house and sacrificed before them. This family has been scared by sickness and called in the witch, and the sick person got better too. Here is one who has married his Christian daughter to a heathen, and this man having lost his wife has "acquired" another woman. This is a penitent who must make public confession at the priest's next visit. Next comes a very polite gentleman and spends valuable time in talking of nothing, till he slips in that the sinpoo (priest) is his father and mother" and that death stares him in the face unless he can have the loan of ten yen. Then a village near by wants a chapel of its own; the site has been given and the Christians will do the work and have subscribed so much for material, will the Church find the rest of the money? The material will be a house standing near or even far off, which it is proposed to buy and move wholesale. You carry houses about and repitch them in Corea as if they were tents. The priest never knows exactly what problem will meet him, but he is pretty certain that some question of finance and of matrimony will appear.

New ground.--We have to see a group of men who wish the Faith taught to them. They have chosen a leader, and the meeting is to be in his house. The village lies on the way to our next halting place. Here is the room and here our host and his friends. Shoes off and so to sit cross-legged in the place of honour, that is just over the fire. Small talk and refreshments follow--it is no good going straight for the matter in hand. This you reach in due course, and very respectfully the men listen to what is said of the duties of enquirers, and impassively hear that material gain is not the object of becoming a Christian. Times for meeting in a suitable room are arranged; someone is made responsible for keeping registers of attendance; the catechist is to come at intervals; the women-folk are to be considered as much as the men, which is a new idea; little books of prayers and instruction are handed over; the polite good-byes are said, and we go on our way. Later there will be admissions to the catechumenate, and at length to Holy Baptism.

The Church has spread in Corea through Christians bringing in their fellows. The people think as a family or village rather than as individuals, so that enquirers from new places come in groups rather than by one or two. But where the Church has been well settled for some time, it is a matter of gathering here a little and there a little and of picking up stragglers from almost wholly Christian families. Our foreign missionaries have done comparatively little "preaching to the heathen" in market-place or house, except when asked to do so; but recollections there are of beautiful starlit nights and wanderings through the hills and rice-fields to give lantern preachings, and of long processions stumbling along with bobbing lanterns and unmusical chantings to draw in hearers to an evening mission.

Christmastide.--A picture rises of a country church packed to suffocation with three hundred people, the sliding doors open all round and thronged with listeners. It is the first Evensong of Christmas. The priest has sat, sometimes on the ground, for most hours of the last two days, hearing confessions. The faithful have been coming-in from even great distances to keep the feast at their central church. Now the festival is begun. With difficulty the head of the procession squeezes out at a side door, and with much shuffling for shoes the congregation follows on and round the little market town. Back to the church, where there is barely room for the priest and acolytes before the altar, and Evensong is sung solemnly. An unliturgical ceremony is the collapse of a lamp, which might spell disaster in such a crowd, but for someone seizing on it promptly and hurling it out into the compound. Next morning at the Eucharist the church is again full to overflowing, and more than full even after the catechumens have been dismissed. Boys and girls are stowed away aside and behind the altar and close round the celebrant's feet, and at the Communion the priest has to move in and out of the front ranks of worshippers, communicating them where they kneel, till those who have received their Lord can move aside and let those behind come up to the altar.

Again it is Christmastide in another part of the land, the night of Holy Innocents. A night of clear moonlight and sparkling snow; the frost is keen, but it is the quiet, dry cold that no one minds. This is the children's night.

Busy hands have spread an awning over the courtyard of the girls' school, and under it set a Christmas tree, all properly hung with gifts and candles; paper lanterns dangle round from the eaves, and now one now another catches alight and gives us a passing thrill; at last what all expect happens, and the thatch catches fire. But Coreans are accustomed to such accidents and very prompt to deal with them, so no harm is done. Boys and girls crowd round the tree and sing in answer to each other. Games are played and gifts given. The girls make as pretty a picture as you could wish in bright clothes of red and yellow, their black eyes shine out of a nest of white fur which covers head, ears, neck, and mouth and is lined with pink silk, and their wrists are cosy in silk and fur cuffs. There is a crush of grown-ups to see the fun, amongst them mothers with babes slung on their backs. Our very numbers keep us warm under the awning, but as the night wears on the cold makes itself felt, and it is time to send all off home, the children with a parting gift of fruit and biscuits. Then comes a most solemn tea-drinking by the more honoured of the grown-ups, no women present!--and so to bed.

There have been Bethlehem tableaux in this village, and ten miles off the Christians have given a mystery play of their own arranging. The latter was crude to a degree, and in modern England would have raised a storm of protest on the grounds of irreverence. Fancy an English parish church filled with believers and unbelievers, some sitting on the floor, some standing, some walking about; the chancel for stage, with a curtain hiding the altar; and to take but one scene, a man moving on all fours draped in paper streaked with black marks for a skin, led by an obvious horseboy who urges on his beast with the clucks and gee-ups of everyday life, and astnde the beast a solemn, perfectly reverent figure in Corean hat and white clothes, while in front go schoolboys carrying and strewing slips of pine--this is our Lord's entry into Jerusalem. Our forefathers were wont to such scenes, but we are not. Yet here is something we sorely lack in England--this is indeed an expression of the religion of Incarnation; for these folk God is verily come in their flesh and taken their nature upon Him, not ashamed to call them brethren, at home in their simple, natural, everyday life and country customs. Blessed be God Who reveals His mysteries unto babes.

Some customs and superstitions.--In early times Buddhism ruled in Corea, but its power passed in the fourteenth century. Its nuns and monks are still in the land, but they are a despised class and their monasteries are thrust away in the hills. For over five hundred years Confucianism has been the religion of Corea, if that can be called religion which has no spiritual message to give and leaves the folk in consequence a prey to superstitions.

Signs of stone magic abound; rags, paper, and straw tied to trees and shrubs show the efforts made to propitiate spirits. Some cottages caught fire last night, and people are telling how they saw a black imp flying from Nam San (South Hill) and alighting on a roof. Blood-red he now was; he bent down and swept a circle with his finger, and the thatch burst into flame. Those strings of beads hung across the window are to keep away some spirit, and the shoes set at the door--you notice they point away from the house--are for another spirit of evil to step into and walk off in. This queer straw dummy lying by the roadside you had better not touch, not even to get the coppers tied to it in a twist of paper; somebody has popped the coming year's misfortunes that may befall him into this figure, and hopes that a passer-by for sake of those same coppers will be trapped into taking the ills on to his shoulders.

You hear those howling and thumpings, it is the witch at work in that house after a spirit of sickness. If she catches it she will put it into a bottle, seal it up tightly with a Chinese charm on the stopper, and bury it. Against her will the witch did the Church a favour once. A family had apostasized on the death of the father, John.

But sickness came, and a good witch was called in from a distance. She fell into a trance and spoke, "I am the spirit of John, and I cannot rest, because you have given up the faith and never pray for me. Repent at once." And without delay the devil worship paraphernalia and the tablets were cast out and buried or burnt, the woman came back as a penitent to the Church, and the sons resumed their catechumenate.

Father A went out the other day by request to sprinkle, cleanse, and bless a house where the family wished to be prepared for baptism. Soon after, when on a like visit, what did he find but a group of witches in the courtyard, eager to see how the Christian wizard worked and if they could pick up any hints! Very like the story of Simon Magus in Acts viii., is it not?

We have a Christian woman who is healing by the power of prayer, and a congregation near by has cast out more than one devil by meeting in persistent prayer day and night in their chapel with the possessed person among them. We forget in England the power residing in the Church to heal the sick and cast out devils. One reason for this forgetfulness is that we are growing too clever to believe in possession by evil spirits. Thank God, Coreans are not so clever as that, and so they can work miracles and humble the missionary to seek a simpler faith in the Gospel story and our Lord's promises and power.

The first case of curing one possessed led to difficulties. The man was a butcher, and turned with his whole house to the Lord, and the other butchers of the neighbourhood wished to do likewise. Now butchers are a despised class in Corea, and a to-do arose at such people being admitted into the Church. Many Christians, it was said, would refuse to be in the society of butchers. Though there is no caste system as in India, there are very clearly marked grades of Corean society. There is not. as a rule, any difficulty over admitting the lower grades into the Christian fellowship, but the great influence of the yang-ban, or upper class, is often a cause of trouble. It is very hard for the ordinary villagers to assert themselves against the yang-ban. He may make it plain that he will have no dealings with the Church, or he may come through to baptism, and then be piqued at not being put into authority at once and hamper Christian work most seriously. Yet, though the natural pride of the yang-ban is on a par with his power to influence his fellows, some of our humblest and most faithful believers are of this class.

Barbaric yet fascinating is a Corean funeral. The house has rung with the "Aigo, Aigo" of the wallers, and now the burial day is come. The bearers are here, smoking, drinking, and chattering, as they will be by the graveside. All is terribly callous and rowdy. The corpse is brought out, a mummy-like form in sackcloth, possibly also in a coffin, and put on the bier. Then the bearers arrange themselves, joking and jostling, and the bier is raised; long poles for carrying and a harshly coloured canopy above. In front walks a man with a flag, and immediately behind the body walks or rides the chid mourner. He wears sackcloth and is girded with rope, and his face is hidden under a huge dome of a hat. The procession moves on wailing to the graveside up the hill Now and again there are checks as the bearers struggle. swaying backwards and forwards, signifying the dislik:-of the dead to be carried away, and near the grave hi:-: resistance is so strong that the bier is nearly overturned. The grave will certainly not be ready; it is a slow business cutting it so as to fit the body or coffin exactly and to leave it smooth of every grain of soil. The geomancet will be there to instruct and see that it lies just at the right angle. At last the body is lowered and covered with lime and then earth, and soon a round mound is heaped. Hill after hill in Corea is covered with these round mounds, so that the Government has now restricted burials to certain recognized hillsides. The dead rest in no crowded town cemetery, nor even in a country churchyard; city or village dweller alike goes to his long rest into the sweet hills, and lies facing clear to the sea or the valley. If the dead be of wealthy or good family, pines will guard him and, perhaps, stone figures, and a stone altar will stand before his barrow for the offerings to his spirit. If he is a Christian a cross of wood or stone will tell you so.

A dead body may not be carried through a village, and a town will have its gate of the dead, for corpses may not pass out by the ordinary gates. Father X had some trouble once--it was a weary way to the grave, and a broad stream lay in the way. To cross by a bridge that led at once through a village would save several miles. So the procession crossed, but the villagers hurried to arms, and the struggle was sharp with hands and sticks, and there followed a general confession of sin by priest and Christians when the grave was reached--the villagers had been worsted!

Visiting the mines.--There is little work to do amongst foreigners in Corea, but we have small and faithful congregations in Seoul and Chemulpo. And who can forget a trip to one of the mining camps? Well in the north lies such a camp, and it means a three-day journey to get there. First, by sampan, the Corean boat, or by steamer, then a long spell in the train till you reach the town nearest to the camp. Here, if wise, you will have arranged to meet the bullion party which has brought down the gold in bar and is now going back with coin and paper money for next month's expenses. Mules, horses, and ponies are ready, all is loaded up, rifles and revolvers are to hand; so to saddle and away. There is an instrument of torture, called a buckboard; it may be this has come down and that you drive in it with others. It will swing its way over the roughest ground and career wildly on one wheel without overturning; this is true, but a buckboard is not comfortable. Away from the town, over the big river, and all day across a tedious plain, but by nightfall we are well among the mountains and glad to see the lights of the half-way house. Off again before dawn, which will thrill you as it breaks over the hilltops, up and down pass after pass, splashing through rivers and streams, till you clatter past the mill and up the steep broken road among the shops and houses of the mining village to your rest in the camp. You may make the trip in midwinter, frozen by a head wind, or in face of a blizzard when you marvel at your mule's sure feet which hold firm on tracks slippery as glass. In summer you may ride by night and rest in the half-way house by day to avoid the great heat, or go back by boat, sliding down between great cliffs and twirling over rapids. Long swims in the river add joy to these days, while in winter there is always shooting by the way--duck, pheasant, and deer.

At the mines there may be a baby to baptize, there will be Holy Communion in a private house and a Mission service in the clubroom. You return to your work refreshed and deeply thankful for the open-handed hospitality and generous alms of American and British friends.

Conclusion.--Is the spell of Corea felt? If not, for words are poor things to paint with, the Corean Christians in any case claim our homage. "Ye have not yet resisted unto blood" is true of us, but they are of kin to modern martyrs. It is but sixty years since Corean men, women, and children of the Roman Communion were facing death by thousands for the faith, giving up their lives gladly with "Jesus, Mary" upon their lips.

Corea is the East, and her gift humanity in Christ is not one of a impetuosity of attack and a keen to the vigour fulness of sense and direct of personal responsibility, all which is at once the strength and weakness of the West; rather she brings in the strength of corporate loyalty, of meekness and patient long-suffering, and the power of gentle courtesy.

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