Shamanism, Confucianism, Buddhism and Christianity in Korea

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Table of Contents

  • Shamanism
  • Buddhism
  • Confucianism
  • Neo-Confucianism
  • Christianity
  • Beginnings of Catholic
    Beginnings of Protestant
    Christianity in Korea Today
  • Conclusion

Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution, and many of the world’s major religions are active in the Republic of Korea. Korea’s most ancient religions are Shamanism, Buddhism and Confucianism which have been established in Korea since at least the 4th century A.D. The two main religions that influence Korean thinking and culture is Buddhism and Confucianism. All these played an important role in the country’s early cultural development and have greatly influenced thought and behaviour. Korean religious field is so unique. This is because some even say that Korea is a department store of religions, implying that there are all sorts of religions on the earth. There are extraordinary features in Korean religious circles that cannot be found in any other countries. Korea also one of a few countries in the world where religions from both west and east have been introduced and maintain a balance of power. Apart from religions, philosophical or social ideologies also had a powerful influence in shaping people’s worldviews in the last century. According to a 1995 social statistics survey, 50.7% of Koreans follow a specific religious faith. Buddhists number is 45.6%, protestants is 38.7%, catholics is 13.1% and confucianists is 0.9%.

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Shamanism is a folk religion centered on a belief in good and evil spirits who can only be influenced by shamans. The shaman is a professional spiritual mediator who performs rites. Mudang, in Korea usually refers to female shamans, while male shamans are called paksu. Due to misconceptions promoted through education, most Korean people regard shamanism as a superstition. However, wherenever they are faced with troubles that are beyond their control, such as employment or marriage problems, they immediately turn to shamans for help. The shaman is an intermediary with the spiritual world and is considered capable of propitious passage from this world to the next. Korean shamanism includes the worship of thousands of spirits and demons that are believed to dwell in every object in the natural world, including rocks, trees, mountains and aspect of Korean shamanism is its deep belief in the soul of the dead. The shaman is expected to resolve conflicts and tensions that are believed to exist between the living and the dead.

This system of belief persists in Korea today. A shaman today is almost invariably a woman,unlike in the past when the intermediary could be either male or female. The outstanding Korean art tradition originated from shamanism but Koreans try to ignore the importance of shamanism and to undervalue it merely as a superstition. Shamans were the most important figures in creating and developing traditional art culture, they have thought of merely as magicians until this day. Arguments that shamanism has always been closely linked with the history of Korea is based on the fact that Dangun, the legendary founder of Korea, was a shaman. Also, the early kings of the Silla kingdom from the mid first century BC are thought to be shamans as well, since it was the era of theocracy where one person performed the duties of political leader which is king and religious leader which is priest at the same time.

The first policy that the politicians of the Joseon dynasty carried out in order to supress shamanism was to degrade the status of shamans to the same level as Buddhist monks, and banning them from entering the capital city. The Joseon government pressured shamans both economically and psychologically, by levying taxes and socially isolating the families of shamans. But, after that common people constanly turned to shamans for advice, and even queens held shaman ceremonies on a regular basis so shamanism had no problem in surviving through the Joseon dysnasty. During the colonial rule, the Japanese tried to eradicate everything that was related to Korean traditional culture. The shaman ceremony, which is an authentic Korean religious ritual, was the main target of suppression. However, after the independence that shamanism received a mortal blow. Shamans could survive because people needed them.

Shamans rites are classified into three kinds based on their style which is the simplest form is offering prayer while rubbing one palms. Secondly, rites of the possessed shamans are characterized by an ecstatic state in which the shaman is deified or embodies the spirits. Lastly, rites of the hereditary shamans also involve communion with the supernatural but the shaman and the spirits keep their separate identities. The government recognizes the artistic skills that shamans possess, and some shamans are being designated as human cultural assets or know as intangible cultural treasures. Shamans also have social rank.


Buddhism is a highly disciplined philosophic religion which stresses personal salvation throught the renunciation of worldly desires, thus avoiding rebirth in the endless cycle of reincarnations, and bringing about the absortion of the soul of the enlightened into nirvana. As this religion spread from the place of its origin in India, however, all sorts of local superstitions and theological systems were absorbed into it, producing an elaborate array of deities, saviors, boddhisattvas, heavens and hell that the historic Buddha never mentioned. It was this type of Buddhism, called Mahayana or the greater vehicle, that reach Korea in the fourth century, brought by missionary monks from India and China.

Under royal patronage, this new faith spread with remarkable force through Koguryeo and Paekche kingdoms. Many temples and monasteries were constructed and hordes of believers converted. By the sixth century monks and artisans were migrating to Japan with scriptures and religious artefact to form the basis of early Buddhist culture there. By the time Silla unified the peninsula in A.D 668, it had embraced budhhism as the state religion, thought it managed its government systems along Confucian lines. Royal patronage during this brief golden age of unified Silla produced a magnificent flowering of Buddhist arts and temple architecture. The rapid decline of the kingdom in less than two centuries did not harm Buddhism, as the rulers of the succeeding Koryo dysnasty were even more enthusiastic in their support of the religion.

Buddhism also created many highly artistic temples and other things to attract more believers. Therefore, among all cultural artifacts in Korea, 70% to 80% are related to Buddhism. Among those artifacts, many are world famous. Seokguram Grotto and Bulguk temple are registered on the world Cultural Heritage of UNESCO. The Buddha statue in Seokguram is one of the most beautiful in world while Bulkuk temple is famous for its artistic buildings and twin towers know as Seokgatop and Dobotop. The reason why most of the important cultural artefact on Korea had something to do with Buddhism is because the history of Buddhism in Korea. Buddhism was introduced to Korea from China in A.D 372 and reigned as the national religion until 1392. The masterpiece of Buddhist art were mostly made in the Silla dynasty.

In 936 until 1392, Goryeo which is the dysnasty after Silla that gave Korea its current nama, was also a Buddhist nation. As Korea Buddhist culture saw its peak during the Silla dysnasty, Goryeo Buddhism was relatively low in creativity compared to that of Silla. Although Goryeo Buddhism developed further, corruption penetrated it at the end of the dysnasty when 17% of the nation land became the property of Buddhist monks, and this was one of the reasons for Goryeo downfall.

Joseon dynasty was established in the late 14 century based on Neo-confucian fundamental ideology, felt the need to persecute Buddhism for economy reasons. Only through confiscating the land owned by the Buddhist temples could the Joseon government restore the national economy. Buddhism was totally suppressed for these reason and Buddhist influence over social issues began to wane. The status of Buddhist monks was reduced from the highest social rank to the lowest. Monks no longer sages to the people, but on the same level as slaves. Laws that banned Buddhist monks from entering Seoul were created and enacted, forcing Buddhist temples to move deep into the mountains and that’s why many temples of Buddhism found in the mountain. Korean Buddhism is slowly recovering the glory of its former days. Compared to Chinese or Japanese Buddhist priest, Korean priest seem to have more eagerness and vitality. Korean Buddhism has unique features in terms of maintaining its ways of training and other ceremonies. Also, Buddhism in Korea is undergoing a sort of renaissance and making efforts to adapt to the changes of modern industrial society.


Confucianism was a religion without a god, like early Buddhism. But as ages passed, the sage and his principle disciples were canonized by later followers as a means of inculcating their doctrines among simple and uneducated people. Most young Koreans do not wholly like Confucianism because of its strong patriarchal aspects which suggest gender discrimination. Confucian literature entered the peninsula along with the earliest specimens of written Chinese material around the beginning of the Christian era. The three kingdoms of Koguryo, Paekche and Silla all left records that indicate the early existence of Confucian influence. In Koguryo, there was a central Confucian University functioning by the fourth century A.D and in the provinces there were private Confucian academies. Paekche established similar institution at about the same time. Silla was the last to embrace foreign influence.

With the rise of Paekche and Silla, Confucianism began to penetrate the southern half of the peninsula. In 682, a Confucian academy was built in Kyongju which is Silla capital. Because the spiritual milieu in both kingdoms was dominated by Buddhism, the role of Confucianism was limited to some state functions, most notably the education of officials. During united Silla when in 788, in imitation of the T’ang, a kind of examination system was instituted, and the Confucian classics became the basic study materials of examination aspirants. As example is Ch’oe Ch’i-won, who sojourned seventeen years in T’ang China, passed the civil service examination in 874. At that time, Confucian studies were principally persued by men who belonged to the middle echelon, head-rank six know as yuktup’ um, of the general Silla aristocracy men who on the basis of their birth, were denied acces to the top decision making position in government.

Confucianism also have principles and these principles were called the five relationships by Mencius, are affection between father and son righteousness between king and minister, distinction between husband and wife, seniority between the junior and the senior, and trustworthiness between friends. All these principles were deeply influential in making Joseon into a strongly patriarchal nation. Among the many religions worldwide, Confucianism is the religion that most strongly emphasizes the patriarchal family. The patriarchal can be said to be filial piety and brotherly respect. Because of the ideologically prejudiced aspects of Confucianism, Joseon women underwent serious gender discrimination, and there is still a tendency toward discrimination that exist even today. For example, until the end of the 14th century, before Joseon was established, Korean women could inherit property from their parents and maintain personal ownership of such property after marriage. They were also not restricted in going outside. But, by the 17th century, the middle point of Joseon, women were not able to inherit anything and were seriously restricted in going outside their homes, especially women of the nobility. In modern Korean society, the law states that property, must be inherited equally without discrimination between son daughter. However, its stil the trend for sons to inherit more than daugthers, and most Korean people do not buck this trend. Also, althought women are no longer restricted to the inside of their homes, they are more or less restricted in advancing professionally in society.

Jongmyo, which is a national shrine for the deceased kings. This shrine was designated as a world cultural heritage by UNESCO because of its monumental buildings. There are also hundreds of Seowon which is private Confucian schools that also serve as shrines and Hyanggyo which is a national school around the country, as well as the Sunggyungwan was a place where official or scholars regularly performed services, and also a kind of local private school to learn confucianist principles under the tutelage of a master. Only those successful in these exams could go to Sunggyungwan to take the exam necessary for becoming a government official. Confucianism in Korea was manisfested in the system of education, ceremony and civil administration. Even today, Koreans can hardly be said to have discarded the customs, habits and thought patterns derived from Confucian teachings.


In 14th century C.E a new brand of Confucianism, which is Neo-Confucianism, has gained wide acceptance to the detriment of other faiths, especially Buddhism. The Neo-Confucians of early Choson clearly recognized the significance of rites as devices for ordering society and for formulating their social policies, they heavily relied on the ritual literature of ancient China transmitted by the Sung Neo-Confucians. Models for perfect ritual behaviour and a sound socio-political order are contained in ancient China canonical works that constituted the inexhaustible source of inspiration for generations of Confucians. In Korea, these works had been known for centuries and had served as the educational basis for examination candidates and instructional materials for kings. They gained critical relevance, however, as handbooks of change and reform through the commentaries of the Sung Neo-Confucians, especially Chu Hsi.

In Korea, the nature of the yu as a professional group in the Koryo-Choson transition was bound to considerations of social status. Neo-Confucian learning provided an important new method for asserting elite status. To be sure, the aforementioned men of head-rank six (yuktup’um) at the end of Silla and perhaps even the civil administrators (nungmun nungni) during the military period formed professional groups with distinct social overtones. But, in the end of Koryo and the beginning of Choson, Neo-Confucian training became the professional ethos of a body of men who from within the established aristocratic order sought to increase their power by exploiting their special knowledge. This notion of superiority based on Neo-Confucian education thus did not transcend traditional considerations of heredity and upper-class privileges. The Neo-confucians of early Choson, in contrast to the shih of early Ming China, claimed social as well as professional eminence in their quest for power.

With the advent of Neo-Confucianism in Korea, an ideology emerged that was addressing itself in a comprehensive and compeling way to social problems. It stimulated an unprecedented political discourse on man and society. Neo-Confucianism contain clear precepts of socio-political renovation and anchored the guarantee of their workability in the exemplary world of the sage-kings of Chinese antiquity. The Neo-Confucians of early Choson became infected with this call to action and strove to determine and implement a reform program that would Confucinize Korean Society.


Beginnings of Catholic

The Korean church began with a small group of 18 century Confucian scholars from the out of power political faction, silhak or know as school of practical learning. The purpose of silhak was a rejuvenation of Korean Confucianism through a clearer understanding of man relation to nature. Among the texts studied by the silhak scholars was a smuggled copy of The True Doctrine of the Lord of Heaven, a Chinese work by the 17 century Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci. Ricci description of the Christian god seemed much like their idea of the Neo-Confucian supreme ultimate, and they decided to learn more. This was risky. The pope’s condemnation of ancestor worship is 1742 had scandalized Korean Confucianists, the church was therefore hateful to the orthodox atmosphere of Yi-dysnasty Korea.

The silhak scholar Yi Pyok and his friends decided to send a representative to Peking to investigate. They were acquainted with Yi Sung-hun, son of a Korean tribute envoy bound for China in 1783, and they persuaded him to accompany the envoy, find out everything he could and bring back books. Yi Sung-hun in Peking, he became a Christian himself and was christened Peter, name suggesting his destiny as founder of the Korean Church. When he returned home, he carried book, crucifixes, images and information about Christian rituals. Then he joined with Yi Pyok to found a small lay congregation of Catholics. This was Korea’s first-known Christian church. Soon the church began to grow. Since the leaders were not ordained and could not perform baptisms they sent to Peking for a priest, and were joined in 1794 by a Chinese missionary, James Chou Wen-mu. By that time the government was aware of the spreading heresy and was arresting Christians. Father Chou himself was caught and executed in 1801.

Numerous Korean Christians were put to death as waves of persecution followed. During the persecution of 1839, French missionaries were among those killed. The fear of execution did not deter people from joining the church. Thus the church continued to gather adherents by adding whole families as generation passed.

Beginnings of Protestant

While the Korean catholic community was suffering in the 19 century, the protestant faith was also putting down roots. In Chinese Manchuria, in the 1870s Scottish missionaries studied Korean and then translated scriptures, which they passed to itinerant Korean merchants. The merchants in turn set up small family congregations in Korea. The first protestant church was founded in Sorae, Hwanghae province, by a merchant named So Sang-yun. Protestant missions to Korea began in 1884 when Dr. Horace N. Allen was transferred from the Presbyterian mission in China. To gain acces to Korea, he came not as a missionary but as physician to the U.S. Legation in Seoul.

Expansion of protestant work. Many other pioneers joined these early workers before the turn of the the century. They pushed government toleration to the limit and fanned out across the country, opening little stations in all the provinces. To avoid duplicating their efforts, the various missions agreed to work in different areas of the country. The most successful work in terms of number and church growth was accomplished in northwest Korea around Pyongyang, the present capital of communist North Korea. The missionaries converted more people to the protestant faith in Pyongyang region than in other parts of Korea. For many years Pyongyang thrived as a Christian center. Around the turn of the century it began to develop as a regional hub for the Northern Presbyterian Mission (U.S.A) and as an urban center for the Methodist, who had joined the Presbyterians in medical and educational work there. By the late 1920s they were operating a college know as Sungsil or Union Christian College, a church, a seminary, a girls academy, bible institutes for men and women, a hospitals know as the Union Christian Hospital, and a boarding school for missionary children.

Foreign missionaries may take credit for much of what was started in Korean Christianity. Their work took on three main forms which is church-founding, medical work and education. Church-founding and the training of a native pastorate were their primary concern, but medicine and education were vital to the modernization of Korea. Mission schools were the only modern schools prior to world war 1, and although there was some question about the curriculum whether it should be bible alone or include modern, secular subjects as well.

Christianity in Korea Today

Korean Christianity today may be described in terms of institutions, trends and contradictions. Christian churches and related instituitions are independent of missionaries, though perhaps arguably not free of foreign influence. The Korean church is growing very fast and evolving its own theology or more properly, theologies. Its struggling with the issue posed by Korea’s unique heritage, present political position, and rapid economic development. The church in Korea has now fully devolved to Korean Control. The protestant denominations that developed for the most part under missionary guidance prior to world war 2 are now completely controlled by Korean governing bodies in which few, if any, foreigners have a voice. The result comprise paradox. Christianity in Korea is factionriden over doctrinal, historical and political issues, and depends heavily on pastoral leadership. And yet it, claims many followers displays vital forces for growth, and is capable of impressive displays of unity.

Koreans, who were very much dismayed and disappointed at their religious traditions, did not hesitate to eccept Christian doctrines even though the doctrines greatly different from their own culture. The west, represented by Christianity, became the norm of all Korean values, especially after the liberation from Japan in 1945s. Koreans who marvelled at anything American, had no reason not to follow American beliefs. Becoming a Christian symbolized enlightenment or modernization. In addition, Christianity shared many common features with Korean traditional religions. For various reason, Christianity penetrated the lives of Korean people and succeeded in becoming the most important religion in contemporary Korean society.


Religion in Korea has a multi-faceted character. As example Shamanism which is a tribal religion practiced by tribal people around the world, and usually wanes as world religions gain dominance in an empire. Shamanism in Korea also has remained a vital force in Korean civilization from 2333 B.C.E. until the present day. Secondly, Buddhism has powerfully influenced by India and China, has transformed into Son Buddhism that providing a spiritually powerful teaching for the Korean people, especially through Buddhism and Shamanism, have the capacity to absorb other religions, and be absorbed by other religions, yet retain its character. Confucianism and Christianity absorbed elements of Shamanism, Buddhism by creating a uniquely Korean form of Confucianism (Neo-Confucianism) and Christianity. But today, Korean people have embraced a number of major religions and ideologies, Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism and Christianity, at the same time, Korea’s indigenous ideology also maintaining a measure of influence. In the 20th century, a large number of new religions has developed in Korea, many of which have taken root and are now coexisting along with the other more established religions. The two religions in Korea that have the largest number of adherents is Buddhism and Christianity, both gained most of their converts from the lower, oppressed classes.

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