Contentious Spirits: Religion in Korean American History, 1903-1945


Contentious Spirits explores the role of religion in Korean American history during the first half of the twentieth century in Hawai'i and California. Historian David K. Yoo argues that religion is the most important aspect of this group's experience because its structures and sensibilities address the full range of human experience.

Framing the book are three relational themes: religion & race, migration & exile, and colonialism & independence. In an engaging ...

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Contentious Spirits: Religion in Korean American History, 1903-1945

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Contentious Spirits explores the role of religion in Korean American history during the first half of the twentieth century in Hawai'i and California. Historian David K. Yoo argues that religion is the most important aspect of this group's experience because its structures and sensibilities address the full range of human experience.

Framing the book are three relational themes: religion & race, migration & exile, and colonialism & independence. In an engaging narrative, Yoo documents the ways in which religion shaped the racialization of Korean in the United States, shows how religion fueled the transnational migration of Korean Americans and its connections to their exile, and details a story in which religion intertwined with the visions and activities of independence even as it was also entangled in colonialism.

The first book-length study of religion in Korean American history, it will appeal to academics and general readers interested in Asian American history, American religious history, and ethnic studies.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"[T]he book serves well as a case study of a relatively obscure segment of American society. Many of the book's findings reinforce the importance of religion in immigrant experience, the ambiguity of immigrant identity, and the role of race in American religion. The themes also guide readers safely through the complex paths of Korean-American religious experience, working almost like a guided tour to help readers visit some of the essential events and places . . . Anybody interested in Korean American history and religion, immigrant religious communities, and religion and politics will find it informative and interesting."—Dae Young Ryu, Church History

"Contentious Spirits is the first (and so far only) book-length treatment of the foundational period of Korean American history . . . Yoo provides a convincing narrative of the community, showing how Protestantism helped Koreans to acclimate to American culture despite their contentiousness, even though their faith in the end could not trump the racism that barred them from fully participating in American society."—Timothy S. Lee, International Bulletin of Missionary Research

"David K. Yoo's Contentious Spirits: Religion in Korean American History, 1903-1945 is a pathbreaking study that opens up conversations not only in U.S. religious history but in the histories of race, transnational migration, and colonialism . . . The comprehensive scope of the work gives the subject matter a sweeping narrative over time."—Shirley Jennifer Lim, Journal of American History

"Yoo makes an important contribution to our understanding of the religious aspect of the Korean experience in the United States. His book is full of useful information and perspectives on the institutions and congregations of Korean churches. Yoo's analysis of the issues and problems that Koreans faced as exiled aliens in the United States is thoughtful and perspicacious. With his lucid essay, he offers a new perspective on race, nationalism, and colonialism in American history as experienced by Korean Americans."—Yong-ho Ch'oe, American Historical Review

"Contentious Spirits not only gives us a moving historical account of Protestant Christianity and early Korean American community formation, but it also provides us with the conceptual categories by which we can situate and understand this history. David Yoo deftly reveals how religious institutions and practices were shaped by, and in turn helped to shape, the prevailing patterns of racialization, diasporic consciousness, and political resistance."—Michael Omi, University of California, Berkeley

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780804769280
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press
  • Publication date: 4/30/2010
  • Series: Asian America Series
  • Pages: 232
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

David K. Yoo is Director of the UCLA Asian American Studies Center and Professor of Asian American Studies at UCLA. Most recently, he is the co-editor of Religion and Spirituality in Korean America.

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Read an Excerpt

Contentious Spirits

By David K. Yoo


Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8047-6929-7

Chapter One

God's Choson People

Peter Hyun recalled that time in the winter of 1919, when he and his seven brothers and sisters accompanied their mother and father to the South Gate railway station in Seoul. Church business had often taken Peter's father, the Reverend Soon Hyun (Hyn Sun), to different parts of the country. What struck the young Peter was that his father had come and gone on many such trips, but never before had the whole family, including his invalid sister, Soon-Ok, been assembled to bid him farewell. Only later would Peter and the other children learn that their father was fleeing the country to work in China for Korea's liberation. It would be a year before Maria Hyun somehow snuck herself and her children across the border to join her husband and other Koreans who had set up the provisional Korean government, exiled in the French Quarter of Shanghai.

According to Peter Hyun, his father used his position as a leading Methodist minister to take part in the planning of a national uprising that galvanized the independence movement in Korea and abroad. On 1 March 1919, Koreans declared their independence through the rallying cry Manse! [Long live Korea!] and the display of Korean flags in a massive, well-planned, and peaceful demonstration that caught the Japanese colonial government by surprise. Peter Hyun remembered: "THE AWESOME CHANTS of the surging crowd still ring in my ears. It was Seoul, Korea, March 1, 1919; I was twelve years old. Countless thousands of Koreans-men and women, young and old, defying the Japanese police-poured out onto the streets of Seoul and shouting and dancing, proclaimed their national independence." Hyun did not heed his mother's orders to stay indoors and once outside got swept up into the streets by demonstrators. They passed by the Methodist church that Peter's father had served and the American Tennis Club where he had seen people play the strange-looking game. He walked with a group of women students from Ewha, the Protestant missionary college for women. Thousands of people had gathered in the city, taking part in the display of nationalism. Hyun's pride quickly turned to horror when he saw the Japanese mounted marines repeatedly charge into the crowd with sabers slashing to and fro. Hyun managed to get to the fringes and ran as fast as his feet could carry him until he reached his home-physically and emotionally shaken by what he had witnessed. He worried about the college students he had walked with and wondered about the fate of so many who had joined forces.

Choy Hai-Arm, a foreign student in the United States writing in 1937 and 1938, chronicled his participation in the events of 1 March 1919. He had finished at a public middle school in 1918 under the supervision of Japanese teachers and then started junior high at a private Korean Christian school in northern Korea. The change in schools took some adjustment, as he soon discovered that he had entered another world. His fluency and skill in the Japanese language earned him no points from his teachers, and his peers teased him on the playground for not speaking Korean. In class, he heard stories about Korea's past for the first time. Over the course of a year, Choy commented that he had become a Korean boy again.

On that fateful day, under clear blue skies, Choy and other students went to the auditorium for a brief chapel service. Afterward, a teacher told them that they would be joining Koreans throughout the country in making a nonviolent statement for Korea's freedom. Students were instructed to remove the flags from their coats at the signal and to shout "Manse!" After a brief ceremony noting the passing of the Korean king, Kojong, a pastor rose at the podium and began to read the Declaration of Independence. Two large silk Korean flags hung along both sides of the platform, and people stood out of pride and respect. Choy recalled:

Japanese detectives tried to stop the reading, but quailed before the fearsome shouts of the crowd. When the reading was ended, the pastor cried aloud, "This is our resurrection day. For nine long years we suffered the loss of our freedom which our forefathers had enjoyed for more than four thousand years. Today is the reviving day of our nation." We shouted "Mansae" aloud as vocal capacity allowed, following our leader's direction. Oh! What a sight it was!

After circling the city, the people gathered in front of the police headquarters and demanded the release of the imprisoned leaders. Police called upon the firemen to spray water to control the crowd, but this only angered those gathered. Screams and chaos followed the gunshots as people ran into the side streets carrying the wounded.

These two eyewitness accounts of the momentous events of March First contain clues about the nature of religion in Korean American history. The first has to do with the theme of migration & exile. Peter Hyun and his family left Korea for China and then Hawai'i. Peter, however, had already traveled with his family across the Pacific and back by the time he was twelve and took part in the events of March First. Born in 1906 on the island of Kauai in the U.S. Territory of Hawai'i, Peter may have been the first Korean male born on the island. The Reverend Hyun and his wife, Maria, arrived in Hawai'i in 1903 and helped establish churches there. His work in Methodist missionary circles enabled Reverend Hyun to accompany Koreans to Hawai'i and eventually led him back to Korea, but he returned to the islands again and spent a good portion of his ministerial career serving churches in Hawai'i. Much less is known about Choy Hai-Arm, the international student who authored the two-part article that appeared in the Korean Student Bulletin. Choy and Hyun's experiences suggest something of the relational theme of migration & exile.

Religion is another key element that emerges from these stories. The church-based school of Choy Hai-Arm helped shape his identity formation as a Korean under Japanese colonial rule. Protestant Christianity directly influenced his sense of nationalism, from the use of Korean language to the framing of March 1 in the language of the resurrection. In addition, Christians accounted for sixteen of the thirty-three signers of the Korean Declaration of Independence. Choy's connections to missionaries and the church probably enabled him to study in the United States. Many Koreans who studied abroad returned to Korea to assume prominent positions in education, church work, and other fields.

Peter Hyun's experiences also indicate how religion infused the lives of the Hyun family. The Reverend Hyun traveled throughout Korea, China, and the United States, laboring for the church and his homeland. His position as the superintendent of Methodist Sunday Schools in Korea allowed him to canvas the country in support of the church's mission and cultivate networks to mobilize the uprising. Leaders had organized directly under the noses of Japanese authorities and also without the knowledge of American missionaries.

Along with migration & exile and religion & race, the relational theme of colonialism & independence is evident in the very fiber of the events described by Hyun and Choy. March First stands as the symbolic marker for modern Korean independence against Japanese colonialism; it set into motion a greater sense of nationhood among Koreans in Korea and those outside the peninsula. The Hyun family's transpacific crossings reveal the machinations of American capital in search of cheap labor as Soon and Maria Hyun accompanied workers to the sugarcane plantations of Hawai'i. The industrialists of the American colony, fittingly, called upon American missionaries in Korea to help them entice workers to leave their homeland, even as they were the descendants of the first missionaries who represented the chief architects of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy and annexation by the United States.

While these major themes provide a backdrop, this chapter focuses on the legacy of Protestant Christianity in Korea in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. An understanding of the nature, development, and particular historical context of this religious tradition is critical because Korean American Protestants embodied, adapted, and extended this legacy beyond the boundaries of the homeland. The journeys of Peter Hyun and Choy Hai-Arm illustrate how religion linked people, institutions, and even nation-states across time and space. Although Protestant Christianity represented only one element during this cataclysmic period, it proved to be very significant for the nation and for many of those who left for the United States.

Of particular interest is unpacking how Protestant Christianity managed to exert considerable influence in Korean society so quickly from the time of its introduction in the 1880s. As with most questions of historical causality, there is no single, neatly defined answer, but rather a set of interlocking factors that together begin to approximate an explanation. There is some credence to the suggestion that the religious foundations of Korean society aligned with aspects of Protestant Christianity such as belief in a supreme being and the afterlife. Missionary strategies, moreover, stressed the need for Korean leadership in the propagation of the faith, and an indigenization of Christianity took root early. Protestant Christianity also introduced new concepts and institutions that meshed with nationalist efforts in Korea. A crumbling nation-state and the rise of a Japanese empire enabled Christians to position themselves in a manner that helped them address the needs of Koreans at this juncture in the nation's history. According to historian Chung-Shin Park, "The history of the remarkable growth of Protestantism in modern Korea is a history of the metamorphosis of the religion from a foreign, Western faith to an accepted Korean religion."

The State of Religion

Given the focus on Protestant Christianity, it is easy to overlook the deep and diverse religious foundations of the nation. One study of Protestantism and nationalism in Korea reminds us that in Chosn Korea (1392-1910) no clear lines separated philosophy, religion, and state ideology. By the late nineteenth century, Protestantism entered a conversation that was well under way. The earliest traces of Christianity in Korea date to the sixteenth century, when Korean envoys to China encountered Europeans, including Roman Catholic priests and religious tracts. In addition, some three hundred Koreans who had been taken back to Japan with the Hideyoshi invasion reportedly received instruction in Catholic doctrine in 1596. In the last quarter of the eighteenth century, Catholicism began to spread among the population in Korea, first among elites and then among the general population. By 1785, the state banned Christianity-seen as a threat to the Confucian state-and growing repression drove the church underground. Approximately eight thousand martyrs died in the Great Persecution (1866-71), about half of the entire Catholic population.

Catholicism also influenced other movements, including Silhak, or empirical study, in which scholars opposed what they considered the extreme metaphysical speculation of the official neo-Confucian orthodoxy. Kenneth Wells points out that these scholars responded to peasant unrest in rural Korea in the eighteenth century and the strain this put on the existing feudal structure. Some of the key proponents of Silhak were either Catholics or those who had attempted to fuse Catholic theological teachings and science with Confucianism in an effort to revise existing economic and political structures. Proponents were not successful in gaining tolerance from the court, and Silhak was suppressed.

Throughout the Choson era Buddhism was disfavored in the effort to construct a Confucian state. By the nineteenth century, Buddhism was suffering from a long period of decline in which its infrastructure, organization, and influence had deteriorated. Cut off from major political and economic institutions, Buddhism had been sidelined as a major social force as Korea was pulled onto the international stage. Korea's diplomatic and trade contacts with the outside world, however, brought a respite from official suppression of Buddhism. The presence of Protestant Christianity also sparked some of the more progressive elements within Korean Buddhism to action. With colonial rule, Japan sought to bring its institutional structure of Buddhism as part of its efforts to absorb Korea into its empire. Though such efforts met with mixed reception, the strong influence of Buddhism in Japan brought a measure of protection to Buddhism in Korea, even if only for Japan's own political agenda.

If Catholicism and Buddhism suffered at the end of the nineteenth century, such was not the case for a conservative, millennial religious movement called Tonghak (Eastern Learning) that surfaced in the 1860s. Ch'oe Che-u began teaching peasants a millennial blending of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism to help Korea ward off the evils of Western learning, especially Catholicism, though Ch'oe himself had been influenced by it. The primary teaching stressed the unity of heaven and humanity and the equality of all people. Tonghak rode the wave of peasant unrest borne of long-standing and increasing agrarian distress caused by onerous taxation policies. It adopted the slogan "Drive out the Japanese dwarfs and the Western barbarians, and praise righteousness." The movement gathered strength in the southwestern farming regions, and a number of armed victories alarmed those in Seoul. By 1894, nearly a thousand soldiers left the capital garrison to quell the rebellion, but half deserted and Tonghaks routed the other half. King Kojong called for help from China, and soon Japanese troops followed, setting into motion the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 in which Japan soundly defeated China. A suppressed Tonghak resurfaced as Ch'ndogyo (Religion of the Heavenly Way). The movement emphasized a supreme being and curative magic, and it formed part of the growing nationalism during this era.

The Sino-Japanese War signaled the demise not only of the Tonghaks, but also of Korea's long-standing Sinocentric orientation. The existing order was plunged into greater crisis, the court managing its tenuous sovereignty through a strategy of checks and balances with the foreign powers involved in Korea. Playing one imperial power against another was a tricky business, especially for a hermit kingdom only recently forced out of its isolation. For Protestant Christianity, linked primarily to the United States, the turn of events at the tail end of the nineteenth century created opportunities for its influence in ways that would have been unthinkable a few decades earlier during the Great Persecution of Catholics.

Religious Affinities

While the social and political realities of a severely weakened nation-state undoubtedly created an opening for Protestant Christianity in Korea, the question remains why people gravitated toward this religious tradition. One theory is that the religious foundations of Korea, rooted in the cult or myth of Tan'gun and the notion of a monotheistic supreme being, helped missionaries to find some common ground on which to stand with Koreans. The supreme deity known as Hwanin, or Hannim, the Heavenly One, was equated with the God of the Bible. Missionaries and early converts made the association between the two to stress monotheism. And yet polytheism and pantheism operated widely in Korean religious and folk culture. This worldview has sometimes been labeled as Shamanism, one in which individual spirits existed in all natural, material, and animate phenomena. Nevertheless, the appeal to the Heavenly Being served its purpose of suggesting a connectedness between the new religion and the religious sensibilities of the Korean people.

Similarly, others have suggested that the layers of religious development in Korea over a long period of time and their commingling resulted in a receptivity to Protestant Christianity. Religious studies scholar David Chung has suggested that the attempts by the Choson rulers to create a pure Confucian state constituted an ideal more than a reality. Despite severe suppression, Buddhism continued to be part of the cosmology of Koreans, addressing issues of life and death that Confucianism did not. Moreover, Taoism, though never a dominant religion in Korea, did influence philosophical thought and some ritual practices. And, as mentioned earlier, an indigenous religious tradition served as a foundation of religion in Korea.


Excerpted from Contentious Spirits by David K. Yoo Copyright © 2010 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


1. God's Choson People....................17
2. Paradise Bound....................34
3. Practicing Religious Nationalism....................58
4. City of Angels....................83
5. Enduring Faith....................107
6. Voices in the Wilderness: The Korean Student Bulletin....................130
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