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«Chapter 4 THE CHALLENGE OF ANCESTOR WORSHIP IN KOREA 4.1 INTRODUCTION In spite of the fact that Korea is considered a First World country (especially ...»

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Chapter 4




In spite of the fact that Korea is considered a First World country (especially compared

to African countries), the practice of ancestor worship is still prevalent and has proven

to be a matter of ongoing interest for anthropologists and theologians alike. Ancestor

worship in Korea is generally defined in terms of Confucian or Neo-Confucian tradition (Ro 1988; Adams 1995).

Hence, the purpose of this chapter is to gain an understanding of:

• The nature of the religious background in Korea.

• How ancestral rites are practised in general.

• How Christianity has dealt with ancestor worship in the Korean context.


Protestant Christianity has grown to become the dominant religion in Korea after Buddhism. Since its introduction 1884, the membership of the Korean Protestant churches has grown to a staggering number of close to ten million members which in effect constitutes 20% of the entire population of South Korea. At present, Korea has 60 000 Protestant churches, 100 000 ministers and 12 000 overseas missionaries, second only to the USA. As Kim (2004:132) rightfully points out, Korea has also earned a reputation as a missionary country.

Christianity in Korea is a remarkable success story, especially when one considers that Protestant Christians constitute a mere 2% of the Asian population. Christianity in Korea has yielded a growth unparalleled in church history. This is even more so, when one considers that Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, has failed to perform equally well in Japan, a neighbouring country with a similar social structure and shared cultural traditions, where less than 1% population has converted to Christianity (Kim 2000:117).

4.2.1 Principles of growth in Korean Christianity The explosive growth of Christianity in Korea happened mainly during the second half of the 20th century. However, Christianity was already firmly established during the fifties of the previous century. The early history of the Korean church tells of much suffering and sacrifice (e.g. Pack 1973, Park 1975). Therefore it is rather ironic that the recent growth of Christianity in Korea can be partly ascribed to the fact that the Korean Church provided the basic tools of modernisation and assumed a central role in the economic, political, and social modernisation of South Korea. Thus, many Koreans regarded the acceptance of the Gospel as a means of entry into modern society and access to what they believed to be a more advanced civilisation (Park 1975; JY. Kim 1984). The “Christianity-modernisation nexus” has been solidified and enhanced further by the number of Christians who have held prominent leadership positions within the country' political, social, academic and financial sectors. This is supported by Kim s (2000:115) who notes that “from the leaders of the independence movement to the current political leadership, Christians have always been conspicuously salient in the nation' politics.” s This begs the question as to why Korean Christianity took off in this way but not in neighbouring Japan, which is also a highly modernised country. Why did neighbouring countries such as China and Japan not embrace Christianity and achieve the same growth and revival as Korea did? Are there other underlying factors which have impeded the establishment of Christianity in these countries? Are there other reasons besides the apparent need for modernisation which have influenced the establishment of Christianity in these countries? Kim (2004:132) ascribes the success of Christianity in Korea to the dynamics of Korean Christianity. Kim (2004) argues that this is because it has adapted to traditional religions and culture (without being mixed with traditional culture), and has been transformed through moderation and adaptation while retaining certain essential differences.

One factor which exemplifies this transformation is the issue of ancestor worship.

Elements of ancestor worship in Korea have been successfully transformed in Korean Christianity without constituting a conflict in theological principles. We will therefore explore the nature of ancestor worship in modern Korea in order to gain a clearer understanding of how this has impacted on the establishment of Korean Christianity.

4.2.2 Ancestor worship in Modern Korea The advent of modernisation in Korea brought with it the expectation that there would be a decline in the prevalence of ancestral sacrifice especially since the traditional view of spirits and life peculiar to ancestor worship are foreign to most modern countries.

Son (1988:61-71), in his essay, “Ancestor Worship: From the Perspective of Modernisation”, lists five factors which indicate that ancestor worship in Korea will not be revived strongly, namely the weakened status of Confucianism, secularisation of the traditional worldview, disintegration of traditional family and social structures, sense of estrangement toward the rites and Christian influence on society.

Nevertheless, ancestor worship is still practised by many Korean people. This is evident from the large number of families that make regular visits to their ancestral graves and perform many rites associated with their ancestors. Koreans who still practice ancestor worship generally observe these rites every January 1 (Sul) and August 15 (Chusuk, of the lunar calendar) when ancestral homes and tombs are visited and on

Hansik Day in March, when sacrificial food is offered at the ancestral tomb (Ryoo 1985:

52). The large numbers of people involved mean that many Korean people visit their ancestral grave sites to offer ancestral services for their ancestors, which is clear evidence that ancestor worship is still alive and well in South Korea.

How has Korean Christianity coped with ancestor worship? The Korean Protestant Church resisted being syncretised with shamanistic ancestor worship. As a result many Christians were martyred. In an attempt to accommodate the social and traditional elements required by Korean culture, the Korean Christian Church instituted the memorial service as an alternative. This meant that the Korean Protestant Church was able to meet the moral and social functions previously fulfilled by ancestor worship while eliminating the religious elements of ancestor worship without compromising the principles of the Gospel. In other words, ancestor worship in the Korean Church was transformed into the Koreanised memorial service which served the indigenous culture. However, Kim (2004:150) points out that it still has the shamanistic ritual elements reminiscent of

ancestor worship:

In today’s Christian memorial ritual, elements of Confucian worship have been intermingled. Not a few Korean Christians have been conducting memorial services mixed with Confucian ritual. They look, for example, to the picture of the deceased, make a bow, burn candles and put them in front of the grave (Ryoo 1987:200). The cause of this is the fact that the Confucian ritual has not yet been transformed into a Christian one. Korean Christianity needs, on the one hand, to revive the filial spirit towards the ancestors, on the other hand, to criticise the filial spirit that has the ritual form of Shamanistic adoration of souls and spirits, and to baptise it in the Christian form.

Of course, the filial piety in current memorial services has influenced many people, Christian as well as non-Christian. It is however crucial for the Korean Protestant Church to filter out the basic shamanistic ritual elements in order to transform the Confucian ancestor worship into an essentially Christian ritual.

In order to fully grasp the scope and implications of this phenomenon one needs to explore and distinguish the moral and social functions of ancestor worship from the religious elements implicit in ancestor worship and how other religions have influenced ancestor worship. It is impossible to understand the Koreanised ancestor worship without grasping the religious background where Korean ancestor worship has its roots.


Before exploring the religious background and influence of other religions on ancestor worship in Korea, we need to focus on the origins of ancestor worship in Korea.

4.3.1 The origin of Korean ancestor worship Ancestor worship is inherent to most civilisations and is a universal phenomenon which is not peculiar to Korea. Ryoo (1985:53) points out that the custom of ancestor worship has been at the core of religion since early times. People generally think that an ancestor' spirit is a protector against a variety of enemies. The notion that the ancestor' spirit s is able to distinguish good from bad has been prevalent among generations of worshippers. Ryoo dates the formalised rituals of ancestor worship to the reign of King of Silla (during the time of the Three Kingdoms).

Ro (1988:10) also traces the origin of formalised ancestor worship in Korea to the period of the Three Kingdoms where it was limited to the royal families and took on various forms. For example the kingdom of Pack-che had a form of ancestor worship for venerating the founding father, known as On-cho. Silla and Koguryo had a similar form for venerating their founding fathers. These worship rituals were conducted four times a year following the change of seasons.

It was not until the end of the Koryo dynasty and the beginning of the Yi dynasty (15th century) that a definitive form of ancestor worship became established. At this time Korean Neo-Confucian scholars such as Paek Yi-chung and Chong Mong-Ju introduced the Han and T' systems of ancestor worship.

ang Confucianism had a tremendous influence on the religious practices in the Three Kingdoms although Buddhism was already the dominant religion. The establishment of Confucianism as the dominant ideology for the Yi dynasty led to the popularisation of ancestor worship among Korean families. This included the establishment of a family lineage shrine in each household. Although Buddhism was the official of the Koryo dynasty ancestor worship, including the three-year mourning ritual, was continued to be practised.

4.3.2 Influence of other religions on the development and establishment of Korean ancestor worship To what extent have other religions accelerated or influenced contemporary Confucian ancestor worship? South Korea is one of the most religiously cosmopolitan countries in the world. Korea has no “official” or dominant religion. Shamanism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, and numerous new religious movements all manage to co-exist peacefully in this complex society (Kim 2000:112). It stands to reason the presence of so many religions over such a long period of time in Korea must have had an influence in the development of ancestor worship in Korea. Certain religious beliefs in Korean Traditional Religion must also have permeated into the core of Korean ancestor worship.

We will therefore explore the influence of beliefs such as the Animistic and Shamanistic concepts of the supernatural world, the Buddhist concepts of reincarnation and Nirvana, and the Confucian ethical and social ideal (especially filial piety). These concepts were assimilated into Confucian ancestor worship which became the cornerstone of modern Korean ancestor worship. Aside from these major religions, one also needs to consider which religious elements from traditional religions in the country have influenced ancestor worship in Korea. Animism Animism is the oldest religion of Korea and as such was the only religion up to the 4th Century AD Confucianism and Buddhism entered Korean civilisation from China much later.

Chae (2002:46) defines animism as a primitive religion in which nature and spirits are the main objects of worship. At the core of animistic dogma is the belief that spirits

inhabit everything. In this regard Nida (1954:136) describes it in the following terms:

By “animistic” we mean believing in spirits, not only in the spirits of dead persons, but also in spirits which dwell in natural objects, such as trees, streams, mountains, a gnarled root, a perforated stone, or a meteorite. Such objects are sometimes called fetishes and regarded as immortal. It is often possible when speaking of the religious aspects of many primitive cultures to assign Animism a dominant role, but Animism is rarely, if ever, the exclusive religious feature. Animistic beliefs are usually travelling companions with many other religious concepts and practices.

Scholars such as Brandon (1970:82) and Chae (2002:48) highlight the belief in the existence of the soul as one of the defining characteristics of Animism and by implication a pivotal notion fundamental to ancestor worship (Brandon, 1970). Therefore, animists believe that ghosts and spirits dwell in natural objects, animals and corpses of human beings. The connection between this ideological concept and the practise of ancestor worship is fairly simple. In this religion, ancestors are considered to be living members of the family, who take care of their descendants by providing protection and blessings. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Ancestors are also believed to curse their descendants if they neglect to offer sacrifices on their memorial day.

This long-standing belief in the immortality of the soul in Korea has solidified the practice of ancestor worship over time. As a result, Korean people have been worshipping the spirits of dead for generations in an attempt to maintain a harmonious relationship with their ancestors.

Bang (2002:9) describes the cult of deceased spirits as an attempt to maintain a harmonious relationship with the spiritual deceased, as a practice of reverence. Such a form of reverence is considered as the highest venerable expression of human beings and is fundamental to Korean ethic. At any rate, this constant struggle to maintain a proper relationship with the spiritual deceased ancestors has formalised and systemised ancestral sacrifices in Korean traditional religions. Shamanism Ro (1988:11) regards Shamanism as the most influential religious tradition in Korea.

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