Trial and Error in Modernist Reforms: Korean Buddhism under Colonial Rule

Trial and Error in Modernist Reforms: Korean Buddhism under Colonial Rule

Trial and Error in Modernist Reforms: Korean Buddhism under Colonial Rule

Trial and Error in Modernist Reforms: Korean Buddhism under Colonial Rule

Excerpt

Buddhism enjoyed royal protection for more than a millennium after its introduction to the Korean peninsula in the latter half of the fourth century C.E. The high status of Buddhism, however, was overturned with the establishment of the Chosŏn dynasty (1392–1910). The Chosŏn court instituted Confucian ideology in lieu of the Buddhism that had been deeply ingrained in the politics of the preceding Koryŏ dynasty (918–1392). The Koryŏ court lavished its financial resources on magnificent monasteries and sumptuous Buddhist rituals, and, in turn, Buddhist monasteries became major landholders and enjoyed numerous social and economic privileges. In the process of upsetting the power structure of the Koryŏ dynasty, the Chosŏn court targeted Buddhism, inflicting great damage on the sangha (the Buddhist order), both financially and socially. The Chosŏn court maintained anti-Buddhist policies throughout most of the dynasty, and, as a result, Buddhist clerics fell to one of the lowest social strata.

Amid the social and political chaos at the beginning of the twentieth century, however, Korean Buddhism found a new chance to rebound from its fallen status. After the 1876 Korean-Japanese Treaty of Kanghwa, when Japan forced Korea to open Pusan and two other ports and to grant extraterritorial rights to Japanese settlers in the opened ports, the Korean peninsula was caught in the cross fire of rival foreign colonial powers, including China, Japan, and Russia. After the Sino-Japanese War (18941895) and the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), Japan increased its dominance over the Korean peninsula. Korea was forced to sign the 1905 Protectorate Treaty and subsequently lost its sovereignty to Japan in 1910. from a result, the Korean Buddhist order was, on the one hand, released from the restraints of Chosŏn persecution and, on the other, forced to accommodate its traditional practices to the type of Western modernity brought about by Japanese colonial rule.

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