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date: 05 July 2022

Violence against Catholics in East Asia: Japan, China, and Korea from the Late Sixteenth Century to the Early Twentieth Century

Abstract and Keywords

This article examines anti-Catholic violence in Japan, China, and Korea from the 1600s to the early 1900s. It shows that the governments of each of these three countries chose to use violence against Catholics when the threat posed by Catholicism outweighed the benefits the religion offered. While each state chose violence, the shape of that violence and its intensity differed based on the particular historical contexts of Japan, China, and Korea. Foreign pressure in the form of imperialism ended such state-directed violence in all three of these countries by the last quarter of the nineteenth century. However, in China and Korea, anti-Catholic violence broke out at the popular level as a reaction to the increasing power of the foreign-backed Catholic communities. In contrast, the development of a strong, Western-style state dedicated to protecting religious freedom prevented this same phenomenon from occurring in Japan. This paper thus shows that while there were certain similarities in anti-Catholic violence in these three countries, there were also significant differences.

Keywords: Qing China, Tokugawa Japan, Chosŏn Korea, Catholicism, Violence, Missionaries, Jesuits, Religious Persecution, Buddhism, Confucianism

The canonized saints of China, Japan, and Korea share one thing in common: they are all martyrs.1 This commonality illustrates the deep connection between the history of the Catholic Church in these three countries and violence. By tracing the history of this violence from the mid-sixteenth century to the early twentieth in East Asia, beginning with Japan, continuing with China, and ending with Korea, this paper will present a comparative history of Catholicism in this region that will show why and how Catholics came to be targets of violence. This paper will then argue that the key to determining when and why violence was utilized against Catholics was a cost-benefits analysis—whether the threat posed by Catholicism outweighed the benefits it (in particular, Catholic missionaries) offered. At the same time, the very different historical contexts of these three countries determined the shape, scope, and intensity that anti-Catholic violence would take. Of special interest for this paper is determining why it was that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century state-sponsored persecution would give way to popular hostility and violence in China (where the common people killed many more Catholics than the state did) and Korea, but not Japan.

Anti-Catholic Violence in Japan

Portuguese traders first started visiting Japan in the early 1540s. Missionaries were not far behind, with the famous Jesuit Francis Xavier (1506-1552), along with a handful of other Jesuits and Japanese who had converted to Catholicism while overseas, arriving in 1549 (Boxer 1951; Elison, 1991).2 The local daimyo (military strongman who ruled a territory, similar to medieval European lords) gave the missionaries permission to preach, and so the mission began. While not all daimyo would be so welcoming, the Jesuits would find numerous Japanese lords who would allow them to conduct missionary work and build Catholic communities in their lands. One reason for such tolerance was a civil war that had raged throughout Japan for nearly a century and a half and it was believed, correctly, that Jesuit influence could insure that the Portuguese would come to trade with a friendly daimyo, bringing wealth and European-style firearms, both useful in defending and expanding one’s domain. And of course one way to show true friendship with the Portuguese traders and missionaries was for a daimyo to convert to Catholicism and order his vassals to do the same. Jesuits, educated men who could move comfortably in elite circles, were particularly adept at encouraging such conversions and therefore adopted a top-down approach, focusing on the conversion of elites with the knowledge that the people under their command would likewise follow them into the faith (Ellison 1991, 21-29).

Trade and guns were not the only attractions Catholicism could offer. The long-lasting civil war was the result of the unraveling of the medieval order and of the bonds that had held together lords and vassals. Powerful Buddhist temples, seeing land-hungry warriors and rival sects eyeing their property, established their own armies of warrior monks to defend and expand their holdings. New lay-centered Buddhist movements led to powerful religious associations that could direct their followers, found all over Japan, to fight against the various daimyo (McMullin 1985; Tsang 2007). These religious organizations could easily justify war against the samurai by turning to their own religious sources of authority, framing the warriors as enemies of the dharma. In such an environment, a monotheistic faith whose members were bound together in a single community over which the priests and the daimyo, who acted as the Church’s protector, would rule was no doubt attractive, for it would make rebellion against that lord difficult to justify. The drive for unity in this time of chaos and war helps explain the zeal shown by daimyo converts to Catholicism for destroying Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples or converting them to Christian use, as well as pressuring the servants of those houses of worship and the samurai and peasant populations to accept baptism and the Catholic faith (Boxer 1951, 146).

In order to gain the tolerance and support necessary to conduct missionary work the priests had to show that they could provide some useful service, and in such a time of great upheaval, any such service would necessarily be political in nature. Thus, Catholic priests provided a vision of a new political order and acted as intermediaries for trade, the profits of which went to serving political goals. Catholicism could therefore not escape being linked with politics. While such assistance could be at times confined merely to acting as intermediaries in terms of trade, there were occasions when more was asked of the missionaries. For instance, the first of the three great unifiers who helped bring Japan out of the Warring States period, Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582), looked to the Jesuits to lure a Christian daimyo away from the service of a rival, which they did successfully. This incident points to the difficult position the Jesuits found themselves in. Oda certainly would not have been pleased had they refused or if they failed, but having succeeded in convincing one of their flock to abandon his lord for Oda’s sake, it was clear to him, and to other lords, that Jesuit influence could be used as easily against them as for them (Elison 1991; 49-53).

Thus, while Catholicism was useful, and in fact had to be useful for mission work to be tolerated, that usefulness made it potentially dangerous. Moreover, the ability of the Jesuits to facilitate trade was based on the loyalty they shared with Portuguese merchants to both king and pope, a set of allegiances (to foreigners no less) that could easily conflict with the loyalties demanded by a Japanese daimyo. In particular, many in Japan were concerned by the fact that the missionaries received financial support from European monarchs. While the missionaries protested that such support was the fruit of purely religious zeal, the Japanese were well aware of the close relationship between church and state in Europe, and, as they became familiar with the nature of Spanish power in Mexico and the Philippines, it was not hard to see some connection between the Catholic Church and conquest. Catholicism could thus never quite shake off the idea that, as a religion whose earthly focus was a foreign potentate and which was supported materially by foreign kings, that its followers might eventually rise up in rebellion to overthrow the non-Christian rulers of Japan (Elison 1991, 131-135).

The Catholic Church in Japan therefore possessed both powerful friends as well as powerful enemies. Unfortunately for the Catholics, the very nature of their faith meant that those aspects of it that provoked hostility were intrinsic to the religion, while those that won them friends were not. Catholicism could not cease being a religion with its earthly head in far-away Rome and a faith that demanded allegiance to only one God. It thus was distrusted by non-Christian lords and strongly opposed by all other religious groups in Japan, some of which could be just as exclusive as it, such as the followers of the Nichiren and True Pure Land sects of Buddhism. In contrast, the friends of Catholicism, apart from the converts, tolerated it only in so far as it proved useful. When the dangers it posed exceeded the boons it promised, tolerance ceased.

An illustrative case of this dynamic can be seen in 1586 when the Jesuit vice-provincial, Gaspar Coelho, rashly agreed to the second great unifier of Japan Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s (1537-1598) request that he not only arrange for Christian support in his invasion of Kyushu, the southern island in Japan where most of the Catholics were located, but also for Hideyoshi’s planned invasion of China. Coelho promised not only to obtain the assistance of Japanese Christians, but of the Portuguese as well. Hideyoshi was happy to have that help for his invasion of Kyushu, but shortly after its successful completion in 1587 he ordered the expulsion of all foreign missionaries, the apostasy of Japanese Catholics under the penalty of exile or death, and the seizure or destruction of Catholic property, primarily on the grounds that Catholic attacks on other religions threatened public order and stability. At the same time, Hideyoshi stressed that trade and religion were two separate matters and that the former could continue. Of course, they were not truly separate, and a number of Jesuits would publicly stay on in Japan to act as intermediaries for the trade with Hideyoshi’s permission. In fact, Hideyoshi did not seriously enforce the edict. The vast majority of the Jesuits remained in Japan, Japanese Catholics were largely left alone, and very little property was seized or destroyed. Hideyoshi would even continue to keep Christian vassals in his service and meet with foreign missionaries. Hideyoshi was not acting erratically. Rather, his actions were carefully calculated to put the Catholics on notice that they should behave themselves without threatening the loss of foreign trade, which Hideyoshi needed in his campaign to unite Japan (Boxer 1951, 143-154; Elison 1991, 109-126).

European politics played a key role in putting an end to this period of passive tolerance. Spanish Franciscans hoped to end the Portuguese Jesuit monopoly of mission work in Japan, thereby expanding their own spiritual authority and the temporal power of Spain. Their experience had been in areas conquered by Spain, leading the friars to be more combative and less subtle than their Jesuits colleagues. The dangers of such an attitude can be seen in the case of the San Felipe, a Spanish ship that ran aground in Japan in 1596. The local daimyo seized its cargo, and the Spanish captain and the Franciscans sought to win it back. When the Japanese government proved reluctant to return it, the Spanish captain intimated that such reticence might lead to a Spanish invasion of Japan. This was too much for Hideyoshi, who responded by having twenty-six Catholics arrested and executed. Of these twenty-six Europeans and Japanese Christians, twenty-three were Franciscans; three were Jesuits who had been included by mistake. Franciscans were singled out because they were connected to the Spanish whom Hideyoshi wanted to warn, as opposed to the Portuguese whom he did not want to alienate for fear of losing the trade they brought. Thus, while the aftermath of the incident would lead to more attacks on Catholicism than had occurred in 1587, there was no large-scale persecution (Boxer 1951; 137-187; Elison 1991, 136-141).

Hideyoshi died later on in 1598, leaving his young son Hideyori (1593-1615) as heir. Though sworn to protect Hideyori, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), the last great unifier of Japan and the future shōgun, would soon seize power for himself. A devout Buddhist, Ieyasu was no friend of Christianity, but like Hideyoshi, he was willing to tolerate Catholicism out of a desire for trade. Thus, even though one of Hideyoshi’s formal vassals, Konishi Yukinaga (1555-1600), would fight against Ieyasu at Sekigahara, the battle that paved the way for Ieyasu to be named shōgun in 1600 and be put to death for his opposition, Ieyasu did not blame Catholics as a whole for Konishi’s opposition, nor find in it a reason to persecute them. Instead, he rewarded his Catholic vassals who had sided with him and allowed Catholics the use of their churches in Nagasaki, Kyoto, and Osaka, which had been forbidden them by Hideyoshi (Boxer 1951; 181-186). However, such tolerance, which the Catholics hoped would lead eventually to the formal retraction of Hideyoshi’s anti-Catholic edicts, would not continue for long. The Catholic Church was large, numbering between 250,000 and 300,000 at this time, and was therefore a force to be reckoned with (Boxer 1951; 320-321). Moreover, Catholics were involved in several major political scandals, which, while not directly connected to Catholic doctrine, did not reflect well on the Church. At the same time that Catholics seemed to be both more troublesome and more numerous, the increasing presence of English and Dutch merchants broke the Catholic monopoly on trade (Boxer 1951, 248-307).

The costs of tolerating Catholicism were going up just as the need to tolerate it was declining. As a reflection of this changing situation, local persecutions of Catholics began to break out, such as one in 1613 in which several samurai were executed after they refused to obey their lord’s order to apostatize. Thousands of Catholics attended the execution, and while they behaved in an orderly way, they showed great enthusiasm for their faithand treated the dead, not as criminals, but as martyrs. In 1614, a government official informed Tokugawa Ieyasu about what had happened, emphasizing the threat of rebellion posed by Catholics so united and devout in their faith that they saw criminals as martyrs. The shogun responded by ordering the expulsion of the missionaries, the destruction of their property, and a ban on the practice of Catholicism by the Japanese people. While the Osaka campaign of 1614-1615, which cemented Tokugawa rule for more than two centuries, distracted Tokugawa from the Christian problem, his death in 1616 would bring to power a string of successors who would make sure that this proclamation against Catholicism, unlike Hideyoshi’s 1587 edict, would be carried out to the letter (Boxer 1951; 328-355).

In 1597 and 1613, Catholics had been executed in public in part to warn Japanese about the dangers of following the foreign religion and to communicate the state’s displeasure with it. Such public executions, which included commoners and lay people, continued until probably 1623, but far from frightening people away from Catholicism, Catholics gathered in great numbers to witness the executions and obtain some relic of the deceased. Since this policy was not working, in 1626, more aggressive officials took charge of the Tokugawa inquisition. Among these officials were apostates from Catholicism who understood the religion and the fact that martyrdom would only lead to an increase in faith. Therefore, while they did not hesitate to kill recalcitrant Catholics, they focused on obtaining apostasy through a combination of argument and torture, particularly such forms that could be applied for long periods of time without actually killing the victim, maximizing the opportunity for success without accidentally creating a martyr. By convincing Christians to deny their faith rather than die as martyrs they struck at the very center of the Catholic faith—that it is better to die than to deny Christ, and so sapped the morale of the Christian community. Such a careful use of torture won the apostasy in 1633 of the Portuguese Christovão Ferreira, the head of the Jesuit order in Japan, proving the power of this form of persuasion. Ferreira, along with other apostates, themselves became inquisitors, bringing a deeper knowledge of the faith and its weak points to the Tokugawa inquisition. These men were even able to obtain the apostasies of some of the missionaries sent to Japan in part to win them back to the faith. These tactics were written down and institutionalized so that future inquisitors would be able to learn from their predecessors (Boxer 1951, 355-397; Elison 1991, 185-211).

Realizing that martyrdom represented a victory for the Catholics, the Tokugawa state focused on apostasies. By 1633, it appeared that this strategy was a success and that the Catholic Church in Japan had been destroyed. What the inquistors did not realize was that although the community was battered by the apostasy of some of its leaders and by the pressure the state had brought to bear against it, many Japanese Catholics would use apostasy as a cover, pretending to be Buddhists publicly, but concealing a Christianity identity in their hearts and in the forms of crosses and other Christian symbols that they hid within traditional Japanese devotional art. Thus, when high taxes caused the people of once heavily Christian Shimabara and the surrounding area to rise up in rebellion in 1637, these Christians who had pretended to be Buddhists placed upon their banners Catholic symbols and went into battle with the names of Jesus and the saints on their lips. The rebellion, disturbing enough to the Tokugawa government, was made even more so by the unexpected difficulty the samurai had in putting down a rising whose members were primarily peasants with little or no military experience (Boxer 1951, 375-381; Elison 1991, 217-223).

It seemed to the Japanese government that its worst fears about Catholicism as a seditious religion were true. Thus, once the rebellion was put down, the government strengthened its inquisition, turning it into a truly national institution that had power throughout the country, no longer limited only to the lands of the shogun and those daimyo who supported it. Japanese people were legally required to register with a Buddhist temple where they stamped on a cross or religious image, in return for which they received a certificate that stated that they were not Christian (Hur 2007). Signboards at road crossings declared the evil of Christianity and a flood of propaganda in the form of lurid novels explained the evils of Christianity (Elison 1991, 212-247). While such efforts stifled any possibility of the spread of Christianity and probably led many to forsake their previous faith, they did not resolve the basic dilemma of Christians who denied Christ publicly but still believed in him privately. Thus every so often throughout the entire Tokugawa period, a pocket of Christians would be found and given the choice of apostasy or death (Nosco 2007). While it is not clear how many Catholics were killed during the Tokugawa shogunate, especially once the missionaries were forced out, one 1650 list puts it at 1,500, though C.R. Boxer estimates that it might have been up to 5,000 by that time. In any case, the death toll is probably in the thousands (360-361).

In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry forced open the doors of Japan, still ruled by the ailing Tokugawa shogunate, allowing Westerners to once again enter the country. A French priest obtained permission to open a church for the use of the foreign community, though he hoped that some remnant of the Japanese Catholics would find him, a hope that was fulfilled in 1865. He would secretly celebrate the sacraments for these Japanese Catholics as the chaos surrounding the fall of the Tokugawa Dynasty occupied the attention of most Japanese. However, in 1869, the year following the overthrow of the Tokugawa, representatives of the new Meiji government sent several thousand of these Catholics into exile throughout Japan. Though none were purposefully executed, the hardships these Christians suffered sent several hundred to an early grave (Harrington 1993). In the end, Western protests and the hope to obtain revision of unequal treaties by adopting Western civilization, including religious freedom, led the government to allow the Catholics to return home (Breen 1996). While many Japanese would continue in their animosity toward Christianity, there were essentially no more bouts of anti-Catholic violence, either sponsored by the state or on a popular level. In the end, the coming of Western influence, backed by a power much greater than that available to the Portuguese and Spanish, led the Japanese to embrace, imitate, and adapt many aspects of Western civilization, ending government-sponsored violence against Catholics in Japan. By contrast, in China, the inroads of Western imperialism, Western culture, and Christianity would provoke the most destructive episode of anti-Catholic violence in East Asia—the Boxer Rebellion.

Anti-Catholic Violence in China

When the Jesuits came to China in the late sixteenth century they found themselves facing a different situation from their cohorts in Japan. While Japanese samurai were struggling to establish a new order, Chinese officials were attempting to revitalize a declining one—the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). While this difference would shape the missionary strategy the Jesuits followed, the conditions were such that, as very visible foreigners, they had to obtain some sort of official recognition for their mission to have any security. Therefore, like their Japanese counterparts, they would show their usefulness, though not through mediating international trade, something the Ming government was uninterested in, but through their scientific and technical expertise in such areas as mathematics, clock making, painting, and engineering. Of key importance was the skill of many Jesuits in astronomy, for that science was necessary for the creation of an accurate calendar and the prediction of comets and eclipses, matters which legitimized the ruling dynasty by showing that it was in harmony with the universe and therefore still possessed Heaven’s mandate. The importance of these talents can be seen in the fact that the Jesuits were quickly appointed to serve the Ming Dynasty, and, when the latter was overthrown, the succeeding Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) (Bays 2012, 17-24; Brockey 2007, 25-91).

Of equal importance was the relative tolerance of the Chinese imperial system toward different religions. While Confucianism served as a sort of state orthodoxy, other teachings (jiao/敎) were accepted so long as they did not challenge Confucian morality, which would not only be bad for society, but could lead to open rebellion (Chen 1999). In other words, the Chinese imperial system valued the “good” over the “true,” orthopraxy over orthodoxy. Similarly, while the Chinese state was concerned with ritual, it was how that ritual affected social behavior that was of key importance. If the Jesuits could prove that Catholicism would reinforce the moral order rather than challenge it, they could hope for tolerance from the state. Thus, one of the first Jesuits to China, Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), developed a mission policy in which Catholicism put on Confucian dress (quite literally in the case of the missionaries themselves who wore Confucian robes) and Catholics argued that their faith was the fulfillment of Confucianism (Fontana 2011). The prize for their willingness to present their religion in this way was unofficial tolerance in the empire as technical experts, though the legal status of Chinese converts would remain unclear for nearly a century.

As in Japan, the Jesuits had competitors, though in their case their primary opponents were not Buddhists (nor Daoists), but Confucians who saw Catholicism, despite the argument that it was the fulfillment of Confucianism, as heterodox and dangerous. However, such opposition did not lead to state-sponsored violence until the Qing Dynasty, when an anti-Catholic Confucian, Yang Guangxian (1597-1669), in part at the behest of a Muslim astronomer who had lost his job to the Jesuits, criticized Catholicism as a threat to the empire. He argued that a Jesuit missionary, Johann Adam von Schall (1592-1666), had chosen an inauspicious day for the burial of an infant of the imperial household, causing the deaths of the emperor and his consort. The Jesuits at court, including Schall, and the Christian Chinese who worked in the Astronomical Bureau were arrested. However, the appearance of a comet and an earthquake shortly after these arrests were taken as signs of Heaven’s displeasure with the harsh sentences these men received. Schall and his fellow missionaries were pardoned, though the Chinese Christians were still executed. Yang himself was made director of the Astronomical Bureau, but proved incompetent, and after losing to Father Ferdinand Verbiest (1623-1688) in a contest of astronomic skill, was removed from office, with the Jesuits regaining their former status (Brockey 2007, 125-136).

Catholicism, enjoying a sort of unofficial tolerance thanks to the missionary-cum-scientists serving in the imperial court, experienced slow, but significant growth in the provinces. However, some local officials saw Catholicism as a dangerous religion. When a missionary went to court in the city of Hanzhou against a minor official who had ordered the posting of notices criticizing Catholicism, higher officials responded by prohibiting the religion, with Catholics to be punished with a flogging and the wearing of a cangue, a long board with a hole for the prisoner’s head, for two months. The missionary in turn went to the Jesuits at the imperial court in Beijing for help. In response, the Kangxi Emperor (r. 1661-1722), whom Father Verbiest had befriended, issued two edicts stating that the practice of Catholicism, even by Chinese Christians, was to be tolerated because it taught correct morality (Brockey 2007, 165-169).

The Jesuits were proud of their growing success as symbolized by these edicts, and publicized it throughout Europe in order to obtain funds and recruits. New missionaries did come, but not only were they Portuguese and Italian Jesuits, but French ones as well. So too, just as in Japan, came Spanish Dominicans and Franciscans, and joining their French countrymen were members of the more conservative Paris-based MEP (Société des Missions Étrangères de Paris). While some of these orders had served in China previously, their growing numbers would mean that they would have an increasing say in missionary policy in the empire. Conflict about this policy, as well as national interests and differences in the ethos and spirit of these missionary orders, would lead to criticism that the Jesuit attempts to dress Catholicism in Confucian clothing was tantamount to accepting idolatry. In particular, the Jesuit willingness to allow an adjusted form of ancestor rites and participation in rituals for Confucius drew especially harsh criticism. A succession of popes would rule against the Jesuits and their policy of accommodation, leading to conflict between the Holy See and the emperor of China. The cutting off of Catholics from traditional Chinese ritual obligations toward ancestors was understood by at least some Chinese as proof that Catholicism was indeed a pernicious faith that, by refusing to follow correct rituals, would only encourage dangerous social behavior. When in 1706 the Kangxi Emperor was informed, rather impolitely, of Pope Clement XI’s (r. 1700-1721) decision, he demanded that all Catholic missionaries who sided with the pontiff leave and that only those agreeing to abide by the usage of Matteo Ricci could remain. Some Jesuits accepted the emperor’s offer and sought to protect their confreres in the provinces who had refused and had gone into hiding (Bays 2012, 28-32; Brockey 2007, 164-192).

While Catholicism was still technically a tolerated faith, officials hostile to the religion saw this conflict as an opportunity to take action against it. For example, in 1706 a magistrate applied an edict issued by the Kangxi Emperor against various sects to include Catholicism as well, fining, imprisoning, and whipping a number of Catholics. When a Chinese Catholic presented the magistrate with documents, including an imperial edict, that showed that Catholicism was a tolerated religion, the magistrate tore them up and had the Catholic whipped (Mungello 2001, 73). Catholics were not necessarily cowed by this treatment. For instance, in 1709, when a magistrate arrested and imprisoned a European priest, a large number of Catholics appealed to him, demanding the missionary’s release and saying that they were ready to die for Christ (Mungello 2001, 110). Such popular Catholic resistance would have confirmed anti-Catholics in their belief of the danger the religion posed to both morality and the state. The death of the Kangxi Emperor in 1722 brought to power the Yongzheng Emperor (1722-1735), who, in addition to being generally suspicious of any threats to his power, particularly those coming from religious organizations, had a personal grudge against Catholicism, as missionaries had a close relationship to a Catholic competitor to his throne. Thus, when a high official in Fujian Province launched a local anti-Catholic persecution and then in 1723 suggested to the Yongzheng Emperor that it be applied on an empire-wide basis, the latter included Catholicism in a 1724 list of illegal religions, thus officially reversing the old policy of tolerance (Brockey 2007, 198-203).

While the Yongzheng Emperor’s withdrawal of formal tolerance led to the closing of Catholic churches and even some violence against Catholics, it did not lead to the mass martyrdoms that occurred in Japan when Catholicism was declared illegal there. In fact, in some localities where Catholicism had been long established Catholics were able to continue to practice their faith for long periods of time without government harassment. Even when the government did move against Catholics, the effects could be relatively minor as in two local persecutions launched in 1746 and 1755 that confined themselves to punishing Catholics with fines and light beatings, penalties that neither killed anyone nor even severely disrupted the community (Entenmann 1996). The state could have pressed its assault, but it chose not to, likely seeing that harshly persecuting a long-standing (and otherwise law-abiding) community would have caused more damage to local social order than any threat those particular Catholics posed.

However, it is important not to downplay the very real violence Catholics suffered. For one, the labeling of Catholicism as an evil cult and the harassment of Catholics and destruction of Catholic places of worship that followed led to a decline in the number of Catholics from over 200,000 to 120,000, though this number would rebound significantly by the early nineteenth century (Bays 2012, 31). Moreover in 1746 and 1747, several Chinese Catholics and five Catholic missionaries were executed by the Chinese state. Resulting in part out of a sense that the dynasty was in decline, violence increased in the three decades before the First Opium War (1839-1842) when at least ten Chinese and Western Catholics were executed.3 Just as in Japan, torture was used in an effort to convince Catholics to repudiate their faith. For example, Augustine Zhao Rong (1746-1815) died from a beating that was part of an attempt to obtain his apostasy (Clark 2011). However, the Chinese government did not display the same level of technical skill in terms of torture or sufficient knowledge of Catholicism necessary to win the number of apostasies, particularly among priests, that Japanese authorities had.4 Catholics were not deemed as serious a threat as they had been in Japan, partly because they had not penetrated so deeply into the fabric of national life in China as they had in the island nation. But more importantly, the useful services still provided by the missionary priests at court provided Catholicism enough of an official presence that it could not be eliminated completely.

It would not be the Chinese government that killed the most Catholics, but rather hostile Chinese peasants, the very class that also constituted the bulk of the faithful. The roots of their hostility towards Catholicism can be traced to the 1844 treaty the Qing Empire signed with France in which the French obtained imperial edicts declaring Catholicism to be orthodox and guaranteeing that Catholic property which had been confiscated would be returned (Charbonnier 2007; 319-320). The French government, by promoting itself as the protector of Catholic missions, strove to ensure that these edicts were carried out, with force if necessary. Catholics were emboldened by this new status and began to assert their new rights forcefully. In adherence to their monotheistic beliefs Catholics refused to contribute to Chinese operas or to communal religious ceremonies, which led to divisions and even violence within the community (Litzinger 1996). In one case, members of a village who had converted to Catholicism demanded their share of communal land that had been used to support the village temple, leading to a long dispute that damaged the social cohesion and order of the community. At the same time, Catholic boldness meant they would no longer simply be passive victims of violence but might actively engage in it themselves. For instance, rival gangs of Baptists and Catholics fought violently for economic and political hegemony in their area (Lee 2000, 119–159). Some people even converted to Catholicism in order to obtain missionary help in settling lawsuits or as a way to gain status and power (Turbet 2002). Such negative images of Catholicism seemed to actualize anti-Christian propaganda that was inspired by the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864). Moreover, the growth of Catholic power threatened the gentry, as Catholic missionaries were winning over people who normally looked to them for support and thereby had served as their followers (Cohen 1963).

Frustrated with the central government of the Qing Dynasty which, on account of the treaties and fears of Western intervention, could not use violence to suppress a religion that was seen as a dangerous and immoral cult for its rejection of rituals toward the gods or ancestral spirits, local officials, gentry, and even the common people would take violence into their own hands. An illustrative example is the Tianjin Incident, which occurred in the city of that name a decade after a Catholic order of nuns took up residence in that city and opened an orphanage in 1860. Because of the general distrust of missionaries and the fact that the nuns were willing to pay a bounty for abandoned children brought to them, there arose rumors that they were killing the children and using their organs for medicine. In 1870, these rumors and the hostility they generated, in combination with conflict involving missions and both Chinese and French officials, led to riots throughout the city that killed Catholic nuns, non-Catholic missionaries, and foreigners unattached to the missions. The Qing Empire was forced to apologize and pay reparations (Cohen 1963).

Such attacks on missionaries and other Westerners helped convince the Western empires that since the Qing could not protect their citizens, they would have to do so, leading to an increase in foreign influence in China. In conjunction with a massive drought, this led to the replay of the Tianjin Incident on a much wider scale in the form of the Boxer Rebellion (1898-1902). Here, Chinese peasants, waiting for rains that did not fall, gathered together to practice traditional martial arts; along with other Chinese, they came to the conclusion that it was the foreign religion, which they believed had insulted gods and ancestors, that had caused the drought. These so-called Boxers, often with the support of government officials, then rose up to attack anything and anyone connected with the hated West, including fellow Chinese. While both Protestants and Catholic Christians were targeted, the concentration of Catholics in the countryside meant that they would endure much of the violence, leading to the deaths of several tens of thousands (Cohen 1997; Esherick 1987). While some Catholics died in attempts to defend themselves or were simply massacred, the Boxers and their supporters, like the state, often gave Catholics the opportunity to apostatize, sparing those who did and executing those who did not (Clark 2011, 102-112). Thus, in China, popular hostility to Catholicism killed more Catholics in a few years than had been executed by the state in the 300 years since Catholicism had come to China.

Anti-Catholic Violence in Korea

Catholic missionaries in Korea would not serve the government in any capacity until the late nineteenth century and would therefore lack the influence used by their confreres in Japan and China to obtain some measure of tolerance (Rausch 2013b). This meant that Korean Catholics would suffer from government-sponsored violence almost immediately after the Catholic community took form there in 1784. These persecutions became quite violent, killing more Catholics than were killed by the Chinese state, and perhaps even the Japanese government. Curiously, it was the weakness of the kings of Chosŏn-dynasty Korea (1392-1910) who, except for brief periods when exceptionally powerful personalities sat upon the throne, lacked the power held by the Tokugawa shoguns and the Ming and Qing emperors, that led to the severity of anti-Catholic violence there. While the Korean government was centralized and similar in organization to imperial China, the power of Korean kings was limited by the powerful yangban (兩班) aristocracy, who, despite having to pass Chinese-style civil service exams to maintain their high status, were in many ways essentially a hereditary nobility. This nobility was in itself divided into competing political factions that struggled for influence over the king and positions within the government (Palais 1991). Thus, factionalism and court politics were often closely connected to the actual breakout of violence against Catholics. In general, a regent ruling on behalf of a minor king would launch a persecution that lasted only about a year or so. These persecutions would help create a target around which the officials, aristocracy, and king could unite, strengthening the government, and, in some cases, allowing one faction to push a rival faction from power. These instances of anti-Catholic violence typically lasted just long enough to seriously damage, but not destroy, the Catholic community (Rausch 2012).

This is not to say that Catholicism was simply a convenient scapegoat. Enmity against Catholicism could not have inspired unity unless the religion was perceived as dangerous, a perception that would build after Korean scholars were exposed to Catholicism in the first part of the seventeenth century through books written by Jesuit missionaries that they obtained through the numerous tribute missions the Chosŏn state sent to Beijing. These scholars, deeply shaped by Chinese Confucian culture, read these Chinese-language texts, and like their Chinese counterparts, they rejected Catholicism in no uncertain terms, seeing its doctrines as absurd and its morality as counter to that of Confucius and Mencius. While most scholars remained hostile to Catholicism in the late eighteenth century, some began to feel that they were living in a period of decline that traditional Neo-Confucianism could not reverse. In particular, men connected to one particular scholar—Sŏngho Yi Ik (1681-1763) and a particular faction, the Namin, or Southerners, were open to learning techniques of moral development from Catholics. Some even went so far as to embrace the religion itself. One such scholar, Yi Sŭnghun (1756-1801), was able to accompany his father, who had been appointed a member of a tribute mission, to Beijing. In 1784, while there, Yi received baptism and the name “Peter” from a French missionary. Upon his return to Korea, Peter began to spread his new faith, and it quickly leapt over class and gender boundaries to include not only male scholars, but also women and commoners (Baker 1983, 1998, 1999, 2006, 2008; Choi 2006; Rausch 2008, 2011).5

The fact that Koreans interested in Catholicism went out to obtain the faith rather than waiting for missionaries is important for several reasons. First, such contacts were in fact illegal, making Korean Catholics not only appear to be followers of a strange religion, but people who were actively seeking out contact with foreigners, thus arousing fears of rebellion. This helps account for the ferocity of violence against Catholics, especially in the persecution of 1866-1871, when French and American naval and infantry forces actually invaded Korea. In addition, the fact that missionaries did not play a direct role in the transmission of Catholicism to Korea meant that they were not there to offer useful assistance to the state. There were no Jesuits in the Korean court to produce a calendar or predict eclipses. Nor were there any to act as intermediaries for trade, and even if there had been, the Chosŏn state did not in any case look favorably on mercantile activities. What knowledge Koreans desired they could gain through books or European missionaries residing in China. Korean Catholics thus lacked the protectors possessed by the missions in China and Japan during the formative years of the Catholic Church in those two countries.

This lack of missionary protectors meant that violence against Catholics began in Korea almost immediately after the first Catholics appeared on the peninsula. The Catholic community often met in the home of Thomas Kim Pǒmu (1751-1787), a government translator. Meetings had gone on at the house for several months when, in the spring of 1785, an officer of the board of punishments, thinking that drinking and gambling were going on inside the house, entered to find the Catholics engaged in prayer. While the yangban were simply admonished and sent on their way, Kim Pǒmu was tortured. Refusing to repudiate Catholicism, he was sent into exile but died from the harsh treatment he had suffered. King Chŏngjo (r. 1776-1800), relied on Southerners as part of his government and did not want an anti-Catholic persecution to lead to the destruction of his supporters. He therefore prevented the violence from spreading, instead focusing on destroying Catholic books and calling for a return to traditional Neo-Confucian scholarship. However, Catholic behavior soon horrified the government, provoking further persecution. For instance, two Catholics burned their ancestor tablets, leading to their decapitation in 1791. Similarly, in 1794 Catholics had smuggled a Chinese priest into Korea and three members of the community were beaten to death the following year in an attempt to force them to confess the whereabouts of the cleric (Baker 1983, 1999; Rausch 2011).

In an attempt to locate the Chinese priest, a major regional persecution was launched in 1797. While there have been claims that upwards of one-hundred Catholics were killed in the resulting violence, I have only been able to find information on eight men who were executed. For the most part, they seem to have been targeted because they were socially prominent, publicly active in practicing and spreading Catholicism, or related to someone who was. In all of these cases, serious and long-lasting efforts were made to convince them to give up Catholicism before they were executed. At this time, as in previous uses of violence against Korean Catholics, those who were willing to repudiate Catholicism were freed without additional punishment, which in turn led many to resume practicing Catholicism once they were released. Relapses into Catholicism are indicative of the fact that despite seeing Catholicism as a danger, Chosŏn officials simply did not understand the religion’s doctrines and therefore could not argue as effectively as the Japanese inquisitors could. Thus, many Catholics who repudiated their faith did so not because they really had come to believe it was false, but because they simply could not withstand further torture (Rausch 2011; 2012).

In 1801, Chŏngjo died and his minor son Sunjo came to the throne with a regent who, realizing her and her charge’s weakness, entered into an alliance with the anti-Catholic Old Doctrine (Noron) Faction, which led to the violent persecution of that year. The Old Doctrine-dominated government moved quickly to execute prominent Catholics, including those who should have been spared for repudiating Catholicism. However, they did not stop there, proving that while factionalism was an important factor in the persecution of Catholics, it was not the only one. The state now tortured Catholics who had no factional affiliation, including commoners, slaves, and women. If they repudiated their faith, they were sent into exile, rather than released without further punishment as in the past. On the other hand, if the authorities failed to convince them to abandon Catholicism, they would be executed as rebels, typically by decapitation. This image of Catholicism as dangerous to the state was solidified by the discovery of a letter written on a piece of silk by a Catholic hoping to have it smuggled into China; it asked the pope to arrange the dispatch of a Western armada to force Korea to tolerate Catholicism (Rausch 2009, 2011).

The persecution of 1801 killed several hundred Catholics and devastated the Catholic Church in Korea. However, new leaders emerged, rebuilt the community, and by 1811 had re-established contact with the diocese of Beijing and requested that new priests be sent to Korea. The Catholic Church in Korea grew large enough and strong enough to endure localized persecutions in 1815 and 1827 that killed several Catholics. Several years later, Korea was placed under the charge of French missionaries of the MEP. The first MEP missionary to arrive safely in Korea did so in 1836, and was joined shortly thereafter by another priest and a bishop. From 1836 to 1839, the Catholic Church grew from 6,000 to 9,000 believers. As it is estimated that there had been 10,000 in 1801, it can be seen just how devastating the suppression of that year had been. However, the growth of the religion, the presence of foreign missionaries, the rise to power of elements within the government who saw Catholicism as a serious threat, and a minor king upon the throne vulnerable to factional influence led again to a major suppression in 1839 that killed approximately one-hundred Catholics, including all of the clerics (Rausch 2012). French missionaries sneaked into the country again in 1845 under the guidance of the first Korean priest, Andrew Kim Taegŏn (1821-1846). The following year he was discovered scouting out other routes for bringing in French clerics and was executed in the beginning of the short but sharp persecution of 1846 (Choi 2006).

After this bout of anti-Catholic violence, Catholics in Korea were largely left alone during the reign of King Ch’ŏljong (r. 1850-1863). This allowed the Catholic community to grow to 23,000 members served by two bishops and ten priests. However, the king’s death led to the ascension of King Kojong (r. 1864-1907), a minor whose father Yi Haŭng (1820-1898) acted as regent. Concerned about reports of Russian ships in Korean waters, Yi entered into talks with Korean Catholics about the possibility of arranging an alliance with France to check the Russians. The departure of the Russian ships removed that threat, and subsequently Yi decided to suppress Catholicism as part of his policy of active resistance to any Western efforts to “open” Korea. This led to what is commonly known as the “Persecution of 1866,” which would continue in spasmodic episodes of violence until 1871, usually provoked by incursions into Korea of foreign, principally French or American, armadas. There have been claims that as many as 8,000 Catholics died during this time. Considering that the Catholic community numbered around 23,000 in 1866, this would have meant the death of approximately one-third of all Catholics. While this number is likely too high, it does indicate that the violence of this period was much more intense than that of previous times (Rausch 2012; Roux 2012).

The government search for Catholics during this persecution was so thorough that all of the French missionaries were either killed or forced to flee Korea. They would not return until 1876, the same year Japan forced Korea to accept an agreement “opening” the country. By that time, King Kojong had asserted his right to rule and departed from his father’s policy of seclusion (Chang 2006, 139-180). As Korea became increasingly open to the outside world, anti-Catholic violence petered out, first ceasing to target priests and then lay people (Deuchler 1977). An 1886 treaty with France backed up by gunboats finally obtained something like legal tolerance for the Catholic Church (Ch’oe 1983; Chang 2005, 2006). But not all Koreans believed that such tolerance was warranted. Looked down upon as members of a heterodox religion, Korean Catholics were often the targets of assault or theft by their neighbors. Government officials frequently refused to protect them and in fact, often themselves attacked Catholics, sometimes simply in order to seize their money or property. Because of this, Catholics increasingly turned to the missionaries and the French consul for protection. French willingness to intervene then led some to convert to the new religion in order to obtain the help of powerful foreigners (Chang 2005, 2006).

Thus, just as in China, the coming of state tolerance, forced through by France, was followed by popular hostility in Korea, leading to violence against Catholics. For instance, mass conversions to Catholicism, French missionary support of Catholics, and the role some Catholics played in tax collecting led to popular hostility and pitched battles between Catholics and non-Catholics on Cheju Island in 1901, which ended in the massacre of several hundred Catholics (Walraven 2009). When between 1897 and 1903 a series of conflicts broke out between Catholics and non-Catholics in Hwanghae Province, the so-called Haesŏ Incident, a potential massacre was prevented when the Chosŏn state took strong actions against the Catholics and Bishop Gustave Mutel, the head of the Catholic Church in Korea, withdrew a missionary who had aggressively asserted the interests of his flock (Rausch 2013a; Rausch 2013b). It is in part because Mutel’s prudence that popular violence against Catholics in Korea never reached the levels it had in China.


In all three East Asian countries, Catholicism’s connection with foreign countries, its tight-knit organization, and its allegedly socially disruptive doctrines, particularly those condemning “idolatry” and demanding exclusive loyalty to one God, were important factors in the decision by the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean states to use violence against Catholics. While other factors were at work, the actual occurrence of state-sponsored violences, and its intensity and scope, depended mostly on how useful missionaries were to these Asian governments. In Japan, so long as the trade that Catholic missionaries helped mediate was considered necessary, the Catholic community was generally tolerated; but once trade was no longer important, Catholics were killed in large numbers. In contrast, the continued need for missionary scientists, artists, and technicians at court in China restricted the use of violence against Catholics, even when the religion was prohibited and Catholics were sporadically killed for following it. In Korea, the lack of missionary protectors led to numerous short but sharp persecutions that killed many more Catholics than had been executed by the state in China, and this despite the fact that at its height the Catholic community in Korea numbered only about one-tenth of that in China. Moreover, though never quite as well organized or methodical as the Japanese anti-Catholic persecutions, the number of deaths in Korea was comparable, despite the fact that Korean Catholic Church members never numbered more than about one-tenth of Japanese Catholics. While other factors no doubt played a role, even the relatively weak Korean government killed Catholics with particular ferocity and effectiveness. And this happened in a large part because the religion was deemed particularly dangerous and the missionaries were seen as having no use for the state.

While fewer Catholics would die at the hands of the Chinese state than any of the other East Asian governments, popular animosity against Catholicism would lead to the deaths of more Catholics in that country during the Boxer Rebellion than in all of the years of anti-Catholic persecution in China and Korea (and likely Japan) combined. This was due to strong Chinese popular resentment against Western imperial power as expressed at the grassroots level in reaction to missionaries and Chinese Christians. Comparative anti-Catholic movements in Korea were not nearly as widespread, in part because it was the Japanese, not the Western countries, that encroached most closely upon Korea, and in part because missionaries, possibly learning from the Boxer Rebellion (and definitely learning from the Cheju Incident), sought to prevent them from occurring (Rausch 2013b). In Japan, no such popular hostility leading to violence occurred. This is likely because Japan successfully resisted Western imperialism, and so Catholics never had the power that provoked such hostility in China and Korea. Moreover, the Japanese government was much stronger than the Qing and Chosŏn states and therefore would have been better able to protect Catholics against such attacks if they had materialized. Moreover, as seen in the Meiji Constitution of 1890, with its protection for religious freedom, the Japanese state was more committed to protecting the rights of religious minorities.

This paper has examined the causes of religious violence against Catholics, focusing on governments and missionaries. Little, however, has been said about those who most suffered the violence, namely the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Catholics, men and women, young and old. It is therefore fitting to end with a brief reflection on them. While not all behaved as saints, in the end, many of these people chose to suffer and die rather than recant the beliefs they held to be true. If religious violence is a stain upon human nature, than perhaps the willingness to endure that same violence is a testament to the dignity of the human person and the ability to choose the true and the good over power or survival.

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(1) I would like to thank Dr. Robert Figueria of the Lander University Department of History and Philosophy for his assistance in preparing this manuscript. I would also like to express my gratitude for the helpful comments made by the anonymous reviewer.

(2) This study will often refer to C.R. Boxer’s The Christian Century in Japan and George Elison’s Deus Destroyed. Boxer’s work provides an excellent chronology of this period in Japanese history and a thorough analysis of anti-Catholic violence and its causes. Elison expands on this account by going more deeply into the issue of violence.

(3) I am referring here to people who have been canonized saints by the Catholic Church. More Catholics in China who were not canonized were likely killed during this time. For a list of the Catholic saints of China, see the Vatican website.

“Agostino Zhao Rong (+1815) and 119 Companions and Martyrs in China (+1648-1930),” last modified October 1st 2000, accessed August 13, 2013,

(4) I know of no Catholic priests who apostatized in China during this period.

(5) Baker and Rausch both focus on this early period of Catholicism in their respective dissertations. Choi, in his book, provides an overview of the history of Catholicism during the persecutions in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.