Religion in Modern Asia Newsletter

Christianity Among Korean Chinese


During the summers of 1994 and 1995, I undertook a survey of Christianity among Koreans living in the northeast area of China. This area, where the former country of "Manchukuo" was established, now contains large numbers of Koreans who immigrated decades ago, either hoping to relieve their poverty, or as part of anti-Japanese opposition forces. Christianity has been popular among this group of emigre Koreans since the 1930s, and their churches frequently became the focal point for anti-Japanese movements. But with the defeat of Japan in 1945, the region inevitably came under the control of the Communist Party, and Christianity was either suppressed, forced to die out, or continued only as a hidden, underground religious movement. This situation continued for a full thirty years until the early 1980s, when freedom was given for religious activities.

Since around the time of normalization of relations between China and South Korea in 1992, the Christianity of Korean Chinese has begun showing increased signs of animation, in both better and worse ways. In the "better" sense, Chinese Korean churches have been allowed to accept both material and personnel assistance from churches in South Korea. On the other hand, the enlivened concourse with South Korea has likewise made it difficult to avoid problems with "heretical" groups. In fact, the so-called hyugeo ("rapture") incident instigated by the Tami Missionary Church, in which it was claimed that the world would end on October 28, 1992, not only sent reverberations throughout South Korea, but spread its effects as far away as the Koreans living in the Yan-bian area of China. This resulted in the fomenting of serious social problems, including suicides and abandonment of businesses, and led the Chinese authorities to respond by forcibly closing at least one church. But in any event, the economic and other wide-ranging policy changes being recently promoted by the Chinese government have brought about severe inequalities in economic status among the people, and Christianity is playing an important role as support in the context of such social problems.

In my survey, I found that the most common motives given by Korean Chinese for their Christian faith could be divided into the following three categories: first, those who continue to maintain a faith held since before the unification of China under Communist control. Naturally, this category of people is limited to the elderly, and it goes without saying that the current resurgence of Christianity owes much to these believers.

Second are those who first began going to church in hopes of healing for a sickness; this motive can be considered a reflection of the social problems faced by the Chinese state, including the incomplete state of its health-care system.

Third, and the group I consider most noteworthy, are those who came to Christianity via the route of fortune telling, shamanism and other elements of the so-called "folk sector." This group includes both those who converted after being previously clients of fortune tellers and other folk-religious practitioners, and those converts who came to Christianity after formerly being themselves folk-religious practitioners, namely fortune tellers or shamans. It was surprising for me to encounter the signs of such continuing folk beliefs, maintained secretly despite the lengthy period of suppression of religion and superstition under the Communist government. Further, while it is commonly pointed out that a traditional shamanistic "ethos" continues to exist at the base of Korean Christianity and its new religions, it is significant that a closely analogous form can also be detected among the Korean population of China, despite the fact that such traditional religious forms were ostensibly extinguished. That fact may suggest one unique trait of the Korean people as a nation.

In areas where Koreans live in proximity with Chinese, the two ethnic groups maintain strict separation of their Christian religious observances--with the exception of Christmas and Easter--despite the fact that they share a single place of worship (churches are legally limited to one per area). The separation is so complete that members of each group do not even know the names of the religious officials in the other church. This is another display of the way in which folk traits, or a basis for folk identity, are taken into Christianity, even though the latter is normally assumed to be a universal religion.

-- Jan 1, 1996, MANABE Yuko

Last updated: 2001/11/28 14:33:41

Copyright © 2001 Institute for Japanese Culture and Classics, Kokugakuin University. All Rights Reserved.