Social Darwinism in Korea and its Influence on Early Modern Korean
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Social Darwinism in Korea and its Influence on Early Modern Korean
Vladimir Tikhonov (Oslo University)
In the December 1931 issue (num. 28) of the popular Korean journal, Tonggwang (The Eastern Light), a poem in prose appeared, the name and content of which represented to a very high degree the Zeitgeist of pre-colonial and early colonial modernity in Korea. The poem was titled “The New Understanding of Might”, and its lines read as follows:
“The Cosmos is Might. All phenomena are the rhythm of the energy’s metamorphoses. There is no Cosmos without Might. Now, the war clouds are hanging heavy over the continent of Asia. The attack is signalled, the storm is ordered, and the cannon smoke is rising. This is the expression of a nation’s might. The strengths of two nations collide with each other.
There are no plainer representations of the form of Might than War. It is just like wind, water and lightning representing best the force of Nature.
War requires healthy physical, intellectual, and spiritual strength […] War between two nations is, in the end, the comparison of the complex strengths of the two contestants.
But the problem is just that we do not possess this strength, The Might of body, brains, and spirit. That is why, on today’s scene where the whole of humanity is mobilized and already gone into action, we cannot assume a role and just crouch behind the curtain, a bunch of people without even a family name! But, when we acquire strength, humanity will politely send us an invitation to the scene.
Today is the day of the cultivation of strength!”
This small poem, well-timed to the Manchurian Incident (September 18, 1931) and the start of the new round of Japanese aggression against China, is interesting not only for its – dubious, at best, - literary merits, but also because it was written by a highly symbolical figure in early modern Korean intellectual history – Lee Gwangsu (1892-?), an acknowledged first classic of the modern Korean novel and one of the most eminent theoreticians of moderate cultural nationalism in colonial Korea. But, while the connection between the poem’s blunt Social Darwinist cult of Might and nationalist thought can look fully possible to any commonsensical view, other important features of the author’s profile will definitely [v1] look highly incompatible with the paeans to might and violence: Lee Gwangsu started his career as a devoted Protestant Christian and Tolstoy’s most influential follower in Korea, and later combined both Christianity and Buddhism into a sort of synthetic religion built on “universal ethical” foundations. Two of his most important novels are dedicated to the Buddhist devotees and learned monks of early Korea (6-7th C.), and he is known to have spent his last years – after the end of Japanese colonialism and before the Korean War – in the temple where his relative, a famous Buddhist scholar, was an abbot. The natural question arises: how the religious – Buddhist – devotion with explicit “universal ethical” overtones could co-exist with the hymns to violent strength? And another question – very important even now to the Korean public still traumatized with the reality of pro-Japanese collaboration by the large part of colonial Korean elite – is: what kind of motives eventually led Lee Gwangsu, a deeply religious person and nationalistic Social Darwinist simultaneously as he was in his own way, to become one of the leading pro-Japanese literati at the time of Pacific War, and to write some of the most notorious examples of poetical praise for Japanese military efforts? In a word: how did it happen that a person’s Buddhist religious beliefs were so well adopted and adjusted to the “national might”-centred Social Darwinist worldview, to the point of acknowledging and praising Japanese expansionist designs built, in certain aspects, on the basis of popularised Social Darwinist schemes?
The first way to explain this unlikely fusion of merciful religion and a quite merciless modern creed is to remember to what degree the impact of Social Darwinism on early modern Korean intelligentsia was strong and lasting. The impact was extremely deep and pervasive. For some time (approximately between the 1900s and 1920s) Social Darwinism functioned as a common, unifying mood of thinking for almost all major groups and personalities of modernization-oriented urban intelligentsia, certain individuals able to transcend its boundaries after being strongly influenced by it remaining a small minority. This contrasts sharply with the situation in Japan, where by 1900s the influence of Social Darwinism, once paramount, started to wane quickly, mainly on account of the strengthening of “Imperial Way” official ideology among the Right and deeper acquaintance with Socialist doctrines among the leftist opposition. But in the case of Korea, even after the beginning of ideological demarcation between the Right and the Left in the 1920s, when much more elaborate ideological constructions started to be built instead, Social Darwinism still was recognized – quite openly on the Right and more implicitly on the Left – as a certain set of almost infallible basic assumptions about the essential nature of modern society, if not human society in general. Before, in its heyday in the 1900s-1910s, Social Darwinism was taken very much as a totalising, all-explaining ideology able to supplant – or, in some less popular variations, augment and “modernize” - the “eternal truth” of Confucian teaching as a guiding spirit in both private and social life. For many young intellectuals aspiring to understand the basic principles of the new, “enlightened and modern” world, Social Darwinism was to very high degree synonymous with “foreign thought” and “modernity” as such – the more so, as this creed was on the one hand totally unconnected to the ideologies of traditional time, having no analogues, not even very crude ones, among them, and on the other hand structurally close to orthodox Neo-Confucianism as a philosophy explaining both natural and social phenomena. Before the transition through Japan or directly from the USA took place, Social Darwinist assumptions remained fully unknown even to the most progressive of Confucian literati of the 1870- early 1880s (until 1883): anything even remotely resembling it could hardly emerge in the realm of orthodox Neo-Confucian ethicist doctrine. The commonplace among the more progressive part of the traditional Confucian political class of the 1870- early 1880s was the talk about the necessity of self-strengthening in the world of aggressive warring Western states in order, say, to forestall the Russian expansion, but the idea of war, aggression and expansion as a positive necessity of evolutionary process still never entered the Confucian minds before the experience of Japanese and Western education came. At the same time, a general crisis of Neo-Confucian ideology - which already was keenly felt in the 18th C., leading to the blooming of less rigid and more practical interpretations of Confucianism collectively known as Sirhak (Real Learning School) - created a certain demand for a new all-explaining, all-encompassing creed – the demand Social Darwinism practically satisfied for several decades of early modern Korean history.
The rush to introduce, internalise, and utilize Social Darwinism so characteristic of “pro-modern” Korean intellectuals of the 1880-1920’s can be understood and explained from several viewpoints. One, the most conventional, is to recall that harsh realities of the time – internal crisis aggravated by external aggression threatening the very existence of independent Korean statehood - naturally sparked the interest in the theory supposedly explaining the deeper evolutionary context of international rivalry and showing in most manifest ways the urgent necessity of “self-strengthening” and reforms. In this connection, it is also usually recalled that, in the Korean – as well as in the Chinese and Japanese - case, the “struggle for survival” was generally understood, first and foremost, as rivalry between nations, not persons, while “cooperation and patriotism” were supposed to be the most optimal and effective way of interaction between the subjects of the same state. In a nutshell, this popular view concentrates the attention on the fact that the state or “nation” (after the demise of Korean statehood in 1910), not an individual, was the subject of “struggle” and “evolution” for Korean Social Darwinists – the members of a reformist elite group using the imported ideology for the first attempts at the “modernization from above”. The same penchant for interpreting the dogma of “evolutionary struggle” as first and foremost competition between groups (qun), was, as has often been noted by researchers, characteristic also of the prominent Chinese and Japanese followers of the Darwinian creed (notably, Liang Qichao and Kat? Hiroyuki). The famous phrase from Liang Qichao’s well-known manifesto, Xinminshuo (New People), - “Freedom means freedom for the group, not freedom for the individual. (…) Men must not be slaves to other men, but they must be slaves to their group. For, if they are not slaves to their own group, they will assuredly become slaves to some other” - can be seen as the best succinct definition of the East Asian Social Darwinism’s general attitude towards the problem of the relationship between an individual and his collective.
Another view also emphasizes that, while being used sometimes for diametrically opposing purposes (by pro-Japanese Koreans in order to justify the Japanese war against Russia as part of “racial struggle for survival”, and by anti-Japanese authors in order to support an all-out “struggle for existence” against Japan), Social Darwinism remained a predominantly elitist tool, useful for denouncing or deploring the “unenlightened state” of the masses and advocating the priority of “state’s rights” (kukkw?n) over that of state’s subjects (minkw?n) by the small circle of “enlightened” reformists. A very interesting recent study of comparatively late Social Darwinist writings of the 1920s stresses the Westernising zeal of elitist reformers – self-appointed “chosen”, “central” class, who considered as its mission the thorough destruction of Confucian tradition, to be replaced by “Western” mentality and institutions. What transformed into the theory of the elitist “reconstruction collective” (kaejoju?i tanch’e, in Lee Gwangsu’s popular terminology) in the 1920s, when Korea was already deprived of the independent statehood, was dominant infatuation of the Social Darwinists of the 1900s with J.K.Bluntschli’s ideas of “organic” statehood, popularised by contemporary Chinese and Japanese ideologues (again, Liang Qichao and Kat? Hiroyuki played key roles). While Liang Qichao stated authoritatively in Xinminshuo, that “the state is the highest form of the group”, one of Liang’s Korean adepts, Kim S?ngh?i, was busy explaining to his compatriots in graphical terms of human anatomy and architecture what “state” meant to “modern humanity”:
“Humans are made, from the viewpoint of their physiology, of four limbs, five organs, and the arteries for the movement of globules. That is a ‘group’ on the individual level. (…) Groups, consisting of thousands and tens of thousand people make up the independent states, which inside resemble interlinks between wooden beams and well-adjusted stones in a house. (…) If a wooden beam or a stone would not be a part of a group, the house could not stay independent.” The independence of the state under the rule of a modernizing elite, sought by Korean Social Darwinists, meant the deepening of the masses’ dependence on the elite-dominated “modern” institutions (army, press, schools), and that fact was well reflected in the Social Darwinist theoretical writings, some of them notorious for advocating extreme forms of statism (Kor. kukkaju?i; Jap. kokkashugi).
Completely agreeing with the emphasis put by most South Korean researchers of this phenomenon on its elitist and predominantly – but not always - anti-traditional nature and primacy of state/”nation”-level concerns in its discourse, I want to show in the present paper how the Social Darwinist instruments were used by reformist members of a definitely low-status group – the Buddhist community – in order not to destroy, but on the contrary to vindicate and defend their tradition as able and worthy to survive in the “evolutionary struggle”. Thus, I wish to emphasize that, for the members of a traditionally discriminated religious community, the demise of Confucian teachings and the import of a new and different “modern” ideology represented hope and opportunity for serious advancement on the social ladder. Also it should be emphasized that their attitude to Social Darwinism was – probably, even in higher degree than the dominant elitist approach of the times - explicitly utilitarian, instrumentalist and “creative”: the Western ideology, rather than being taken as a complete truthful explanation of the society and nature, was just utilized for strategic and tactical purposes as a useful tool to promote certain reforms – religiously motivated anyway – inside the community and to defend the positions of the community externally. In a way, the Buddhist reformist attitudes to Social Darwinism examined here are interesting examples of an attempt by a non-Western tradition at selective appropriation – in good “Eastern spirit, Western technique” fashion, it can be said, - of Western ideological instruments for survival and growth in a new, West-defined world. But, before starting to speak on the Buddhist encounter with Social Darwinism, I should first like to mention the main channels used for importing Social Darwinism into Korea.
- First Encounters with Social Darwinism:
Chronologically speaking, the first route for introduction of the new “guiding principle” for natural, personal and social life was via Japan and the United States simultaneously. It is not so surprising if we remember that one of the first “apostles” of Spenserian theory in Japan was an American biologist, Edward Morse (1838-1925), who started to teach zoology in the newly established University of Tokyo in 1877. One of first Korean students to be sent to Japan in 1881, Yu Giljun (1856-1914) – the person to become the future architect of Japan-guided radical Kabo reforms of 1894-1895, - was so interested in Morse teachings, as interpreted to him by his Japanese mentor, the famous Fukuzawa Yukichi (1835-1901), that, when sent to the USA in the entourage of the Korean envoy in 1883, he went to study directly under Morse (who had already returned home) in the Peabody Museum (Salem, Massachusetts). The product of this first direct transmission of Western Social-Darwinist ideas onto Korean soil was a small treatise, titled explicitly Ky?ngjaeng non (On Competition), written by Yu presumably soon after his return from Japan in 1883 and before the trip to the USA. This treatise – which remained unpublished, but very likely was circulated privately in intellectual circles - signalises a radical change in Yu’s ideas, which previously were mostly formed by liberal interpretation of Confucianism in the tradition of the “Real Learning School”. Yu’s memorial to the throne written in 1883, before his departure to the USA, was mostly concerned with the implications of international law (man’guk kongb?p) in the question of the legal status of Korean residents in Russian Maritime Province and possible hostile designs by Russians, but did not even mention the word “competition”. However, his treatise on competition does not even mention international law. In a nutshell, it states that competition, both on the interpersonal and interstate levels, shapes everything in the world. A sweeping statement to this end opens the first page of the treatise:
“Among the all affairs of human life, it is impossible to find any that does not rely on competition. Beginning with the matters of the states under Heaven, and down to the affairs of one’s household – everything begins to progress due to competition. Were no competition in human lives, how could wisdom, virtues and happiness be advanced? If the states did not compete with each other, how could they increase their strength, wealth, and prestige? Generally, competition starts with personal cultivation of wisdom and virtue and then reaches literature, crafts, and also all kinds of agriculture and commerce. Everybody compares his relative achievements to that of the others and wishes to surpass them. (…). Generally speaking, the dull-witted men and women barely avoid cold and hunger. As they just sleep and eat, do not make a single effort to advance themselves and know nothing about self-cultivation, they are doomed to live and die in poverty and stupidity. The only reason for this is their ultimate lack of competitive spirit. (…) At the same time, the gentlemen of deep intents and wisdom daily cultivate their wisdom and virtue and daily improve their skills, thus contributing to the world, advancing their occupations and bringing prestige and happiness to their families. Those who are useful to the states under Heaven are necessarily the people with a strong and lofty competitive spirit.” Typically for “Darwinian Confucian”, Yu blends Social Darwinist view of poverty – and, wider, social inferiority - as an inescapable consequence of “natural selection” with characteristically Confucian adoration of “gentlemen of wisdom” (kunja), who exhaust themselves in cultivating their “virtues”, which are ultimately to benefit the state. The idea that “gentlemen of wisdom” are to compete with each other in their pursuit of virtue and wisdom – unthinkable in traditional Confucianism where competition was seen as vulgarity befitting small-time self-seekers – was perhaps the strongest Darwinian innovation in this synthesis. Still, to present his cause in a better light to his Confucianist contemporaries, Yu also had to justify his approval of competition by citing a famous dictum by the Master: “The gentleman of wisdom does not compete. If unavoidable, shall he compete in archery? But he bows complaisantly to his competitors, ascends the hall, descends, and exacts the forfeit of drinking”. Such was Confucius’ praise to the gentleman-like competition of the noble spirits, claims Yu. It is not surprising also, that “intense and unrelenting efforts in self-cultivation” by a “village Confucian” who had felt ashamed from being compared to a more advanced “urban scholar”, are offered by Yu as an example of the beneficial effects of competition on society.
As was also characteristic of East Asian elitist Social Darwinism as a whole, interstate competition is paid primary attention: it is understood as the basic content of any type of interstate intercourse, be it trade (“peaceful competition”) or war (“violent competition”). The woes of Asia, the land of “fertile soils and lazy populace”, – be it the weakness of Korea or “the enslavement of India by the British Government” – are primarily explained as logic, natural consequences of the “chronic lack of any type of intercourse”, not only with the Europeans, but even among the Asian states themselves. Only the incessant “self-strengthening” for victory in actual and potential competition is the key to success and the very existence of a state, emphasizes Yu. The uncompetitive state, typical of Asia, is usually unable even to preserve itself intact, and the strength and competitiveness of European states is acquired through long centuries of wars, trade and diplomacy.
But Yu – also characteristically for early Korean Social Darwinism, unacquainted still with the racist underpinnings of European and American “classical” Social Darwinist ideology, - is quite optimistic about Korea’s future. Success in the ranks of “civilized powers” is guaranteed, once competition is taken up seriously. As to interpersonal competition, it is very much downplayed, reduced to “competition in academic successes and loyalty” to the state, the main subject of what Yu considered global evolution. In fact, in good Confucian tradition, Yu even assumed the necessity of “cordial unity of the seniors and juniors” for the sake of success in international rivalry. This fusion of Social Darwinism on macro-level and traditional Confucian ideas of “loyalty and unity” on micro-level is very typical of the first stage of Social Darwinism’s introduction to Korea, when it was primarily understood in relation to the shocking international reality, unexplainable from the traditional Confucian positions. In addition, Yu himself, his genuine admiration for American institutes notwithstanding, belonged to a rather conservative, strongly monarchist group of early modern reformists, wary of possible radical republican implications of Social Darwinist doctrine once it was to be fully applied to domestic politics. As we will proceed to learn more of Buddhist perceptions of current European realities and their ideological Social Darwinist background, it would be interesting also to take into account the fact that Yu, in his later encyclopaedic work, S?yu ky?nmun (A Record of Personal Experience in the West; Tokyo, 1895), considered Catholic religious expansion in the East Asia to be a harbinger of armed imperialistic aggression, something Korea had to forestall. Even before, in the early unpublished Segye taese ron (Treatise on the Main Tendencies of the World, 1883), Yu warned his compatriots of “becoming slaves to an alien religion”, reminding them that religious matters “pertain to the very basis of statehood” and that “every states prevents the spread of alien creeds”. As H? Donghy?n emphasizes in his article in the present collection, a strong orientation towards preservation of Confucian values remains an important characteristic of Yu Giljun’s worldview even after he himself was converted to an “alien creed”, Protestantism, in his later days. Very much like many ”modernity”-oriented Chinese intellectuals of the 19th C., attracted by the Western idea of “universally just” international law and law-based equality and inviolability of the states and their rights, Yu Giljun regarded as ideal a law-governed international society, where “big and small states are just equal states; there are no states above or below others”. The idealized “law-based community of states” seems to have offered a substitute for the orderliness of the old Confucian ritual-based model of international relationship. Still, he could not overlook the reality of imperialistic predations, bitterly criticizing them on both legal and ethical grounds and lamenting in the Porosaguk Huryeduik taewang (Biography of Prussia’s Friedrich the Great) he compiled in May 1908, that “one thousand words of international law are not worth one piece of artillery”.
While Yu’s understanding of Social Darwinism was probably more strongly influenced by conservative Japanese interpretation of Kat? Hiroyuki (1836-1916), with its distinctive emphasis on a traditional collectivistic ethos of submission and obedience, than by American sources, another important early adherent of the creed, Yun Ch’iho (1895-1945), the pioneer of the Methodist Church in Korea (baptized in 1887), received his Social Darwinist “ordaining” – as well as his baptism (1887) – directly from American teachers, without Japanese intermediaries. The first Korean to master fluent English, Yun Ch’ho came to reject Confucian values wholesale and to embrace Social Darwinism in the course of his studies in Vanderbilt University (1888-1893), in the process of deep reflections – philosophic as well as religious – over both his own personal situation and the reality and ideals of the West. A penniless, physically fragile son of an exiled Korean statesman from the semi-gentry “illegitimate” branch of a noble clan, frequently discriminated against and even verbally and physically assaulted on racial grounds, Yun Ch’iho had ample reasons to agonize over the issues of weakness, strength and “struggle for survival”. For him, as we can judge from his unusually detailed English diary, Social Darwinist idea of “might” being “right” was inseparable from the Christian theory of God’s moral judgement. The conquered Asians – or massacred American Indians – were also “weak” in the moral sense, first and foremost due to their “idolatry”, and then to their technical and “racial” level.
“Isn’t America better off in the hands of the Anglo-Saxon than she ever was under or rather above the control of the Redman? Indeed it would be hard to instance a single case of domination of one race over another but that we find the stronger has been almost always better or less corrupted in morals, religion and politics than the weaker. Thus we see that what seems to be a triumph of might over right is but a triumph of comparative – I don’t say absolute – right over comparative wrong. […]”, - the newly converted persuades himself (November 20, 1892).
Still, the obvious discrepancies between the Christian ethos and the merciless nature of both Social Darwinist postulates and the imperialistic reality behind them seriously beset Yun Ch’iho - the truthful new-born Christian and “enlightened” Social Darwinist in one person. He is also greatly worried by the painfully obvious reality of Korea’s weakness which to a Social Darwinist could mean that his beloved motherland did not belong to the lucky ranks of the “fittest”:
“The greatest obstacle to my belief or faith is the inferiority of one race to another and the evils resulting there from. Why did not God give an equal chance to all the races, Caucasians no superior to Mongolians and Africans no worse than either in physical and mental powers. If He did, the shameful and unjust deeds of killing out [italicised in the original, - V.T.] one race by another, according to the inexorable law of survival of the fittest would not have disgraced the pages of history. Would He do so, yet could not? Then where is his wisdom? […] O mystery!
[…] It has often chilled my most sanguine aspirations – the thought that Corea might not be the “fittest” to “survive”. Then what? My business and duty are to contribute my best to make them fit to live. If they cannot be so made after a fair trial, then they are not fit to survive. God help me to look at things as a man” (October 14, 1892).
3. “Hindrance to Survival”: Social Darwinist Attack on Buddhism
Devoted and radical Christian, Yun Ch’iho was still optimistic to the point of believing that once backward and “degenerate” Confucianism is done away with and Christianity, “the hope and salvation for Korea”, widely embraced instead, Korea, with its good climate and “racial stock”, has certain chances of both “moral regeneration” and physical “survival”. Still, not surprisingly, political failures of his reformist associates and incessant imperialistic rivalry around the Peninsula were gradually diminishing his hopes of a beneficial application of Social Darwinist “laws” in the Korean case. As to the possible role of Buddhism in the process of making Korea “fitter” for “survival”, Yun was generally strongly negative – also we should remember that he possibly was still much better acquainted with and less aggressive towards this religion than the Western missionary milieu around him. While conceding that “under a Buddhist government Korea was a better country” than under the Confucianist Chos?n Dynasty, Yun - in a talk with famous literati and painter and devoted Buddhist, Chi Uny?ng (1852-1935), - remarked that in Buddhist societies metaphysical subtleness of the privileged few was accompanied by the illiteracy of the majority and by general “degradation”. To this “practical” argument, Yun added for himself the doctrinal “abstruseness” and “vagueness” of Buddhism that makes even advanced believers unable to come to any theoretic unity and make the religion a “working” one (December 17, 1893 – January 1, 1894). It is remarkable that, being fully aware in detail about all the doctrinal differences between Christianity and Buddhism, Yun in his personal thoughts entrusted to the diary takes only Buddhism’s “abstract” – and thus supposedly “unworkable” - character as the main barrier for developing any sympathy to or interest in this religion. It shows how strongly the Social Darwinist quest for a “cure” – simultaneously spiritual and physical – for Korea’s “illness”, its lack of “fitness”, influenced the religious consciousness of one of the pioneers of Korean Christianity. Yun Ch’iho’s Christian – and Social Darwinist – radicalism in eradicating all religious and moral “vestiges of the past”, as obstacles on the thorny way to Christian salvation and Darwinist “survival” (both envisioned as two sides of all-embracing “progress”) contrasts sharply with Yu Giljun’s tradition-based, gradualist approach. From the point of view of the Buddhist community, the radical, Christianity-based brand of Social Darwinism represented by the likes of Yun Ch’iho, was certainly the most threatening: Buddhism, already oppressed by Confucian administration, now came under additional attack from the radical anti-Confucian camp.
Yun’s understanding of Buddhism as basically a hindrance on the way to both Social Darwinist and Christian “regeneration” of the country was carried further and greatly popularised by the first modern Korean newspaper, the bilingual (English and Korean) Independent (Tongnip sinmun, 1896.04.07 – 1899.12.04), established by the Christian S? Chaep’il (1864-1951; the first Korean to be naturalized in the USA, under the name of Philip Jaisohn) and edited by Yun himself from July, 1898. Considering “superstitious practices” - both popularised Buddhism and shamanism - as harmful as Confucianism to the great design of “regeneration” and “independence”, the newspaper started a systematic anti-Buddhist and anti-shamanistic campaign, both monks and shamans being accused of “parasitism” and “deceiving the people” – in fact, in good Confucian tone (the same accusations for centuries were the main tool of Confucian struggle against its spiritual “enemies”). The Independent gave a good example of its attitude just one month after coming into being, editorialising in its Korean edition on May 7, 1896 in the following manner:
“People usually believe in absurdities and long for unreasonable things once they lack knowledge. That is why female and male shamans, geomantic teachers and Buddhist monks are able nowadays to charm and captivate commoners into giving them money, luring weak-hearted womenfolk and absurdity-believing males into wasting their property in serving evil spirits. People are deceived just because they are ignorant. […] Instead of wasting property by treating evil spirits so well, should we not rather use it to help the poor, to build a hospital for the ill or to build a school for educating the people? […] We are not going to reprimand the female and male shamans, Buddhist monks and geomancy masters, but just warn them, thinking that they themselves are doing all this out of ignorance; once they understand that all those thing are empty absurdities useless for the people, they will also stop believing in this. […]”. While popular Buddhist deities (“evil spirits”) and the collection of funds from the laity for temple services (“wasting property”) were essentially conceived to be a “hindrance” on the way to strength, wealth, and ultimate “survival” of the state, original Buddhist doctrine as such was usually exempt from criticism: Yun and S? systematically emphasized that “today’s Buddhism in China or Korea, reduced to making idols and depriving people of their money, has nothing to do with the teachings of Tathagata Shakyamuni”. Still, the newspaper did not show serious interest in the “original doctrine” either, apparently in the belief that “countries believing in Christianity assiduously, are now the strongest, richest, most civilized, advanced and blessed in the world” (Editorial, Korean edition, January 26, 1897).
The same belief in Christianity as the driving force beyond Europe’s rise to the top of the international “civilization ladder” was largely shared by most pro-reformist, early nationalist newspapers of the 1900s (especially by Taehan maeil sinbo), even if their authors and editors were not Christians religiously. As to their attitude towards Buddhism, the May 15, 1902 editorial in Hwangs?ng sinmun, published by moderate reform-oriented Confucianists, seems to be a typical example. Timed for the celebration of Buddha’s birthday, the editorial highly praised the Buddhist theory of retribution for both good and evil acts (as “ultimately similar to the doctrine of the Book of Changes”) and at the same time lamented the believers’ “mistaken faith in the magic abilities of Buddhist deities” and their “misguided rush to needless sacrificial offerings”, which could only result in “the accumulation of bad karma”. “Degraded” contemporary Buddhism was thus represented as self’s own enemy, unable even to stick to its “original” positive features. Soon the next editorial - specially dedicated to the world’s religions (August 12, 1902), - informed the readers that Korean Buddhism was already “half dead, half alive”, representing “nothing more than other-worldly hermits in the mountains”. Next year, in a polemic with a conservative Confucianist opponent of “alien Western creeds”, an editorial in Hwangs?ng sinmun (June 6) suggested that the absence of “absurd and superstitious beliefs in shamanistic and Buddhist idols” in Western religions was an indication of their belonging to a “higher stage of civilization’s progress”. Thus, Buddhism, if it wanted to show its relevancy and prove its willingness and ability to join the “march to civilization and survival”, had to meet the “Social Darwinist challenge”: it had to prove that, no less than Christianity, it is compatible with and useful for the period of international “competition”. It also was challenged either to defend its popular cults – the main target of “civilized” and “enlightened” derision – or reform them in ways more suitable to the new, “enlightened”, epoch of “national regeneration”.
4. “More than Competitive Religion”: Social Darwinist Defence of Buddhism.
Unlike the young reformist bureaucrats of the kind Yu Giljun or Yun Ch’iho belonged to – enriched by Japanese and American cultural experience and able to read English books in the original – Buddhist monks almost never travelled to USA and Europe and completely lacked European language skills before the early 1920s.Due to the limited travel opportunities and technical difficulties in acquiring and understanding Japanese texts for most monks (largely lacking “modern” education and financial resources), direct comprehension of Japanese Social Darwinist treatises was also in most cases almost impossible. Thus, the two ways of acquainting themselves with Social Darwinism mentioned above – through either Japanese interpretations or American originals – were practically unavailable to them.
As a result, they had to resort to the third possible channel of familiarizing themselves with Social Darwinist currents, namely the works of Chinese exile Liang Qichao, that were enormously popular with the younger, progressively-minded urban intellectuals in the 1900s. Many of Liang Qichao’s works were translated into vernacular Korean, published and widely circulated, but even his original writings in Chinese were fully accessible to the Korean Buddhist audience, well-versed in classical Chinese – main language of doctrinal Buddhist education and scriptures. For the largest part of the Korean public, deprived of the opportunities to make independent learned inquiries in the European or American – or even Japanese - sources by linguistic and manifold practical barriers, Liang’s version of Social Darwinist teaching was the only one known. Social Darwinism as such was therefore largely identified in Korea of the 1900s just as “Liang Qichao’s doctrine”. For many reasons the situation gradually changed after the Japanese annexation of Korea in 1910: first, the sale of Liang’s books was prohibited (they were deemed “potentially subversive”), and, second, an increased number of Korean students in Japan and converts into Christianity greatly improved the average level of mastery of Japanese and Western languages. Still, before the annexation Liang Qichao dominated to a very large extent the world of Korean “progressive” thought.
As could be expected, every group of the reformist intelligentsia tried to resort to Liang’s authority to legitimise its particular favoured “key” to the secrets of “states’ wealth and power”. Given Liang’s versatility and unparalleled ability to correct, shift and change his previous views, it seems no surprise that most of the self-claimed adherents of his thought in Korea could find some congenial pieces in his voluminous writings. For example, Liang’s earlier beliefs in Kang Youwei’s “preserved religion” of “true” and “progressive” Confucianism and Datong utopia were widely known in Korea and adopted by large fractions of reformist Confucianist intelligentsia. Typically, Pak ?nsik (1859-1925) and his followers even organized the Taedong (Datong) religious sect (Taedonggyo) in September 1909, putting forward the re-interpreted idea of Confucian ren (“humanity”), Liang’s “public virtues” (gong de), and the wish to save the world from chaos and lead it to the universal peace and harmony as the main articles of their religious belief. In a similar way, the title of Liang’s seminal essay on the “New People” (Xinminshuo) gave the name to Sinminhwe (New People’s Society) – a secret group, established in 1907 by reformist Confucianists, former military officers and USA-based Christian converts with the aim of securing Korea’s “renovation” from inside through the adherence to the principle of putting the state’s “freedom” and “survival” above all personal interests, as expounded by Liang. Especially strong was the influence exerted on Korea in the 1910s by Liang’s emphasis on education as the main method of achieving “success in civilization and progress” and by his “organic” theory of the statehood borrowed mainly from J.K.Bluntschli (1808-1881) through his Japanese followers. In this atmosphere of a general “rush” to introduce and utilize various parts of Liang’s Social Darwinism-inspired ideological production, it appears only logical that young and progressively minded Buddhists also tried to resort to the same source for finding ways to re-interpret their legacy in “modern” terms and to participate in the general movement for “progress” and “reform”.
The turning of Korea’s younger “modernity”-oriented Buddhists to Liang Qichao’s works was also greatly facilitated by Liang’s own strong ties with Buddhism, well represented to the Korean reading public through various publications of the 1910s. Liang’s inclusive collection of writings, his Yinbingshi Wenji (Literary Works from the Ice-drinker’s Studio), printed in Shanghai in 1903, was very soon imported into Korea and widely cited in many publications beginning from 1904-1905. Among the writings in Yinbingshi Wenji, the most direct bearing on the question had a treatise entitled “A Discussion of the Relationship between Buddhism and Social order”.
According to the treatise, so far as the present relatively inferior state of “civilization” in the whole world in general and in China in particular made a religion an indispensable tool for bolstering social solidarity in the course of the “struggle for survival”, Buddhism was much more suitable to “progress” than both Confucianism with its lack of proper religious components and Christianity, easily used by Western powers in their depredations. First, claims Liang, Buddhism, unlike dogmatic Confucianism, believes in personal enlightenment based both on personal ethical development and Buddha’s philosophical wisdom (“only one tenth” of which, says Liang, “is yet reached by the Western philosophers”). Second, Mahayana Buddhism is based on the highest sort of altruism. Bodhisattva, Mahayana’s ideal, is sacrificing his personal ultimate goal (the realization of Buddhahood and entering Nirvana) for the sake of saving all living creatures from suffering, until the last of them is saved. Buddhism is not self-sufficient or self-righteous: a Buddhist will be never satisfied with personal awakening or joy in the midst of the ignorance and suffering of others. That, exclaims Liang, is exactly the attitude required from a modern “progressive” citizen, who should not be satisfied with personal intelligence in the midst of his compatriots’ unawareness and is supposed to sacrifice personal good for the state’s sake. Third, Buddhism, unlike Christianity, does not lead to world-rejection in search of a better afterlife: “paradise” and “hell” stand only for certain states of consciousness in Buddhism and do not represent objects of spiritual attachment. Fourth, “barbaric” Christian beliefs in the physical resurrection of the dead on the Day of Judgment are clearly inferior to the subtler Buddhist idea of the karmic retribution for good and evil. And last but not least, the Buddhist claim of the universal possession of the Buddhahood by – and, thus, equal dignity of – all living creatures, together with the belief in the liberation from suffering by strictly personal spiritual efforts, are regarded by Liang as directly conductive to the most important elements of “modernity” – equality, freedom to pursue progress and self-responsibility. Liang’s conclusion that “all the evolutionary theories of Darwin and Spenser do not go further than two characters – ‘cause-and-effect law’ from Buddhist writings”, and that only Buddhist faith can lead the society on the road to “self-help”, “progress”, and ultimate “survival and prosperity”, could not but greatly encourage Korean Buddhists in their own “battle for survival” against both traditional Confucian disrespect to their religion and “modern” Christian attacks on its “uselessness”.
Another of Liang’s clearly pro-Buddhist texts introduced to the Korean audience in 1907 through publication in the popular “progressive” journal S?u (The Friends in the West) was a short piece of prose entitled Weixin lun – The Theory of Mind-only. In that piece Liang, in gorgeous ornate style (which surely appealed well to the sophisticated gentry readership in Korea), summarized Buddhist epistemology in the following way:
“The objects are what are created by the mind and all material things are fictitious illusion: only the mind creates what looks like the objects’ reality (…). All objects under the Heaven are just the objects of the mind. Those who put on green glasses see all things as green, and those who put on yellow glasses see all things as yellow. Those who have barberry roots in mouth think that all plants taste bitter, and those who have either honey or wheat-gluten in mouth think that all plants taste sweet. Can we say, thus, that everything is green, yellow, bitter or sweet? We can say that everything is not green, yellow, bitter or sweet, and is also green, yellow, bitter and sweet at the same time. (…) The distinction between green, yellow, bitter and sweet is not in the object, it is in us. And thus we say that all Three Realms are Mind-only”. Liangsummarized the Yog?c?ra theory of vijñapti-m?trat? (“consciousness-only”) without any explicit reference to the problems of “survival struggle”, but nevertheless the approval given by the best-known “progress”-oriented Chinese publicist to the essence of Buddhist thought was definitely of high significance to the embattled Buddhist community in Korea.
An especially well-known monument to the Buddhist part of general Social Darwinist trend where Liang’s arguments are extensively cited as the proof of Buddhism’s usefulness in the “age of competition” is the treatise (Manifesto would probably be better name for it) “On the Revitalisation of Korean Buddhism” (Chos?n Pulgyo Yusin non), written in 1910 (published in 1913) by Han Yongun (penname – Manhae; 1879-1944), one of the noted representatives of the reformist wing of Korean Buddhist clergy.
Han’s Manifesto begins (“The Introduction”) symptomatically with philosophical musings on the deeper meaning of the well-known Sino-Korean saying: “Man plans and Heaven decides”. Han claims that if Heaven is really able to influence the failure or success of human endeavours, this will cause humans to completely lose their freedom and become “slaves”; but in reality, in his view, neither physical Heaven nor the abstract principle (“truth”) popularly associated with it has any bearing on the course of human affairs. While the former is just a plain physical object, the latter “obeys the rules of freedom” which allow the “stronger” and “fitter” to succeed. Thus, from the very beginning of his reformist program, Han radically reinterprets Nature – a statuary, rigid and predestined Neo-Confucian “order of things” is changed into a new, Social Darwinist universe of free “competition” with human-determined results. The Buddhist world is in this way invited – or rather challenged - to the great scene of “competition for survival”, which is alone now in determining its future. His radical reinterpretation also echoes Liang’s views on the ability of humans – through the process of “artificial selection” - to determine themselves the course of events in their history. Liang’s ideas on the relationship between human will and Heaven (nature) are succinctly expressed in his short piece, entitled Yuantianzhe wuzhi (“Those Who Blame Heaven, are Weak-willed”), where he cited a famous dictum from Xunzi (Fascicle 4, Rongru: Of Honor and Disgrace, Paragraph 5): “Those who know themselves, do not blame others; those who know their lot, do not blame Heaven. Blaming others means being desperate; blaming heaven means being weak-willed”. Liang explained, in his favourite Buddhist spirit, that “good karma” must be created by “free efforts” and thus only individuals themselves were to be blamed for their failures; as to the Xunzi’s “lot”, added Liang, it was not uniform Heavenly predestination, but rather “karmic result” of one’s past efforts. Liang’s overall understanding of the causative relationship in the universe, where Social Darwinist “efforts in the struggle” were blended with Buddhist “cause-and-effect” theories could not but attract the sympathy of Korea’s self-proclaimed Buddhist reformer. . Liang explained, in his favourite Buddhist spirit, that “good karma” must be created by “free efforts” and thus only individuals themselves were to be blamed for their failures; as to the ’s “lot”, added Liang, it was not uniform Heavenly predestination, but rather “karmic result” of one’s past efforts. Liang’s overall understanding of the causative relationship in the universe, where Social Darwinist “efforts in the struggle” were blended with Buddhist “cause-and-effect” theories could not but attract the sympathy of Korea’s self-proclaimed Buddhist reformer.
The Manifesto’s 1st Chapter is the inquiry into the “immanent character” – s?ngjil – of Buddhism. Once s?ngjil is not good enough for the task of “survival”, concedes the author, even Cromwell or Martin Luther called back to life cannot accomplish the task of its “revitalization”. But, following the lead of Liang Qichao, who placed Buddhism as “philosophical religion based on true, inner enlightenment” much higher on the “evolutionary ladder” than the “superstition”-centred religions of West Asian origins (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), Han optimistically states that it is exactly Buddhism’s s?ngjil that gives its followers hopes for a better future. Han declares that, unlike Christianity with its record of forcing ignorant and fanatical people to die on the battlegrounds by threats of “hell fire” or promises of “paradise”, Buddhism is philosophically developed enough to identify both “hell” and “paradise” with inner mental conditions. He then explicitly cites the following excerpt from Liang Qichao (essay Jinsi wenxueshu zhi tese ji jiweiren: On the Special Features of Modern Literature and Science and their Great Personalities):
“Both Buddhism and Christianity are of foreign origins and entered China from the outside, but Buddhism achieved great success while Christianity is unable to do so. What are the reasons? Christianity is based exclusively on superstitions and its philosophical doctrine is shallow. It is not enough for the souls of China’s profound gentlemen. Buddhism, being philosophy and religion simultaneously, explains to us that the ultimate way of experiencing the truth is Enlightenment. This Way is entered through Wisdom, and the practice progresses on one’s own strength and efforts. This is Buddhism and it should not be viewed as just one more average religion. […] Only after Buddhism was introduced to China could Chinese philosophy acquire its distinctive colours […]”. As we can see, Han, with Liang’s help, answers in kind the accusations – made among others by Christian editors of The Independent - that Buddhism is a “superstitious” religion. The “evolutionary ladder” of religions is turned upside down, Buddhism – so much shunned, ignored and even despised by the reformist milieu of the 1900s – being given the highest possible position.
Having established Buddhism’s “rightful place” in the new, “evolutionary order of things”, Han further cites Liang Qichao in order to show in detail why Buddhism should be judged superior from all possible viewpoints to Western philosophy as the background of rival Christian beliefs. Interestingly, in certain cases Han even goes further than Liang in claiming higher “evolutionary status” for his religion. For example, Liang, having been disillusioned in moderately reformed Confucianism as “preserved religion”, turned his attention to Buddhism and noticed close typological affinity between Kant’s “subject”, endowed with the “faculty of reason” and the ability to explore “transcendental objects”, and the Buddhist theory of “Enlightenment” as “personal awakening to the transcendental reality of Tath?t? (“Suchness”)”. Han, however, considers Buddhist understanding of noumenon to be far superior to Kantian. According to Han, the noumenal world in Buddhism exists simultaneously on both personal and universal/cosmic levels, thus being principally different from “narrowly personal” Kantian “subject’s abilities of moral judgement and transcendental reasoning”. Buddhism, with its idea of transcendental unity between Buddha and all creatures (all of them possessing Buddhahood and thus Tath?t? ‘s ultimate reality), is subtler and deeper than Kant’s personalist philosophy of “reason” and “moral”. Buddhism –