Session 73: Taoism: The Forgotten Strand in Korea's Religious Heritage

Organizer and Chair: John Goulde, Sweet Briar College
Discussant: Jahyun Kim Haboush, University of Illinois, Urbana

Until recently, the subject of Taoism in Korea has received scant attention from cultural historians. Korean Buddhism, Confucianism, and native shamanism have been and continue to be the object of intense philosophical, anthropological, sociological, and historical research, but Taoism, if investigated at all, is usually reduced to the status of a "romantic influence" or "literary theme" within the history of those traditions and Korean religious culture as a whole.

This lack of scholarly interest in Taoism in Korea is due to long held assumptions that Taoism had negligible effects in Korean history because it lacked an institutional base (continuous clergy, ritual structure, and a system of abbeys and shrines), that unlike Buddhism and Confucianism it had no political standing (again due to its lack of institutional integrity), and that from its first appearance, it was rejected both by Confucian and Buddhist elites as subversive of normal social and ethical behavior as is evidenced by the repeated condemnation of Taoism in standard historiographic sources. These assumptions, though, are based on a restrictive definition of Taoist religion, a noncritical understanding of Confucianized historiography, and an over reliance on standard Confucianized historical sources. When standard historiography is read critically or when alternative sources (local histories, popular essays, anecdotal and unofficial biographies) are examined, accounts of Korean Taoist ritual practices and positive valuations of Taoist ideas vis--vis Confucianism and Buddhism are overwhelmingly present.

This panel will present a diachronic analysis of the way Taoist ideas, rituals, and meditative practices have functioned in Korea from the Koryo period to the present. The first paper will examine the history and development of Koryo Taoist court rituals. The second paper will examine the biographies and hagiographic accounts of Taoist inner alchemists in the mid-Choson period. The third paper will examine the way contemporary adaptations and revivals of Taoist meditative practices are being used to recover a uniquely Korean religious and ideological heritage. Emphasis in all three papers will be on the way this "forgotten" religious tradition has been understood and promoted alongside the dominant ideologies of the day.

The Taoist Rituals of the Koryo Dynasty

Peter Yun, University of California, Los Angeles

The Taoist tradition in Korea began long before the establishment of the Koryo dynasty. There are ample historical records that strongly suggest Taoist elements in Koguryo and Silla during the Three Kingdom's period (1st.-7th. c.). However, it was during the Koryo dynasty (918-1392) that Taoism enjoyed its greatest popularity. From extant historical records, we find clear examples of the great influence exerted by Taoism on Korean society, especially on those who occupied the upper stratum of Koryo social hierarchy. In addition, Koryo Taoism was essentially court Taoism. With the backing and support of Koryo kings, Taoist court rituals were introduced into Korea from Sung China and the practice of these court rituals reached its height during the reign of King Yejong (1105-1122).

Relying on such written historical materials as the Koryosa, Koryosa choryo, Tongmunson (especially the Taoist works known as ch'ongsa), collected works of individuals (munjip), and epigraphical writings, this paper will present a general survey of the Taoist court rituals of the Koryo period. Most of these Taoist rituals were generally recorded with the character cho (Ch. chiao) in such works as the Koryosa, but there were other rituals, such as the Yongbo toryang (Ch. Ling pao tao ch'ang), especially in late Koryo. The object of worship in these rituals included most of the major and minor deities of the Taoist pantheon, but certain deities such as Samgye and T'aeil seem to have been the most popular. This paper will present a general outline of the Taoist court rituals focusing on such aspects as type, frequency, motivation, and the government institutions that were in charge of carrying them out. After a brief summary of the development of Taoist tradition during the period of Mongol domination (13th.-14th. c.), the paper will conclude with an assessment of the significance of Taoist rituals during the Koryo dynasty.

Taoist Alchemists in Mid-Choson Korea

John Goulde, Sweet Briar College

Taoism has had a very quiet career in Korea; so quiet that many cultural and religious historians think that its silence meant its absence. Yet Taoism was an important part of Korean culture from as early as the Three Kingdoms period and throughout the Silla, Koryo, and Choson periods. Its traces can still be seen in the long life symbols on the walls of Choson palaces and Buddhist temples, in small religious communities like Ch'onghakdong, in the new specialty schools for "Elixir Breathing" (tanjon hohup) in Seoul, and even in the TV marketing of every kind of elixir and potion, guaranteed to restore vigor and extend one's life.

Within the Choson period, primarily in the 16th to 18th centuries, Chinese Taoist inner alchemy flourished, as literati, monks, private scholars (sarim), and even women, studied and practiced Taoist meditation and inner alchemy (naedan/tanhak) and produced hagiographic and anecdotal accounts of their Taoist contemporaries and forebears. The most important of these accounts known to date are four anecdotal biographies of immortals (Sason chon) in the collected writings of Ho Kyun (1569-1618), the Ch'onghakjip (Collected Discourses of Master Blue Crane) by Cho Yojok (early 17th century), the Haedong Chondorok and Tongguk Chondop'ilgi (Record of Transmission of the Tao to Korea/A Secret Account of the Transmission of Taoism to the Eastern Nation: 1610?) attributed to Han Mu'oe (1517-1610), the Haedong Ijok (Collection of Fantastic Traces: 1666) by Hong Manjong (1643-1725), the anonymous late 17th century text, Hoehonp'asurok (Hoehon's Record that Wards Off Sleep), and the Haedong Ijokp'o (Supplement to the Haedong Ijok) by Hwang Yunsok (1788-1863). While all these accounts are written to encourage Koreans to practice inner alchemy for the sake of immortality (i.e., deliverance from the corpse), they also re-envision and broaden the meaning of Korean religious history by reiterating nativist and folk traditions about the role of Korean mountain recluses and earthbound immortals in the maintainence and protection of Korean society. This paper examines these accounts of Taoist hagiography in order to determine who these practitioners were, what their social and ideological status was, the circumstances and motivations that caused their taking up the path of inner alchemy, and how they and their biographers reconciled the practice of Taoist inner alchemy with the dominant Neo Confucian Zeitgeist of the day.

Taoism in Contemporary Korea

Donald Baker, University of British Columbia

Taoism did not disappear from the peninsula with the fall of the Choson dynasty. Taoist ideas, beliefs, and practices had been a part of Korean civilization too long to be that easily forgotten. They had been absorbed into the traditional Korean vision of the world, a world view in which shamanistic Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist elements are so intimately intertwined that often only a scholar can distinguish which is which. As such an integral part of traditional Korean culture, Taoism has benefited from the recent resurgence of pride in Korean cultural identity which has manifest itself in a revival of many elements of traditional culture in modified and modernized form.

The evidence for Taoist participation in that revival can be found in posters decorating the walls of many of Seoul's subway stations. Those posters proclaim the merits of tanjon hohup and invite all those interested in living longer, happier, and healthier lives to come to the nearest tanhak sonwon, run by the han munhwa won, to learn Taoist breathing techniques and physical exercises.

The term "Taoism" is never used, but the terminology and the techniques used in those tanhak sonwon are often identical to those used in the internal alchemy school of Chinese Taoism. There is the same focus on accumulating ki in the cinnabar field, and on learning how to consciously direct the movement of ki within our bodies. Moreover, many of the benefits promised to those who practice those techniques are the same, not just a longer and healthier life but also enhanced physical and mental powers.

Since this revival of interest in Taoist longevity techniques is part of the general resurgence of pride in traditional Korean culture, the Chinese roots of these ideas and practices have been hidden. Instead, the han munhwa won insists that Tangun originated tanjon hohup and that any Chinese familiarity with those longevity techniques is because the Chinese learned it from Tangun's successors. Moreover, the han munhwa won promises that soon much of the world will be practicing tanjon hohup and paying respect to Korea as its originator, ushering in a new world order with Korea at the spiritual center.

In this paper, I will identify several specific Taoist elements in the beliefs and practices of the tanjon hohup practitioners in Seoul in the 1990s. I will also examine how the Chinese origins of these beliefs and practices have been disguised. This paper will conclude by arguing that the recent increase in interest in tanjon hohup is a product of both the perennial Korean concern for health and of the recent rise in cultural nationalism.

Would you like to return to the Korea Table of Contents? Choose another area?