Korean society is presently a unique
multi-religious society. Confucian ethics dominate the daily life of
Koreans, and hyanggyo, Confucian educational institutions, are found
scattered throughout the country. At every scenic spot, there is a
Buddhist monastery, and most of the nation's tangible cultural assets are
Buddhist. Yet when entering any Korean city, one is immediately impressed
by the number of Protestant churches. During the 1980s, Catholic churches
have served as the representative of the conscience of Korean society.
present, Buddhists number 25.3%, with 19.8% for Protestants, and Catholics make up about
7.3% percent. Thus, Korea is the most actively
Christian society in East Asia. In addition to these groups, there are
numerous shamanism devotees, new religions and, in particular, Confucianists,
who are still not represented in religious surveys. For this reason,
Korea's religious population is much larger than superficial survey-counts
In addition, an Imam attached to the
Turkish army (one of the 16 U.N. forces which participated in the Korean War)
introduced Islam to Korea. Through his efforts, some Koreans worshipped
with the Turkish soldiers and converted to Islam. In 1966, a Korean
Islamic organization was formed and in the same year, a mosque was erected in
Seoul. Since then, seven more have been established. There are now
more than twenty thousand Moslems in Korea.
Confucianism, Buddhism, Christianity and
Islam are the representative world religions which have made a decisive
contribution to the formation of the various aspects of world culture.
Confucianism, Buddhism and Christianity, in particular, respectively represent
the classical cultures of China, India, and Western monotheism. Although
these religions all coexists in Korea, at present none of them is able to
represent Korean culture.
In addition, since the prehistoric period,
shamanism, diverse folk beliefs and countless indigenous religions have
developed in Korea. As a result, Korea has an abundance of religious
holidays, i.e. New Years, which are celebrated according to both lunar and solar
calendars, Buddha's Birthday, Ch'usok (the Harvest Festival), Kaech'aonjol
(Foundation Day) and Christmas. Korea is probably the only country in the
world to have such a diverse range of religious holidays.
Other multi-religious societies live under
the threat of disintegration, but Korea's diverse religions have managed to
coexist since ancient times. During Korea's long history, dynastic change
has been brought about under the name of religion, but religion has never led to
the division of the people. Even among Koreans today, there is nobody who
wants to divide the Korean people on religious grounds. To this extent,
Korean's homogeneity is considered to be more important to Koreans than any
From mythical times onward, Koreans have
been confident about their unique identity as a people. On the other hand,
Koreans have zealously imported foreign culture. By looking at these
seemingly divergent aspects of their culture as complementary, Koreans have been
able to develop a creative culture and philosophy. Ideologically, when a
synthesis of divergent aspects has been reached, harmony prevails. For
this reason, Koreans' creative efforts, regardless of which form they take,
always culminate with the ideal of harmony.
From ancient times, this harmonious spirit
has enabled Koreans to maintain their cultural identity while actively
introducing culture from the rest of the world. Classical Confucian and
Buddhist culture has gloriously upheld its prestigious position in Korean
society, and Christianity is alive and well. Through Buddhist art, aspects
of ancient Greek culture are still alive, and the cultures from the nomadic
peoples of Central Asia have established deep roots in Korea as well. In
this sense, Korea serves as a repository of the world's classical cultures.
In the 1960s, Korean society entered the
path towards industrialization. Since then, numerous universities and
research institutes have competitively acquired modern thought. As a
result, Korean society now embraces the cultural traditions of both the East and
West. Western technology, modern social thought and the Christian faith
are no longer seen as foreign. Within the East Asian sphere of traditional
cultures, Korea represents the greatest success of Christian Evangelism.
In this sense, Western culture has been assimilated by Korean culture.
This harmonization of diverse cultural elements is a legacy from the ancient
past that gives Koreas confidence to meet the changes of the modern world.
Yet, it must be kept in mind that Koreans did not begin to actively
acquire modern thought until the 1960s, so time is required before they can
recreate modern thought in a Korean form.
A multicultural society easily slides into
chaos. Moreover, the Korean people have passed the last half century amid
continual, violent social upheavals. Within this turmoil, Korea has not
yet been able to over come conditions forced upon it by history. For this
reason, Korea is often seen by outsiders as an unstable and aggressive society
that is inherently chaotic. However, the problems that Korea faces are
actually a miniature version of the shrinking "global village."
In this sense, Korea efforts to solve their own problems may also lead to
solutions for the world at large. Koreans, with their unique history, have
thus assumed an important role in the history of mankind.
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