Category: China


Pope-Francis-South-KoreaAs Pope Francis beatifies 124 martyrs from Korea today, with huge crowds turning out in Seoul to meet the Pope, it may be opportune to look at unique origins of the church in Korea.  Catholicism has grown rapidly in South Korea from 1% of the population ten years ago to over 10% now.  South Korea is a fascinating country that has seen rapid development and economic growth.  It is the only country in the history of the world that has gone from being a foreign aid recipient to being a major foreign aid donor in only one generation.  It also has huge ‘soft power’ now, not only as the home of Samsung. and being a technology leader in many fields – but also in the popularity of their films, soap operas and music – Remember Gangnam Style? K-Pop has overtaken Japan’s J Pop as the music on the iPhones in the Pacific Rim and further afield.  I remember when I was in the Philippines I would often ask the young people which country they would most like to visit, and the answer universally wasn’t the US, or the UK but South Korea.

The origins of the Catholic Church in Korea are fascinating.  Christianity has struggled to make inroads into Asia – and the exceptions – Philippines, East Timor which received Spanish and Portuguese missionaries,  the Korean Catholic Church grew for the first hundred years without any priests or visits from missionaries. Christianity was brought to Korea by a Korean diplomat who had encountered the books of Matteo Ricci in the court in Beijing.  Ricci is an incredible character, an Italian Jesuit, whose missionary work was so successful that he gained access to the Forbidden City – the first westerner to do so.  His appreciation of Chinese culture and the people’s admiration of him as a learned scholar gave Ricci great inroads.  He was the first to translate Kong Fuzi’s teachings into Latin – thus coining the name Confucius – Ricci became a bridge between the east and the west.

ricciThe book that probably marks his greatest legacy was ‘The true meaning of the Lord of Heaven’ which argues that Confucianism and Christianity are not opposed and in fact are remarkably similar in key ways.  It was a way of explaining Christian doctrine into Confucian thought and proved to be very successful.  Ricci used this treatise in his missionary effort to convert Chinese intellectuals, men who were educated in Confucianism and the Chinese classics.   It was this book that brought Christianity to Korea in 1603, where it was to grow, without access to the sacraments, without any active priestly ministry.


English: Yellow banner depicting a blue dragon.

Happy (Chinese) New Year!  Today begins the Year of the Dragon.  It is also – for the first time in Philippino history – a national holiday here. Perhaps this is significant – a testament to the growing influence of China and Chinese ‘soft-power’ in the Pacific Rim? The US has exported is soft-power (cultural influence) through McDonald’s, Coca Cola, Denim Jeans and Hollywood all over the world. The UK punches above its weight particularly with Music (Adele and Jessie J are always on radios here at the moment!) Film and TV, (I was amazed to see how popular Johnnie English is here!). The success of  British historical drama and comedy is well documented, but I’m not sure we should be so proud of our new global export – reality TV formats and talent shows! The British Based magazine Monacle produce a Soft-Power survey/ranking every year. China as an emerging super-power has a growing desire to project its image and increase its influence abroad. The lack of Chinese soft power has been analyzed brilliantly in the Economist – click here. It seems that the Chinese are looking for a figurehead – Confucius or Sun Tzu?

Today millions of Chinese – and Vietnamese and Koreans –  say goodbye to the year of the rabbit and welcome the year of the dragon.  The dragon is considered to be a symbol of power from heaven. Associated with the element of Fire – confidence, passion, intensity, excitement and unpredictable nature. But don’t be alarmed if you are an introvert – I was assured this morning by a Sinologist that each year is ‘qualified’ by one of the 5 Chinese elements – and this is a Water Dragon year – the element of Water will temper the fire of the dragon. It opens ‘dragons’ up to listening to others, which gives them the perspective to be better leaders! Good year for a US presidential election then….The twelve animals in the zodiac calendar ensure a 12-year cycle – so it is a special year in Asia for 12, 24, 36, 48 year olds etc  Fireworks and firecrackers are purchased,  homes are cleaned and dumplings prepared. This will be a fourteen-day celebration, welcoming wealth, longevity, and prosperity, and releasing any negative ‘chi’ from the past (new years resolutions!).

I predict that this year will also be a good year for Dragons in other ways – the Christmas release of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit – will introduce a new generation to Smaug the dragon.  Also, the phenomenally popular George R R Martin‘s Fire and Ice series will surely grow, and with it the popularity of the great character Daenerys Taegerean – Mother of Dragons.  Perhaps this is the year to buy shares in companies that make Dragon memorabilia – you heard it here first!

Geek alert: I confess that I am already on the third book of Martin’s seven-book cycle ….. one thing is true is that both Tolkien and Martin project huge cultural influence, fanatical fan bases, both entertaining, but soft power is about values and culture . ASoFaI is much bleaker than LOTR and so far I think lacks its nobility and depth.

But all this talk of Dragons is fantasy, right? It’s all myths, children’s stories in Tolkiens case or adult stories in Martin’s case? Well, think again.  I was riveted last night,  cradling a small glass of whisky to celebrate the Chinese New Year, as I listened to an Indonesia Jesuit tell me all about his encounters with the Komodo Dragon.  That is one scary beast ….. can grow up to 3m’s long due to the evolutionary phenomenon of Island Gigantisism  ….. is pretty fast…. has poisonous saliva (no fire breathing) …. can smell prey 6 miles away… even crocodiles are afraid of it!  The ‘pièce de résistance’: they seem to be Parthenogenic (i.e. can reproduce asexually) – as was demonstrated by Flora of good old Chester Zoo! (according to this Wikipedia entry!).