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Korean Taoism: History, Influence & Expansion

Korean Taoism: History, Influence & Expansion
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  • 0:02 Religions of Korea
  • 0:36 Lack of Documentation
  • 1:09 Arrival from China
  • 2:07 Revival
  • 3:33 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will focus on Taoism's influence in the country of Korea. In doing so, it will highlight its arrival from China and the phases of popularity and decline it went through. It will also discuss the concept of internal alchemy and the Elixir of Immortality.

Religions of Korea

Today's lesson will focus on the role Taoism, the Chinese philosophy that stresses living simply, honestly, and in harmony with nature, has played in Korea's history. To begin, Korea is a country of many religions. Confucianism and Buddhism have deeply impacted its society, as have the religions of the West. Along with these faiths, Taoism has played a part in molding Korean thought. No, it's not been as overtly present as Confucianism and Buddhism, but it's still played a role in shaping the country.

Lack of Documentation

Unlike Confucianism, which has documented proof of its place in Korean history, ancient Taoism left very little written evidence of its workings in Korea. Many scholars blame this lack of written documentation for Taoism's failure to play a crucial role in Korean culture. Since there were no penned records to pass from city to city or generation to generation, it was more marginalized than the other Eastern faiths. With this in mind, let's get to what we do know about Taoism's history in Korea.

Arrival from China

For starters, it's believed Taoism made its way to Korea via China sometime around the year 624 CE. Most historians agree this occurred when the Chinese emperor sent a representative to Korea carrying the ancient sacred texts of Taoism, known as the Chuang-tzu. Lucky for the representative, the texts were greeted warmly, and soon the nobility of Korea were trading in their Buddhist beliefs in favor of Taoism.

Unfortunately for Taoism, its place of favor among the elite proved to be very short-lived. Within about 50 years most of its main tenets were mixed or absorbed into Buddhism and Confucianism. However, it's believed the late Silla Kingdom, which ruled Korea from about 57 BCE to 935 CE, did include aspects of Taoism in their civil service exams.

Revival

Although Taoism never made it to the center stage of Korean life, some scholars believe it did have a slight surge sometime between the 10th and 14th centuries. Like it did when it first arrived in Korea, it again curried favor with the ruling and upper class. However, like before, its influence was soon crowded out by the faiths of Buddhism and Confucianism.

Somewhere between the 16th to 18th centuries, Taoism again started to gain some ground in Korea, but this time it was with a new audience. Rather than simply the nobility, Taoism began making headway with the educated and the clergy of Korean society. It also began to gain a following among Korean women.

These groups were especially interested in Taoism's quest for the Elixir of Immortality, a mythical potion believed to bring eternal life. Along with this quest for everlasting life, this new group of followers were also interested in Taoism's emphasis on meditation and internal alchemy, or physical, mental, and spiritual exercises used to lengthen life.

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