Thursday, February 10, 2011

Dating the Persecution of Korean Catholics

A novelist writing for the Bible and Life magazine comments on a problem that he feels has bothered many Koreans for a long time. For Catholics the problem appears in the way we name the persecutions the Church suffered when she entered Korea. We still follow the Chinese sexagenary cycle in dating the persecutions.

This  cycle, which is made up of 10 heavenly stems and 12 earthly branches, makes 60 combinations. The present cycle began in 1984 and will end in 2044. This year is the year of the rabbit, but it's a special kind of rabbit year, the Sin myo. The first year starts with the first heavenly stem added to  the first earthly branch. Since there are only 10 stems for 12 branches, the cycle begins again (after adding the tenth stem to the twelve branch) by adding the first stem to the 11th  branch, and the 2nd stem to the 12th branch; it continues in this fashion until 60 combinations have been reached. The names for the earthly branches are: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey,chicken, dog and pig. For the heavenly stems: gap, eul (wood), byeong, jeong (fire), mu, gi (earth), gyeong, sin (metal), im, gye (water).

There are four persecutions mentioned in Church history; the first one, in 1801, is called the  Shin-Yu; the second in 1839, the Gi-Hae; the third in 1846, the Byeong-O; the fourth in 1866, the Byeong-In. The writer would simplify this by dating the first persecution to the time when the first Chinese priest was martyred with many lay people; dating the persecution of 1839 with the martyrdom of the French foreign missionaries, along with many lay persons; dating the Byeong persecution with the martyrdom of St. Andrew Kim, along with many lay persons; and dating the last persecution, the Byeong-In in 1866, with more French foreign Missionaries dying, along with many lay persons. In all, about 10,000 died during this period; besides the many lay martyrs, there were 14 priests: one Chinese, twelve French and one Korean. 

The use of the Chinese sexagenery cycle  to date events in history is coming to an end but we still use the dates according to the old dating system because of its long tradition.  

Remnants of this system are found in the divisions of the day, in directions of the compass and, most of all, in fortune telling. There are lucky and unlucky days, days to  marry and days to avoid when planning any important event. The system is used in other ways we would also consider superstitious. Although this dating system has a long history and is used in many countries of the East, the writer believes that nothing is gained, especially by Christians, by continuing to use the sexagenary cycle for dating purposes. When applied to events in the history of the Church in Korea, like the four persecutions, there can be, he points out, confusion for Christians who try to match their understanding of the stems and branches to what occurred during the persecutions.

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