Restoring Buddhism to Seoul: Court Lady Ch’ŏn’s Influence in Modernizing Korean Buddhism

Korean Studies Colloquium
Hwansoo Kim, Yale University
Dec 5, 2019 - at - | Williams Hall 623

This talk will examine the work of a largely forgotten Korean Buddhist laywoman, Court Lady Ch’ŏn Ilch’ŏng (1848 – 1934?), who served as one of the highest-ranking ladies in the court of the late Chosŏn dynasty. Ch’ŏn, driven by the vicissitudes of the times, did not remain confined as a mere servant of the Yi Royal Household but was an influential figure in Chosŏn politics and diplomacy. She further played a crucial role in modernizing Korean Buddhism during the pre-colonial and colonial era—equal in significance to the Korean Buddhist monastics with whom she worked. Despite her remarkable contributions toward modernizing the tradition, she is absent in the scholarship of Korean Buddhism. In this talk, I will draw on the known bits and pieces of information on Ch’ŏn to make a case that she played a seminal role in the incipient stage of modern Korean Buddhism. Ch’ŏn drew on a wide network of relationships both inside and outside the court to help establish the first modern institution of Korean Buddhism, build the first modern temple in central Seoul, and open the first modern Buddhist clinic in Korea. This article seeks to restore Ch’ŏn’s centrality as a Buddhist modernizer, thereby ultimately bringing balance to a largely monastic-centered and nationalist history and lengthening the lineage of lay female leadership in the transformation of Korean Buddhism in the beginning of the twentieth century.