Kollumba Kang Wansuk, Catholic Martyr (c. 1761 – 1801)

Written by Jaehee Kim Wilder

If she were alive today, Kollumba Kang Wansuk (c. 1761 – 1801) could have successfully run for president in modern Korea. Her contribution to modern Korean society was to open the closed doors of eighteenth century Chosŏn to religious tolerance, initiating the larger scale Catholic evangelical movement in Korean history. Besides successfully converting many women from all levels of society and organizing activities to help those less fortunate, she also protected and hid the first Catholic priest (Chinese) to preach in Korea and enabled him to teach and lead the congregation’s spiritual life in Hanyang (modern day Seoul).

Kollumba Kang Wansuk was born in Ch’ungch’ŏng province, which in addition to Hanyang was where early Catholic activism prospered. Her birth year is not recorded but because she was forty one years old when executed in 1801, it is presumed to be 1761 or 1762. She was born into a family of “demi-nobles,” whose lineage was traced to aristocratic ancestry and concubines. She was well-educated, literate, and developed expertise and authority in doctrinal matters.1

Kollumba was married at fifteen to a widower with a son. By all accounts, her husband did not live up to the intellectual and spiritual levels that Kollumba Wansuk possessed. Her interest in religion started after her marriage. Like many women of the time, she studied and had a deep interest in Buddhism. It was through her husband’s family that she learned about Catholicism and became interested in it.2

Kollumba began proselytizing immediately after her own conversion. She started at home and converted her stepson, Hong P’ilchu (1774 – 1801) as well as her mother-in-law. Kollumba’s own parents’ conversion followed. She was, however, unable to convert her own husband.

In 1791, Yun Chich’ung, a young Catholic, refused to perform full Confucian mourning ceremonies for his deceased mother, and he and one of his relatives were executed by decapitation. The year of 1791 was when the first religious persecution against Catholics occurred. Since ancestral worship was the core value of Confucianism, the Catholics’ refusal of it was very controversial among Confucian scholar-officials who held political power.

At this time, her name appeared in the records of the persecution for the first time. It shows that she had already made her name among the regional Catholic community. She was only briefly imprisoned, because women were immune from the attention of the courts and the police except in cases of treason.3

Move to Seoul

After her release, Kollumba moved to Hanyang with Hong P’ilchu, her daughter and mother-in-law. It was very unusual for the mother-in-law to follow her daughter-in-law and move, especially for a daughter-in-law that disappointed the family by not producing a male heir. But her mother-in-law was willing to follow Kollumba to Hanyang because of her Catholic conversion and Kollumba’s effective teaching.4

The persecution of Yun Chich’ung in 1791 and its aftershocks caused turmoil to the affairs of Catholics in Hanyang. The scandal had stirred outrage in both government and general Confucian circles. In this political environment, she and her family moved to Hanyang. She came to play an important role in inviting a Chinese priest, Father Jacob Zhou to Korea. There was no ordained Catholic priest in Korea and Korean Catholics were not able to participate in communion rites and receive sacraments. Finding a priest was the most urgent issue of the Catholic community.

Story of Early Catholics: The Confucian Scholars’ Study Group in 1777

The history of Korean Catholicism began in a very interesting way. In 1777, a small group of Confucian scholars organized a study group to read and discuss the teachings of Jesus. Books were brought into Korea through the Chosŏn government’s diplomatic missions to Beijing. Confucian scholars read and discussed the Catholic texts. There was neither a missionary nor priest. In 1784, Yi Sŭng-hun, one of the study group members made contact with the priests in Beijing, when he accompanied his father, Yi Dong-uk, who was on a diplomatic trip to Beijing. There he was baptized. Upon his return to Korea, he began to baptize his friends and colleagues, and soon a unique church was formed.

In 1785, the government, learning of the spread of Catholic creed which forbid the performance of the chesa rite (ancestor veneration ceremony), issued an edict suppressing Catholicism. In the following year, another edict banning the import of Catholic books was issued.

In 1786, Kim Pŏmu, government interpreter, died as a result of torture undergone during his incarceration. He was arrested because of his participation in a Catholic study group meeting. In 1791, Kwŏn Sangyon and Yun Chich’ung were executed for refusing the chesa rites and for burning their ancestral tablets. They were the first martyrs for the Catholic faith in Korea.

Catechist and Church Coordinator

When Kollumba joined the Hanyang Catholic community, she was immediately involved in a project to search and bring in a foreign priest to Chosŏn Korea. The Catholic community leaders went on two trips to Beijing to search for a priest who could serve the quickly growing community in Korea. That wish was granted when Father Zhou was successfully inserted into Korea on December 23, 1794 and arrived in Hanyang (present day Seoul) early in January 1795.

At first the priest hid in the home of Mathia Ch’oe In-gil (1764 – 1795), Chinese language interpreter and a convert. Father Zhou began learning Korean from Ch’oe while holding secret meetings with Catholic leaders. Soon after his arrival, informants discovered the priest’s existence and six months later the central government handed down an order for his arrest. Several important Catholic figures were arrested and quickly executed. The hunt set off a wave of persecution of Catholics. When the government began to round up Catholic leaders, Father Zhou moved to Kollumba’s home, thought to be the safest location for him.

Kollumba’s house was a structure typical of Chosŏn’s well-to-do yangban households. The outer house was accessible to male family members, male visitors and strangers. But the inner house, usually surrounded by stone and mortar walls, was a fortress reserved only for women of the family. Only occasionally were male family members allowed to visit. There would also be a separate section in the inner house where a male family member might reside. That is where Father Zhou was kept hidden from the public eye but served as a missionary for the next six years.

Kollumba led all activities related to church matters, in consultation with Father Zhou at her house. She arranged classes for catechism and other Catholic studies in various homes while keeping Father Zhou’s whereabouts a secret. She arranged classes and masses at her house less frequently after Father Zhou’s arrival there so as not to arouse suspicion among her neighbors. Her house was his safe house, home, office, and church, and she became his housekeeper, chief assistant, secretary, liaison office, and above all, the person solely responsible for his personal security.

Father Zhou created for her the position of women’s catechist, responsible for all matters relating to women in the church, in particular for their conversion and religious training. In their efforts to crack down secret Catholic practices, government officials focused on restricting the movements of male Catholics, and women were mostly left alone to move about in the city. In the absence of scrutiny and with her position, natural charisma, and deep knowledge of Catholic doctrines, Kollumba successfully converted many high society women and also be friended and converted commoner women, slaves, widows, and young girls. They even formed an activist group to help commoners and slaves better their spiritual lives. Many members became devout in their Catholic faith, and some of them were executed for not denouncing their Christian belief. Some eventually became martyrs together with Kollumba and Father Zhou in 1801.

1801 Persecution

Kollumba immediately moved Father Zhou to a new safe house, when another round of arrest began, and she was soon arrested. She suffered every possible torture but her interrogators were unable to withdraw information of the priest’s whereabouts. According to their report, the investigators were awed by her tenacity and her almost supernatural power of endurance. Her ordeal ended only when Father Zhou decided to come forward, to end the suffering once and for all. Father Zhou, Kollumba, and many other members of his congregation were executed soon after his arrest.

The Silk Letter, written on a piece of silk fabric with the smallest possible script, described the plight of Korean Catholics at that time. It was written by Hwang Sayong, a Confucian scholar and devout Catholic. He wrote about the 1801 Persecution and appealed to the Vatican to intervene militarily and protect the fledgling church. Kollumba’s dedication to her duties as a leader of the congregation and her leadership and managerial skills were praised in this letter. It was sewn inside a carrier’s garments to be delivered to a Catholic Mission in China. The author was arrested for his clandestine practices of Catholic faith. The letter also gave government officials the proof they were looking for: that there was a conspiracy against the Confucian regime. The discovery triggered another wave of searches and arrests of the followers of Catholic faith.

Woman of Agency

Kollumba Kang Wansuk died in the great anti-Catholic Persecution of 1801. Catholicism was officially declared to be treason, some 156 individuals, 29 of them women, were killed. She died as a martyr and a heroine to her fellow church members.

Clearly and interestingly, she was able to overcome all the restrictions that the Chosŏn society at the time imposed on women. She became a woman of agency.5 She moved beyond many of the restrictions that kept women in the home and transformed herself into a public person.

“In short, Kollumba Kang Wansuk was an independent woman with a public career, she had to pursue that career covertly, but her field of action extended far beyond the home and widespread recognition of her work came from outside it. In a religious community, that had been established and dominated by men, she moved unerringly to leadership at its center.”6 She was a truly remarkable woman. Her independence and self-directedness was hardly imaginable for a woman in her time and probably without precedent in earlier Korean history. She was the first independent, self-directed Korean woman in Korean history.