John Jeong Yak-yong was apparently one of those Renaissance men who typify the best of Asian scholarship. He was an influential Confucian, who became one of the earliest Koreans to convert to Catholicism by “reading his way in”. He then worked to show his countrymen how Western ideas could fit into Eastern systems of thought, in a new school of thought called Silhak. In his ever-so-copious spare time, he fought government corruption and crime as a secret inspector for the Korean crown. And that’s just his real life.
He may have renounced his faith during the later persecution of Catholics and otherwise Westernized or inconvenient Korean people, by Queen Jeongsun’s government. Then again, he might not have. It doesn’t seem to be clear, although his being allowed to live in exile is sort of evidence; but then again, a lot of Asian governments have been reluctant to kill really eminent scholars. He wrote over 500 books while in exile in Kangin.
He was the uncle of St. Paul Chong Hasang and his sister St. Jung Hye, the brother of Augustine Jeong Yak-jong, and the brother-in-law of St. Yu Cecilia, all martyred for the faith.
(I thing Chong, Jung, and Jeong are all variant transliteration spellings of the same surname, but don’t quote me on it.)
Augustine wrote the first Korean catechism written in the Korean characters of the people instead of the Chinese characters used by scholars, and was killed in the 1801. As a layman, St. Paul Chong Hasang helped reorganize the shattered remnants of the Church in Korea after this persecution. Joining the diplomatic service, he made contact with Beijing’s bishop and repeatedly wrote letters to the pope pleading that he send them a bishop. In 1831, his efforts bore fruit and their first bishop arrived. He began studying with the bishop to become a priest, but the 1839 persecution swept both him and the bishop away. He wrote an apologia for Catholicism and submitted it to his judge, who noted that while what he had written was right, it was his duty to do what the emperor said. The saint replied, “I have told you that I am a Christian, and will be one until my death.” He then underwent many tortures with a calm face (showing that he still possessed all the virtues of a Confucian gentleman as well as of a Christian) and died the same way.
In 2009, MBC released an 8 episode South Korean mystery show where he’s the sleuth. It’s called Jeong-Yak Yong, Jung Yak Yong, Korean Mystery Detective, or Korean Mystery Detective Jung Yak Yong. Obviously we need this on EWTN right away.🙂
Seriously, though, the story of the Korean Catholic Church is full of drama and interest. I’m really surprised that there aren’t any vast epics being made to tell their story. There’s people like St. Kim A-gi Agatha, a convert who had a lot of trouble learning the prayers and doctrine, and thus when arrested told the police, “I don’t know anything but Jesus and Mary.” But when asked if she would renounce them, she bravely said, “I would rather die than reject them,” and went on to withstand torture. Her fellow prisoners baptized her when she was sent back to the cell, and her faith and bravery was multiplied even more by the graces of the Sacrament.