Korea & Her Neighbours/Chapter II

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Korea & Her Neighbours
by Isabella Lucy Bird Bishop

CHEMULPO, being on the island-studded estuary of the Han, which is navigable for the 56 miles up to Ma-pu, the river port of Seoul, it eventually occurred to some persons more enterprising than their neighbors to establish steam com-munication between the two. Manifold are the disasters which have attended this simple undertaking. Nearly every passen-ger who has entrusted himself to the river has a tale to tell of the boat being deposited on a sandbank, and of futile endeav-ors to get off, of fretting and fuming, usually ending in hail-ing a passing sajnpan and getting up to Ma-pu many hours be-hind time, tired, hungry, and disgusted. For the steam launches are only half powered for their work, the tTdes are strong, the river shallows often, and its sandbanks shift almost from tide to tide. Hence this natural highway is not much patronized by people who respect themselves, and all sorts of arrangements are made for getting up to the capital by "road." There is, properly speaking, no road, but the word serves. Mr. Gardner, the British acting Consul-General in Seoul, kindly arranged to escort me the 25 miles, and I went up in seven hours in a chair with six bearers, jolly fellows, who joked and laughed and raced the Consul's pony. Traffic has worn for itself a track, often indefinite, but usually straggling over and sterilizing a width enough for three or four highways, and often making a new departure to avoid deep mud holes. The mud is nearly bottomless. Bullock-carts owned by Chi-nese attempt the transit of goods, and two or three embedded in the mud till the spring showed with what success. Near Ma-pu all traffic has to cross a small plain of deep sand. Pack bulls, noble animals, and men are the carriers of goods. The redoubtable Korean pony was not to be seen. Foot passen-gers in dress hats and wadded white garments were fairly numerous.

The track lies through rolling country, well cultivated. There are only two or three villages on the road, but there are many, surrounded by fruit trees, in the folds of the adjacent low hills; stunted pines {Finns sinensis) abound, and often indicate places of burial. The hillsides are much taken up with graves. There are wooden sign or distant posts, with grotesque human faces upon them, chiefly that of Chang Sun, a traitor, whose misdemeanors were committed 1,000 years ago. The general aspect of the country is bare and monot-onous. Except for the orchards and the spindly pines, there is no wood. There is no beauty of form, nor any of those signs of exclusiveness, such as gates or walls, which give some-thing of dignity to a landscape. These were my first impres-sions. But I came to see on later journeys that even on that road th^re can be a beauty and fascination in the scenery when glorified and idealized by the unrivalled atmosphere of a Korean winter, which it is a delight even to recall, and that the situation of Seoul for a sort of weird picturesqueness com-pares favorably with that of almost any other capital, but its orientalism, a marked feature of which was its specially self-asserting dirt, is being fast improved off the face of the earth.

From the low pass known as the Gap, there is a view of the hills in the neighborhood of Seoul, and before reaching the Han these, glorified and exaggerated by an effect of atmos-phere, took on something of grandeur. Crossing the Han in a scow to which my chair accommodated itself more readily than Mr. Gardner's pony, and encountering ferry boats full of pack bulls bearing the night soil of the city to the country, we landed on the rough, steep, filthy, miry river bank, and were at once in the foul, narrow, slimy, rough street of Ma-pu, a twisted alley full of mean shops for the sale of native com-modities, of bulls carrying mountains of brushwood which nearly filled up the roadway ; and with a crowd, masculine solely, which swayed and loafed, and did nothing in particu-lar. Some quiet agricultural country, and some fine trees, a resemblance to the land of the Bakhtiari Lurs, in the fact of one man working a spade or shovel, while three others helped him to turn up the soil by an arrangement of ropes, then two chairs with bearers in blue uniforms, carrying Mrs. and Miss Gardner, accompanied by Bishop Corfe, Mr. M'Leavy Brown, the Chief Commissioner of Korean Customs, and Mr. Fox, the Assistant Consul, then the hovels and alleys became thick, and we were in extra-mural Seoul. A lofty wall, pierced by a deep double-roofed gateway, was passed, and ten minutes more of miserable alleys brought us to a breezy hill, crowned by the staring red brick buildings of the English Legation and Consular offices.

The Russian Legation has taken another and a higher, and its loftly tower and fine facade are the most conspicuous objects in the city, while a third is covered with buildings, some Korean and tasteful, but others in a painful style of architec-ture, a combination of the factory with the meeting-house, be-longing to the American Methodist Episcopal Mission, the American Presbyterians occupying a humbler position below. A hill on the other side of the town is dedicated to Japan, and so in every part of the city the foreigner, shut out till 1883, is making his presence felt, and is undermining that which is Korean in the Korean capital by the slow process of contact.

One of the most remarkable indications of the changes which is stealing over the Hermit City is that a nearly finished Roman Catholic Cathedral, of very large size, witli a clergy-house and orphanages, occupies one of the most prominent positions in Seoul. The King's father, the Tai-Won-Kun, still actively engaged in politics, is the man who, thirty years ago, persecuted the Roman Christians so cruelly and persist-ently as to raise up for Korea a " noble army of martyrs."

I know Seoul by day and night, its palaces and its slums, its unspeakable meanness and faded splendors, its purposeless crowds, its mediaeval processions, which for barbaric splendor cannot be matched on earth, the filth of its crowded alleys, and its pitiful attempt to retain its manners, customs, and identity as the capital of an ancient monarchy in face of the host of disintegrating influences which are at work, but it is not at first that one takes it in." I had known it for a year before I appreciated it, or fully realized that it is entitled to be regarded as one of the great capitals of the world, with its supposed population of a quarter of a million, and that few capitals are more beautifully situated.^ One hundred and twenty feet above the sea, in Lat. 37° 34' N. and Long. 127° 6' E., mountain girdled, for the definite peaks and abrupt elevation of its hills give them the grandeur of mountains, though their highest summit, San-kak-San, has only an altitude of 2,627 feet, few cities can boast, as Seoul can, that tigers and leopards are shot within their walls ! Arid and forbid-ding these mountains look at times, their ridges broken up into black crags and pinnacles, ofttimes rising from among dis-torted pines, but there are evenings of purple glory, when every forbidding peak gleams like an amethyst with a pink translucency, and the shadows are cobalt and the sky is green and gold. Fair are the surroundings too in early spring, when a delicate green mist veils the hills, and their sides are flushed with the heliotrope azalea, and flame of plum, and blush of cherry, and tremulousness of peach blossom appear in un-expected quarters.

Looking down on this great city, which has the aspect of a lotus pond in November, or an expanse of overripe mushrooms, the eye naturally follows the course of the wall, which is discerned in most outlandish places, climbing Nam-San in one direction, and going clear over the crest of Puk-han in another, enclosing a piece of forest here, and a vacant plain there, descending into ravines, disappearing and reappearing when least expected. This wall, which contrives to look nearly as solid as the hillsides which it climbs, is from 25 to 40 feet in height, and 14 miles in circumference (according to Mr. Fox of H.B.M.'s Consular Service), battlemented along its entire length, and pierced by eight gateways, solid arches or tunnels of stone, surmounted by lofty gate houses with one, two, or three curved tiled roofs. These are closed from sunset to sunrise by massive wooden gates, heavily bossed and strength-ened with iron, bearing, following Chinese fashion, high-sounding names, such as the " Gate of Bright Amiability," the " Gate of High Ceremony," the " Gate of Elevated Hu-manity."

The wall consists of a bank of earth faced with masonry, or of solid masonry alone, and is on the whole in tolerable repair. It is on the side nearest the river, and onwards in the direction of the Peking Pass, that extra-mural Seoul has ex-panded. One gate is the Gate of the Dead, only a royal corpse being permitted to be carried out by any other. By another gate criminals passed out to be beheaded, and outside another their heads were exposed for some days after execu-tion, hanging from camp-kettle stands. The north gate, high on Puk-han, is kept closed, only to be opened in case the King is compelled to escape to one of the so-called fortresses on that mountain.

Outside the wall is charming country, broken into hills and wooded valleys, with knolls sacrificed to stately royal tombs, with their environment of fine trees, and villages in romantic positions among orchards and garden cultivation. Few Eastern cities have prettier walks and rides in their immediate neighborhood, or greater possibilities of rapid escape into sylvan solitudes, and I must add that no city has environs so safe, and that ladies without a European escort can ride, as I have done, in every direction outside the walls without meet-ing with the slightest annoyance.

I shrink from describing intra-mural Seoul. ^ I thought it the foulest city on earth till I saw Peking, and its smells the most odious, till I encountered those of Shao-shing ! For a great city and a capital its meanness is indescribable. Eti-quette forbids the erection of two-storied houses, consequently an estimated quarter of a million people are living on "the ground," chiefly in labyrinthine alleys, many of them not wide enough for two loaded bulls to pass, indeed barely wide enough for one man to pass a loaded bull, and further narrowed by a series of vile holes or green, slimy ditches, which receive the solid and liquid refuse of the houses, their foul and fetid margins being the favorite resort of half-naked children, be-grimed with dirt, and of big, mangy, blear-eyed dogs, which wallow in the slime or blink in the sun. There too the itin-erant vendor of "small wares," and candies dyed flaring colors with aniline dyes, establishes himself, puts a few planks across the ditch, and his goods, worth perhaps a dollar, thereon. But even Seoul has its " spring cleaning," and I en-countered on the sand plain of the Han, on the ferry, and on the road from Ma-pu to Seoul, innumerable bulls carrying pan-niers laden with the contents of the city ditches.

The houses abutting on these ditches are generally hovels with deep eaves and thatched roofs, presenting nothing to the street but a mud wall, with occasionally a small paper window just under the roof, indicating the men's quarters, and invari-ably, at a height varying from 2 to 3 feet above the ditch, a blackened smoke-hole, the vent for the smoke and heated air, which have done their duty in warming the floor of the house. All day long bulls laden with bruslnvood to a great height are entering the city, and at six o'clock this pine brush, preparing to do the cooking and warming for the population, fills every lane in Seoul with aromatic smoke, which hangs over it with remarkable punctuality. Even the superior houses, which have curved and tiled roofs, present nothing better to the street than this debased appearance.

The shops partake of the general meanness. Shops with a stock-in-trade which may be worth six dollars abound. It is easy to walk in Seoul without molestation, but any one stand-ing to look at anything attracts a great crowd, so that it is as well that there is nothing to look at. The shops have literally not a noteworthy feature. Their one characteristic is that they have none ! The best shops are near the Great Bell, be-side which formerly stood a stone with an inscription calling on all Koreans to put intruding foreigners to death. So small are they that all goods are within reach of the hand. In one of the three broad streets, there are double rows of removable booths, in which now and then a small box of Korean niello work, iron inlaid with silver, may be picked up. In these and others the principal commodities are white cottons, straw shoes, bamboo hats, coarse pottery, candlesticks, with draught screens, combs, glass beads, pipes, tobacco pouches, spittoons, horn-rimmed goggles, much worn by officials, paper of many kinds, wooden pillow-ends, decorated pillowcases, fans, ink-cases, huge wooden saddles with green leather flaps bossed with silver, laundry sticks, dried persimmons, loathsome candies dyed magenta, scarlet, and green, masses of dried seaweed and fungi, and ill-chosen collections of the most trumpery of foreign trash, such as sixpenny kerosene lamps, hand mirrors, tinsel vases, etc., the genius of bad taste presiding over all.

Plain brass dinner sets and other brass articles are made, and some mother-of-pearl inlaying in black lacquer from old designs is occasionally to be purchased, and embroideries in silk and gold thread, but the designs are ugly, and the color-ing atrocious. Foreigners have bestowed the name Cabinet Street on a street near the English Legation, given up to the making of bureaus and marriage chests. These, though not massive, look so, and are really handsome, some being of solid chestnut wood, others veneered with maple or peach, and bossed, strapped, and hinged with brass, besides being orna-mented with great brass hasps and brass padlocks 6 inches long. These, besides being thoroughly Korean, are distinctly decorative. There are few buyers, except in the early morn-ing, and shopping does not seem a pastime, partly because none but the poorest class of women can go out on foot by daylight.

In the booths are to be seen tobacco pipes, pipestems, and bowls, coarse glazed pottery, rice bowls, Japanese lucifer matches, aniline dyes, tobacco pouches, purses, flint and tinder pouches, rolls of oiled paper, tassels, silk cord, nuts of the edible pine, rice, millet, maize, peas, beans, string shoes, old crinoline hats, bamboo and reed hats in endless variety, and coarse native cotton, very narrow.

In this great human hive, the ordinary sightseer finds his vocation gone. The inhabitants constitute the sight" of Seoul. The great bronze bell, said to be the third largest in the world, is one of the few sights " usually seen by stran-gers. It hangs in a bell tower in the centre of the city, and bears the following inscription : —

" Sye Cho the Great, 12*^ year Man cha [year of the cycle] and moon, the 4'^ year of the great Ming Emperor Hsiian-hua [a.d. 1468], the head of the bureau of Royal despatches, Sye Ko chyeng, bearing the title Sa Ka Chyeng, had this pavilion erected and this bell hung."

This bell, whose dull heavy boom is heard in all parts of Seoul, has opened and closed the gates for five centuries.

The grand triple gateway of the Royal Palace with its double roof, the old audience hall in the Mulberry Gardens, and the decorative roofs of the gate towers, are all seen in an hour. There remains the Marble Pagoda, seven centuries old, so com-pletely hidden away in the back yard of a house in one of the foulest and narrowest alleys of the city, that many people never see it at all. As I was intent on photographing some of the reliefs upon it, I visited it five times, and each time with fresh admiration ; but so wedged in is it, that one can only get any kind of view of it by climbing on the top of a wall. Every part is carved, and the flat parts richly so, some of the tablets representing Hindu divinities, while others seem to portray the various stages of the soul's progress towards Nir-vana. The designs are undoubtedly Indian, modified by Chinese artists, and this thing of beauty stands on the site of a Buddhist monastery. It is a thirteen-storied pagoda, but three stories were taken off in the Japanese invasion three centuries ago, and placed on the ground uninjured. So they remained, but on my last visit children had defaced the ex-quisite carving, and were offering portions for sale. Not far off is another relic of antiquity, a decorated and inscribed tablet standing on the back of a granite turtle of prodigious size. Outside the west gate, on a plain near the Peking Pass, was a roofed and highly decorated arch of that form known as the pailow, and close by it a sort of palace hall, in which every new sovereign of Korea waited for the coming of a special envoy from Peking, whom he joined at the pailow, ac-companying him to the palace, where he received from him his investiture as sovereign.

On the slope of Nam San the white wooden buildings, sim-ple and unpretentious, of the Japanese Legation are situated, and below them a Japanese colony of nearly 5,000 persons, equipped with tea-houses, a theatre, and the various arrange-ments essential to Japanese well-being. There, in acute con-trast to everything Korean, are to be seen streets of shops and houses where cleanliness, daintiness, and thrift reign supreme, and unveiled women, and men in girdled dressing-gowns and clogs, move about as freely as in Japan. There also are to be seen minute soldiers or military police, and smart be-sworded officers, who change guard at due intervals ; nor are such pre-cautions needless, for the heredity of hate is strong in Korea, and on two occasions the members of this Legation have had to fight their way down to the sea. The Legation was occu-pied at the time of my first visit by Mr. Otori, an elderly man with pendulous white whiskers, who went much into the little society which Seoul boasts, talked nothings, and gave no promise of the rough vigor which he showed a few months later. There also are the Japanese bank and post office, both admirably managed.

The Chinese colony was in 1894 nearly as large, and dif-fered in no respect from such a colony anywhere else. The foreigners depend for many things on the Chinese shops, and as the Koreans like the Chinese, they do some trade with them also. The imposing element connected with China was the yamen of Yuan, the Minister Resident and representative of Korea's Suzerain, by many people regarded as ** the power behind the throne," who is reported to have gone more than once unbidden into the King's presence, and to have re-proached him with his conduct of affairs. Great courtyards and lofty gates on which are painted the usual guardian gods, and a brick dragon screen, seclude the palace in which Yuan lived with his guards and large retinue ; and the number of big, supercilious men, dressed in rich brocades and satins, who hung about both this Palace and the Consulate, impressed the Koreans with the power and stateliness within. The Americans were very severe on Yuan, but so far as I could learn his chief fault was that he let things alone, and neglected to use his unquestionably great power in favor of reform and common honesty — but he was a Chinese mandarin ! He possessed the power of life and death over Chinamen, and his punishments were often to our thinking barbarous, but the Chinese feared him so much that they treated the Koreans fairly well, which is more than can be said of the Japanese.

One of the <' sights" of Seoul is the stream or drain or watercourse, a wide, walled, open conduit, along which a dark-colored festering stream slowly drags its malodorous length, among manure and refuse heaps which cover up most of what was once its shingly bed. There, tired of crowds masculine solely, one may be refreshed by the sight of women of the poorest class, some ladling into pails the compound which passes for water, and others washing clothes in the fetid pools which pass for a stream. All wear one costume, which is peculiar to the capital, a green silk coat — a man's coat with the *' neck" put over the head and clutched below the eyes, and long wide sleeves falling from the ears. It is as well that the Korean woman is concealed, for she is not a houri. Wash-ing is her manifest destiny so long as her lord wears white. She washes in this foul river, in the pond of the Mulberry Palace, in every wet ditch, and outside the walls in the few streams which exist. Clothes are partially unpicked, boiled with ley three times, rolled into hard bundles, and pounded with heavy sticks on stones. After being dried they are beaten with wooden sticks on cylinders, till they attain a polish resembling dull satin. The women are slaves to the laundry, and the only sound which breaks the stillness of a Seoul night is the regular beat of their laundry sticks.

From the beautiful hill Nam-San, from the Lone Tree Hill, and from a hill above the old Mulberry Palace, Seoul is best seen, with its mountainous surroundings, here and there dark with pines, but mostly naked, falling down upon the city in black arid corrugations. These mountains enclose a valley about 5 miles long by 3 broad, into which 200,000 people are crammed and wedged. The city is a sea of low brown roofs, mostly of thatch, and all but monotonous, no trees and no open spaces. Rising out of this brown sea there are the curved double roofs of the gates, and the gray granite walls of the royal palaces, and within them the sweeping roofs of vari-ous audience halls. Cutting the city across by running from the east to the west gate is one broad street, another striking off from this runs to the south gate, and a third 60 yards wide runs from the great central artery to the palace. This is the only one which is kept clear of encumbrance at all times, the others being occupied by double rows of booths, leaving only a narrow space for traffic on either side. When I first looked down on Seoul early in March, one street along its whole length appeared to be still encumbered with the drift of the previous winter's snow. It was only by the aid of a glass that I discovered that this is the great promenade, and that the snowdrift was just the garments of the Koreans, whitened by ceaseless labor with the laundry sticks. In these three broad streets the moving crowd of men in white robes and black dress hats seldom flags. They seem destitute of any ob-ject. Many of them are of the yang-ban or noble class, to whom a rigid etiquette forbids any but official or tutorial occu-pation, and many of whom exist by hanging on to their more fortunate relatives. Young men of the middle class imitate their nonchalance and swinging gait.

There, too, are to be seen officials, superbly dressed, mounted on very fat but handsome ponies, with profuse manes and tails, the riders sitting uneasily on the tops of saddles with showy caparisonings a foot high, holding on to the saddle bow, two retainers leading the steed, and two more holding the rider in his place ; or officials in palanquins, with bearers at a run, amid large retinues. In the more plebeian streets nothing is to be seen but bulls carrying pine brush, strings of ponies loaded with salt or country produce, water-carriers with pails slung on a yoke, splashing their contents, and coolies carrying burdens on wooden pack saddles.

But in the narrower alleys, of which there are hundreds, further narrowed by the low deep eaves, and the vile ditches outside the houses, only two men can pass each other, and the noble red bull with his load of brushwood is rarely seen. Be-tween these miles of mud walls, deep eaves, green slimy ditches, and blackened smoke holes, few besides the male inhabitants and burden bearers are seen to move. They are the paradise of mangy dogs. Every house has a dog and a square hole through which he can just creep. He yelps furiously at a stranger, and runs away at the shaking of an umbrella. He was the sole scavenger of Seoul, and a very inefficient one. He is neither the friend nor companion of man. He is ignorant of Korean and every other spoken language. His bark at night announces peril from thieves. He is almost wild. When young he is killed and eaten in spring.

I have mentioned the women of the lower classes, who wash clothes and draw water in the daytime. Many of these were domestic slaves, and all are of the lowest class. Korean women are very rigidly secluded, perhaps more absolutely so than the women of any other nation. In the capital a very curious arrangement prevailed. About eight o'clock the great bell tolled a signal for men to retire into their houses, and for women to come out and amuse themselves, and visit their friends. The rule which clears the streets of men occasionally lapses, and then some incident occurs which causes it to be rigorously reenforced. So it was at the time of my arrival, and the pitch dark streets presented the singular spectacle of being tenanted solely by bodies of women with servants carry-ing lanterns. From its operation were exempted blind men, officials, foreigners' servants, and persons carrying prescrip-tions to the druggists'. These were often forged for the purpose of escape from durance vile, and a few people got long staffs and personated blind men. At twelve the bell again boomed, women retired, and men were at liberty to go abroad. A lady of high position told me that she had never seen the streets of Seoul by daylight.

The nocturnal silence is very impressive. There is no human hum, throb, or gurgle. The darkness too is absolute, as there are few if any lighted windows to the streets. Upon a silence which may be felt, the deep, penetrating boom of the great bell breaks with a sound which is almost ominous.