Korea & Her Neighbours/Chapter III

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Korea & Her Neighbours
by Isabella Lucy Bird Bishop

BEFORE leaving England letters from Korea had warned me of the difficulty of travelling in the interior, of getting a trustworthy servant, and above all, a trustworthy interpreter. Weeks passed by, and though Bishop Corfe and others exerted themselves on my behalf, these essential requisites were not forthcoming, for to find a reliable English-speaking Korean is well-nigh impossible. There are English-speaking Koreans who have learned English, some in the Government School, and others in the Methodist Episcopal School, and many of these I interviewed. The English of all was infirm, and they were all limp and timid, a set of poor creatures. Some of them seemed very anxious to go with me, and were partially engaged, and the next day came, looking uneasy, and balanc- ing themselves on the edge of their chairs, told me that their mothers said they must not go because there were tigers, or that three months was too long a journey, or that they could not go so far from their families, etc. At last a young man came who really spoke passable English, but on entering the room with a familiar nod, he threw himself down in an easy- chair, swinging his leg over the arm ! He asked many ques- tions about the journey, said it was very long to be away from Seoul, and that he should require one horse for his baggage and another for himself. I remarked that, in order to get through the difficulties of the journey, it would be necessary to limit the baggage as much as possible. He said he could not go with fewer than nine suits of clothes ! I remarked that a foreigner would only take two, and that I should reduce myself to two. *' Yes," he replied, '* but foreigners are so dirty in their habits.*' This from a Korean ! So once more I had to settle down, and accept the kindly hospitality of my friends, trusting that something would '^ turn up."

By this delay I came in for the Kur-dong^^ one of the most remarkable spectacles I ever saw, and it had the added interest of being seen in its splendor for probably the last time, as circumstances which have since occurred, and the necessity for economy, must put an end to much of the scenic display. The occasion was a visit of the King in state to sacrifice in one of the ancestral temples of his dynasty, members of which have occupied the Korean throne for five centuries. Living secluded in his palace, guarded by i,ooo men, his subjects forbidden to pronounce his name, which indeed is seldom known, in total ignorance of any other aspect of his kingdom and capital than that furnished by the two streets through which he passes to offer sacrifice, the days on which he per- forms this pious act offer to his subjects their sole opportuni- ties of gazing on his august countenance. As the Queen's procession passed by on the day of the Duke of York's mar- riage, I heard a workingman say, *'It's we as pays, and we likes to get the valey for our money." The Korean pays in another and heavier sense, and as in tens of thousands he crowds in reverential silence the route of the Kur-dong, he is probably glad that the one brilliant spectacle of the year should be as splendid as possible.

The monotony of Seoul is something remarkable. Brown mountains "picked out" in black, brown mud walls, brown roofs, brown roadways, whether mud or dust, while humanity is in black and white. Always the same bundled-up women clutching their green coats under their eyes, always the samie surge of yang-bajts and their familiars swinging along South

> If an apology be necessary for the following minute description of this unique ceremonial, I offer it on the ground that it was probably the last of its kind, and that full details of it have not been given before.

The Kur-dong Street, the same strings of squealing ponies spoiling for a fight," the same processions of majestic red bulls under tower- ing loads of brushwood, the same coolies in dirty white, for- ever carrying burdens, the same joyless dirty children getting through life on the gutters' edge, and the same brownish dogs, feebly wrangling over offal. On such monotony and color- lessness, the Kur-dong bursts like the sun. Alas for this mean but fascinating capital, that the most recent steps towards civilization should involve the abolition of its one spectacle !

By six in the morning of the looked-for day we were on our way from the English Legation to a position near the Great Bell, all the male population of the alleys taking the same direction, along with children in colors, and some of the poorer class of women with gay handkerchiefs folded Roman fashion on their hair. For the first time I saw the grand pro- portions of the road called by foreigners South Street. The double rows of booths had been removed the night before, and along the side of the street, at intervals of 20 yards, torches 10 feet high were let into the ground to light the King on his return from sacrificing. It is only by its imposing width that this great street lends itself to such a display, for the houses are low and mean, and on one side at least are only superior hovels. In place of the booths the subjects were massed twelve deep, the regularity of the front row being pre- served by a number of yamen runners, who brought down their wooden paddles with an unmerciful whack on any one breaking the line. The singular monotony of baggy white coats and black crinoline hats was relieved by boy bride- grooms in yellow hats and rose pink coats, by the green silk coats of women, and the green, pink, heliotrope and Turkey red dresses of children. The crowd had a quietly pleased but very limp look. There was no jollity or excitement, no flags or popular demonstrations, and scarcely a hum from a con- course which must have numbered at least 150,000, half the city, together with numbers from the country who had walked three and four days to see the spectacle. Squalid and mean is ordinary Korean life, and the King is a myth for most of the year. No wonder that the people turn out to see as splen- did a spectacle as the world has to show, its splendor centring round their usually secluded sovereign. It is to the glory of a dynasty which has occupied the Korean throne for five cen- turies as well as in honor of the present occupant.

The hour of leaving the palace had been announced as 6 a. M., but though it was 7.30 before the boom of a heavy gun announced that the procession was in motion, the interest never flagged the whole time. Hundreds of coolies sprinkled red earth for the width of a foot along the middle of the streets, for hypothetically the King must not pass over soil which has been trodden by the feet of his subjects. Squad- rons of cavalry, with coolies leading their shabby ponies, took up positions along the route, and in a great mass in front of us. The troopers sat on the ground smoking, till a very dis- trait bugle-call sent them to their saddles. The ponies bit, kicked, and squealed, and the grotesque and often ineffectual attempts of the men to mount them provoked the laughter of the crowd, as one trooper after another, with one foot in the stirrup and the other on the ground, hopped round at the pleasure of his steed. After all, with the help of their coolies, were mounted, whacks secretly administered by men in the crowd nearly unhorsed many of them, but they clung with both hands to their saddle bows and eventually formed into a ragged line.

Among the very curious sights were poles carried at meas- ured distances supporting rectangular frames resembling small umbrella stands, filled with feathered arrows, and messengers dashing along as if they had been shot and were escaping from another shaft, for from the backs of their collars protruded arrows which had apparently entered obliquely. Either on the back or breast or both of the superb dresses of officials were satin squares embroidered in unique designs, representing birds and beasts, storks indicating civil, and tigers military, rank, while the number of birds or animals on the lozenge de- noted the wearer's exact position.

Though there were long stretches of silence, scarcely broken by the hum of a multitude, there were noisy interludes, novel in their nature, produced by men, sometimes fifteen in a row, who carried poles with a number of steel rings loosely strung upon them, which they tossed into the air and allowed to fall against each other with a metallic clink, loud and strident. Likewise the trains of servants in attendance on mandarins emitted peculiar cries, sounding G in unison, then raising their note and singing C three times, afterwards, with a fall- ing cadence, singing G again.

But of the noises which passed for music, the most curi- ous as to method was that made by the drummers, who marched irregularly in open order in lines extending across the broad roadway. These carried bowl-shaped kettledrums slung horizontally, and bass drum sticks mainly hidden by their voluminous sleeves. In time with the marching, the right hand stick rose above the drummer's head, then the left stick in like manner, but both fell again nearly to the drum without emitting a sound! The next act of the performance consisted in lifting both sticks above the head together and again bringing them down silently. Finally the sticks were crossed, and during two marching steps rose feebly, and as feebly fell on the ends of the drum, producing a muffled sound, and this programme was repeated during the duration of the march.

Soldiers in rusty black belted frocks, wide trousers, band- aged into padded socks, and straw shoes, stacked arms in a side street. Closed black and colored chairs went past at a trot. Palace attendants in hundreds in brown glazed cotton sleeved cloaks, blue under robes* tied below the knee with bunches of red ribbon, and stiff black hats, with heavy fan- shaped plumes of peacock's feathers, rode ragged ponies on gay saddles of great height, without bridles, the animals being led by coolies. High officials passed in numbers in chairs or on pony back, each with from twenty to thirty gay attendants running beside him, and a row of bannermen extending across the broad street behind him, each man with a silk banner bearing the cognomen of his lord. These officials were su- perbly dressed, and made a splendid show. They wore black, high-crowned hats, with long crimson tassels behind, and heavy, black ostrich plumes falling over the brim in front, mazarine blue silk robes, split up to the waist behind, with orange silk under robes and most voluminous crimson trousers, loosely tied above the ankles with knots of sky blue ribbon, while streamers of ribbon fell from throats and girdles, and the hats were secured by throat lashes of large amber beads. Each carried over his shoulder a yellow silk banneret with his style in Chinese characters in crimson upon it, and in the same hand his baton of office, with a profusion of streamers of rich ribbons depending from it. The sleeves were orange in the upper part and crimson in the lower, and very full.

The overfed and self-willed ponies, chiefly roan and gray, are very handsome, and showily caparisoned, the heads cov- ered with blue, red, and yellow balls, and surmounted with great crimson silk pompons, the bridles a couple of crimson silk scarves, the saddles a sort of leather-covered padded pack saddle 12 inches above the animal's back, with wide, deep flaps of bright green silver-bossed leather hanging down on either side, the cruppers folded white silk, and the breastplate shields of gold embroidery. The gorgeous rider, lifted by his servants upon this elevation, stands erect in his stirrups with his feet not halfway down his pony's sides, his left hand clutching rather than holding an arch placed for this purpose at the bow of the saddle. These officials made no attempt to hold their own bridles, their ponies were led by servants, re- tainers supported them by the feet on either side, and as their mounts showed their resentment of the pace and circumstances by twistings and struggUngs with their grooms, the faces of the riders expressed " a fearful joy," if "joy" " was.

Waves of color and Korean grandeur rolled by, official pro- cessions, palace attendants, bannerraen, with large silk banners trailing on the stiff breeze, each flagstaff crested with a tuft of pheasant's feathers, the King's chief cook, with an enormous retinue, more palace servants, smoking long pipes, drummers fifers, couriers at a gallop, with arrows stuck into the necks of their coats, holding on to their saddles and rope bridles, mixed up with dishevelled ponies with ragged pack saddles, carrying cushions, lacquer boxes, eatables, cooking utensils and smok- ing apparatus, led caparisoned ponies, bowmen, soldiers strag^ glfng loosely, armed with matchlock guns, till several thousand persons had passed. Yet this was not the procession, though it might well have served for one.

At 7 ^o, while this " march past" was still going on, a gun was fired, and the great bell, which was very close to t.s boomed heavily, and a fanfaronade of trumpets and the shrdl scream of fifes announced that Li Hs. had at l^st left the palace. The cavalry opposite us prepared to receive His Maj- esty by turning tail, a man«uvre not accomplished without much squealing and fighting. There was a general stir among the spectators, men with arrows in their coats galloped frantic- ally, there was an onslaught on the " Derby dog, and an at- tack by men, armed with the long wooden paddles which are used for beating criminals, on inoffensive portions of the crowd. It is said that there were 5,000 servants and officials con- nected with the palace, and there were nominally 6,000 soldiers in Seoul, and the greater part of tliese took part in the many splendid processions which went to form the Royal procession. It would be impossible for a stranger to give in detail the com- ponent parts of such a show, the like of which has no existence elsewhere on earth, passing for more than an hour in the bright sunshine, in detachments, in compact masses, at a stately walk or a rapid run, in the full spendor of a barbaric medievalism, or to say what dignitaries flashed by in the kaleidoscopic blaze of color.

The procession of the King was led by the general of the vanguard," superbly dressed, supported by retainers on his led pony, and followed by crowds of dignitaries, each with his train, soldiers, men carrying aloft frames of arrows, reaching nearly across the road, and huge flags of silk brocade sur- mounted by plumes of pheasant's feathers, servants in rows of a hundred in the most delicate shades of blue, green, or mauve silk gauze over white, halberdiers, grandees, each with a ret- inue of bannermen, rows of royal bannermen carrying yellow and blue silk flags emblazoned, cavalry men in imitation gold helmets and mediaeval armor, and tiger hunters wearing coarse black felt hats with conical crowns and dark blue coats, trail- ing long guns. With scarcely a pause followed the President of the Foreign Office, high above the crowd on a monocycle, a black wheel supporting on two uprights a black platform, carrying a black chair decorated with a leopard skin, the oc- cupant of which was carried by eight men at a height of 8 feet from the ground. More soldiers, bannermen, and drum- mers, and then came the chief of the eunuchs, grandly dressed, with an immense retinue, and a large number of his subordi- nates, most of whom up to that time, by their position in the palace and their capacity for intrigue, had exercised a very baneful influence on Korean affairs.

The procession became more quaint and motley still. Palace attendants appeared in the brilliant garments of the Korean middle ages ; cavalry in antique armor were jumbled up with cavalry in loose cotton frocks and baggy trousers, supposed to be dressed and armed in European fashion, but I failed to de- tect the flattery of imitation. There were cavalry in black Tyrolese hats with pink ribbon round them, black cotton sacks loosely girdled by leather belts with brass clasps never cleaned, white wadded stockings, and hempen shoes. Some had leather saddles, others rode on pack saddles, with the great pad which should go underneath on the top; some held on to their saddles, others to their rope bridles, the ponies of some were led by- coolies in dirty white clothes; the officers were all held on their saddles, many tucked their old-fashioned swords under their arms, lest carrying them in regulation fashion should make their animals kick ; the feet of some nearly touched the ground, and those of others hung only halfway down their ponies' sides; ponies squealed, neighed, reared, and jibbed, but somehow or other these singular horsemen managed to form ragged lines.

Then came foot soldiers with rusty muskets and innumer- able standards, generals, court dignitaries, statesmen, some with crimson hats with heavy black plumes, others with high peaked crinoline hats with projecting wings, others with lofty mitres covered with tinsel gleaming like gold, each with a splendid train. Mediaeval costumes blazing with color flashed past, there were more soldiers, and this time they carried Snider rifles, two Gatling guns were dragged \)y yamen runners, who frantically spanked all and sundry with their paddles, drum- mers beat their drums unmercifully, fifes shrieked, there were more dignitaries with fairylike retinues in blue and green silk gauze, the King's personal attendants in crowds followed in yellow, with bamboo hats trimmed with rosettes, standard- bearers came next, bearing the Royal standard, a winged tiger rampant on a yellow ground, more flags and troops, and then the curious insignia of Korean Royalty, including a monstrous red silk umbrella, and a singular frame of stones. More gran- dees, more soldiers, more musical instruments, and then come the Royal chairs, the first, which was canopied with red silk, being empty, the theory being that this was the more likely to receive an assassin's blow. A huge trident was carried in front of it. After this, borne high aloft by forty bearers clothed in red, in a superb chair of red lacquer, richly tasselled and can- opied, and with wings to keep off the sun, came the King, whose pale, languid face never changed its expression as he passed with all the dignity and splendor of his kingdom through the silent crowd.

More grandees, servants, soldiers, standard-bearers, arrow- men, officials, cavalry, and led horses formed the procession of the Crown Prince, who was also carried in a red palanquin, and looked paler and more impassive than his father. The supply of officials seemed inexhaustible, for behind him came a quarter of a mile of grandees in splendid costumes, with hats decorated with red velvet and peacock's feathers, and throat lashes of great amber beads, with all their splendid trains, foot- men in armor bossed with large nails, drummers, men carry- ing arrow frames and insignia on poles, then the *' general of the rear guard" in a gleaming helmet and a splendid blue, crimson, and gold uniform, propped up by retainers on his handsome pony, more soldiers armed with old matchlock guns, lastly men bearing arrow frames and standards, and with them the barbaric and bizarre splendor of the Kiir-dong was over, and the white crowd once more overflowed the mean street. Quite late in the evening the Royal pageant returned by the light of stationary torches, with lanterns of blue and crimson silk undulating from the heads of pikes and bayonets.

This truly splendid display was estimated to cost $25,000 — a heavy burden on the small resources of the kingdom. It is only thus surrounded that the King ever appears in public, and the splendor accentuates the squalor of the daily life of the masses of the people in the foul alleys which make up most of the city. It must be remembered that the people taking part in the pageant are not men hired and dressed up by a cos- tumier, but that they are actual Court officials and noblemen in the dress of to-day, and that the weapons carried by the sol- diers are those with which they are supposed to repel attack or put down rebellion.