Old Korea, Part 1

Old Korea, Part 1

Charles Dallet's 2-volume History of the Korean Church, published in French in 1874, is preceded by a 192-page 'Introduction,' which is in fact a description/ethnography of Old Korea as the French missionaries observed it in the middle decades of the 19th century.  

To learn more about the complete work, its place in Korean historiography, and its current unpublished state, please read this previous post: 


The translation of the 'Introduction' has thus far been entirely my own.  As far as I know, it is the first translation since one that appeared in the 1950s in a now-defunct American scholarly journal that is nowadays impossible to find.  In an effort to stimulate interest in this important work of history, and perhaps to attract the interest of a publisher or some Maecenas who might feel moved to fund a proper scholarly edition of it, I have decided to serialize the 'Introduction' on this blog, one section at a time.  

Its full title is 'Introduction to the History, Institutions, Language, Morals, and Customs of Korea.' There are fifteen numbered sections, which I'll refer to as 'parts.'  Part I appears below.  The others will follow in due course.  I present the text without footnotes, other than the occasional one that Dallet himself used.  For a proper scholarly edition of this work, numerous footnotes would evidently have to be added.  Interested, benevolent scholars with a fluent reading knowledge of both Korean and Sino-Korean are invited to lend their talents in exchange for a warm pat on the back, and, potentially, the satisfaction of seeing their names on the cover of a publication.  

For visual interest, I will insert such relevant images as I can find on WikiCommons, or my own photos.  I'm reproducing a map from Wiki in Part I.  The original edition of 1874 included a map of Korea and numerous engraved illustrations, but my 1970s RASKB re-print has no map and no illustrations. 

Translation note: I have not altered Dallet's romanization of Korean names, which is of course based on French phonetics.  Non-English words that are not names are italicized.


I Physical Geography of Korea – Soil – Climate – Products – Population 

The kingdom of Korea, in north-east Asia, consists of an oblong peninsula and a very considerable number of islands, especially along the west coast.  The whole is contained within 33.15⁰ of latitude north, and between 122.15⁰ and 128.30⁰ of longitude east of Paris.  The inhabitants of the peninsula give it an approximate length of 3,000 li (A li is 360 geometric feet, or 567 metres.  Ten li are equal to a maritime or geographical league.), about 300 leagues, and a width of 1,300 li, or 130 leagues, but these figures are evidently exaggerated.  Korea is delimited to the north by the Chan-yan-alin mountain range, dominated by Paik-tou-san (the White-Headed Mountain), and by the two big rivers that have their source on opposite sides of this range.  The Ya-lou-kiang (in Korean Am-no-kang, River of the Green Duck) flows westwards and empties into the Yellow Sea; it forms a natural frontier between Korea and the Chinese regions of Léao-tong and Manchuria.  The Mi-kiang (in Korean Tuman-kang), which empties to the east into the Sea of Japan, separates Corea from Manchuria and the new Russian territories, ceded by China in November, 1860.  The other borders are: to the west and south-west, the Yellow Sea; to the east, the Sea of Japan; to the south-east, the Straits of Korea, of an average breadth of 25 leagues, which separate the Korean peninsula from the Japanese islands.

The name of Korea comes from the Chinese word Kao-li, which the Koreans pronounce Ko-ri and the Japanese Ko-rai.  This was the name of the kingdom under the preceding dynasty; however, the present dynasty, which dates from the im-sin year, 1392 of our era, changed this name and adopted the name of Tsio-sien, which today is the official name of the country.  The very meaning of the word Tsio-sien, Morning Calm, shows that this name comes from the Chinese, for whom Korea is, in effect, the land of morning.  Sometimes, in Chinese books, Korea is also designated by the word Tong-koué, Eastern Kingdom.  The Manchu call it Sol-ho.  

This country, unknown in Europe before the sixteenth century, figures as an island on the first Dutch maps.  Towards the end of the seventeenth century, the Chinese Emperor Kang-hi tried in vain to obtain from the the king of Korea the necessary geographical documents to complete a grand map of the empire, on which the missionaries of Peking were working.  His ambassadors were welcomed with all the pomp they could have wanted, and they were showered with compliments and offers of service, but in the end they came away with nothing but a very incomplete copy of a map that they had seen in the king’s palace in Seoul.  It was after this map, and the necessarily imperfect Chinese books, that Father Régis and his colleagues drew the map of Korea which one finds in Duhalde’s atlas, and which the authors of subsequent books have contented themselves with copying or abridging.  

In 1845, the venerable martyr André Kim, a Korean priest, himself copied a map from official drafts in the government archives in Seoul.  The one given at the beginning of this work was prepared, as to the coastline, after the charts of the maritime department, and as to the interior of the country, after a relatively recent native map, translated by Mgr Ridel, apostolic vicar of Korea.

The map of Korea that appeared in the original edition of the History of the Korean Church, 1874. Credit: WikiCommons.

Korea is a land of mountains.  A great chain, starting from Chan-yan-alin in Manchuria, runs from the north to the south along the eastern shoreline, of which it determines the contours, and the spurs of this chain cover nearly the whole country.  “In whatever place you set foot,” wrote one missionary, “you will see nothing but mountains.  Nearly everywhere, you feel imprisoned by rocks, shackled between the slopes of hills, sometimes bare, sometimes covered by wild pines, sometimes entangled by brushwood or crowned by forests.  At first, you will not see any way out, but look closely, and you will eventually discover the traces of some narrow path, which, after a rather long and always laborious march, will take you to a summit where you will discover the most uneven horizon.  You will have contemplated the sea from the deck of a ship when a strong breeze stirred up the waves in infinite little peaks of various shapes…the scene that offers itself to your view is a little like that.  You will perceive in all directions thousands of sharp little peaks, rounded cones, inaccessible rocks, and further away, at the edge of the horizon, other mountains still higher, and it is so in almost all of the country.  The only exception is a district which lies towards the western sea, and which is called the Naï-po plain.  But by this word plain, do not take it to be a broad and flat terrain, such as our beautiful French plains, for it is simply a place where the mountains are much less tall and more spaced out than in the rest of the kingdom.  The wider valleys leave a bigger space for the cultivation of rice.  The soil, moreover, is cut by a great number of canals, and its bounty is so abundant that Naï-po is called the granary of the capital.” 

Forests are numerous in Korea, but it is in the northern provinces that one finds the most beautiful ones.  Trees of various species suitable for building abound there, pines and firs above all.  The latter are most used because they are very easy to work, and the government monitors their conservation; and in order that each village always has the necessary trees within reach, the mandarins are charged with supervising their harvest, and preventing the cutting down of too great a number at a time.                        

It seems certain that the mountains conceal rich gold, silver and copper mines.  One is assured that in many places, and particularly in the northern provinces, one need move only a bit of earth to find gold, and that grains of gold dust are found in the sand of certain streams.  However, the exploitation of the mines is forbidden by law under pains so severe that one does not dare gather any gold because it would be almost impossible to sell it.  What is the true cause of this prohibition?  Some say it is related to the Korean government’s age-old policy of making the country seem as small and as poor as possible in order to discourage the ambition of its powerful neighbours.  Others believe that the government fears that the concentration of large numbers of workers in regions far from the capital where its authority is nearly unenforceable would unavoidably lead to unrest and troubles.  The plot of 1811, it is said, was devised in one such meeting.  Whatever the case may be, the law is strictly observed, and the only known exception is the permission of twenty-five years ago to exploit for a few months the silver mines of Sioun-ben-fou, in the province of Kieng-sang.  Korean copper is of excellent quality, but it is not used, and that which is used comes from Japan.  Iron ore is so common in certain districts that after a heavy rain it suffices to bend over to gather it up.  Everyone helps himself as he pleases.  

Flint is scarcely to be found but in the province of Hoang-haï, and still it is of the crudest quality.  What is needed for common use is imported from China. 

The climate of Korea is not what one could call a temperate one.  As in all the countries of the Far East, it is much colder there in winter, and much hotter in summer, than in the corresponding European countries.  In the north, the Tou-man-kang is frozen for six months of the year, and the south of the peninsula, though the same latitude as Malta or Sicily, stays covered by deep snow for a long time.  At 35 degrees of latitude, the missionaries didn’t see the thermometer drop below -15 degrees centigrade, but at 37.3 or 38 degrees, they often found it to be -25.  The spring and the autumn are generally very beautiful.  The summer, in contrast, is a time of torrential rains that frequently interrupt any kind of communication for several days at a time.     

In the valleys, rice is planted if the terrain is favorable in the least, and the immense quantity of streams and rivulets that descend from the mountains provide the means to form the ponds necessary for the cultivation of this grain.  Land irrigated in this way is never left to rest; it is always in use.  In addition, corn, rye, and millet are planted.  The instruments of husbandry are as simple and primitive as can be.  The ox alone is used for ploughing; the horse is never used.  When one day a missionary offered the use of his mount to some converts, there was a burst of general laughter, absolutely as if in France one proposed to hitch a plough to a team of dogs.  In any case, a horse would not survive working in the rice fields because they are continuously flooded.  Other than manure and other animal fertilizers that they carefully gather up, ash, in which every Korean household is rich because firewood is not expensive and prodigious quantities are consumed in winter, is used.  Furthermore, when leaves begin to appear on the trees in spring, the lower branches are cut, spread on the fields, and left to decompose.  After the sowing, to prevent the birds from eating the seeds, and to protect the young stalks from the excessive heat that would dry them up where they stand, the fields are re-covered with other branches cut later when the trees are strong enough.   

The lack of roads and means of transport in this mountainous country absolutely prevent agriculture on a large scale.  Everyone cultivates only the land around his house and gate.  Large villages are also rare and the population of the countryside is spread out among hamlets of three or four houses, ten or twelve at the most.  The usual harvest is barely sufficient for the needs of the inhabitants, and famines are frequent in Korea.  For the poorest class of the population, one might say that they recur at two times of year: first in the spring when waiting for the rye harvest, which takes place in June or July, then before the millet harvest in September or October.  Money not being lent except at a very high rate of interest, the unfortunates whose little stores have run out cannot go to buy rice other grains, and have nothing to live on but herbs boiled in salt water. 

Other than rice, corn, rye, and millet, the principal products of the country are: vegetables of every kind but very insipid, cotton, tobacco, and various plant fibers suited for making cloth.  Tobacco was introduced to Korea by the Japanese towards the end of the sixteenth century.  The cotton plant came from China.  Five hundred years ago, it is said, cotton was unknown in Korea, and the Chinese took every possible precaution to prevent the export of its seeds, the better to sell fabrics of their own manufacture to the Koreans.  One day, however, a member of  the annual embassy succeeded in procuring three seeds, which he hid in the stem of a feather, and thus bestowed on his country this precious shrub.  The cotton plant perishes each year after the harvest.  It is sowed again in the spring, like corn, and in the same soil.  When the germs have sprouted, a great number are pulled up so that the remaining ones are at a distance of twelve inches form each other, a little earth is tucked up around each shoot, constant care is taken to pull up parasitical weeds, and in September a good harvest is obtained.  The potato, introduced only recently, is nearly unknown to the Koreans.  Its cultivation is forbidden by the government; no one knows why.  Christians alone secretly grow a few in order to provide some European vegetables to the missionaries when they come to visit their villages.     

It is the Christians who were the first in Korea to cultivate the mountains.  Pushed by persecution into the most remote corners of the country, they cleared land on the slopes to avoid dying of hunger, and a few years’ experience taught them the system of cultivation suitable to that type of terrain.  The pagans, stunned by the success of their efforts, imitated them, and today most of the mountains are cultivated.  Tobacco is the chief crop of these heights.  Millet also does well there, as do hemp and certain species of vegetable, but it has not been possible to acclimatize cotton there yet.  This type of cultivation, which demands much more work than that of the plains, offers in exchange great advantages to poor workers.  The taxes are lower, and firewood, herbs, and wild fruit are abundant and ready to hand.  The turnip, which is consumed in considerable amounts, comes up very well amid the tobacco plantings and furnishes a precious resource.  Unfortunately, the earth exhausts itself quite quickly, and while one never sees fields left fallow in the valleys, it is necessary in the mountains, after a certain amount of time, to let the soil rest for several years.  Even so, it almost never recovers the productivity that it had after the first planting.  

Fruits abound in Korea.  One finds practically all those found in France, but what a difference in taste!  Under the influence of the constant summer rains, apples, pears, plums, strawberries, mulberries, grapes, melons, etc., are all insipid and watery.  The grapes are of a disagreeable sugariness, the raspberries have less flavor than the wild blackberries of our hedgerows, the strawberries, very beautiful to look at, are inedible, the peaches are merely miserable worm-eaten specimens, etc.  A lot of gherkins are eaten, as well as watermelons, which are perhaps the only passable fruit the country produces.  Some missionaries make another exception in favor of the fruit of Diospyros lotus, known in France by its Japanese name: kaki (kam in Korean).  In its color, shape, and texture, this fruit fairly resembles a ripe tomato.  The taste recalls that of the medlar, but is much superior to it.  

Persimmons (kam) in Haebangchon, Seoul, 2015.  Credit: David Gemeinhardt.

Flowers are very numerous.  In season, the fields are bedecked with Chinese primroses, different species of lilies, peonies, and still other species unknown in Europe.  However, apart from the dog-rose, of which the foliage is so elegant, and the May-lily, which resembles that of Europe, all these flowers are odorless, or they have a disagreeable scent.

Ginseng is also grown, but it is extremely inferior in quality to the wild ginseng of Tartary.  This famous plant, to hear the inhabitants of the Far East tell it, is the foremost tonic in the universe.  Its effects are far superior to those of Peruvian bark.  According to the Chinese, the best ginseng is the oldest.  It must be wild, and in that case it can be sold at the exorbitant price of 50,000 francs a pound.  The root alone is used, which is cut in pieces and infused in white wine for at least a month.  This wine is then taken in very small doses.  It is not uncommon to see invalids at death’s door who, by means of this remedy, succeed in prolonging their lives for several days.  Cultivated ginseng abounds in various provinces of Korea.  It is added to other drugs to strengthen the invalid, but is almost never used alone.  In the last several years, its price has doubled because of the significant quantity smuggled to China, for the inhabitants of the Celestial Empire make even greater use of it than the Koreans.  It is said that ginseng, tried many times by Europeans, very often caused in them serious inflammatory illnesses.  Perhaps they took overly strong doses, or perhaps this inefficacy must also be attributed to the difference in constitution and diet.  

Wild animals, such as tigers, bears, and boars are very numerous in Korea, especially tigers, which take many victims very year.  They are of a small species.  Quantities of pheasants, waterfowl, and game birds are also to be found.  The domestic animals are generally of an inferior stock.  The horses, though very small, are tolerably strong.  The oxen are of an ordinary size.  There are enormous numbers of pigs and dogs, but the latter are excessively timid and serve almost only as meat.  One is assured that dog meat is very tender; however that may be, in Korea it is one of the greatest delicacies.  The government forbids the raising of sheep and goats; the king alone has that privilege.  The sheep serve as sacrifices to the royal ancestors, and the goats are reserved as sacrifices to Confucius.  

It is impossible to speak of the animal kingdom in Korea without mentioning the insects and vermin of all kinds — lice, fleas, cockroaches, and bugs of all kinds — which, particularly in summer, make a stay in the country so miserable for foreigners.  All the missionaries are agreed in calling it a veritable Egyptian plague.  In certain localities, it is physically impossible to sleep inside the houses during the summer heart because of the cockroaches, and the inhabitants prefer to sleep in the open despite the tigers.  The cockroach scratches the surface of the skin and leaves a sore there that is more irritable and takes longer to heal than an ordinary scratch.  These creatures, much bigger than May-bugs, multiply with prodigious rapidity.  A Korean saying is, “When a female cockroach bears only ninety-nine young in one night, she is wasting time.”   

The climate of Korea is healthy enough, but the water, tasteless everywhere, is in several provinces the cause of a host of maladies.  Most often, these are intermittent fevers that last for several years.  Sometimes, as in the province of Kieng-sang, one of the most fertile, the water causes scrofula, hysterics, or severe bloating of one of the limbs, but rarely two at once.  In certain districts of this same province, it produces premature aging — the teeth fall out, the limbs weaken, the nails strip the flesh off the fingers and eventually almost reach the middle joint.  The Koreans call this malady southo, which means “the sickness caused by the water and soil;” in this sense, the water has an effect not only directly as a beverage, but also in rendering fruits and vegetables that are otherwise useful, or at least harmless, polluted and dangerous.  

Certain diseases in Korea are veritable scourges, including smallpox.  There are perhaps not a hundred individuals in the country who have not been attacked by it.  It is extremely virulent.  Often, all the children in a district come down with it at the same time, and their bodies are covered by pustules or disgusting sores.  The air is so infected that one cannot remain in the houses without danger.  Those who escape it at an early age are sure to be attacked later, and then the danger is all the greater.  More than half of the children die of this illness, and, in some years almost none survive.  A Christian doctor recounted one day to Mgr Daveluy that, a few weeks before, of seventy-two children to whom he had given remedies, only two had escaped death.  Each year, in the capital, the victims are counted in the thousands.  

Among the diseases that attack adults in particular, a type of plague or typhus, of which there are frequent cases, must be mentioned.  If a sweat is not induced, death is inevitable in three or four days.  In addition, there are sudden indigestions which suffocate the invalid and cause instant death, epilepsy, which is very common, cholera, etc.  

The mortality rate, as one sees, is high in Korea, and if one adds the abominable practice of abortion to the causes enumerated above, and if one considers further that children who lose their mother before the age of two or three years can scarcely survive her because no one knows any means of feeding them, one easily understands that the population does not grow in great increments.  The missionaries once remarked once that the number of converts had remained more or less stationary for ten years, even though there had been ten to twelve thousand adult conversions in the meantime, which would indicate a noticeable excess in the number of deaths over births.  However, the particular situation of the converts, always persecuted, and nearly all reduced to misery, does not allow us to draw a general conclusion from this fact.  The Koreans, in any case, are convinced that the number of people is growing and that their country is becoming more and more populated, and certain facts seem to bear them out.  For instance, for several years now, there have been few provinces where new villages have not appeared, and few villages where some new cottages have not been built.  Fields and rice paddies abandoned as infertile have been brought back into cultivation in all areas.  Except in the two northernmost provinces, the mountains have almost all been cleared, and tigers, driven out of their lairs, are becoming much less numerous.  

What is today the total population of Korea?  It is difficult to know exactly.  Thirty years ago, the government’s official statistics counted more than one million, seven hundred thousand households, and about seven and a half million inhabitants; however, the lists were compiled with such negligence that one cannot trust them.  It seems certain that many individuals were not counted.  One would perhaps not be completely mistaken in estimating a total figure of ten million, which would give an average of six individuals per household.  Some contemporary geographers speculate that Korea has fifteen million inhabitants, but they say nothing about what they base these obviously exaggerated conjectures on.  

The Koreans are connected to the Mongol race, but they resemble the Japanese much more than the Chinese.  They generally have a copper-colored complexion, short and slightly flat noses, prominent cheekbones, rounded heads and bodies, and elevated eyebrows.  Their hair is black; nevertheless, it is not uncommon to meet with chestnut-colored or even auburn hair.  Many individuals have no beards, and those who do have them have sparse ones.  They are of medium height, fairly vigorous, and quite resistant to fatigue.  the inhabitants of the northernmost provinces neighboring Tartary are much more robust and nearly wild.  

End of Part 1

Part 2 will follow next week (19-26 February, 2017).  

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Posted on 16/02/2017 by David Gemeinhardt Books, Asian History, Countries, Korea 0

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