Old Korea, Part 5

Old Korea, Part 5

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To learn more about the complete work, its place in Korean historiography, and its current unpublished state, please read this previous post: 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 5 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.   

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.

V Tribunals – Praetorians and Bailiffs – Prisons – Punishments 

The mandarins of the districts are the ordinary judges for all the cases that come before the civil courts.  When an issue cannot be settled amicably by the village elders and the parties concerned insist on going to trial, they appear before the mandarin, who judges ordinary cases without appeal.  If the case is very important, one may have recourse to the governor of the province, then to the relevant minister, and finally to the king. 

Criminal cases are judged by the military mandarins.  Sometimes the civil mandarins begin the investigation, the better to assure themselves of the facts, but they always refer the case to the military judges.  Trials begin with the ieng-tsang, whose tribunal is vulgarly known as the thieves’ court, and from there, according to the gravity of the case, it is sent to the pieng-sa or to the governor of the province, then to the criminal court in the capital.  This tribunal is composed of two distinct courts.  The first, called po-tseng, is a court of inquiry to hear the witnesses, examine the case and obtain, willingly or by force, the confessions of the accused.  The second court, called ieng-tso, consists of judges who pass sentence based on the findings of the po-tseng.   Below the criminal court, only in the capital, is a lower court, which corresponds to our correctional police court; it is called sa-kouang-tseng.  The criminal court has jurisdiction over commoners and nobles who do not hold public office, for crimes of all kinds, except rebellion and lèse-majesté.  A special tribunal, called keumpou, the members of which are appointed directly by the king, alone has the right to judge public servants, and it alone identify acts of rebellion or lèse majesté, whoever the culprits may be.  In the latter case, the family of the condemned is entirely caught up in his punishment, and his relations are all removed from their posts, or exiled, or even put to death.  At the time of the martyrdom of Augustin Niou, in 1801, twenty-six mandarins of his family, all pagans, were removed from office, and his older brother was sent into exile.  When a murder has been committed in a district, the local mandarin cannot investigate and judge the case on his own; the governor appoints two others who join him to carry out the trial.   

No ordinary mandarin can implement a sentence of exile or death on his own authority.  The provincial governors themselves only have that right with certain restrictions, and when the death sentence is in question, they almost always first have it approved by the Ministry of Justice.  On the other hand, judges are not responsible for those accused who die under interrogation, as happens fairly frequently, and they often avail themselves of this method in order to wrap up a case as quickly as possible in order to avoid the burdens of legal trial.  They have still other means of simplifying the procedures of a long trial.  For instance, one day, a young servant, having quarreled with the son of a nobleman, killed him with an axe blow to the lower abdomen.  The killer was immediately seized and dragged before the mandarin.  Among the witnesses was the father of the victim.  After a few questions, the mandarin had an axe brought forth, and, placing it in the father’s hands, said to him, pointing to the bound and gagged murderer stretched out on the ground, “Show me how exactly how this man struck your son.”  His goal was to have the accused killed on the spot by the father, and to relieve himself of a tiresome matter.  Vengeance in such cases being permitted by the customs of the country, everything could have been taken care of at once.  The father, however, was too timid to strike.  The bystanders disparaged him as a coward, and praised the magistrate’s conduct as very just and natural.             

The civil mandarins are at once prefects, justices of the peace, examining magistrates, tax collectors, and inspectors of customs, forestry, water, registration, police, etc.   It would seem impossible for them to suffice for such a task.  Nevertheless, there is scarcely any life more idle and unoccupied than that of a mandarin.  He passes his life in drinking, eating, smoking, and enjoying parties.  His court is only open three or four times a week for a few hours; business is quickly dispatched by the means of a few sentences or a few blows of the stick, often without hearing the interested parties or the witnesses.  The military mandarins act in a similar manner, and in courtrooms of all kinds almost everything is done by the lower officials.       

Let us give some details here about these officers of the courts, who, in Korea, exercise such a large amount of authority.  There are two kinds of them: those who serve the civil mandarins and those who serve the military mandarins or criminal judges.  The title of the first is ordinarily translated in this history by the word praetorian, because they belong to the law court or praetorium, and are charged with assisting in its management.  The second, who do the jobs of our gendarmes or police officers, and report to the Ministry of Justice, are properly called bailiffs.  They are sometimes confused because their functions, although distinct, frequently oblige them to act in concert, and also because in districts where there is no criminal judge, the civil mandarin has under his command a certain number of bailiffs to act as police.     

In each district, there is quite a large number of praetorians.  The six or eight principal ones have titles analogous to the king’s ministers, and fulfill, in miniature, functions of the same kind, for each mandarinate is organized on the model of the central government.  They consequently have a lot of authority, and often more than the mandarin, who, while treating them as valets, allows himself to be led by them.  The other praetorians are clerks, ushers or servants subject to the former.  All these praetorians form a class apart in society.  They almost always marry amongst themselves, their children take up the same career, and from generation to generation they fill posts of higher or lower rank depending on their cleverness in obtaining and keeping them.          

It is supposed, with reason it seems, given the circumstances, that without them no administration would be possible.  Versed in every kind of ruse, intrigue and stratagem, they are admirably suited to squeezing the people and protecting themselves from the mandarins.  They are beaten, hounded, insulted, and caned unmercifully, but they are able to withstand everything and remain on the watch to seize any occasion to resume their places, and sometimes even to rid themselves of overly strict mandarins. 

Even though they are divided into various parties mutually seeking to supplant one another, rather like the great political parties, such as the No-ron, Nam-in, etc., which were discussed above, they are capable of momentarily setting aside their quarrels and supporting each other when the interests of the whole group are threatened.  One of their fundamental axioms is that they must always deceive the mandarin, and to keep him as ignorant of local affairs as possible.  It is a question of life or death for them because the majority of them do not receive a regular salary, and those who do can only rarely rely on it.  Forced on the one hand to satisfy the insatiable greed of the mandarins at the expense of the people, and obliged on the other hand to spend a lot on their own upkeep and that of their families, they cannot live except by fraud and exactions committed on their own account.  If they allowed the mandarin to find out about the secret resources that they are able to exploit, he would immediately take them for himself, and there would be nothing for it but for them to die of hunger. “If one had the misfortune,” said a praetorian one day to one of Mgr Daveluy’s catechists, “to let the mandarin have a tasty morsel, he would want it all the time, and since it would be impossible for us to satisfy him, he would do us in.”

The following adventure, which happened a few years ago in the province of Kieng-keï, shows what the praetorians are and what they are capable of.  An honest and capable mandarin was sent to a fairly important town.  Not content with energetically keeping his subordinates busy in their duties, he showed the intention of investigating and punishing the peculations of which they had hitherto been guilty.  The majority of them were gravely compromised, and some were even at risk of being condemned to death.  Their usual ruses, intrigues and perjuries could not deflect the blow, and consternation was great among them when they learned that some royal inspectors, in disguise, were abroad in the province.  To find one and have him watched and followed was a simple matter, and they arranged their plot as follows.  As it was not uncommon for bold and clever bandits to pass themselves off as e-sa, or royal inspectors, and to fleece entire districts, it was a matter of persuading the mandarin that the inspector who had been identified was one such bandit and obtaining permission to arrest him.  Those who would tie up a royal envoy would very probably be put to death, but, on the other hand, the mandarin would certainly be demoted on the principle that if he had governed well, such disorders as monstrous as the official arrest of a great dignitary would be impossible.  With the mandarin out of the way, the other praetorians would have nothing more to fear.  Lots were drawn to choose those who would sacrifice themselves for the common good, and that very evening the petition was presented to the mandarin.  He refused to receive it at first, but the praetorians did not stop repeating that he would incur a terrible responsibility if he let such an imposter go unpunished, and that they themselves would refrain from making such a request if they had the smallest doubt, since it would be a matter of their lives in the case of a mistake.  After a few days of hesitation, he gave in and signed the order for the arrest.  Armed with that paper, the praetorians chosen by lot hurried to the area where they inspector was that same evening, fell upon him and shackled him like a criminal.  He revealed his name and rank, displayed his badge of office embellished with the royal seal, and gave a signal which rallied around him his assistants and a troop of his servants.  The praetorians simulated surprise and consternation. Some fled and others fell at the inspector’s feet and begged for death in expiation of the horrible crime that they had just committed unbeknownst to themselves.  The furious inspector handed them over to his attendants to be beaten unmercifully, and, with a great train, immediately proceeded to the prefecture where he demoted and expelled the mandarin.  No praetorian died, it was said.  Several were crippled, and others were exiled, but their goal was achieved, and the new mandarin, horrified by the example of his predecessor, refrained from imitating his zeal for justice.

Park Mun Su (1691-1756), a royal inspector. Credit: Wikipedia.

The bailiffs are not a class apart like the praetorians, filling the same posts as if by right of inheritance, generation after generation.  They are servants recruited from wherever they might be found, in greater or lesser numbers according to the need or the situation, who fill their offices only for a few years or even a few months.  It is not unheard of to find among them thieves or other individuals compromised in the eyes of the law, who become bailiffs to assure themselves of impunity.  In each district, there are bailiffs designated by various names, but the most adroit, the most insolent and the most dreaded are those of the criminal tribunals of the prefecture of each province.  Having no fixed income, they live on plunder and take whatever they please from the people.  Some do the job of gendarmes, others serve the mandarin in his house, and others make up his suite when he goes out.  They have incredible skill and shrewdness in recognizing thieves and other malfeasants, and it is rare that a perpetrator can escape their investigations for very long if they make a serious effort.  However, they hardly concern themselves with petty thieves.  Catching and punishing them, according to the bailiffs, would only serve to make them worse subjects.  

As for real bandits or thieves, they are the confederates of the bailiffs, and the latter never give them up to the mandarin unless they are absolutely forced to.  

In the big cities, the bailiffs always have some trusty pickpockets in hand, paid by the police to be delivered to the courts when the people lose patience, and when the mandarins are more threatening than usual.   Before detaining them, a few relatively minor charges are arranged, which are registered by the bailiffs and confessed by the accused.  A profound silence is maintained in relation to grave offences, and it is rare for the truly guilty to suffer the just punishment for their crimes.  Besides, the government turns a blind eye to many notorious thieves in order to avail itself, in case of need, of unofficial accomplices who are as unscrupulous as they are determined.  In the capital, there is a band of pickpockets that is more or less known to the authorities, and whose felonies go unpunished.  If the owner of the stolen property can get his complaint to the mandarin, his goods are generally returned to him in the three days that follow the theft.  After the three days have passed, however, the thieves become the owners of all the goods that are not reclaimed and sell them to fences at a low price.  In many villages, there are thieves who are well known to the inhabitants and protected by them from the investigations of the mandarin’s agents.  Perhaps they sometimes act this way out of misguided commiseration, but, more often, it is out of fear of the revenge that these bandits or their associates might take on those who give them up.  

One may easily deduce from the preceding story how difficult it is in Korea to obtain justice when one has nothing except one’s own good cause, without money or protection.  In theory, everyone may freely take his case to the mandarin; in fact, access to the tribunal is so well guarded by the praetorians or bailiffs that is necessary to go through them, for good or ill, and if one succeeds in putting one’s petition directly in the mandarin’s hands, one gains nothing by it because it would set the all-powerful influence of the lower officials against one.  In addition, one ordinarily has recourse to the officers of the court first, and if the case is important, they will take confer, analyze what should be made known, what should be hidden, what can be admitted without trouble, what must be denied and finally in what manner and from what point of view the case should be presented to the judge.  Then, for the consideration of a generous sum, they will take responsibility for the success of the trial.  Very few mandarins have the courage to resist the influence of the praetorians or the shrewdness to foil their intrigues.  

Another cause of injustice in Korean courts is the interference of great personages.  The families of ministers, the wives of the king, the great dignitaries, etc., have a crowd of servitors or followers who attach themselves to their service for free, and sometimes even for money, in order to obtain their protection.  These individuals, in exchange for a salary, turn themselves into middlemen in a thousand affairs and obtain letters of recommendation from their masters that they present to the mandarin.  The latter never dares to resist, and a cause supported in this matter, unjust though it may be, is won by main force.  It is customary today that a creditor who cannot collect from a debtor need only promise half the sum to some powerful personage.  He presents a letter from the latter to the mandarin, who, without checking whether the claim is well-founded or not, condemns the debtor and forces him to pay up.  A mandarin who hesitated to comply in such a case would make an implacable, highly placed enemy for himself, and would certainly lose his position.                   

In Korea, as it was once in every country of the world, and as it still is in all the countries that are not Christian, the principal means of investigation in a criminal trial is torture.  There are several types, and several degrees, but the most terrible of all is precisely that which is not mentioned among those authorized by law, which is to say a stay -- whether short or long -- in one of the prisons.  These prisons generally consist of an enclosure surrounded by high walls, against which lean wooden shanties.  The open space in the middle forms a kind of courtyard.  Each shanty has a only a very small door for an opening, where light scarcely penetrates.  The cold in winter and the heat in summer are intolerable.  The floor is covered with  mats woven from rough straw.  "Our Christians," writes Mgr Daveluy speaking of the great persecution of 1839, "were crammed into these prisons, to the point that they could not stretch out their limbs to sleep.  They declared to me unanimously that the torments of interrogation were nothing compared to the suffering of that horrible incarceration.  The blood and pus that seeped from their wounds soon soaked their mats.  Infection became inevitable and a pestilential sickness carried off several of them every day.  But hunger, and even more so thirst, were the most terrible torment of all, and many of those who had courageously professed their faith during the other tortures, were vanquished by this one.  Twice a day they were given a little bowl of millet, no more than a handful.  They were reduced to devouring the rotten straw that they were lying on, and finally, horrible to relate, they ate the vermin that infested the prison to such a degree that they could be seized by the handful."  It would be fair to remark that Mgr Daveluy is speaking here of the prisons as they are for Christians in times of persecution, and it would be an exaggeration to apply his words to all Korean prisons, at all times.  Nevertheless, one undoubted fact is that all accused criminals, pagans as well as Christians, dread imprisonment more than torture. 

These tortures, however, are an appalling thing.  King Ieng-tsong, who died in 1776, abolished a great number of them, among them knee crushing, the application of red-hot irons to various parts of the body, the dislocation of the shinbones at the top of the calf, etc.  He also forbade the branding of thieves on the forehead.  During the persecutions, particularly in 1839, the bailiffs, left to themselves, employed a number of the prohibited tortures against the Christians.  In any case, there are plenty of others authorized by law and by the daily use of the tribunals. 

King Yeongjo, AKA King "Ieng-tsong" (1694-1776)

Here are the principal ones:

1. The club (tsi-to-kon).  The victim is made to lie down on the ground on his stomach, and a strong man takes up a club of very hard oak, which he uses to strike with great force on the legs, below the hamstrings.  This club is four or five feet long, six or seven inches wide, an inch and a half thick, and one of its extremities is whittled to serve as a handle. After a few blows, blood spurts out and bits of flesh fly off, and after the tenth or twelfth blow, the club resounds against bare bones.  Several christians received up to sixty blows during a single interrogation.  

2. The ruler, the rods and the cudgels (ieng-tsang).  The ruler is a three-foot-long piece of wood, two inches wide, just a few lines thick, which is used to hit the victim on the front of the leg.  The usual number of blows is fixed at thirty per session of interrogation, and since the executioner must break the ruler at each blow, there are always thirty prepared for each of the accused.  The rods, three or four, are twisted together and make a kind of rope used to flog the victim, stripped naked, on every limb.  The cudgels are the height of a man and thicker than an arm.  Four assailants surround the accused, all striking him at once on the hips and thighs.

3. The dislocation and bending of the bones (tsouroi-tsil).  There are three distinct kinds.  The kasai-tsouroi consists of tying together the two knees and the big toes of the two feet, and placing in the empty space two sticks, which are pulled in opposite directions until the bones bend into the shape of an arc, after which they are allowed to return slowly to their natural position.  The tsoul-tsouroi differs from the preceding in that first the toes of the two feet are tied together, the a big piece of wood is placed between the legs, and two men pull in opposite directions on ropes attached to the knees until little by little they touch.  The pal-tsouroi is the dislocation of the arms.  They are attached behind the back, one against the other just above the elbows; then, with two thick sticks employed as levers, the shoulders are forced closer together.  Afterwards, the executioner unties the arms, and, placing a foot on the victim's chest, pulls them forward to put the bones back into place.  When the torturers are skillful, they know how to manoeuvre the bones in a manner that only bends them, but if they are inexperienced novices, the bones break at the first blow, and the marrow runs out along with the blood.

4.  The suspension (hap-tsoum).  All the victim's clothes are stripped off, his hands are tied behind his back, and he is suspended in the air by his arms; then four men step forward to beat him in turn with blows of the knout.  After several minutes, the foam-covered tongue hangs out of the victim's mouth, his face takes on a dark violet colour, and death follows immediately unless he is taken down in order to let him rest for a few minutes, after which they begin again.  The isoutsang-tsil is another type of suspension in which the victim, kneeling on shards of broken pottery, is hung by the hair from above while satellites placed on either side of him beat his legs with sticks.

5.  The top-tsil or sawing of the legs.  A horsehair rope is looped around the thigh, and two men, each grasping one end of the rope, alternately pull and release until it tears through the flesh and reaches the bone.  At other times, the sawing is done with a triangular wooden frame on the legs. 

6.  The sam-mo-tsang, or incisions made with an axe or hatchet that take off slices of flesh, etc., etc.

The long and cruel application of these diverse tortures is left wholly to the caprice of the judges, who often, especially when it comes to christians imprisoned for their religion, deliver themselves to an excess of wrath, and invent such refinements of barbarism as to make Nature tremble.  It is rare that a victim is able even to crawl after an interrogation followed by such tortures; the torturers push him onto two poles, and carry him, arms and legs dangling, back to prison.  When an accused person is thought to be guilty, and despite torture refuses to confess his wrongdoing, the presiding judge pronounces the death sentence, and from that moment it is forbidden to torture him further.  The law requires that the condemned, before submitting to the sentence, sign it with his own hand in recognition of the justice of the punishment that is to be inflicted on him.  The martyrs often refused to sign because the official formula of the indictment contained these words, or other, similar ones: guilty of having followed a false religion, a new and odious superstition, etc. "Our religion is the only true one," they said, " we cannot say that it is false."  In such cases, their hands were seized and made to sign by force.         

When the one condemned to death is a great dignitary, the sentence is carried out in secret, by poison.  Generally, the victim is ushered into an extraordinarily overheated room, a strong dose of arsenic is administered, and he dies within a very short time. 

There are three kinds of public executions.

The first is the military execution, called koun-moun-hio.  It is carried out at a special location, at Sai-nam-to, 10 leagues from the capital.  This place is also called No-Toul, after the name of the nearby village on the riverbank.  The condemned is carried there in a litter of straw.  The execution must be presided over by the commanding officer of one of the great military establishments of the capital.  The troops begin by performing a series of manoeuvres and tactical evolutions around the victim; then his face is covered with lime, his hands are tied behind his back, a stick is passed under his arms and shoulders, and he is paraded several times around the site of the execution.  Subsequently, a flag is raised and the sentence is read out along with all the grounds for it.  Finally, an arrow or dart, the head pointing upwards, is passed through each folded ear; the victim is then stripped to the waist, and the soldiers, dancing and gesticulating around him, sword in hand, strike off his head. 

The second kind of public execution is that of ordinary criminals.  It takes place outside the lesser West Gate.  At the appointed hour, a cart with a cross six feet or six and a half feet high on it is drawn up in front of the prison.  The executioner goes into the dungeon, heaves the condemned onto his shoulders, and takes him out to be hung on the cross by his arms and hair with his feet resting on stool.  When the procession arrives at the West Gate, where there is a steep slope, the executioner surreptitiously removes the stool, and the driver whips the bullocks, which then quicken their gait downhill.  As the road is bumpy and full of stones, the cart lurches violently, and the victim, now hanging only by his arms and hair, is tossed from left to right, which makes him suffer terribly.  Once arrived at the place of execution, he is stripped of his clothes, the executioner makes him kneel, places a block under his chin, and cuts off his head.  According to the law, a general is supposed to accompany the procession, but it is rare for him to appear at the execution ground.  Sometimes, when there is a dangerous criminal or when orders from the court press the matter, the execution takes place inside the city near the West Gate.

For rebels and those guilty of lèse-majesté, there is a third type of public execution.  Everything proceeds as we have just said, but after the head is separated from the trunk, the four limbs are cut off, which, together with the head and the trunk, make six pieces.  In earlier times, the axe and the sword were not used to separate the limbs; rather, they were attached to four bullocks, which, driven in opposite directions, quartered the body.  

The military execution is only carried out at the capital, but the other two are also carried out in the provinces, with the difference that the victims are taken to the place of execution without cart or cross. 

The corpses of the victims are usually given to their families, and when several are executed at once, metal placards or other signs are fastened to the bodies so that they may be recognized.  Sometimes they are buried secretly, in an unmarked grave in remote locations, making them impossible to find.  As for the big criminals, whose bodies are cut into six pieces, the custom is to send the limbs to different provinces to frighten the people and discourage conspiracies.  Some vile bailiffs parade these hideous remains on the highways, and take money from all those that they encounter.  No one dares to refuse them since they are traveling in the king's name and on his business.  Mgr Ferréol recounts that, during the persecution of 1839, the satellites guarded the martyrs' corpses for three days in order to prevent the Christians from retrieving them.  Afterwards, beggars stole them, tied ropes under the arms, and dragged them past all the houses of the village.  The horrified inhabitants hastened to give them money in order to be relieved of the appalling spectacle sooner.  Later, not able to withstand it any longer, they begged the mandarin to designate another place of execution for Christians.     

This concludes Part 5.  Part 6 will appear sometime in the week of 20-24 March, 2017.

Posted on 16/03/2017 by David Gemeinhardt Books, Asian History, Countries, Korea 0

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