Old Korea, Part 8

Old Korea, Part 8

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To learn more about the complete work, its place in Korean historiography, and its current unpublished state, please read this previous post: 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 8 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.

VIII  Social Conditions -- Different Classes -- The Nobility -- People -- Slaves

Five centuries ago, in the early days of the present dynasty, Korean society was divided into only two classes: the nobles and the serfs or slaves.  The nobles were the partisans of the founder of the dynasty, those who helped him take his place on the throne, and who, in recompense, had obtained riches, honors, and the exclusive right to titles and public offices.  The mass of the population, placed under their authority, was composed of serfs bound to the land, and slaves.  The descendants of the first nobles, and of those who rendered significant services to the kings in other periods, still make up the Korean aristocracy at present.  But by the natural way of things, the same thing that happened in Europe in the Middle Ages happened to the serfs; a great number of them won their freedom little by little, and, over time, created the class of laborers, soldiers, merchants, artisans, etc., as it exists in our time.  As a result, there are now three distinct classes in Korea, subdivided into various categories: the nobles, the people, and the true slaves.  These last are a fairly small number. 

Nobility is hereditary, and since offices and titles are the patrimony almost exclusively of the nobles, each family preserves its genealogical tables jealously, complete with detailed and frequently revised lists of all its living members.  The latter take great care to maintain close relations among themselves, and with the head of the chief branch of their line, in order to find support and protection in time of need.

In former times and for several centuries, the law only recognized the legitimate descendants of noble families as noble.  There was no exception except for the bastards of kings, who were treated as nobles by right.  But for more than a century, the natural children of the nobles, who formerly made up a separate and inferior class, have become so numerous and powerful that they have little by little usurped the privileges of the true nobles.  In 1857, a royal decree overturned the last barriers that separated them from legitimate children, by recognizing their right, like the latter, to aspire to the highest dignities of the kingdom.  Some among them are still excepted, by a residue of respect for ancient customs, but the exception will not be slow in disappearing completely.  Nevertheless, the true nobles,  in their heart of hearts, still harbor a great disdain for these upstarts, a disdain that manifests itself fairly frequently, even if in the intercourse of daily life they are obliged to threat them with all the customary forms of respect and etiquette.       

The dissoluteness of morals was not the only cause of this important revolution in the customs of the Korean aristocracy.  The violent disputes between the political parties, and by consequence the enormous advantage for the great families in having as many partisans as possible, contributed to it powerfully.  Noble bastards, even though they marry without regard to civil status, are always counted as belonging to the family of their father.  It is this family that advances them in employment and protects them against vindictive mandarins when they have committed some infraction, and in return, these men, rebellious by nature, audacious and volatile, are a source of powerful support in times of trouble and political upheaval. 

Pavilion of an upper class house at the Cheollipo Arboretum, 2015.  

All the nobles have certain privileges in common, such as not being inscribed on the rolls for army service, inviolability of their persons and property, wearing the wide-brimmed hat that is the distinctive sign of their rank, etc.  Nevertheless, there are various degrees of rank within the nobility.  The families of those who have rendered important service to the state, or have performed some great act of devotion to the person of the king, or have acquired an exceptional reputation for learning, or filial piety, etc., are much more influential than the others, and monopolize the principal posts at court.  The princes of the blood and their descendants, since they belong to the royal family, have very impressive honorific titles, but never any important posts.  The kings of Korea, like all absolute kings, are very jealous of their authority, and too concerned about plots, real or imagined, to allow the princes of the blood even the smallest degree of participation in the exercise of power. 

It is much the same for the relatives of the queens.  The first wife of the king is always chosen from some great family, and by the fact of her marriage to the sovereign, her father and brothers obtain the highest dignities, sometimes even lucrative employments, but almost never the positions that would give them real power.  It is only by indirect ways, by the influence of the queens, by all manner of intrigue, or in times of the minority of the occupant of the throne, that they exercise any powerful influence.   

Nobility is lost in various ways, namely by legal judgement, by misalliance, and by proscription.  When a noble is executed as a perpetrator of rebellion or lèse-majesté, his parents, children, and relations to a fairly distant degree, are all demoted, deprived of their offices and titles of nobility, and relegated to the rank of commoners.  When a noble legitimately marries a widow or a slave, his descendants lose the privileges of their caste little by little, and access to public office is closed to them.  Similarly, when a noble family has been excluded from public office for a considerable time, its titles are annulled by virtue of that fact alone, and the tribunals refuse them the privileges of their rank.

The Korean aristocracy is relatively the most powerful and the proudest in the universe.  In other countries, the sovereign, the magistracy, and various public bodies are forces that keep the nobility within limits and counterbalance its power.  In Korea, the nobles are so numerous, and, despite their internecine quarrels, so well able to close ranks in service of preserving and augmenting the privileges of their caste, that neither the people, nor the mandarins, nor the king himself can resist their authority.  A noble of high rank, supported by a certain number of powerful families, can bring down ministers and defy the king in his own palace.  A governor or mandarin who took it upon himself to punish a highly placed and well-protected noble would inevitably be ruined. 

The Korean noble acts as master and tyrant everywhere.  When a great lord needs money, he sends his men to seize a merchant or laborer.  If this individual behaves with good grace, he is released; if not, he is taken to the noble's house, imprisoned, deprived of food, and beaten until he pays the sum that is demanded of him.  The more decorous among these nobles disguise their thefts as voluntary loans, but no one is fooled because they never return what they have borrowed.  When they buy a serf, a field or a house, they often dispense with payment, and there is no mandarin capable of stopping this brigandage.

According to law and custom, a noble, whether rich or poor, learned or ignorant, is owed every possible mark of respect.  No one dares to touch his person, and a bailiff who dared to lay a hand on him, even in error, would be severely punished.  His residence is a sacred place; even entering the courtyard would be a crime, except for women, who, whatever their rank or status, can penetrate everywhere.  A man of the people traveling on horseback must dismount when passing a noble's house.  In inns, no one dares to ask him any questions, or even to look at him; one may not smoke in front of him, and one is obliged to leave the best seat for him, and to put oneself out so that he might be comfortable.  On the road, a noble on horseback makes plebeian riders dismount; ordinarily, they do it themselves, but in case of need, they are beaten, and if they resist, they are thrown head over heels into the dust or the mud.  A noble cannot go out alone on horseback; he needs a groom to lead the animal by the bridle, and according to his means, one or more followers.  In addition, he always goes at a walk, never at a trot or a gallop. 

The nobles are very punctilious about their privileges, and sometimes avenge themselves cruelly for the slightest lack of respect.  The story is often told of one among them who, reduced to misery and poorly dressed, was passing through the neighborhood of a prefecture.  Four bailiffs, sent in search of a thief, encountered him and, suspicious of his appearance, recklessly asked him if he were their man.  "Yes," he answered, "and if you would like to accompany me back to my house, I will point out my henchmen and show you where the stolen objects are hidden."  The satellites followed him, but hardly had they arrived at his house when the noble called his slaves and some friends, had them seized, and after covering them with blows, had the eyes of three of them gouged out, as well as one eye of the fourth, and sent them off crying, "This is to teach you to see more clearly next time, and I leave you one eye so that you can find your way back to the mandarin."  It goes without saying that this act of savage barbarism went unpunished.  Similar episodes are not rare, and the people, especially in the countryside, fear the nobles like fire.  Children are frightened by being told that the nobleman is coming; they are menaced by this malevolent being, just as in France they are threatened with the bogeyman.  Most often, their injustice and insolence is suffered with bovine resignation, but in many common people they inspire a fierce and bitter hatred which, at the first favorable opportunity, will lead to bloody reprisals. 

Another pavilion of an upper class house at the Cheollipo Arboretum, 2015. 

Since the foundation of the present dynasty, and by consequence since the origin of the Korean aristocracy as it exists today, there have been sixteen or seventeen generations.  In addition, the number of nobles, which was considerable to begin with, has multiplied in enormous proportions.  It is this that is today the great plague of the country, and from this that the abuses of which we have spoken come.  For, at the same time as the aristocratic caste has become more powerful, a great number of its members, having fallen into destitution, are reduced to living off pillage and extortion.  In effect, it is absolutely impossible to give employment and titles to all; nevertheless, everyone seeks them, all prepare themselves from infancy for the exams that give access to them, and almost all have no other means of living.  Too proud to earn their living honestly by commerce, or agriculture, or some kind of manual labor, they vegetate in misery and intrigue, crippled by debts, always waiting  for some little official post to come their way, stooping to every form of lowness  to obtain it, and if they do not succeed in getting it, they finish by dying of hunger.  The missionaries have known those who only eat rice once every three or four days, pass the coldest winters without fire, and almost without clothes, and nonetheless obstinately refuse to take up some work, which, while procuring them a certain comfort, would derogate their nobility, and render them ineligible for the post of mandarin.  The Christian nobles, who, especially since the last persecutions, obtain public offices with great difficulty, are the most unfortunate of all.  Some of them have tried to be laborers, but not knowing the work, and not having the strength for long hours of physical labor, can barely provide for their most pressing needs.

When a noble comes into some post, he is obliged to support all his relations, even the most distant.  By the simple fact of being a mandarin, the morality and custom of the country give him the duty of sustaining all the members of his family, and if he does not show enough haste, the more greedy ones will put into practice various means to make money at his expense.  Most often, they will present themselves to one of the lower-ranking accountants of the mandarin in the latter's absence and demand a given sum.  Naturally, the accountant protests that he does not have a single coin in his cashbox; he is threatened, his arms and legs are tied, he is hung from the ceiling by his wrists, a brisk bastinado is inflicted on him, and the malfeasants succeed in extorting the desired sum.  Later, the mandarin learns of the affair, but he is obliged to close his eyes to this act of pillage, which perhaps he himself committed before becoming a public servant, or which he is prepared to commit on the morrow if he loses his place.

Public office being for the Korean nobility the only honorable career and often the only means of making a living, it is easy to understand what a mob of flatterers, parasites, petitioners, importunate candidates, and place seekers must day and night choke the anterooms of  the ministers and other great dignitaries who have the power of appointment.  This crowd of greedy mendicants speculates on their passions, flatters their pride and constantly practices, with a greater or lesser degree of success, but always without the smallest scruple, every form of flattery, stroking, and ruse of which the dregs of humanity is capable. 

M Pourthié, one of the missionaries martyred in 1866, amused himself by describing in detail in one of his letters the most common of this type of petitioner, called the moun-kaik.  His narrative, though a little long, throws into relief various interesting aspects of the Corean character so well that we will give it in full:     

The moun-kaik, as he is called, is a guest who has entry to the outer rooms of a house, but this name is also applied more specially to poor and idle individuals who come to pass their days in the houses of the great, and who by groveling and giving away their service, manage to obtain some title or honor as recompense.  There are different categories of moun-kaik, according to the rank of nobility to which they pretend.  Others haunt the king's palace, and still others surround minor mandarins; however, they all resemble each other.

Once the moun-kaik has found a plausible pretext to insert himself in the household of the minister, or mandarin, or noble whose favor he seeks, a single care preoccupies him: how to plumb the depths of the character, desires and the whims of his protector, and to win his good graces by wit, subtlety and protestations of devotion.  He carefully studies the dominant tastes of the circle he frequents, and, putting a good face on misfortune, he bends to the wind with incomparable skill.  He is by turns talkative when he would rather be silent, happy and radiant when the poor state of his family and finances fills him with sadness, or transported by fury or sad and tearful when his heart is filled with feelings of well-being and joy.  If his wife and children succumb to the pangs of hunger, or he himself endures long days of fasting, he must nevertheless laugh with those who laugh and play with those who play once he has crossed the threshold of a salon.  It is his duty to have neither manners, nor colors, nor a temperament of his own.  The expression -- joyful or afflicted, passionate or calm, lively or abashed -- that is to be seen on his master's face must be reflected on his own as in a mirror.  He must be no more than a copy, and the more faithful the copy, the more his prospects improve.

To limitless flexibility, the moun-kaik must also add a full assortment of what are called social talents.  He is always the one who takes the lead in jollying the gaiety of the company, in supporting and taking an interest in the conversation.  A living repository of every story and fable, he contrives to recount them frequently and with interest; he is the first to know all the news of the capital and the provinces, all the anecdotes of the court, all the scandals, and all the accidents.  Around dignitaries, he is a one-man rumor mill, a veritable walking gazette.  He penetrates every design, the secret plans, and the intrigues of the different parties; he count off on his fingers the number, name, position and prospects of all the mandarins rising and falling in the government; he can easily recite the inventory and financial state of all the nobles of the kingdom.

A new two-faced Janus, without conscience, and a true political chameleon, the moun-kaik takes care to show his best face to the rising sun of favor.  All his courtesies are exclusively directed to the quarter whence benefices might come, but to all who are not useful to him, or hostile, or inferior, he reveals his base and greedy soul, solely governed by instincts of the coldest egoism.  He turns with Fortune, flattering those whom she flatters, ignoring those she abandons, always calculating whether it is in his interest to show himself firm or flexible, avaricious or generous, traitorous or faithful.  Drawing lines where they serve best, separating relations and friends, inciting hatred and mortal enmity among the families in power, exploiting by turns the resources of truth and lies, of praise and calumny, of devotion and ingratitude, such are his habitual means of action.

Knowing that in Korea the hearts of the grand only brighten up at the sight of cash, he is in search of people engaged in lawsuits, criminals, and the ambitious of low estate, to offer them his mediation and to promise them the use of his influence, in exchange for a goodly sum for himself, and an even bigger one for his master, whose power he will have to call upon.  Once the money is paid, rustics become great scholars, commoners become noble, criminals become innocent, and thieves become magistrates.  In brief, there are no difficulties that a moun-kaik and money cannot overcome, no dirt that they cannot succeed in washing away, no crime that they cannot justify, and no infamy that they cannot manage to disguise and ennoble.

 Nevertheless, the moun-kaik never loses sight of the fact that his present profession is only a means to the end of his ambition.  Always vigilant, always on the lookout, he thinks only of a favorable moment when he might extract from his protector the gift of some office or position.  Unfortunately for him, his influence is not the only factor.  Money, family connections, competing interests and various solicitations turn the minister's eyes elsewhere, and often the unfortunate man passes long years in pained waiting.  In this case, the moun-kaik evinces admirable constancy.  In any case, the dominant virtue of the Korean examination candidate is patience.  It is not uncommon to see white-haired old men dragging themselves to the baccalaureate examinations for the twentieth, fortieth or even fiftieth time.  Our moun-kaik is also armed with heroic patience.  Rather than giving up and abandoning the game, he continues indefinitely to live through misery and disappointment.  Finally, if he cannot carry the day with sweetness and caresses, he sometimes arms himself with impudence and perpetrates a kind of violence on his protector. 

A bachelor of Hoang-hai province had attended the salon of a certain minister very assiduously for three or four years, and since he was a resourceful man, he had not neglected any means of attracting Fortune's smile.  Nevertheless, no glimmer of hope had yet gleamed.  One day, finding himself alone with the minister, the latter, occupied in finding a mandarin for a particular district, said aloud "Is this district a good mandarinate?"  The bachelor promptly got up, prostrated himself at the minister's feet, and replied in a choked up voice, "Your Excellency is really too good, and I thank you humbly for thinking of giving your lowly servant a district of any sort."  The minister, who had had no intention of doing anything other than asking for information, was speechless at this response, and, not daring to dash the poor moun-kaik's hopes, gave him that prefecture.

At other times it is a stroke of wit, or even buffoonery, that will give the moun-kaik a leg up.  The example that I am about to give is still famous in the country.  A military bachelor very faithfully paid court to the Minister of War.  Fifteen years had passed since he had taken up this difficult occupation, and yet nothing seemed to indicate that he was any further ahead than he had been on the first day.  Every day appointments were made before his eyes, but he had never been able to catch any sign or word to indicate that he had ever been thought of.  His storytelling talent had made him the life of the minister's salon, and his absences, when they occurred, produced a noticeable void in the company.  A time came when he suddenly ceased to appear in the salon, and even though the great in this country generally pay no attention to such things, our minister noticed that his assiduous moun-kaik had disappeared, but thinking that he had fallen ill, or had left town on personal business, gave it no further thought.  This absence of the moun-kaik had gone on for nearly three weeks, when, one fine day, he reappeared beaming with joy and hastened to greet the minister.  The latter, happy enough to see him back and having no more pressing business, asked why he had suddenly fallen out of the sky after such a long disappearance.  "Ah!" replied the moun-kaik, "Your Excellency, you speak more truly than you know."  "Well then," responded the minister, "tell us, have you been ill?"  "A bachelor who has been on the streets for fifteen years cannot help but have a malady of kind that Your Excellency knows very well, but nevertheless it's not that. Oh!  There are such strange occurrences in this world!"  "But explain yourself then, why keep us in suspense?" "Me, keep you in suspense?  Never.  I have just had the experience, which I would not wish to have again, and which I would not wish on anyone else, of being suspended in mid-air."  The minister, more and more intrigued, and impatient to hear a story that promised to be curious, said grumpily, "If your story is strange, it must be said that you are even more so yourself; once again, explain yourself without delay."  "Since Your Excellency commands it, I shall tell all, but it is so extraordinary that nothing less than an order from Your Excellency could make me tell a story that no one would believe."        

'About twenty days ago, wanting to escape the boredom that was plaguing me, I thought of amusing myself by going fishing.  I took my fishing line and settled myself on the bank of large pond near the capital.  My line had hardly touched the water when thousands of storks came down nearby.  Thinking that one of these birds might well want to take the bait, and foreseeing that my wrist would not be sufficiently robust to restrain its frolicking, I hurried to grasp the end of the long cord of my line, and I girded it firmly around my loins.  I had scarcely taken this precaution when a fat stork that was greedier than the others threw itself on the bait and swallowed it in the blink of an eye.  It occurred to me to let my captive enjoy the bait peacefully; I did not budge, and the stork for his part remained calm and immobile in the manner of one stunned by a strong blow.  These birds have such a hot stomach, and a digestion so rapid, that my bait reappeared at the other end within a minute and a half.  While I was still in a state of stupefaction at this marvel, another stork seized the bait, swallowed it and digested it.  A third followed suit, then five, twenty, fifty more storks in turn were threaded on my line.  They would all, to the last one, have followed suit, but not being able to contain myself at such a strange spectacle, I broke out laughing and moved.  Suddenly, the alarmed squadron took to the air, and as I was attached by the loins, I was carried away into the skies.  The further we went, the more the storks took fright.  It might have been agreeable to fly around like that, hanging at an enormous distance above the earth, dragged to the right, to the left, higher, then lower, through endless zig zags, but I had no choice in the matter and clung to my cord as tightly as I could.  Finally, tired of dragging me around like that, the storks landed in a vast deserted plain.  I hastened to liberate them by liberating myself.  I revived, but was I still in Korea, or had they transported me to the ends of the earth?  That is what it was impossible for me to know.  Furthermore, having departed so unexpectedly for such a long voyage, I had not made any provisions, and, having just come back down to earth, I found myself devoured by hunger.  However, solitude surrounded me in every direction.  Cursing myself and the storks, I plodded mechanically towards an enormous rock that dominated the whole plain and the summit of which seemed to touch the sky.  As I drew near, to my great surprise, I saw that what I had taken for a rock was nothing other than a colossal statue whose head stretched upward as far as the eye could see.  What was even more impressive, was that a large pear tree had taken root and was growing majestically on the head of the colossus.  The very sight of that fruit made my mouth water like some sweet liquor that promised to do me a world of good, and stimulated my appetite even more.  But how to get at it?  How to scale that unscalable height?  Necessity, it is said, is the mother of invention.  The plain was covered with reeds.  The thought came to me to cut a large quantity of them, then stringing them end to end, I could fabricate a pole long enough to reach the head of the statue.  Then, sticking it into the nostrils of the colossus, I poked it so much and so hard that the gigantic head of the statue, overcome by an almighty sneeze, and shaken by terrible convulsions, unbalanced the pear tree so strongly that all the pears fell at my feet.  The quantity equalled the beauty of them; I took my fill of that succulent fruit, and then I set off to explore the country.  I soon learned that the place where I found myself was the district of Eun-tsin (in the province of Tsion Tsien, four hundred leagues from the capital), and, tarrying no longer, I took the road for Seoul, and here I am, back again.  Nevertheless, I must admit that although I was somewhat giddy after the rapid succession of so many extraordinary events, I did not for an instant forget Your Excellency, and as proof, here is one of the pears, which I carefully saved for you to appreciate its sweetness, rather than to lend credence to my strange story.'  

At the same time, the mounkaik placed an enormous pear in the minister's hands.  The minister wanted to taste it on the spot, and found it delicious. The following day the mounkaik was named a mandarin.  

This concludes Part 8.  Part 9 will appear some time in the week of 10-14 April, 2017.

Posted on 05/04/2017 by David Gemeinhardt Books, Asian History, Korea 0

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