Old Korea, Part 14

Old Korea, Part 14

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To learn more about the complete work, its place in Korean historiography, and its current unpublished state, please read this previous post: 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 14 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.

XIV    Lodgings -- Garments --  Diverse Customs

The following extract of a letter from M Pourthié summarizes various notices of daily life in Korea, on lodging, dressing, eating, etc., in the most interesting manner.  

The missionary writes:

"Would you like to take a tour of the country with me?  I believe you would scarcely have the courage.  First, you would have nothing on your feet but straw sandals, which let, rain, snow, mud, and all manner of uncleanliness in; then, since no one in Korea bestirs himself to maintain the roads, you will soon be tired of jumping from stone to stone; you will wear yourself out in continual ascents and descents, often very sudden; finally, if you do not pay scrupulous attention, your toe will pass over the end of your sandal and stub against a stone or a bramble, which will elicit a cry of pain from you, and make you give up the enterprise.  Let us rather stop and examine those houses that you see sheltering form the wind in all the valleys, and which from afar resemble big black blots on the snow. 

You have perhaps seen some miserable huts: well, reduce the beauty and solidity of the poorest hovels you know still further, and you will have an exact notion of these sorry Korean habitations.  It can be said as a general hypothesis that the Korean lives under thatch, for houses roofed with tile, whether in the cities or in the countryside, are so rare that not more than one in two hundred can be counted.  The art of building stone walls for houses is unknown, or rather, most of the time, the money is lacking for such an expense.  Some rough-hewn wood, some stones, some earth, and some straw are the common materials.  Four posts stuck in the ground support the roof.  Some small transversal beams, against which other pieces of wood are crossed on the diagonal, form a net and hold up a wall of earth eight to ten inches thick.  Small openings enclosed by trellised woodwork and covered by paper, for lack of glass, serve as both doors and windows.  The bare earthen floor of the rooms is covered with mats that are quite humble if you compare them to the mats of China or India; misery will often even force people to conceal the floor under a bed of straw of varying thickness.  Rich people can cover the mud walls with paper, and in place of the floorboards and flagstones of Europe, thick sheets of oiled paper are laid over the floor.  Do not look for houses with upper stories, for they do not exist in Korea.   

But let us go inside, and first take off your sandals; manners and cleanliness demand it.  The rich keep only their socks on, and peasants and workers are usually barefoot in their rooms.  Once inside, try not to bang your head against the adobe and tree branches that make up the ceiling; you had better squat on the mat, and stop yourself from looking around for a seat, for the king himself, when he receives the prostrations of his court, sits on a carpet with his legs crossed in the manner of our tailors.  Perhaps you would like to take some notes about the curious things you see?  It would be useless to ask for a table.  The Koreans only have them for the ancestor worship ceremonies and for meals.  Put your notebook on your knees, and write as if it were your habit to do so, and you find it completely natural and convenient.

We are in November, and the wind from the northwest, while providing a dry and serene autumn, will make you shiver with cold on your mat.  You want to close the door, but the numerous holes poked in the old paper of the windows will render such a precaution nearly useless.  In any case, the skill of the Korean joiner will have assured enough crevices that there is no danger of asphyxiation.  Not all the blame for this is his, for in the end can a door worth twelve or twenty coppers, most often made with only an axe and a chisel, be a work of perfection?  The only thing for it, then, is to resort to a fire, but there is chimney, and how to light a fire on the mat?  The difficulty has been foreseen.  Outside the house, to one side, is the kitchen, from which various conduits pass under the floor of the room.  These conduits or pipes are covered with big stones of which the chinks and irregularities have been covered with adobe; that is what your mat is spread over.  The smoke and the heat pass through these pipes to go out on the other side of the house and make a pleasant warmth reach you, which, thanks to the thickness of the stones, will last for a fairly long time.  You see that the Koreans knew long before us about the use of hot air.  It is true that the smoke rises up in abundant puffs through the crevices in the floor, but one must not be too delicate, and, in any case, what good thing in this world does not have its drawbacks?

A simply furnished room with paper-lined walls and floor, heated by ondol, the system described by Dallet in the above paragraph.  Photographed in a house museum in Jeonju, 2015.  

You will be eager to have a look at the furniture.  First of all, as far as far as beds go, do not think to discover one of those grand heaps of mattresses with a baldachin and draperies.  Nearly all of Corea sleeps on mats.  The poor, which is to say the great majority, stretch out on them without any covering other than the rags that they wear day and night.  Those who have a few coppers purchase for themselves the luxury of a blanket, to which, in the comfortably off class, a small mattress of one or two decimeters' thickness is often added.  Everyone, rich and poor, has in a corner of the room a little stump of triangular wood which serves as a bolster.  As for other furniture, the poor do not have any; the common people have a transversal rod on which is hung a change of clothing; well off individuals have a few baskets stowed on beams or hung from the ceiling; in the households of the rich some rather crude trunks are to be found; the literati and the merchants are usually seated near a small casket that contains ink, brushes and a roll of paper.  Young ladies have a small black casket garnished with two skirts, one red and the other blue, an indispensable wedding present.  Finally, in the houses of the great functionaries and the high nobility, one finds some Chinese books and varnished armoires of modest dimensions.

Now how will you be dressed?  I have already mentioned the straw sandals, but I will not try to describe them to you; you have to see them to get an idea of what they look like.  They are the usual footwear of the country, especially for journeys.  The sole of woven rice straw offers a little protection to the foot against stonest, but that is its only utility.  Is it not also a small mortification, in the rigorous winters of Korea, to tramp in old shoes with one's feet in the snow or in glacial mud?  In the summer, the only inconvenience is taking the occasional footbath, but when there is no water to be feared, your footwear has the advantage of being less hot than our shoes.  With these sandals, you can do up to ten leagues in a row, sometimes much more.  It is therefore necessary to get new ones all the time, which, however, can be done without much expense, for their price runs from three to eight sapeques (two and a half sapeques are worth a French sou).  Other sandals of the same form that are a bit prettier and more expensive, are made of hemp or the bark of the paper mulberry shrub (morus papyrifera), but the latter are done for at the least contact with water.  There are also some rather bizarre shoes made of leather, both ugly and uncomfortable, but, other than the fact that ninety percent of the population cannot afford such a luxury, this footwear is only good for walking around the house; no one would dare set out on the road with such impediments on his feet.

But at least you will have stockings because every Corean, when he is not busy with fieldwork, can give himself this satisfaction unless he is reduced to extreme misery.  Do not go so far as to believe that there is any question of elastic stockings of silk, linen, cotton or any other fabric which is used in Europe for this purpose; two simple pieces of course cloth sewn together in such a way that they end in a point and follow the contours of the foot will chafe you often, but in the end they will cover your feet and these will be your Corean stockings.  Breeches as simple as a zouave's, but in a much less graceful shape, replace trousers in a way that could not be more modest; narrow cloth gaiters are tied under the knee and keep the legs of the breeches folded against the calves.  To cover the upper body you will have a vest that, in shape and length, corresponds to the carmagnole that French peasants in certain provinces wear.  Well off landowners who do not work usually add a coat provided with wide sleeves, split at the sides, and which falls down to the knees in front and behind, rather in the manner of the great scapular of the Carmelites; the peasants, on the contrary, do not wear this coat except when they are traveling or on a visit.  The fashion has started of replacing it in winter with a redingote that, among dignitaries, must always be split at the back like our French redingotes, while ordinary people cannot wear it split.  Finally, a ceremonial overcoat, which does not differ from the one we have just described except that it has even wider sleeves, crowns the whole and serves for trips or grand occasions.

Neither razor nor scissors ever pass over the head or the beard of a Korean.  In these recent times when everything has been degenerating, in Korea as elsewhere, young men sometimes allow themselves to shave part of the head in order that their hair does not make a disgracefully thick topknot when it is put up, but this is a violation of the rules.  All the same, do not believe that thick hair or strong beards are common in the country. Children of both sexes plait their long hair and pull it behind in the form of a queue.  A husband, before going to fetch his betrothed, makes his queue disappear by putting up his hair and knotting it at the top of his head.  The betrothed, for her part, and according to her means, buys false hair, which is added to her queue, and makes up a long, thick rope which is rolled on the head in several thick loops.  This mass of heavy and misshapen hair cannot be other than very awkward in the eyes of foreigners; for a Korean, on the other hand, it is the height of fashion and in the best taste.  Women and children always go bareheaded; a married man keeps his hair coiled on top by means of a headband woven from thin threads.  

Finally, a ridiculous hat completes the costume.  Imagine an enclosed tube, round like European hats, but much straighter and slightly conical, which settles on the top of the skull, and in which the knot of hair alone can fit inside.  This tube has a brim like the hats of Europe, but the brim is so out of proportion that often the whole forms a circle of more than sixty centimeters' diameter.  The framework of this hat is made of pieces of bamboo cut lengthwise into very thin threads; onto this framework woven openwork linen is hung.  Since this hat cannot stay fixed on the topknot by itself, the cords that public officials embellish with globules of yellow amber or other precious beads according to their fortune and their rank secure it under the chin.  This hat keeps out neither rain, nor cold, nor even the sun.  On the other hand, however, it is very uncomfortable, especially when the wind makes it oscillate on the head.  

All garments are commonly of coarse cotton cloth, and made Lord knows how.  Four or five hundred years ago, Korea did not cultivate the cotton plant (gossypium herbaceum), of which such great use is made now.  The Chinese government, in order to conserve the cloth monopoly, rigorously prohibited the export of the seeds of this plant; nevertheless, a Korean ambassador named Moun-iouk-i, succeeded during his journey to Peking in procuring a few of these seeds, hid them, in the tube of his pipe say some, in a feather say others, evaded the vigilance of the frontier guards, and gifted his country with this precious shrub.  If the cloth of Korea is so coarse, it comes from the fact that there are few artisans properly speaking here, or rather that everyone is an artisan.  In each house, the women weave and sew the cloth and make the clothing, with the result no one habitually exercises this occupation, and no one becomes skilled at it.  Much the same can be said for nearly all the arts, in which the Koreans are also very far behind in everything; things are not more advanced today than they were yesterday, nor are they any more so than they were on the morning after the Flood, when all the arts and occupations began again. 

Flax is not used.  I have often seen it among the gramanaceae of the mountains, but the Korean confuses it with plants of no value, fit only to be thrown into the fire.   With hemp, nothing is made but a linen of clear thread suitable for people in mourning, and which otherwise is only used for summer clothes.  The species of nettle called utica nivea is cultivated with success in the southern provinces, but due to a lack of knowledge of spinning and weaving, only cloth with irregular and widely-spaced stitches is gotten from it, and it is also used only in the summer.   

Korea could raise immense flocks of sheep on all the mountains, but the government forbids commoners to raise them.  In certain prefectures, the mandarins keep a few, for the sole purpose of offering their flesh in the sacrifices to Confucius.  The Koreans have also never tried to make wool; it is at great expense that a few foreign bolts, mostly of Russian manufacture, make it as far as Seoul.  The indigenous silk is very  coarse and in small quantities.  Nevertheless, seeing the mulberry tree sprouting spontaneously in the mountains, and silkworms thriving despite the little care that is taken of them, I am convinced that, under the impetus of an intelligent government, this branch of industry could attain great size.

European cotton cloth, imported from China, is beginning to be sold in Korea, but its price is very high and its fragility necessarily hinders its use.“

For his part, M. Féron writes in 1858:

"I live in the prettiest house in the village: it is that of the catechist, a rich man; it is estimated to be worth a good 20 francs.  Do not laugh: there  are some worth 15 sous.  My room, of sufficient size, considering the furnishings, has a sheet of paper for a door, a sheet of paper for a window, and two other sheets of paper make a large set of double doors, which communicate with the neighboring room.  My servant's residence and the two rooms put together make up the parish church; it is possible that a belfry will be added later.  For the time being, it is raining inside my house just as it is outside, and two large cauldrons do not suffice to catch the water as red as Corean pickles that filters through the thatched roof of my presbytery. 

The prophet Elisha, staying with the Shunamite, had for his furniture a bed, a table, a chair and a candlestick, 4 pieces in total.  That was not luxurious.  As for me, looking hard, I can perhaps also find four pieces; let's see: a wooden candlestick, a trunk, a pipe and a pair of shoes, for a total of four.  No bed and no chairs.  ‘Considering,’ say the Koreans, ‘that the earth does not have holes, and that it must be very tiring to sit on a seat, it is evidently not the natural position…'  I have no table, either: I am writing to you on my knees in the position mentioned above -- excuse me if my handwriting is not the best.  I have not yet become Korean enough to find that this is better than a desk.  When it is time to eat, a table is brought already laid: it is a small, round table about a foot high, on which are placed in an order as perfectly regulated as our finest desserts two bowls with three to five saucers.  Do not think that one would ever put a bowl or saucer on the left that should be on the right.  Someone who would do such a thing would by that fact alone be considered a coarse person, and never would a Korean permit such an impropriety.

My furnishings being such, would I be richer or poorer than the prophet?  That is the question.  His room was more comfortable than mine, but it must also be said that nothing in it was his; for me, on the other hand, if it is true that the candlestick belongs to the chapel, and the trunk is the one that Mgr Berneux lent to me, I cannot deny that the pipe and the shoes are mine; I only use the latter for the mass.  I did use to possess another pair, it is true, but having had the misfortune to put them on to go out, they can no longer reappear in my room, as propriety and the cleanliness of the mat that serves as my seat, bed and floor would have it.  Therefore, I merely have some cotton stockings on my feet.  As for the pipe, it serves as a useful prop when traveling in this country where everyone smokes; nevertheless, I have not yet been able to arrive at  an appreciation of its charms, as much as I have tried, and have even made myself sick twice, which relieved me of any desire to start up again.  My servants are astonished that the Father smokes less than the good woman who cooks his rice."

Let us complete these details with information gleaned from various letters of other missionaries.  Korean houses are generally very small and offer little comfort.  They are slightly raised above the level of the ground to give space underneath for the pipes that conduct smoke from the kitchen.  In the capital, nonetheless, this custom is not always followed.  It is fairly comfortable in winter, but in summer the heat becomes an insupportable torture and most of the inhabitants sleep outside.  The rich often have summer rooms, under which such pipes are not laid.  In ordinary houses, there are two contiguous rooms, rarely three, not counting the kitchen situated to one side, which is open to every wind.  All around the house, the roof of rice thatch overhangs the walls by three or four feet in such a way to make small covered galleries.  The walls of rich houses are covered with white paper on the interior, and sometimes also on the exterior.  Otherwise, these houses almost always have a dirty, dilapidated, miserable look to them, even in the capital, and are always and everywhere full of vermin of all kinds.

The inns along the highways are disgusting hovels where almost nothing is to be had; the great majority of travelers carry their provisions with them if they have the means.  Barns and stables are unknown; large hangars open on all four sides replace them, and in winter, when the cold is violent, the oxen and horses gathered inside are dressed in straw.

Dining tables are thirty to fifty centimeters high and equally wide, and of a more or less round shape.  Whatever the number of diners, each must have his own.  The crude porcelain or copper service consists only of bowls of different sizes, a pair of chopsticks in the Chinese manner, and a copper spoon.  The usual meal consists of rice, peppers and vegetables; comfortably off folk add a bit of meat or salted fish.  These staples are prepared with sesame oil, castor oil, mint, or brine, because milk and butter are unknown, and the use of animal fats is not understood. Beef can only be found with difficulty, and only in the capital.  There is no mutton, which is replaced by dog, of which all the missionaries agree in saying that the taste is not at all disagreeable.  In terms of vegetables, there are hardly any but the turnip, the Chinese cabbage, and leaves of the cress and fern, which are consumed in great quantities.  The usual drink is the water in which the rice was cooked.  Wine is made from wheat or fermented rice.  In summer, the nobles drink a lot of rice spirits and honey water.  Tea is not unknown in the houses of the rich, but its use is very limited. 

A round black lacquer folding table with mother of pearl inlay in the Lotus & Persimmon collection.   

Hardly has a meal ended when the tables are whisked away and everyone lights his pipe, for the Koreans are great smokers.  It is rare in this country to find a man who goes out without his pipe.  The shape is the same as that of the Chinese pipe: a long tube of bamboo with a copper bowl and a mouthpiece of the same metal.  Every Korean always carries with him a tinder-box which he uses exclusively to light his pipe.  When he needs a light at home, he uses a sulphur match.  On the road, a torch made of three or four sticks twisted together take the place of our lanterns.  Sometimes, in summer, instead of a lamp inside the house, a fire is lit in the courtyard, and all the members of the family work by the light of this fire while a heap of dried herbs burning at a distance envelops them in a cloud of smoke intended to keep mosquitoes and other insects at bay. 

Korean clothes are always of an exaggerated amplitude.  The body very easily fits into each leg of the trousers or each sleeve of the jacket.  For going out, good taste requires that one should wear as many clothes as possible – to wit, two or three trousers, two or three shirts, and four or five linen redingotes, according to the solemnity of the occasion and one's means.  The redingote is attached under the arms by two bands that replace buttons, which are unknown in the country.  Garments are supposed to be white, but it costs too much to keep them sufficiently clean, and most often the original colour has disappeared under a thick layer of dirt, for uncleanliness is a great fault of the Koreans.  It is not uncommon to see even rich people wearing clothes that are torn and full of vermin.  To wash laundry, it is soaked in lye-wash prepared with ash, then it is beaten with paddles that are straighter than the washerwoman's beetles of Europe.  After that, it is coated with a layer of gum intended to prevent spots.  The majority of garments being made of pieces tacked together or simply glued, the pieces are separated and bleached individually.  Only the nobles wear garments that are sewn.      
The ordinary hat is of very respectable dimensions, but in rainy weather, the Koreans put a different hat on their heads, a veritable umbrella three feet wide, of straw and very light, that shelters them tolerably well.  If they have to work in a heavy downpour, they also put on a cloak of straw, and, so dressed, they can face a diluvian rain. 

Other than the different types of footwear described above, we must mention the wooden shoes that the peasants use: these sabots have excessively thick soles and heels, which make them resemble skates.  The Korean never wears his shoes or sandals indoors; he always takes them off at the door.  From this, some quite curious scenes arise in Christian communities when a missionary arrives on a visit.  In the evening, the neophytes present themselves for the common prayer, and also, as they say, to see the Father's long nose.  At the end of the visit, everyone must find his shoes by torchlight, and while waiting one and all stamp about in the mud and dust amid loud cries and debates, but without coming to blows. 

The use of eye glasses, though it hardly dates back further than 1835 or 1840, is very widespread among the upper classes.  Towards 1848, it was a real mania; today more moderation is employed.  People of the old school ask permission of the company before putting on their glasses, but young folk dispense with this formality. 

Other than trousers, which are straighter than those of the men, the women wear a camisole of linen or silk, of which the color varies by age: it is pink or yellow for young women or newly married women, violet for women over thirty, and white for those of a more advanced age.  By way of a dress, they encircle themselves with a wide blue cloth that they attach under the arms by means of a belt.  For the women of the common people, who go out as they please, this skirt stops above the feet; for noblewomen, whom etiquette does not permit to leave their apartments, it is ample and drags on the ground.  Widows, however young they may be, must always be dressed in white or grey linen.  Korean women do not emulate the stupid folly of the Chinese and do not bind themselves in order to have small feet; they let nature take its course.  The women of the people almost always go about barefoot.  Their hair, coiled in braids around the skull, serves as a cushion for the water jars and other heavy objects that they customarily carry on their heads.

To put a finishing touch on this sketch, let us add that men in mourning must confine their hair in a band not of horsehair but of grey linen, covered by a bonnet of the same fabric in the shape of a large sack.  In the street, instead of a hat, they wear an immense roof-like structure of straw in the shape of a truncated cone that hangs down to the shoulders.  Vivid colors are so forbidden to a man in mourning that even his walking stick and the tube of his pipe must be white.  If he does not want to buy new ones, he covers his usual cane and pipe with paper, which is as easy to do as it is cheap.  The type of clothing does not change for a woman in mourning, but the color that is rigorously prescribed is white or grey; any other is prohibited.  In the eyes of Koreans, a man in mourning is a dead man.  He must be completely absorbed in his grief, not seeing and not hearing anything that might distract him.  When he goes out, he always has a fan or  a small veil of grey cloth fixed on two sticks with which he covers his face.  He no longer goes out in society; he hardly allows himself to look at the sky.  If one asks him a question, he may forego answering it.  He may not kill an animal, even a venomous serpent; it would be an unpardonable crime.  On the road and at inns, he retires to his room or to an isolated corner, and refuses to communicate with anyone.  All these customs are strictly observed only in the upper classes of society.

The missionaries have frequently repeated that this costume and these manners of a nobleman in mourning seem to have been invented by Providence in order to procure for them an easy and complete disguise, without which their sojourn in Korea, and especially their travels among the Christians, would have been almost impossible.  Unfortunately, since the last persecution, it is known that they habitually used this device, and there is talk of reforming the costume and laws of mourning.  God will provide.

This concludes Part 14.  Part 15, the last section of the Introduction to the History, Institutions, Language, Morals, and Customs of Korea, will appear in the week of 25 May-2 June, 2017.  

Posted on 22/05/2017 by David Gemeinhardt Books, Asian History 0

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