The Korea Herald


Korea in the eyes of 19th-century Westerners

'In passionate fondness for music, the Koreans decidedly surpass any other Asian nation,' a German businessman wrote in 1880

By Kim So-hyun

Published : May 9, 2023 - 15:52

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Sometimes, an outsider’s view of a society and its people can be telling or, at the very least, worth noting, even if the view itself comes from the 19th century.

Compared to its neighbors China and Japan, Korea was secluded and relatively unknown to the Western world for a long time.

While the Portuguese and the Dutch sailed to and traded with China from the 16th century and Japan from the 17th century, with Jesuit missionaries such as Matteo Ricci introducing China to the West in the late 16th century, Korea remained largely undisturbed, with the exception of shipwrecked sailors.

Hendrik Hamel, one of the crew of a Dutch trading ship who became shipwrecked on Jeju Island in 1653 and were then forced to stay as prisoners in Korea until 1666, left the first -- and for the next 200 years, the only -- book-length account of Korea based on personal experiences by a Westerner.

An artist's illustration of a An artist's illustration of a "Korean chief and attendants," taken from the book "Narrative of a voyage in His Majesty's late ship Alceste, to the Yellow Sea, along the coast of Corea." (1817)

The publication of Hamel’s journal had a huge impact. Western mariners avoided landing in Korea for fear they would be put through a similar ordeal. Hamel’s book also gave an overall unfavorable image of Korea as a potential trading partner by mentioning its lack of lucrative natural resources or native products.

As a result, until 1866, no one from a western country had a clear idea of the exact location of Seoul or how it could be reached, according to “Brief Encounters: Early Reports of Korea by Westerners” by Brother Anthony of Taize and Robert Neff.

From the 19th century, traders, missionaries and diplomats wrote books about their visits to different parts of Korea like Pyongyang, Seoul, Chemulpo (Incheon) and Busan, noting basic information about the country’s geography, history, politics and society, as well as their observations of its people, customs and culture.

They were unsparing in their description of the commoners’ poor, pre-modern living standards, including the lack of medical knowledge and treatment of diseases, as well as the low status of women.

According to “Corea or, Cho-sen, the Land of the Morning Calm,” by Arnold Henry Savage Landor, the women of Joseon, with the exception of lower classes, were kept in seclusion.

“They are seldom allowed to go out, and when they do, they cover their faces with white or green hoods, very similar in shape to those worn by the women at Malta,” he wrote.

Mentioning how every woman he came across in the streets of Seoul was just about to open a door to enter a house, he wrote that he later heard from a Korean friend that a woman has a right to open and enter any door of a Korean house when she sees a foreign man due to a “reputation of the masculine ‘foreign devil’” in the minds of women in Korea.

An artist's rendering of a local official of Jeju Island, taken from the book An artist's rendering of a local official of Jeju Island, taken from the book "Borneo and the Indian Archipelago: with drawings of costume and scenery." (1848)

In the 1880 book “A Forbidden Land: Voyages to the Corea,” German businessman Ernst Jakob Oppert describes Koreans in comparison to the Chinese and the Japanese.

“Firm, sure and quick in his walk, the Korean possesses greater ease and a freer motion than the Japanese, to whom, as to the Chinese, they are superior in tallness and bodily strength,” he wrote.

“Their bearing denotes also greater fortitude and energy, and a more developed warlike spirit.”

He then says that despite “their bodily and mental advantages,” Koreans lack cultivation and good manners.

Oppert also noted that Koreans like to dance and sing a lot.

“In passionate fondness for music, the Koreans decidedly surpass any other Asian nation,” he wrote.

“The Koreans as a rule, as has been remarked already, are honest and good-natured, and great crimes, murder, theft, etc., are not frequently committed; theft in particular is punished very severely.”

Oppert is best known for his unsuccessful attempt in 1867 to remove the remains of the father of regent Yi Ha-eung from his grave to blackmail the regent into eliminating Korean trade barriers.

In “Corea: The Hermit Nation,” author William Elliot Griffis, a missionary, wrote how Korean children were afraid of their fathers while mothers were much more indulgent.

“The first thing inculcated in a child’s mind is respect for his father. All insubordination is immediately and sternly repressed,” the book reads.

“Far different is it with his mother. … The child soon learns that a mother’s authority is next to nothing.”

A son must not play or smoke in his father’s presence, and if the father is in prison, the son stays nearby to communicate with and provide him with what he needs.

If the accused is condemned to exile, the son must at least accompany his father to the end of their journey, and often share in his banishment, Griffis wrote.

In the late 19th century, malicious rumors often led to riots.

In 1888, there were the so-called “baby riots” in Seoul.

According to “Fifteen Years Among the Top-Knots: Life in Korea” by physician and missionary L. H. Underwood, a rumor spread that foreigners, mainly the Japanese, were paying Koreans to steal children to cut out their hearts and eyes to be used for medicine.

The rumor was believed to have been started by the Chinese or others antagonistic to the growing number of Japanese residents in the capital.

So when the Japanese minister heard about the rumors, he issued proclamations clearing his countrymen of all blame in the matter, which was understood as an acknowledged fact and that it was the work of other “vile foreigners,” according to Underwood.

“Large crowds of angry people congregated, scowling, muttering and threatening,” she wrote.

“Koreans carrying their own children were attacked, beaten and even killed, on the supposition that they were kidnapping the children of others. … It was considered unsafe for foreigners to be seen in the street.”

There were rumors that babies had been eaten at the German, English and American legations, and the hospital where she worked was believed to be where the babies were murdered to make medicine.

“Rough-looking men” threatened to kill her bearers if they carried her to the hospital again, so she rode on horseback to the hospital.

The riots finally came to an end after an official notice stated that no such thing had been done by any foreigner, and those uttering such slander would be arrested.