In the late 19th and early 20th century, foreign adventurers, reporters and missionaries visited Joseon, which is now Korea. During their stay in the “Land of the Morning Calm,” they wrote some penetrating accounts describing pre-modern Korea.
Some of them were favorable remarks, and others were somewhat negative observations, though amusing. For example, they unanimously praised the Korean people’s exquisite handcrafts such as pottery, and their superb skills at archery. They also recorded what they had observed as salient characteristics of the Korean people and their society at that time.
Since these foreigners’ portraits of Korea were so accurate and persuasive, we cannot help but smile while reading their observations. Embarrassingly, however, some of their observations are still valid even in today’s Korea. Of course, dazzling social change has occurred since then and today’s dynamic South Korea is no longer the Land of the Morning Calm. Still, however, some fundamental things still linger in our society.
For example, quite a few foreigners agreed that Koreans were a surprisingly worry-free people. They wrote that even when China, Japan and Russia were waging war to take over their country in the late 19th century, the Korean people were inscrutably relaxed and undisturbed.
Even today, not many South Koreans seem to take North Korea’s nuclear threats too seriously. Some naively believe that North Korea would never use nuclear weapons against the South, and others mistakenly support North Korea’s claim that nuclear armament is necessary for their self-defense.
Many Koreans also regard the Taiwan crisis or the war in Ukraine as non-relevant incidents happening in remote parts of the world. However, experts have warned that the above two crises will directly and ultimately affect South Korea’s national security because the Korean Peninsula is likely to be the next hotspot of international conflict, depending on how these two current global crises come to an end. If so, we should worry about the outcome of the above incidents and be prepared.
In the eyes of Joseon-era foreigners, Korea was a closed society that was not friendly to outsiders. One of the visitors humorously remarked, “Even village dogs were hostile to outsiders and barked fiercely at me.” We should take a tip from this still-relevant observation and build an open society where everybody is nice and friendly to outsiders and foreigners.
Even a hundred years ago, foreigners noticed that Korean people were very sensitive to appearances. Even today, cosmetic surgery is rampant in Korean society because Koreans put such a high value on physical appearance. However, we would be hopelessly shallow if we continue to mindlessly pursue evanescent physical beauty.
The foreigners found that formality was important in Korean society. Confucianism in Korea was a good example. Koreans constantly quarreled over insignificant formalities, such as how long they should observe mourning customs for their deceased parents, while disregarding the true essence of Confucian ethics. Instead of wasting time on hollow formality, we should be practical and pragmatic.
The foreigners said that Koreans tended to take other people’s help for granted and did not seem to appreciate it enough. Perhaps one of the reasons was that in Korean society, it was customary to help each other in times of need. Nevertheless, we should be grateful for others’ favor, help or kindness, and express our appreciation.
The foreigners also wrote that chatting seemed to be a national pastime in Korea. They noticed that the Korean people were leisurely in chatting all day long, while smoking a long bamboo tobacco pipe. One of the foreigners mentioned that even when fighting, Koreans fight verbally with their tongues, not with weapons. Even today, Korean men tend to be verbose when they drink in a bar, gossiping loquaciously. However, we need more action and less talk.
The foreigners wrote that Koreans had an insatiable curiosity for other people’s business. Perhaps our chatty customs may have encouraged such a tendency, but we should curb excessive curiosity into other people’s affairs. If someone got a divorce lately, for example, we would casually ask, “Why?” However, that is a private matter and should not be our concern.
Many foreigners pointed out that the Korean people were not good at hiding or restraining their emotions. Indeed, even today we easily become emotional and pour out our feelings. The problem is that if we cannot hide our feelings or control our emotions, we cannot be good at diplomacy, which often requires a poker face.
The foreigners also said that Koreans tended to disregard signed documents or contracts. Traditionally in Korea, scholars, who were the ruling class, despised commercial activities. As a result, Korean society did not particularly value business codes, such as punctuality, credit, honesty or promises -- not to mention honoring signed papers. However, if that tradition persists even today, we will lose respect and credibility in the international community.
If we acted the opposite of the above foreigners’ observations of pre-modern Korea, we can live in a society highly esteemed and admired by foreigners.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.