Westerners who left records of what they saw and experienced in Korea in the 19th century often marveled at how much work women outside the ruling class did, how physically strong Koreans were and how much they ate.
Without a word of reproach, women did most of the farm labor and carried lunch to the workers in the field, on top of housework including the endless amount of laundry, they wrote.
“You should see the poor things on the coldest days and nights of winter, smashing the thick ice in the rivers and canals, and spending hour after hour with their fingers in the freezing water, washing the clothes of their lords and masters, who are probably peacefully and soundly asleep at home,” wrote English painter, explorer, writer and anthropologist Arnold Henry Savage Landor in his 1882 book, “Corea or Cho-sen: The Land of the Morning Calm.”
“You should see them with their short wooden mallets, like small clubs, beating the dirt out of the wet cotton garments, soap being as yet an unknown luxury in the Korean household.”
The poorer women with no washing accommodation at home had to do laundry in the streams, and as the clothes had to be worn during the day, the work had to be done at night, he said.
The regular beating sounds of the mallets could be heard from many houses at night, especially ahead of some festivity or public procession where people wanted to look their best, Landor wrote, adding that had a British woman been expected to do the washing under similar circumstances, she would ask for a divorce.
British diplomat William Richard Carles also wrote about the backbreaking chores in his 1888 book “Life in Corea.”
Describing all the things he saw on the streets of Seoul, including shops, child waiters carrying small tables of food on their heads, officials dressed in fancy robes riding on horses, servants running alongside the horses and shouting out to make way for the masters, blind men and drunkards, Carles said that no matter where he was, he could hear an “incessant tap-tap-tap.”
“In a country where soap is not known to the natives, and where none the less men wear white clothing and expect that the outer robe at any rate shall be spotless, the labor entailed upon the women is immense,” he wrote.
“I believe that the clothes are three times boiled, and cleansed with lye, and after that they are washed in running water; but getting them up after the wash entails almost as much trouble as the washing itself.”
The mallets women beat the cloth with on a flat board were also sometimes used for a different purpose.
Landor depicted in detail a bloody fight he witnessed where a woman wielded the stick as a weapon to aid her husband in a quarrel with a soldier.
“A woman emerging from the doorway … without further notice hit the soldier on the head with the heavy wooden mallet commonly used for beating clothes,” he wrote in his 1882 book.
“The husband, encouraged by this unexpected reinforcement, boldly attacked the soldier, and whilst they were occupied in wrestling and trying to knock each other down, the infuriated woman kept up a constant administration of blows, half at least of which, in her aimless hurry, were received by the companion of her life for whom she was fighting.”
Landor’s account of the ghastly spectacle goes on.
By mistake, she hit her husband so hard that he fainted, upon which the soldier ran for his life, “while she, jumping like a tiger at him, caught him by the throat, spun him round like a top, and floored him, knocking him down on the ice. Then she pounced on him, with her eyes out of her head with anger, and giving way to her towering passion, pounded him on the head with her heels while she was hitting him on the back with her mallet.”
Describing her blow as “enough to kill a bull” and her as “that demon in female attire,” Landor said when she bit the soldier’s cheek, making it bleed, he could stand it no longer and tried to separate them, only to suffer a blow of the mallet on his knee, then fleeing the scene.
Landor also expressed amazement at how much weight Korean workers could carry, using a “jige,” or a wooden carrier used to transport large quantities of compost, grain, wood and grass.
Noting that its principle is similar to that used by the porters in Switzerland and Holland, he wrote that the coolies would “carry these enormous loads for miles and miles without showing the slightest sign of fatigue.”
Perhaps the portions of food Koreans ate explains it.
“The staple diet has in it much more of meat and fat than that of the Japanese. The latter acknowledge that the average Korean can eat twice as much as himself,” American missionary William Elliot Griffis wrote in his 1882 book “Korea, the Hermit Nation.”
“Nearly everything edible about an animal is a tidbit. … To eat much is an honor. … Little talking is done while eating, for each sentence might lose a mouthful. Hence, since a capacious stomach is a high accomplishment, it is the aim from infancy to develop a belly having all possible elasticity.”
Landor also wrote that Koreans are trained from childhood to eat huge quantities of food, adding that he has seen children being stuffed with so much rice and barley that they could hardly walk or breathe.
“The Korean mind seems to lay great stress upon the quantity of food that the digestive organs will bear. Nothing gives more satisfaction to a Korean than to be able to pat his tightly stretched stomach, and, with a deep sigh of relief, say: ‘Oh, how much I have eaten!” Landor wrote.
He said he once saw a Korean “devour a luncheon of a size that would satisfy three average Europeans,” after which he had a plateful of persimmons, loosening his girdle to make more space inside, then remark: “I was unwell and had no appetite today.”