Thursday, September 22, 2011

Early Western Perceptions of Koreans: Part II – Education and the Yangban Class

 K. M. Lawson

Western visitors to Korea are struck by the idleness and corruption of the Yangban class. While many of them live in considerable poverty at this point, and their ranks have expanded well beyond the restrictive membership of earlier periods, they are generally described in the most critical manner.
The unenlightened state and aversion to any form of physical labor among the Yangban is seen by most as one of the central obstacles to civilization in Korea. Whereas the theme of laziness and indifference to productive labor is a common one in travel literature and it frequently refers to Korean coolies and the Korean people (See Part III in this series of postings), the Yangban class, and especially the education system are seen in the most unforgiving light.

Ladd does not seem to think there is much of an education system at all for either the Yangban or anyone for that matter. “In Korea there were no educational associations; and, outside of a very small circle in a few cities, there was little or no interest in education.” (Ladd 37) For him, the Yangban have no appreciation for the greater issues for mankind, “The problems of life and destiny, the Being of God, the constitution of the universe, the fundamental principles of ethics, politics, and law are of little concern to him.” (Ladd 157)
Bishop is almost equally harsh. As with many of these observers, they seem to think that the mastery and memorization of a text, without any regard for content or the virtues it espouses, is all there is to the long exegetic tradition and Confucian education. In words reminiscent of any of the modernizing reformers of the time, she believes that the system is not just decaying but that, “Korean education has hitherto failed to produce patriots, thinkers, or honest men.” (Bishop 387) She concludes that,
“Narrowness, grooviness, conceit, superciliousness, a false pride which despises manual labor, a selfish individualism, destructive of generous public spirit and social trustfulness, a slavery in act and thought to customs and traditions 2,000 years old, a narrow intellectual view, a shallow moral sense, and an estimate of women essentially degrading, appear to be the products of the Korean educational system.” (Bishop 387)
One interesting thing to note here for future reference is the inclusion of “a selfish individualism” and a lack of public spirit, claims which will sit somewhat uneasy when compared to many of the other claims made about Koreans at the time.
Gale, who is perhaps the most familiar with the history and complexities of Confucian scholarship, is also deeply critical, but mostly because of its complete lack of progressivist and pragmatic elements.
“We aim at the development and preparation of the student in a practical way for life before him; the Korean has no such thought. He aims to fix or asphyxiate the mind, in order that he may shut the present out and live only in the past. Development is our idea; limitation his. A Western student rejoices in a variety of attainments and the number of branches in which he has been introduced; while the Korean, in the fact that he knows nothing of any subject but the reading and writing of Chinese characters.” (Gale 176)
With this kind of negative comparison with “We” Westerners, there is only occasionally the admission that these comments might still be equally applicable to the education system in the West. While progressive enlightenment supporters will sometimes (as most scholarship in our own time) come to see things in terms of a chronological division of “backwards and undeveloped” vs. “already developed” which is based on the assumption that Koreans are simply “behind us” in the process of human progress, in these writings at least it is even more often the tendency to attribute anything found lacking to the very incapacity of the Korean people themselves.
There are exceptions, however. Gale is often most often an example of this and of all the authors considered here, he has perhaps the most impressive ability to combine sympathy, a touch of nostalgia, and complete condescension.
“So [the Korean gentleman] passes from us, one of the last and most unique remains of a civilization that has lived its day. His composure, his mastery of self, his moderation, his kindliness, his scholarly attainments, his dignity, his absolute good-for-nothingness, or better, unfitness for the world he lives in—all combine to make him a mystery of humanity, that you cannot but feel kindly toward and intensely interested in.” (Gale 193)

Early Western Perceptions of Koreans: Part I – Introduction
Filed under: Books and Articles Colonial English Korea-Japan Late Chosŏn US-Korea — K. M. Lawson @ 4:11 am Print
What did visitors to late Chosŏn and colonial Korea have to say about the people and society they found there? When seen through the lens of imperialism and all of the racist or essentializing habits of that period, what might we recognize in the language and generalizations of our own time?

There is a vast and growing academic literature looking at these cross-cultural encounters, and at the many recorded descriptions and analyses of distant peoples to be found in the form of travel writings, diaries, and the anthropologist’s ethnography. From this scholars are finding new and exciting ways to understand the way that empire is justified and maintained but also explore better confront the perils of describing that which is foreign to us.

In the case of primary works related to Korea we can find the Western visitor judging their host culture by the concepts of race, religion, and enlightenment civilization that they bring with them, but anyone reading their writing cannot help but note the heavy presence of Japan and indeed a kind of “Japanese filter” in much of writing from this period. Long before annexation in 1910 or the establishment of the protectorate in 1905, Japan was effective in convincing many Western visitors to Korea of its noble and civilizing intentions, if they occasionally failed to impress them with their attempts to force reforms on King Kojong’s court.

In a series of postings here at Frog in a Well, I’m going to share some passages from contemporary travel accounts which capture some of views about Koreans held by visitors in Korea which appear frequently in the writings I have looked over for this little project.

These passages are full of discriminatory and sometimes bizarre generalizations. Other times, readers may find themselves with a more ambiguous response. Either way, I will try to resist the temptation to get distracted too much by analysis. I hope the reader too, if you should leave comments, will resist the temptation to get carried away by denouncing or praising particular images found here. My purpose is neither to simply present the reader with a list of laughable absurdities from a time long past or, heaven forbid, spark equally absurd debates on what we can say about essential nature of the Korean national character.

This series will focus on a small number of English language works. At a later point I will summarize some of the extensive work out there which has looked at late 19th century and colonial period Japanese perceptions of Korea which will provide an interesting perspective for comparison. Ultimately, I believe this is all raw material which can be useful in a number of different historical and theoretical debates, especially for students and scholars of modern East Asia.

The works that I refer to in the following postings are:

Bishop, Isabelle L. 1970 [1898]. Korea and her neighbors; a narrative of travel, with an account of the recent vicissitudes and present position of the country. Seoul, Korea, Yonsei University Press.

A long and detailed work by an English missionary who spend a number of years in Northeast Asia. Knew both Gale and Underwood.

Drake, H. B. 1930. Korea of the Japanese. London, New York,, John Lane; Dodd Mead and company.

A relatively obscure British paranormal fiction writer who taught English in Korea for a time. Some of his fiction is set in China and East Asia and probably borrows on his experiences there.

Gale, James Scarth. 1898 Korean Sketches. New York, Chicago [etc.]: F. H. Revell company, 1898.

A Canadian missionary, translator and scholar who wrote several books about Korea, including a history, a collection of tales, and worked on a Korean dictionary.

Ladd, G. Trumbull 1908. In Korea with Marquis Ito : Part I. A narrative of personal experiences ; Part II. A critical and historical inquiry. London, Longmans Green.

A well-known American philosopher and psychologist who was invited to visit Korea as a guest of then Resident-General Itô Hirobumi when Korea was a protectorate of Japna, and left an account of his experiences in Korea along with a political analysis filled with praise for Japan.

Patterson, W. 1988. The Korean frontier in America : immigration to Hawaii, 1896-1910. Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press.

Patterson’s work on Korean immigration includes a number of passages showing American perceptions of Korean laborers.

Underwood, L. H. 1904. Fifteen years among the top-knots; or, Life in Korea. Boston, American tract society.

Lillias Underwood is an American missionary and married to Horace G. Underwood, one of the founders and the first president of Yonsei University.

Update: I should note up front that I realize that the word “Early” in the title is arguably inappropriate. There were a few Western travelers who wrote about Korea in much earlier times than those considered here. I am open to recommendations for an alternative (short) title to the postings in this series if there are any strong objections.

Go on to Part II:

Early Western Perceptions of Koreans: Part II – Education and the Yangban Class

Comments (6)
6 Responses to “Early Western Perceptions of Koreans: Part I – Introduction”

Don Southerton says:
12/26/2005 at 9:23 pm
I wouldn’t describe Isabelle Bird Bishop as a missionary. Although her father was an Anglican clergy, she is most often known as a Victorian-era world traveler and writer. In a time when few women traveled alone, she traversed the globe several times and was the first women elected to the British Royal Geographic Society.

K. M. Lawson says:
12/27/2005 at 2:15 pm
I didn’t know she travelled so widely! Thanks, I just found many of her other books. Having said that, I know she was involved in missionary activities though but “world traveller” might be better.

John A. Butler says:
5/29/2006 at 6:00 pm
You seem to have omitted a rather important book, Frederick Mackenzie’s “Korea’s Struggle for Freedom.” He was a Canadian journalist working for The (London) Times and Yonsei University has republished the book, which is very pro-Korean yet not overtly anti-Japanese. The book is based on his despatches whilst in Korea during the critical time just prior to the Japanese “takeover.”

K. M. Lawson says:
5/31/2006 at 5:45 pm
Thanks! I omitted several dozen books that I wish I could have included. The choice was pretty arbitrary, grabbing just a half dozen books from a single shelf of old books on Korea in the Harvard-Yenching library. I later found a great 2 volume book on old books about Korea in Western languages and I have been ordering some old copies via used booksellers. I will take a look at the one you recommended! Thanks!

Frog in a Well - The Korea History Group Blog says:
6/29/2006 at 9:21 pm
[...] For readers interested in more early Western views of Korea and Koreans in a similar vein to those that Konrad has looked at in his series of posts here, Thomas Duvernay has posted chapters on Korea from John D. Ford’s 1905 travelogue An American Cruiser in the East at his website. (Actually the rest of his site on traditional Korean archery looks interesting too.) Good on him for putting this stuff out there for everyone to access. [...]

Get your old books about Korea here at The Marmot’s Hole says:
10/7/2006 at 3:06 am
[...] But they live up to their promise often enough and deliver useful posts list this one about out-of-copyright books on Korea being available online. Some of the titles available include: Korea and Her Neighbors: A Narrative of Travel, with an Account of the Recent Vicissitudes and… By Isabella L. (Isabella Lucy) Bird 1905 (quoted frequently in the series of postings here at Frog in a Well starting here) [...]

Early Western Perceptions of Koreans: Part III – Of Labor and Laziness
Filed under: Books and Articles English Late Chosŏn — K. M. Lawson @ 3:02 am Print
Western visitors to late 19th century and colonial Korea often write about the Korean worker’s laziness, or at least a profound indifference to their labor. As we shall see in a future posting, the same theme runs throughout Japanese writings on Korea. In both cases, this quality is often attributed to some inherently inferior quality of the Korean character, but as we shall note below, there are exceptions.

When reading such accounts, it is especially useful to think about what such descriptions might have in common with other traveller accounts, both contemporary to these and in our own times, about the laboring classes in other places. For example, how are laborers described by visitors to places like Egypt, India, or even outside of the “Orient” in places like Southern and Eastern Europe. We might also compare the writings to descriptions of immigrant workers, where we might find both the trope of the “hard-working immigrant” as well as that of the “lazy immigrant welfare leech.”

In the cases of the writings I have looked at here, the alleged laziness of the Korean people is described somewhat differently when referring to the Yangban class and the common laborer. Observers all argue that idleness (their intellectual scholarship or official duties are never seen as having any value) is a professed virtue of the Yangban and is thus a more malicious feature specific to their class. However, any of the writers had extensive exposure to the peasants and townspeople, especially in the form of their own hired coolies, personal servants, and those they met in rural areas where many of them spent considerable time. Gale, for example, has a whole chapter dedicated to discussing the character of the Korean coolie.

The Korean spade or shovel (see Gale’s illustration above) emerges as one interesting symbol of Korean laziness and is described in detail both in Bishop and Gale’s writing. Bishop notes that the spade, “Excites the ridicule of foreigners as a gratuitous waste of man power,” (161) and Gale offers this description:
“His use of a shovel is striking. A description of this I will quote from my friend the Rev. G. Heber Jones, one of the closest observers and best students in Korea. “This interesting invention occupies a front rank among labor-saving machines of Korea, for it saves from three to five men a vast deal of work. It consists of a long wooden shovel, armed with an iron shoe, to cut into the earth properly. The handle is about five feet long, and is worked (to a certain extent) by the captain of the crew. Two ropes, one on each side, are attached to the bowl of the shovel, and these are managed by the men who seek to save their labor. While in operation the captain inserts the iron-shod point of the shovel sometimes as deep into the earth as three inches, and then the crew of two or four men give a lusty pull and a shout…That this implement belongs to the class of labor-saving machines there can be no doubt. It takes five men to do one man’s work, but entails no reduction in the pay.” (Gale 63)
Notice the interesting reversal here. The Korean shovel, which Gale notes is a “labor-saving device” is ridiculed for that same reason. Neither Bishop or Gale seem to see any virtue in the device whatsoever, nor do they seem to think that it might potentially increase the efficiency of work overall. Gale goes on in his description to further note how the device proves that Koreans cannot abide to work alone but must always work in groups.

Another symbol or invoked image of Korean laziness, the smoking of the tobacco pipe, can be found more prominently in Japanese writings. In an article found in this month’s Journal of Asian Studies Todd A. Henry illustrates how smoking is a, “key cultural sign of Koreans’ languor and their inability to make progress,” and it is contrasted with the more productive Japanese settler in Korea. (See his “Sanitizing Empire” in the August 2005 issue, 647-8)

Gale believes that Korean laborers are largely uninterested in profit, but it is unclear whether he sees this is an unselfish virtue, or yet another symbol of backwardness, “He regards money as a convenience, but in no case as a necessity. Other things being satisfactory he will agree to accept of it, will demand more at times or will regard with a look of scorn the largest amount you can offer him. He never descends to purely business relations.” (Gale 65)

Either way, the coolie is seen as an unexcitable, almost beast-of-burden like creature:
“Undoubtedly, [the Korean coolie] is the greatest living example of the absence of all excitement or animated interest of any kind whatever….Nothing short of a bowl of vermicelli (ku-kou), or the crack of doom, can creat the slightest interest in him or prove that he has nerves at all.” (Gale 53)
Gale concludes his chapter dedicated to the Korean coolie by attempting to look at the positive side,

“Now as we leave the coolie let us remember only his virtues. He takes life as it comes, and is always good-natured. Be it rough or smooth he shines with content. He seldom washes, has no second change of clothing, no carpets or slippers. He eats any kind of food, sleeps on the roadway when night overtakes him, and lies down to die with as little ceremony as he lives. A rough, craggy kind of life, where strength of body and mind might both develop.” (Gale 69)

All of the other writers I have looked at also make frequent mention of Korean laziness but Bishop is the only one who suggests that this might not in fact be an inherent flaw in the Korean character. She sees the peasant’s laziness as an understandable strategic choice, one which they are forced to take in an environment of rampant corruption, forced Yangban loans, and exploitative government taxation.

It is in fact her observation of Korean laborers outside of Korea which forms her opinion on the subject,
“Travellers are much impressed with the laziness of the Koreans, but after seeing their energy and industry in the Russian Manchuria, their thrift, and the abundant and comfortable furnishings of their houses, I greatly doubt whether it is to be regarded as a matter of temperament. Every man in Korea knows that poverty is his best security.” (Bishiop 336)
She argues in several places, and most notably in her conclusion (447) that the farmers of Korea simply have no motivation to produce more than what will feed the family since any indication that they might be profiting by their labor will make them the target of “squeezing” by Yangban and local officials. Reform then, is the key to unlocking the productive powers of the Korean laborer.

Read on with Part IV:

Western Perceptions of Koreans: Part IV – Women

Earlier postings in this series:

Early Western Perceptions of Koreans: Part I – Introduction
Early Western Perceptions of Koreans: Part II – Education and the Yangban Class

Comments (7)
7 Responses to “Early Western Perceptions of Koreans: Part III – Of Labor and Laziness”

Antti Leppänen says:
11/8/2005 at 6:32 am
Nice to see Umul an kaeguri is treading the waters! And I’m flattered that you have chosen to blogroll even my Finnish-language course site. A small language note: you might want to drop the “n” from the end of Korean nykyhistorian (“of Korean contemporary history”), since that is the marker of the genetive case, corresponding to “of” in “Issues of Korean contemporary history”, and thus meaningless (grammatically wrong!) without the following kysymyksiä (“issues”).

Did I make myself unclear?

Greetings also to Remco – welcome to the blogosphere!

kmlawson says:
11/8/2005 at 7:38 am
Thanks Antti! I should have guessed I would get into grammatical trouble by dropping that the kysymyksiä!

I only wish I read Finnish so I could enjoy the site more!

Owen says:
11/8/2005 at 8:59 am
Thanks for kicking things off with a really interesting topic. This thing about ‘laziness’ is something that has struck me before. As you rightly point out, this must be put into the context of the many other cases where whole groups of people have been cast as idle. I think you could find almost endless similar examples from 18th, 19th and 20th century writing by ‘Westerners’ encountering Africans, Asians, people from ‘the tropics’, nomads, hunter gatherers, people in kinship societies, people in ‘despotic’ peasant societies, peasants in 18th/19th century Europe, aristocrats in 18th/19th century Europe and so on ad infinitum. It seems that the observers probably have more in common than the lazy objects of their observation. I think what it points up most of all is the world of wage labour, industrialisation, capital and commerce from which these observers came. To them, anyone who did not conform to the expected behavioural patterns of their capitalist societies (including, I think it it safe to assume, many groups of people within those societies themselves) was considered lazy.

Smoking as an indicator of idleness or dissolution strikes me as similar to the periodic scares in Britain over various addictions preying upon the lower echelons of the working class, from the gin craze of the 18th century to ecstacy and crack in recent times. The strange thing is that smoking in itself doesn’t make you lazy, so it must have been something about the manner in which Koreans smoked that so upset the Japanese observers.

kmlawson says:
11/8/2005 at 9:16 am
I can’t agree with you more, and you are especially right in pointing out that, ‘It seems that the observers probably have more in common than the lazy objects of their observation’

The smoking thing puzzles me too, especially since the Japanese commentators who are chiding Koreans for their “poisonous” “addiction” to tobacco as somehow indicative of their hopeless laziness come from a country where tobacco usage is hardly minimal. Indeed, the fall in popularity of the long Korean pipe is followed by the rise of the Japanese cigarette in the Korean market of the late Chosôn period!

Antti Leppänen says:
11/8/2005 at 10:13 am
What the Western (and Eastern) observers most likely refer to is what made smoking the pipe (kombangdae) a marker of status among Koreans; that the smoker had a pipe so long that he needed a servant to light it. As the long pipe was a key component in the image of a yangban, downgraded in the modernizing writing on Korea, smoking would make a fitting issue in commenting the level of Koreans’ backwardness.

Jonathan Dresner says:
11/8/2005 at 2:03 pm
This is great stuff, Konrad. Thanks.

Takeshima says:
11/25/2005 at 6:23 am
Comment deleted for racist content.

Takeshima, open debate is welcome here but racist comments are not.

Western Perceptions of Koreans: Part IV – Women
Filed under: Books and Articles English Late Chosŏn — K. M. Lawson @ 12:15 am Print

As one might expect, descriptions of Korean women in the writings by Western visitors that I have looked at tend to be completely dominated by the theme of pity. This goes both for the male writers and the two female missionary writings by Underwood and Bishop. Very rarely are women seen as having any power nor do they emerge in the writings as concrete individuals to whom the authors dedicate more than a few lines notice. I’ll mention a few of the important exceptions below.

More than anything, however, these writings emphasize the incredibly oppressive nature of Confucian values and education on the status of women, their slave-like status, and the fact that they are almost completely hidden from view. Underwood and Bishop, both women missionaries who often emphasize their own independence, have the most to say on this. Underwood’s first comment on Korean women is,
“Korean women as a rule are not beautiful. I, who love them as much as any one ever did, who look upon them as my own sisters, must confess this. Sorrow, hopelessness, hard labor, sickness, lovelessness, ignorance, often, too often, shame, have dulled their eyes, and hardened and scarred their faces…” (Underwood 11)
Whereas Underwood clearly connects the “dullness of their eyes” to their unloved and hard working state, Bishop sometimes doesn’t even bother to make this explicit. She often seems to be frustrated at the rude curiosity that women have towards her in the various places she travels and seems exceedingly annoyed at their lack of courtesy as they fumble through her things and try to touch the hair of the mysterious English woman who has visited them.

She occasionally makes such bitter comparisons as, “The women of the lower classes in Korea are ill-bred and unmannerly, far removed from the gracefulness of the same class in Japan or the reticence and kindliness of the Chinese peasant women.” (Bishop 339) Ladd, when expressing his own pity for the state of women in Korea also makes a comparison with Japan, “The hardest crust to break will doubtless be that which encompasses and crushes the Korean lady. In Japan there has never been anything quite comparable to the still present degrading influences bearing upon the womanhood of the upper classes in Korea.” (Ladd 87) Like most things, Itô Hirobumi’s guest Ladd sees almost everything in Korea through the lens of comparison with Japan.

In addition to being hidden away from the world with restricted freedoms and forced into a slavish servitude to their husbands, the commentators I have read almost all seem to see doing laundry and ironing as one of the most central tasks of Korean women, and this is invoked as a symbol of women’s slavery. As Bishop puts it,
“Washing is her manifest destiny so long as her lord wears white….The women are slaves to the laundry, and the only sound which breaks the stillness of the Seoul night is the regular beat of their laundry sticks.” (Bishop 45)
The sound of the laundry sticks at night is mentioned by others as well. I wonder in fact, if anyone has written anything substantial on the issue of the white dress of the Koreans and its importance in contemporary critiques of Korea? Japanese reform movements often attempted to put an end to Koreans wearing white clothes because it is seen as interfering with Koreans’ ability to do hard work. When Gale lists some much “needed reforms” that Yi Pŏmjin asked him to publish in 1898, number 9 is, “The prohibition of white as the ordinary dress.” In writings about women, however, the white dress is primarily seen as an effective way for husbands to keep their wives eternally busy.

In the works considered here, there are a few exceptions to the pitiful descriptions above. Gale emphasizes the fact that mothers and mothers-in-law have considerable power in the home, at least over other household members. This active domestic power is a theme which much contemporary scholarship also emphasizes. Underwood also suggests that women, in the countryside at least, can take charge of their husbands when they misbehave, much thanks to that distinctive mark of Korean manhood:
“It is a great pity men do not wear [a top-knot] in America. We women who favor women’s rights would soon find it a mighty handle by which to secure them, for in the hands of a discerning woman it is indeed an instrument of unlimited possibilities. By one of these well-tied arrangements have I beheld a justly irate wife dragging home her drunken husband from the saloon; and firmly grasping this, I have seen more than one indignant female administering that corporeal punishment which her lord and master no doubtly richly deserved. The Korean wife stands and serves her husband while he eats, she works while he smokes, but when family affairs comes to a certain crisis, she takes the helm (that is to say, the top-knot) in hand, and puts the ship about.” (Underwood 50)
Of course this does little to question the existing order and reminds one of similar descriptions of Western women—they may slave at the stove but, by golly, they can beat their man when he is somehow negligent in his part of that eternal division of labor.

In addition to these kinds of generalizations about women, in which individual women still remain fairly anonymous, some of the authors do have more say. I will briefly discuss three areas where women appear in the writing in somewhat different ways. One is the role of women in Korea’s “dæmonology” as Bishop puts that Shamanistic practices of Korea, and two cases where individual female personalities appear in the writing.


Popular religion and the professional shamans of Korean society make frequent appearances in Bishop and other missionary writings especially. They are overall viewed critically as a form of “dæmonology” where “demons” are called upon as the servant of the summoner or are ordered away. Despite the fact that they are seen as a troubling obstacle to the progress of Christianity in the countryside especially, the practices of the mudang shamans, mostly women, are discussed in considerable detail. Bishop and Gale especially seem interested in the complicated universe of spirits and Korean interpretations of how they influence daily life. While they see these beliefs as vile superstitions, their complexity is never denied and there are attempts to understand the hierarchy of spirits and their various abilities and roles, perhaps trying too hard to impose a rigid and consistent cosmology on what was probably a more varied and diverse set of religious practices.

I want to note two aspects of these descriptions of Korean popular religion. One is the fact that the observers seem very much to appreciate power of female “sorceresses” who have a strong influence on Korean society, even penetrating the secretive family world and creating or resolving chaos between household members. For good or ill, their influence is seen as considerable. The Shaman husbands, on the other hand, are seen as pitiful, idle, and sniveling creatures, greedy for their wife’s considerable earnings.

However, the many religious practices related to helping women give birth to sons, and which may involve consultations with these spiritual interlocutors, are strongly opposed by the observers, and in this way, (shaman) women are seen as complicit in the very system which reduces them to the role of reproductive machines. (see Ladd 138 for example).

The Assasination of Queen Min

Underwood and Bishop knew each other and the two were invited together to an audience with Queen Min. They both seemed very impressed with her, so much that both of them dedicated a chapter to the Queen in their work retelling the events leading up to her October 1895 assassination at the hands of a plot planned by Miura Gorô.

These chapters are interesting in that both of them lament the assassination and believe Japan has made a horrible mistake in allowing such a plot to be carried out by its own officials and troops in Korea, but they both seem to maintain some distance from a powerful female figure who was known for her active involvement in the politics of the time. Their descriptions are one of very few in these writings which not only describe a particular woman in detail but show considerable appreciation for complex aspects of her character.

Debating with Mary Pak

The 1930 book on Korea by H. B. Drake, a writer of supernatural (pulp?) fiction, is not a great source of detailed information about Korean culture but of the books I chose, it is the only one published after Korea was annexed. Drake’s observations tend to be the most superficial of the writings and next to Ladd, the most directly persuaded by Japanese claims about their colonial project and their judgments about Koreans.

Drake’s book, however, does have a remarkable little segment discussing the author’s debate with one Korean woman who he calls “Mary Pak” (he is concealing her real name). Drake appears to be quite smitten by the woman, and has great respect for her debating skills, language abilities, and eloquence. However, he appears to find himself at odds with her on almost every issue.

Mary Pak is an interesting example of the “new woman” of the period. Drake finds her to be too radical in her views about men and marriage for example,
“Marriage would have offered [her] no difficulty, the Easterner, however, Westernized, requiring little more than a woman in the background to order his house and provide him with sons. But for Mary Pak marriage to a Korean was unthinkable, to a foreigner impossible. Which drove her to the emphatic declaration, unnecessarily repetitive, that marriage was slavery. She would never marry; she needed to be free. She was forced to her individualistic creed; she was so absolutely alone.” (Drake 144)
He does seem to admire her stubbornness when it comes to rejecting traditional rituals, however, “Well she has at least achieved independence. For instance, she needn’t kneel to her father on New Year’s Day and knock her head three times upon the floor. And for a Korean girl that is emancipation beyond the flight of dreams.” (Drake 152)

Most of Drake’s disagreements and discussion with Mary, however, surrounds the question of Korea as a colony of Japan. Mary is a strong nationalist and argues passionately for Korean independence. Drake finds her blind and misguided patriotism so frustrating that their discussions finally help him conclude once and for all that the Koreans are simply too irrational and ignorant to take care of themselves. Mary Pak finally put him over the edge:
“I became an ardent champion of imperialism, of strong and ruthless Government, of ‘the white man’s burden,” of the duty of the powerful to rule the weak for their own good.” (Drake 143)
Failed states, corrupt and plagued by domestic violence as they are, become a threat to everyone,

“Left to themselves the Koreans would rot, which would affect not Korea alone but the whole world…No nation, however insignificant, however mean its contribution to mankind, can be allowed to fall into neglect and decay.” (Drake 148)

While Drake can appreciate a people’s desire for self-determination, some peoples are simply not up to the task and he tries in vain to convince Mary that,

“…the fact remains that Japan found Korea in a state of apathetic exhaustion due partly at least, and many will declare entirely, to the misrule of the native Korean Court, and from this apathetic exhaustion Japan is striving, with all her resources of ingenuity and power, to lift the country to the level of a modern nation.” (Drake 146)

We obviously get a good deal of Drake’s own conclusions and the various ways he attempts to convince Mary of the virtues of the Japan’s civilizing efforts. However, it is clear that Mary remains unconvinced and despite Drake’s frustration with her dangerous idealism, he does at least seem to respect her as an intelligent and worthy debate partner.

Continue with the next part in this series:

Western Perceptions of Koreans: Part V – The Korean Mind and other Characteristics

Earlier parts in this series:

Early Western Perceptions of Koreans: Part I – Introduction
Early Western Perceptions of Koreans: Part II – Education and the Yangban Class
Early Western Perceptions of Koreans: Part III – Of Labor and Laziness

Comments (5)
5 Responses to “Western Perceptions of Koreans: Part IV – Women”

smelmoth says:
11/15/2005 at 10:09 am
I don’t know if anyone has seen this article or pix before. This article, originally featured in the journal _Korean Culture_ is now available online. It describes a film made in the 1930s by a Canadian businessman in Korea. Interestingly, it is on the Buddhapia website, a newly revamped website on Buddhist within and without Korea, that is itself a nice place to wander for a spell.

The article itself isn’t earth shattering, but for those of us whose time-machine dreams include visions of early modern Korea. . . . this scratches a particular itch.

kmlawson says:
11/15/2005 at 11:45 am
Fascinating, thank you very much for posting a link to this!

Esther Park says:
5/27/2006 at 7:20 pm
Whom it may concern:
I end up this site for searching missionary Horace Underwood I’s the prayer for Chosun in English version–I have a Korean language one. Recently I encountered with the letter…it touched my heart so deep! I would like to share with my Christian fellows in Philippines, where I am serving as a missionary.
Hope someone will reply.

Mujer en Corea « Karamade says:
12/22/2007 at 6:35 am
[...] Western Perceptions of Koreans: Part IV – Women [...]

Tina says:
9/7/2010 at 1:59 am
I feel like koreans are just being put down in this site. It seems very one sided and propaganda-like. Ideas seem very forced a certain way.

Western Perceptions of Koreans: Part V – The Korean Mind and other Characteristics
Filed under: Books and Articles English Late Chosŏn — K. M. Lawson @ 12:07 am Print
Before diving into some descriptions of the Korean mind and personality in the readings considered in this series of postings (Part I begins here), let me make a few observations.

In the postings I have written so far, the various generalizations made about Koreans tend to fall under two categories: 1) unqualified claims about the inherent features of Korean people and culture 2) Generalizations about Koreans which are more explicitly placed in the context of a narrative of contingent backwardness, oppression, and a “not yet caught up” state of barbarity.

A surprisingly large number of descriptions that I have discussed so far involve claims about the inherent character of the Korean people, with few or no qualifications. Koreans are said to have some feature by virtue of their distinctive culture, or, for lack of any explanation, as some kind of other racial or ethnically inherent characteristic.

To be fair, the most derogatory and frustrating claims about Koreans are often made in passing and, except when directly justifying Japanese intervention in Korea, do not form a central argument in that segment of the narrative. Thus it may be too much to expect the writer to carefully make qualifications for every claim in such writings, especially when they have emphasized the “future potential” for the development of Koreans elsewhere.

This does not mean, however, that the second category, which emphasizes that the various vices and deficiencies of the Koreans are contingent features of a barbaric and as-yet unenlightened people are any less objectionable. As more than one generation of philosophers and historians have pointed out, there are many problems with a universal progressivism which happily divides the world between barbarity and civilization. It forms the very foundations of imperialism, the justification for countless forms of state aggression, and many claim that civilization has made a mockery of itself in the great and tragic wars of our century.

Let us not get distracted by such issues here, however, despite their central importance in any discussion of imperialism in Korea. For now, it will suffice to note the tension, in many of these writers, between expressions of sympathy or pity for an as-yet uncivilized or oppressed people who have not reached their “potential,” and the more dismissive and bitter claims about an essentially irredeemable Korean race.

What do the readings I have looked at have to say about the Korean mind and the personality of Korean people? The words of choice for these observers resemble those we can find in travel accounts by visitors to many other “barbaric” places, including domestic travelers who venture out of the cities into the countryside. Since many of these accounts are made by Westerners who actually made their way into the countryside, their perceptions resemble many of the urban sentiments about rural folk everywhere. Indeed, some of the images presented in these books would fit perfectly into several Korean movies I have seen recently which portray Seoul residents returning to the country where they are confronted by unsophisticated but warm-hearted and ultimately lovable idiots.

To summarize, the key terms in these descriptions, many of which I do not include here due to their repetitiveness, surround the “dull” and “vacant” expressions of Koreans, their “abominable” manners, and their simple and naive ways, untouched as they are by modern considerations of thrift, efficiency, profit, or apparently Western emotions and abstract concepts.

We can begin with perceptions of the more educated classes. Drake spent time teaching English in a Korean university, but doesn’t have much respect for the students he found there. He doesn’t seem to think Koreans have any appreciation for what their new modern educations can offer them. When asking his Korean students what they will do when they leave the university, “Their expressions became thoughtful, which on the Korean face has the air of a thick wall enclosing a vacancy.” (Drake 6) Education and reform is ultimately wasted on Koreans who are completely the slaves of their traditional culture. Despite his frequent praise for the Japanese, he concludes that, “The Oriental mind is insect-like in its instinctive adherence to custom.” (Drake 154)

When Gale discusses the importance of custom and the formal and ritualistic aspects of Korean culture, he has this to say,
“To a Western mind the formality of the Oriental is quite overpowering. Poor old Orient! It reminds one somewhat of the tramp, whose training and early opportunities were the best that could be given, but who through the evils of drink and the misfortunes of his lot, has sunk to rags and destitution; nevertheless the poise of his head and a something in his manner, mark him a gentleman still.” (Gale 45)
Gale, who is always interested in exploring the more abstract and philosophical realm of Korean culture, also makes a number of observations about fundamental cultural differences concerning love, independence, and truth itself:

“Unselfish love is a quantity foreign to the Oriental mind; in fact the Korean has no true word for love in his vocabulary; you have to arrive at the thought by a combination of terms.”(Gale 175)

“Neither does the independence of the West appeal to the Korean. The glory of the American Eagle with his E pluribus unum, he thinks to be sheer madness. Why men should ever think of such a horse-race existence, he cannot imagine. He conceives of life as a condition of subjection only. Independence to him suggests suspicion, mistrust of each other, lawlessness, etc.” (Gale 176)

“One is often pained by mistaking mere appearance for reality. Truth is not loved for truth’s sake, but only in so far as it is necessary for appearances.” (Gale 178)

Gale is most frustrated by what he feels to be a lack of sincerity in the pledges made by Koreans when they say that they will, “Come again tomorrow,” or when they tell lies in many situations to avoid conflict. While Gale is the only one in the readings I consider here who tried to analyze the relationship between truth and appearances in Korean culture, almost all of the writers agree that they find the Korean people to be incredibly trustworthy and honest, an image often contrasted later by universal critiques of the crippling corruption of the government. They rarely feel cheated in trade, and feel completely safe when traveling (for an example see Bishop 80). As Gale says, “In some respects Koreans are exceedingly trustworthy; more so than we are in our enlightened land.” (Gale 240) He tells stories of occasions when he has entrusted poor peasants with huge sums of money and both Underwood and Bishop have similar experiences. Nonetheless, this doesn’t prevent Bishop from claiming earlier in her work that, “[Koreans] have the Oriental vices of suspicion, cunning, and untruthfulness, and trust between man and man is unknown.” (Bishop 13)

The Western observers have many different things to say about the Koreans they have seen in public, on the streets and in the market place. Here are a few such descriptions:
“The natives…are orderly. Markets and other gatherings scarcely require police as ours do. They have a sense of fairness that enters into business relations. Business credit stands as high with them as with us, and a man’s word in a bargain is taken for more than it is in America. If you pay for land, the public will stand by you in possession of it whether you have a deed or not.” (Gale 241)
“The Koreans in the streets are a slow-moving, stubborn, and stupid crowd.” (Ladd 26)

“Koreans are a slow people to move, but when they do become excited, especially if it is about nothing, they are very violent” (Gale 171)

“The Koreans do not bear malice, nor are they very revengeful or cruel without great provocation.” (Underwood 49)

“The unregenerate native manners in public meetings are most abominable.” (Ladd 51)

Both Bishop and Underwood take a particular interest in the culinary habits of Koreans and both emphasize the same two things: 1) The “voracity” of Koreans 2) Koreans drink a lot. Here is what they have to say about the former:

“Now, when Koreans attend a feast, they expect to finish an incredible amount of food on the spot…Not so with the Japanese, among whom our teacher visited. If his word was to be believed, they have developed the æsthetic idea quite to the other extreme, and provided a few tiny cups and dishes of supposedly delicate and rare viands for their guests….Next day, a wiser and a thinner man, he sadly told Mr. Underwood that he now understood why Japanese prospered, while Koreans grew poor. ‘Koreans,’ said he, ‘earn a hundred cash a day and eat a thousand cash worth, while Japanese on the contrary, earn a thousand cash a day and eat a hundred cash worth.’ Never were truer words spoken, with regard to the Japanese at least. If these people have a virtue, which their worst enemies cannot gainsay, it is their industry and thrift.” (Underwood 96)

“[Koreans] eat not to satisfy hunger, but to enjoy the sensation of repletion. The training for this enjoyment begins at a very early age, as I had several opportunities of observing. A mother feeds her young child with rice, and when it can eat no more in an upright position, lays it on its back on her lap and feeds it again, tapping its stomach from time to time with a flat spoon to ascertain if further cramming is possible.” (Bishop 153)

On drinking these two missionaries have this to say,

“Drunkenness is, I am sorry to say, very common in Korea. The people do not, as in Japan and China, raise tea, and even the wealthiest have apparently only recently learned the use of either tea or coffee, which the common people are far too poor to buy.” (Underwood 83)

“From my observation on the Han journey and afterwards, I should say that drunkenness is an outstanding feature in Korea. And it is not disreputable. If a man drinks rice wine til he loses his reason, no one regards him as a beast…” (Bishop 91)

While we have seen descriptions which suggest that Koreans are “dull” or “stupid,” Bishop has no problem, on the same page where she above refers to the cunning untruthfulness of Koreans, to also add that,”The physiognomy indicates, in its best aspect, quick intelligence, rather than force or strength of will. The Koreans are certainly a handsome race.” (Bishop 13) She adds about their intellectual capabilities that,

“Mentally the Koreans are liberally endowed, specially with that gift known in Scotland as ‘gleg at the uptak.’ The foreign teachers bear willing testimony to their mental adroitness and quickness of perception, and their talent for the rapid acquisition of languages, which they speak more fluently with a far better accent than either the Chinese or Japanese.” (ibid)

As we can see, many of these descriptions contain comparisons between Koreans and their Chinese and Japanese neighbors, a theme that I will return to in a later posting in this series. The next part in this series, however, will focus on another common theme in these writings: sanitation in Korea. This is also the topic of an article in the current Journal of Asian Studies and I’ll have an opportunity to introduce some of the ideas that were presented there.

One more thought I want to leave the reader with: Remember that the materials you find here are from a very small sample of half a dozen works, and do not represent the full range of descriptions of Koreans made by Western visitors during this period. This is clearly seen, for example, when Antti Leppänen points out a stark contrast between what I found and some descriptions he found in a work published by the Finnish Missionary Society in 1910.

Earlier parts in this series:

Early Western Perceptions of Koreans: Part I – Introduction
Early Western Perceptions of Koreans: Part II – Education and the Yangban Class
Early Western Perceptions of Koreans: Part III – Of Labor and Laziness
Western Perceptions of Koreans: Part IV – Women

Comments (3)
3 Responses to “Western Perceptions of Koreans: Part V – The Korean Mind and other Characteristics”

Jonathan Dresner says:
11/16/2005 at 3:38 pm
Thanks! This is great stuff.

I might have to introduce some of this into my World History classes as well. The primary sources usually have all kinds of “Western observations of little brown folk” readings in them, and this will be great as both another example and an exemplar of how to read these things carefully.

Victor says:
12/13/2005 at 10:11 am
I have just read the 5 parts in one sitting and it is, to use an old phrase “enthralling” but Iam wondering if you know more about the anti-japanese feeling by the Koreans. I have been in Seoul for more than a year and I still cannot ‘understand’ what it really means.

The parts you’ve written go some way to explain the anti-japanese feeling but could you have more references to this intricate topic. If you so wish I have some rough ideas to share but I am doing so more research now: i know there something beyond my well (of ignorance).

it is very interesting that Takeshima(certainly a pseudonym) was insulting. I though Japanese would not be interested to comment.

Jonathan says:
10/15/2011 at 8:29 pm
Thank you for publicizing these works. Very few people look at these matters critically and neutrally, and as such there are many misleading material which only speculate on what they choose to believe.

I have been studying in Japan for quite a number of years and found that they are a rather proud people who often if not always only believe what are available in their own language, which is both misleading and dangerous.

So, I appreciate your efforts in analyzing these sources without being too discriminating. This was a good and profound read.

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