A Glimpse of the Korea

From: Littell's Living Age  Volume 129, Issue 1662 April 15, 1876, pages 168-173

by Cyprian A. G. Bridge   (
1839–1924) British naval officer born in Newfoundland. In 1898 he was promoted vice-admiral and he was knighted (KCB) in 1899. He was appointed Commander-in-Chief of the China Station in 1901. In 1903 he was promoted admiral. He retired from the Navy in March 1904.

Originally appeared in the Fortnightly Review and perhaps also in The New York Times, February 13, 1876.

[Note: Port Hamilton had been surveyed and named by the British explorer Sir Edward Belcher in HMS Samarang in 1845. In 1857, the Russians had agreed with the inhabitants to use it as a coal depot but then given up the plan. Bridge does not explain the purpose of the 1875 visit he describes, on the HMS Audacious, which was the flagship of the China fleet, and it was only 10 years later, in April 1885, that the British occupied it to prevent Russian advances in the region during the Great Game.]

A cool breeze from the north-west rose in the early morning, and fanned the heated waters of the Korean Channel, raised yesterday almost to a glow by the scorching blaze of the August sun. The atmosphere is still clear of vapour; the sky above, the sea beneath, both serenely blue; a gentle ripple just ruffles the surface of the water, tossed into spray only by the cleaving prow of the huge ship steaming onward towards the land; light fleecy clouds, snowy or even silvery white in the early sunshine, fleck the bright azure of the sky, and float across the newly-risen sun. Far away on the port-bow a long line of misty cloud-masses hangs over the lofty summits of the Korean island of Quel-part, itself still out of view. On the starboard hand rise above the horizon, indistinct in the far distance, the blue ridges of the mainland, with an archipelago of fantastic rocks and cone-shaped islets for foreground. Ahead show out the bold cliffs and steep inclines of the curious double island known to western navigators as Port Hamilton, for which the ship is bound. A deep cleft in the lofty side soon widens to an opening; the opening becomes a "narrow;" and close to the island promontory on the left—for the shore is bold and deep water flows beside it—the ship glides into the placid bay between the two curving islands which, like arms, embrace and form it. A few small fishing-craft were standing into the bay, their white or pale-blue pennons fluttering in the gentle breeze from slender staves erected in their high-pitched sterns.

The slow progress towards the anchoring-ground gave time for a good look round on the shores of the quiet bay. On either hand hills rose, here abruptly, there with gentle slope; to a height of at least five hundred feet; whilst above the general line of heights sharp-pointed peaks sprang to an elevation half as great again. The slopes were richly green: green with fields of waving millet yet unripe. Cultivation reigned on every available spot. From beach to summit, save where excessive steepness forbids labour, the whole hillside was divided into cultivated fields, separated from each other by green hedgerows as in some far western lands. Every scrap of ground was in crop, not a single plot was even fallow. Above, or on steep promontories, or edging the narrow strip of soil between the rocky beach and the cliffs that here and there vary the outline of the shore, grow clumps of evergreen oaks, or copses of fir and pine. The fields were small, and the thick foliage of the dividing hedges looked at a distance like a bank of green. The contour of the land, the size and fashion of the fields, the moist verdure of the slopes, recalled to more than one of us, by whom the place was now visited for the first time, the green landscapes of southern Ireland.

In a fold of the hillside between two gentle ascents, half-way toward the summit of the ridge of Sodo, the westernmost island of the two, peered out from amidst fields and hedgerows the scattered roofs of a small hamlet. Elsewhere the population is gathered into four large villages or towns—two on the western, and two on the eastern island. The chief town lies toward the north on the western shore of the bay, where the island dips to a long promontory crowned at the point with such a headland as Misenum. Across the dip between the central ridge and this elevated headland lie the blue mountains of the distant main. Beyond the cape, and between it and the western shore, runs a narrow strait, shallow, and with sunken rocks which make the little sound between the islands almost land-locked. The town is compactly built; hip-roofs of poles and mat, with sloping ends, lie close together. In the distance they called to mind the likeness of a testudo of besieging shields. The town abuts upon the stony beach. Each house and its dependent buildings are surrounded by a rude stone wall. Above the coping shoot branches of green shrubs, and here and there stems of the universal millet. Between the house-walls run rudely paved lands as steep and stony as at Brixham or Clovelly. A few boats were hauled upon the beach, and a coasting craft of some thirty tons rode at anchor hard by. The town itself contains close on two hundred and fifty houses, and possibly a thousand souls.

On the other island, also on the beach, but where the water makes almost an inlet in the shore, are two other towns. Both seemed large—as large at least as the one just noticed on Sodo. In front of the southernmost lay many junks at anchor. From both—but not from a single house of either town on the other island—wreaths of blue smoke rose. The more northern climbs somewhat high up the hill, and yet higher throws out a scanty suburb. The fourth town was passed and soon hidden behind a jutting headland: it is perhaps the smallest of the four.

In front of each stands a stately tree; beneath its shade, on a platform rudely faced with loose stones, the elders and the commons of the little communities assemble. At first, as we entered the bay, scarce a soul was stirring. A few men and boys were seen moving about in front of some of the houses, or perhaps along a lane between the hedgerows. But as the morning advanced, many peeped out from their doors, till before long a crowd was gathered before each little town to look at the ship moving slowly up the bay. The anchor was cast opposite the town first mentioned. Within a short time of anchoring, a boat put off from the ship for the shore, to make some inquiries of the headman, or governor of the island. The emissary was received at the water’s edge, and courteously conducted to the great tree, the shade cast by which was supplemented by that of a canvas awning spread for the purpose. The officer was received by the chief men of the place, each distinguished—besides the stature and bearing of a higher class — by an official head-dress. This head-gear is black, made of some light fibrous substance, as finely woven as a horsehair sieve, and in shape much resembling that of the peasant women of south Wales, the heroines of Fishguard. The cavity to receive the head is cup-shaped, and beneath the brim. The common robe of all is white, long and flowing like the Japanese kimono, and girt in at the waist. Loose broad trousers of the same are tied in below the knee; white socks or buskins, and pointed, turned-up shoes complete the costume. The hair is long, and is gathered up into a small knot upon the crown. The children wear it in a long plaited tail behind; perhaps a remnant of the Manchu tyranny which tried, and failed in the attempt, to put upon the Koreans the same head-mark as that submitted to by the more pliable Chinese.

In the little embassy from the ship there was no one who could speak the Korean tongue. Communication was held by the aid of a Chinese servant, who wrote the few questions asked in the characters of his language. Question and answer were written upon paper, and readily interpreted by both Korean and Chinese, though neither could speak one word of the other’s tongue. The head-men would not allow the baser sort, of whom a small crowd had already collected, to approach too near. Those who did were waved back, and when signs and orders failed, were beaten backwards with bamboos. The village senate—for such seemed the group of elders who surrounded the venerable head-man—were unarmed, and no member bore even a staff of office.

The not important information asked for being courteously imparted, the boat returned on board. Soon as the bell struck eight the colours were hoisted in accordance with ancient naval custom, and the band played "God save the Queen!" The notes of the music floated across the bay, and the crowd of gazers at the different villages quickly increased. An hour afterwards a boat again pulled in towards the beach, this time carrying a goodly load of visitors. On landing, as before, two grave inhabitants, adorned with the official head-dress, met the visitors and conducted them to the meeting-place beneath the tree. The senate was assembled to receive them. Again the general public was kept at a respectful distance, and by the same argument as before. The aged head man was courteous, and hospitable withal. An attendant brought forth some native liquor, which was poured into a broad-mouthed, shallow cup of metal, first tasted by the venerable host—such is the Korean mode—and then handed to the visitors. The liquor, whitish in colour and sour in taste, is possibly akin to the koumis of the Tartar tribes. The visit of strangers was evidently not much liked. Still the elders showed a certain grave courtesy, and a somewhat, pleasing and even well-bred manner. As the officers from the ship divided into small parties of three and four to explore the island, some slight show of opposition was made. This was overcome, or purposely let pass unnoticed; so two of the little senate accompanied each party. The strangers being young, and eager for exercise after their confinement on board, pushed out quickly for the hills. Inspection of the town was firmly resisted, and with almost complete success; so roads had to be taken to the right and left. Hurrying after the eager visitors could be seen, from the deck of the ship, the two attendant villagers in their high-crowned hats and flowing robes; now lagging half tired out behind, now trotting courageously to regain the party in front, now eagerly waving the fan which all carry, now fluttering it rapidly to cool themselves, for the sun was already high, and the thermometer, even afloat, showed 87° in the shade. When signs had no effect, the visitors were hailed "Chinchin," the universal salutation on the China coast, believed by the English to be Chinese, and by the Chinese to be English; though in reality it belongs to neither speech. Probably, however, the use of the phrase now is a remnant of former intercourse with Chinese.

Some did actually succeed in traversing the village, and even in seeing the inside of a Korean house. Not a woman was visible; all had been carefully hidden away. The houses are built of wood, with sliding doors and windows, like those of the Japanese. In the front, about the centre, is a recess or open-sided chamber, for reposing in during the summer heats. At one end is a low balcony or verandah, formed by the protruding eaves. A light railing runs round it, and a cool resting-place is thus made. The house-floor is a raised platform, as in Japan, a small portion of which is cut away just within the door, to form a cavity in which, on entering, the shoes or sandals are deposited. The only domestic animals seen were pigs—probably of the Chinese breed—and dogs. In the fields, singly, and in some places in twos and threes, were numerous rounded cones, with a sharp-pointed thatch upon the roof, which look like huts, but were found to be small granaries for the millet when harvested. At the northern end of the chief village these stood so thick as to bear the semblance of an Indian town.

Two of the island senators who had accompanied one of the parties of officers who had landed, expressed a wish by signs to pay a visit to the ship. No persuasion could get them to go alone. The officers signified their assent to repeated requests to accompany them, and a native boat was launched to take them on board. This frail bark was worked by a man and two boys, who propelled it by a single scull, with the bent handle and straw lashing at the inner end, common in northern China and Japan. The boat itself was of the rudest construction. The sides were fashioned of wide and roughly trimmed planks hewn from some tree of great size. The ends protruded far beyond the stern, and across them, above the water, were laid rows of slender poles offering a fragile deck on which to stand. The passengers, as in the sampans of Amoy and the Straits, sit at the bow.

Arrived alongside the ship, the Korean visitors clambered up the side. On reaching the deck each bowed low, and said, "Chin-chin." One was a fine and even handsome man, six feet high at least, with Caucasian features and a copper-coloured skin. His mouth and chin were fringed with a scanty black beard. On his head was the official hat, but white, not black, like all the others that had been seen. This, it is explained, shows that he is in mourning for his mother, white in the Korea, as in China, being the hue of mourning. The visitors at first showed evident signs of timidity; but, at the same time, were not without a certain amount of swagger, though good manners still held paramount sway. They yielded to invitation, which had to be more than once repeated, and went about the ship looking at the guns, the shot, and the various small arms. Invited to look into the muzzle of a huge twelve-ton piece, they politely and with even graceful gesture, declined. Expression and refusal said plainly, "A thousand thanks; I will assume for your sake that it is wonderful, as you evidently wish that I should." The taller one explained that he understood what the great gun was; he pointed to it, and shouted loudly, "Boom!" thus mimicking the roar of modern artillery. This was so favourably received that he attempted the same mode of expressing himself when shown the engines, and exclaimed, "Whoosh! Whoosh!"

Invited to descend to the deck on which the seamen mess, they again showed their diffident manner. The sight of Chinese cooks, however, at the cooking-galley seemed to be reassuring; and the strangers proceeded to inspection. As in China, so in the Korea, nil admirari, or at least the repression of outward symptoms of admiration, is regarded as essential to good manners. The two strangers tried hard, and for some time successfully, to restrain their feelings. These at last got the better of them. Shown into the wardroom, a well-lighted, and—for a ship at least—a lofty apartment, hung with brightly coloured pictures, and adorned with gilded mouldings, they expressed their admiration loudly in a spontaneous outburst of delight. The taller visitor forgot his mourning, clapped his hands loudly upon the table, inclined his head towards a gorgeous chromo-lithograph, and broke out into a song of joyous delight. Calling for the interpreting paper and pencil, he wrote in rapid but well-formed characters, the assertion that all was perfect. Then both he and his friend seated themselves and relapsed into placid admiration and well-bred ease. Above their heads hung the portrait of Queen Victoria. It was explained to them who the august personage was; both rose, stood in front of it, and made it low and reverent obeisance. The gestures were the same as those that still linger in Japan, in spite of the hot haste in adopting Western customs.

Hospitality was thrust upon them in the English manner by the offer of the national beverage. They expected their hosts to taste first, and then they themselves took long sips of the ale. The glasses were put down, and no sign of pleasure or of disgust appeared upon the face of either; but, after a decent interval, the tall Korean called again for paper and pencil, and this time wrote a request that the pale-ale—not, it is true, improved by a voyage half round the world—might be given to his low-born countrymen who worked the boat in which he came on board. After this he was tried with a sweet, highly-flavoured liqueur. Of this both he and his companion altogether approved, and no pressure was needed to induce them to accept a second glass. Opposite to where they sat was a large mirror. Catching sight of the reflections of their faces in this, they rose and stood immediately in front of it, rectifying meantime defects in their toilet.

The tall visitor, who took the lead in all matters, asked in writing if the band, the strains of which he had probably heard in the morning, might he ordered to play. His request was complied with, and soon stirring sounds of the march of the Presbrajenski regiment penetrated to the wardroom. The effect was instantaneous and strange. The shorter islander, who seemed older than his companion, and who had a grave and reverent aspect, suddenly brightened up; then, extending his arms horizontally, threw hack his head, and began a slow dance in unison with the music. He was evidently sublimely unaware of the strange grotesqueness of his combined levity and solemnity of appearance. The dance was kept up for a minute or two, and reminded one of the strange devotional exercise of the dervishes of Galata. The younger visitor was less moved, but he, too, permitted the effects of the pleasure of the sensation to be distinctly perceived. At length, it was explained to them that they must leave, as the ship was about to sail. They civilly said "farewell," or what seems to be such, and getting into their crazy-looking boat, were sculled towards the shore.

Few on board her failed to regret that they had not been able to see more of this strange people, which has, more consistently and successfully than either Chinese or Japanese, resisted all attempts at intercourse on the part of foreigners. Four years ago, the Americans, who tried to gain access to the country, with a result different from that which followed Commodore Perry’s mission to Japan, were led into a conflict with the Koreans, and having undertaken an expedition with insufficient force, were repulsed. Since then, no attempt on the part of a Western nation to penetrate the mysterious exclusiveness of the Korea has been made. Less is known of the country and of the people than of the manners and customs of many savage tribes. What their religion is, is doubtful; and even within a few hundred miles of their shores two totally different accounts of their system of government and polity are given. One authority declares them to be citizens of a republic; another, the despotically governed subjects of an autocratic ruler. At Port Hamilton no temple nor sign of worship (save perhaps veneration of ancestors, as in China and Japan) was visible. The village communities are governed evidently by a deliberative body; a senate either chosen by age, or a council of leaders selected as in ancient Germany, ex nobilitate. There are symptoms of the existence of an aristocracy of birth, or a superior class. Education is widely disseminated; most can write and understand the Chinese characters. Unlike their Japanese neighbours and—if the theory of a Korean immigration into Japan in pre-historic times be accepted—probable descendants, they do not on ordinary occasions go armed. About them there hangs the interest inevitably begotten by mystery, and an interest which approaching events may intensify. The restless party in Japan, which has run such a headlong course on the path of Europeanization, is said to purpose an attack upon the Koreans, simply to "keep in wind" the Samurai, the military class which the three or four years that have elapsed since the abolition of feudalism, have been insufficient to absorb. That some intention of the kind passes through the minds of the ruling clique in Japan, is tolerably certain. The native press, in discussing relations with the Korea, treat it as a matter of fact, and the only difference of opinion, is as to the pretext. A prominent Japanese newspaper has very recently attributed the warlike aspirations of the hour to the machinations of the less reputable foreigners, who have, as a class, made so much out of the foibles and the innocent mistakes of the Japanese people. A writer in the journal in question infers that they desire to reap again such a harvest as fell to those Occidentals who, in the golden age of Western commerce with Japan, enriched themselves by rather questionable transactions. "They probably desire," hints a writer in this Japanese journal, "to buy worn-out vessels for next to nothing, and sell them to us at exorbitant prices." It will be well if Japan pauses before being led into the dangers of a warlike policy. Going to war "with a light heart" is likely to produce as many ills in the far East as in the West. The imitators of Western manners in Japan know enough of recent history to be aware of the dangers that overtook a dynasty which, to satisfy the desires of a certain class of the population, declared war against a neighbour of unascertained strength with un cœur léger. May they profit by the example. The Korea is the last semi-civilized State which has resisted the attempts of foreigners to open intercourse with it. The days of Cortez and Pizarro are past; it will be a painful burlesque if their career be mimicked by Japan.

Cyprian A. G. Bridge.

See also: Robert Koehler's blog, and Matt's blog