From Percival Lowell, Chosön, the land of the morning calm


SUCH a thing as a temple does not exist in Söul. To see Korean religious architecture, therefore, as well as religious observances, one must go into the country, and the farther from the haunts of men the better; for the monastic half is very nearly all that remains to-day of Buddhism throughout the peninsula.
The finest buildings are said to be a long way off from the capital, in among the mountains to the north. There, unmolested by irreverent man, religion still keeps something of her former glory. But there are others, though of less magnificence, to be seen nearer Söul. One of these lies some seven miles away, on the eastern spurs of the great Cock's-comb peak; and in consequence of its comparative proximity to town, it has acquired no mean reputation, — a reputation, however, which is principally due to reasons anything but religious. It is one of the most noted spots for pleasure-excursions. But this does not in the least detract from its sanctity nor from the interest of the place itself; for the selecting of a monastery as a place for a scene of revels is a practice common in Korea, as it is in China.
It was in this double capacity, as a shelter at once for the cowl and the courtier, that I was one day taken to see it. I had expressed a desire to go there for its own sake; but I was not sorry that the Koreans deemed it wise that the means should in some sort justify the end. It had been decided to make of the visit an eventful excursion. We were to take with us a band of musicians and strolling actors, several singing-girls and my Japanese cook, not to speak of chairs, tables, and other minor conveniences. The musicians, cook, and baggage were to be sent out ahead to prepare for our arrival, while the singing-girls, as agreeable companions, were to accompany us.
Accordingly, on the morning of the day appointed, my respectable abode became the scene of much bustle and some unavoidable preliminary festivity. Servants of all descriptions and varying degrees of usefulness hurried hither and thither, industriously giving orders to others, and occasionally doing something themselves. Bundles of the most outlandish look and enormous size were made up as best they might be, and strapped on the backs of coolies who stood ready to receive them; while conveyances of various kinds lay scattered promiscuously about the courtyard waiting for future occupants, and their bearers or drawers, as the case might be, added to the general confusion by lounging about the place with nothing particular to do. Finally, after a commotion worthy of the breaking camp of a badly disorganized army, the baggage got off.
The advance-guard despatched, the girls began to arrive. They quite filled the house with their presence, — the more so for the ordinary absence of femininity. They tripped about, with a smile here and a word there, and thus enlivened the repasts which by this time had succeeded to the bustle of preparation. At this juncture a friend from the legation, who had been invited to go with us, put in an appearance, thus adding still another element to so motley a party, while he contributed one more to the heterogeneous assemblage of vehicles in the outer courtyard.
However, shortly after noon we had got ready to start, and, tucking ourselves into our boxes, were lifted from the ground and carried out of the gateway. Friends, geishas, and retainers, we made a goodly company, and strung out along the street in the most approved Eastern style. The weather was clear and cold, everything fairly sparkling as only the sunshine of a northern winter's day, with the snow in patches on the ground and the blue above, can sparkle. It was a laughing, merry sort of day.
(. . . .)
Soon we came to where the forest narrowed into a strip on either side of a ravine, — the bed of a frozen brook. On one side of the brook climbed up the path. In the centre were rocks and ice, and towering on either hand sharp spurs of the mountain of hardened sand. But the trees shut these out from view, and partially concealed the real formation of the gully. We ascended the glen for a few minutes, turned to the left, came to a sort of natural vantage-ground that commanded a view of what lay below, and the next moment stood, amid an expectant crowd of monks, in the courtyard of the monastery.
If our voices had seemed strange amid the deadness of a winter's forest, our quartering ourselves in our riotous mood upon a set of secluded monks appeared wellnigh sacrilegious. It was hard to persuade ourselves at first that we were but following the customs of the country. To go out of town in the depth of winter to hold high revels in a lonely monastery ! Rabelais would have envied us the situation. The good, simple monks, however, saw nothing at all odd in the proceeding. Though by profession out of the world, they evinced a naive curiosity for the glimpse they were being given of what went on within it, and especially that part of it which came from beyond sea. They gathered around us, and welcomed us in; and so, just as the gray afternoon of a short winter's day was deepening into night, we mounted the flight of outer stone steps and entered the hall of the main building.
The spot is called “The Flower-Stream Temple.” In spring, no doubt, it deserves its name. At the time we saw it, its grandeur, its very forbidding austerity, was its charm. The situation seemed to be the appropriate setting of the monastic spirit, — the ravine, shut off from the world beyond; the stream, bound fast in icy slumber; and the pines, as they stood guard over it, themselves the semblance of a living death.
( . . . . )
We then started to wander about the place. The plan of the monastery buildings was as follows. The road up the ravine simply ended in the outer courtyard, without the interposition of gate of any kind, but there was a stone-wall on the side facing the ravine. On the courtyard fronted the main building, whose central hall was the refectory. This had been given up to our entertainment. Back of this was another courtyard, upon which, opposite the refectory, were two temples, consecrated, to speak popularly, to different deities, and full, of course, of the usual images, bronzes, drums, artificial flowers, etc. On the sides were smaller buildings connected indirectly with the paraphernalia of worship. In a semicircle, outside of these, and entered not from the inner courtyard but from without, were the smaller houses that served for dwellings to the monks. To the right of the main building, and projecting beyond it, were certain houses forming one with the building itself. They were used apparently for rooms of study. Though the spot upon which the whole was built was level compared with its surroundings, still the ground fell away enough in front to raise these advance buildings high into the air and give them an eyry-like appearance. There was nothing rich in architecture or ornament about the place, such as would invariably have been the case in Japan. All was very plain, the plainness of poverty. There were only some rather quaint articles in the side buildings of the inner courtyard, one of them especially, a huge wooden fish carved in the most grotesque manner and suspended by head and tail from the ceiling.
While we were strolling round the place, waiting for dinner, the bell on the larger of the two buildings began to toll in that peculiar manner so distinctive of the far-East. Instead of a tongue to be moved inside, the bell is struck from without. This makes it easier to regulate the cadence. This is at first very slow; then, ever increasing, it grows faster and faster, until the blows lose themselves in one continuous swell, and then it winds up with three taps to bring the thought back again to attention. Then the whole is repeated at suitable intervals. It announced a service in the bigger of the two temples in the inner court, and so we went to peer in. Our fellow on-lookers courteously fell back to allow us to mount to the highest step of the flight that led up to the temple, and thus to stand as near as it was proper to do, without taking off our shoes. The service had already begun, and by the time we got there a dozen monks, arrayed in their finest garments, were solemnly walking in procession round and round in an endless circle, chanting as they did so, while a small novice sat beating a drum in one comer. We were of as much interest to them as they were to us; and those of them whose acquaintance we had already made did not hesitate to smile and (as near as they were capable of the gesture) wink at us, as in their motion they passed in front. This conduct was the more pardonable on their part, as they did not understand a single word of what they were saying. The litany, or whatever it may be called, was in Sanscrit, which they had learned by heart and were now mispronouncing. Even in itself, however, the ceremony was not particularly solemn; there was too much motion in it But there are services which are not wanting in great dignity.
I once had one given for me at a monastery on the top of a mountain in the interior of Japan, which was very impressive. The buildings and their settings were imposing; the music weird, but nevertheless human; the prayers solemn and grand; and it was all for the modest votive offering of fifty cents. It was there that I first appreciated far-Eastern instruments of music. They were first used in temples, and are indeed in keeping with their birthplace.
How many times the priests in this case continued to follow the mystic circle I do not know, for having witnessed several revolutions we concluded that we had seen enough, and so came away; but we could still hear the cadence of the chanting wafted abroad as we strolled through the buildings and their courts. Thus slowly but surely time bore us along, amid monastic sights and sounds, toward what was to be the crowning event of the day, — the anything but monastic revels of the evening.

Chapter XXXIV Winter Revels in a Monastery

At last arrived the hour for the feast. In the main hall of the refectory had been spread a table, under the direction of the Japanese cook, as nearly after foreign customs as possible, and around it, with an air of empty expectancy, were ranged foreign chairs. How the tutelary deity — ex machina — managed this last touch, I do not know. I think the baggage-carriers might possibly have explained their appearance. They were, at least, appropriate; for religion alone in Korea consecrates the use of chairs.
The dinner itself did not differ materially from such hybrids of its class as I have already described. It was the room and the bystanders that were curious; for all that side of the hall next the doors was packed with monks and retainers, their faces perfectly stolid, so great was their interest
I am sanguine enough to look forward to an epoch in the future when we shall consider it improper to make of feeding hours an excuse for meeting our fellow-man. I am aware that economy of time is a factor on the other side, but I trust this consideration will not always rule paramount. Convenience, as it helped start the custom, must ever promote certain necessary gatherings on those occasions; but let us keep the practice strictly within bounds, like any other bodily necessity.
I need hardly say that I did not then put my idiosyncrasy into execution. I suffered myself to be content with the actions of the geisha in this respect, who sat between the guests and assisted at, without partaking of, the banquet. They were there to amuse others and not themselves. They ate, therefore, only such things as were vouchsafed them as tidbits or love-tokens by the guests. Every now and then one or the other of them would break forth into song. The songs were conventional wails or chants, with only the plaintive character in them to please my ear. I confess I ratlier preferred the fair singers when silent
Not to weary the reader with another description of a prolonged feast, — the only excuse for whose length lay in the actual eating of it, — we will suppose the dinner over, the table mysteriously hidden away, and all traces of the late banquet removed. The room has returned from its pretence of Europe back to its Asiatic coloring. In the centre hangs a lamp not too bright at best, and shaded by a rectangular screen of glass decorated with brilliantly painted flowers. On the left is a still more gaudily painted one, while opposite, as a pendant, hangs a board inscribed with the spiritual light of a Sanscrit text. We can none of us read what it says; and yet, strange thought ! it is the only intellectual link that binds entertainers and entertained. The ideas which our remote relatives committed to writing these people borrowed and repeat to-day.
Ranged around the nearer end are the guests and the geisha, sitting upon chairs or squatting upon quilts on the floor, as convenience or the force of habit dictates. In a circle in the centre sit, cross-legged, the musicians, — later to change to actors, for they are both in one. Beyond them is a dense crowd. Tier above tier rises a very sea of human faces, each face a study of emotions, — curiosity, expectancy, delight. Monks with their shaven heads, their brown cassocks, and girdles of hempen rope, and around their necks or hanging from their waists their rosaries of black beads, stand and stare, the personification of attention. Novices, with boyish faces all aglow with wonderment, eagerly drink in the scene before them and forget who and where they are. Interspersed with these are our own retainers, their colored clothes and black felt hats in striking contrast to the sober monastic garb. They too have forgotten time and place, and lose themselves in what they see. The nearer ones are seated on the floor, and the farther stand up against the wall. The place is packed, and the doors are blocked with the eager lookers-on. Shaven crowns and huge hats, saints and soldiers, stand side by side in one dense, indiscriminate mass. Distinctions are lost in curiosity; for the calling of the holy men in no wise debarred them from witnessing the entertainment, and servants in Korea are always privileged to see anything that is going on. An atmosphere laden with tobacco smoke adds a finishing touch of haze.
At first the performers gave us some music. There was the usual complement of six instruments; and they had agreed to live as happily together as was possible, which amounted to agreeing to disagree, as my ear suggested. As to any concerted action between them, it sounded to me conspicuous by its absence. Fortunately the flutes and the two stringed fiddles had come to some understanding about sharing the field and not interfering more than half the time with the others. As for the drums, being of neutral sound, they harmonized with everybody.
The music stopped, and the interlude was employed to serve us tea, which we drank as usual, after the Chinese fashion. Among ourselves we all began to feel very much at home. With some of these men I had travelled many thousand miles. I had sat with them in boxes at theatres of our own kind, as I was now about to witness their own nearest representative of the stage. Others I had known intimately for months in their own capital. Even with the geisha I was on a tolerably familiar footing, for the same fair ones had been called to many an entertainment at which I had been a guest. One of them especially was kind; indeed, she was the only one who from the very first had taken to the tiger-like barbarian. With the others acquaintance had been a slow process, not unlike the taming of gazelles. The maiden bore the name of “The Fragrant Iris.” She now sat near me, murmuring softly her very small vocabulary of Japanese words under the mistaken but touching impression that such was the language of my heart. Her pretty coquetry stood out in quaint relief against the background of monkish faces that, now that the perfomers were resting, were turned in mute attention upon us. Winsome she was; and as my eyes, wandering over her jet-black tresses, simple as the silver pin that bound them, fell at last upon her upturned face, in the smile I found there I forgot that I was foreign and my home so many thousand miles away.
I waked from my dream of beauty with a start The actors were about to begin. Now was coming what was to be the chef-d’oeuvre of the evening, — a series of character representations. They are the nearest relative of the stage that exists in Korea. There was virtually but one performer; for though one or two others took part in it as necessary accessories, they were accessories a long way after the fact, and served rather as shadows to bring the star into brighter relief. As for him, he was simply capital. Properties there were none, nor was there any stage. He stood there before us with only such disguise as he could improvise on the spur of the moment A few more or a few less clothes, — that was all. Seizing with a master hand upon some trait of Korean manners, he would sketch it to just that touch beyond the life which makes of the every-day the comic. Foreigners and natives, we were alike carried away.
Now he is a countryman seeking audience of a noble, in order to prefer some longed-for request, and trying by a thousand wiles to persuade the guards to let him in. He is a mixture of effrontery and winsomeness. His cajoleries would certainly have moved any one but a professional watch-dog. At last Cerberus himself is won; and the rustic, having succeeded in fairly forcing an entrance, is suffered to pass, and stands in the great man's presence. His whole manner changes. Of a sudden he is as respectful as you please. Servility would find in him a model. He is simple and yet eloquent, eminently a man to have his requests granted; and this without any help from a stage-setting, with nothing but an imaginary line he has drawn upon the floor, and a very poor sham noble to address.
Now he is a wayfarer among the mountains, suddenly finding himself face to face with a tiger; and then, in a twinkling, he has become the tiger himself. I am sure the original could hardly have been more blood-curdling in his growl. We all instinctively shudder.
Then he is a counterfeit blind man attempting, by this disguise, to traverse the city after dark, and so evade the night patrol. Blind men are exempt from the curfew law; and therefore to become such for the crossing is a dodge much in vogue among the astute, and consequently the impersonation is hugely appreciated by the audience.
Perhaps the best of all was his take-off of the tobacco-vender in difficulties. He is trying to sell his stuff, and in spite of consummate skill is continually failing. He is just on the point of persuading some one to buy, much against that some one's will, when a misunderstanding takes place, and he nar- rowly escapes a row in consequence; and then, each particular dispute passed; he relapses again into his inimitable cry. of “Tobacco to sell!” all his previous slyness sunk in the automatic call and the no less automatic gesture. So one impersonation followed another. The performance knew not time. We were carried through scènes de la vie de province, scènes de la vie Söullienne. Tigers, rustics, blind men, all passed before us in turn, until the evening had long ago waned and the small hours of the morning had begun to increase.
It was time to end. The performer, who smiled all over as we tried to convey to him our delight, was served with a supper; and then we were shown to our cells. As I fell off to sleep, I found myself repeating his catching cry of “Tobacco to sell!” and the echo of it still rings in my ears to-day.