Explorer charged with an ethnographic mission by the minister of Public Instruction
1888-1889 — previously unpublished text and pictures
Le Tour du Monde, LXIII, 1892 Premier Semestre. Paris : Librairie Hachette et Cie.
This travelogue is only a fragment of the volume that Mr. Charles Varat is to publish soon on Korea. This volume will be divided into three parts: the first will summarize the studies that have so far been consecrated to this country, so little known; the second will contain the story of the journey, that we give here today; in the third, finally, the author will attempt to determine, from his personal observations and from the work of his predecessors, the ethnic character of the Korean people. It is, therefore, only the anecdotal part that we have detached in advance of the work of Mr. Varat; it will certainly allow our readers to anticipate the interest of the rest.
Korea was once so absolutely closed to the world, that apart for the annual Chinese embassies tightly controlled at the border of the Green-Duck, nobody could enter under pain of death. The missionary Fathers were the first to brave the barbaric ban and managed to cross during the night the river that forms the border, although many customs officers kept fierce watch. Soon this route had to be given up, for the Korean Government, informed of the violation of its territory, had trained dogs to pursue foreigners. It was therefore on junks, manned by Chinese Christians, that the Fathers, sheltered by the islands of the coast, could transfer to the boats of their future flock, who risked their lives to introduce missionaries into the country. They hid from sight by the Korean orphan’s costume, whose immense hat fully hides the face, and prevents, given the rites of mourning, any indiscreet questions. Today, thanks to treaties, a simple passport is enough to enter Korea either by land, crossing on the Chinese border the Ya-lou-kiang, in Korean the Apnok-hang, or on the Russian border, the Mi-kiang, in Korean the Touman-hang: or by sea by going from Nagasaki to Fousan, Gensan and Vladivostok, or vice versa, or finally across the Gulf of Pe-chi-li embarking at Chefoo for Tchemoulpo. I chose the latter route: it leads more directly to the capital, the starting point, and above all the center for the ethnographic research that I wanted to undertake.
So I left the main line of the Messageries maritimes from Marseilles to Yokohama at Shanghai to take one of the steamers that go to Beijing by way of Tientsin, with a halfway stop in the charming Chinese town of Chefoo. If I were to add a qualifier to its name, I would call it Chefoo-les-Bains. This is indeed the Chinese Dieppe, where every year during the summer, all the Europeans who have grown anemic by a long stay in China, go in crowds from all the open ports. They find, thanks to the salt air they breathe, not only health, but new forces to resist the debilitating climate of the Far East. Also near the Chinese town rises a true sanatorium where you can enjoy the kind of life found on our most elegant beaches, thanks to the numerous hotels that have been established, that take turns in offering balls, dances, concerts, etc.., and delightful excursions at sea, or in the surrounding mountains and valleys.
Hardly arrived at Chefoo I go to find Mr. Fergusson, the Belgian consul and vice-consul of France and Russia, to ask him for some practical information on my trip. He tells me that the moment is badly chosen, because recently marines from the European fleets have had to land to protect the consulates during the latest riots that have troubled Seoul. "But that is fortunately over. Could I reasonably have come more than halfway around the world and now be expected go back the other way without having entered Korea, the main purpose of my journey?
--On reflection, you can go to Seoul; but as for crossing Korea to reach Fousan, a journey no European has ever made, you must give up the idea.
--Someone must start, though, and I want it to be me, having come absolutely for that purpose.
--It is impossible in the present state of things, my interlocutor replies: famine is beginning to be felt on the east coast; you will inevitably fall into the hands of bandits. They have begun to organize themselves into bands, attacking villages, looting houses, raping women and massacring everything that is offered to them ... even travelers, he added with a smile.
-Your information is not very welcome, but it cannot change my resolution.
-You will change your mind in Seoul. "
I remind the consul of the fable of floating sticks, thank him for his kind hospitality, and get ready to leave by the first boat going to Korea.
I wait several days, having missed the bi-monthly correspondence, but am welcomed most gracefully by the amiable British colony, the time passes quickly and it is with a real sense of sadness that on an evening with a ball-concert I have suddenly to board the boat for Tchemoulpo. The steamer only stops briefly at Chefoo, and my sampan has barely reached it offshore before we set off into the dark, damp, cold night. There is nobody on deck; I enter the saloon, but it is deserted; finding myself alone, I return to my cabin and regret more keenly than ever the pleasant gathering of elegantly dressed women that I have just left. I summon them into my thoughts and soon the glide smiling around me, so that I dare not open my eyes, fearing to see their charming but fleeting images vanish. So I fall asleep, gently rocked by the sea
After a night of happy sailing, in the morning I go up onto the deck. The ship is following the Chinese coast that is unfolding before our eyes with its many undulating, treeless peaks blending with a melancholy sky full of gray clouds. The captain of the Suruga Maru and his mate show me rare kindness, as too an Englishman traveling by sea to Fousan. Other travelers are Japanese or Chinese, one of them speaks French admirably and I use him as an interpreter with his countrymen. During lunch, the captain asks me if I have met Koreans. I said that in Japan, aboard the steamer that was to take me from Kobe to Nagasaki, a few moments before departure I saw coming towards us two large boats filled with Japanese officials and a group of strangely dressed men. I was told that it was a Korean prince with his retinue. A quick inspection of the features of their faces and their clothes, that were completely new to me, made me feel sure that a rich ethnographic field was open to me in Korea, I could not take my eyes off them.
The Japanese officials, after having ceremoniously installed aboard the Korean Prince, wish him a good trip and withdraw, and we weigh anchor. As soon as we under way, the prince, a young man of about twenty-five years with a rare native distinction, struck by the curiosity with which I am considering from afar himself and his companions comes towards me smiling. I quickly stand up, and advance toward him: we meet, and for lack of a common language allowing us to understand one another, we express our feelings for each other by a friendly pantomime as lively as it is vivid. I offer him a cigar, he proffers cigarettes, takes in a friendly manner my watch from my pocket and makes me inspect the one that he has just bought. Then it is the turn of our eye-glasses, our clothes, everything that can be the subject of a mutual curiosity. All this is accompanied by laughter, handshakes, words in English, Japanese, Korean and French, that we certainly do not both understand. The prince's three old advisers and many servants gathered around us rise, following our example, when our curiosity is satisfied, and we retire to our cabins, with a thousand polite expressions, to the astonishment of a group of English men and women who look on smiling and cannot explain this unexpected sympathy.
The next morning, I am sitting on the deck, not far from the lovely ladies I have mentioned, when the prince suddenly appears, not in his costume of pink silk covered with gauze, but wearing only wide baggy trousers of white silk and a short blue jacket.
The prince rushes toward me, his face expressing great anxiety, mixed with a strong sense of trust. He proceeds to express his trust at once, by raising his broad sleeve to the shoulder, to show me with concern the thousand bites speckling his skin, that is exceptionally white. I make him understand by signs that he was probably a victim of mosquitoes. He tells me that the matter is much more serious, and suddenly, turning his back, he lifts his jacket, lowers his pants and shows me the first quarters of a star that I hasten to eclipse by covering it, to the sound of the laughter and cries of indignation of the young misses attending this unconventional consultation. To end it, I take the prince by the hand, lead him gravely to the bathroom and invite him to take his place there. He understood, thanked me, and that was how, before arriving in Korea, I saw every side of a prince of Korea. This story greatly amused the indulgent captain of the Suruga Maru, and my very amiable companions: that is why I decided to tell it here.
The next morning, awakened by the sudden stop of the noise of the boat’s engine, I go up on deck and am delighted by the wonderful situation of Tchemoulpo Bay. It is one of the most beautiful I have seen in my life. Picturesquely jagged mountains rise along the coast and on the islands that form the harbor, sheltering it in a most complete and charming manner in an absolute nest of greenery that is now lit up by the first rays of sunrise.
Without losing a moment, and leaving my luggage on board, since I do not know where I could store it on shore, I jump into a sampan. A quarter of an hour later, I am standing at last on Korean soil, enjoying once again the strange feeling of suddenly finding myself alone in the midst of a population of which I know neither the language nor the customs or costumes. Hundreds of Korean laborers, legs half-naked, are transporting soil destined to form a wharf. Many porters, their trousers and jacket of white cotton, are carrying materials on a wooden hook roughly squared, similar to ours, that is kept in balance on their backs by a rope passed round the forehead. Their hair is tied in a knot that rises like a horn from the top of their heads. All are barefoot or wear shoes of straw, where the big toe is not separated from the other toes as in Japan; Koreans, moreover, far exceed the Japanese in size, and their faces have a very different character.
Here and there, women are bringing food to their husbands. They are very ugly and unsightly, shave their eyebrows into a thin line that describes a perfect curve. Their oiled hair, which is thick and black with red lights, is formed by I know not what artifice into a huge tress of hair that loads down their heads. They all seem packaged, rather than dressed, and I am especially surprised to see that most of them allow their breasts to hang completely outside of their clothes, which are open horizontally on the chest. Further away several youths are playing, shouting loudly, and if I had not seen their mothers, I would have taken them for women, as my eyes are deceived by the grace of their features, their long floating tresses and singular trousers that looks like a puffed-out skirt. I leave the port and enter the Korean town, if you can give this name to a huddle of hundreds of thatched roofs, which rise three to four feet above the ground, forming veritable dens one can only enter half bent.
One street and a few narrow lanes make up this large Korean village, that was only born yesterday as a result of the opening of the port of Tchemoulpo to Europeans. It is dominated by the vast yamen of the governor, the enormous roof of which, slightly curving, recalls similar constructions in China, but with notable differences. Indeed, seen from afar this huge building seems to have only windows; that is because the building, raised a few feet above the ground, extends over a vast wooden platform so that each window is in fact a doorway allowing people to circulate on the kind of veranda formed around the building by the overhang of the roof. It offers a magnificent view of the bay. It seems absolutely closed in by the islands, which form a vast maritime amphitheater of the most imposing effect. In the center stands a small island covered with greenery, and on the right, the Seoul river, flowing in capricious meanders, sparkles in the sunlight. I head in that direction, and pass through the Japanese concession. I believe myself transported back to Nippon again.
What a contrast between the misery of that Korean hamlet and this clean, cheerful, busy town, where the Japanese have brought with them their manners, their customs, their uses! They have therefore absorbed the greater part of the trade, and their establishments grow daily in importance, a few Chinese firms providing the only competition. I walk up the wide street lined with charming houses that passes through the middle of the neighborhood, and arrive at the European concession, occupied only by two or three traders. I make the acquaintance of kind Mr. Schœnike, the Commissioner of Customs, and his second, a merry Frenchman, Mr. Laporte, who together take me to meet the young and charming British Consul, where we are received most graciously. These visits made, I moved into a small European hotel run by a man from Trieste. He urges me to fetch my luggage as soon as possible from the boat if I do not want to have it carried up on bearers’ backs, because the tides here range from 26 to 30 feet, and the sea will soon withdraw several kilometers. Indeed a small ship anchored in front of our steamer is already high and dry and being kept upright by enormous beams: it looks from afar like a huge spider. I therefore make haste and am back with my boat before the vast bay is transformed into a huge plain of sand that allows you to walk dryshod to the verdant island of which I have spoken. This abrupt change occurs twice a day and changes beyond recognition the general appearance and tone of the landscape, passing successively from green sea to yellow sand.
During the rest of the day the small European colony throws a party in my honor and urges me strongly to go to Seoul by a small daily steamer service that has recently been organized. But since the boat does not arrive the next day, I take leave of my new friends without further ado, thank them warmly and set off. My little caravan is composed of two horses for my luggage and instruments, a third for me, finally three grooms, the owners of the horses. These men dressed like laborers have a pipe about 1m. 20 long which, when they are not smoking it they place between their backs and their jacket. The end of the tube that is sucked emerges behind the neck, while the metal bowl can be glimpsed much lower down, which offers a most bizarre appearance when they walk along, arms dangling. We stride across plains, valleys, hills, sometimes in the middle of cultivated fields, sometimes through tall grass. Everywhere horses, or ponies rather, or superb bulls, sometimes yoked to a rudimentary cart. I will not see these carts again in my journey, because they only travel between Tchemoulpo and Seoul, one of the few places in Korea where there is a certain length of what might be termed a true road.
We arrive at the foot of a steep hill, the Pel-ko-kai, which is so steep that I cross it on foot to spare my horse, then I continue to follow the valley, intrigued by the repeated halts my men make at small Korean huts, above the roof of which is a long pole carries a little oblong wicker basket suspended in the air. I continue my way alone through the countryside, caught up from time to time by my grooms. Soon, I soon come to know the cause of their frequent disappearances by their staggering walk; it is absolutely confirmed, when one of them falls on his back so awkwardly that he breaks his long pipe.
I would have had rather grim traveling companions if the drink had turned them nasty, but they remain at the stage of great tenderness, offering me fruit they have bought somewhere, and vehemently insisting that I smoke their great pipes. I manage to keep them in this good disposition and prevent them abandoning the horses again, by making them understand by signs that if I am pleased with them, they will have a good tip on reaching Seoul. Thus, after passing Sadari-chou-mak, we arrive at the small village of Ori-kol-mak-chou, where we have to stop to rest and feed the horses. I refuse to enter the so-called inn after a single glance has shown me its perfect lack of cleanliness, and stay outside, sitting on my trunks. My presence arouses great curiosity among the people who surround me respectfully. They are highly intrigued by my dress, especially my gloves, my leather gaiters, and politely ask to touch them. After a break of about two hours we finally leave, following a Chinaman with a beautiful mount. He now takes the head of the caravan, to my great satisfaction, as we are walking much faster now because I encouraged my increasingly excited grooms to follow him. We are now crossing a much flatter region and soon reach a branch of the Hang-kang, which we ford; now we find ourselves in a vast plain of sand, probably covered by water in the rainy season. Here and there the stones have accumulated in this little Sahara, where horses and men, who are barefoot, advance with difficulty, their feet half sinking in the sandy soil. Finally, we see in the distance the river, which we cross by boat, and thus arrive at Mapou, the real port of the capital, although it is ten miles away from it. The town is built on a plateau somewhat elevated above the river. The houses, consisting of a raised ground floor, are nothing like the dens of Tchemoulpo. They are full of goods, indicating the commercial importance of the city, which we cross in order to take the road to Seoul.
We are now in the midst of beautiful market gardens, where a variety of vegetables are grown, especially a gigantic kind of cabbage; here and then are fruit trees and finally around us wooded hills rise in tiers. This magnificent vegetation contrasts with the small desert we have just crossed. Later, we encounter a beautiful alley of gigantic willows that I long to follow. But I have to give up, it is not on our way, and night is coming, bringing with it the closing of the gates of Seoul.
After climbing Mountoro-tsintari, we therefore urge on our horses that were unable to keep up with our Chinaman, and I begin to despair of arriving on time, when we suddenly see in the mist a monumental gate surmounted by a Chinese-style pavilion, long walls with their battlements outlined in the red glow of sunset. Soon we pass under a huge porch, the gates close behind us: we are in the city.
A street as wide as the Champs-Élysées opens before us: it is lined with thatched huts, and behind them stretches a plain of tiled roofs: I have the impression of entering a huge village. I walk in the midst of a bustling crowd, half-blinded by smoke, and yet I see no chimney. The reason is that Korean homes are built on small stone arches rising about three feet above the ground, the fire burns at one end and the smoke escaping from the other asphyxiates the passers-by, but warms in passing everything inside the house. The houses are built of rough stones, always of a single floor and with the particularity that on the outside walls, each stone is set in a rope that goes round it. Now the lanterns are being lit in the shops. These, as in Japan, have no storefronts, no seats or tables. Everyone sits on the ground, unless, given the small size of the cluttered room, purchases are made from outside. I should add that all these stores are very poorly maintained.
Soon we leave the main road to follow narrow streets, where on my little horse I dominate head and shoulders above the edges of the roofs. Everywhere are deep stinking streams we have to avoid. They are often crossed by small bridges, formed by a narrow slab of stone where my mount slides constantly. Night, increasingly dark, half hides the sad spectacle that surrounds me, when we finally arrive at the Japanese hotel. Singing, shouting, laughter emerging from inside inform me that many travelers are already installed. As soon as I enter, a charming mousme crouches at my feet, touches the ground with her forehead and gives me, graceful as can be, a tiny cup of tea, I take it and tell her to prepare my room. She replies that there is no more room; I insist, she takes me by the hand and makes me inspect all the rooms, pulling open successively in their grooves the wooden frames covered with paper separating them, without their tenants seeming to pay any attention to our unexpected presence. Alas! the hotel is full. What can I do but appeal to our consul? But how to find his home in a city of over 200,000 inhabitants? Fortunately the little mousme who welcomed me is as intelligent as she is comely, and with an Anglo-Franco-Japanese vocabulary, she understands and indicates the desired address to the grooms.
I am so glad that I could kiss the sweet mousme; to tell the truth, I do, and she is so far from being angry that she will not accept any gratification for her kind hospitality, and even helps me to mount, accompanying my departure with a bright silvery laugh, it all seeming such fun, for kissing is absolutely unknown in Japan. We resume our journey in the night, and for nearly three quarters of an hour we once again cross this huge city. Finally, after following the course of a nearly dry stream, broad and shallow, we cross it by a beautifully paved bridge without parapets, and reach the legation of France. Korean soldiers surround me, I give in my card, and soon I am received in the most delightful way by our eminent representative, Mr. Collin de Plancy.
I had the honor of seeing him in Paris on the eve of his departure, which preceded mine by two months, and here he greets me like an old friend, offering me the most complete hospitality. Together with his amiable Chancellor, Mr. Guerin, he proves that I have long been impatiently awaited by installing me in the room prepared for me. A few moments later, we sit down at table. Oh! the charming, exquisite, good evening! and how sweet it is in the antipodes of Paris to talk about France and mutual friends left behind! We are so happy to be together and evoke thoughts of all that we love, that the night is far advanced, when, by an energetic effort of our will, we finally separate. This is the beginning of my visit to Korea, much simpler than I had expected and ending under the hospitable roof of excellent friends.
Here is how we organized the daily use of my time in Seoul. Mr. Collin Plancy has spread the rumor that a French traveler is buying samples of all the productions of the country, and is at the legation every morning to meet with merchants. They duly arrive very early and in large numbers, with their goods, which I examine with the greatest care in terms of my Korean ethnographic collection, ruthlessly rejecting everything that comes from abroad. Mr. Collin Plancy is kind enough to put at my disposal some native scholars, his secretaries, to whom he teaches French every day. They give me many explanations on all the objects of which I do not know the use. They rectify the prices, sometimes ultra-fancy, then the sellers accept or refuse our offers, so that I lose no time haggling and thus miss some purchase, while the merchants bring back to me the next day objects they refused to surrender the day before.
Our lunch is often complemented by the presence of dignitaries, Korean ministers and mandarins, whom I hasten to photograph, to their great satisfaction, on their departure. It takes place very ceremoniously, because according to the rites, we accompany them to their palanquins, consisting of a kind of chair on which is thrown a leopard skin, it is placed on two long poles that are lifted with cross-bars; just as the Mandarin sits down, the many carriers emit a lengthy guttural cry. They repeat this at the exit and all along the way, to remove passers-by from the route of the procession and again on arriving at the yamen, to make the gates open, as happened at the legation, thus duly warned in advance of the arrival of Korean dignitaries.
In the afternoon we visit Seoul with my gracious hosts and some scholarly secretaries, entering shops with them to buy everything that seems to offer some ethnographic interest. We also visit major official figures, European or native. They welcome us in a charming manner in pretty little houses, single-storied, miniature versions of the yamen I described in Tchemoulpo. In front are the rooms for receiving visitors, behind are the women's rooms, where no one enters except the husband; finally the commons are scattered throughout a fairly well maintained garden. One enters after passing a small entrance courtyard where servants stand about, who charge a good price for admitting favor-seekers and merchants having some business to propose.
In ordinary houses, the reception rooms open directly onto the street, from where you can see all that happens in the interior since the doors are usually open during the summer.
We were also received open-heartedly by Bishop Blanc, the Bishop of Korea, Father Cotte and their colleagues. They even give me various objects found during the excavations being performed at this time for the construction of the Catholic church. The ground has already been leveled on top of a small hill, from where the cathedral will soon proudly dominate the capital. I also visit the nuns who arrived on the boat which preceded ours. They have already opened a school and collected hundreds of small children of both sexes, whom they instruct in a maternal way and who seem very fond of them. How could it be otherwise with these holy women? One has dedicated over twenty-five years of her life to missions in Senegal, and the other, a charming young woman of a rare beauty, has just abandoned all the joys of the world to embrace her heroic career. They are assisted by a young Chinese sister, who rivals them in sacrifices and tenderness. We often complete our day by visiting some monuments, then we go in for dinner, where, thanks to my kind hosts and some attachés from European legations who are invited, we spend evenings that I count among the most beautiful of my life.
I hardly need to say that we often spoke of the organization of the life and manners of the capital. Seoul is to Korea what Paris is to France, because the centralization is identical and dominates here as at home, across the country. It was only in the early days of the Ming Dynasty in China that the king of Kaoli, Litan, left Khai-Tcheu and settled in Seoul, attracted by its magnificent location. Indeed, in the north, the mountain of Hoa-chan circles around the city like great armor; to the east lies a chain in which each pass was formerly guarded, while far to the west lies the sinuous coastline bathed by the sea, and to the south the Han-kang forms a kind of belt. Seoul since then has remained the capital of the kingdom. This is where the king rules with absolute power his 16-18 million subjects, because he wears the triple crown: as high priest, he officiates for his people; as father of the nation, he administers it as his own family, and finally as guardian of the safety of all, he decides on peace or war, and no one can touch, even involuntarily, his thrice holy person without deserving death. Such veneration mingled with such authority soon meant that the rulers remained completely shut up in their palaces amidst women, concubines and eunuchs; this seraglio often abused the royal isolation to squeeze the people, who nonetheless loved their king, knowing him completely innocent of their misfortunes. This situation was maintained until and throughout the minority of the present king. The Regent, a man of ancient prejudices, hating everything coming from abroad, ordered at bloody persecutions against the Christians in the kingdom. This provoked, in retaliation, various military expeditions by Russia, France and the United States. The external situation was darkening every day for Korea came when the present king reached his majority. He, his mind very open to the ideas of modern progress, understood the dangers to which his country was exposed and finally allowed access to Korea by foreigners, contracting with them many treaties of friendship, peace and trade.
If the foreign policy of Korea was changed beyond recognition, the general organization of the country remained exactly the same, only the king abolished his harem and began reorganizing his army in the European way. But the wonderful counselor, the counselors of left and right, who monitor and report to the king everything about the administration, were retained. Likewise with the public organization, thus subdivided: the department or court rituals, established to maintain the habits and customs of the kingdom; the ministry of offices and employment, which appoints for all positions men who have passed the necessary examinations; the tribunal of finance, in charge of counting the people and taxes; the ministry of war in charge of the army; the tribunal of crimes, which supervises the courtrooms and ensures compliance with the criminal laws; and finally the ministry of public works, which is responsible, in addition to its special area, for everything regarding trade and the organization of official ceremonies. Now comes the practical operation of this administration: the head of each province is the governor; after him come the heads of districts, the number of which amounts to three hundred and thirty-two, the number of days in the Korean year; then come the mandarins at the head of the major cities, and after them, the mayors of small cities, villages or towns. Around each of these dignitaries are grouped a number of employees—nobles, veterans, satellites, guardians of palaces, temples and public buildings, spies, etc.., who to varying degrees are part of what we call the administrative class. Parallel to this class, the nobility is divided as follows: first the noble allied to the royal family, and the children of those who helped to found the dynasty or who have distinguished themselves in public office. They occupy varying degrees, depending on their family’s closeness to the king, or the services they have rendered to the State. A thousand privileges were assured them, while the ordinary people, oppressed, formed guilds in order to fight against them and even against the mandarins, as we shall see later. The elected leaders of these corporations soon enjoyed a real influence, so that this system was adopted by all social classes, of which the following is the order of precedence: scholars, bonzes, monks, farmers, artisans, merchants, porters, sorcerers, musicians, dancers, actors, beggars, slaves, then the class, considered abject by Koreans, of killers of cattle and tanners.
All men, except those of the lowest classes, may in Korea participate in the exams which alone open the way to public office. The higher examinations are based on knowledge of the Chinese language and characters, philosophy, poetry, history. In short they are the same subjects as in the exams taken in China, but have a lower real value. They are divided into three levels, giving literary titles corresponding with our bachelor, master, doctor. Unfortunately, unlike the Celestial Empire, one obtains public office in accordance with one’s social position, without being able, so to speak, to rise above it; therefore, since the highest functions are filled only by the nobility, most middle class people prefer to take the military exams, abandoned by the aristocracy and which require knowledge of the army and a single literary composition, or special scientific exams, which give admittance to the school of languages, where one graduates as interpreter, dragoman, etc.., or schools of law, charters, medicine, computing, so-called the Clock, drawing and music, which particularly open doors in the royal household. So we can say that in Korea education alone leads to honors, and it is recognized as being so necessary by the State, that a strict law states that any gentleman who has not himself, and whose grandfather and father have not held public office because they could not pass the exams is absolutely stripped of his nobility. That is a happy corrective to the law forbidding anyone from holding positions superior to the class to which one belongs; such is the social and administrative organization of life in Korea.
Before talking about monumental Seoul, a few words on its surroundings. Near the South Gate is the location of the place of execution. Scattered bones of criminals are visible, and sometimes their decapitated bodies, with the head not far away. They are left here as an example to the people for three days, after which the family has the right to bury them.
Farther off, lost in the countryside and protected by the Han-niang River, are some royal tombs located in remarkable sites, finally here and there are numerous granaries intended to prevent famine in case of poor harvest or a war of invasion. To the North, at the site of the former capital, is a rare thing in Korea, a stone bridge of twenty-one pillars, covered with a marble deck. Nearby there a stone pagoda recalling important historical events, and a stele with Chinese characters on its north face and Mantchoo characters on its southern side, an inscription immortalizing the establishment by the Chinese emperor of the king who raised this monument on a gigantic granite turtle 12 feet long, 7 wide and 3 high. Finally, four forts located a few kilometers from Seoul, Hang-hoa, Kais-yeng, Koang-Tiyou and Syou-Ouen, defend the approaches to the suburban countryside, which is admirably cultivated despite the mountainous terrain.
Now let us take a panoramic view of the Korean capital. If we climb some central hill, we can enjoy a magnificent view of the cone-shaped mountains covered with greenery that surround it; the highest are located in the north and south. In many places we can see the crenellated profile of the walls surrounding Seoul in a vast circuit. They follow, as in China, the curves of the hills and are pierced here and there by a large number of monumental gates. The two most important have a double story in the Chinese style and are of great architectural character: one, that by which I entered, is located to the west, the other to the east and preceded by crenellated quadrilateral enclosure, with a small entrance on the north. On this side of the city extends through the mountains a second walled enclosure, which can serve as a retreat camp.
Seoul is crossed from west to east by a wide main canal carrying water to the river from all the small rivers that descend from the mountains and form a multitude of little streams perpendicular to the central canal. Alongside it runs a wide road and three more narrow ones: all four are intersected at right angles by a large number of streets, the widest of which head towards the old royal palace and the temple of Confucius to the north of the city. Finally, another very important road starts from the South-east gate and joins the central street in a regular arc. The rest of the city is composed of a huge maze of alleys and side-streets of every kind, which communicate with each other, either directly or by many arched bridges without any parapet, crossing streams, rivers and canals which may be torrential or dry depending on the season.
The main streets, as in Beijing, are blocked by a multitude of shops, mostly made of wood and thatched, where many merchants do business almost out of doors. When the king comes out, all these buildings are demolished, as in China for the passage of the Emperor. Then the road, once more over 60 meters wide and lined with houses built of stone, then resumes its character as a main artery.
The capital is divided into several districts, including the old and the new royal palaces, completely surrounded by walls, together with their monumental gates as cities within the city. The noble district is distinguished by its elegant houses roofed with tiles and beautiful gardens with very low walls so it is forbidden by law, under the severest penalties, to look at one’s neighbors; they must even be warmed about repairs to roofs. This regulation applies to the whole city. Manufacturers and traders are generally grouped by profession: thus we find the streets of fabrics, of furniture, of pottery, the wharfs of iron, copper, leatherware, the squares of fish, of butchers, etc.. Finally, the Japanese have their own center which they alone police; the same is true for the Chinese, near whom are grouped almost all the European legations, residing mostly in elegant Korean buildings adapted to our habits. As for the suburban neighborhood, its buildings recall the miserable hovels of Tchemoulpo.
Besides what we have mentioned, the capital has special schools for foreign languages, fine arts, astronomy, medicine, and finally a hospital and many other public institutions, all organized in a very primitive way.
Some barracks are built near the inner walls. In the center of the city, in the garden of a private house, stands a stone pagoda 25 feet in height, formed of only two blocks of white granite that time has robbed of its color. It is divided into eight stages sculpturally, which typify the Buddhist heaven by representing the successive ages by which the soul must pass to reach its complete purification. Only the turning away from Buddhism explains the burial of this beautiful sample of Indochinese-Korean architecture. Confucianism is truly the dominant religious doctrine, and therefore a magnificent temple to the great Chinese philosopher has been raised in the north of Seoul. It is sheltered on all sides by mountains and protected by two rivers that surround it before joining to the south. This great religious institution has, in addition to the Chinese-style shrine dedicated to Confucius and his ancestors, twenty buildings, some of which are very spacious, to accommodate the many Korean scholars who come to pursue advanced philosophical courses. We feel that this is the point where the country's real intellectual power lies the and from where it spreads to direct the administration, the families, the morals of Korea. To complete the list of religious buildings, it remains for us to speak of the various temples in high mountains near Seoul. Most of these, as also the royal palaces, yamen, and other places where a high authority resides, are preceded by a wooden porch with a height of 30 to 40 feet and width of 20 at most. It consists of two perpendicular beams joined at the top by two parallel wooden rails on which are nailed at right angles many red arrows pointing towards the sky. The name of Hong Sal Moun [Hongsalmun], that is to say, “gate with red arrows,” is given to this strange and slender building that I think is of Tartar origin, not Japanese. After crossing the elegant portico, we find in the middle of a garden a Buddhist pagoda. It is built in the Chinese taste. but a style mellowed by a certain heaviness in the general architectural lines and greater simplicity in the details. We enter the temple and we find Buddhas in stone, bronze, wood, etc.. They differ from those of other countries by a braid of hair at the top of the head, where it stands up like a little horn; we will explain later the origin of this. I bought several of these Buddhas and I found in the interior of each of them a small copper box containing five more or less precious stones, representing the viscera of God. There were also perfumes, various seeds, many Buddhist prayers in Chinese, Korean, Tibetan, etc.., printed on loose sheets, sometimes even entire books. I would mention particularly a strip of black paper 40 centimeters by 25 with gold characters and drawings of rare workmanship. Finally I could read, hand-written, the name of the artist, donor, and the temple to which it had been offered. The inscriptions that decorate the Buddhist buildings are almost always in Chinese characters painted on wood panels or kakemonos of paper, silk, etc.., always colored and sometimes gilded. Sometimes it is possible to admire large decorative panels, of several square meters, covered with admirable paintings, depicting Buddhist scenes of a strange and brilliant execution, often very artistic as regarding design and colors.
The finest architectural specimens in Seoul are certainly the royal palaces. I was unable to see that which the king inhabits, because he was in mourning during my stay, but I saw two other much older and perhaps more interesting palaces, although they were partly destroyed during the recent riots and bloodshed in the capital. It is accompanied by Bishop Blanc, the fathers and Mr. Guérin, who had not yet visited them, that we make this interesting walk. Mr. Collin de Plancy, who obtained permission for us, is, unfortunately, retained that day by Legation business. The palace entrance is preceded by a monumental gate. Its architecture recalls the huge triumphal arch in stone, with three arched openings and surmounted by a double roof, slightly curved, of the Ming Tombs, near Beijing. On high pedestals two stone lions stand guard outside.
We enter a large courtyard, at the end of which stands the great reception hall. It is a large building made of wood, built on a double platform of masonry that raises it aloft. A few steps of white marble lead up to a peristyle sheltered by a large double roof with glazed tiles of different colors. They are supported by projecting beams terminated by colored dragon heads; the overall effect is grandiose. The center of the monument is a large hall supported by huge columns, tree trunks several centuries old, on which the whole structure rests. The back of this room is decorated on the inside with mural paintings in the Japanese taste, but with much more violent colors and an interesting naivety in the execution. They represent mountainous landscapes lit by the sun, represented by a white circle surrounded by a double red circumference, and the moon, represented in the same way by the same contrasting colors. Amid this curious decoration, which is not lacking in grandeur, stands the dais of the king, that is dominated by a huge gilt phoenix suspended in the air, at whose feet stands a superb fretted wood screen, wonderfully carved. From this throne the king could see, the entire facade of the building being open for the purpose, the courtyard where stood the crowd of mandarins, nobles, etc.., who form the eight castes of Korean society. Representatives of each, in special costume, took their place, according to their rank, in front of the throne, aligned with sixteen marble markers separating the different social classes. Such was the ceremonial of the solemn audiences.
Going further, we enter through a small door an elegant garden where we admire a new palace in the same style as the first, with the apartments formerly occupied by the king. They are spacious and present on a smaller scale decorations similar to those described above. The vast central hall is reserved for funeral ceremonies, which take place at the death of each king. The body of the deceased, laid in a beautiful catafalque, remains there under a wide canopy until complete dissolution, and the products of decomposition flow into the ground through an opening below the body.
We then visit the palace of the queen. It consists of a series of kiosks in the most graceful Chinese taste. Everywhere rise pretty pavilions with upcurved roofs. All are united by small passageways elegantly suspended. The whole is of the most charming effect. From the Queen’s sitting-room, decorated with delicate paintings and beautifully lit, you can enjoy a superb view over the picturesque, mountainous area of Seoul, while in the foreground lie gardens that today are abandoned, but must have been delightful, judging from the remains of rustic swings, benches, vases and stone planters, where we find all the marks of the exquisite fantasy that presided over the erection of the palace. The apartments for the ladies of the court have been somewhat sacrificed to the requirements of the exterior architecture, for they consist of small rooms, badly aired and even more poorly lit. Finally a large building devoted to the burial chamber of the Queen, is quite similar to that of the king, but less grandiose. We conclude this interesting walk by passing through courtyards littered with rubble of all kinds, with many bulbous thistles and other flora, finally leading to unfinished baths in white marble, beautifully ordered, that the king was in the process of having built, when a revolution forced him to abandon this splendid palace.
Then we visit various outbuildings formerly inhabited by the soldiers on duty in the palace and the homes of officials. All of a single story and of very little interest to visit, with the exception of the small building which housed the water clock in bronze which indicated the time. The hours are designated in Korea by the usual occupation they represent, for example: lunch, dinner, etc. Beside the water clock is the small room for the astronomer who was responsible for maintaining it and making daily observations on a small square tower about 6 meters high. It is now invaded by our Korean scholars, and up there, in their white garments, they evoke in my mind the memory of some ancient mystery. As for our boys, they are scattered across a vast field of turnips which they are busily stealing. We remind them strongly of the demands of decorum, which they eventually meet while eating the fruit of their thefts.
Finally we leave the palace; night has come, and some of my very amiable companions leave me to go home. Meanwhile, all around us, on the mountains, beacons are lit whose light, renewed from peak to peak, tells the ends of Korea that peace reigns in the capital, which is informed by the return of same messages that the kingdom is quiet.
We return to the Legation, where during dinner the code of light signals in Korea is explained. Four beacons are lit in peacetime, that is to say, one for every two provinces. In wartime, the signal is more complicated. A second fire, to the right or left of the first indicates the province threatened. Two beacons when the enemy is crossing or landing; three fires when he has entered the country, and four lights when fighting has started. In addition to this light telegraphy, the Korean government employs a postal service whose relays are entirely devoted to the service of the state. Shortly after the signing of the treaties, the government had beautiful paper made in Japan for the manufacture of postage stamps, unfortunately this material was destroyed during the recent unrest in Seoul, and I had the greatest difficulty in obtaining a few specimens. In contrast, several telegraph lines connect Korea to its neighbors, and have even begun to expand across the country. In Seoul there is a royal lottery. The tickets, 20 centimeters square, are printed in blue and covered with many multicolored stamps; the administration delivers only half to the buyer and keeps the other for control. There is also a national calendar, which had its fame in ancient times. It was even preferred to the Chinese calendar by the Japanese. Finally an official journal appears each day in Seoul. For a long time it was printed, but it is now only published in manuscript. I give here an extract of the numbers for October 5 and 6, 1888.
"The assistant printer of the academy of high literature, Ming-Chong-Sik, having refused office for the first time, the king gave him leave.
- The Director of the Office of historians Youn-Y-Sing, having refused his appointment for the third time, the king changed his appointment.
- The Ministry of Rites made a report to the king where it says:
When we congratulate the Queen on the anniversary of her birth, the 25th of the present moon, we wish to offer congratulations as in the past. What do you think? King's reply: It is better not to do so.
- On the day aforesaid should the Crown Prince congratulate the queen?
- Decree: It is better that he does not do so.
- The High Court has made a report to the king where it says We have arrested You-Chin-Pil and Chong-Ym-Siang.
- Decree: Appoint the undersecretary of the office responsible for direct contact with the court of Peking, Youn-Kiong-Tchou, secretary first class of the office of censors. "
So every night I completed my observations of the day with a wealth of information given me by my very gracious hosts.
Mr. Collin de Plancy is the kindest man and most devoted friend I know, for his heart is most delicate, and his mind is of the most distinguished. He is certainly, among the many diplomats I have had the honor of knowing in my travels, one of our most outstanding officers. I had the privilege, during my stay with him, to be present at some of the political events that often arise in these new countries, and I have always found in our representative an accuracy of evaluation, a speediness of execution, and a dexterity that do him the greatest honor. No one knows better than he how to make the adverse party sit down on a bundle of thorns with more graceful correctness, and I must add that he is admirably seconded by his chancellor, Mr. Guerin. This was the charming way my life in Seoul was organized, thanks to these good friends.