Voyage en Corée 4. (Voyage in Corea Section 4)


Charles Varat


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1888-1889 — previously unpublished text and pictures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.

Pages 289-368


Section Four.  [Click here for the other sections in English: Section One; Section Two;  Section Three; Section V.]

 Ascent of the peak of the central chain. - Great Wall and fortified gate. - Currency Exchange. - Descent of Song-na-san, - A stronghold. - The brigands. - Purely scientific exploration and military expedition. - Coton. - Peddlers. Scholar’s pole. – As the crow flies. - Rivers. - Fishing. - Childish anthropology. - Poultry. - Camp showman. – Half dead. - Memorials. - A suburban inn. - Taikou. - Reception of the Governor. - The City. - A Korean feast. - The departure. - Singular effect of trumpets. - To Chiang. - The wild flower shines in my buttonhole! - Rain. - Mil-yang architecture.


 After two days climbing through the foothills of the central chain, we finally reach the crossroads of the cross, the King-pang-cha-nadri, a village at the base of the last climb up the Song-na-san. There I was told we would have to unload the horses and hire men to carry our luggage on their backs, as the last peak is difficult to pass because of the steep slopes and the dreadful rocks that cover them. I resisted this, the first disruption of our caravan. But my interpreter provided alarming information about this pass: never, he assured me, had a Mandarin crossed here except by palanquin, and if I made the journey on foot, I would lose a large part of my prestige in the eyes of my men, while also depriving of compensation the villagers, whose only resource, so to speak, this is.

 I am obliged to ride in a sedan chair borne by some very rustic porters; ten men raise it, and we begin the ascent. Just as we set off, I understand the insistence of Ni, seeing him likewise installed in a palanquin. His dream since the beginning of the journey is finally realized. But I must admit that we have never had such a terrible road. I sit at first in European style, allowing my legs to hang out of the chair, but I am soon obliged to draw them in and cross them in Korean style, so that they are not hurt by the many rocks over which my porters carry me quickly. They themselves avoid the higher rocks that threaten with their asperities, emerging in forms as bizarre as dangerous. Those carrying me are most unhappy, groaning and dripping with sweat, even though they are replaced every five minutes by other men. This continues almost to the top, where the appearance of the torrent of rocks gradually changes, their number decreases, a few scattered trees appear; soon these become more numerous, they begin to afford shelter by their shade, and the ground finally levels out. I jump out of my palanquin, upset by all the trouble I have given, but I laugh at my poor Ni, forced to climb down when he sees me standing on the ground, although he would much have preferred to continue the journey in his chair. As we climb on, the landscape becomes more charming and the flora changes completely. Firs, larches disappear to make room for the wonderful woodland vegetation of Japan. We are in the autumn, I have never seen nature adorned with such rich colors, from dark green to golden yellow, a mixture of colors of the happiest effect. Thus we reach the border gate of Moun-kiang, which is topped with a pavilion decorated with paintings, and is fortified with a Chinese-style long wall, following capriciously the crest of Song-san-na, which once separated two powerful kingdoms, that now remain as provinces in today’s Korea. There we find an inn where we must change our currency, because it has not the same value on the other side of the central chain. For 1,350 coppers from Seoul they offer to give me 650 in Taikou coins. I wonder at this huge difference, but I am told that living expenses are lower by a half on this side of the mountain. A strange fact: I leave behind our Korean coins and am given Chinese cash instead, having the same shape and differing from each other only by their larger size and their inscriptions. My interpreter, who is also my finance minister, operates this exchange, while our horses and men arrive one by one, puffing, lame, and tired. I allow all the climbers to refresh themselves; two hours later, we replace the packs on our animals and the caravan reforms. If the climb was difficult, the lovely descent on the other side of the divide is more beautiful still, after the beautiful forest that I described earlier.

 Everywhere ancient trees, especially cedars, extend above our heads their thick branches, between which the daylight passes softened and bronzed, giving everything a kind of mysterious aspect. The silence of the forest is broken only by the cry of some startled bird or the sound made by a fawn running away through the leaves at my approach. I walk down and up the slopes alone, ahead of the weary caravan, intoxicated by the exquisite scent of the forest, enjoying the infinite charm of solitude to the full in this ancient forest full of freshness. I reach a gullied slope from which rises on my right a high limestone wall; I admire the gigantic foundations out of which the cliff rises vertically in admirable purity, only bristling here and there with a few brightly colored shrubs clinging to cracks produced by rain or lightning.

I soon arrive at a large space surrounded by crenellated walls, home of some old lord, or rather a borderland fortified city. Long abandoned and in ruins today, it remains a superb architectural skeleton. We descend again, and the sky is blue, the air warmer, with more varied flora, as on this side of the mountain warm breezes arrive directly from the Pacific. Then we are soon in a small chain of hills, very barren and sandy in appearance, and conical. We leave them to the right and left; they are called Ching-Chang-tong or “mountains of thieves.” They are now a haven for bandits who have taken advantage of the famine and are beginning to organize themselves into bands. Following the middle of the valley, which is increasingly well cultivated, we come at nightfall to the small town of Ma-pouang where we are to sleep. When making my evening meal, I hear far away, sung by powerful voices, some kind of Korean anthem of a challenging, warrior character. Soon the chorus approaches, then stops, only to start again at the very door of the inn. I go out and see, to my surprise, all the singers armed to the teeth. Some of the inhabitants of the locality, I am told, meet fully armed and sing all night long to warn the bandits who are ransacking the region that the village is on standby and they are ready to defend themselves. In spite of the fatigues of the day, I do not sleep well, woken a hundred times by this lugubrious chant accompanied by drums and cymbals; it is the same every night following, as a result of the terror the bandits inspire. Yet, strange to say, we soon get used to this nightly concert and continue our journey without worrying about a state of things which we can do nothing about, a caravan being only attacked by bands more fully armed or ten times greater in number. So all my defensive system lies in the speed of our movements, since I count on the surprise caused by our unexpected arrival and rapid departure, before they can plan anything against us. These are, I believe, the best conditions for success when travelling through an unknown country. The scientific explorer, messenger of peace and progress, should only bear arms openly in a country where, since everyone has them, their absence would result in a real inferiority in the eyes of all. In all other cases, a visible arsenal is a provocation. These are the mehods I have used everywhere and I have always found they work admirably. As you see, dear reader, it is really quite elementary.

 Naturally, I am not talking about military explorations, they have all the advantages but also the dangers of war. How many of us have succumbed! To cite only the latest victim, I call to mind the unfortunate Crampel, whose unexpected death has painfully struck the heart of all. Alas! why is it that I, who loved him so much, must throw from so far away a few flowers on his neglected grave, recalling what a cruel loss for France this energetic man was, so distinguished in mind and so delicate of heart! Yet of him and all those who have died as martyrs of science I will say: mourn them, console their loved ones, but do not pity them, because it is beautiful to die for the progress of humanity.

 Since we left the central chain and began heading towards Taikou, the capital of Kyeng-to-Syang, by way of Sai-Ouen, Oul-mori, Poul-tcheouen before entering the valley of Yong-san-tong, the landscape has much changed and now vast fields of cotton extend on all sides around us. Unfortunately it has all been harvested and there remain on the harvested bushes only a few forgotten scraps, speckling the plain with their snowy whiteness, glittering in the sunlight in their multiple isolation. Everything in the picture is exquisite, for the weather is wonderful and I know few countries where the air is purer, more transparent, more luminous than in Korea. We no longer see women engaged in harvesting barley or rice: they are busy with the various operations that cotton is subjected to before being turned into cloth. The road is alive with many Koreans bearing on their backs heavy bales of cotton. These porters, by whom all transportation is done, because of the poor state of the roads, form a vast brotherhood, they are administered and judged by themselves and so escape from the jurisdiction of the mandarins; if the latter bother them, they immediately leave for another region: this is their way of going on strike, and they are soon recalled, given the impossibility of life without them.

 All this is highly consistent with the broad associations known as artèles, that we frequently encountered in Siberia and northern Russia. It is sometimes said that they have poor morals, but I think the opposite is true, for the womenfolk among these peddlers are highly respected, they punish adultery with death, they are very robust, hard-working and merry, stand back in respect at the passage of any Mandarin or Official, and are essential intermediaries of all trade within Korea, enjoying a reputation for high integrity. The more I advance in the country, the more I find myself loving the people, they are so brave, so industrious, so honest, and at the same time endowed with all the family virtues. As we passed through Sol-pay-ky, Pou-chay-Dangy, Tol-ki, Yetchon, Tol-Ouen, Kain-mal and Ko-chi, sometimes we found at the entrance of the small towns, a pole ten meters tall topped by a huge, oddly colored dragon of wood, which from far off seems to be flying in the air. To prevent the wind blowing them over, four ropes descend from the top of the pole and are fixed in the ground, where they form equal angles. Residents erect this singular trophy at the entrance to their township when they have the honor of having among their citizens a scholar of the first class. The common people have such confidence in the lights of those who have passed their exams that I saw, during a discussion in the field, Koreans take a simple scholar as referee for their quarrel and submit to his judgment. This shows the high esteem in which instruction is held in Korea, where almost everyone knows how to write, and what rapid progress people will make once they are aware of our European sciences. We enter the valley of Haing-tong, heading toward Han-king-kepy.

 Often in villages my gaze fell on a beam from which was suspended a huge wicker basket, 3 meters long, in the shape of a cigar, with in the middle an opening, in which the hens come to seek refuge against the many foxes that are not at all frightened by the beautiful tail, more than one meter long, of the Korean cock or the two huge white discs, like wafers, that the hens have around their eyes and give them a family resemblance to their sisters in Cochin. The exquisite flesh of these birds often replaced other kinds of meat for me, their eggs have complemented many times my usual meals.

 The road leading us to Taikou is still long: therefore, fearing to abuse the reader's patience, we will move as the crow flies, that will be even better since we have to pass not only the Nak-tong-kang, but some of its tributaries, the names of which, however, are almost as unknown as those of the places we are going to pass through.

 We enter the Haing-tong valley and cross a tributary of the Nak-tong-kang, the Tong-kang-tchou, flowing quiet and peaceful. Here and there we find some noble but poor Koreans indulging in the pleasures of fishing, which they enjoy in a quite special way.

 All the fish they catch are immediately stripped of their scales, immersed still alive in an excellent soy sauce and eaten raw by the fisherman, who continues philosophically for hours his fishing and his lunch.

In the Far East the fish are exquisite; I myself have eaten some in Japan, and the pleasant memory still delights my palate.

 We then continue by way of Smo-tang, Oung-Ouen-y, Tol-Kokai, Chon-Ouen, Hai-ping, Thai Chiang, Chang-nai, Savane, Mal-sai-chang-chang, where we cross a second tributary of the Nak-tong-kang, the Tong-kang-soul, which, like all rivers and streams in Korea, is not navigable, owing to the lack of depth and very dangerous rocks creating impassable rapids. Therefore navigation with freight does not exist: only small boats engage in fishing by frightening the fish and forcing them to flee into nets prepared in advance. River fishing, excellent and abundant, feeds a large portion of the Korean people, who mainly eat fish, either fresh, dry or preserved in some other way. Then we reach a third tributary of the Nak-tong-kang, the Tong-kang-kol; this river, like almost all the rivers and streams of Korea freezes completely in winter. To engage in fishing, they make holes in the ice, surround them partly with nets, then, running and hitting everywhere, they drive the frightened fish into the nets. The ice is always of a great thickness, the maximum of heat or cold are about +35° to -35°. Therefore, in Korea, especially in the north, sleighs and snow-shoes are used during the winter, and the Koreans are very proud because they owe to them one of their great victories over the Chinese. We leave the river and go on through Ka-chang-mou, where, after crossing the hills of Kong-tek-y, Song-tong, and of Tchin-san, we finally return to the Nak-tong-kang.

 The river stretches before us, about 400 meters wide, but not deep. We proceed to cross, loading our horses and our luggage onto boats under the eyes of a crowd of naked children curiously following developments. I take some anthropological notes, which I will summarize here briefly: all these boys and girls are slender and beautifully proportioned. Brachycephalic head, medium sized, slightly raised supported by a very elegant back and neck, the hair, very dark brown, has a red tinge, the eyes are black and shiny, sparkling with gaiety, the nose and chin are small, likewise hands and feet, including wrists and ankles of a rare distinction, arms and legs are exquisitely proportioned, the body is beautifully arched, the chest projecting forward and the small of the back very graceful curved. The build of all these small bodies is of a rare aesthetic perfection, especially there is a little girl about ten years old whose body, warmly colored by the sun, appears to be a miniature version of the Diana by Houdon.

 This anthropological study of the children seems to me to establish that the children, like the majority of the middle classes, approach exactly the Tungusic type, very different, as I will show in my book, from the type of the higher social classes and that, no less characteristic, of the lower classes.

 After crossing the river safely, we continue on our way and soon reach a series of hills rising steeply on either side of the river, which we follow mid-way up the slope. Sometimes the river rolls at our feet calm and quiet, sometimes it breaks tumultuously through rocks detached from the hillsides. Night comes, and it is lit by torches that we follow the narrow path, where the slightest misstep would precipitate us into the river. Fortunately, after an hour of this perilous journey we finally leave the Mak-tong-kang to regain the plain and under a shower of sparks we reach the village where we spend the night.

 The next day and the following days, we pass successively through Morai-tong-y, Tong-hai, Chang-na-y, Nam-chang-mo-ran, De-nai and Kam-tong, along a valley which leads us to Ho-kong-nai and Sam-thang then Mam-tong, where we continue over a plain bounded by the hills that I have already described, finally reaching the city of Hiran, where we see a large number of small sheds in wood, a cubic meter in size, thatched and supported by a pole two meters high. A multitude of small primitive stoves are dug in the earth for the use of rural folk, who, attracted to this place by a monthly market, can not, because of their large number, all find lodging with their neighbors and brothers in the Korean family whose father is the king.

 As we are advancing slowly because of our previous fatigues, I send one of my soldiers and a groom ahead of the caravan to bring my card to the Taikou governor, asking him to let us enter the city after the closing of the gates if we are late.

 Alas! An hour later, we find our soldier with his clothes torn, his companion lying on the ground, seemingly dead, and some Koreans gathered around him trying to revive him. Here is what happened: the groom, being inebriated refused to obey the soldier and they began fighting there, and our man, knowing the severe punishment that his revolt against the army deserved, was now feigning death to escape. I take his pulse, and as I find nothing wrong, I immediately order the caravan to move ahead, to general approval, noting once again how readily legal authority is respected Korea. What am I saying? it is everywhere honored, as evidenced by the many monuments erected by the people at the entrance of towns and villages in honor of mandarins who have distinguished themselves through their virtuous administration.

 Some are small monuments, with roofs and powerful buttresses, forming a small open chapel, others are simple headstones in cast iron 60 centimeters high by 20, with raised characters. Many of them are very old and show the high degree to which at one time the metal arts had developed in Korea: this is likewise shown by the ruins of iron towers of which the Chinese ambassador speaks in the narrative of his journey through Korea, dating from so many years before the Eiffel Tower.

 We are increasingly delayed as a result of our unfortunate incident, and after crossing the Kornou-kan, a tributary of the Nak-tong-kang, night surprises us, and since the governor had not been contacted, we find Taikou closed. We must spend the night at the very gates of the city, in a miserable suburban inn. My room is the most horrible I have ever inhabited; a mere detail, the ceiling beams are completely invisible behind a thick covering of cobwebs. When I propose to make it disappear, I am very strongly opposed and I finally prefer to leave the brown weavers quiet, rather than expose myself to their vengeance. Nobody insists, because all my men are worn out with fatigue. As for the horses, they are so weary that once they arrive, for the first time ever they refuse all food and collapse as if about to die. I find them the next morning still in the same state of prostration, and my companions too; for both it was a painful journey, especially crossing the mountains, although they were not 3000 meters high. I allow everyone to stay lying down the whole day and send my official card to the governor. He immediately sends an honor guard and a letter, apologizing for not having opened the gates at night; he invites me to a solemn reception during the day, tells me he has prepared for me apartments in the yamen, and offers me hospitality. I immediately write by my interpreter thanking His Excellency for his kind attention, and saying I will be honored to accept his gracious invitation to go and offer my respects. I sign the letter, send it off, and quickly extract from my suitcase my evening dress. Alas! coat, waistcoat, trousers, following various soakings, have taken the most unexpected shapes; yet I absolutely must wear them, since the governor has attended official receptions of Europeans in Seoul as Minister. I therefore hasten to dress and inspect my costume using a mirror the size of my hand and see with distress that the legs of my trousers and the sleeves of my coat are like corkscrews, while the tails of my dress coat are fleeing from one another like two irreconcilable enemies, but fortunately my cuffs and my celluloid shirt front are shiny bright. I count on them absolutely to save the situation, and leave my room, head held high, my folding top hat under my arm. At the sight of my strange black suit two hundred people manifest signs of stupefaction, which suddenly changes into awe when I suddenly open my hat with a clack to shelter me from the sun, but once I have it on head a general murmur of admiration is heard. Because although Korea has hundreds of modelsof hats, pf different materials and shapes, never, never, had anything been imagined similar to mine. O Gibus! sleep happy. . . I hasten to escape from public admiration by sitting down inside my official palanquin; eight strong men lift it immediately, and, preceded by my two soldiers, followed by my servants, surrounded by the escort of the Governor, I am soon in Taikou, where no European has yet penetrated. Great curiosity followed me along my way, but without the slightest sign of hostility. We thus arrive at the yamen at the same time as a local mandarin emerges with his retinue, whose guttural cry opens a passage for him through the crowds. I enter the first chamber of the palace, gladly climb down from my palanquin, where my crossed legs are in agony, and enter the palace. I am ceremoniously led to the state room, a reduced model of the palace in Seoul .

 The governor, sitting on his throne, surrounded by his brilliant court, rises as I approach. I salute him in European style, he does the same, and after the usual compliments, when we repeat what we said in our letters, His Excellency invites me to sit on large cushions and enjoy a collation with him.

 No sooner have we taken place that each of us is brought four small tables crowded with the strangest dishes. They are served in elegant porcelain vases, much larger than those used in China and Japan. I do not fail to rave like a true oriental about the beauty of the service, the perfect seasoning for the meat and fish, so deliciously dressed, and then praise the pastries, sweets, fruit and especially the delicious rice wine, with which I drink a toast to His Majesty the King and to Korea. The governor replies with a toast to France. And as the rice wine really is exquisite, I ventured to offer another toast to His Excellency and to the province where he has become a truly revered father. He in turn drinks to the health of his guest and wishes me a happy trip. The collation once finished, there follows a conversation between us. My interpreter, translating each of our successive sentences, first tells the Governor how very touched I am by the high courtesy with which he has deigned to receive me. He says he is pleased to welcome as a man of high science, appointed by the French Government, and congratulates me on my journey which, despite the present circumstances, I have dared to undertake, the first European to do so.

 Humble thanks follow on my part, after which I explained how I was struck by the friendliness of the inhabitants of the kingdom, its rustic beauty and especially the splendid agricultural development, which, when it comes to irrigation sets Korea at the head of all the peoples of Asia.

 “Unfortunately the weather was against us this year, and despite our efforts we have, as you saw, the beginnings of a famine.”

—The day that Your Excellency wishes, you will, as in Europe, be able to avert this scourge.

A great clamor of astonishment rises among the three hundred people who comprise the governor’s suite.

“Have you no famine in Europe?

—We had in ancient times, but now we are sure to escape.

A new movement of surprise among those listening.

“Do you have such power over the sun and the clouds of heaven, and the winds that blow?”

—Alas! No, Excellency, but famine cannot extend everywhere at once, and the speed of our transportation allows us to inexpensively bring the abundant harvest of distant countries where it is needed.

—I know that you have immense palanquins driven by steam, carrying everything very quickly, but as you were passing through our terrible mountains, you had a chance to judge the impossibility for us to build similar vehicles here.

And the entire audience expressed its approval by flattering murmurs.

“I apologize to your Excellency but I do not share your opinion, because the many obstacles which you mention will easily be overcome the day we charge our French engineers to perform the necessary work.”


“What! the thing is possible?”

—Very easy, and if your revered king and father is willing, we will soon cross the country in a few hours, passing, as he wishes, either above or below the mountains.”

Exclamations of admiration from all who surround me.

“But I will not deny it would be much cheaper to go over rather than under them.”

General approval.

“We will look all examine the matter, because we know that in Europe you are the masters of science.

“But you can also acquire the same skills.”

And as everyone smiled doubtfully:

“Do as Japan does, Excellency; send us the elite of your brilliant youth, and soon they will spread here all those sciences that you know of, helping to strengthen the ties of friendship recently contracted between our two countries” .

 And the governor, who seems delighted, absolutely wants me to stay at the yamen, and puts several rooms at my disposal. I appologize that I am unable to accept his offer, eager as I am to leave the next day, and not wanting to cause such trouble in his palace. He insists, I continue to thank him a thousand times for his generous hospitality; then His Excellency rises, the audience is over. When I go back in my palanquin, my escort of honor is doubled. I have become at least Mandarin first class!

 In this pompous procession we make a long tour through the inner city, and I will describe the view from the top of the walls. My palanquin follows the path round the walls, which remind me very much, though smaller in proportions, of the walls of Beijing.

 The walls form a vast paved parallelogram surrounding the city. In the middle of each side rises a magnificent fortified gate, surmounted by an elegant pavilion. Each is decorated inside with many paintings and inscriptions recalling past events. From there I admire the Kornou-kan winding through beautiful countryside, the strongly colored russet tones of autumn in the distance, and all around us unfolds a half-circle of hills melting into a blue sky, lit by the rays of a bright sun whose warmth contrasts pleasantly with the bitter cold we endured in the central chain of hills.

At my feet lies the great city with its streets, squares and monuments; in the popular neighborhoods the houses are thatched, but in the center of the city, home to the aristocracy, rise elegant roofs whose tiles and ridges form a blend of straight lines and curves of a beautiful harmony. We admire in the same style two temples, a large school for the study of the Chinese language, and finally the yamen, completely walled, which contains multiple buildings among which the reception hall exceeds all others with its broad polychrome roof, from which emerges a mast with at its top the huge red banner of the governor, floating in the air overlooking the city.

Such is Taikou. Back at hotel Spiders, I find a delegate sent byHis Excellency asking me again in his name to go and stay at the yamen. I send a letter of apology, and avoid, wrongly perhaps, all the demands of Korean étiquette in order to live in my own way after so many fatigues. The same evening I receive many gifts sent by the Governor: chickens, eggs, pastries, candies, khaki, etc.. A new thank-you card, which is answered by one wishing me goodnight. After addressing the same vows I can finally think of my horses, about which I am very concerned. To my delight, I find all our horses standing up, chewing in the most joyous way the famous hot bean soup.

We will be able to leave the next morning early, because my servants, who have grown attached to me, now say they are willing to accompany me all the way to Fousan. I then review my guard of honor, who are stationeded in full costume in the courtyard, at the gate, everywhere, and then reture to my room, quite delighted with my stay in Taikou.

I confess that if the Seoul court were not in mourning, I would, notwithstanding the obligations of the court, have accepted the hospitality of the governor, to enjoy all the festivities he would probably have offered in ordinary times. They usually consist of a concert of Korean music, acrobatic exercises, dances performed by young girls and women specially trained for the task, finally a theatrical performance. Not to deprive the reader of all these distractions, I will give here a few sketches complemented by the amusing story of a party of this kind roughly translated into French from a very interesting volume about the city of Seoul, published by Ticknor and Company in Boston under the title of Choson, the Land of the Morning Calm, by Mr. Percival Lowell, secretary of the legation of the United States in Korea.

The very witty author says that during his stay in Seoul, he organized a picnic with several European colleagues at the nearest temple in order to hold a little party in the style of high-class Koreans.


“We leave early in the morning, accompanied by servants responsible for everything we need to live in European style, some geishas, Korean musicians and actors, to say nothing of the horses needed for the expedition. We happily cross a part of the lovely countryside around Seoul and make the ascent of the mountain where the monastery lies. It contains, in addition to substantial outbuildings, two unremarkable pagodas. At the time of our arrival the bells are being rung in the Chinese way, that is to say by letting the hammer fall hard on the motionless bell. Finally, three widely spaced strokes indicate that the service will soon start in the temples.

“We enter the main hall, which contains images, drums, artificial flowers, strange incense sticks and a huge wooden fish hanging from the ceiling. When we enter, twelve monks dressed in solemn robes march in procession in an endless spiral, and singing while a novice crouched near the altar beats the drum. The litany is in Sanskrit, a language that these poor monks do not understand, which excuses their smiles when they pass near us. The ceremony ends soon with the usual offering at the altar of rice, fruit and finally the lotus flower. We go out to the refectory, where we have dinner served by friendly geishas who, like gazelles, have gradually grown tame. Blatant Iris even whispers softly in my ear a few Japanese words she knows under the impression,touching but mistaken, that they are the language of the heart. Such charming coquetry forms a contrast with the figures of the monks, who are watching with amazement and say nothing. She is really charming, this girl: I have already forgetten in her smile that I am a stranger and two thousand miles from my home when we are invited after dinner to leave our seats to make room for the performance. In an instant we were moved to the end of the large room on mats, cushions, etc.; in front of us, musicians are set in a circle and prepare their instruments, and later they will be playing other roles, thus combining two professions. A dense crowd gathers around them, like a sea of human faces, each of which expresses emotion, curiosity, anticipation and contentment. Others stand along the walls because the room is filled and even the doorways are packed with curious spectators. They are strangely lit by three large polychrome lanterns casting their rays through an atmosphere charged with tobacco smoke, giving a special color to the odd sight. At the back of the room, the Buddhist monks with their heads shaved, their brown cassocks, their belts of hemp, their rosaries placed around the neck or hung from their belts etc., look on with amazement and close attention. Young novices, their faces shining in admiration, contemplate the scene eagerly, forgetting who they are and where they are. Our own servants are mingled with them their clothes in various shades and black felt hats are a strange contrast with the simple garb of the monks. In this compact, varied crowd, curiosity makes everyone forget rank: none would give place to any other, not the servants, who in Korea always have the privilege of seeing everything, and not these great monks, who, despite their profession, are keen to attend the show.

“It finally starts. We have first the performers of music, they draw from their instruments the most discordant sounds, harmony does not exist whistles, flutes and violins with two strings only agree in that they play against the rhythm and only drums, cymbals and gongs, because of their neutral tone, are in harmony with everyone else.

“The concert over, we are served tea, then comes the dramatic rcprésentation.

“The theater in Korea is composed entirely of single scenes. They are almost always a monologue delivered by a single actor, although one or two others may sometimes lend their assistance, but they are shadows serving to better highlight the star. There is no stage, no scenery: the actor is in front of us with whatever costume he could improvise to meet his needs: a little more or a little less clothing, that's all. He skillfully captures some features of Korean customs or usages and presents very well their comic aspects; foreigners and natives are all delighted. For example, here is a peasant trying to get an interview with a noble to submit a long-overdue request. He employs every artifice to persuade the guard to let him, in a mixture of impudence and blarney capable of moving everyone except a guard dog. Finally the Cerberus is persuaded and the rustic is now in the presence of the great man. He suddenly becomes as respectful as you would wish. Simple but eloquent, a model of perfect subservience, he is obviously a man who knows what he wants and how to get it. All this is represented by the artist without any accessories, he does not even have the imagined nobleman before him to whom he speaks, everything thus relies on his talent.

“We have before us a most remarkable artist, Here he plays a false blind man, trying, under that disguise, to walk through Seoul by night despite the curfew. The patrol arrives and is deceived by all the blunders of his pretended blindness, to the delight of the audience, including some who have themselves sometimes benefitted from playing the role of the clear-seeing blind. Now comes the tragedy. A solitary traveler in the mountains is brought face to face with a tiger. Terrified, his mimicry gives us goosebumps and when he suddenly becomes the tiger, emits hoarse and terrible meowing, our blood freezes in our veins, we all instinctively shudder. The show ends happily with the embarrassment of a tobacconist who forms perhaps the best part of the show. The poor devil tries desperately to sell his goods and fails every time; he has almost convinced someone against their own will, when misunderstanding occurs, and finally here he is involved in a quarrel, gets rather beaten up, then rubbing his bruised limbs, he sits there wretched as he raises again his inimitable cry: “Tobacco for sale!” between each very comical scene. So, as we return to our cells, we all repeat with the voice and automatic gesture of the artist: “Tobacco, tobacco for sale!” (nb. this text is rather shorter than that in Lowell’s book)


The next day begins with exchanges with the governor of multiple cards, where we send each other according to the rites a host of morning greetings. I finally sent him a farewell letter expressing my thanks for his gracious hospitality. In turn, he wishes me a good journey, puts at my disposal a magnificent escort and tells me that my lunch is prepared by him at the next stop. One cannot be kinder, and while very thankful for princely kindness of His Excellency, I attribute less to myself than to France his desire to honor her modest scientific representative. But regarding the exquisite politeness of Koreans, I should add that the amiable Governor and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, in response to the souvenirs that I sent them from Paris in return for the services they had rendered, both sent me with perfect grace very pretty and charming letters. Here is the translation of one of them, a very curious specimen of the Korean epistolary style.


“Reply of Kim Chin-Kiang, Governor of the province of Kyeung Sang, to Mr. Collin Plancy, 4th day of the second month of the year Keuctchouk (26 December 1889).

“Last year, Mr. Varat, who was accomplishing his journey around the world, did me the honor of passing through my city; we talked long together and became friends during our first interview and this visit caused me so much pleasure that I have not forgotten it to this day.

“Now the amiable explorer has sent me a present of two carpets: this gift comes from his heart, and is so precious to me that I can not help but have it continuously under my eyes.

“Politeness requires that benefit be returned for benefit: I have therefore chosen four very fine bamboo blinds that I am happy to send Mr. Varat.

“I hope that Your Excellency will send these items to the recipient and transmit to him the expression of my gratitude.

“(I conclude this letter) also thanking Your Excellency for the compliments that you have sent me and the praises with which you gratified me.”


Alas! I regret to report that the next year, I learned not only of the death of this amiable governor, but also that of Bishop White and the sister from Senegal who so graciously welcomed me in Seoul.

I resume my travelling clothes, and this time set myself at the head of the column, that is to say the place determined by official rites, because I now have a more solemn procession. A hundred servants of the Governor accompany me in their brilliant costumes, which are of the richest silk, bright blue, pink or green, covered with black gauze or white. All that shines in the gay morning sun and our ponies are distraught amid all the luxurious clothing in rich colors, which their eyes are not accustomed to. So we cross the city majestically in the midst of large crowds that flock from all parts to witness our departure. We win the battle, and a few kilometers later, as we descend a hill in this beautiful order, a fanfare suddenly rings out in the air, a terrible cacophony, so unexpected, strident and fantastic that it sounds like the last judgment. Our horses rear up, terrified, my four horsemen fall, and one of them, his foot unfortunately caught in the stirrup, is pulled along by his mount. A general confusion occurs in my valiant escort. I spur my horse to catch up with my soldier in distress, and when I lean down to help him my saddle turns, and I am on the ground in my turn, proving once again how near the Tarpeian rock is to the Capitol. I am not hurt, get up immediately, shouting and make a sign to my people to calm the panicked ponies, they finally master them and I am glad that nobody is injured. So, to overcome my loss of dignity caused by my fall, I put my arm between the strap and the horse's belly to show them all that the groom, amazed byour brilliant procession, had forgotten to strap tight my saddle. After administering the obligatory scolding, to restore my prestige completely, I let my pony see me, and at the sight of my costume, which he can not get used to, he rears up on his hind legs, and wants to start all over again, but in vain, because this time I am firmly set in the saddle. The Koreans are very poor riders, especially official figures, who never mount on horseback unless accompanied by four grooms each holding a long strap attached to the jaws and tail of the animal, with which they direct or stop it at the slightest movement. A mounted Mandarin therefore can bask comfortably in the sweetest peace.

The caravan reform, and my interpreter asked me whether to ban the fanfares.

“Are they usual?”

Yes, I was told.

—Tell the trumpeteers, instead of standing at the rear of the caravan, to go on ahead and play according to the rites. “

Indeed, now there is nothing to fear since the trumpets, the cause of our accident, consist of three parts that stand out from each other, reaching 1.2 meters in length at their full development, so with them placed before us, we have time, on seeing them lifted, to tighten the reins and keep our horses under firm control. We thus arrive with all the pomp and harmony desirable at the village where we enjoy the wonderful lunch of His Excellency, then my fine escort receives a final card addressed to the governor and turns back, thanking me for my generosity, to return by the evening to the yarnen.

We now resume our usual order of march in the direction of the south-east through a landscape similar to what I described before reaching Taikou.

We meet on the way a young orphan of a dozen years old, absolutely destitute as this region is beginning to suffer famine: thus we take him to replace the groom who rebelled. As he has a small, lively face and is endowed with great energy, I let him take care of my horse.

Soon we are crossing vast expanses of sandy soil that sometimes forms small hills, on which the rain has produced heavy erosion. Here, as everywhere, thanks to clever irrigation, it has been possible to make the once sterile land productive and the people are growing soy beans, string beans and other vegetables, all kinds of fruit, especially khaki, precious kinds of wood, and finally the mulberry, which has everywhere led to the breeding of silkworms.

After crossing the Tcha-kine-oune-san by a high pass, we arrive at nightfall before the town of Tchangto with its crenellated walls. The double-walled gate is wide open, but to my great surprise, we do not see any guardians, or bystanders, or merchants, the people generally seen in these kinds of places. We enter the city: here we find the same solitude, the same silence, grass is growing in the streets, and despite the noise made by our horses, no one comes running as we pass, no door opens for us, it is worse than the castle of Sleeping Beauty, where at least the sleeping figures were visible. Here, nothing, not even a human shadow, and I would have thought the city uninhabited if we had not met one or two stray dogs and seen in the midst of the evening mist, vague lights shining through the opaque paper frames of a few windows. We go through the gate opposite the one we came in by and remain silent for a long time, as if the silence of the city had been contagious. I turn to take a last look at this strange city, and see the heavy gates close quietly all alone, as if they had been pushed shut by the spirits of the dead. I learn at the next village, where we spend the night, that the city was almost completely abandoned as a result of a terrible cholera epidemic. This terrible scourge frequently decimate villages throughout the country.

We have seen how Koreans seek to disarm the spirit of smallpox, they use a system similar for almost all diseases: for this purpose, a small rectangular table is garnished with food, two vases of flowers are placed at each end, and a drum is suspended above, then the husband and wife who have someone in their house who is sick sit on the ground beside the table and call the spirit of the disease, striking the drum and ringing a bell to invite him to the dinner thusoffered and thereby hoping to divert his anger; but to keep away the spirit of cholera, there is a special preventive method: it is simply to fix the door a painting representing a cat. Here is why, it is ultra-logical: The bite of the rat gives cramps, as too does cholera. What is it that the rat fears? The cat. So it will be the same for cholera. QED, if I remember my math.

The next day, for the first time, the weather is really cloudy and I have to insist to get the caravan moving, but the sky soon clears, my men sheer up, and one of them soon brings me my morning bouquet. Here is how this practice was begun. My principle when explorating, as I have already said, is to show myself initially very demanding for all that concerns the discipline of the convoy, sure that everyone will submit easily, feeling close to authority; then, as good habits are soon taken, after that we only have to show ourselves kind to all. So my men, delighted with me, every day endeavor to respond to the care I take of them and their horses. Thus one afternoon, I made a sign to me grooms to pick an unknown flower; after having admired it and not wishing to despise the poor thing, I put it in my buttonhole, and from that moment on, every morning I am offered a small bouquet, which I fix in the same way to my clothes.

So, reader, if you ever undertake an exploration and want to be loved by your companions, do like me and you will be offered flowers every day by a trousered Isabelle.

Next comes a new ascension of Tcha-kine-oune-san, which, after making a half-circle, now presents itself under the form of a mere hill.

The rain that has been threatening us from morning finally falls, I immediately put on my rubber sheet, and all my men wrap themselves in huge coats of oiled paper that cover the entire body, while the head disappears beneath a large triangular cap of the same material. These sheets of paper, before becoming coats, poor devils, have played a much more glorious role; because of the Chinese characters with which they are covered, my interpreter recognizes them as the exam papers of aspiring scholars. Nothing more curious than to see these venerable theses walking through the countryside. If there is one thing in the world that Koreans hate it is the rain. When a drop surprises us, all my people ask to stop at the next village, and though I jokingly call them sissies, they, who are usually so merry, remain downcast. This is not only on account of the miserable straw shoes that protect their feet very imperfectly, but is mostly based on a religious custom of public prayer to obtain water from the sky. The Mandarin responsible for making the request on behalf of the people, must, if the prayer is granted, stay out in the rain until nightfall, and my men fear that if they receive a drop of rain stoically then the powers above will believe that they desire to be wet in perpetuity.

So that day, after walking for more than two hours in the pouring rain, I finally yield to the repeated requests of all and stop at Mil-yang, which we suddenly see, together with the great river. The city rises in an amphitheater on a hill, something exceptional in Korea, because we have seen that people generally live at the foot of hills, probably a survival of some ancient custom, of which it would be good to seek the origin. This ancient city presented itself to us in a most picturesque manner. Atop the hill is the yamen in ruins, of which remains only the elegant, magnificent roof supported by huge columns between which you can see the sky. Two or three temples and a few public buildings covered with multicolored tiles stand among many thatched roofs, beneath which lie the half-destroyed walls covered with moss. They dominate a magnificent plain, where here and there grow picturesque groves of trees of all kinds, around which, thanks to a resurgence of greenery, thousands of wild flowers grow; the river crosses the plain lazily, its sleeping waters shining with a white metallic glint. The interior of the old city is of the greatest archaeological interest: its streets, monuments and even houses, especially those of the nobles, mostly in ruins, have a personal nature in their outlines; their delicate and whimsical sculptures prove that here a truly native architectural art is seeking to liberate itself from Chinese influences.

Several artistic eras are represented here in such a happy way that Mil-yang for me is like the Nuremberg of Korea.