From: Alexander Williamson, Journeys in North China, Manchuria, and Eastern Mongolia With Some Account of Corea. Volume 2.  London: Smith, Elder & Co, 1870
(See also: Volume 1)


Alexander Williamson (December 5, 1829 – September 1890) was a Scottish Protestant missionary to China with the London Missionary Society. He was known for his scholarship and translation work as well as founding of the Society for the Diffusion of Christian and General Knowledge Among the Chinese or the Christian Literature Society for China). After reaching China, for seven years he worked in evangelism, Chinese literary studies, and traveling. His health and strength wore out and he came home to Scotland on furlough from 1858-1863 to recover.


In 1863 Williamson returned to China with the National Bible Society of Scotland as its first agent there. He started at Yantai in Shandong Province and then traveled extensively distributing copies of the Bible in Chinese. During this period he visited Beijing, Mongolia, and Manchuria.


In 1867, Alexander Williamson, who had given Robert Jermain Thomas Bibles to take to Korea, journeyed to northeastern China to the border with Korea. There at “Korea Gate,” Williamson sold Christian books to Korean border merchants.


In August 1869, his younger brother and fellow missionary, James Williamson (LMS Missionary) also of the London Missionary Society, was murdered near Tianjin. That same year, Alexander returned to Britain and published his 2-volume work about China and Korea. In 1871, Williamson was awarded a Doctorate of Law by the University of Glasgow for his writings about China. Between 1871 and 1883 he was back at Yantai with the NBSS and in 1874 also with the Scottish United Presbyterian Mission. In 1883 he had to return to Scotland for health reasons. His wife, Isabelle Williamson, then published her very fine account of her experiences of being a woman among the women of China, Old Highways in China (1884). The  Williamsons returned to China again and were living in Shanghai in 1886, when Isabelle died. Alexander died four years later at Yantai in 1890. He was 61.  [From Wikipedia]


Pages 295 - 312





Sources of Information — Boundaries and Area — Mountains— Rivers — Coasts and Harbours — Climate — Connection with China — Character of the Natives — History — Independent Tribes — Corean Habitations — Treatment of Boys’Hair — Peculiarities of Costume — Money — Mechanical Ingenuity — Language — Minerals — Cereals and Fruits — Cotton, Silk, and Paper — Medidnes — Varieties of Wood — Animals, Domestic and Wild — Restricted Commerce and Smuggling—Advantages of Opening the Country to Foreign Intercourse


I HAVE not had the opportunity of visiting Corea, but have seen numbers of Coreans at the Palisade Gate on the borders of the country, have met the annual embassy to Peking, and have had a good deal of intercourse with several Coreans who were on a visit to Che-foo; moreover, I have had information from Chinamen who have visited the country as traders: hence the following observations may be taken as substantially, if not perfectly, correct.

Corea is a peninsula lying obliquely N.W. by S.E., lat. 34° 40’and 42° 30’, and long. 125° to 129° E., bounded on the east by the Sea of Japan, on the south by the Yellow Sea, on the west by the Yellow Sea and the Gulf of Pe-chih-li, and on the north by the rivers Ya-lu-kiang and Tu-mun, which separate the country from Chinese and Russian Manchuria respectively.

The area is estimated at 79,414 square miles, exclusive of the numerous islands which crowd its southern and western shores, or more than one and a quarter times larger than Shan-tung, and more than three times larger than Scotland; this may startle some who have looked upon Corea as an insignificant peninsula hardly worthy of consideration. It is a land of mountains, which, as a rule, are higher than those of Shan-tung; many on the seaboard reaching an elevation of from 1,000 to 8,000 feet, according to the measurements of our nautical surveyors. They appear tumbled about in all directions, but both the Chinese and Roman Catholic missionaries coincide in affirming that the prevailing directions of the ranges is north and south, or N.W. by S.E. The loftiest appear to lie on the north between lat. 40° and 42°, where the two great rivers take their rise. The highest mountain known is at the south-eastern extremity of this range, and is called Hien-fung by Europeans, after the late Emperor of China; it reaches the elevation of 8,114 feet; the next attains the height of 6,810, and is called Tao-kwang after that Emperor’s father. The valleys are said to be fertile, and the mountains in many parts of the country are often covered to their summits with dense forests.

The chief river is the Ya-lu-kiang, which partly forms the northern boundary, but which is admitted by all to belong to Corea; it is called the Aye-kiang by the Chinese. It has two main sources; one on the southern slopes of those prodigious mountains from which the Soongari takes its rise, and the other in the north-eastern portion of the peninsula. These unite about lat. 40° 50’, long. 125° 16’E., and form a stream of large dimensions, having three mouths, the eastern, central, and western. The first is the deepest, and has the strongest current; the central is less powerful, and the western is comparatively small and safe, and is about 150 li, or 45 miles, from the harbour of Ta-ku-shan, the emporium of the timber-trade. The navigation of the eastern branch is interdicted by the Coreans, and Chinamen found attempting to use it are put to death. Sandbanks abound in all directions, and a bar impedes each debouchement; but Chinese assure me that navigation is ‘comparatively easy, and that our large steamers could enter the eastern branch. The river should certainly be explored, as the Chinese assert that it is as deep and wide as the Soongari, and, moreover, is about the only great river still unknown to us: its great valley is extremely fertile and thickly wooded. The second in rank is the Tu-mun, which rises on the eastern slopes of the northern ranges, receives many tributaries, and flows on toward the eastern sea — a great wide river. At the town Hunchun, it is about 800 yards wide in summer, and about 20 feet deep in the centre; at this season it has 5 feet of water on the bar. One great disadvantage pertains to both these rivers— they are frozen for several months in the year. The river next in importance is that on which the capital stands. It has been surveyed by the French.

The western coast is dangerous, owing partly to strong tides among islands and rocks. The commander of one of her Majesty’s gun-boats told me that, on a cruise one summer, he anchored in deep water, and in a few hours found himself in a shallow pool. The Chinese, however, say that there are several deep and well-sheltered havens on the western side. On the eastern coast throughout there is deep water, and not a few most excellent harbours, among which Chosan on the south and Broughton on the north are conspicuous.

The climate is magnificent; for Corea possesses not only all the advantages of hill and dale, and river and sea, but lying in the very mouth of the great Chinese channel, it receives the full force of the south-west monsoon, with all its fertilizing and genial influences. As a consequence, many of its productions reach a maturity and perfection far surpassing that of Shan-tung or North China. The winter is also much less severe, and the summer far more enjoyable than on the mainland.

The country is divided into eight provinces, and these are subdivided into smaller jurisdictions, as in China. The capital is called Seoul by the natives, and King-i-tao by the Chinese. It is in the province of Kiengieto, and has good water communication with the sea. The King, though in a great measure an independent Sovereign, yet recognizes the Whang-ti of China by a yearly tribute. This appears to a great extent voluntary, and I am inclined to believe that, were it not for the material advantages on the part of the Coreans which this embassy enjoys in the way of barter and information, it would long since have ceased.

The people clearly belong to the same stock as the Mongols, Manchus, Japanese, and Chinese. They are shorter than the inhabitants of North China, and darker, bat franker and much more like Japanese in their manners; they are a brave people, excellent friends, but dangerous foes. We have had proofs of both these qualities — first, in the way in which the converts stood by the Roman Catholic priests in their evil hour, hiding them and risking their lives for them, and, finally, succeeding in conveying those who remained after the general massacre safely to Che-foo; and second, in the determined and successful stand they made against the French, who tried to punish them for these dreadful murders, and the spirited way in which they have repelled several other descents — among others, the late visit of the Russian gun-boat. The careful conveyance of shipwrecked mariners to Newchwang, and the destruction of the “General Sherman”* which went into their river armed to the teeth, also illustrate their character. Judging from what I have seen of them, I like them, admire their pluck, and anticipate the time when the country will be fully opened, and we shall have pleasant and profitable intercourse with them.

Corea appears early in Chinese history, the first notice being B.C. 1122. The famous Shang dynasty had been overthrown, and the Chow dynasty had entered into power, led on by its first king, called Woo. The Viscount of Ke, one of the principal supporters of the old regime, refused to acknowledge the sovereignty of King Woo, and fled to Corea, then called Chau-seen. The King respected his attachment to his former master, and took a very Chinese-like expedient at once to save the feelings of the Viscount and assert his own supremacy — he invested him with the sovereignty of that territory; and from this period the Emperors of China have claimed supremacy over the country. Du Halde gives an account of the history and wars of Corea in an appendix to his great work.

Mr. T. T. Meadows summarises its history thus: — ‘‘Corea is described in the earliest notices of authentic Chinese records as a country inhabited by a population of agriculturists, artisans, and traders, dwellers in houses and living together in villages and cities. Its geographical position accounts for this. The bulk of it lies in the same latitude with the original seat of the civilizing Chinese people, the middle and southern portions of the provinces of Chih-li and Shan-si and the province of Shan-tung; and, surrounded as it almost is by seas, its climate is more equable than that of that oldest portion of China Proper, less cold in winter, less hot in summer; hence, Chinese civilization there found a suitable home at a very early period. On the other hand, its almost insular position has served to preserve it as the habitat of a separate nation, distinct in manners and language. Chinese governments have never been powerful on the seas, and though expeditions have occasionally been despatched by sea from the Shan-tung peninsula to the opposite coasts of Corea, still military operations and international intercourse have, practically speaking, been conducted by the northerly and, as regards the Mongols and Manchus, exposed land route through Southern Manchuria. Hence it is that, though Corea has, in the past two thousand years, been more than once occupied by Chinese armies, and even administratively incorporated into the directly governed dominions of the Whang-ti of China, that state of things has lasted only for very short periods. Corea has, in the main, been independent as regards internal government; though, on the other hand, its rulers have habitually, as it were, yielded, with rare exceptions, the homage of vassals to each line of undoubted Whang-tis. This has, for instance, been the case without intermission for the last 650 years, during the Yuen, Ming, and the present line of Whang-tis.

“In the earliest periods Corea was called Chau-seen, and it has at times been politically divided into several states, as Hwuy, Shin-han, Yuh-tsoo, Pih-tse, and Sin-lo. In the second century after Christ, a new state, called Kaou-le, began to grow into power, and eventually absorbing all the others, gave its name, written by Occidentals ‘Corea’to the peninsula. About a.d. 885, at a time when China was torn by internal dissensions, the Coreans possessed themselves of the whole of the country east of the Liau-ho, which they retained for 260 years, till a.d, 645, when they were attacked by the then Whang-ti or Emperor of the powerful Tang dynasty, and expelled after several years of hard fighting. The Coreans were great in the construction and defence of fortified places, ruins and vestiges of which now, after a lapse of 1,200 years, meet the eye of the traveller on all sides as he moves through the eastern half of this province. They are everywhere known to the people as ‘Corean fortresses.’They are of all sizes, from the single round tower, with the traces of a small encircling court, to the surrounding works of a city, usually quadrangular in shape, and the sides of which may measure three or four miles, with a gateway protected by outworks on each face, or one or two miles with only two such gateways on opposite sides. Some of these ruined fortresses are found in the low plain of the Liau-ho, where they evidently depended on their wide, wet ditches as a main source of strength; two such lie not far from this porttown. Others occupy the tops of isolated hills in the plain, or the ends of spurs jutting out into it from the mountain range tJiat bounds it on the east. Others again occupy lower peaks of that range itself, peaks rising steeply to heights of 1,000 to 1,200 feet above the adjacent plains and valleys. All these ruined fortresses are exclusive of the existing walled cities of Southern Manchuria, as Liau-yang, Kai-yuen, Haiching, Kai-chow, &c., nearly all of which were equally fortified cities in the time of the Corean domination, and were at its close the scenes of recorded, in some instances of celebrated, sieges.”

Among the lofty mountains which separate Corea from Manchuria, and also in the valley of the Ya-luMang, are independent mountaineers who defy alike the power of China and Corea. They have been, I believe, several times attacked by mandarins and their forces, but it has been found impossible to dislodge them from their mountain fastnesses. They appear to be Manchus, and are partially civilized. They employ themselves in gathering medicinal roots, cutting down trees which they float down the rivers to the Ya-lu-kiang, and in seeking for gold. There are certain points of meeting between them and the Chinese and Coreans; at these places they sell their medicine and wood, purchase a variety of commodities, and invariably pay the balance in gold, which appears to be plentiful.

The houses of the better classes of Coreans, especially in the north, are oblong, and of one story. The door is curiously set in a corner, adjoining which is a boiler for cooking, and a small rectangular space for working; three or four feet inwards the “kang” begins, which forms the floor of the remainder of the house. At the further end of the “ kang “ are two compartments which constitute the sleeping-rooms of the family. The “kang” is built and heated, generally, by the fire which also cooks their food, as is the practice of the Chinese. In the north the windows are invariably of paper.

The houses of the poor have also the indispensable “kang” and the two rooms at the end; but the door is at the side, and one end of the house contains the hard prepared circular indentation in which they shell and prepare their millet; the poor have generally a cow tied up inside in the same place. The rich have their cattle, grinding-stones and mills, and grain, outside the dwelling, often in circular outhouses. They have their cities, towns, and villages as in China, and the more important places are all defended by walls and towers, which are often formidable. Many of the poor in the north build houses in the same way as is adopted by the immigrants in Manchuria, which I have already described.

They have a curious custom relating to boys; they allow the hair to grow long all over the head, afterwards it is parted in the centre and the back portion plaited into a long tail; at marriage this tail is cut off and sold to the Chinese; hence the quantities of human hair for sale at the fairs.

In the north the poor do not wear much cotton, but almost universally dress in a species of grass-cloth made from a fibrous plant which grows abundantly. This cloth bleaches well like linen, and a crowd of Coreans looks remarkably clean and pleasant. In the south they wear cotton, and, like those in the north, are always in white. The wealthy wear silk dresses; sometimes their own silk and sometimes Chinese manufacture. Their shoes are mostly made of stout twine carefully plaited; the soles are made first and then the uppers are ingeniously fastened on; these shoes wear well They have also straw and leather shoes, as the Chinese, and these are sharp-pointed. In the north hats are frequently made of horse-hair; they also have hats made of a fine grass, beautifully woven, with broad brims and flower-pot tops; their costume, as a whole, is after the fashion of the late Ming dynasty in China. Their buttons and ornaments are commonly of amber, which must be plentiful. Their cups and dishes are, for the most part, of copper, or rather a composition in which that metal largely prevails; these utensils appear to be first cast, then turned. In the south, clay and porcelain dishes are more in general use.

The native coin is reported to be made of a species of hard-baked clay, but they readily use Chinese copper cash, and are also acquainted with Japanese silver coins. They greatly prize silver in sycee form, and buy it by touch and weight. The value of commodities now sold or bartered at the three fairs at the N.W. gate of Corea each year is estimated at not more than 800,000 taels or 100,000 l.

Coreans are possessed of considerable ingenuity, as evinced in their garments and manufactures. Their guns and cannon especially deserve attention; they are all breech-loaders, and far more efficient than the clumsy articles used by their neighbours; some of the breech-loaders taken by the French were of the most beautifal make and finish. Their boats and junks are made wholly of wood, without a nail in them; the planks are fixed with strong tough wooden trenails, which are most efficient. I examined one of their junks which came across to Che-foo, and it was a very fair specimen of such craft as is found in the East.

They have a language of their own which is alphabetical, and resembles the Japanese in many respects; now, however, the Chinese characters and classics are taught in their schools, and every Corean who wishes to rise must master the sacred books of China.

Chinese and natives agree in declaring that the country is rich in minerals. Coal is in common use in many parts; iron is mined and manufactured; silverore and galena are common; one hill is reported to be composed of silver! Gold was early known, to the Coreans; Koeemfer tells us, in his account of Japan, that the first gold brought into that country was from Corea, a.d. 605, during the reign of the Empress Suiko. It must be very plentiful; they do not set the value upon it which the Chinese do; and it is surmised that its value, as compared with silver, must be low, as it was in Japan when European traders first went there.

There appear to be a variety of clays from which excellent pottery is made; the manufactory best known to Europeans is that near Ghosan, from whence pottery is said to be exported to Japan across the narrow channel. All the chief cereals are found in abundance, and vegetables of endless variety grow as in Shan-tung; grapes, apricots, peaches, plums, apples, pears, and cherries are indigenous throughout the country, and gooseberries, ctirrants, and strawberries are found in the north.

The cotton produced in Corea is far superior to that in any part of China; it is long in the staple, and fine in quality, just like the best kinds of Carolina cotton; it appears to be very expensive. They are very fond of foreign cotton cloth, and buy it largely from the Chinese at the gates, as well as smuggle considerable quantities every year on the coast. A merchant in Passiette assured me of their great desire for cheap cotton goods, aiid said that there would be a large demand were the country opened up; this is extremely probable, as cotton  is a much safer and more pleasant dress than grass-cloth for a climate like Corea; the Coreans at the gate alleged that they formerly purchased 80,000 pieces of foreign manufactures yearly. They do not appear to have any woollen manufactures; the only thing I could hear of in this way was coarse matting for sleeping on in winter. The mulberry-tree is cultivated in many places, and they produce silk, but manufacture it to a very limited extent; they, however. sell fine coloured silk thread at the gates to the Chinese, and weave it for their own use. Looking at the position and climate of Corea, there can he no doubt that the best qualities of silk could be raised there in great quantities, and also that the eggs of their silk-worms would be valuable for exportation.

Corean paper is made chiefly firom the bark of the mulberry-tree, and is famous all over the north of China, especially for its texture and strength; it is exported in large quantities at the gates, and smuggled on the sea-coast. They use it for handkerchiefs, partitionwalls, windows, umbrellas, &c. &c. Medicines are produced in innumerable variety; the most renowned is Gensing, a famous tonic, which constitutes one of the most important articles of barter with the Chinese. The better qualities are of higher value than gold, and so it forms a convenient substitute for money. The medicinal plants and preparations are highly prized by the neighbouring Celestials. Tobacco is grown in many places, and widely used by the natives.

Trees are numerous and various. The elm attains a great height, rising fifty feet without a branch, and attaining three feet diameter at the butt; next in importance are pines, of which there are three kinds, in addition to the cedar. There are three species of oak, but only one of any commercial value; three varieties of birch; and cork-trees are abundant, as well as a tree in colour like the beech, the wood of which is hard, dry and heavy, like iron. The hawthorn is common, and the wild fig not infrequent; and several kinds of nutbearing trees and bushes are found in many places. The valley of the Ya-lu-kiang has attained a wide celebrity for its massive pines; and in view of its contiguity to the great iron and coal districts in Manchuria, and of its grand water communication with the Gulf of Pe-chih-li, it may yet become one of the chief buildingyards in China, in the grand future which unquestionably lies before this country. Several of the islands are also renowned for their trees, and Chinese sailors often land, and try either to steal or purchase; one trader told me, you had nothing to do but climb the mountain and cut down a tree, when it rolled of itself into the sea.

The domestic animals resemble the Chinese, but there are some singular divergences, which we have before referred to. The horse is not larger than an ass, and is not like a pony, but is a miniature horse, and when properly cared for is the very effigy of a diminutive hunter. The bullock, on the other hand, is a giant among its kind — as large as an ordinary horse, and is shod and harnessed for agricultural purposes. The Coreans have also the dog and cat, and the pig, but smaller than on the mainland. They have their share of wild beasts; wolves and tigers abounding in the north; their skins form part of the tribute to China, and constitute a portion of the barter which goes on at the gates and on the coast.

The commerce of the country is hampered by most pernicious laws and regulations; there are only three places where trade with Chinese is allowed, and only for brief seasons at stated intervals. These trading places are called “gates,” the chief of which is on the south of Fung-whang-chung; the second is near Hunohun, not far from Passiette; and the third is now hardly anything else than a military station. The consequence is that a large amount of illicit traffic goes on between the ports on the east of Shan-tung and Corea; the traders have signals which are faithfully observed, and Manchester cloth and other foreign articles thus find their way from Che-foo into the country.

In presenting these remarks I wish to draw attention not so much to what Corea is, as to what it could be made. Obviously it is a country of great capabilities. The people possess capacities of no mean description; they are intelligent, acute, and ingenious, and, what is better, of a resolute character. The climate is extremely salubrious; the resources of the country are manifold, embracing all kinds of grain, fruit, vegetables, and wood, with coal, iron, and the most important metals. The water communication is fair, and the harbours, especially on the south and east, most excellent. Nothing is wanting for the advancement of the country but the stimulus and guidance of western religion and civilization. It ought to be opened to European intercourse; it is the only country of any importance which remains closed against us. One party says we have no right to force ourselves upon an unwilling people; another, that the Coreans are happy as they are; while a third looks partly at the evils and partly at the expenses of war. It strikes me that mankind have common interests in each other and duties towards one another, and that it is the duty of the strong to help the weak; the intelligent, the ignorant; and the civilized, those who are lower in the scale of advancement. Hence, I believe, it is at once the duty and privilege of such countries as Great Britain and America to lead the van, and use the power God has given them to open up countries which are stupidly and ignorantly closed against them like Corea.

War is a terrible evil in every aspect, but it seems a condition of progress in this fallen world; and, in view of the advantages, moral, intellectual, and spiritual, which would accrue to a people brought into full contact with the blaze of true civilization, the cost would be immeasurably counterbalanced. But the opening up of this country might be eflfected without war. Representations of such a character might be made through the Chinese Government as would, perhaps, accomplish the object; or negotiations might be entered into, directly, with the annual Corean Embassy at Peking; or, if diplomacy failed, a resource still remains, which might obviate any great loss of life, if not bloodshed altogether. Let a large force, naval and military, which clearly — in the eyes of the Coreans themselves — would be irresistible, appear at their capital, explain our motives, and demand such concessions as are consistent with natural justice. Let it be seen that we are in earnest, and let such arrangements be made as would secure peace until the natives had discerned our true motives and the advantages of dealing with us, and then intercourse would go on of its own accord. This, of course, would entail some expense, though not so much as appears at first sight; for it is just about as cheap to keep our ships on duty as laid up in idleness or stationed in unimportant quarters. And then the profit would soon appear in the shape of increased demands for our manufactures. A little additional outlay is a poor excuse for neglecting such an undertaking; and sad will it be for Great Britain if the day comes when charges of this kind will weigh against deeds of enterprise and philanthropy. If Prussia wishes territory in the East, Corea is infinitely preferable to Formosa.