Chapter I. Corea, the Land and the People
WARS, commerce, and religion have all been powerful factors in drawing the utmost ends of the earth together, and making the most distant nations mutually acquainted. And the process has of course been vastly hastened during the last seventy or eighty years by the widely extended and developed use of steam and electricity. Consequently there is at the present time hardly any spot on the earth's surface, even in remotest Central Africa or Asia, of which we can plead the ignorance common enough in our grandfathers' times. All these factors have combined to bring into a not too welcome prominence the country of "Corea," which used to be known as the last of the "Hermit Kingdoms," but which during the last twenty or thirty years has found itself dragged rather unceremoniously into the area of world-politics.
Corea--or, to give it is proper name, "Chosen"--occupied a mountainous peninsula, jutting southwards out of the northern coasts of China, at a point where the Chinese and Russian Empires meet, and extending to within a few miles of the Island Empire of Japan. It covers about ten degrees of latitude, extending from about 43 to 33 N., and rather more than six of longitude, from about 124 to 130 E., and has a total estimated area of 80,000 square miles. Its eastern and western shores are washed respectively by the Sea of Japan and the Yellow Sea, its southern extremity separated by the Corea Strait from the coasts of Japan, and its northern boundary formed by the Yalu and Tumen rivers, which flow west and east respectively out of the Long White Mountain-range, and form with that range the natural frontier between Corea and its northern neighbours, China (Manchuria) and Russia (Siberia).
That which will, perhaps, best help the ordinary reader to realize the shape and dimensions of the country is to be told that in both respects it approximates somewhat closely to Great Britain (i.e., England and Scotland), its greatest length from north-east to south-west, being about 600 miles, or, roughly speaking, the same distance as separates John o' Groats from the Land's End. The total population is now reckoned at a little more than 14,000,000, among whom are numbered about 250,000 Japanese immigrants, i.e., about two per cent, of the whole.
The mountainous character of the country, which provides it with some of its most characteristic and beautiful features--although none of the heights much exceed 6,000 or 7,000 feet--may be gathered from the fact that over seventy per cent, of the superficial area is reckoned as unfit for anything but afforestation. This might have been thought to militate against any great agricultural possibilities. And yet agriculture, from time immemorial, has formed the backbone of Corean industry, and provided far the greatest part of the population with employment. The staple crop is rice of a good quality, cultivated in wet paddy-fields, as in China and Japan. But wheat, barley, millet, beans, and potatoes are also raised in large quantities; and cotton, upon which the population has depended for many centuries for its clothing, is now grown to a larger extent than ever before; while, under Japanese auspices, an increasing amount of attention is being paid to silk culture. Curiously enough, the tea-plant, so characteristic a growth of China and Japan, is unknown in Corea; the favourite beverage being a strong alcoholic spirit brewed from grain, which speedily induces intoxication.
The country possesses a very fine breed of cattle (but no sheep), a very unsightly breed of pigs, and a very minute breed of horses, or rather ponies. Poultry, pigeons, ducks, and geese are abundant; and the country-side is simply alive with pheasants and (all through the winter months) with wild duck, wild geese, and every species of wild fowl. Among the more notable fauna of the country are tigers and leopards, with skins of a fine quality; and there is said to be no lack of deer, bears, wild pigs, wolves, and foxes, especially in the more mountainous districts; while the coast waters of Corea are so well stocked with fish that its fisheries form an important asset in the national wealth. There is very considerably mineral wealth in the country, the annual output of gold alone amounting probably to nearly a million sterling. But it is only of recent years that any attempts have been made to develop the mining industry.
The more mountainous and thinly-populated districts are still well covered with trees, prevailingly of the pine tribe; but the greater part of the country has been largely and rather recklessly denuded of its timber, in consequence of the great demand for wood for fuel and building purposes. For Corean houses are in the main constructed of wood, with good tiled and thatched roofs, walls of "wattle and daub," neatly papered on the inside, windows of wooden lattice-work covered with white paper, and floors ingenious constructed of stone slabs, the surface of which is covered with smooth plaster and polished oil-paper; while a system of flues under the floor enables the living-room to be warmed by the same fire as that which is used for cooking the food. It should be added that the rather unkempt external appearance of most Corean houses gives the traveler a quite unfair idea of the general level of comfort and civilization, and that the treeless condition of much of the country adds to the general impression of poverty and thriftlessness.
The country is seen at its best during the beautiful spring and autumn months, when also the climate may be described as nearly perfect. The winter is bright and dry, but the cold is so severe that most of the few big rivers are frozen over during the winter months (December to March) solidly enough to carry the heaviest traffic on the surface of the ice. The summer is almost tropical in its heat, the months of July and August being rendered specially unpleasant by the torrential downpour of the rainy season and the plague of mosquitoes and other insect pests.
As already explained, the bulk of the population is agricultural, and therefore lives in small village communities, thickly strewn over the country. Outside Seoul, the capital, with a population about 300,000, there are no really large centres of population, though some of the provincial capitals like Taiku in the south and Pingyang in the north are considerably larger than the rest; and certain of the seaports opened by the commercial treaties at the close of the nineteenth century show signs of rapid development. Of these last the most important are Chemulpo, the seaport of the capital (from which it is distant about twenty-four miles), on the west coast; Fusan, which has been the home of a Japanese colony since the end of the sixteenth century, on the south coast; and Gensan (or Wonsan) on the east coast.
For many centuries the country has been divided for administrative purposes into eight Do, or provinces (recently subdivided into thirteen), the provincial capitals being walled and gated "cities," containing the residence of the governor and a few thousand houses apiece. Each province is subdivided into prefectures, the prefectural "towns" standing some fifteen or twenty miles apart from each other, and being distinguished from the numberless "villages" which surround them by the possession of a more or less imposing official residence for the prefect, and by the fact that they contain some few hundreds of houses, while the "villages" seldom contain more than a score or so. The towns, and certain selected village centres, are the scenes of busy markets, which are held every five days, and in which most of the business of the country is done.
Until quite recently the roads have been of the most primitive character, hardly amounting to more than pedlars' footpaths, which, however, quite adequately answered their purpose, as there was practically no wheeled traffic, and all goods were transported on the backs of porters or packed on bulls and ponies, travellers of the better class being carried in sedan chairs. Under the present Japanese regime, broad roads are being driven through the country in all directions, often at the cost of considerable hardship to the farmers, to whom they are of little use.
In other respects also means of transit and communication have greatly "improved" of recent years. The first railway--that connecting Seoul with Chemulpo, a distance of about twenty-five miles--was opened in 1898-9, and the great trunk line, nearly six hundred miles long, running diagonally across the country from the port of Fusan in the south to Antung on the Chinese frontier in the north, was begun by the Japanese shortly after, and hurried to completion during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5. At Antung it now connects with the railway system of South Manchuria and, through that, with the great Trans-Siberian line, thus bringing Seoul within ten or eleven days of Moscow and Petrograd, and within less than a fortnight of London, while at the Fusan end an excellent daily service of steamers maintains regular communication with Japan. Branch lines of great importance, running from the main line to the south-west extremity of the peninsula, and from Seoul to the north-east, have also been recently opened, and there are plans for further extension.
Corea has been connected with Europe and Japan by a single line of telegraph for twenty-five years or more, but the network of telegraphic and telephonic communication with which the country is now covered dates only from the last few years, and must, like the greatly improved postal system, be put to the credit of the present Japanese regime. Unfortunately, side by side with these amenities, the price of food-stuffs and the cost of living generally is increasing at a frightfully rapid pace.
Of the characteristics of the inhabitants of the country it is not possible to speak so confidently and freely as it is to speak of the country itself. Ethnologically little or nothing is known of their origin, though they are plainly of the Mongoloid type, and possibly a guess that their ancestors hailed from the plateaus of Central Asia or the neighbourhood of Lake Baikal would not be far amiss. The people are physically a fine race, with a dignified mien and good carriage, and in stature head and shoulders above their Japanese neighbours. Superficial observers have not infrequently spoken of them quite unjustifiably as dirty and lazy. It is true that they do not share the Japanese passion for being parboiled every twenty-four hours--a passion which it is not easy to indulge in a country where water is so comparatively scarce, fuel is so dear, and the winter is so long and rigorous as in Corea. But their simple white cotton clothing (padded with cotton wool in the winter) lends itself readily to frequent washing and change of raiment, though the readiness with which it gets soiled doubtless lends colour to the charge of uncleanliness. Indeed the female half of the population seems to spend the greater part of its time in open-air laundry-work.
As to their laziness, it must be remembered that the greater part of the population is agricultural, and that the life of a farmer is a very strenuous one except in the winter months, while the capacity and willingness of the Corean porters, or "chiggy-gonn," to carry the most astounding weights for impossible distances is a well-known feature of the national life. Americans and Europeans engaged in the mining industry speak very highly of the capacity, intelligence, and endurance of the Coreans as miners.
But, although there are plenty of good carpenters, smiths, and potters amongst them still, they appear to have largely lost that pre-eminent skill in handicrafts which was so remarkable in the earlier years of their history, and made them the instructors of the Japanese many centuries ago in the arts of architecture, painting, metal-work, and pottery. Nearly all who have to deal with them agree in speaking of their charm of manner and sympathetic bearing towards strangers, and where they have been given the chance they have proved themselves excellent linguists and apt students of foreign and unfamiliar forms of industry.
While probably not superior to other Orientals in what Westerners regard as the elementary virtue of veracity, and hopelessly unreliable in many departments of "business," they are certainly capable both of feeling and eliciting strong affection and of forming faithful friendships. The bravery and constancy with which the early converts of the Roman Catholic Mission stuck to their religion in the face of death and the most diabolical tortures speaks highly for their courage, as does the long-drawn-out, but hopeless, guerilla warfare carried on from 1907 to 1909, in opposition to the occupation of the country by the Japanese. Their history, however, unlike that of the Japanese, has provided them with scant opportunity of developing military prowess, and there are practically no materials--except their devotion to the curious and dangerous winter sport of "stone-fighting"--for forming a judgement as to whether, under capable leading, they would make good soldiers or not.
The fatal feature in the national character, and that which has contributed more than anything else to the loss of their independence, is their tendency to split into cliques and factions and to let party spirit ruthlessly override the higher interests of their country. This, coupled with the corruption which had crept into Court and Government circles, and the practice of confining practically all political power in the hands of a small number of noble clans, led to the unfortunate country becoming the prey of first one and then another of its more powerful neighbours, and finally to its complete downfall.
The history of Corea, like that of the rest of the Far East, has from time immemorial been overshadowed by, and intertwined with, that of her great neighbour China, that mighty and ancient nation, to which Eastern Asia owes as much as Europe does to the united influence of Greece and Rome. Unlike Japan, whose authentic history barely extends farther back than the fifth century after Christ, the more or less authentic annals of Corea stretch far back into the centuries before Him, while legend takes us further back still to the year 2332 B.C. (about the time of Noah!), when the mythical Tangun descended from heaven and formed "Corea" into a kingdom of which he assumed the sovereignty. Prehistoric remains, like the great stone "Altar of Heaven" on the mountain-top of Mari San in the island of Kanghwa, are still connected with the memory of Corea's mythical founder.
But it is to Ki-ja, the noble-hearted and chivalrous exile from China, who emigrated to "Corea" in 1122 B.C., that the people of the country trace in sober earnest their earliest civilization, his tomb at the ancient capital of Ping-Yang being still the object of great reverence. Among other and more serious titles to fame, he is recorded to have invented the prototype of the curious broad-brimmed hat, which (although it is dying out of use now) has for so many centuries formed such a marked feature in the costume of the country; its breadth of brim and fragility of texture being intended, as we are told, to act as a safeguard against quarrelling and personal violence.
The kingdom founded by Ki-ja appears to have lasted for nearly a thousand years until the second century B.C. But it must not be supposed that it was conterminous with "Corea" as we now know it, or that the peninsula was in those days peopled by a homogeneous race or ruled by one sceptre. This archaic kingdom of Chosen appears to have occupied only the northern part of the present "Corea," and to have extended far over the Yalu and the Tumen rivers into Manchuria. From the first century B.C. onwards the area of the peninsula was covered by three independent kingdoms, Ko-ku-ryö (the descendant of Ki-ja's kingdom) in the north, Paik-chei in the south-west, and Silla in the south-east. After some centuries of mutual independence and internecine strife, Paik-chei and Ko-ku-ryö disappeared, and practically the whole country, as we know it now, was united in the seventh century after Christ under the sway of the King of Silla, whose descendants ruled it until they were displaced by a new dynasty--about A.D. 935.
The new rulers moved the capital to Song-do, and renamed the country Ko-ryö--a name, which in the Latinized form "Corea," given to it by European navigators in the sixteenth century, has clung to it ever since on the lips of foreigners, in spite of subsequent changes of dynasty and name. The Ko-ryö dynasty, under whose régime the country suffered terribly from the invasion of Kubla Khan's Mongols in the thirteenth century, lasted until 1392, when it fell before Yi-tai-jo, whose descendants governed the country from that date until its "annexation" by the Japanese in 1910. Yi-tai-jo moved the capital to Hanyang, the present Seoul, and again renamed the country Chosen--a title which it bore until the China-Japan War of 1894-5, when the sovereign, to mark his independence and equality with the rulers of China and Japan, assumed the title of "Emperor," and again changed the name of the country to Tai-Han.
In 1907 the twenty-sixth ruler of the Yi dynasty abdicated in favour of his son, who was himself deposed on the annexation of the country by the Japanese in 1910. Both "ex-Emperors" still survive and continue to inhabit two of the ancient royal palaces in Seoul, being officially known as Prince Yi Senior and Prince Yi Junior, but all executive and administrative power has passed into the hands of the Japanese Governor-General, supported by a large military force and an enormous staff of civilians, by whom the country is now administered as "The Province of Chosen in the Empire of Japan."
The Yi dynasty has produced some able monarchs, whose names deserve to be handed down to posterity, notably Yi-Tai-jong (1401-19), who caused the first movable metal printing type to be founded, thereby effecting a vast improvement in the age-long Chinese system of printing from wooden plates, and antedating Gutenberg and Caxton by half a century or more. Yi-Sei-jong, who succeeded him (1419-50), placed his people under an even greater debt of gratitude by inventing, and encouraging the use of, the simple Corean alphabet, or On-man, as a substitute for, and auxiliary to, the use of the cumbrous Chinese characters, which had hitherto provided the only script in use. By universal consent, this alphabet, or syllabary, composed of twenty-six letters, is one of the best and most convenient that the world has seen, although, like the less convenient Japanese Kana, it serves its purpose best as an auxiliary to the Chinese characters or ideographs, whose usefulness in almost every walk of life is only equalled by their difficulty and inconvenience.
Two monarchs of the dynasty, Yi Son-jo (1567-1608), and Yi In-jo (1623-50), will always be remembered by the terrible disasters which befell Corea during their reigns, in the shape of the appalling Wai-ran, or Japanese invasion of 1592-1600, and the Ho-ran or Manchu invasion of 1636-7. The former, which was due to the megalomania of the great Japanese regent and commander Hideyoshi, was but the culmination of the unfriendly relations which had existed between Japan and Corea for centuries, and, after inflicting an untold amount of misery, served no purpose except to seal Corea hermetically against the Japanese for nearly three centuries, and to intensify the hatred of the Coreans for their island neighbours.
The Manchu invasion arose out of the immemorial relations of Corea with her great neighbour China. China, unlike Japan, has not enjoyed the continued rule of one unbroken imperial dynasty throughout its history; and Corea, which always until the China-Japan War of 1894-5 had stood in a vassal relation to the "Middle Kingdom," not unnaturally suffered from the political vicissitudes of her suzerain. After bearing as well as she could the dominion of the Yuan dynasty founded by the Mongol Kubla Khan, which lasted from about 1260 to 1360, she had welcomed the accession to the throne of China of the famous Ming dynasty, which was to last from 1368 to 1643.
For some years previous to the latter date, however, the Mings had been tottering to their fall, before the rising power of the Manchus, who were to succeed them as the Ching dynasty and to maintain their hold on the throne of China, until they made way for the Republic in 1912. And in 1636-7 the unhappy Coreans were made to feel the wrath of the Manchu chieftains for the fidelity with which they clung to the falling Mings. Their submission once made, however, the Coreans suffered little further trouble from the new dynasty, who interfered but little with their nominally vassal state, and were content with a more or less formal recognition of their suzerainty, until it disappeared altogether in 1895, as the result of the China-Japan War.
"As for religion," Hendrik Hamel had said in the seventeenth century, "the Coreans have scarce any." The bed-rock of the natural religion of the Coreans consists of that strange jumble of nature-worship, hero-worship, spirit-worship, and fetish-worship which lies at the root of Shintoism in Japan, and which has in China strangely managed to identify itself largely with a system so radically different from itself as Taoism. On the top of this, Corea imported from China, together with her social and political ideals, such religious ideas as China then possessed--the whole being codified and systematized in the fifth and sixth centuries B.C. by the great Chinese teacher Kang-fu-tse (known to us in the Latinized form Confucius) and his disciples. And from that day to this it has been the pride of Corea to describe herself as a devoted follower of that great master's teaching.
But Confucianism, as has been often pointed out, is not strictly speaking a religion at all. In the ordinary acceptation of the terms, Confucianism provides no priesthood, no temples for popular devotion, no preaching, no forms of public and general worship. It is in its essence a code of morals, and of social and political duties, and the term Confucianist denotes the scholar who devotes himself to the study of the ancient classics, and the attempted performance of the moral precepts and the proprieties therein inculcated. The only form of worship which enters at all largely into his daily life is one which is much older than Confucianism, and by no means peculiar to China, Corea, or Japan--viz., the so-called "worship" of ancestors--and even this is a purely domestic matter.
In Corea, however, as in China and Japan, this hereditary cult is so firmly established, and is so surrounded by a fixed ritual of traditional observances, that it has always presented itself, and probably will continue to present itself, to the Christian missionary as one of the most serious obstacles to the acceptance of his message. To any one visiting Corea after seeing the many-templed lands of China and Japan, the absence of any external signs of religious observance must be sufficiently striking. It was not, however, always so, since for more than a thousand years (392-1392), Corea had been one of the most fruitful fields of Buddhist missionary effort. And although now for over five hundred years Buddhism has been a proscribed and despised cult, evidences may be met on all hands of the extent to which it once dominated the country.
Of the Buddhism of Corea it will suffice to say that it is of the Mahayana or "Northern" School, that strange hotch-potch of pure Buddhism, Manicheism, and Gnosticism (mixed apparently with not a few elements borrowed from mediaeval Nestorian Christianity) which is so little like the Southern Buddhism of Burmah, Ceylon, and Siam, but which for fifteen hundred years and more has exercised such a potent sway throughout Central and Eastern Asia. It appears to have entered the Corean peninsula from China in the fourth century after Christ, and it was from Corea that the first Buddhist missionaries, some hundred and fifty years later, found their way to Japan. In the days of the Silla and Ko-ryo dynasties it played a tremendous part in Corean history. Indeed, it was apparently the intolerable interference of the Buddhist hierarchy in the affairs of the kingdom under the Ko-ryo kings which led Yi-tai-jo, on founding his new dynasty in 1392, practically to proscribe the profession of Buddhism, or at least to exclude it from his capital, relegate its temples and its priesthood to the most outlandish parts of the country, and otherwise penalize its votaries; and from that ban it has never recovered, although most of the restrictions placed upon it have been removed in the last decade or so.
Of the language of Corea one word must be said before this chapter is brought to a close. Dominated as it has been for so many centuries by China, it is little to be wondered at that Corea is, like Japan, one of the countries which has fallen under the spell of the marvellous, but cumbrous, Chinese system of writing in ideographs or "characters." And to this day the script of China, in Corea as in Japan, is that which is used in all official, polite, and literary circles, though the "On-man or vulgar script" (mentioned above), and the "mixed script," formed of a combination of the two, have now an increasing vogue. The spoken language of Corea, like that of Japan (to which it only bears the vaguest resemblance) is wholly dissimilar to that of China. It belongs presumably to the Turanian family, and is agglutinative in character, being possessed of an elaborate grammatical system, which is further complicated by an intricate scheme of "honorifics." For many of its root-words, and practically for all technical terms, it has--again like Japanese--to fall back on the Chinese characters, though, as the sound-values of the characters differ greatly in the three countries, this helps very little towards the mutual understanding of the three languages. Since the annexation, Japanese has been officially declared the "national language" of Corea, although it is not spoken by more than four or five per cent, of the population, including the Japanese immigrants. But every effort is being made to further its use by making it a compulsory subject of study in all schools, and using it almost exclusively for official and governmental purposes.
Although, however, a considerable part of the population may, in process of time, become bilingual, the chances of the new "national language" ousting the mother tongue of Coreans are not great. The study of English and other foreign languages by the Coreans is not greatly encouraged by the Japanese Government, although English is taught in almost all schools in Japan itself.