In the 1894 book Corea of today, George W. Gilmore writes that
An Englishman was once heard to say that the dirtiest man he ever saw was a clean Corean, and visitors to the country would generally agree with him. It can only be said by way of excuse for the people of the peninsula, that their white summer clothing is very easily soiled, while their thick-quilted winter garments are troublesome to wash.Many of the visitors to Korea did tend to explain the faults they found, though some were more generous than others. In the 1894 book Corea, the hermit nation, William Elliot Griffis writes of the clothing:
Less agreeable is the nearness which dispels illusion. The costume, which seemed snowy at a distance, is seen to be dingy and dirty, owing to an entire ignorance of soap.Griffis at least displays a sense of humor, such as when he refers to the 1830s voyages of Charles Gutzlaff to Korea (which Gutzlaff wrote about here):
Deeply impressed with their poverty, dirt, love of drink, and degradation, the Protestant, after being nearly a month among the Coreans, left their shores, fully impressed with their need of soap and bibles.Visitors didn't just complain about personal hygiene, however. In his 1894 book Problems of the Far East: Japan - Korea - China, George Nathaniel Curzon wonders why people would choose to wear hard-to-clean white clothing, and also describs Seoul:
Each street or alley, moreover, has an open gutter running upon either side, andNot so different from some expats today, he wasn't a big fan of Korean music:
containing all the refuse of human and animal life. Soul is consequently a noisome and malodorous place ; and exploration among its labyrinthine alleys is as disagreeable to the nostril as it is bewildering to the eye.
The national dance, which is performed to the strains of a slow plaintive music evoked by a seated band, is monotonous in character and interminable in length.Yeah, sometimes it does feel like "Tell Me" goes on forever. Back to the nature of Korean settlements, in her 1897 book The life of Rev. William James Hall, M. D. : medical missionary to the slums of New York, pioneer missionary to Pyong Yang, Korea, Rosetta Sherwood Hall offers a possible reason for the unpleasant character of Korean cities:
Imagine mud-walled hovels with thatched or tiled roofs so low that the eaves are within six feet of the ground, all built with their backs to the street, and with their chimneys pouring out their smoke just on a level with your nose ; the privies, built so that they overhang the ditch at the side of the street, only used by the women, the men and children commonly using the street itself, which is without sidewalks, and is practically but an open sewer, fortunately washed out annually by good Dame Nature at the time of the rainy season. If you can imagine these things, then you have before you a picture of the average street in the capital city of the Hermit Nation. No doubt the seclusion of women, as practiced in Korea, accounts for a great deal of this condition of affairs. Picture to yourself the probable appearance of our own streets if women had not been allowed to appear upon them for the last five hundred years.Others, such as James Creelman in his 1901 book On the Great Highway, complain about other aspects of their Korean experience:
[T]he Coreans are the emptiest-headed, most childlike, and most generally foolish people among civilized nations. They are the grown-up children of Asia. Their ignorance is not like the ignorance of Central Africa. Hundreds of years ago, they inspired Japan with the love of art, and their literature is as old as Egypt. They are gentle and meditative. Throughout the Corean peninsula, stately quotations from the noblest Chinese odes are painted on the public buildings, in the quaint summer pagodas, and on the walls of dwelling houses. Their very battle flags are inscribed with philosophic sayings. But the Coreans are drugged with abstract scholasticism and demonology. They are credulous almost beyond belief.In his 1908 book In Korea with Marquis Ito, George Trumbull Ladd said the same thing:
The silliness of mind, the almost hopeless and incurable credulity and absolute absence of sound judgement which characterizes, with exceedingly few exceptions, the political views and actions of even the official and educated class in Korea, was the impression made upon me by this, as by all my experiences during my stay in the land.While some of these writers, like Creelman or Ladd, were certainly under the influence of the Japanese during (or right after) a war and may have been nudged by them in this direction, it's not so different from blog posts today about, say, "K[orean] Logic." It's worth noting that others, who had spent years in Korea, also wrote in a similar manner. James S. Gale, in a June 29, 1901 Outlook article titled "Unconscious Korea", wrote that
There is no such thing as cause and effect in Korea[...] The Korean might well be placarded the Unconscious Human. Just now round about him are gathering shadows and mutterings, the full import of which he seems to hear not; at any rate which he certainly understands not. He says the graves of his ancestors must be moved to some more propitious place. To this extent only is the national mind alive to the situation.During the Russo-Japanese War, in early 1904, Jack London arrived in Korea to cover the war for the San Francisco Examiner.
London also gives a description of navigating the streets of Seoul which doesn't sound so out of place today:
I navigated the narrow, crowded streets of the capital of Korea. I marvel at it, when I look back upon it - bulls and bullock carts, trains of Korean pack ponies, soldiers afoot and ahorse, a swarm of children, apathetic Koreans too lazy to get out of the way, blocked traffic, jams, plunging and rearing of many horses - most of them stallions, and never a collision.At times, perhaps, the negative aspects of his experience got the best of him:
[...]the first weeks of a white traveler on Korean soil are anything but pleasant. If he be a man of sensitive organization he will spend most of his time under the compelling sway of two alternating desires. The first is to kill Koreans, the second is to commit suicide."In his June 1904 essay "The Yellow Peril," London explained why he felt this way:
War is to-day the final arbiter in the affairs of men, and it is as yet the final test of the worthwhile-ness of peoples. Tested thus, the Korean fails. He lacks the nerve to remain when a strange army crosses his land. The few goods and chattels he may have managed to accumulate he puts on his back, along with his doors and windows, and away he heads for his mountain fastnesses. Later he may return, sans goods, chattels, doors, and windows, impelled by insatiable curiosity for a "look see." But it is curiosity merely — a timid, deerlike curiosity. He is prepared to bound away on his long legs at the first hint of danger or trouble. [...]London had a much different view of the Chinese when he crossed the Yalu behind the Japanese army, which goes to show the source of his frustration in Korea:
In many a lonely village not an ounce nor a grain of anything could be brought, and yet there might be standing around scores of white-garmented, stalwart Koreans, smoking yard-long pipes and chattering, chattering — ceaselessly chattering. Love, money, or force could not procure from them a horseshoe or a horseshoe nail.
"Upso," was their invariable reply. "Upso," cursed word, which means "Have not got."
I rode to the shore, into the village of Kuel-ian-Ching. There were no lounging men smoking long pipes and chattering.[...] Everybody was busy. Men were offering eggs and chickens and fruit for sale upon the street, and bread, as I live, bread in small round loaves or buns. I rode on into the country. Everywhere a toiling population was in evidence. The houses and walls were strong and substantial. Stone and brick replaced the mud walls of the Korean dwellings. Twilight fell and deepened, and still the ploughs went up and down the fields, the sowers following after. Trains of wheelbarrows, heavily loaded, squeaked by, and Pekin carts, drawn by from four to six cows, horses, mules, ponies, or jackasses — cows even with their new-born calves tottering along on puny legs outside the traces. Everybody worked. Everything worked. I saw a man mending the road. I was in China. [...]Robert Neff notes in the book Korea Witness that "none of [these other critics] are held in as much contempt by Koreans as Jack London." This surprises me, as there are many reasons why there should be some respect for London here (I'll save those for another post), but one rather important reason would be that there were others who wrote much, much worse things about Korea. At the top of the list would be George Kennan. Kennan had been a critic of Russia's penal system, and when the clash between Japan and Russia began, he naturally sided with Japan. The following paragraph from his October 8, 1904 Outlook article, "The Land of the Morning Calm," reveals that the long term expats tended to be much more understanding of Korea. It also reveals that Kennan shared with London a disdain for the Koreans' "lack of virility" - though that was just one of the things Kennan hated about the country:
The Korean is the perfect type of inefficiency — of utter worthlessness. The Chinese is the perfect type of industry. For sheer work no worker in the world can compare with him.
American friends who have spent in the peninsula more years than I have weeks tell me that the Korean, as a man, is intelligent, courteous, teachable, kind-hearted and superior in many ways to the Japanese; but in the first place, he impresses me as lacking in virility, and, in the second place, he is so abominably dirty in his personal habits and his environment that I find it almost impossible to credit him with a spark of self-respect. His apologists say that he has been crushed and disheartened by centuries of bad government. This is undoubtedly true, and it accounts for many of his weaknesses and defects; but bad government does not prevent him from cleansing his premises, nor a body of citizens from cleaning up their neighborhood. So far as my limited observation qualifies me to judge, the average town Korean spends more than half his time in idleness, and instead of cleaning up the premises in his long intervals of leisure, he sits contentedly on his threshold and smokes, or lies on the ground and sleeps, with his nose over an open drain from which a turkey-buzzard would fly and a decent pig would turn away in disgust.Contemptuous as he is, Kennan is also a very descriptive writer, and in his October 22, 1904 Outlook article, "The Capital of Korea" he continues:
[T]he streets of the average Korean village are littered with decaying garbage, or bordered by open drains which have not slope enough to carry away the matter which oozes or is thrown into them, and which consequently are always choked with a rotting mass of semi-liquid filth, disgusting in appearance and sickening to the sense of smell.Not everyone agreed with this, however. In 1904, Angus Hamilton published a book ("Korea") about Korea, saying “The streets of Seoul are magnificent, spacious, clean, admirably made and well-drained. The narrow, dirty lanes have been widened, gutters have been covered, roadways broadened. Seoul is within measurable distance of becoming the highest, most interesting and cleanest city in the East.” He continued on to say, “Seoul was the first city in East Asia to have electricity, trolley cars, water, telephone and telegraph systems all at the same time.”
Kennan had apparently read this, and certainly had an opinion about it:
To describe the capital, in a general, sweeping way, as a city of "magnificent, clean, admirably made and well-drained streets," where the air is "clear and sweet," and where "mud and foulness have vanished," seems to me to be inexcusably misleading and grossly inaccurate. The reality is more truthfully set forth in half a dozen doggerel verses composed by a foreign resident of Seoul:Nah, none of this feels like you're reading blog posts from 1904 at all, now does it? Of course, some of these writers were more influential than any expat blogger writing about Korea today. For example, a year later, on October 7, 1905, Kennan would have another article published in Outlook titled "Korea: A Degenerate State," which was to be the first part of a series of articles about Korea. He later received a letter dated October 15, 1905, which referred to him as "an observer whose writings will have weight," and praised what he wrote, saying "I very much like your first article on Korea, in the Outlook". The author of this letter?
"The houses they live in are mostly of dirt,
With a tumble-down roof made of thatch;
Where soap is unknown, it's safe to assert,
And where vermin in myriads hatch;
The streets are reeking with odors more rife
Than the smell from a hyena's den;
One visit is surely enough for one's life
To that far-away land of Chosen."
U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt.
Somehow, I'm going to imagine that not many complaining expats today - in Korea or elsewhere - blogging or posting in forums or otherwise - are getting emails from any president.