Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Epic of Korea

At, I came across the 1950 book The Epic Of Korea, by A. Wigfall Green. He provides a helpful introduction, but one which would probably not get published today:
Korea, to some Americans, is a land of gooks. Every one knows vaguely, but no one specifically, what a gook is. Perhaps a gook is any one other than a North American, but he is, more especially, an Oriental: a native of any of the South Pacific islands, a Filipino, a Japanese, a Chinaman, or a Korean. He is one whose turn of mind is not Western or American. He is one whose culture is so different that the average American cannot understand him. Gook is sometimes used to belittle; but it is also used to express familiarity and even fondness, as "Hello, Joe!" is used by the American in greeting the Filipino, or the Filipino the American.

Korea is a land of gooks ; the Korean is a gook. He is incomprehensible because his thought processes are different, his philosophy not of the earth but of the air. He belongs to another world. But just when we think that we can never understand the Korean, the light of comprehension shows in his dark eyes and in his ready smile and laughter, and we call him gook with foolish tenderness. Almost unwittingly we find ourselves so fond of him that we want to shelter him from all harm.
While, according to the wikipedia entry on 'gook', a Los Angeles Times article from August 1950 was titled "Soldiers revive "gook" as name for Korea reds," Philip Deane, in his book Captive in Korea, writes after arriving in Korea in July, 1950, that "No American seems to call the Koreans, friend or foe, anything but Gooks." In Korea, this dates back to before the war, however:
On that day I was taken to the hospital, the G.I. who drove the ambulance raved at the “damned gooks” and tried to scare them by swerving as close to them as he could without actually hitting them. “Gook” was the term of contempt used by nearly all G.I.’s. I protested tagainst the attitude and actions of the ambulance driver, pointing out that after all this was their country and we were merely temporary visitors. But he declared that all “gooks” were stupid fools who never watched where they were going. I am sad to say that this was the most common attitude that I observed among G.I.’s. This feeling came from the fact that for years under the Japanese, Koreans had been accustomed to look for traffic coming from the opposite direction, because with drive controls placed on the right side in cars, Japanese cars drove on the left side of the road. Americans had changed the traffic rules, but the habits of years could not be so quickly changed by the Korean people. Many Koreans were killed by American cars, and too often this was when they became frightened and confused by the contemptuous yells and swerving of cars by the American drivers, like my ambulance driver.
I do wonder if racially derogatory words like jokballi in Korean (a derogatory name for Japanese) carry the same weight as they do in English, considering the whole 'homogenous race' situation. Would most other people be shocked by someone using such a word as we are here by the use of the word 'gook'?

Returning to the Epic of Korea, the writer actually likes Korea:

But Korea is more than a land of gooks: it is a land of insuperable beauty. Over one who has an irrepressible urge to see the ends of the earth, Korea casts a spell: Korea gives a warm welcome to the man who follows the sea up the long rivers, often yellow, past bald or wooded hills or mountains, into the safe anchorages. Korea is as grand in natural scenery as Switzerland, with its Everwhite Mountains in the far north, its Diamond Mountains fringing the eastern seaboard, and its numberless cascades and overhanging rocks all endowed with life by the Korean.

Korea is a land of the old and the new : its burial mounds and chambers make every one who sees them want to grab a spade and start to dig. The tombs yield antique vases, jade, and other rare jewels. [...]

Korea is the strongest link between the East and the West. It is worth knowing. If the American is as keen in his desire to know Korea as the Korean is to know America, the West will come to understand the East and the East the West, and, because of such knowledge, each will be enriched.

They will especially be enriched if they dig around burial mounds with spades and make off with the family jewels. Speaking of which, he seemed to be especially enamoured with a certain aspect of Korea:

The Korean woman is the earthly reflection of heavenly feminine beauty. Her lustrous black hair is simply parted in the middle and neatly tucked up in back. Her complexion is that of the wax cherry: the translucent skin is the color of ancient ivory; the cheeks are almost crimson. Unlike the highly cosmeticized Japanese woman, the Korean woman has a natural color which would be debased through the use of artificial appliances. The Korean woman, when referred to as belonging to the yellow race, tartly replies to the American, "Am I not as white as you?" And it must be admitted that the contrasting black hair and ivory skin create an effect of whiteness not found in most Americans. The cheekbones are slightly elevated and the eyes slightly almond-shaped, but not to the extent found in either Chinese or Japanese women. The face is well molded. There is little of the suggestion of the full moon found in the face of the Chinese, and the forehead is not so broad as in the Japanese face. The teeth are extremely well formed, not large like those of the Chinese woman or protuberant like those of the Japanese woman. Although the eyes are almost black, they are not coquettish like those of the Chinese woman or brazen like those of the Japanese woman. The general expression of the face is that of quiet dignity.

The Korean woman, like all Asiatics, is small, but she is much better proportioned than other Asiatics. Unlike the Japanese, in whom the torso is normal in size, the hips larger than normal, and the rest of the body diminutive, the contours of the Korean woman are superbly regular. Her body is almost rigidly erect, largely because of the burdens she has borne on her head. Unlike the breasts of the Japanese woman, those of the Korean woman are well developed and sometimes even bulging. But, with a kind of winding-sheet, she binds her breasts, outward and downward, to her body. And the Korean woman, although very modest, has no squeamishness or childishly sensual attitude toward the various parts of her body. They were created with her soul and are to be treated with dignity, not laughed at by people with a sudden awareness that the human body has members. By way of example, a young American officer said to a barmaid in Seoul in his broken Japanese, Anata wa, chichi ga arimasen ka? ("But haven't you any breasts?") The barmaid, a very pretty young woman, said, "Yes." With complete aplomb, she reached into her tunic, opened her red flannel undershirt, unwound her winding-sheet, and produced a white-gold orb, which she held in the palm of her hand and said, "See!" Even amid American guffaws she retained her native impassibility. Only complete chastity such as most Korean women possess can produce such perfect self-composure.

The dress of the Korean woman is like the Korean woman: both have a simple elegance. Until she is sixty-five, when she begins to wear a little cap, she wears no headdress except occasionally a scarf over her perfumed hair. Her outer garment, worn seldom, is a long cloak with sleeves. Her upper garment, of silk or cotton, is much like a man's vest, of the same cut and length, the two sides being ordinarily tied together at the throat with a bow. The skirt, bell-shaped, wide and shirred, reaches the ankles. A thin cincture is often placed about the waist. Sometimes the upper garment violently contrasts with the lower garment, one being yellow and the other red. Often one is an offshade of the other, the upper garment being white-gold in color, for example, and the skirt being green-gold. On the tiny feet, flexible rubber shoes are worn, not unlike the overshoes of the American woman which cover only the soles of the shoes. The hose, the length of which only husbands know, are of white cotton. When she walks her halting but nervous gait, a series of miniature skips, her feet are like two sable snails alternately peeping out of albino shells and hastily withdrawing themselves. Her whole body is like an ancient beeswax candle on a Buddhist altar, yellowing but upright and regal.

The Korean woman has little of the sprightly humor of the Chinese woman. Her reason for being is to make the men of her family happy, and no man can say that the reason is not a good one. Occasionally she joins a conversation with men and sometimes she even titters embarrassedly, but usually she is not animated. She can, however, like the Korean man, rouse herself to resolute activity and become an obstinate partisan, especially in politics. She is a blend of humility and pride ; she is like amber ashes suddenly emitting a spirited flame.
Nicely worded, but some of that is certainly a distant relative of the old 'Ask The Playboy' forum on English Spectrum. Still, he seems reasonably fond of Korean men:

The blend of Ainu, Mongol, Manchu, and Malay in the Korean man, as in the Korean woman, has produced a handsome human animal. He is quite tall and broad-shouldered and lithe. But his face is not placid like that of the Korean woman. It usually bears an expression of puzzlement, which is often mistaken for incomprehensibleness. Given equal opportunities, however, the Korean is at least as intelligent as other Asiatics or as Europeans or Americans. The Korean man is, however, an enigma. He is splendid company convivially, for he can be gay and humorous; but he can be aroused easily to a bull-like fury that will admit no limits to his arena. He can be the most gentle of men but the dirtiest of fighters.

He can knock down a petty pickpocket the man he loathes most and kick him in the face and ribs and vitals. He can be the most devoted of husbands and yet be loyal to a number of concubines. The Korean man has range that makes him a dastardly enemy and a devoted friend. With the back of his hand he will beat off a leprous urchin, walking about in the snow clad only in a gunny sack falling to pieces, but he will give his last gobbet of gelatinous rice to a friend, though he hunger himself. [...]

A formal meal in a Korean restaurant or hotel is frequently attended by men only. On the left of each man a keisang, or Korean entertainment girl, sits. In addition to belonging to her union, the keisang must be a graduate of the keisang school, in which she is taught to serve, to sing and dance, to arrange flowers, and to make herself generally attractive to men, which she succeeds abundantly in doing. The keisang will eat and drink only what is given to her by the man she serves. She sits and lolls, and places dishes, pours, and lights the cigarettes and picks the teeth of the man she serves, and nibbles and laughs when encouraged to do so. Intermittently she leaves and returns with a lute and sings a song or dances. Life in Korea is a man's life and a happy life.

The 'keisang' way of life sounds like it hasn't changed much in the last 60 years. I've only read the first two chapters of the book - the rest of the book can be read here.


kushibo said...

Thanks. It's for things like this that I love your blog.

Anonymous said...

There's so much to get into here, but I'm sure the majority of readers now will all have very similar reactions.

One thing that I will say however, is regarding this passage:

"Until she is sixty-five, when she begins to wear a little cap, she wears no headdress except occasionally a scarf over her perfumed hair."

Evidence that the traits of the ajumma have remained unchanged for decades.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

The contrast between the eloquence of the words and the underlying ignorance of the writer makes for one strange read.

Charles Montgomery said...


What a great find!

Hi said...

In their perspective and stance, gook is used by multiple means but still not respective way, I guess.
And the word was originated by American marines indicating their asian enemies as far as I know.
I never heard any American use that word in front of me however I can't say they use it or not nowadays. I don't use derogatory terms in their face, either but sometimes I use it among my peers when I see an arrogant one who debase oneself.
Who knows??
And I don't care they use the term or not unless I hear.

matt said...

If you read the Wikipedia entry on 'gook', it has sources for the word pre-dating its use in Korea (especially in the Philippines). It's not shortened from 'guk' (as in 'miguk', though if I remember correctly comedian Bob Hope, when he visited Korea, made a joke along the lines 'Miguk? No, you gook!').

Helen: The writer - writing in the 1950s - thought he was being polite in writing about 'gooks', but today his writing seems very racist.

Helen said...

Hi Beaner
I thought you must have been kidding. thanks.

Hi still 'Hi'
Thanks for telling me.
I've never heard about that kind of word so I asked with curiosity.
If I see someone who belittles others for no reason I will feel upset.

Hi Matt
Thanks for the link.
I could feel the underlying ignorance of the writer.

Lis said...

Hmmm.... I feel as an ethnic Chinese woman, I feel offended by that description. I think any Chinese or Japanese woman will feel offended being described as inferior to Korean woman. We are all different and beautiful in our own ways.

Obviously, Green wrote to sell. It's commercial. Go to Japan, China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Malaysia or Singapore, you will see the diversity amongst the east asian women.

Briiian said...

"The contrast between the eloquence of the words and the underlying ignorance of the writer makes for one strange read."

I'm right there with you on this one, Mr. Anonymous.