Police—Detectives—The plank-walk—The square board—The wooden blocks for hands and feet—Floggings—The bamboo rod—The stick—The flexible board—A flogging in Seoul—One hundred strokes for three-halfpence—Wounds produced—Tender-hearted soldiers—Imprisonment—Exile—Status of women, children and bachelors—Guilds and the law—Nobles and the law—Serfdom—A mild form of slavery.
Should you happen to be one of the tender-hearted sort, please pass this chapter and the next over, and I shall not bear you any malice. My present object is to describe some of the punishments inflicted on criminals, and, though they are, as a whole, quaint and original, I cannot say that they are pleasing, either to see or to read about.
First of all, you may not be aware that there is in Seoul a sharp and well-regulated body of police, always ready to pounce on outlaws of any kind; and that there is hardly a crime committed, the delinquent in which fails to be immediately collared. These guardians of the peace do not wear any particular uniform, but are dressed just like the merchant classes; and thus it is that, unknown, they can mix with people of all sorts, and frequently discover crimes of which they would otherwise probably never hear. Instead of being mere policemen, they rather do the work of detectives and policemen combined; for, by ably disguising themselves, they try to get on familiar terms with people about whom they are suspicious; and in many a case, after having become a bosom-friend of one of these officials and acknowledged and confessed his evil deeds to him, the culprit finds himself arrested and very likely beheaded.
In speaking of their mode of arrest, I purposely used the word "collared"; for no better term can express the action of the Corean policeman. The man is taken before the magistrate soon after his arrest, and should he offer resistance he is dragged before him by his top-knot or his pig-tail, according respectively as he is a married man or a bachelor. If he is strong and restive, a rope with a sliding knot is passed round his neck, after his hands have been firmly tied behind his back. After his interview with the magistrate at the yamen, if he be found guilty, he is generally treated with very great severity.
If the crime has been only of the minor degree the culprit undergoes the plank-walk, a punishment tiresome enough, but not too harsh for Coreans. The following is a rough description of it. A heavy wooden plank, about twelve feet long and two feet wide, with an aperture in the centre, is used, the man's head being passed through the aperture and then secured in it in such a way that he cannot remove it. Thus arrayed he is made to walk through the streets of the town, his head distorted by the weight he has to carry, and his body restrained by the dragging of the plank either in front of him or at his back. The passers-by point at him the finger of scorn, as, in his helpless state, he is made to swing from one side of the road to the other with the slightest push, or else is pulled along mercilessly by people who seize the plank and begin to run. He is poked in the ribs with sticks, and gets his head smacked and smeared with dirt; yet has to bear it all patiently, until, twirled round, knocked about, and with his neck skinned by the friction of the heavy plank, he sometimes falls down in a dead faint.
Little or no compassion is shown to criminals by the Coreans. Rather than otherwise, they are cruel to them; and children, besides being cautioned not to follow their bad example, are encouraged to annoy and torture the poor wretches.
A more severe punishment still is the square board, a piece of wood too heavy to allow of the man standing for any length of time, too wide to allow of his arms reaching his face, too big to allow of him resting his head on the ground and going to sleep, and too thick to allow of his smashing it and getting rid of it. Instances are on record of people thus punished having become lunatics after the fourth or fifth day. During the fly season I should think such an occurrence cannot be uncommon. Imagine half a dozen flies disporting themselves in a tickling walk on a man's nose, eyelids and forehead, without his being able to reach them, owing to this huge square wooden collar! It must be dreadful! Merely the thought of it is enough to give one the shivers.
This last mode of punishment has, I think, been imported from China, for I have also seen it frequently in the Empire of Heaven. The other, which I first described, may also be a modification of this one, but I do not remember having seen it, as I have described it, anywhere except in Corea, at Seoul. There is also in Corea another machine of torture, in which the head and feet are tied between heavy blocks of wood.
The principal, and most important, of all the lesser punishments, however, is flogging. It is that which has most effect on the people, and it is certainly by far the most painful. It is carried out in many ways, according to the gravity of the crime committed. The simpler and milder form is with a small bamboo rod, the strokes being administered on the hands, on the bare back or on the thighs, a punishment mostly for young people. Next in severity, is that with the round stick—a heavy implement—by which it was always a marvel to me, that all the bones of the body were not smashed, judging from the fearful blows which the powerful flogger bestowed on the poor wretches who lay stretched out flat, and face downward, on a sort of bench, to which they were fastened, and on which they generally fainted from pain after the first few strokes had been given. This is considered a low and degrading way of being flogged, and is chiefly limited to people of the lowest standing in society. The implement most generally in use in this line of sport is the paddle or flat board, a beating with which, when once received, is likely to be remembered for ever. I shall try to describe the way in which I saw it done one day in Seoul.
I was walking along the main street when I saw a kisso (soldier), with his hands tied behind his back, being led with a rope and followed by about a score of cavalry soldiers in their picturesque hats and red tassels. A magistrate, in his long white gown and with a huge pair of circular spectacles on his nose, headed the procession. I asked a passer-by what they were going to do, and was soon informed, both by action and by word of mouth, that the man was going to be flogged, whereupon I at once slackened my pace, and joined the procession, that I might, if possible, see how they did this sort of thing in military circles. I had already seen ordinary floggings with the bamboo and the stick, but what attracted me more especially on this occasion, was a long wooden board which a soldier was carrying, and with which, the man who was walking by my side said, they were going to beat him. It was a plank about ten feet long, one foot wide and half an inch thick, probably less, and therefore very flexible. After walking for a short distance, the procession at last made a halt. The man to be performed upon, looked almost unconcerned; and, save that he was somewhat pensive, showed no signs of fear. His hands having been untied, he at once took off his hat—for in the land of Cho-sen a man does not mind losing his life as long as his hat is not spoilt! His padded trousers were pulled down so as to leave his legs bare, and he was then made to lie flat on the pebbly ground, using his folded arms as a sort of rest for his head. The magistrate, with his pompous strides, having found a suitable spot, squatted down on his heels, a servant immediately handing to him his long-caned pipe. The soldiers, silent and grave, then formed a circle, and the flogger; with his board all ready in his hand, took up a position on the left-hand side of his victim. The magistrate, between one puff and another of smoke, gave a long harangue on the evils of borrowing money and not returning it, however small the sum might be. The disgrace, he argued, would be great in anybody's case, but for a soldier of the King, not only to commit the great offence of borrowing money from a person of lower grade than himself—"a butcher," but then also to add to his shame by not returning it—this was something that went beyond the limits of decency.
"How much was it you borrowed?" he inquired in a roaring kind of voice.
"A hundred cash," answered the thread of a voice from the head on the ground buried in the coat-sleeves.
"Well, then, give him a hundred strokes, to teach him to do better next time!"
As a hundred cash is equivalent to one penny-halfpenny, to my mind, the verdict was a little severe, but, as there is no knowing what is good for other people, I remained a silent spectator.
The flogger then, grabbing at one end of the board with his strong hands, swung it two or three times over his head, and gave a tremendous whack on the man's thighs, causing them to bleed. Then immediately another and another followed, each being duly reckoned, the poor fellow all the while moaning pitifully, and following from the corners of his frightened eyes the quick movements of the quivering plank. Soon his skin became livid and inflamed, and, after a few more blows had been given, large patches of skin remained attached to the board. The pain must have been intense. The wretch bit his sleeves, and moaned and groaned, until, finally, he became faint. Meanwhile, I had produced my sketch-book, and had already with my pencil jotted down magistrate, flogger, flogged and soldiers, when the ill-natured official took offence at what I was doing and ordered the flogging to be at once stopped. Had I only known, I would have begun my sketch before. As it was—and the culprit had only received less than one-fifth of the number of blows to which he had been sentenced—the performance was bad enough. There was only one redeeming feature about it, and I must say no one was more astonished at it than myself. Nearly all the soldiers, friends of the offender, blubbered like children while his punishment lasted. This circumstance seemed to prove to me that the Easterns, though apparently cruel, are, after all, not quite so hard-hearted as one might be inclined to imagine. And, mind you, the soldier-classes in Cho-sen are probably the most cruel of all; that touch of sentiment on their part, therefore, impressed me much, and upset entirely those first ideas I had formed about their lack of sensitiveness and sympathy for others.
The order to that effect being then given, two soldiers proceeded to help the man to rise. Calling to him was, however, of no avail. They had, therefore, to lift him up bodily, but when they tried to dress him they found his swollen bleeding legs to be as stiff as if they had been made of iron; wherefore, as they failed to bend them, two other men had to come to their assistance and carry him away. It not unfrequently happens in the case of this cruel method of flogging that a man's thighs are broken and himself ruined for life, and many have been known to have even died under the severity of the punishment.
Imprisonment is not a favourite punishment with the Corean magistrates, for the infliction of such a penalty means considerable expense to the country, and would be but little punishment to the natives, who, by such confinement, would suffer little or nothing physically, and certainly not at all morally. Some, however, especially of the nobler classes, are kept confined, even for years, in expectation, for instance, of a sentence of capital punishment being carried out, or else in the hope that through influential friends they may obtain the royal pardon. As a rule, particularly with the better classes, exile is deemed a more impressive punishment than imprisonment, and when confiscation of land and property goes with this, the punishment is, of course, all the more severe.
Of banishment there are several different kinds. Thus, there is not only banishment from the city to a distant province, but also that out of the kingdom altogether. Some banishments are for short periods, others for longer periods, others for life. Banishment from the country is generally for life and accompanied by confiscation.
A curious custom prevails at Court, according to which, when a Minister, prince or magistrate incurs the royal displeasure, he is confined for two or three days to his own house, without being allowed to go out. Were the rule broken it would lead to serious trouble, for spies are generally sent to see that the rule is not transgressed. Such a punishment, mild as it is, is much felt by the nobles, and they take, therefore, a good deal of trouble to comply with the Court etiquette in all its minutest details.
Corean law is very lenient to women and children, or unmarried men, which latter class, as we have seen, are classified in the same category as the former. The head of the family is supposed to punish smaller offences as he thinks fit, either by rod or fist, the law only providing the severer forms of punishment for the bigger crimes.
The administration of the law in general is very strange. Some people are responsible, others are not. Certain tradesmen, like butchers, plasterers, innkeepers, carpenters, hatters, etc., have formed themselves into guilds, and in the case of offences committed by a member of one of these guilds he is held responsible to the head of the guild and not to the magistrates of the country. The same holds good in the case of the mapus (horsemen) and the coolie-carriers who constitute, probably, the best-formed and best-governed guild in the country. It has thousands of members all over the kingdom, and not only is the postal system carried on by them, but also the entire trade, so to speak, between the different provinces and towns of the realm. The chief of this guild, until late years, had actually the power of inflicting capital punishment on the members; now, however, the highest penalty he can inflict is a sentence of flogging. Thus it is, that a good deal of the justice of the country is administered by the people themselves, without the intervention of the legal authorities, in which respect they show themselves very sensible. The nobles, too, have the power of flogging their servants or followers, and this is usually done in their own compounds. Very often on passing a house the strokes of the paddle may be heard, the howls and screams of the victim testifying to the nature of what is going on. In other cases flogging is generally done in public, for then it is supposed to have more effect. If done in a private enclosure, then all the servants, soldiers and followers are summoned to witness it.
This patient submission to these personal punishments is no doubt one of the last remains of feudalism. In not very remote times, serfdom which bordered on slavery was still in existence in Cho-sen. Men and women became private property either by the acquiring of the land on which they lived, or, by purchase, or by way of execution for non-payment of debts, for under this convenient law creditors could be paid with a man's relations instead of with ready money.
Slavery in Corea, even when it existed, was, however, always of a very mild form. The women were mostly employed as servants about the house, while the man tilled the ground, but in neither case was rough dealing the rule, and, far less, ill-treatment. They were, too, well fed and clothed; so much so, that many people used to sell themselves in order to acquire a comfortable living. In time of famine this must have very often occurred, and many families whose ancestors under such circumstances stood by the nobles and rich people are even to the present moment supported by them, though no longer as slaves, but rather as retainers and servants. They are perfectly happy with their lot and make no agitation for liberty; in fact, like the bird that has been born and bred in a cage, if left to themselves, they would probably soon come to a bad end.