Corean physiognomy—Expressions of pleasure—Displeasure—Contempt—Fear—Pluck—Laughter—Astonishment—Admiration—Sulkiness— Jealousy—Intelligence—Affection—Imagination—Dreams—Insanity—Its principal causes—Leprosy—The family—Men and women—Fecundity—Natural and artificial deformities—Abnormalities—Movements and attitudes—The Corean hand—Conservatism.
The physiognomy of the Coreans is an interesting study, for, with the exception of the Chinese, I know of few nations who can control the movements of their features so well as do the Coreans. They are trained from their infancy to show neither pain, nor pleasure, grief nor excitement; so that a wonderful placidity is always depicted on their faces. None the less, however, though slightly, different expressions can be remarked. For instance, an attitude peculiar to them is to be noticed when they happen to ponder deeply on any subject; they then slightly frown, and with a sudden movement incline the head to the left, after previously drawing the head backwards. If in good humour or very pleased, again, though the expression is still grave and sedate, there is always a vivid sparkle to be detected in the generally sleepy eyes; and, curiously enough, while in our case the corners of the mouths generally curl up under such circumstances, theirs, on the contrary, are drawn downwards.
Where the Coreans—and I might have said all Asiatics—excel, is in their capacity to show contempt. They do this in the most gentleman-like manner one can imagine. They raise the head slowly, looking at the person they despise with a half-bored, half "I do not care a bit" look; then, leisurely closing the eyes and opening them again, they turn the head away with a very slight expiration from the nose.
Fear—for those, at least, who cannot control it—is to all appearance a somewhat stronger emotion. The eyes are wide open and become staring, the nostrils are spread wide, and the under lip hangs quivering, while the neck and body contract, and the hands, with fingers stiffly bent, are brought up nearly as high as the head. The yellowish skin on such occasions generally assumes a cadaverous whitish green colour which is pitiful to behold.
On the other hand, when pluck is shown, instead of fear, a man will draw himself up, with his arms down and hands tightly closed, and his mouth will assume a placid yet firm expression, the lips being firmly shut (a thing very unusual with Coreans), and the corners tending downwards, while a frown becomes clearly defined upon his brow.
Laughter is seldom indulged in to any very great extent among the upper classes, who think it undignified to show in a noisy manner the pleasure which they derive from whatever it may be. Among the lower specimens of Corean humanity, however, sudden explosions of merriment are often noticeable. The Corean enjoys sarcasm, probably more than anything else in the world; and caricature delights him. I remember once drawing a caricature of an official and showing it to a friend of his, who, in consequence, so lost the much-coveted air of dignity, and went into such fits, that his servants had to come to his rescue and undo his waist-girdle. This, having occurred after a hearty meal, led to his being seized by a violent cough, and becoming subsequently sick. Were I quite sure of not being murdered by my readers, I would like to call it see-sickness, for it was caused by—seeing a joke!
Astonishment is always expressed by a comical countenance. Let me give you an illustration. When we anchored at Fusan in the Higo-Maru, many Coreans came on board to inspect the ship; and, as I looked towards the shore with the captain's powerful long-sight glasses, several natives collected round me to see what I was doing. I asked one of them to look through, and never did I see a man more amazed, than he did, when he saw some one on the shore, with whom he was acquainted, brought so close to him by the glasses as to make him inclined to enter into a very excited conversation with him. His astonishment was even greater when, removing his eyes from the lens, he saw everything resume its natural position. When he had repeated this experiment several times, he put the glasses down, looked at them curiously with his eyebrows raised, his mouth pinched, and his hands spread apart at about the height of his waist, and then looked at me. Again did he glance at the optical instrument, with his mouth wide open; then, making a comical movement of distrust, he quickly departed whence he had come. When he had got fairly into his row-boat, he entered into a most animated conversation with his fellows, and, judging by his motions as he put his hands up to his eyes, I could see that the whole subject was his experience of what he had seen through the "foreign devil's" pair of glasses.
Admiration is to a great extent, a modification of astonishment, and is by the Coreans expressed more by utterance than by any very marked expression of the face. Still, the eyes are opened more than usual, and the eyebrows are raised, and the lips slightly parted, sifting the breath, though not quite so loudly as in Japan.
Another curious Corean expression is to be seen when the children are sulky. Our little ones generally protrude their lips in a tubular form, and bend the head forward, but the Cho-senese child does exactly the reverse. He generally throws his head back and hangs his lips, keeping the mouth open, and making his frown with the upper part of his face. Jealousy in the case of the women finds expression in a look somewhat similar to the above, with an additional vicious sparkle in the eyes.
Notwithstanding the fact that it is not uncommon to hear Coreans being classified among barbarians, I must confess that, taking a liberal view of their constitution, they always struck me as being extremely intelligent and quick at acquiring knowledge. To learn a foreign language seems to them quite an easy task, and whenever they take an interest in the subject of their studies they show a great deal of perseverance and good-will. They possess a wonderfully sensible reasoning faculty, coupled with an amazing quickness of perception; a fact which one hardly expects, judging by their looks; for, at first sight, they rather impress one as being sleepy, and dull of comprehension. The Corean is also gifted with a very good memory, and with a certain amount of artistic power. Generally speaking, he is of an affectionate frame of mind, though he considers it bad form to show by outward sign any such thing as affection. He almost tends to effeminacy in his thoughtful attentions to those he likes; and he generally feels much hurt, though silently, if his attentions are not appreciated or returned. For instance, when you meet a Corean with whom you are acquainted, he invariably asks after the health of yourself, and all your relations and friends. Should you not yourself be as keen in inquiring after his family and acquaintances, he would probably be mortally offended.
One of the drawbacks of the Corean mind is that it is often carried away by an over-vivid imagination. In this, they reminded me much of the Spaniards and the Italians. Their perception seems to be so keen that frequently they see more than really is visible. They are much given to exaggeration, not only in what they say, but also in their representations in painting and sculpture. In the matters both of conversation and of drawing, the same ideas will be found in Cho-sen to repeat themselves constantly, more or less cleverly expressed, according to the differently gifted individuality of the artist. The average Corean seems to learn things quickly, but of what they learn, some things remain rooted in their brains, while others appear to escape from it the moment they have been grasped. There is a good deal of volubility about their utterances, and, though visibly they do not seem very subject to strong emotions, judging from their conversation, one would feel inclined to say that they were. Another thing that led me to this suspicion was the observation that the average Corean is much given to dreaming, in the course of which he howls, shouts, talks and shakes himself to his heart's content. This habit of dreaming is to a large extent due, I imagine, to their mode of sleeping flat on their backs on the heated floors, which warm their spines, and act on their brains; though it may also, in addition to that be accounted for by the intensity of the daily emotions re-acting by night on over-excited nervous systems. I have often observed Coreans sleep, and they always impressed me as being extremely restless in their slumbers. As for snoring, too, the Coreans are entitled to the Championship of the world.
The Coreans are much affected mentally by dreams, and being, as we have already seen, an extremely superstitious race, they attach great importance to their nocturnal visions. A good deal of hard cash is spent in getting the advice of astrologers, who pretend to understand and explain the occult art, and pleasure or consternation is thus usually the result of what might have been explained naturally either by one of the above-named causes, or by the victim having feasted the previous evening on something indigestible. Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that the Corean mind is seldom thrown off its balance altogether. Idiocy is not frequent, and lunacy is uncommon.
Insanity, when it does exist, generally exhibits itself under the form of melancholia and dementia, and is more frequently found among the upper than among the lower classes. With the men it is generally due to intemperance and excesses, and is occasionally accompanied by paralysis. Among the women, the only cases which came under my notice were of wives whose husbands had many concubines, and of young widows. Suicide is not unfrequently practised among the latter; partly in consequence of the strict Corean etiquette, but often also caused by insanity when it does not follow immediately upon the husband's death. Another cause of melancholia—chiefly, however, among the lower classes—is a dreadful complaint, which has found its way among the natives in its most repulsive form. Many are affected by it, and no cure for it seems to have been devised by the indigenous doctors. The accounts one hears in the country of its ravages are too revolting to be repeated in these pages, and I shall limit myself to this. Certain forms of insanity are undoubtedly a common sequence to it.
Leprosy also prevails in Cho-sen, and in the more serious cases seems to affect the brain, producing idiocy. This disease is caused by poverty of blood, and is, of course, hereditary. I have seen two forms of it in Cho-sen; in the one case, the skin turns perfectly white, almost shining like satin, while in the other—a worse kind, I believe—the skin is a mass of brown sores, and the flesh is almost entirely rotted away from the bones. The Coreans have no hospitals or asylums in which evils like these can be properly tended. Those affected with insanity are generally looked after by their own families, and, if considered dangerous, are usually chained up in rooms, either by a riveted iron bracelet, fastened to a short heavy chain, or, more frequently, by an anklet over the right foot.
Families in Corea are generally small in number. I have no exact statistics at hand, for none were obtainable; but, so far as I could judge from observation, the males and females in the population are about equal in number. If anything, the women slightly preponderate. The average family seldom includes more than two children. The death-rate of Cho-sen infants is great, and many reasons can account for the fact. In the first place, all children in Corea, even the stronger ones who survive, are extremely delicate until a certain age is attained, when they seem to pick up and become stronger. This weakness is hereditary, especially among the upper classes, of whom very few powerful men are to be found, owing to their dissolute and effeminate life.
Absolute sterility in women is not an uncommon phenomenon, and want of virile power in the male part of the community is also often the subject of complaint; many quaint drugs and methods being adopted to make up for the want of it, and to stimulate the sexual desire. A good many of the remedies resorted to by the Corean noblemen under such circumstances are of Chinese manufacture and importation. Certain parts of the tiger, dried and reduced to powder, are credited with the possession of wonderful strengthening qualities, and fetch large sums. Some parts of the donkey, also, when the animal is killed during the spring and under special circumstances, are equally appreciated. The lower classes of Cho-sen—as is the case in most countries—are more prolific than the upper ones. The parents are both healthier and more robust, and the children in consequence are stronger and more numerous, but even among these classes large families are seldom or never found. Taken as a whole, the population of Corea is, I believe, a slowly decreasing quantity.
The Corean is in some respects very sensible, if compared with his neighbours. Deformities, artificially produced, are never found in Corea. In civilised Japan, on the other hand, as we all know, the women blacken their teeth and shave their eyebrows, while there are numberless people in the lower classes who are tattooed from head to foot with designs of all kinds. In China, too, people are occasionally deformed for the sake of lucre, as, for instance, to be exhibited at village shows, and the Chinese damsel would not consider herself fascinating enough if her feet were not distorted to such an extent as to be shapeless, and almost useless. The head-bands worn by the men in Corea are probably the only causes which tend to modify the shape of their heads, and that only to a very small degree. These head-bands are worn so very tightly from their earliest youth, that I have often noticed men—when the head-band was removed—show a certain flattening of the upper part of the forehead, due undoubtedly to the continuous pressure of this head-gear. In such cases, however, the cranial deformation—though always noticeable—is but slight, and, of course, unintentionally caused. The skull, as a whole, in the case of those who have worn the head-band is a little more elongated than it is in the case of those few who have not; the elongation being upwards and slightly backwards.
Natural abnormalities are more frequent. I have seen numerous cases of goitre, and very often the so-called hare-lip. Webbed fingers also are frequently noticed; while inguinal hernia, both as a congenital and as an acquired affection, is unfortunately all too common. The natives do not undergo any special treatment until the complaint assumes alarming proportions, when a kind of belt is worn, or bandages of home manufacture are used. These are the more common abnormalities. To them, however, might also be added manifestations of albinism—though I have never seen an absolute albino in Corea—such as, large patches of white hair among the black. Red hair is rarely seen.
The Corean, apart, that is, from these occasional defects, is well proportioned, and of good carriage. When he stands erect his body is well-balanced; and when he walks, though somewhat hampered by his padded clothes, his step is rational. He sensibly walks with his toes turned slightly in, and he takes firm and long strides. The gait is not energetic, but, nevertheless, the Coreans are excellent pedestrians, and cover long distances daily, if only they are allowed plenty to eat and permission to smoke their long pipes from time to time. Their bodies seem very supple, and like those of nearly all Asiatics, their attitudes are invariably graceful. In walking, they slightly swing their arms and bend their bodies forward, except, I should say, the high officials, whose steps are exaggeratedly marked, and whose bodies are kept upright and purposely stiff.
One of the things which will not fail to impress a careful observer is the beauty of the Corean hand. The generality of Europeans possess bad hands, from an artistic point of view, but the average Corean, even among the lower classes, has them exceedingly well-shaped, with long supple fingers, somewhat pointed at the end; and nails well formed and prettily shaped, though to British ideas, grown far too long. It is not a powerful hand, mind you, but it is certainly most artistic; and, further, it is attached to a small wrist in the most graceful way, never looking stumpy, as so often is the case with many of us. The Coreans attach much importance to their hands; much more, indeed, than they do to their faces; and special attention is paid to the growth of the nails. In summer time these are kept very clean; but in winter, the water being very cold, the cleanliness of their limbs, "laisse un peu à desirer." I have frequently seen a beautifully-shaped hand utterly spoilt by the nails being lined with black, and the knuckles being as filthy as if they had never been dipped in water. But these are only lesser native failings; and have we not all our faults?
The two qualities I most admired in the Corean were his scepticism and his conservatism. He seemed to take life as it came, and never worried much about it. He had, too, practically no religion and no morals. He cared about little, had an instinctive attachment for ancestral habits, and showed a thorough dislike to change and reform. And this was not so much as regards matters of State and religion, for little or nothing does the Corean care about either of these, as in respect of the daily proceedings of life. To the foreign observer, many of his ways and customs are at first sight incomprehensible, and even reprehensible; yet, when by chance his mode of arguing out matters for himself is clearly understood, we will almost invariably find that he is correct. After all, every one, whether barbarian or otherwise, knows best himself how to please himself. The poor harmless Corean, however, is not allowed that privilege. He, as if by sarcasm, calls his country by the retiring name of the "Hermit Realm" and the more poetic one of the "Land of the Morning Calm"; "a coveted calm" indeed, which has been a dream to the country, but never a reality, while, as for its hermit life, it has been only too often troubled by objectionable visitors whom he detests, yet whom, nevertheless, he is bound to receive with open arms, helpless as he is to resist them.
Poor Corea! Bad as its Government was and is, it is heart-rending to any one who knows the country, and its peaceful, good-natured people, to see it overrun and impoverished by foreign marauders. Until the other day, she was at rest, heard of by few, and practically forgotten by everybody, to all intents an independent kingdom, since China had not for many years exercised her rights of suzerainty, when, to satisfy the ambition of a childish nation, she suddenly finds herself at the mercy of everybody, and with a dark and most disastrous future before her!
Poor Corea! A sad day has come for you! You, who were so attractive, because so quaint and so retiring, will nevermore see that calm which has ever been the yearning of your patriot sons! Many evils are now before you, but, of all the great calamities that might befall you, I can conceive of none greater than an attempt to convert you into a civilised nation!
After a cessation of many years a tribute was again exacted from Corea in 1890, in consequence of overtures being made to Corea by Japan, which displeased China.