Seoul—The City Wall—A large image—Mount Nanzam—The fire-signals—women's joss-house—Foreign buildings—Japanese settlement—An anecdote—Clean or not clean?—The Pekin Pass—The water-carrier—The man of the Gates.
The ground in and around Seoul is very hilly. The wall that surrounds the capital uncoils itself, like a gigantic snake, up and down the slopes of high bluffs, and seems a very marvellous work of patient masonry when it is borne in mind that some of the peaks up which it winds its way are so steep that even climbing on foot is not an easy task. The height is not uniform, but where it is highest it reaches to over thirty feet. The North Gate, for instance, is at a much higher level than the town down below, and it is necessary to go up a steep road to reach it. From it, a very good idea is obtainable of the exact situation of Seoul. Down in the valley, a narrow one, lies the town itself, completely surrounded by hills, and even mountains, covered with thick snow during the winter months.
The wall, several miles long, goes over the hill ridges far above the level of the town, except towards the west, where it descends to the valley, and is on almost level ground, as far as the East Gate. It has a rampart in which holes have been pierced, for the defence of the town by archers and gunners; and, to let out the water of the streams, which intersect the town, low arches have been cut in the wall, provided with strong iron bars, and a solid grating through which no man can penetrate. Outside the town, bridges of masonry have been constructed; for instance, there is one of four arches, a short distance from the North Gate, being the continuation of a portion of the wall protecting the river valley on the north of Seoul. Not far from this bridge, is a monastery, and a small temple with curled-up roof supported by columns, painted red and green. The latter protects an enormous block of stone upon which has been carved a large image of Buddha, the surface of which has been painted white. When I saw it, close by the river side, with the sun shining on it, and its image reflected in the limpid ice of the frozen river, the sight was indeed quite a picturesque one.
Towards the south side of Seoul, and within the city wall, rises in a cone-like fashion a high hill called Mount Nanzam. One cannot help feeling interested about this hill, and for many reasons. In the first place, it is most picturesque; secondly, it is a rare thing to find a mountain rising in the centre of a town, as this one does; thirdly, from the summit of this particular hill a constant watch is kept on the state of affairs all over the kingdom.
The mode of accomplishing the last-mentioned object is as ingenious as it is simple. It is shortly this. On the summit of Mount Nanzam a signal station is placed—a miserable shed, in which the watchmen live. In front of this, five piles of stones have been erected, upon which, by means of the "Pon-wa," or fire-signals, messages are conveyed and transmitted from one end of the Corean kingdom to the other. Now, it is on these five piles of stones that the safety of the Land of the Morning Calm depends, and it is a pretty and weird sight to watch the lights upon them, playing after dark, in the stillness of the night. Similarly appointed stations on the tops of all the highest peaks in Corea issue, transmit, and answer, by means of other lights, messages from the most distant provinces, by which means, in a very few minutes, the King in his royal palace is kept informed of what happens hundreds of miles from his capital. It is from the royal palace itself that fire-messages start in the first instance, and that too is the place which lastly receives them from other mountain tops. All along the coast line of Corea, on the principal headlands, fire-stations have long been in use in order to give the alarm in the capital, should marauders approach the coast or other invasions take place.
Until quite lately, the coast villages and towns used to suffer much at the hands of Chinese pirates, who, though well aware that they would, if caught, most certainly find themselves in the awkward position of having their heads cut off, nevertheless used to approach the coast by night in swift junks, make daring raids, and pillage the villages, and even some of the smaller towns. So suddenly were these incursions usually made that by the time the natives had managed to get over their astonishment at the attack of these unpleasant and greedy visitors, the acute Chinamen, with their booty, were well out at sea again.
THE FIRE-SIGNAL STATION AND JOSS-HOUSE
The great drawback to fire-signalling is, that messages can only be clearly conveyed at night. In the day-time, when necessary, smoke-signals are transmitted, though never with the same safety as are the fire-signals. By burning large torches of wet straw, masses of white smoke are produced, upon which the alarm is raised that the country is in danger. The code of smoke signalling, however, is almost limited to that one signal; for, on a windy or rainy day, it would be quite impossible to distinguish whether there were one or more torches smoking, unless, of course, they could be set very far apart, which cannot be done on Nanzam. Prior to sending a message, a bell is rung in the royal palace to attract the attention of the Mountain Watchmen. The whole code, for they have a really systematic way of using their pyrographs, is worked with five burning fires only, and more than that number of lights are never shown, though, of course, many times there are less. The five-lights-together signal, I believe, indicates that the country is in imminent danger; there are other signals to meet the cases of rebellions, recalling of magistrates from distant provinces, orders to them to extort money from their subjects, the despatch or recall of troops, &c. &c.
A few yards from the signal station, though still on Mount Nanzam, there is a picturesque red joss-house with a shrine in close proximity to it. The story goes—and the women of Cho-sen find it convenient to believe it—that a visit to this particular joss-house has the wonderful effect of making sterile women prolific. A few strings of cash and a night's rest at the temple—preceded, if I remember rightly, by prayers—constitute sufficient service to satisfy the family duties, and I was certainly told that in many cases the oracle worked so well that in due time the chin-chins got rewarded with the birth of babies. I may mention incidentally that the caretaker of the joss-house was a strong, healthy, powerful man.
As we are now on a splendid point of vantage for a bird's-eye view of the town we may as well take a glance over it.
Very prominent before us, after the large enclosure of the royal Palace, are the foreign buildings, such as the Japanese Legation on a smaller hill at the foot of Nanzam, and overlooking the large Japanese settlement; the abode of the Chinese Minister resident, with its numerous buildings around it; the British Consulate with its new red brick house in course of construction; and, by the side of the last mentioned, the compounds of the American and Russian legations. Farther on, nearer the royal Palace, the German flag may be seen surmounting the German Consulate, which is situated in an enclosure containing several Corean houses which have been reduced à l' Européenne and made very comfortable. Then the large house with a glass front is the one now inhabited by the Vice-Minister for Home Affairs, but the grounds surrounding this are very restricted. A nunnery and a few houses of missionaries also stand prominent, mostly in the neighbourhood of the Japanese settlement.
The Japanese settlement, into which we will now descend, is noteworthy for the activity and commercial enterprise shown by the subjects of the Mikado. It is remarkable, also, to notice the curious co-existence of sense and nonsense in the Jap's adoption of foreign customs. For instance, you see the generality of them dressed in European clothes, but nevertheless still sticking to the ancient custom of removing their boots on entering a house; a delightful practice, I agree, in Japan, where the climate is mild, but not in a country like Corea, where you have an average of sixty degrees of frost. Then again, the Japanese houses, the outer walls of which consist of tissue paper, seem hardly suited to such a climate as that of Corea. It is really comical to watch them as they squat in a body round a brass brasier, shivering and blue with cold, with thin flat faces and curved backs; reminding one very much of the large family of quadrumans at the Zoo on a cold day. Nevertheless, they are perfectly happy, though many die of pleurisy, consumption, and cold in the chest.
The Japanese women dress, of course, in their national kimonos, and just as it is in Japan the fashion to show a little of the chest under the throat, so in Cho-sen the same custom is adopted; with the result that many are carried off by bronchitis to the next world.
One cannot but admire the Japanese, however, for the cleanliness of their houses and for the good-will—sometimes too much of it—which they display as well in their commercial dealings as in their colonising schemes. The custom of daily bathing in water of a boiling-point temperature is carried on by them in Corea as in their own country, notwithstanding which I venture to say that the Japanese are very dirty people. This remark seems non-coherent and requires, I am afraid, some explanation.
"How can they be dirty if they bathe every day? I call that being very clean," I fancy I hear you reply.
So they would undoubtedly be, if they bathed in clean water; but, unfortunately, this is just what they do not do, and, to my uncivilised mind, bathing in filthy water seems ten times more dirty than not bathing at all. Just imagine a small tank of water in which dozens, if not hundreds, of people have been already boiled before you in your turn use it, and upon which float large "eyes" of greasy matter. Well, this is what every good Japanese is expected to immerse himself in, right up to his nose, for at least half an hour at a time! I cannot but admire them for their courage in doing it, but, certainly, from the point of view of cleanliness my view is quite different; for, really and truly, I have always failed to see where the "cleanliness" comes in. Persons belonging to the wealthier classes have small baths of their own, in the steaming hot liquid of which bask in turns the family itself, their friends, the children and servants; and probably the same water is used again and again for two or three days in succession.
I remember well how horrified I was one evening, in the Land of the Rising Sun, when, on visiting a small village, I was, as a matter of politeness on their part, requested to join in the bath. Being a novice at Japanese experiences, and as their request was so pressing, I thanked them and accepted; whereupon, I was buoyantly led to the bath. Oh what a sight! Three skinny old women, "disgraces," I may almost call them, for certainly they could not be classified under the designation of "graces," were sitting in a row with steaming water up to their necks, undergoing the process of being boiled. What! thought I, panic-stricken—am I to bathe with these three ... old lizards? Oh no, not I! and I made a rush for the door, greatly to the annoyance of the people, who not only considered me very dirty, but also very rude in not availing myself of their polite invitation! The next morning as I took my cold bath as usual in beautifully clean spring water, I was condemned and pitied as a lunatic! Such are the different customs of different people.
When visiting Seoul, it is well worth one's while to take a walk to the Pekin Pass, a li or two outside the West Gate. The pass itself, which is cut into the rock, is situated on the road leading from Seoul to Pekin; which, by the way, is the road by which the envoys of the Chinese Emperor, following an ancient custom, travel overland with a view to claiming the tribute payable by the King of Corea. As a matter of fact, this custom of paying tribute had almost fallen into disuse, and China had not, for some years, I believe, enforced her right of suzerainty over the Corean peninsula, until the year 1890, when the envoys of the Celestial Emperor once again proceeded on their wearisome and long journey from Pekin to the capital of Cho-sen. It was here at the Pekin Pass, then, that, according to custom, they were received with great honour by the Coreans, and led into Seoul. It was at a large house, surrounded by a wall, on the road side, that these envoys were usually received and welcomed, either by the king in person or by some representative; and it was here that they were treated with refreshments and food, previously to being conducted in state into the capital, this being
accomplished amidst the cheers of a Corean crowd, which, like other crowds, is always ready to cheer the last comer. At the Pekin Pass, a "triumphal arch"—for want of a better word—could be seen. It was a lofty structure, composed of two high columns, the lower part of these being of masonry, and the upper of lacquered wood, which supported a heavy roof of the orthodox Corean pattern, under which, about one-fourth down the columns, was a portion decorated with native fretwork of a somewhat rough type. The illustration represents this monument as it appeared in winter time, when the ground was covered with snow, beyond it being the square cut in the rocks, through which the road leads to Newchuang and Pekin.
There are two types of individuals that are very interesting from a picturesque point of view; viz., the water-coolie, and the man who carries the huge locks and keys of the city gates.
The water-coolie is almost as much of a "personality," as the mapu, in his rude independent ways. He displays much patience, and certainly deserves admiration for the amount of work he daily does, for very little pay. His work consists in carrying water, from morning until night, to whoever wants it. This is a simple enough process in summer time, but in winter matters are rather different, for now nearly all the fountains are frozen, and the water has to be drawn from a well. The water-coolie carries a peculiar arrangement on his shoulders, a long pole fastened cross-wise upon his shoulder-blades, by straps going under and round the arms; by which means he is enabled to carry two buckets of water at a time. The arrangement, though more complicated, is not dissimilar to that used for the same purpose, by women in Holland, or to that for carrying milk in many parts of Switzerland. In winter time the buckets of water become buckets of ice the moment they are drawn from the well, and then it is really pitiable to see these poor beggars with the skin of their hands all cracked and bleeding with the cold. They run along at a good pace when loaded, and show great judgment in avoiding collision, sighing as they go a loud hess! hess! hess! hess! to which they keep time with their steps. They are considered about the lowest creatures in the kingdom, and enjoy some of the privileges of children and unmarried men as regards clothing; for instance, they generally wear a light blue jacket even when the country is in mourning. When on duty they never wear hats, and often no head-bands, having, instead, blue kerchiefs wrapt round the head. The inevitable long pipe is not forgotten, and is carried, after the fashion of the mapu, stuck down the back.
The lock-carrier, again, is by no means the dirtiest individual in the land of Cho-sen, at least as far as it was my good fortune to see. Nevertheless, his clothes are invariably in a state of dilapidation, and, though intended to be white, are usually black with grease and dirt. As he is employed by the Government he wears the deepest mourning; his face, and one half of his body being actually hidden under the huge hat provided for deep mourners. He seldom possesses a pair of padded socks and sandals, and in the coldest days walks about bare-footed with his trousers turned up to
the knees. He is visible only at sunrise and sunset, when he goes on his round to all the city gates in order to inspect the locks and bring or take away the keys. Slung down his back, he carries a large leather bag, something like a tennis bag, which contains numberless iron implements of different shapes and weights. He appears to be friendless and despised by everybody, and I have never seen him talk to any one. I rather pitied the poor fellow as I saw him go night after night, with his long unwashed face and hands, along the rampart of the wall from one gate to another. Apropos of this I once made a Corean very angry by remarking that "really the safety of the city could not be in dirtier hands."