Wednesday, May 26, 2010

RASKB lecture - Superstitions and Perceptions of Early Korean-Western Relations

It was good to see that I wasn't the only one looking forward to the lecture. A highly anticipated night, as per the RASKB website:
May 25, 2010 RAS Lecture Meeting
Tuesday / 화요일 Mr. Robert Neff
7:30 p.m. 2nd floor, Residents’ Lounge
Somerset Palace, Seoul
Superstitions and Perceptions of Early Korean-Western Relations
Following the opening of Korea to the West in 1882, Westerners entered Korea for various reasons. Some came as diplomats, representing and protecting their countries’ interests, while others came as advisors to the Korean government. There were merchants seeking business opportunities and many missionaries who provided altruistic services such as education and medicine all in the name of their religion. Some came to Korea seeking a new beginning; hoping to hide their unsavory past. To all of these groups, Korea was a newly-found frontier and an undiscovered market for what they had to offer.
In this lecture we will talk about the interaction between these early Westerners and their Korean hosts by examining Korean superstitions and the perceptions and misperceptions of the Westerners and Koreans.
The introduction of various Western technologies such as the railroad, streetcars and electricity were all, in the beginning, viewed with suspicion and fear by some of the more superstitious Korean people. Often these first encounters with these new technologies provided us with humorous anecdotes but occasionally ended in violence. The Westerners tended to either look upon these Korean superstitions as quaint or with disdain but were not above using them for their own gain as will be shown in the lecture.
Perception, or perhaps misperception, was also a factor in early Korean-Western relations. Sometimes misperceptions led to awkward and embarrassing encounters such as young Korean boys mistaken for bold girls or a young American male missionary mistaken for a young pretty lady. Other times these misperceptions led to violence as during the Baby Riots which will be discussed in detail during the lecture.
Robert Neff is a freelance writer and historical researcher specializing in Korean history during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He first came to Korea with the military over two decades ago and has a deep appreciation for Korean culture and its history. He is the co-author of Korea Through Western Eyes as well as Westerner’s Life in Korea and his writings have appeared in various newspapers, magazines and books including Christian Science Monitor, Asia Times, Morning Calm, Korea Witness, Royal Asiatic Society – Transactions, Korea Times, Korea Herald and Jeju Weekly.
Despite an unfortunate technical difficulty that resulted in Neff's powerpoint not being available to view, the topic was juicy and plenty interesting. Essentially an off-shoot of his most recent book Neff touched on some rather sensitive sentiments from a hundred years ago.

Of dutiful mention was foreign men's constant confusion over handsome young men and the gentler sex. Time after time, rugged travelers happened upon delicate flowers of the Orient who were indeed not graceful members of the opposite sex but in fact fabulously well groomed young men with excellent bone structures. We all had a laugh; especially at the perception on the opposite side of the spectrum. Neff tells of a half balding, mustachioed George Heber Jones, his trek across the Taedong River and subsequent encounter with a uncomfortably beckoning 아저씨 that had either had to much to drink too early in the day or was seriously misinformed of the standards of foreign women. It seems Jones was quite possibly mistaken for a young foreign female...for some reason.

To sum up the rest of the lecture, there was a lot of talk of exposed breasts, baby eating and naked children. In the author's defense, however, these were simple observations made a hundred years ago. The rather unflattering comments were from a time past and are clearly not meant in a pejorative way in modern times. As one commenter brought up, many of these misconceptions were not exclusive to Korea and no insinuation should be made of disrespect.

The lecture was full of other interesting and head scratching observations of times past. Early on in the questioning, Neff referred to himself as simply a "gossip columnist from a hundred years ago", which I will now affectionately affix to his work from now on. In addition to meeting Jennifer of Bomb English fame and Matt from Gusts of Popular Feeling, rubbing elbows with some of Korea's most well respected journalists, writers and historians is not a bad way to spend a Tuesday night in Seoul. If you missed it, shame on you.

Some other quick notes (kind reader feel free to leave corrections):
  • The first Westerners to set foot in Korea were likely some Portuguese that accompanied the Japanese during the Imjin War.
  • The Imo Revolt of 1882 was placated by the end of an especially long dry-spell throughout the country. It was believed that the death of the Japanese solved the drought.
  • Prior to 1910s, there were only three well-documented international relationships consisting of Western men and Korean women. They include Percival Lowell, Dr. Charles Power, and an unnamed (rather, disputed) French diplomat whose lover tragically came back to Korea only to commit suicide years later. Was there not a mention of a snake oil peddler? Dr. Irwin? Can't remember...
  • For a lower class woman to expose her breasts in the countryside was a sign of pride; a badge of honor for bearing a son.
  • It is suspected that the Taewangon masterminded the Baby Riots. You know, the one where foreigners were supposedly eating slash using human baby limbs, sexual organs and eyes for making photographs and whatnot.
  • Despite the average height of the Korean male being 5' 4½" back in the day, Koreans were frequently compared to Chinese and Japanese as being the most tall and good looking.
  • According to common mention in old journals, letters, articles and such, references to Korean's cleanliness standards, namely their lack of any discernible standards, was notorious. One quote that stuck with me which I will now butcher with a cloudy short-term memory, was "...if filthiness is a virtue, then Koreans are by far the most virtuous people in all of the world."
  • Apparently there was a seven foot tall Korean female servant in the royal court named 고태수 (spelling?) who, apparently after growing tired of teasing remarks of her height, participated in the 1884 Kapshin Coup.
  • It is speculated that prior to Japanese occupation, and sebsequent education reform, Koreans were especially talented at learning English quickly. Prince 이진호 (spelling?) was said to have been sent to Japan to study English in 1881 and was trilingual as a result.


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