Tuesday 11th April. Sydney Airport Departure Lounge
Flew from Port MacQarrie to Sydney, now waiting for the plane to Seoul (South Korea). Two and a half weeks in Australia thinking, writing, filming our grand-children, unwinding from a busy term in Cambridge. The distance from all other Continents makes Australia a wonderful place to think on a large scale, to pursue Rousseau’s maxim that ‘one needs to look near at hand if one wants to study man; but to study man one must learn to look from afar...’ As the third millennium starts and one wonders whether homo sapiens brief history is nearly over, it is good to be in an ancient continent like Australia, with its relatively unchanged fifty thousand years of hunting and gathering – and sudden modernity in the last two hundred years. The present thin veneer of consumerism and bland equality seems so transitory. So I have re-written a lecture to celebrate the great English historian, F.W.Maitland, sorted out how I can write the two final chapters of a book I’ve been working on for several years (on the enormous impact of glass) and written a short overview of the history of homo sapiens which might introduce a DVD (digital virtual disc) or World Wide Web Site. But after a few weeks here one longs again for an unbroken ancientness and complexity of recorded history – and where better to find that than in one of the most ancient civilizations in the world, Korea.
It is a very special moment just before entering a new civilization. I remember again the enormous excitement of ‘discovering’ Nepal, then Japan, and of visits to parts of Europe, America and China. Something similar to a naturalists’ discovery of a new species. As an anthropologist and historian I now have a set f models of how various civilizations work which help me to ‘place’ what I discover into a comparative framework. Where will Korea fit?
It is clearly both like and totally different from China and Japan. It appears from the literature to be an ancient shamanic (Siberian) culture, whose history has been one of almost interminable war and suffering. Its enormous artistic and technological creativity has emerged out of the clash of great civilizations. I shall be looking at the record of six thousand years of turmoil – will it make any sense? Can it possibly be half as difficult to understand as ‘Japan’, or half as easy as ‘America’? I’ve read what I can and having a Ph.D. student, David, to help guide me over a brief five days will make learning much more efficient. As Malinowski put it as he stepped ashore on the Trobriand Islands for the first time, I shall either discover this new world, or construct (invent) it.
Wednesday 12th April. Seoul.
A day in Seoul. First taste of Korea’s history is in the ‘Customs Declaration’ form on the plane, memories of when it was a closed and paranoid society. Not only is one asked to declare how many ballpoint pens etc. one is bringing in, but also ‘6. Articles harmful to the national constitution, public security or morals (e.g. books, publications, photographs, video tapes, film, CD, CD ROM etc).’
As one flew into the airport and later on drives through the countryside, signs of the ‘grey revolution’, something far less commented on but just as significant, as we saw in North China, as the ‘green revolution’. In other words the use of plastics to help plants grow in the cold and dry landscape. This has produced a cornucopia of vegetables for the cites and created a revolution. But here, in the absence of the full force of the Siberian winds, they do not have one embanked side as they do in China. Many are just sheets on the ground, small cloches, or rounded tubes, like central China.
The underground from the airport seemed relatively very empty after Tokyo sub-ways, but otherwise like them; most of the passengers asleep. A huge variation in the faces, all with Mongoloid eyes, black hair, but otherwise evidence of a myriad of origins, even if the myth is of a common (Tungus) origin.
After breakfast at the ‘Dunkin Donut’ in the fashionable part of the city (all the American stores are here), we spent some time wandering through the under-ground and street markets. The whole thing very familiar, though not exactly the same as either Japan or Beijing. A haunting analogy is in the back of my mind, which suddenly crystallizes – of a recent trip to Istanbul. The same energy, the same mix of a recent rural past and rapidly ‘westernizing’ consumerism. A brief transitory moment when two civilizations are in balance and the streets are piled high with the mix of country products (ginseng the magical root, tortoises and live fish, pigs heads, dumplings, vegetables) and smart (fake?) designer clothes and watches. A great number of spectacles, stamp, and camera shops.
The traffic does not keep to the streets; motorbikes and cars drive along the pavements if possible. Pedestrian crossings ignored and the notorious driving habits – entirely egocentric and aggressive, noticeable. Much, including young babies, carried on the back.
I suddenly realize that this is the world of Alice in Wonderland’s White Rabbit. Everyone in a hurry and muttering (internally and in Korean of course) ‘The Duchess, the Duchess’, and not looking to left or right. The ‘Duchess’ is a mixture of a line of authoritarian governments in the past and the pressures of competitive capitalism in the present. Whereas the Japanese are far more densely crowded, they never bump into one; here constant bumpings and the body distance less. Much more ‘individualistic’ than the English in walking and driving habits.
Went to a large bookshop; a much smaller selection of books in English in general and on Korea specifically than in Japan, though able to get a copy of the immortal Isabella Bird’s ‘Korea and Her Neighbours’ and several other useful books.
Many of those small delights of the experimental use of a new language visible in the signs. Tea-shirts with inscriptions such as ‘Dog Flower – Beautiful Mutant’, bars called ‘Falling in coffee’ or ‘Sod’, shops with names like ‘Athlete’s Foot’, and appetising drinks such as ‘Human Water’ and the Japanese drink ‘Sweat Pokari’.
Compared to Japan it is pretty grubby in the streets, on a par with Istanbul, and the sense of time and punctuality also half way between eastern and western (roughly on a part with Portugal in the 1970’s). Also fairly inefficient. Took fifteen minutes to buy a sub-way ticket as most machines were not working, there was no office open, but finally a helpful group of young policemen gave assistance.
There are strong traces of authoritarianism. Beards are forbidden for employees of banks and many government offices. But on the other side there is a great tradition of protest. An occupation of administrative offices in the University we visited and two street demonstrations with lights and loud speakers and crowds of polices as we walk back to our hotel after a delicious meal at an (ex) Buddhist monk’s vegetarian restaurant.
The floorshow at the restaurant had consisted mainly of tourist folk dancing and drumming by women dressed up in traditional costumes as female shamans in red and white. The sixteen different plates were halfway between Japanese ‘tempura’ and Chinese food – with lots of red pepper added. At lunch our waitress stirred together all the ingredients on our plates into a jumble – a horrible mess by Japanese aesthetic standards.
People seem more outward-looking than Japanese; none of the heavy weight of obligation (‘on’) which prevents Japanese from helping somehow who has fallen down in the street (to protect them from being obliged). So the White Rabbit, however hurried, pauses to help and advise.
Our visit to the University, where a recent student from Cambridge (Dr Park) has been recruited to a new Department of Folklore Studies. A pleasant campus, full of cherry blossoms, a huge dragon sporting in a lake, memorial to slaughtered students. The library crowded and staff rooms very small. We hear that Korean Universities, like Japanese, still very Confucian – rote learning, little analysis or argument. Perhaps the two panels in the display of Nobel Laureate portraits outside the bookshop (which includes the notable Irish laureate William Butler Yeath) which are reserved for future Korean prize-winners will remain empty for a while.
So, memories blend together – cherry blossom, huge mechanical cranes, tall grey apartment blocks, rock music, numerous churches, nuns and Buddhist monks, a vibrant mixture of heavy industrialism and a very colourful, turbulent cultural past. A large construction site coming out of recession, built of steel and stone, not of paper and bamboo like Japan. A sort of blend of north China, Istanbul and small town America in the 1950’s – religious, consumerist, individualist, authoritarian, crude and colourful, stodge and red pepper, a firy and interesting place.
Discussing sexual behaviour with Kim, David’s wife, it appears that there are many of the same contradictions as in Japan. Puritanical and innocent before marriage. After marriage men can have affairs, though at present there is a crackdown on brothels. Magazines etc. have the pubic hair air-brushed out. The costumes and advertisements, as in Japan, very bland. Sex hardly used to sell products, though things are changing in that direction. Told that there is the Japanese phenomenon of schoolgirls with short skirts and drooping socks after school, but don’t see much evidence of it and their skirts had lower hemlines than their Japanese equivalent. Public kissing still discouraged.
A particular dislike of blowing the nose into a handkerchief in public, especially
when eating. And the
Cars all Korean made, mostly black or white. So modern Korea, black, white and grey – buildings, cars, plastic, costumes, pottery. But parts of the older culture full of reds, golds and greens.
Thursday 13th April
Up at 8 o’clock. Slightly aching from sleeping on a floor – similar to Japan and Nepal, except that this one contains under floor heating (though turned off now), and no tatami matting. Koreans experts at maximising warmth from minimal heat. Instead of heating rooms they use this under-floor system, and heat their chairs. Presumably in the old days, as in northern China, they used the heat from the cooking fire. Something which differs from the Japanese ‘hibachi’.
By tube and taxi to the express bus terminal. A huge chaos of revving buses; apparently the place is re-organized every month or so. Then a three and a half-hour bus drive down to Puan, on the southwestern coast, where David is doing his fieldwork. Cherry blossom and forsythia scattered through a city of grey tower blocks and in between a scattering of hills and small plots of rice land or vegetables growing under plastic. All the way down the plastics ‘grey revolution’ everywhere – what effect would this have on agriculture?
Much of the countryside like an extended building-site. Seoul like Beijing, the national bird a (metal) crane. Half-built bridges, motorways, irrigation channels, cement and stone everywhere. A haze emphasizes the grey and blackness and brown bare ploughed fields, and grey and black plastic, with splashes of blossoms. Ubiquitous little burial mounds with stone memorials. Each town as 8-12 floor high-rise flats, with numbers and sometimes advice such as ‘Think Innovation’ painted on the side of the buildings . Only occasionally a new house is built in the old style with a curved roof of tiles and verandas.
Very dry everywhere; we gather the drought worse than usual. Half-familiar countryside, like Japan, but less congested. Motorways with universal blue signs with the normal international symbols, ‘P’ for parking, knives and forks and so on.
Watching people reading one notices the absence of the ubiquitous comic books of Japan; apparently they are popular among children, but not among adults, unlike Japan. One wonders whether this is another side effect of having a very good phonetic script, ‘hangul’. The immensely complex Japanese writing and speech makes pictures and body language much more important there. And everywhere there are churches – different shapes, but all built squarely with high crosses, illuminated in neon at night.
Spent afternoon at a pottery near Puan (Yuchan kiln). This had been re-created on the site of a thousand-year-old potting area – the very area from which new and revolutionary methods were taken to Japan. There is a ‘climbing’ or sloped kiln, with five doors, built in the shape of a dragon. It is worked by a ‘national living treasure’, one of the ‘intangible cultural properties’ of Korea. The pottery full of wonderful green celadon pots. Celebrating a tradition of the greatest pottery in the world. My wife watches videos of the potter at work. Nearby are pens with large brown husky-type dogs; a reminder that region is one of the largest exporters of dog meat to the rest of Korea.
Then a walk round the town of Puan . The ‘White Rabbit’ rush of Seoul has disappeared. Lots of small stores and markets, with the usual mix of western and local goods and people more relaxed. Again, the goods and shops seem to be somewhere between the very high quality of Japan and the ragged backwardness of parts of India. Reminded us more of downtown Kathmandu than a small town in Japan.
Interviewed a shopkeeper in a shop that sold glasses and clocks. He confirmed that myopia is a considerable problem here. He said that ‘statistics’ suggested that 20% of children by the age of 12 needed treatment, and 40% by University entrance. If this is correct, these would be half the rates of Japan, but still much higher than in the West. He thought it was the result of too much TV and instant food. My theory that it is caused by eyestrain arising from education will need further testing. He said the government were not interested in the problem.
Bought a personal seal, essential for everyone until recently, as in Japan, and then to a little restaurant for another delicious vegetable meal of many dishes. No shocks today (except caged dog for eating) , little of that sense of strange otherness what one gets on arriving in Nepal or India, few strange smells or incomprehensible activities. Hence things fits in, much like going to another European country, for example Italy or Portugal.
Friday 14th April
A good night and the prospects of a day walking in the mountains. Breakfast on the floor – even modern Korean flats do not have chairs. Shared the one knife. It is apparently impossible to buy domestic knives (except large knives for cutting fish/meat) in Korea. One theory I’ve heard is that Confucians banned such an aggressive instrument – hence the need for and invention of chopsticks!
Caught a local bus up towards the mountains. The driver had made a little private fenced off spce; changed his shoes or slippers, hung up his coat, arranged his towel, bucket and mop for cleaning the bus around him. Further down the bus a roll of toilet paper on an ornamental hanger was kindly provided for passengers to blow their nose on discretely. Blowing one’s nose ostentatiously in public and then stuffing the result in one’s pocket is considered disgusting – roughly equivalent to urinating in front of friends. Curious to see what is decent in comparative perspective. While the public men’s toilets here expose one to the passing gaze, like Japan it is disgusting if not obscene to kiss in public (and culprints used to be threatened with arrest). Heard that the left wing party had gained in yesterday’s elections, but that growing voter apathy is already setting in a country which has fought so bloodily to establish democracy.
Drove past a funeral. Men in suits and bright yellow hats of hemp and a brightly coloured coffin. Koreans love bright orange, reds, blues, greens, and not just at death, but all the hikers in the national park had bright costumes.
Noticed the many round grave mounds by the road. Asked our elderly guide, Mr Pang, the adopted ‘father’ of David, why they were round. He answered that the Koreans found it difficult to make square (or rectangular) things. Another difference with Japan where I was told gravely by several Professors that the reason why the wheel had more or less disappeared by the nineteenth century was because ‘We Japanese are not good with round things’. David said it was sometimes said that the curve was the preferred form in Korea, the circle in China and the line in Japan.
Again the countryside covered in plastic, in all shapes and forms. Our guide said this revolution had started about 20 years ago and had brought about a vast expansion in the availability of vegetables and fruits. Thus the markets now, in early spring, are full of strawberries and vegetables.
The hard seat bus and countryside reminded us of valley Nepal; small houses, roughly dressed ‘peasant’ women getting on and off the bus, and behind the foothills, but no great Himalaya. Up a steep winding road and the bus trundled over an un-tarmacked road to a large car park.
In one corner a 15-foot draped figure with large eyes and ears. It was said to have been made by a local shaman to protect the village, but now an attractor of rubbish, old fridges, tins etc. Then set off to walk through a landscape out of a Korean painting; gorges, fir-clad mountains, huge odd-shaped rocks, little streams and waterfalls.
Talked of many things on the path. The interpreter upped the estimate about spectacles; she thinks up to a half of elementary school children have glasses (8-13 years) and said it was because of strain. They had to work so hard, go to the crammers after school, plus computers and TV games, Internet games etc.
Some of the notices in English on the path interesting. Above a huge cliff one is instruction ‘No Cooking’, ‘No Camping’, ‘Falling!’.
Ask more about sexual mores and our interpreter says Korea is much more strict and conservative. She’d only seen one person kissing in public. Confucian pressure led to the segregation of boys and girls in the past at 11. In the old days the ‘yangbang’ (upper class) women were in purdah, kept in a courtyard, and covered up their faces. The swing and a seesaw on which one jumped to see over the walls developed here to overcome seclusion, it was said. All very different from Japan, where the sexes overlap. Mixed adult bathing was common, historically, in Japan, but deeply shocking for the Koreans. Yet the linguistic differentiations of gender which are very deep in Japan are missing here. All the time, Korea feels ‘closer’ to England than Japan.
At lunch asked about weaning ages. Now women have gone on to baby foods, but traditionally, like Japan, there was very long breast-feeding, often up to five or later. Stories are told of children coming home from school and asking ‘Where is mother’ in order to have a feed.
Also asked what Mr Pang (aged 65) thought the greatest changes of his lifetime were. He said the elimination of hunger. When he was a child, people were always hungry. Then, increasingly, there was enough food. When he was young people only ate meat 2-3 times a year. He could not think of any negative features of westernization.
We walked on to a Buddhist monastery in a beautiful rocky valley in the hills. Outside among the tourist knick-knacks were hollow bamboo tubes, frames or lattices. We were told that that they were put in the bed in hot weather, as they would cause an airflow. Why they are called ‘Dutch wives’ was not explained. In Japan husbands are sometimes referred to b y their wives as ‘the big rubbish’ – black plastic bags of garbage in the corner of the kitchen who take up space and contribute little. In Korea one can talk of the ‘Big Bamboo Tube’, but it is a female partner.
As we walked bout the cherry blossom filled old wooden buildings, some dating back a thousand years, with their drums, gongs, elaborate paintings and carvings, I asked about team games. I have a theory that almost all the team games (e.g. soccer, rugger, cricket etc) were invented in England, representing an unusual balance of co-operation and individualism. I had tested this out in Nepal and Japan and in neither of these could I discover any traditional team games. Nor could our interpreter think of any in the Korean past. (This was confirmed by several Professors of Korean anthropology and history to whom I talked later on our trip.) Tug of war, martial sports, yes, but no team games. So the global obsession with team sports, perhaps the most important glue between nations, is another basically British export.
Driving back in the bus again saw no domesticated animals apart from a few chickens. The soil is too precious to let animals wander over it (and the grass is not suitable). So those that are now kept (cows, pigs, dogs) are kept penned or indoors.
Looking at the age of the peasant men and women who got on the bus brought home a huge looming problem for Korea – the exodus from the countryside. Only the middle-aged and old are left. What will happen when they die out and all the young have jobs in the city or industry?
Arrived at the local legal courthouse to witness the last twenty minutes of a trial. A young judge in a robe, sitting raised with national flags behind him. Afterwards interviewed him for two hours and over dinner at a traditional inn where we were introduced to the national drink, ‘sujo’(?), very like sake in taste and effects. It appears that Korean law is more like English law than is Japanese. This is despite the facts that its history, a blend of Chinese, German, Japanese and American, is not unlike that of Japan. For example, the emphasis on decisions rather than conciliation/mediation more like the British. But some features the same, for example the extraordinary wastage of the training systems where 98% of those who take a law course fail their final exams.
Discussed bribery of judges, a serious problem until recently, the rising the problem of drugs and child abuse. The greatest rise in civil cases has been in cases of bad driving and failed moneymaking schemes, particularly since the IMF intervened. Although there is no jury system, the system is conveying with the west. Age of legal responsibility if 14, as opposed to 10 in England, but the heavily Confucian bias (whereby traditionally someone who was rude to his father suffered death by slicing, while if he killed his wife, was beaten and fined) is almost gone. A flat world of equal people with individual rights, which England reached in c.1300, now spread even to this fairly conservative, hierarchical society And so good-bye to the judge with invitations and exchange of e-mails.
Also discussed organized crime. Apparently the organized criminals in Korea are the ‘little brothers’ of the Japanese yakuza (called ‘gang-be’ = gang boy?) They have hitherto been something of a joke, and fairly peaceful. They haven’t carried guns, though there are rumours that an influx of gangsters from Hong Kong and weapons from the former Soviet Union may change this. The yakuza are also taking them in hand and organizing and financing them. The can be recognized for their dark suits, dark glasses and white silk scarves. They police the world of entertainment.
Saturday 15th April
Over breakfast had watched Korean TV, usually a good introduction to one part of another culture, but the ubiquitous teletubbies greeted us with their boisterous inanity.
Visited a girls middle school (3-15 years) and were allowed to attend and film a 15 year old class learning Korean. I wanted to test my thesis that the eyestrain of education on the Mongolian eye is causing increasing myopia. There is certainly strain. These children start school at 8.30, finish at 4.30, then go to ‘crammers’ where, in bad light and general noise they continue to study until 10 p.m. (in High School they continue until mid-night). We were told that when they return home they often engage in Internet chat in darkened rooms with bright screens until 2 am. So their eyes have about 5 hours rest.
The only advantage they have is that the particularly stressful language learning is less here. In Japan, with 3000 + Chinese characters to learn, learning Japanese takes up half the lessons. Here they learn only the phonetic Korean script until High School – only 4-5 hours (out of 30) of lessons. The comparative figures for the one class we looked at show a serious problem in Korea, but less serious than Japan. In Japan by age 15, some 50% of students have serious myopia. In this class 8/36 (c.31%) wore glasses. Others, the light cut out by a mop of short black hair falling forward as they wrote, seemed in need of glasses so in reality the rate of myopia may be higher. Ironically, they were ordered to cut their hair, which would have been much better allowed to grow long and tied back. Unprompted, the English master said that he believed that children’s eyes were getting worse.
The teachers were hostile to the crammers, but nothing can be done, because the ‘biggest problem in Korea’ was parental pressure on their children to study hard and get into a good University, preferably in Seoul. Many families ruin themselves paying for the extra tuition. A crazy system, it would seem.
Then by bus to the train station in another town. Again noticed the difference in rubbish between here and Japan. Japan is obsessed with removing rubbish so that public and private space is spotless. Korea much more like China; the house is well kept, but any empty public space is soon filled with rubbish. Not household garbage, but old tins, bottles, machinery. The place consequently pretty scruffy. Attempts to re-cycle and clean up have apparently suffered from a common Koran fate – early boisterous enthusiasm, but after a few months, disinterest.
A three-hour train journey through central Korea. Four striking impressions. The huge number of Christian churches in every town, their neon crosses scattered symmetrically in conformity to some ecological principle through the high rise. The vast array of plastic used in farming. Half the fields in many areas under plastic – from huge ‘green’ houses to tiny strips over each individual bed. The immense construction works. In ten years Korea will have an amazing infrastructure of roads and railways. Every valley has curving motorways, half constructed, running this way and that, and the tunnelling and flattening is extraordinary. And yet the roads are relatively empty. Apparently the recession has been cushioned by this Keynesian expenditure. But what will they do when they run out of space for further building? Perhaps do the same for North Korea.
Finally, there are very few really smart houses. An impression of a working class, lower middle class civilization – high rise dwellers, or living in pretty small, single story, houses with corrugated iron roofs. Somewhat like Portugal in the 1970’s, or Kathmandu now, except that Kathmandu also has old Rana places and some splendid Gurkha and foreign aid financed new houses. Here one hardly ever sees big and elegant private houses. This impression of huge public construction and relative private poverty, a reversal of usual capitalism, is intriguing.
Other general impressions include the almost total absence of birds – except jays and herons – and the dryness. No rain since Christmas, we are told, yet under the plastic the strawberries, cabbages and all sorts of things flourish. And no one wears dark glasses. We were told that it is rude to do so – or a sign that one is a gangster. But also it seems that the Mongolian eye, partly through its shape, perhaps, partly because it has built in ‘sun-glasses’ against the glare of the great steppes (hence makes the sun orange – see the Japanese flag and the two types of red – orange and earth which are among the four primary colours of Korea), which explains why Japanese complain of the low light in England.
We then go to a museum of rural life, not far from Suwan city, where they have collected together several hundred old, thatched, buildings, tools etc., like the impressive ones in Denmark etc. Started off with a ‘peasant farmers dance’. Lots of drumming and jumping about. Notable for its energy and beautiful costumes. Apparently peasants were not allowed to war coloured clothes, colours being reserved for the gentry. So on the occasions when the prohibition is relaxed, blue, white, green and particularly vivid orange-reds abound. Tourists, old Koreans and foreigners, join in the last dance.
Then, as it begins to spit and then rain heavily, for the first time for four months , we look round the reconstructed houses. Thatched roofs, with some larger ones having tiles, walls and wooden posts blend with cherry blossom and willows over the rivers to make a picturesque scene. No wonder the Korean ‘samurai’ film we watched on our TV that evening appears to be set in this park and even as we walk around the place is filled with men in Korean traditional armour and the car park filled with Television vans. Incongruous to see as we leave a foot soldier in helmet and leather and breast plate in a telephone booth; ‘ I’ve had a good day at the battle, Mum’.
We do not have time to see the instruments of torture, a feature absent in British folk museums; but do see the pit latrine, the ‘Dutch wife’ (bamboo frame for sleeping with), various machines. Chief impressions as a whole include the following. Japanese houses are frail constructions of bamboo and paper. These houses look more solid – stone, wood, thatch, and shingles.
The relative poverty of the material culture when compared with England in the past. If these are representative, and they do include houses of nobility, gentry, rich farmers, and poor farmers we are told, and we compare them to say seventeenth and eighteenth century England, or even medieval England, there is a vast gap. The revisionist attempt to try to argue that the general level of living in East and West Eur-Asia was the same until 1800 looks very unlikely. This is a peasant civilization, on a par with India or China, or even perhaps poorer parts of Italy or France. But in terms of houses and their contents, far from the English or Dutch level by the seventeenth century.
Likewise with the tools. The tools, such as ploughs, hoes, forks etc, were very primitive; wood with iron tips at the best. Much like Hebridean tools of the nineteenth century when compared to the tools of eighteenth century England, very simple and inefficient. And, like China, they seem to have changed very little for centuries and rely mainly on human muscle.
The grinding tools were particularly interesting., A very small and simple overshot water mill, without the workings, but it is nothing compared to large English mills. And a half hollowed out log which fills with water every 25 seconds or so and drops down and then goes back up. When it rises again the other end drops on the rice to de-husk it. Incredibly slow and inefficient. This helps to confirm the way in which rice cultivation creates a technological trap, leading to industriousness and not industrial replacement of human labour.
And throughout the reconstructions not a hint of any context in which glass could have been used or useful. A non-glass civilization, like China and Japan. And indeed, with the exception of hinges and tops to tools and a small blacksmith’s shop apparently to be found in market towns, like use of iron. There are some animals (cows, geese, and chickens) and a few carts, which differentiate this from Japan. The problem, of course, is how representative all this is. How much has been invented, and what period does it all refer to? Just an impression, needing further research.
What it does seem to confirm is that basically Korea is a ‘cousin’ of China. Not the same, but structurally and physical part of the same family. Even the beards are Mongol. Makes, by contrast, Japan seem all the odder. The largely beardless Japanese seem a world away, like some pacific islanders who have drifted north and ended up in Japan.
One value of this visit thus would be that it shows some of the underlying traits of Chinese civilizations – patriarchy, Confucianism, unilineal descent, clans, wood and stone, dirt, omnivorous, extrovert, puritanical etc. And on almost every one of these, which China and Korea shared a century ago, Japan was very different. China and Korea then, seem like Italy and France a hundred years ago, different, get clearly at a deep level (Catholic, post-Roman, Indo-European) similar. Japan is even more different from them than is England from the Continent – more like the Basques, Hungarians or Indians, a different civilization.
And yet, equally interesting and to be pursued, are the ways in which Korean civilization has over history maintained its customary differences from China. The ‘cousins’ are of one family, but in many respect different. To state and understand these differences would require much more study of both China and Korea than I have done, but one hint is that Korea is the last true Confucian country and even more conservative in that respect than China. (But see later amendments)
An amusing incident as we left the folk park. David pointed to some sacks of brown pellets at the exit and said that they were ‘dog food’. Such are my fantasies about eating meat that I immediately concluded that this was something brought by hungry Koreans and added to their stews etc. In fact they were food for dogs; if they are made of non-meat products, as seems likely, would explain why dog is more palatable than if it is on its usual carnivore diet.
Sunday 16th April
At breakfast discussed attitude to sexuality again. Apparently pornography banned and until recently not even women’s nipples could be shown on television or in magazines. Another thing I should have mentioned before is the obligingness of people; often they walk half a mile with you when you are looking for somewhere and when Sarah and I struggled down the subway stairs with a heavy case a smartly dressed lady lent a hand – very different from Japanese.
From the city of the folk museum, caught a bus and tube to Seoul. Several blind beggars on the train – more than one would have seen in London I think. But much less homelessness than in Britain we are told.
Then walked to the royal palace. Mostly torn down by the Japanese but now being reconstructed at huge expense. Roofs large and blue-green, different from Japan. All around , in fact, are the five primary Korean colours, black, white, turquoise (blue-green), orange red, soil red – heavily symbolic in relation to space and class. The whole place one large building site, like much of Korea. The huge palace complex, only very partially restored as yet, suggests that Korea developed a huge central bureaucracy, like China or France, but unlike England or Japan.
Then after feeding huge carp, went round the folk museum. Huge and fascinating with various dioramas and reconstructions and well laid out. Highlights for me including information on the extremely early development of movable metal type printing (1234) and a new phonetic writing system invented in 1443. Also the immense history of Korea, with great cities of over a million before the tenth century, very impressive.
On the other hand, the water clock of 1434, shown as an important piece, very crude, even when compared to Chinese water clocks (Su Sung etc.) and in particular European mechanical clocks of that time. Again, the agricultural tools were relatively primitive and some, like a wooden quern, extraordinarily cumbersome.
A mirror box particularly fascinated me. The notice claimed that in c.400 A.D. the painter’s face in pictures suggests that they were using mirrors for painting. Yet when I looked in the much later mirror in the nineteenth century mirror box, I saw the very poor quality of the reflection, a polished metal mirror in fact. On the surface it looked like glass, but the reflection very low definition and ghost-like. One would never be able to paint a landscape, or even see what lay behind a close objects such as a face, in such a mirror. Like looking through a steamed up window.
Park said that peasants didn’t normally wear shoes, which would fit, but need to check this as David was not sure. The houses were notable for having a women’s room, separate from a man’s room. This was the case in even relatively small houses. The man’s room for visitors, who were never allowed into the woman’s room – a sort of mild purdah. The house roofs often of thatch, frequently with little holes for magpies, a favourite bird, to enter. (Is this one reason why there are so few other birds in Korea?). Very poor lighting (not even candles) at night, which would make evening work difficult and put more strain on the eyes.
The food displays and other materials suggest that by the late nineteenth century, at least, there was the same kind of highly regionalized local culture – implements, food, clothing etc. as in France or Italy at the same time. There were some indications of use of the wheels, e.g. on a palanquin with one wheel, in the late eighteenth century. It seemed to confirm the picture of a bright, ancient, civilization, which had reached a very high level by the tenth century and with not a great deal of technological progress after that until the second half of the twentieth century.
In the evening went out to dinner with the Chair of the central anthropology department in Korea, Professor Kwang-Ok Kim, and his wife, Professor Okpyo Moon (both Oxford trained) and a visiting scholar from Holland. A very interesting conversation. Learnt something about recent changes in China, where Prof. Kim has been working, and also the future of Korea (good), the possibility of another military coup (small), the state of Universities (bad), the likely development of Christian and other religious groups (remarkable), the likelihood of serious unification proceeding (very little).
Particularly helpful to talk to Prof. Moon who has studied Japan as well as Korea. She was very forthright, after listening politely to my ramblings and hypotheses for a time. She modified the model I had previously formed (see above). Apparently up to about the tenth century, Korea was very different in its social structure from China, with equal inheritance by all the children, perhaps cognatic descent etc. Then the gradual pressure and example of China over time led to the Confucianization of Korea, which really only seeped down to the bottom of society by the later eighteenth century.
Monday 17th April.
Left our little hotel, and parted from David and Kim at Seoul airport at mid-day to catch our flight back to England. Sad to leave. It was a really good time. As the plane flew back and one half-dozed, tried to absorb the impressions and re-sort one’s schemes.
It would seem that Korea as a very good example of my general ‘traps and tendencies’ argument. In other words, over the thousand years up to 1900, Koreans abandoned much of their flexibility and equality and became much more like the Chinese, or any other ‘ancien regime’ society. More bureaucratic, centralised, hierarchical, familistic, and ritualistic. In fact, along with rice and de-technologization, it is a perfect example all the traps and tendencies. Korea, with a land bridge and constantly marauding neighbours, became like Spain or Italy, an ancien regime State. But on a different foundation from China.
So it might be conjectured that Japan and Korea were quite similar in the sixth century. Then both went through a Chinese phase. Japan evolved out of this into an authentic feudal period – and also escaped the huge effect of the Mongol and Manchu invasions. Korea never went through a feudal period and was subject to Chinese, Mongol, Manchu and Japanese pressures. So it became Confucian, rigid, largely primogeniture, male connected clans etc. Despite some striking differences, in particular the development of phonetic writing, it looked more and more like northern China. Although there were differences, they were in the details of housing, clothing etc. In many respects it became more orthodoxly Chinese than China, a mandarin class (yangbang) etc.
But beneath it all, there were memories and traditions of something different. A sort of vestige of the separation to spheres which we call ‘modernity’. The rapid development of Korea and its adoption of Christianity are both indications of a civilization which only wore Chinese Confucianism as a cloak.
Thus one has a very interesting set of case studies. In the centre is China, a vast, outwardly expanding, ancient civilization of the Han, absorbing the peoples round it and already by the birth of Christ very technologically and socially sophisticated. On its flanks a number of civilizations almost equally old, but with peeps of different roots and cultures, in particular Korea, Vietnam, and Japan. As the centuries passed by they were attracted and repulsed by the central magnet of China. Japan ‘became’ Chinese/Korean in the seventh to ninth centuries, then veered away. Korea remained Chinese influenced and expanded this influence. So by the nineteenth century Korea and Japan very different. It will be fascinating to see if this impression is confirmed by the account of Isabella Bird’s visit. Her extraordinary books on Japan and China should provide a very good comparison to the book on Korea. (If C4 or anyone wise decided to do a series on Isabella, even the East Asian trilogy would be a wonderful comparative theme). And above all, being in Korea again emphasizes how odd Japan is and was.
In another way the trip was very useful, for it gives another case study of the influence of geography. England and Japan as islands were relatively free from attack and the attraction to land wars on neighbours. Hence they veered off and away from the ‘normal’ tendency and became the two exceptions to the movement towards an ancien regime system. So the ‘continents’ and the islands diverged. Not so odd to feel the usual sense of pleasure and wonder as one landed at Heathrow, and saw the rich and ordered, but ancient, pastoral landscape of England from the bus. So green, so irregular, so secure.
(Cambridge, 20.4.2000: 7000 words. See also the one-hour film, photographs,
short normal diary entries, and a small selection of guide books, pots and books)