CHAPTER IX. The Corean house - Doors and windows - Blinds - Rooms - The "Kan" - Roasting alive - Furniture - Treasures - The kitchen - Dinner-set - Food - Intoxicants - Gluttony - Capacity for food - Sleep - Modes of illumination - Autographs - Streets.
Let us now see what a Corean household is like. But, first, as to the matter of house architecture. Here there is little difference to be observed between the house of the noble and that of the peasant, except that the former is generally cleaner-looking. The houses in Corea may be divided into two classes - those with thatched roofs of barley-straw, and those with roofs of tiles, stone and plaster. The latter are the best, and are inhabited by the well-to-do classes. The outside walls are of mud and stone, and the roof, when of tiles, is supported by a huge beam that runs from one end of the house to the other. The corners of the roof are usually curled up after the Chinese fashion. A stone slab runs along the whole length of the roof, and is turned up at the two ends, over the upper angle of the roof itself. The tiles are cemented at the two sides of this slab, and likewise at the lower borders of the roof. The windows, again, are rectangular and are placed directly under the roof, being in consequence well protected from the rain.
Corean houses are never more than one storey high. The houses of officials and rich people are enclosed by a wall of masonry, the gate of which is surmounted by a small pagoda-like roof. In the case of the houses of great swells, like generals and princes, it is customary to have two and even three gates, which have to be passed through in succession before the door of the house is reached. The outer wall surrounding the compound is seldom more than six or eight feet high, and, curiously enough, all along the top of the wall runs a narrow roof, the width of two tiles. This, besides being a sort of ornament, is of practical use in protecting it from the damp.
One cannot call the Coreans great gardeners, for they seem to take comparatively little interest in the native flora. The richer people do, as a rule, have small gardens, which are nicely laid out with one or two specimens of the flowers they esteem and care to cultivate; but really ornamental gardens are few in number in the Land of Cho-sen. Kitchen gardens naturally are frequently found, even near the houses of the poorer people.
One peculiarity, which characterises the majority of Corean houses of the better sort is that they are entered by the windows; these being provided with sliding latticed frames covered with tissue paper, and running on grooves to the sides, like the Shojis of Japan. The tissue paper is often dipped in oil previous to being used on the sliding doors and windows, as it is then supposed to keep out the cold better than when left in its natural state. As the doors and windows of Cho-sen, however, very seldom have the quality of fitting tight, a Corean house is therefore quite a rendezvous for draughts and currents of air.
In summer time the windows and doors are kept open, or even removed altogether during the day-time, and then, in order to preserve that privacy of which every Corean is so proud, recourse is had to a capital dodge. At the end of the projecting roof, and immediately in front of the window or entrance, at the distance of a couple of feet, is hung a shade in the shape of a fine mat, made of numberless long strings of split bamboo, tied together in a parallel position by several silk strings which vary in number with the size of the mat. The use of these curtain-like barriers has several advantages. They protect the house from those troublesome visitors the flies; they let in the air, though not the sun, and, while the people who are in the house can plainly see through them what goes on in the street, no one on the outside can distinguish either those inside, or what is doing in the house. Good mats are very expensive, and difficult to obtain; therefore, it is only the better classes that can use them. Poorer folk are satisfied with very rough mats of rushes. It is also the custom for good citizens of the provinces to send the king at the New Year presents of a certain number of these mats, which, like the Indian shawls of Her Britannic Majesty, are given out again by him to the royal princes and highest officials. I was fortunate enough to be presented with two of these blinds by a high official, who was closely related to the king. They are a marvel of patient and careful work, as accurately and delicately done as if some machine had been employed. They are nearly six feet high, by five wide, and are yellow in colour with black, red, and green stripes painted at the top and bottom. In the centre is a very pretty, simple frieze, on the inside of which are some Corean characters.
If a Corean house does not look very inviting when you look at it from the outside, still less does it when you are indoors. The smallness of the rooms and their lack of furniture, pictures, or ornaments are features not very pleasant to the eye. The rooms are like tiny boxes, between eight and ten feet long, less than this in width and about seven feet high. They are white all over with the exception of the floor, which is covered with thick, yellowish oil-paper. The poorest kind of Corean house consists of only a single room; the abode of the moderately well-off man, on the other hand, may have two or three, generally three rooms; though, of course, the houses of very high offices are found with a still larger number.