CHAPTER V. The Woman of Cho-sen - Her clothes - Her ways - Her looks - Her privileges - Her duties - Her temper - Difference of classes - Feminine musicians.
It will now be proper, I think, since I have given you a rough sketch of the man of Cho-sen and his clothes, to describe in a general way to you the weaker sex - not an easy task - and what they wear - a much more difficult task still, - for I have not the good fortune to be conversant with the intricacies of feminine habiliments, and therefore hope to be excused if, in dealing with this part of my subject, I do not always use the proper terms applicable to the different parts that compose it. Relying, then, upon my readers' indulgence in this respect, I shall attempt to give an idea of what a Corean female is like. It has always been a feature in my sceptical nature to think that the more one sees of women the less one knows them; according to which principle, I should know Corean women very well, for one sees but little of them. Be that as it may, however, I shall proceed to give my impressions of them.
As is pretty generally known, the women of Cho-sen, with the exception of the lower classes, are kept in seclusion. They are seldom allowed to go out, and when they do they cover their faces with white or green hoods, very similar in shape to those worn by the women at Malta. They appear, or pretend to be, shy of men, and foreigners in particular, and generally hide when one is approaching, especially if in a solitary street. I remember how astonished I was the first few days I was in Seoul, at the fact that every woman I came across in the streets was just on the point of opening a door and entering a house. It seemed so strange to me that damsel after damsel whom I met should just be reaching home as I was passing, that I began to think that I was either dreaming, or that every house belonged to every woman in the town. The idea suddenly dawned upon me that it was only a trick on their part to evade being seen, and on further inquiry into the matter from a Corean friend, I discovered that a woman has a right to open and enter any door of a Corean house when she sees a foreign man appearing on the horizon, as the reputation of the masculine "foreign devil" is still far from having reached a high standard of morality in the minds of the gentler sex of Cho-sen. In the main street and big thoroughfares, where at all times there are crowds of people, there is more chance of approaching them without this running away, for in Corea, as elsewhere, great reliance is placed on the saying that there is safety in numbers. So it was mainly here that I made my first studies of the retiring ways and quaint costumes of the Corean damsel.
Yes, the costume really is quaint, and well it deserves to be described. They wear huge padded trousers, similar to those of the men, their socks also being padded with cotton wool. The latter are fastened tightly round the ankles to the trousers by means of a ribbon. You must not think, however, that the dame of Cho-sen walks about the streets attired in this manly garment, for over these trousers she wears a shortish skirt tied very high over the waist. Both trousers and skirt are generally white, and of silk or cotton according to the grade, position in life, and extravagance of those who wear them. A tiny jacket, usually white, red, or green, completes the wardrobe of most Corean women; one peculiarity of which is that it is so short that both breasts are left uncovered, which is a curious and most unpractical fashion, the climate of Corea, as we have already seen, being exceedingly cold - much colder than Russia or even Canada. The hair, of which the women have no very great abundance, is very simply made up, plastered down flat with some sort of stenching oil, parted in the middle, and tied into a knot at the back of the head, pretty much in the same way as clergymen's wives ordinarily wear it. A heavy-looking silver or metal pin, or sometimes two, may also be found inserted in this knot as an ornament. I have often seen young girls and old women wear a curious fur cap, especially in winter, but this cannot be said to be in general use. It is in the shape of the section of a cone, the upper part of which is covered with silk, while the lower half is ornamented with fur and two long silk ribbons which hang at the back and nearly reach the ground when the cap is worn. The upper part of this cap, curiously enough, is open, and on either side of the hole thus formed there are two silk tassels, generally red or black in colour. When smartly worn, this cap is quite becoming, but unfortunately, whether this be worn or not, the modest maiden of Cho-sen covers her head and face with a long green sort of an overall coat which she uses as amantilla or hood, throwing it over the head and keeping it closed over the face with the left hand.
It must not on this account be imagined that there are not in Cho-sen women as coquettish as anywhere else, for, indeed, the prettier ones, either pretending that the wind blows back the hood, or that the hand that holds it over the face has slipped, or using some other excuse of the kind with which a woman is always so well provided, take every opportunity of showing you how pretty they are and of admiring them, particularly when they get to know who you are, where you hail from, and who your Corean friends are. The ugly ones, of course, are always those who make the most fuss, and should you see a woman in the street hide her face so that you cannot see it at all, you may be very sure that her countenance is not worth looking at, and that she herself is perfectly conscious of Nature's unkindness to her.
As for several months I was seen day after day sketching in the streets, the people got to know me well, and since the Coreans themselves are very fond of art, although they are not very artistic themselves, I made numerous friends among them, and even, I might say, became popular.