CHAPTER VIII. 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 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.