CHAPTER XIII. Students - Culture - Examination ground - The three degrees - The alphabet - Chinese characters - Schools - Astronomers - Diplomas - Students abroad - Adoption of Western ways - Quick perception - The letter "f" - A comical mistake.
At the beginning of the New Year, and soon after the festivities are over, the streets of Seoul are crowded with students who come up to town for their examinations. Dozens of them, generally noisy and boisterous, are to be seen arm in arm, parading the principal streets, and apparently always eating something or other. Study and eating seem to go together in Cho-sen. They wear peculiar gauze caps like bakers' paper bags, and a large double apron, the latter hanging down front and back, and being tied above the waist with a ribbon. A large piece of rolled up paper is carried in the hand, and much excitement seems to reign among them. By students, one must not imagine only young men, for many among them are above the thirties, and some are even old men.
At certain hours processions of them pass along the royal street, then round the palace wall, and finally enter the examination grounds, situated immediately behind the royal palace. This is a large open ground, on one side of which is a low building containing quite a large number of small cells, where the candidates are examined. The examination day is one of the sights of Seoul. It is more like a country fair than an exhibition of literary skill. The noise is something appalling. On the grounds, thousands of candidates, accompanied by their parents and friends, squat in groups, drinking, eating and gambling. Here is a group of them drinking each other's health; there on blankets a few are lying flat on their backs basking in the sun, and waiting for their turn to be called up before the examiners. Huge red and yellow umbrellas are planted in the ground by enterprising merchants, who sell sweets, a kind of pulled toffy being one of their specialities; while others, at raised prices, dispose of examination caps, ink, paper and aprons to those who have come unprovided. Astrologers, too, drive a roaring trade on such days, for the greatest reliance is placed on their prophecies by both parents and students, and much money is spent by the latter, therefore, in obtaining the opinion of these impostors. In many a case, the prophecy given has been known to make the happiness - temporarily, of course - of the bashful young student; and in many a case, also, by this means fresh vigour has been instilled into a nervous man, so that, being convinced that he is to be successful, he perseveres and very often does succeed.
One of these examinations, the highest of all, is a real landmark in a man's career. If the student is successful, he is first employed in some lower official capacity either by the Government, the palace authorities or some of the magistrates. If he is plucked, then he can try again the following year. Some try year after year without success, in the hope of being permitted to earn an honest living at the nation's expense, and grow old under the heavy study of ancient Chinese literature.
The King in person assists at the oral examinations of the upper degree. Those of the two lower degrees are superintended by princes who sit with the examiners, and report to His Majesty on the successes of the different candidates.
It is generally the sons of the nobles and the upper classes all over the kingdom who are put up for these examinations; those of the lower spheres are content with a smattering of arithmetic and a general knowledge of the alphabet, and of the proper method of holding the writing brush, sometimes adding to these accomplishments an acquaintance with the more useful of the Chinese characters.
The Corean alphabet is remarkable for the way in which it represents the various sounds. That this is the case, the reader will be able to judge by the table given opposite. The aim of the inventors, in only using straight lines and circles, has evidently been to simplify the writing of the characters to the highest possible degree.
It will be at once noticed that an extra dot is used only in the case of the vowel e and the diphthong oue; nothing but straight lines and circles being employed in the other cases. The pronunciation of the consonants is dental in l, r, t, and n; guttural in k and k (aspirated); palatal in ch, ch (aspirated) and s; and from the larynx in h and ng when at the end of a word.