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.

The State documents and all the official correspondence are written in Chinese characters, and hardly at all in the native alphabet, an exception being occasionally admitted in the case of a difficult character, when the meaning is written with the Corean letters, side by side with the Chinese form. The Corean alphabet is rather despised by the male "blue stockings" of Cho-sen, and is considered as fit only for poor people, children and women; in short, those whose brains are unable to undergo the strain of mastering and, what is more, of remembering, the meaning of the many thousands of Chinese characters. Not only that, but the spoken language itself is considered inadequate to express in poetic and graceful style the deep thoughts which may pass through the Corean brains; and, certainly, if these thoughts have to be put down on paper this is never done in the native characters. The result is, naturally, that there is hardly any literature in the language of Cho-sen. Even the historical records of the land of the Morning Calm are written in Chinese.

The great influence of the Chinese over the Corean literary mind is also shown in the fact that most of the principles and proverbs of Cho-sen have been borrowed from their pig-tailed friends across the Yalu River. The same may be said of numberless words in the Corean language which are merely corruptions or mispronounced Chinese words. The study of Chinese involves a great deal of labour and patience on the part of the Corean students, and from a very tender age they are made to work hard at learning the characters by heart, singing them out in chorus, in a monotonous tone, one after the other for hours at a time.

The schools are mostly supported by the Government. In them great attention is given to etiquette and Chinese classics, to philosophic and poetic ideas, but very little importance is attached to mathematics or science, except by those few who take up the study of the stars as an ideal rather than scientific occupation. These astronomers might be more correctly termed magicians, for with the stars they invariably connect the fate and fortune of king and people; which fact will also explain why it is that in their practice of astronomy mathematics are really of very little use.

In the written essays for the examinations, what is generally aimed at by the candidates is a high standard of noble ideas which they try to express in the most refined style. The authors of the most admired essays receive the personal congratulations of the King and examiners, followed by a feast given by their parents and friends. The diplomas of successful candidates are not only signed by the King, but have also his great seal affixed to them.

I was told that the examinations of the present day are a mere sham, and that it is not by knowledge or high achievements, in literary or other matters, that the much-coveted degree is now obtained, but by the simpler system of bribery. Men of real genius are, I was informed further, sometimes sent back in despair year after year, while pigheaded sons of nobles and wealthy people generally pass with honours, and are never or very seldom plucked.

Education, as a whole, is up to a very limited point pretty generally spread all over the Corean realm, but of thorough education there is very little. In former times students showing unusual ability were sent by the Government to the University of Nanking, to be followed up by Pekin, but this custom was abandoned until a few years ago, when it was in a measure revived by the sending of two noblemen, first to Shanghai and then to America, to learn and profit by Western studies. These seem to have shown themselves remarkably intelligent; in fact, exceeded all expectation; for one of them forged a cheque before leaving the Asiatic continent, and was forbidden to return to his country. He is not likely to do so now, for he is said to have been murdered - only quite lately. The other, however, cannot be accused of anything of that sort; indeed, he distinguished himself during the three years spent in America by learning English (as spoken in the States) to perfection, besides mastering mathematics, chemistry and other sciences, perfectly new to him, in a way that would have done credit to many a Western student. In the same short space of time he also succeeded in a marvellous way in shaking off the thick coating of his native superstition and in assuming our most Western ways as exhibited across the Atlantic. If anything, he became more American than the Americans themselves. What astonished me more, though, was how quickly, having returned from his journey, he discarded his civilised ways and again dropped into his old groove.

There is not the least doubt that, though to the casual observer the majority of Coreans appear depressed and unintelligent, they are, as a matter of fact, far from stupid. I have met people in the land of Cho-sen, whose cleverness would have been conspicuous in any country, Western or otherwise. When they set their mind to learn something they never cease till their object is attained, and I can vouch for their quick comprehension, even of matters of which they have never before heard. Languages seem to come easy to them, and their pronunciation of foreign tongues is infinitely better than that of their neighbours, the Chinese and the Japanese. The only stumbling block is the letter "f," which they pronounce as a "p." I can give an instance of a Mr. Chang, the son of a noble, who was appointed by the king to be official interpreter to Mr. C.R. Greathouse. In less than two months, this youth of nineteen mastered enough English to enable him both to understand it and converse in it. I have seen him learn by heart out of a dictionary as many as two hundred English words in a day, and what is more, remember every one of them, including the spelling. Only once did I hear him make a comical mistake. He had not quite grasped the meaning of the word "twin"; for, in answer to a question I put to him, "Yes, sir," said he, boisterously, proud apparently of the command he had attained over his latest language, "Yes, sir, I have a twinbrother who is three years older than myself."

The Corean magistrates think that to over-educate the lower classes is a mistake, which must end in great unhappiness.

"If you are educated like a gentleman, you must be able to live like a gentleman," wisely said a Corean noble to me. "If you acquire an education which you cannot live up to, you are only made wretched, and your education makes you feel all the more keenly the miseries of human life. Besides, with very few exceptions, as one is born an artist, or a poet, one has to be born a gentleman to be one. All the education in the world may make you a nice man, but not a noble in the strict sense of the word."

Partly, in consequence of habits of thought like this, and partly, because it answers to leave the public in ignorance, superstition, which is one of the great evils in the country, is rather encouraged. Not alone the lower classes, but the whole people, including nobles and the King himself, suffer by it. It is a remarkable fact, that, a people who in many ways are extremely open-minded, and more philosophic than the general run of human beings, can allow themselves to be hampered in this way by such absurd notions as spirits and their evil ways.

A royal palace, different to, but not very far from, the one described in the previous chapter, was abandoned not very long ago for the simple reason that it was haunted. Thus, there are no less than two palaces in the capital, that have been built at great expense, but deserted in order to evade the visits of those most tiresome impalpable individuals, "the Ghosts." One of these haunted abodes we have inspected, with its tumble-down buildings; the other I will now describe.

The buildings comprising this palace are still in a very excellent state of preservation, and, being erected on hilly ground, form a very picturesque ensemble. The different houses are of red lacquered wood, with verandahs on the upper floors. The illustration shows a front view of one of the principal buildings, situated on the summit of the hill. At the foot of this hill, by a winding path and steps, a picturesque little gate and another house is reached. A little pond with water-plants in it, frozen in the midst of the thick ice, completes this haunted spot. The largest of all the structures is the audience-hall, richly and grandly decorated inside with wooden carvings, painted red, white, blue and yellow. The curled-up roofs are surmounted at each corner with curious representations of lucky emblems, among which the tiger has a leading place.

Talking of tigers, I may as well speak of a strange custom prevailing in Corea. The country, as I have already pointed out, is full of these brutes, which, besides being of enormous size, are said to be very fierce and fond of human flesh. Even the walls of the town are no protection against them. Not unfrequently they make a nocturnal excursion through the streets, leaving again early in the morning with a farewell bound from the rampart, but carrying off inside their carcases some unlucky individual in a state of pulp.

The Coreans may, therefore, be forgiven if, besides showing almost religious veneration for their feline friend - who reciprocates this in his own way - they have also the utmost terror of him. Whenever I went for long walks outside the town with Coreans, I noticed that when on the narrow paths I was invariably left to bring up the rear, although I was a quicker walker than they were. If left behind they would at once run on in front of me again, and never could I get any one to be last man. This conduct, sufficiently remarkable, has the following explanation.

It is the belief of the natives, that when a tiger is suddenly encountered he always attacks and makes a meal of the last person in the row; for which reason, they always deem it advisable, when they have a foreigner in their company, to let him have that privilege. I, for my part, of course, did not regard the matter in the same light, and generally took pretty good care to retain a middle position in the procession, when out on a country prowl, greatly to the distress and uneasiness of my white-robed guardian angels.