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.

Vanity is a ruling characteristic of all people, and acting on this little weakness I was able to see more of the Corean damsel than most casual travellers.

We find, it is true, pros and cons when we come to analyse her charms, but taking the average maid, she cannot be said to be worse in Corea than she is in other countries. She can be pretty and she can be ugly. When she is pretty, she is as pretty as they make them, and when she is the other way she is as ugly as sin, if not even worse. But let us take a good-looking one. Look at her sad little oval face, with arched eyebrows and with jet black, almond-shaped eyes, softened by the long eyelashes. Her nose is straight, though it might to advantage be a little less flat, and she possesses a sweet little mouth, just showing two pretty teeth as white as snow. There seems to be so much dignity and repose about her movements when you first see her, that you almost take her for a small statue. Hardly will she condescend to turn her face round or raise it up to look at you and even less inclined does she seem to smile, such is her modesty; once her shyness has worn off, however, she improves wonderfully. Her face brightens, and the soft, affectionate, distant look in her eyes is enough to mash into pulp the strongest of mankind. She is simple and natural, and in this chiefly lies her charm. She would not compare in beauty with a European woman, for she is neither so tall nor so well developed, but among women of far-Eastern nationality she, to my mind, takes the cake for actual beauty and refinement. The Japanese women of whom one hears so much, though more artistically clad, are not a patch on the Venuses of Cho-sen, and both in respect of lightness of complexion and the other above-named qualities they seemed to me to approach nearest to the standard of European feminine beauty. Their dress, as you may have judged by my rough description, is more quaint than graceful, and cannot be said to be at all becoming; nevertheless, when one's eyes have got accustomed to it, I have seen girls look quite pretty in it. I remember one in particular, a concubine of one of the king's ministers, whom I was fortunate enough to get to sit for me. She did not look at all bad in her long blue veil gown, much longer than the white one usually worn, which it covered, the white silk trousers just showing over the ankles, and a pretty pair of blue and white shoes fitting her tiny feet. She wore a little red jacket, of which she seemed very proud, and she smoked cigarettes and a pipe, though her age, I believe, was only seventeen.

Women of the commoner classes can always be detected, not only by the coarser clothes they wear, but also by the way their hair is made up. Two long tresses are rolled up on the back of the head into a sort of turban, and though to my eye, innocent of the feminine tricks of hair-dressing, it looked all real and genuine, and a curious contrast to the infinitely less luxuriant growth of the better classes of women, I was told that a good deal of braids and "stuffing" was employed to swell their coiffures into the much-coveted fashionable size.

One very strange custom in Corea is the privilege accorded to women to walk about the streets of the town at night after dark, while the men are confined to the house from about an hour after sunset and, until lately, were severely punished both with imprisonment and flogging, if found walking about the streets during "women's hours." The gentler sex was and is therefore allowed to parade the streets, and go and pay calls on their parents and lady friends, until a very late hour of the night, without fear of being disturbed by the male portion of the community. Few, however, avail themselves of the privilege, for unfortunately in Corea there are many tigers and leopards, which, disregarding the early closing of the city gates, climb with great ease over the high wall and take nightly peregrinations over the town, eating up all the dogs which they find on their way and occasionally even human beings. Tigers have actually been known to rudely run their paws through the invulnerable paper windows of a mud house, drag out a struggling body roughly awoke from slumber, and devour the same peacefully in the middle of the street.

Since then a rencontre with a hungry individual of this nature during a moonlight walk is sure to be somewhat unpleasant, it is not astonishing that it is but very, very rarely that at any hour of the night the Cho-sen damsel avails herself of the privilege accorded her. The woman, as I have already mentioned, is considered nothing in Corea. The only privilege she has, as we have just seen, is the chance of being torn to pieces and eaten up by a wild beast when she is out for a constitutional, and that we may safely say is not a privilege to be envied. The poor thing has no name, and when she is born she goes by the vague denomination of "So-and-so's" daughter. When there are several girls in the family, to avoid confusion, surnames are found convenient enough, but they are again lost the moment she marries, which, as we shall see in another chapter, often happens at a very early age. She then becomes "So-and-so's" wife. The woman in Corea has somewhat of a sad and dull life, for from the age of four or five she is separated even from her brothers and brought up in a separate portion of the house, and from that time ideas are pounded into her poor little head as to the disgrace of talking, or even being looked at by humans of a different gender. The higher classes, of course, suffer most from the enforcement of this strict etiquette, for in the very lowest grades of society the woman enjoys comparative freedom. She can talk to men as much as she pleases, and even goes out unveiled, being much too low a being to be taken any notice of; the upper classes, however, are very punctilious as to the observance of their severe rules. The Corean woman is a slave. She is used for pleasure and work. She can neither speak nor make any observations, and never is she allowed to see any man other than her husband. She has the right of the road in the streets, and the men are courteous to her. Not only do the men make room for her to pass, but even turn their faces aside so as not to gaze at her. There are numberless stories of a tragic character in Corean literature, of lovely maidens that have committed suicide, or have been murdered by their husbands, brothers, or fathers, only for having been seen by men, and even to the present day a husband would be considered quite justified in the eye of the law if he were to kill his wife for the great sin of having spoken to another man but himself! A widow of the upper class is not allowed to re-marry, and if she claims any pretence of having loved her late husband, she ought to try to follow him to the other world at the earliest convenience by committing the jamun, a simple performance by which the devoted wife is only expected to cut her throat or rip her body open with a sharp sword. They say that it is a mere nothing, when you know how to do it, but it always struck me, that practising a little game of that sort would not be an easy matter. For the sake of truth, I must confess that it was a husband who depreciated the worthy act. The lower people are infinitely more sensible. Though a woman of this class were to lose twenty husbands, she would never for a moment think of doing away with herself, but would soon enter into her twenty-first matrimonial alliance.

Women, somehow or other, are scarce in Corea, and always in great demand. The coolies, and people of a similar or lower standing, cannot do without a female companion, for it is she who prepares the food, washes the clothes, and sews them up. She is beaten constantly, and very often she beats the man, for the Corean woman can have a temper at times. Jealousy en plus is one of her chief virtues. I have seen women in Seoul nearly tearing one another to pieces, and, O Lord! how masterly they are in the art of scratching. The men on such occasions stand round them, encouraging them to fight, the husbands enjoying the fun more than the other less interested spectators. The women of the lower classes seem to be in a constant state of excitement and anger. They are always insulting one another, calling each other names, or scolding and even ill-treating their own children. What is more extraordinary still to European ears, is that I once actually saw a wife stand up for her husband, and she did it in a way that I am not likely soon to forget.

A soldier was peacefully walking along a narrow street, half of which was a sort of drain canal, the water of which was frozen over, when a man came out of a house and stopped him. The conversation became hot at once, and with my usual curiosity, the only virtue I have ever possessed, I stopped to see the result.

"You must pay me back the money I lent you," said the civilian in a very angry tone of voice.

"I have not got it," answered the military man, trying to get away.

"Ah! you have not got it?" screamed a third personage, a woman emerging from the doorway, and without further notice hit the soldier on the head with the heavy wooden mallet commonly used for beating clothes.

The husband, encouraged by this unexpected reinforcement, boldly attacked the soldier, and, whilst they were occupied in wrestling and trying to knock each other down, the infuriated woman kept up a constant administration of blows, half at least of which, in her aimless hurry, were received by the companion of her life for whom she was fighting. Once she hit the poor man so hard - by mistake - that he fell down in a dead faint, upon which the soldier ran for his life, while she, jumping like a tiger at him, caught him by the throat, spinned him round like a top, and floored him, knocking him down on the ice. Then she pounced on him, with her eyes out of her head with anger, and giving way to her towering passion, pounded him on the head with her heels while she was hitting him on the back with her mallet.

"You have killed my husband, too, you scoundrel!" she cried, while the defeated warrior was struggling hard, though in vain, to escape.

As she was about to administer him a blow on the head that would have been enough to kill a bull, she fortunately slipped on the ice and went sprawling over her victim. The soldier, more dead than alive, had raised himself on his knees, when that demon in female attire rose again and embracing him most tenderly, bit his cheek so hard as to draw a regular stream of blood. I could stand it no longer, and proceeded on to the slippery ice to try to separate them, but hardly was I within reach than I was presented with a sound blow on my left knee from the mallet which she was still manipulating with alarming dexterity, by which I was at once placed hors de combat before I had time even to offer my services as a peace-maker. Not only that, but besides the numberless "stars" which she made me see, the pain which she caused me was so intense that, hopping along as best I could on to the street again, I deemed it prudent to let them fight out their own quarrel and go about my own business.

"Never again as long as I live," I swore, when I was well out of sight, as I rubbed my poor knee, swollen up to the size of an egg, "never shall I interfere in other people's quarrels. Who would have foreseen this? and from a woman, too!"

It is, indeed, easy to be a philosopher after the event, but it is strange how very often one gets into fearful rows and trouble without having had the slightest intention either to offend or to annoy the natives. Here is another little anecdote which I narrated some months ago in the Fortnightly Review, and which is a further proof of the violent temper of the women-folk, of the lower classes in Cho-sen. The Coreans in general, and the women in particular, are at times extremely superstitious, which partly accounts for the violent scene in question, which arose out of a mere nothing, and nearly resulted in a most serious case of wilful infanticide. This is how things stood.

I was sketching one day outside the east gate of Seoul, and, as usual, was surrounded by a large crowd of natives, when a good-natured old man with a kindly face attracted my attention, as he lifted up in his arms a pretty little child, on whose head he had placed his horse-hair transparent hat, and asked me whether I would like to paint the little one so attired in my picture. I was tempted by the offer, and, having taken up a fresh panel, proceeded to dash off a sketch of my new model in his pretty red frock, his tiny padded socks, and his extra large hat, to the great amusement of the audience, who eagerly watched every stroke of my brush, and went into ecstasies as they saw the likeness come out more and more plainly. The Coreans, like the Japanese, are extremely quick at understanding pictures and drawings, and I was much gratified to notice the interest displayed by my auditorium, for never before had I seen a crowd so pleased with work of mine. My last experiences in the sketching line had been among the hairy savages of the Hokkaido, among whom art was far from being appreciated or even tolerated, and portrait-painting was somewhat of a risky performance; so that when I found myself lionised, instead of being under a shower of pelting stones and other missiles, it was only natural that I felt encouraged, and really turned out a pretty fair sketch so far as my capabilities went. "Beautiful!" said one; "Very good!" exclaimed another; "Just life-like!" said they all in a chorus as I lifted up the finished picture to show it to them, when - there was a sudden change of scene. A woman with staring eyes, and as pale as death, appeared on the door-step of a house close by, and holding her forehead with her hands, as if a great calamity was to befall her, made a step forward.

"Where is my child?" cried she in a voice of anger and despair.

"Here he is," answered one of the crowd. "The foreigner is painting a picture of him."

There was a piercing yell, and the pale woman looked such daggers at me that I nearly dropped the sketch, brushes and palette out of my hands. Oh, it was such a look! Brrr! how I shivered. Then, with another yell, tenfold more piercing than the first, she made a dash into the crowd, and tried to snatch the child away. I have heard people say that I am sensitive, and I believe that I really was on that occasion, for I involuntarily shuddered as I saw at a glance what was coming. The crowd had got so interested in the picture that they would not hear of letting the child go; so the mother, scorned and pushed back, was unsuccessful in her daring attempt. Boldly, however, making a fresh attack, she dashed into the midst of them and managed to grasp the child by the head and one arm; which led to the most unfortunate part of the business, for the angry mother pulled with all her might in her efforts to drag her sweet one away, while the people on the other hand pulled him as hard as they could by the other arm and the legs, so that the poor screaming mite was nearly torn to pieces, and no remonstrances of mine had the least effect on this human yet very inhuman tug-of-war.

Fortunately for the child, whose limbs had undergone a good stretching, the mother let go; but it was certainly not fortunate for the others, for, following the little ways that women have, even in Corea, she proceeded to scratch the faces of all within her reach, and I myself came within an inch of having my eyes scratched out of my head by this infuriated parent, when to my great relief she was dragged away. As she re-entered the door of her domicile, she shook her fist and thrust her tongue out at me, a worthy finish to this tragic-comic scene.

I do not wish you to think, however, that all women are like that in Corea; for, indeed, they are not. In fact, the majority of them may be said to be good-mannered and even soft in nature, besides being painfully laborious. You should see the poor things on the coldest days and nights of winter, smashing the thick ice in the rivers and canals, and spending hour after hour with their fingers in the freezing water, washing the clothes of their lords and masters, who are probably peacefully and soundly asleep at home. You should see them with their short, wooden mallets, like small clubs, beating the dirt out of the wet cotton garments, soap being as yet an unknown luxury in the Corean household. The poorer women, who have no washing accommodation at home, have to repair to the streams, and, as the clothes have to be worn in the day, the work must be done at night. Sometimes, too, three or more join together and form washing parties, this, to a certain extent, relieving the monotony of the kneeling down on the cold stone, pounding the clothes until quite clean, and constantly having to break the ice that is continually reforming round their very wrists. The women who are somewhat better off do this at home, and if you were to take a walk through the streets of Seoul by night you soon get familiar with the quick tick, tick, tick, the time as regularly marked as that of a clock, heard from many houses, especially previous to some festivity or public procession, when everybody likes to turn out in his best. If a woman in our country were sent out to do the washing under similarly trying circumstances - and, mind, a suit of clothes takes no less than a couple of hours to wash properly - I have no doubt that she might be tempted to ask for a divorce from her husband for cruelty and ill-treatment; but the woman of Cho-sen thinks nothing of it, and as long as it pleases the man whom she must obey she does it willingly and without a word of complaint. In fact, I am almost of opinion that the Corean woman likes to be made a martyr, for, not unlike women of other more civilised countries, unless she suffers, she does not consider herself to be quite happy!

It sounds funny and incongruous, but it really is so. While studying the women of Corea, a former idea got deeply rooted in my head, that there is nothing which will make a woman happier than the opportunity of showing with what resignation she is able to bear the weight and drudgery of her duty. If to that she can add complaint of ill-treatment, then her happiness is unbounded. The woman of Cho-sen gets, to my mind, less enjoyment out of life than probably any other woman in Asia. This life includes misery, silence, and even separation from her children - the male ones - after a certain age. What things could make a woman more unhappy? Still, she seems to bear up well under it all, and even to enjoy all this sadness, I suppose one always enjoys what one is accustomed to do, otherwise I do not see how the phenomenon is to be explained.

A few words must be added about that special class of women, the singers, who, as in Japan, are quite a distinct guild from the other women. A similar description to that of the geishas of Japan might apply to these gay and talented young ladies, who are much sought after by high officials and magistrates to enliven their dinner-parties with chanting and music. They are generally drawn from the very poorest classes, and good looks and a certain amount of wit and musical talent is what must be acquired to be a successful singer. They improvise or sing old national songs, which never fail to please the self-satisfied and well-fed official, and if well paid, they will even condescend to pour wine into their employer's cups and pass sweets to the guests. If beautiful and accomplished, the "Corean artistes" make a very good living out of their profession, large sums of money being paid for their services. But if at all favoured by Nature, they generally end by becoming the unofficial wives of some rich minister or official. These women chalk their faces and paint their lips; they wear dresses made of the most expensive silks, and, like people generally who have sprung from nothing and find themselves lodged among higher folks than themselves, they give themselves airs, and cultivate a sickening conceit. Among the Coreans, however, they command and receive much admiration, and many an intrigue and scandal has been carried out, sometimes at the cost of many heads, through the mercenary turn of mind of these feminine musicians.

This music is to the average European ear more than diabolical, this being to a large extent due to the differences in the tones, semi-tones, and intervals of the scale, but personally, having got accustomed to their tunes, I rather like its weirdness and originality. When once it is understood it can be appreciated; but I must admit that the first time one hears a Corean concert, an inclination arises to murder the musicians and destroy their instruments. Of the latter they have many kinds, including string and brass, and drums, and cymbals, and other sorts of percussion instruments. The flutes probably are the weirdest of all their wind category, but the tone is pleasant and the airs played on them fascinating, although somewhat monotonous in the end, repetitions being continually effected. Then there is the harp with five strings, if I remember right, and the more complicated sort of lute with twenty-five strings, the kossiul; a large guitar, and a smaller one; the kanyako being also in frequent use. Most of these instruments are played by women; the flutes, however, are also played by men.