CHAPTER X. A Corean marriage - How marriages are arranged - The wedding ceremony - The document - In the nuptial-chamber - Wife's conduct - Concubines - Widows - Seduction - Adultery - Purchasing a husband - Love - Intrigue - Official "squeezing".

Among the several misfortunes, or fortunes, if you prefer the word, with which a Corean man has to put up is an early marriage. He is hardly born, when his father begins to look out for a wife for him, and scarcely has he time to know that he is living in the world at all than he finds himself wedded.... The Coreans marry very young. I have seen boys of ten or twelve years of age who had already discarded the bachelor's long tress hanging down the back, and were wearing the top-knot of the married man. It must not be supposed, however, that these youthful married men are really wedded in the strict sense of the word, for, as a matter of fact, though husband and wife in the eyes of the world, the two do not live together till the age of puberty is reached. In other words, the marriage is for several years only a nominal one, and corresponds rather to our "engagement." There are duties, none the less, which a married man must perform, no matter how youthful he may be. From the moment he is wedded he must be a man, however childlike in years, and henceforth he can associate only with men. His infantile games, romps with other children who are still bachelors, spinning tops and all other amusements, which he so much enjoyed, are suddenly brought to an end and he is now compelled to be as sedate as an old man.

The illustration (p. 79) shows a young married man of the age of twelve, a relation of the queen. As I was taking his portrait, I asked him how he liked his wife and what her appearance was.

"I do not know," he said, "for I have only seen her once, and I have as yet never spoken to her."

"But, then, how can you like her?"

"Because it is my father's wish that I should, and I must obey my father."

"Does your father know the girl well?"

"No, but he knows her father."

"And what does your mother say?"

"She says nothing."


"Because she is dead."

I found this an excellent reason for the silence on the mother's side and I proceeded with the picture, but once again attacked him with the view of, if possible, obtaining further information.

"When will you go and live with your wife?"

"When I shall be nineteen or twenty years old."

The whole arrangement seemed to me so strange that I naturally longed for further details about marital relations in Cho-sen. The facts as told to me are as follows: In Cho-senese weddings the two people least concerned are the bride and bridegroom. Everything, or at least nearly everything, is done for them, either by their relations or through the agency of a middle-man. When both the persons to be wedded possess fathers, a friendly pourparler takes place between the two papas and in the course of repeated libations of wine, the terms are settled, and with the help of a "wise man" a lucky day is named, upon which the wedding shall take place. On the other hand, should the bridegroom have no father, then a middle-man is appointed by the nearest relations to carry on the transaction with the girl's progenitor. It is not uncommon for two persons to be married several years without ever having seen each other. This, for instance, may be the case when the young lady resides in a distant province, and a journey of inspection would be too expensive. Under such circumstances the bridegroom must just patiently wait until, perhaps, years after, the bride undertakes the journey herself and comes to live with him in his house.

After all, on thinking the matter over and bearing in mind that with us a marriage is indeed a lottery, I cannot see why the Corean wedding should not be equivalent to two lotteries! Very often, weddings are arranged by letter, in which case misunderstandings frequently occur. For instance, a father who has two daughters, a sound one and a cripple, may have arranged for the one in good condition to be married to a charming young man of good education and means. When the day of the wedding, however, arrives, judge of the surprise of the bridegroom to see himself on the point of being united in matrimony with a humpback lame creature, with a face and limbs all out of drawing - in place of the ideal beauty whom he had expected to obtain. What is to be done? There is the written agreement, down in black and white, and signed by his incautious father, and there the father of the maid swearing that it was "this" daughter he meant to give him, not the beautiful one! What is to be done under such circumstances so as not to cause grief to his parent, except to go through with the wedding with courage and dignity, and to provide himself with some good-looking concubines at the earliest opportunity?

The practice of having concubines is a national institution and of the nature of polygamy. These second wives are not exactly recognised by the Government, but they are tolerated and openly allowed. The legal wife herself is well aware of the fact, and, though not always willing to have these rivals staying under the same roof, she does not at all object to receiving them and entertaining them in her own quarters - if her lord and master orders her to do so. There are, nevertheless, strong-minded women in the land of Cho-sen, who resent the intrusion of these thirds, and family dissension not unfrequently results from the husband indulging in such conduct. Should the wife abandon her master's roof in despair he can rightfully have her brought back and publicly spanked with an instrument like a paddle, a somewhat severe punishment, which is apt to bring back to reason the most ill-tempered and strong-willed woman. Such a thing, though, very seldom happens, for, as women go, the Corean specimens of feminine humanity seem to be very sensible, and not much given to jealousy or to worrying their little heads unnecessarily about such small failings. They are perfectly well aware that their husbands cannot easily divorce them, when once the fatal knot has been tied, and that, though practically inferior beings and slaves, they nevertheless come first, and are above their rivals in the eye of the law; which, I suppose, is satisfaction enough for them. Even when on friendly terms with her husband's second loves, the wife number one never forgets to impress them with the fact that, though tolerated, they are considered by her to be much lower beings than herself; which makes them feel all the more her studied politeness to them. Occasionally, however, even the cool-headed Corean woman gets possessed with the vice of envy - sometimes mixed with hatred - with the result that reciprocal scratches and tearings of the hair become l'ordre du jour. But to condescend to such means of asserting one's authority is looked down upon by the more respectable women; and suffering in silence is pronounced to be a nobler way of acting under the circumstances, the woman thus setting an example of good nature eliciting the admiration of all her neighbours.

The wedding ceremony in Cho-sen is simple. It is not celebrated as with us, in the house of the bride, but in that of the bridegroom. The bride it is, who - carried in a palanquin, if a lady of means and good family, or on pony or donkey back, if she belongs to the lower classes - goes, followed by parents, relations and friends, to the house of the bridegroom. Here she finds assembled his friends and relations, and, having been received by the father of the bridegroom, she mounts a small platform erected for the purpose in the centre of the room and squats down. Her father follows suit, placing himself just behind her. The bridegroom, apparently unconcerned by the serious change in his life that is in prospect, sits on his heels in front of her on the platform. A document is then produced and unrolled, on which, in hundreds of fantastic Chinese characters, it is certified that the performance taking place is a bona-fide marriage between Mr. So-and-so and the daughter of So-and-so; the weaker sex, as we have already seen, not being entitled to a personal name. The two contracting parties having signed the document, the fathers of the bride and bridegroom and the nearest relations, follow suit. If, as happens in many cases, the woman is able neither to read nor write, she can make "her mark" on the roll of paper in question; and I must confess that of all the ingenious marks I have seen, this one is the most ingenious of all. If she be a lady of rank and illiterate, her little hand is placed on the paper and the outline drawn round the fingers and wrist with a fine brush dipped in Chinese ink; but if she happens to have no blue blood in her veins, and is, therefore, of less gracious manners, the simpler process of smearing her hand with black paint and hitting the document with it is considered to render the ceremony more impressive. A more or less vivid impression of the wife's fleshly seal having been affixed in this way to some part or other of the document according to her skill in aiming, the two unfortunates resume their dignity on the platform, sitting face to face without a word or motion. The bridegroom then makes four grand bows to his wife, in sign of resignation or assent, I suppose; and she returns two, while she treats her father-in-law with double that amount of reverence. This constitutes the marriage ceremony proper, but much further bowing has to be gone through by both the parties to each of the people present, who, accompanying their wedding-gifts of birds and fish with pretty compliments, come forward, one by one, to the platform and drink the health, happiness and joy of the wedded pair. It is the duty of the bride to remain perfectly mute and apparently unconcerned at all the pretty speeches addressed to her by the bridegroom and his friends until the nuptial-chamber is entered later in the evening. Previous to this, however, the bridegroom is taken away into the men's apartment, while, on the other hand, the wife is led into the ladies' own room. The former then has his tress cut off and tied into a top-knot - an operation entrusted to his best friend; while the latter also has her hair changed from the fashion of the maiden to that of a married woman, by her most intimate friend. It is only after this change in the coiffure that a man begins to be taken notice of in the world, or is regarded as responsible for his own conduct.

After being arrayed in the fashion just mentioned, and having gone through a good deal of feasting, husband and wife are led off to the nuptial-chamber. Here, numerous straw puppets, which had better be left undescribed, are placed, with a certain implication, which need not be explained. With these, then, the two poor wretches are shut in, while all the relations and servants sit outside giggling and listening at the door. The wife is not supposed to utter a sound, and if by chance her voice is heard she can fully expect to have her life chaffed out of her, and to be the talk and the cause of good-natured fun all over the neighbourhood. The middle-men - either the fathers or others - are entitled to assist at the first-night business, and to report to the relations and friends whether the marriage is to turn out a happy one or not. They generally act their part behind a screen placed for the purpose in the nuptial-chamber.

What happens is generally this: the man either takes a violent fancy for his new bride or else he does not care for her. If the former is the case, the first fortnight or so is a very happy one for the couple, and the two are continually by each other's side; but, by-and-by, of course, the ardour of these days gets quieted down, and, to show his wife that after all he does not think much of her, the man will even proceed to enter into relationship with a second wife, and probably soon after that also with a third or even a fourth, according to his means. After a time, he will again return to the first and principal wife, and repeat to her a certain amount of affection, though never quite so much as is displayed towards the last love. The Corean treats his wife with dignity and kindness, and feeds her well, but she is never allowed to forget that she is an inferior personage. To this, however, the women of Cho-sen seem quite resigned, and it is marvellous how faithful they are to their husbands, and how much they seem to think of them and their welfare and happiness, their own selves being quite forgotten. Should a woman of the better classes be left, a widow, she must wear mourning as long as she lives, and ever shed tears over the loss of her husband. To re-marry she is not permitted. Women of the lower classes, it is true, do not always observe this rule - which is not law, but merely etiquette.

Many a Cho-sen lady, also, on finding herself deprived of her better half when she is still young in years and physique voluntarily puts an end to her days, that she may join her husband, wherever he may have gone, rather than go through life alone. If, however, a son is born, she will nurse him, and look upon him as her master when he grows older and becomes the head of the family.

To obtain a divorce in Corea is not an easy matter. Large sums of money, however, often obtain what right cannot. The principal causes for which, if proved, a divorce can be obtained, are: infidelity, sterility, dishonesty, and incurable malady. These faults, be it understood, only apply to women, for against the men the weaker sex has, unfortunately, no redress. Indeed, by the law of Corea a man becomes the owner of a woman if he can prove that he has had intimate relations with her. In such a case as this, even though it has been against her parents' and her own will, he has a perfect right to take her to his house, and make her a wife or a concubine.

Adultery until lately was punished in Corea with flogging and capital punishment. Now the law is more lenient, and wives accused of such a dreadful offence are beaten nearly to death, and when recovered, if they do recover, are given as concubines to low officials in the Palace or at some of the Yamens.

Women who are much deformed and have reached a certain age without finding a husband are allowed the privilege of purchasing one, which, in other words, corresponds to our marriage for money. In Corea, however, the money is paid down as the consideration for the marriage. But this sort of thing is not very frequent, and husbands in such cases are generally recruited from among ruined gentlemen or from the middle classes, among whom with money anything can be done. It is not considered quite honourable, and the Cho-senese despise such conduct on the part of a man.

When a woman marries she becomes co-proprietress of all her husband's fortune and property, and should he die without having any sons, money and land descend to her. When this happens, however, the larger part of the fortune is swallowed up by the astrologers and priests, who give the woman to understand that they are looking after the welfare of her deceased beloved. In matters concerning the dead, the Coreans are heedless of expense, and large sums are spent in satisfying the wishes that dead people convey to the living through those scamps, the astrologers.

The life of a Corean woman, though that of a slave kept in strict seclusion, with prospects of floggings and head-chopping, is not always devoid of adventures. Love is a thing which is capricious in the extreme, and there are stories current in Cho-sen about young, wives being carelessly looked after by their husbands, and falling in love with some good-looking youth, of course married to some one else. Having, perhaps, against her master's orders, made a hole through the paper window, and been peeping at the passers-by in the street, after months, or even years of drudgery and sleepless nights thinking of her ideal - for Corean women are passionate, and much given to fanciful affections - she at last chances to see the man of her heart, and manages, through the well-paid agency of some faithful servant, to enter into communication with him. If the man in question happens to be a high official or a nobleman, what happens generally is that the lady's husband either gets suddenly packed off by order of the King to some distant province, or is sent upon some travelling employment which probably necessitates his leaving his wife behind for several years, during which period, under the old-fashioned excuse of news received of the husband's death, or the plea of poverty, she very likely becomes the concubine of the man she loves. In Corean literature, there are many stories of the burning affections of the fair sex, some being said to have committed crimes, and even suicide, to be near the man they loved.

To a European mind, certainly, the native way of arranging marriages does not seem very likely to make the contracting parties happy, for neither the tastes nor respective temperaments of the young couple are regarded. Still, taking everything into consideration, it is marvellous how little unhappiness - comparatively - there is in a Corean household. Besides, it must not be supposed that, slave though she be, the Corean woman never gets things her own way. On the contrary, she does, and that as often as she likes. Among the upper classes, especially those about the Court, half the trouble in the kingdom is caused by the women, not openly, indeed, but in a clever underhand way through their enerve husbands, whom, instead of being the governors, they rule and lead by the nose. Promotions, punishments, and beheadings are generally the consequence of the work of some female fiend. There is probably no place in the world in which intrigue is so rampant as in the Corean Capital. The Queen herself is said to exercise an enormous influence over the King, and, according to Corean reports, it is really she, and not the King, that rules Cho-sen. She is never either seen or heard of; and yet all the officials are frightened out of their lives if they think they have incurred her displeasure. For no plausible reason whatever men are sometimes seen deprived of their high position, degraded and exiled. Nobody knows why it is; the accused themselves cannot account for it. There is only one answer possible, namely, Cherchez la femme. The fact is, a Corean woman can be an angel and she can be a devil. If the former, she is soft, good, willing to bear any amount of pain, incredibly faithful to her husband, painstaking with her children, and willing to work day and night without a word of reproach. If, however, she is the other thing, I do not think that any devils in existence can beat her. She then has all the bad qualities that a human body can contain. I firmly believe that when a Corean woman is bad she is capable of anything! Much of the distress, even, which prevails all over the country is more or less due to the weakness of the stronger sex towards the women. Everybody, I suppose, is aware of the terrible system of "squeezing"; that is to say, the extortion of money from any one who may possess it. It is really painful all over Corea to see the careworn, sad expression on everybody's face; you see the natives lying about idle and pensive, doubtful as to what their fate will be to-morrow, all anxious for a reform in the mode of government, yet all too lazy to attempt to better their position, and this has gone on for generations! Such is human nature. It is hard to suffer, but this is considered to be nothing compared with the trouble of improving one's position.

"What is the use of working and making money," said a Corean once to me, "if, when the work is done and the money made, it is taken from you by the officials; you are worn out by the work you have done, yet are as poor as before, that is, mind you, if you are fortunate enough not to be exiled to a distant province by the magistrate who has enriched himself at your expense?" "Now," added the Cho-senese, looking earnestly into my face, "would you work under those circumstances?" "I am hanged if I would," were the words which, to the best of my ability, I struggled to translate into the language of Cho-sen, in order to show my approval of these philosophic views; "but, tell me, what do the officials do with all the money?"

"It is all spent in pleasure. Women are their ruin. The feasts which they celebrate with their singers and their concubines cost immense sums of money. Besides, their women are like leeches, and continually incite them to extort more and more from the public to satisfy their ambition and evil habits. They are women mostly born in dirt, but who now find themselves in lavishness and luxury. People who spring up from nothing never are satisfied with what they possess, and it is always a pleasure to them to see other people suffering as they formerly did."

There is little doubt that what the Corean said is perfectly true, and that the system of "squeezing" is carried on by the magistrates to such an extent as to entirely ruin the people; wherefore, it is only natural that its depressing effects should be impressed upon the people "squeezed." I also believe that there is a good deal of truth in what he said about their females being supplied with large funds by the magistrates. The money must come from some part, and since, personally, they are poor and only receive a small pay, there is no doubt that the money in question is extorted as described. But let this suffice for the good and bad qualities of the Cho-sen fairies and their funny way of being married.