Kor-Can Stories: (2) Missionaries and The Hermit Kingdom

Relatively speaking, Korea was an unchartered, unknown land to Canadians. Of course there were stories here and there; many Dutch traders, ‘Hwa-ran’ as they were called by the Koreans, floated upwards to Korea caught up in a typhoon since the 17th century CE. Many of them settled and even ended up fighting and dying for Korea. Some found home in Korea, transferred their skills in gunpowder, foundry and sailing which Koreans appreciated very much. Many however missed home and decided to take the hike to Japan- Hendrick Hamel, famous for his account of his (seemingly terrible, as he published his story to prove that he needs to be remunerated for his troubles in Asia by his boss decades after his accident at sea) time in Korea was such individual.

These stories, although fascinating, were forgotten in Europe and was ancient literature by the time Canada begun to pay attention to the affairs over the Pacific Ocean in the mid 19th century. Canada often traded with China and Japan, although due to the Anglo-Japanese Alliance they took more positive opinions towards Japanese folks than any other Asians. However, despite initial contacts it could be said that East Asia was a mysterious land to Canadians; most Canadians paid more attention to European and American affairs and knew little, and perhaps cared little too, about what lied beyond the Pacific Ocean; shows in New York, or serious politics of the Empire in London were more fascinating to Canadians of the time. Korea then, often dubbed the Hermit Kingdom to Westerners, stood as a mysterious civilization to many Canadians alongside China and Japan.

A street car, which certainly passed the baptism of fire racing against the finest steed that Seoul has to offer, passes through the West Gate of Seoul. (1903)

Then Korea opened its doors.

It was 1876 when the Hermit Kingdom finally opened its gates to the outside world. Rather hurried and perhaps pressured by the Japanese, Koreans nevertheless were exposed and somewhat bombarded by the new materials, new ideas and new toys from the outside world; what was a trickle beforehand through here-say from Chinese merchants and diplomats, who also saw things and heard things second hand, now flooded Korea, wave after wave at an unprecedented level. Coffee and chocolates were first tasted by the royal family of Korea during this time. Men raced horses against street cars to benchmark the new ride in town, while women went to school for the first time to study science and English. Korea’s first westernized army composed of young yangban (traditional Korean aristocracy) volunteers marched in the streets of Seoul with their servants carrying their chamber pots few meters behind them. Children ran away from cameramen in terror believing that camera lenses may suck out their souls and press them into photographs. Newspapers were printed for the first time, with Korea’s first commercial advertisement in history while public servants vowed to the telephone before receiving  phone calls from his majesty the King of Korea. These were fascinating times, as it was also unprecedented times for Korea. Some worried for the fate of the country while others dreamed of what new thrilling things would enter the port of Incheon the next day. It is during this time when first Canadians arrived in Korea, riding those waves of new things, people and ideas.

Wycliffe College entrace 2013

Wycliffe College today on Harbord Street (2013)

Who were these Canadians? What business did they have in the land of the morning calm? Apparently many of them, if not dominant, were there for missionary purposes. Many schools in Canada (notably Wycliffe College and Emmanuel College, which still teaches Theology in University of Toronto) taught and dispatched missionaries all across the world in the spirit of servitude. Surely, Korea was one of those countries that Canadian missionaries felt that the gospel words and pipe organ notes needed to be heard. So off they went, across the Pacific Ocean with a carriage bag in one hand and the Bible in another, to the land of morning calm in excitement of what to come, and timidity for the strange new people in countless funny looking hats that they would meet in Korea.

As we will see, not only did these missionaries were gifted in teaching the words of the Bible and giving a little peace of mind to fellow human beings, they also carried some great tricks and trades to Korea as well. Many were doctors, many were linguists. Some carefully documented events and some took part in the turning points of world history, as we will see in later posts.

What I plan to do in the later posts of this topic, is to follow the two most prominent figures of the Canadian mission to Korea: Mr. James Scarth Gale and Dr. Frank William Schofield. While following their footsteps in the Land of the Morning Calm, We will also explore what happened in Korea as these gentlemen stayed in Korea. Events of joy, sadness, surprise, and as we will see, to be “only accounted with shaking hands”, as a personal witness to turning points of history not only in Korea, but for the world.

Next: Missionaries Part 1: Mr. Gee-Il: The English-Korean Dictionary, and the mid-morning in the Land of the Morning Calm.
(follow the link below)

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