Kor-Can Stories (3) : Mr. Gale and the Hermit Kingdom Part 1


James Scarth Gale in 1888

James Scarth Gale may as well be one of the first Canadians to set foot in the Land of the Morning Calm. Born in a small town of Pilkington, Ontario in 1863, Gale studied Foreign Languages in University College, University of Toronto and then Theology in Knox College until his leave to Korea as a missionary volunteer with the YMCA in 1888. While it is unclear where he learned Korean, it is likely that he learned Korean in Japan, like most missionaries entering Korea during that time. It’s fair to say that Gale was fascinated with Korean culture. Gale traveled frequently throughout Korea; he translated and published Korean folk stories as well as its superstitions, recording Korean events whenever he found the opportunity. He immersed into Korea so much that he even created his own Korean name, Gee-Il(奇一).

At any rate, Gale left his accounts of his travel to Korea in series of books. His earliest accounts of Korea can be excavated in his first book, Korean Sketches (1898). Gale, with humor where applicable, describes his early journey in and out of Korea in detail. There is a slight hint of Orientalism in his writing due to the time frame of his book, but with an open mind his honest-to-his-own-opinion writing does not discomfort his readers. He comments on various things that he observed, from his horrified opinion on what Koreans do with their dogs (which he later accounts, changed very quickly after he had his own taste in one dog’s day of summer) , to the unbearable smell of Seoul sewage system, and almost dystopia-like description of the Chosun Dynasty fuming its last breath.

A local governor house in Old Korea. The image depicts a court hearing scene.

A local governor house in Old Korea. Local governors in Korea acted as a man of all trades, taking command of all things including levying taxes, fixing up water reservoirs, military training, hearing litigation and holding trials. There seems to be a lawsuit hearing at the moment when this picture was taken.

“A great wall of China seemed to separate us”

One of the most interesting of his accounts in Korean Sketches is his first meeting with a governor of Haeju (Today’s Haeju, Hwanghae Province) during his travels, where he decided to take the courage to “step outside Seoul for a change” when other foreigners could not dare to step outside of the capital city. Days after his departure from Seoul and many new friends and acquaintances later, he arrived in Haeju without being bitten by a tiger. Moments after he arrived to Haeju Gale was summoned by the governor’s court to be interviewed. From this encounter Gale notes the different understanding of the universe between the learned Korean gentleman and a visiting foreigner:

I remained in Haeju two week, and several times was ushered into the presence of the governor, a nervous man, who seemed in a perpetual state of uneasiness. He asked my name, how old I was, if I was married, and what I had come to do in the land of Morning Calm. He wished to know my country, and when I said Mi-Guk (meaning “American”. Gale seems to have given up on informing everyone about Canada in Korea; though in some instances he identifies himself as a habitant of the American Continent), he inquired of the servants gazing in at the window if they knew to which of the outskirts of the universe such a kingdom longed. Of course they knew not, and the governor shook his head doubtfully.

A great wall of China seemed to separate us. My country, me calling, my appearance, were all mysteries to him. For example, why had I taken my hat off on entering, when Korean custom requires you to put it on if you will show respect. I tried to say, that our country, being on the other side of the earth, had fallen into many customs the very opposite of those in Korea. “The other side of the earth,” what did that mean? And at once we were into the perplexing question of the shape of matter in general.

Gale notes the cultural difference between a Korean and a Westerner that, most of us experienced, or will experience in our own visits to Korea today, though perhaps the context of the difference is rather different today. For Gale, the experience is quite philosophical. What did Gale mean by saying that there was an ‘opposite side’ to earth? Or on the flip side, what did the governor mean by questioning Gale by wondering what the ‘opposite side’ of earth was? Governor enlightens his own world view to Gale and the readers:

Confucius says that the heavens are round and the earth, square and flat, and here this foreign gentleman pretends the opposite; and a shock of nervousness took him that threatened violent prostration.

The governor, educated in the most sophisticated works of Confucianism is clearly shocked to hear that “earth is circular” instead of the flat four corners and the round skies above him, as understood in the most orthodox ideas of Confucianism in Korea. What other baffling things could this strange man with an odd mustache say about his customs? Will he say that his kind does not enjoy dog soup in a hot summer’s day? Will he say that he wears hats made of beaver pelts instead of horse hair (see image below)? It’s not too hard to imagine the confusion and horror that may have passed through the mind of this nervous but very curious governor. Gale’s alien status among Koreans soon subsided however, by the most Korean way we may imagine: though sharing a table of food together.

Picture depicting a Korean dinner table. Note that the picture is taken on a stage; Many of these photos were sold to Japan and other countries as exotic collections.

Photo depicting a simple Korean dinner table. Note: 1) the interesting hats 2) topknots, and 3) that the picture is taken on a stage; many of these photos were produced and sold by Japanese merchants as exotic collections and souvenirs.

The wall of China grew apace, till a servant brought in a table of food, and His Excellency asked me to partake, eyeing me closely the while to see whether I ate the food of the brass bowls and chopsticks; for Koreans hold that different degrees of spiritual being require different material for food, some eat metal, some wood, some grass, some air, while the purely human ears rice, pork, raw fish etc. The first spoonful of rice I took leveled that wall of China. The governor had unfailing proof that I was human, and he could afford to overlook minor differences on the question of the universe, seeing that we had in common this capacity for rice that made us fellow mortals.

What meaning does sharing food together have for Koreans? Certainly it seemed to have disarmed the Haeju governor from all kinds of caution and distrust he had about Gale! A meeting is not complete and a friend is not adequately treated until something enters their stomachs. A weird feeling of obligation seems to compel Koreans to do so and there is a strange sense of togetherness comes from eating together in Korea. Is this a part of Korean culture? Gale’s experience in Haeju seems to indicate that it may as well be! And as we will find out later, this is not the first time Gale encounters his “Korean moments” that is still not uncommon today.

Next Story: Travelling as a visitor in old Korea- The terror that is horang-i

Would you like to get your hands on Korean Sketches by James S. Gale? Follow the link below (Open Content Alliance):


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