Glasses were introduced into Korea sometime in the 16th century, probably through China but Korea also made a type of glasses that may have been better than some of the Western glasses. These glasses were made from polished crystals. Horace Allen praised them in 1886:
“The Coreans really excel in the manufacture of eye-glasses. I have been ashamed when trying to fit a superior lens, from a good trial case of glasses, in place of a stone lens already worn. I could not do it; the Corean lens was the better. They are made of transparent stone, finely ground, and are expensive, costing in the neighborhood of $100.”
A huge amount of money considering the average laborer only made 10-15 cents a day. But not everyone wearing glasses had bad vision:
“In immaculate white he emerges from the holes and corners of every mud village. If he is an official of importance, he does not walk alone, but is assisted by the arms on each side. If he ventures by himself, it is with a magnificent stride that clears the street of indifferent stride that clears the street of indifferent passers, and commands only on-lookers. In one hand is a pipe three feet long, in the other a fan; over his eyes two immense discs of dark crystal, not to assist him in seeing, but to insure his being seen. How precious these are! Many a man will forego the necessaries of life if only he can gain a pair of Kyung-ju (spectacles), and so cover himself with glory before an on-looking assemblage.”
You can read the rest of the article here – Korea Times November 15, 2013.
Speaking of things to see. Many of you are aware that Korea took part in the Chicago Expo in 1893 (you can read Dan Kane’s excellent article here – including some of the controversy of the mission) and the Paris Expo in 1900 (picture and article, Korea Times May 10, 2010), but did you also know it took part in the Hanoi Expo of 1902?
We don’t know much about Korea’s participation in the Hanoi Expo save a brief note in the Korea Review:
“Korea is sending a considerable exhibit to the Hanoi Exhibition. A French man-of-war transported the exhibit from Chemulpo.”
Fortunately I was able to find and purchase a postcard of the Korean exhibit.
But why did Joseon Korea participate in these expositions. According to Mr. Kane, Joseon’s participation was “an overt display of independence at a time of mounting foreign encroachment” and Chinese hegemony. It “went to Chicago as Korea, not as China’s younger brother.” That was not the case in regards to the Paris Expo as China had been soundly defeated by the Japanese in the Sino-Japanese War (1894-95) so perhaps this was an effort to show the world that it was equally free of the Japanese. But what did Joseon gain from partaking in a colonial exposition? Obviously not much recognition but it is interesting to note that during the Korean rice famine that a large amount of rice was imported from Vietnam.
You can read the rest of my article (Korea Times, November 8, 2013) and my take of Joseon Korea’s first Hallyu boy.
And finally, a place that none of us wants to be in – the Korean prisons….but what were they like during the Joseon era?
These facilities were mainly made out of logs and planks with large gaps between them that served their purpose in preventing the inhabitants from escaping but did little to protect the prisoners from the elements. The prisoners were often tortured:
Sometimes, starvation was used as an implement of torture or execution. One official was declared knowing “no more of humanitarianism than to kill thieves by slow starvation.”
So severe were his tactics that some of the inmates gnawed on anything they could ― “the straw on the floor, their clothes, and even the skin and bones of their own arms ― to satisfy their awful hunger.” Their hardened jailors, “touched with pity,” used their own money to buy refuse from taverns to secretly feed their wards.
An editorial in The Independent declared that it was a “mark of civilization that a Government should show no small personal resentment against a criminal. He should be punished according to the enormity of his offense, even to death if need be, but the penalty to be bestowed should not be accompanied by additional penalties of a lesser nature like beating, starving or freezing….To allow prisoners to lie with fractured limbs until they putrefy can be denominated as nothing less than barbarous. Disease is not among the list of punishment in any civilized country nor should it be here.”
Sometimes sick prisoners were passed off to the Western hospitals for treatment:
“Occasionally one sees a man with body bloated as with dropsy and rotting as with gangrene, carried though the streets of Seoul on a jiki. He is being carried from one of the city or national jails to be thrown, perhaps, at the gate of a foreign hospital to be fed and treated by a foreigner at foreign expense, till he recovers [or] till king death releases him from pain.’’
By the late 1890s, torture, per se, and cruel punishments were abolished. No longer were prisoners decapitated with blunt swords but were executed in a more civil manner – by hanging.
You can read the rest of the article here – Korea Times, November 1, 2013.
Picture credits – The Hanoi Exhibit (my collection), the Korean prison (wikipedia – but I disagree that it is a public domain pic).