Early Western Perceptions of Koreans: Part I – Introduction

What did visitors to late Chosŏn and colonial Korea have to say about the people and society they found there? When seen through the lens of imperialism and all of the racist or essentializing habits of that period, what might we recognize in the language and generalizations of our own time?

There is a vast and growing academic literature looking at these cross-cultural encounters, and at the many recorded descriptions and analyses of distant peoples to be found in the form of travel writings, diaries, and the anthropologist’s ethnography. From this scholars are finding new and exciting ways to understand the way that empire is justified and maintained but also explore better confront the perils of describing that which is foreign to us.

In the case of primary works related to Korea we can find the Western visitor judging their host culture by the concepts of race, religion, and enlightenment civilization that they bring with them, but anyone reading their writing cannot help but note the heavy presence of Japan and indeed a kind of “Japanese filter” in much of writing from this period. Long before annexation in 1910 or the establishment of the protectorate in 1905, Japan was effective in convincing many Western visitors to Korea of its noble and civilizing intentions, if they occasionally failed to impress them with their attempts to force reforms on King Kojong’s court.

In a series of postings here at Frog in a Well, I’m going to share some passages from contemporary travel accounts which capture some of views about Koreans held by visitors in Korea which appear frequently in the writings I have looked over for this little project.

These passages are full of discriminatory and sometimes bizarre generalizations. Other times, readers may find themselves with a more ambiguous response. Either way, I will try to resist the temptation to get distracted too much by analysis. I hope the reader too, if you should leave comments, will resist the temptation to get carried away by denouncing or praising particular images found here. My purpose is neither to simply present the reader with a list of laughable absurdities from a time long past or, heaven forbid, spark equally absurd debates on what we can say about essential nature of the Korean national character.

This series will focus on a small number of English language works. At a later point I will summarize some of the extensive work out there which has looked at late 19th century and colonial period Japanese perceptions of Korea which will provide an interesting perspective for comparison. Ultimately, I believe this is all raw material which can be useful in a number of different historical and theoretical debates, especially for students and scholars of modern East Asia.

The works that I refer to in the following postings are:

Bishop, Isabelle L. 1970 [1898]. Korea and her neighbors; a narrative of travel, with an account of the recent vicissitudes and present position of the country. Seoul, Korea, Yonsei University Press.

A long and detailed work by an English missionary who spend a number of years in Northeast Asia. Knew both Gale and Underwood.

Drake, H. B. 1930. Korea of the Japanese. London, New York,, John Lane; Dodd Mead and company.

A relatively obscure British paranormal fiction writer who taught English in Korea for a time. Some of his fiction is set in China and East Asia and probably borrows on his experiences there.

Gale, James Scarth. 1898 Korean Sketches. New York, Chicago [etc.]: F. H. Revell company, 1898.

A Canadian missionary, translator and scholar who wrote several books about Korea, including a history, a collection of tales, and worked on a Korean dictionary.

Ladd, G. Trumbull 1908. In Korea with Marquis Ito : Part I. A narrative of personal experiences ; Part II. A critical and historical inquiry. London, Longmans Green.

A well-known American philosopher and psychologist who was invited to visit Korea as a guest of then Resident-General Itô Hirobumi when Korea was a protectorate of Japna, and left an account of his experiences in Korea along with a political analysis filled with praise for Japan.

Patterson, W. 1988. The Korean frontier in America : immigration to Hawaii, 1896-1910. Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press.

Patterson’s work on Korean immigration includes a number of passages showing American perceptions of Korean laborers.

Underwood, L. H. 1904. Fifteen years among the top-knots; or, Life in Korea. Boston, American tract society.

Lillias Underwood is an American missionary and married to Horace G. Underwood, one of the founders and the first president of Yonsei University.

Update: I should note up front that I realize that the word “Early” in the title is arguably inappropriate. There were a few Western travelers who wrote about Korea in much earlier times than those considered here. I am open to recommendations for an alternative (short) title to the postings in this series if there are any strong objections.

Go on to Part II:

Early Western Perceptions of Koreans: Part II – Education and the Yangban Class


  1. I wouldn’t describe Isabelle Bird Bishop as a missionary. Although her father was an Anglican clergy, she is most often known as a Victorian-era world traveler and writer. In a time when few women traveled alone, she traversed the globe several times and was the first women elected to the British Royal Geographic Society.

  2. I didn’t know she travelled so widely! Thanks, I just found many of her other books. Having said that, I know she was involved in missionary activities though but “world traveller” might be better.

  3. You seem to have omitted a rather important book, Frederick Mackenzie’s “Korea’s Struggle for Freedom.” He was a Canadian journalist working for The (London) Times and Yonsei University has republished the book, which is very pro-Korean yet not overtly anti-Japanese. The book is based on his despatches whilst in Korea during the critical time just prior to the Japanese “takeover.”

  4. Thanks! I omitted several dozen books that I wish I could have included. The choice was pretty arbitrary, grabbing just a half dozen books from a single shelf of old books on Korea in the Harvard-Yenching library. I later found a great 2 volume book on old books about Korea in Western languages and I have been ordering some old copies via used booksellers. I will take a look at the one you recommended! Thanks!

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