Early Western Perceptions of Koreans: Part III – Of Labor and Laziness

In Gale- Korean Sketches p9 Western visitors to late 19th century and colonial Korea often write about the Korean worker’s laziness, or at least a profound indifference to their labor. As we shall see in a future posting, the same theme runs throughout Japanese writings on Korea. In both cases, this quality is often attributed to some inherently inferior quality of the Korean character, but as we shall note below, there are exceptions.

When reading such accounts, it is especially useful to think about what such descriptions might have in common with other traveller accounts, both contemporary to these and in our own times, about the laboring classes in other places. For example, how are laborers described by visitors to places like Egypt, India, or even outside of the “Orient” in places like Southern and Eastern Europe. We might also compare the writings to descriptions of immigrant workers, where we might find both the trope of the “hard-working immigrant” as well as that of the “lazy immigrant welfare leech.”

In the cases of the writings I have looked at here, the alleged laziness of the Korean people is described somewhat differently when referring to the Yangban class and the common laborer. Observers all argue that idleness (their intellectual scholarship or official duties are never seen as having any value) is a professed virtue of the Yangban and is thus a more malicious feature specific to their class. However, any of the writers had extensive exposure to the peasants and townspeople, especially in the form of their own hired coolies, personal servants, and those they met in rural areas where many of them spent considerable time. Gale, for example, has a whole chapter dedicated to discussing the character of the Korean coolie.

The Korean spade or shovel (see Gale’s illustration above) emerges as one interesting symbol of Korean laziness and is described in detail both in Bishop and Gale’s writing. Bishop notes that the spade, “Excites the ridicule of foreigners as a gratuitous waste of man power,” (161) and Gale offers this description:

“His use of a shovel is striking. A description of this I will quote from my friend the Rev. G. Heber Jones, one of the closest observers and best students in Korea. “This interesting invention occupies a front rank among labor-saving machines of Korea, for it saves from three to five men a vast deal of work. It consists of a long wooden shovel, armed with an iron shoe, to cut into the earth properly. The handle is about five feet long, and is worked (to a certain extent) by the captain of the crew. Two ropes, one on each side, are attached to the bowl of the shovel, and these are managed by the men who seek to save their labor. While in operation the captain inserts the iron-shod point of the shovel sometimes as deep into the earth as three inches, and then the crew of two or four men give a lusty pull and a shout…That this implement belongs to the class of labor-saving machines there can be no doubt. It takes five men to do one man’s work, but entails no reduction in the pay.” (Gale 63)

Notice the interesting reversal here. The Korean shovel, which Gale notes is a “labor-saving device” is ridiculed for that same reason. Neither Bishop or Gale seem to see any virtue in the device whatsoever, nor do they seem to think that it might potentially increase the efficiency of work overall. Gale goes on in his description to further note how the device proves that Koreans cannot abide to work alone but must always work in groups.

Another symbol or invoked image of Korean laziness, the smoking of the tobacco pipe, can be found more prominently in Japanese writings. In an article found in this month’s Journal of Asian Studies Todd A. Henry illustrates how smoking is a, “key cultural sign of Koreans’ languor and their inability to make progress,” and it is contrasted with the more productive Japanese settler in Korea. (See his “Sanitizing Empire” in the August 2005 issue, 647-8)

Gale believes that Korean laborers are largely uninterested in profit, but it is unclear whether he sees this is an unselfish virtue, or yet another symbol of backwardness, “He regards money as a convenience, but in no case as a necessity. Other things being satisfactory he will agree to accept of it, will demand more at times or will regard with a look of scorn the largest amount you can offer him. He never descends to purely business relations.” (Gale 65)

Either way, the coolie is seen as an unexcitable, almost beast-of-burden like creature:

“Undoubtedly, [the Korean coolie] is the greatest living example of the absence of all excitement or animated interest of any kind whatever….Nothing short of a bowl of vermicelli (ku-kou), or the crack of doom, can creat the slightest interest in him or prove that he has nerves at all.” (Gale 53)

Gale concludes his chapter dedicated to the Korean coolie by attempting to look at the positive side,

“Now as we leave the coolie let us remember only his virtues. He takes life as it comes, and is always good-natured. Be it rough or smooth he shines with content. He seldom washes, has no second change of clothing, no carpets or slippers. He eats any kind of food, sleeps on the roadway when night overtakes him, and lies down to die with as little ceremony as he lives. A rough, craggy kind of life, where strength of body and mind might both develop.” (Gale 69)

All of the other writers I have looked at also make frequent mention of Korean laziness but Bishop is the only one who suggests that this might not in fact be an inherent flaw in the Korean character. She sees the peasant’s laziness as an understandable strategic choice, one which they are forced to take in an environment of rampant corruption, forced Yangban loans, and exploitative government taxation.

It is in fact her observation of Korean laborers outside of Korea which forms her opinion on the subject,

“Travellers are much impressed with the laziness of the Koreans, but after seeing their energy and industry in the Russian Manchuria, their thrift, and the abundant and comfortable furnishings of their houses, I greatly doubt whether it is to be regarded as a matter of temperament. Every man in Korea knows that poverty is his best security.” (Bishiop 336)

She argues in several places, and most notably in her conclusion (447) that the farmers of Korea simply have no motivation to produce more than what will feed the family since any indication that they might be profiting by their labor will make them the target of “squeezing” by Yangban and local officials. Reform then, is the key to unlocking the productive powers of the Korean laborer.

Read on with Part IV:

Western Perceptions of Koreans: Part IV – Women

Earlier postings in this series:

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


  1. Nice to see Umul an kaeguri is treading the waters! And I’m flattered that you have chosen to blogroll even my Finnish-language course site. A small language note: you might want to drop the “n” from the end of Korean nykyhistorian (“of Korean contemporary history”), since that is the marker of the genetive case, corresponding to “of” in “Issues of Korean contemporary history”, and thus meaningless (grammatically wrong!) without the following kysymyksiä (“issues”).

    Did I make myself unclear?

    Greetings also to Remco – welcome to the blogosphere!

  2. Thanks Antti! I should have guessed I would get into grammatical trouble by dropping that the kysymyksiä!

    I only wish I read Finnish so I could enjoy the site more!

  3. Thanks for kicking things off with a really interesting topic. This thing about ‘laziness’ is something that has struck me before. As you rightly point out, this must be put into the context of the many other cases where whole groups of people have been cast as idle. I think you could find almost endless similar examples from 18th, 19th and 20th century writing by ‘Westerners’ encountering Africans, Asians, people from ‘the tropics’, nomads, hunter gatherers, people in kinship societies, people in ‘despotic’ peasant societies, peasants in 18th/19th century Europe, aristocrats in 18th/19th century Europe and so on ad infinitum. It seems that the observers probably have more in common than the lazy objects of their observation. I think what it points up most of all is the world of wage labour, industrialisation, capital and commerce from which these observers came. To them, anyone who did not conform to the expected behavioural patterns of their capitalist societies (including, I think it it safe to assume, many groups of people within those societies themselves) was considered lazy.

    Smoking as an indicator of idleness or dissolution strikes me as similar to the periodic scares in Britain over various addictions preying upon the lower echelons of the working class, from the gin craze of the 18th century to ecstacy and crack in recent times. The strange thing is that smoking in itself doesn’t make you lazy, so it must have been something about the manner in which Koreans smoked that so upset the Japanese observers.

  4. I can’t agree with you more, and you are especially right in pointing out that, ‘It seems that the observers probably have more in common than the lazy objects of their observation’

    The smoking thing puzzles me too, especially since the Japanese commentators who are chiding Koreans for their “poisonous” “addiction” to tobacco as somehow indicative of their hopeless laziness come from a country where tobacco usage is hardly minimal. Indeed, the fall in popularity of the long Korean pipe is followed by the rise of the Japanese cigarette in the Korean market of the late Chosôn period!

  5. What the Western (and Eastern) observers most likely refer to is what made smoking the pipe (kombangdae) a marker of status among Koreans; that the smoker had a pipe so long that he needed a servant to light it. As the long pipe was a key component in the image of a yangban, downgraded in the modernizing writing on Korea, smoking would make a fitting issue in commenting the level of Koreans’ backwardness.

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