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

Underwoodp p193 "Writing with a native teacher"
Western visitors to Korea are struck by the idleness and corruption of the Yangban class. While many of them live in considerable poverty at this point, and their ranks have expanded well beyond the restrictive membership of earlier periods, they are generally described in the most critical manner.

The unenlightened state and aversion to any form of physical labor among the Yangban is seen by most as one of the central obstacles to civilization in Korea. Whereas the theme of laziness and indifference to productive labor is a common one in travel literature and it frequently refers to Korean coolies and the Korean people (See Part III in this series of postings), the Yangban class, and especially the education system are seen in the most unforgiving light.

Ladd does not seem to think there is much of an education system at all for either the Yangban or anyone for that matter. “In Korea there were no educational associations; and, outside of a very small circle in a few cities, there was little or no interest in education.” (Ladd 37) For him, the Yangban have no appreciation for the greater issues for mankind, “The problems of life and destiny, the Being of God, the constitution of the universe, the fundamental principles of ethics, politics, and law are of little concern to him.” (Ladd 157)

Bishop is almost equally harsh. As with many of these observers, they seem to think that the mastery and memorization of a text, without any regard for content or the virtues it espouses, is all there is to the long exegetic tradition and Confucian education. In words reminiscent of any of the modernizing reformers of the time, she believes that the system is not just decaying but that, “Korean education has hitherto failed to produce patriots, thinkers, or honest men.” (Bishop 387) She concludes that,

“Narrowness, grooviness, conceit, superciliousness, a false pride which despises manual labor, a selfish individualism, destructive of generous public spirit and social trustfulness, a slavery in act and thought to customs and traditions 2,000 years old, a narrow intellectual view, a shallow moral sense, and an estimate of women essentially degrading, appear to be the products of the Korean educational system.” (Bishop 387)

One interesting thing to note here for future reference is the inclusion of “a selfish individualism” and a lack of public spirit, claims which will sit somewhat uneasy when compared to many of the other claims made about Koreans at the time.

Gale, who is perhaps the most familiar with the history and complexities of Confucian scholarship, is also deeply critical, but mostly because of its complete lack of progressivist and pragmatic elements.

“We aim at the development and preparation of the student in a practical way for life before him; the Korean has no such thought. He aims to fix or asphyxiate the mind, in order that he may shut the present out and live only in the past. Development is our idea; limitation his. A Western student rejoices in a variety of attainments and the number of branches in which he has been introduced; while the Korean, in the fact that he knows nothing of any subject but the reading and writing of Chinese characters.” (Gale 176)

With this kind of negative comparison with “We” Westerners, there is only occasionally the admission that these comments might still be equally applicable to the education system in the West. While progressive enlightenment supporters will sometimes (as most scholarship in our own time) come to see things in terms of a chronological division of “backwards and undeveloped” vs. “already developed” which is based on the assumption that Koreans are simply “behind us” in the process of human progress, in these writings at least it is even more often the tendency to attribute anything found lacking to the very incapacity of the Korean people themselves.

There are exceptions, however. Gale is often most often an example of this and of all the authors considered here, he has perhaps the most impressive ability to combine sympathy, a touch of nostalgia, and complete condescension.

“So [the Korean gentleman] passes from us, one of the last and most unique remains of a civilization that has lived its day. His composure, his mastery of self, his moderation, his kindliness, his scholarly attainments, his dignity, his absolute good-for-nothingness, or better, unfitness for the world he lives in—all combine to make him a mystery of humanity, that you cannot but feel kindly toward and intensely interested in.” (Gale 193)

Part III:

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

Earlier postings in this series:

Early Western Perceptions: Part I – Introduction


  1. Especially during the Japanese-Russian war one could read often in the newspapers about the laziness and stupidity of Koreans and how they are indifferent to the fate of their country and people. But those who have spent a long time among them tell otherwise. In general they are lauded as diligent, willing to learn, modest, sturdy, and calm. […]
    It has been also told that two years ago in a student’s world conference in Tokyo a Korean student made the most brilliant speech. All of them are for sure not this kind of geniuses, but because of the few who have been in contact with the Westerners such examples could have been picked, there is no reason to believe that they are exceptions. (Translation AL)

    From the booklet Herran hengen töitä Koreassa (Works of the spirit of the Lord in Korea), Finnish Missionary Society 1910. Originally a presentation given in the annual banquet of the Society in 1909.

    Perhaps some of the admiration towards Koreans in this fascinating little booklet stems from the receptive attitude of Koreans towards missionary work (which the writer talks about at length), but there must be some politics as well since the Japanese are presented in a very bad light (“oppression second only to the king Leopold’s government in Congo”).

  2. Interesting quote Antti, and is especially relevant to a future posting I have planned on Western perceptions of the “Korean mind” in part V. The missionary connection I think is, as you say importanct. For example, Bishop notes this contrast between the pre-converted and converted Korean Christians:

    “As I looked upon those lighted faces, wearing an expression strongly contrasting with the dull, dazed look of apathy which is characteristic of the Korean, it was impossible not to recognize that it was the teaching of the Apostolic doctrines of sin, judgment to come, and divine love which had brought about such results…” (Bishop 342)

  3. In this booklet it especially remarkable that the writer did not make a difference between non-converted and converted in praising the good qualities of Koreans. As one example of talented Koreans he presented a “political refugee from the royal lineage in San Francisco” who refused to accept an offer to convert to Christianity and be given funds for studies, but held to his convictions and started working as a cleaner to finance his studies.

    So, the way the writer puts it is that Koreans were inherently talented, and their willingness to accept Christianity in such numbers further proved their quality as a people. (My understanding is that the writer had spent some time in China, either as a missionary or as a traveller, but I have no info on whether he visited Korea.)

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