Western Perceptions of Koreans: Part V – The Korean Mind and other Characteristics

Before diving into some descriptions of the Korean mind and personality in the readings considered in this series of postings (Part I begins here), let me make a few observations.

In the postings I have written so far, the various generalizations made about Koreans tend to fall under two categories: 1) unqualified claims about the inherent features of Korean people and culture 2) Generalizations about Koreans which are more explicitly placed in the context of a narrative of contingent backwardness, oppression, and a “not yet caught up” state of barbarity.

A surprisingly large number of descriptions that I have discussed so far involve claims about the inherent character of the Korean people, with few or no qualifications. Koreans are said to have some feature by virtue of their distinctive culture, or, for lack of any explanation, as some kind of other racial or ethnically inherent characteristic.

To be fair, the most derogatory and frustrating claims about Koreans are often made in passing and, except when directly justifying Japanese intervention in Korea, do not form a central argument in that segment of the narrative. Thus it may be too much to expect the writer to carefully make qualifications for every claim in such writings, especially when they have emphasized the “future potential” for the development of Koreans elsewhere.

This does not mean, however, that the second category, which emphasizes that the various vices and deficiencies of the Koreans are contingent features of a barbaric and as-yet unenlightened people are any less objectionable. As more than one generation of philosophers and historians have pointed out, there are many problems with a universal progressivism which happily divides the world between barbarity and civilization. It forms the very foundations of imperialism, the justification for countless forms of state aggression, and many claim that civilization has made a mockery of itself in the great and tragic wars of our century.

Let us not get distracted by such issues here, however, despite their central importance in any discussion of imperialism in Korea. For now, it will suffice to note the tension, in many of these writers, between expressions of sympathy or pity for an as-yet uncivilized or oppressed people who have not reached their “potential,” and the more dismissive and bitter claims about an essentially irredeemable Korean race.

What do the readings I have looked at have to say about the Korean mind and the personality of Korean people? The words of choice for these observers resemble those we can find in travel accounts by visitors to many other “barbaric” places, including domestic travelers who venture out of the cities into the countryside. Since many of these accounts are made by Westerners who actually made their way into the countryside, their perceptions resemble many of the urban sentiments about rural folk everywhere. Indeed, some of the images presented in these books would fit perfectly into several Korean movies I have seen recently which portray Seoul residents returning to the country where they are confronted by unsophisticated but warm-hearted and ultimately lovable idiots.

To summarize, the key terms in these descriptions, many of which I do not include here due to their repetitiveness, surround the “dull” and “vacant” expressions of Koreans, their “abominable” manners, and their simple and naive ways, untouched as they are by modern considerations of thrift, efficiency, profit, or apparently Western emotions and abstract concepts.

We can begin with perceptions of the more educated classes. Drake spent time teaching English in a Korean university, but doesn’t have much respect for the students he found there. He doesn’t seem to think Koreans have any appreciation for what their new modern educations can offer them. When asking his Korean students what they will do when they leave the university, “Their expressions became thoughtful, which on the Korean face has the air of a thick wall enclosing a vacancy.” (Drake 6) Education and reform is ultimately wasted on Koreans who are completely the slaves of their traditional culture. Despite his frequent praise for the Japanese, he concludes that, “The Oriental mind is insect-like in its instinctive adherence to custom.” (Drake 154)

When Gale discusses the importance of custom and the formal and ritualistic aspects of Korean culture, he has this to say,

“To a Western mind the formality of the Oriental is quite overpowering. Poor old Orient! It reminds one somewhat of the tramp, whose training and early opportunities were the best that could be given, but who through the evils of drink and the misfortunes of his lot, has sunk to rags and destitution; nevertheless the poise of his head and a something in his manner, mark him a gentleman still.” (Gale 45)

Gale, who is always interested in exploring the more abstract and philosophical realm of Korean culture, also makes a number of observations about fundamental cultural differences concerning love, independence, and truth itself:

“Unselfish love is a quantity foreign to the Oriental mind; in fact the Korean has no true word for love in his vocabulary; you have to arrive at the thought by a combination of terms.”(Gale 175)

“Neither does the independence of the West appeal to the Korean. The glory of the American Eagle with his E pluribus unum, he thinks to be sheer madness. Why men should ever think of such a horse-race existence, he cannot imagine. He conceives of life as a condition of subjection only. Independence to him suggests suspicion, mistrust of each other, lawlessness, etc.” (Gale 176)

“One is often pained by mistaking mere appearance for reality. Truth is not loved for truth’s sake, but only in so far as it is necessary for appearances.” (Gale 178)

Gale is most frustrated by what he feels to be a lack of sincerity in the pledges made by Koreans when they say that they will, “Come again tomorrow,” or when they tell lies in many situations to avoid conflict. While Gale is the only one in the readings I consider here who tried to analyze the relationship between truth and appearances in Korean culture, almost all of the writers agree that they find the Korean people to be incredibly trustworthy and honest, an image often contrasted later by universal critiques of the crippling corruption of the government. They rarely feel cheated in trade, and feel completely safe when traveling (for an example see Bishop 80). As Gale says, “In some respects Koreans are exceedingly trustworthy; more so than we are in our enlightened land.” (Gale 240) He tells stories of occasions when he has entrusted poor peasants with huge sums of money and both Underwood and Bishop have similar experiences. Nonetheless, this doesn’t prevent Bishop from claiming earlier in her work that, “[Koreans] have the Oriental vices of suspicion, cunning, and untruthfulness, and trust between man and man is unknown.” (Bishop 13)

The Western observers have many different things to say about the Koreans they have seen in public, on the streets and in the market place. Here are a few such descriptions:

“The natives…are orderly. Markets and other gatherings scarcely require police as ours do. They have a sense of fairness that enters into business relations. Business credit stands as high with them as with us, and a man’s word in a bargain is taken for more than it is in America. If you pay for land, the public will stand by you in possession of it whether you have a deed or not.” (Gale 241)

“The Koreans in the streets are a slow-moving, stubborn, and stupid crowd.” (Ladd 26)

“Koreans are a slow people to move, but when they do become excited, especially if it is about nothing, they are very violent” (Gale 171)

“The Koreans do not bear malice, nor are they very revengeful or cruel without great provocation.” (Underwood 49)

“The unregenerate native manners in public meetings are most abominable.” (Ladd 51)

Both Bishop and Underwood take a particular interest in the culinary habits of Koreans and both emphasize the same two things: 1) The “voracity” of Koreans 2) Koreans drink a lot. Here is what they have to say about the former:

“Now, when Koreans attend a feast, they expect to finish an incredible amount of food on the spot…Not so with the Japanese, among whom our teacher visited. If his word was to be believed, they have developed the æsthetic idea quite to the other extreme, and provided a few tiny cups and dishes of supposedly delicate and rare viands for their guests….Next day, a wiser and a thinner man, he sadly told Mr. Underwood that he now understood why Japanese prospered, while Koreans grew poor. ‘Koreans,’ said he, ‘earn a hundred cash a day and eat a thousand cash worth, while Japanese on the contrary, earn a thousand cash a day and eat a hundred cash worth.’ Never were truer words spoken, with regard to the Japanese at least. If these people have a virtue, which their worst enemies cannot gainsay, it is their industry and thrift.” (Underwood 96)

“[Koreans] eat not to satisfy hunger, but to enjoy the sensation of repletion. The training for this enjoyment begins at a very early age, as I had several opportunities of observing. A mother feeds her young child with rice, and when it can eat no more in an upright position, lays it on its back on her lap and feeds it again, tapping its stomach from time to time with a flat spoon to ascertain if further cramming is possible.” (Bishop 153)

On drinking these two missionaries have this to say,

“Drunkenness is, I am sorry to say, very common in Korea. The people do not, as in Japan and China, raise tea, and even the wealthiest have apparently only recently learned the use of either tea or coffee, which the common people are far too poor to buy.” (Underwood 83)

“From my observation on the Han journey and afterwards, I should say that drunkenness is an outstanding feature in Korea. And it is not disreputable. If a man drinks rice wine til he loses his reason, no one regards him as a beast…” (Bishop 91)

While we have seen descriptions which suggest that Koreans are “dull” or “stupid,” Bishop has no problem, on the same page where she above refers to the cunning untruthfulness of Koreans, to also add that,”The physiognomy indicates, in its best aspect, quick intelligence, rather than force or strength of will. The Koreans are certainly a handsome race.” (Bishop 13) She adds about their intellectual capabilities that,

“Mentally the Koreans are liberally endowed, specially with that gift known in Scotland as ‘gleg at the uptak.’ The foreign teachers bear willing testimony to their mental adroitness and quickness of perception, and their talent for the rapid acquisition of languages, which they speak more fluently with a far better accent than either the Chinese or Japanese.” (ibid)

As we can see, many of these descriptions contain comparisons between Koreans and their Chinese and Japanese neighbors, a theme that I will return to in a later posting in this series. The next part in this series, however, will focus on another common theme in these writings: sanitation in Korea. This is also the topic of an article in the current Journal of Asian Studies and I’ll have an opportunity to introduce some of the ideas that were presented there.

One more thought I want to leave the reader with: Remember that the materials you find here are from a very small sample of half a dozen works, and do not represent the full range of descriptions of Koreans made by Western visitors during this period. This is clearly seen, for example, when Antti Leppänen points out a stark contrast between what I found and some descriptions he found in a work published by the Finnish Missionary Society in 1910.

Earlier parts in this series:

Early Western Perceptions of Koreans: Part I – Introduction
Early Western Perceptions of Koreans: Part II – Education and the Yangban Class
Early Western Perceptions of Koreans: Part III – Of Labor and Laziness
Western Perceptions of Koreans: Part IV – Women


  1. Thanks! This is great stuff.

    I might have to introduce some of this into my World History classes as well. The primary sources usually have all kinds of “Western observations of little brown folk” readings in them, and this will be great as both another example and an exemplar of how to read these things carefully.

  2. I have just read the 5 parts in one sitting and it is, to use an old phrase “enthralling” but Iam wondering if you know more about the anti-japanese feeling by the Koreans. I have been in Seoul for more than a year and I still cannot ‘understand’ what it really means.

    The parts you’ve written go some way to explain the anti-japanese feeling but could you have more references to this intricate topic. If you so wish I have some rough ideas to share but I am doing so more research now: i know there something beyond my well (of ignorance).

    it is very interesting that Takeshima(certainly a pseudonym) was insulting. I though Japanese would not be interested to comment.

  3. Thank you for publicizing these works. Very few people look at these matters critically and neutrally, and as such there are many misleading material which only speculate on what they choose to believe.

    I have been studying in Japan for quite a number of years and found that they are a rather proud people who often if not always only believe what are available in their own language, which is both misleading and dangerous.

    So, I appreciate your efforts in analyzing these sources without being too discriminating. This was a good and profound read.

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